Book Three: Proof
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“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 email@example.com
Water pours into my open mouth, streaming into my stomach, my lungs. It makes me heavy, there is no more air - the water squeezes all the air out of me, the life. I should be cold but I'm not. The water is heavy on my body, like a blanket. There's a bright light above me - it's soft and blue - it's quite nice. I could go to sleep here. I've been feeling just a little tired. I haven't slept in days - sleep when you're dead. Maybe it's time for me to sleep.
"Bedtime for bonzos!"
"Mom! I'm not a bonzo."
"No, you're not - you're a cool cat. But what are you doing here? Cats don't like water."
Wait...Mom? She's dead.
I open my eyes and my world is a crackling haze of freezing crystals. The machine is in the water, working faster than the current, freezing even the shape of waves into the speeding river. My hand is floating above me - is it turning blue? I can't tell because the ice is forming around it. Or maybe the ice is forming around my eyes.
An angel's face comes floating down toward me. Do I believe in angels, why am I seeing angels? Of course, I'm dying - I'm hallucinating. It's not an angel it's an illusion in a bubble. Do bubbles float downwards? Are bubbles heavy?
It's not a bubble. It's the glass jar with Nora.
Hi, Nora. Isn't this cool? You must feel right at home.
As slowly as a feather falling through the air she falls toward me. I try to move my hand to catch her - my hand won't move. And slowly she trickles past my outstretched hand, tumbling in slow motion toward the hand resting on my stomach.
Look Nora, here comes Victor, that psychotic asshole.
He's tumbling slowly through the slushy ice as well. He is diving at me now, reaching out to grab Nora. His eyes are wide and his helmet is flickering. Must be the water pouring into it. Above us, the blue light explodes in a blinding nova. The freeze engine pours all its dying power into the water in one catastrophic burst. The water fogs into an opaque maze and we all stop falling, frozen in this final tableau of futility.
I wonder if they'll find us like this 2000 years from now. Will they call me the ice-maiden and wonder what the object in my loosely frozen grasp is? Will they think I am the offering, or will they think I am the object of worship? What will they think of Victor? Will they think I'm reaching out to him? That'd be lame. God. Do I have to spend eternity staring at his demented face?
The sound is a regular oscillation that times her heart. If I time myself, I can breathe with exactly the same rhythm she does. If I listen to her breathe, I can hear the sea. Clearly I'm not the first person to conceive of this image - there's a reason they call it tidal volume. But it's the sound of the sea I hear crashing and retreating in each respiration. Only I don't know if she is drowning or swimming back to us. I don't know why I'm sitting here. There's nothing I can objectively do. But there's some irrational part of me that believes that I can somehow magically bind her breath to mine and draw it out into consciousness.
There was a time I knew her body better than anyone else - every scrape, every cut, every bleeding wound, every strain of muscle. I helped build that body. Wearing those clinging spandex clothes that hid nothing of her silhouette, and in her admittedly scant bustiéres, I had worked out with her. I helped build the unruly power of her adolescent body into the controlled strength of her adult confidence. When she returned from sweeps or a mission with an injury, I mopped every stream of blood, and wiped every stain from her skin. It had been a ritual for us - she on the edge of a bathtub, and I in my chair, ripping packets of alcohol swabs. Carefully, I would suture the ragged edges of torn skin and try not to wince at the dire depths of accusatory red that shone through the fragile surface of her skin. How I longed to put on my suits and rush to her rescue all those times. How I clutched the padded handles of my chair wishing that once, just once I could be the one connecting the solid punches that brought criminals to their knees. Each one of her injuries was a reproach to me - of my inefficacy as a teacher to her, of my inefficacy as an armchair crime-fighter, of the betrayal of my body. I could not understand how someone whose reflexes could effortlessly juggle three plates, two glasses of coke and cutlery while dodging the running kids and the lounging baby strollers at the local diner could end up with that many injuries. It was a marvel, that someone who had been dangerous enough to fight not just Catwoman but also Batgirl to a standstill could let anyone into the circle of her defences. But at a time when I was still learning to think in ways that did not involve using my body to respond to the world, it was a comfort to know hers. I observed those bruises and cuts heal at a miraculous rate to leave behind only the faintest scars that were visible only on close inspection. Comparing them to my scars, I took a vicarious delight in the pristine state of her skin. Seeing her work out, day after day in the gym in the clock tower, I was filled with pride at her ability to bounce back from injury. If I could not be that perfect or blessed I was glad that my ward was - a pathetic fallacy but one that gave me much comfort through the years.
Those moments had been opportunities for me to speak to her openly - it was difficult to be detached and deceptive about my own emotions and thoughts when she sat so still and open, trusting herself to the hastily acquired ministrations of my scant medical skills. And they had been moments when she had spoken openly to me - telling me of her fears and insecurities, or joking about the particular egregious idiocy that led to bruises in embarrassing places. Of course, as the time passed and she became more and more proficient, those opportunities for the rituals of healing passed as well. If she were injured it was always little things, only bruises or mere scrapes; and like a child turning disdainfully from a parent's hand while crossing the street, she turned to me less and less. And although I was prideful of her skill of protecting her own skin - she started to wear more and more daring and impractical clothes - I was saddened. There had been something tender and open in those moments of naked intimacy.
Finally we arrived at a point where even though I could claim an intimate familiarity with the entire line of events that led to her - from the confident and mischievous teenager, to the rebellious youth, to the strangely, diffident young adult who oscillated inexplicably between wry humour and sullen brooding - she moved away from me, and eventually out of home. I became no longer familiar with every nuance of her or every insult that marked her. In many ways it was the natural way of things. Children grow up; they go away. Partners develop their own ideas and have to find their own ways. But as I stare at her sepulchral form lying deathly still, I can barely comprehend that for all these years I have been the nuance underneath every injury to her.
Freezing to death takes a long time. But it's better than burning, I guess. Your mind plays tricks on you. You stop feeling the cold. You start imagining how warm you are. Your fingers tingle with warmth. Your lungs burn from the lack of oxygen but it feels like someone's lit a fire in your chest. Maybe you even think you're sweating. You hear voices. You even have conversations with the voices.
I'm speaking to mom. Mom's been dead for four years. That's why they call them hallucinations.
"Helena can you hear me?"
Sure I can. You're in my head. I hear you loud and clear.
That's Barbara. Hey Barbara! All this talking without making a sound is really cool. Barbara sounds worried. She's holding my hand and running her hands through my hair - see, a hallucination.
"Her colour's better now. Her temp is up."
Doc Reade. Leave my temp alone. She's asked me to take my clothes off so many times I feel like I should have a key to her apartment.
"She's always hot."
You go Barbara! Tell it like it is.
"All right." I like Doc Reade. She's pretty cool for a doctor. She saved my life. She's a real tough bitch, though. I've seen her terrorise her staff. But she laughs at my jokes. Dammit stop tickling my feet.
"How's she responding to the drugs?"
Why is everyone whispering?
"As you can see, she's more stable now. No more episodes."
"How soon can..."
"Don't rush it Barbara. We're still hip deep in this."
That's right. And some of us are in over our heads. You can stop whispering. I can hear everything.There's a bright light in my eyes. How long is that machine going to keep going? You'd think it'd short out by now.
"Well, she's responsive to stimulus. That's a good sign."
What're you talking about Doc. I'm dead. At least I'm almost there. You see that light? It means the water's going to be completely frozen in a second and you'll be gone with me. Wait a minute! Where's Victor?
"She's saying something."
Of course I'm saying something. Why can't I see? Where's Victor?
"What's she saying?"
Great! I can't even get anybody to listen to me in my own hallucinations. Where's Victor?
Yeah Victor. Wait...the fuck? Who is that? Whose voice was that?
"I think you have to stop doing that. It's upsetting her."
Stop doing what? Nobody needs to stop doing anything except being unrecognisable. What's the world coming to when I can't identify even the voices in my head? Freeze - that Victor.
"Barbara, why does she want to Freeze Victor?"
Who the fuck are you, you damn kid?
It'll be over soon. They say when your own delusions start to disintegrate you die.
"Oh my God."
"It's not necessarily a bad thing, Barbara. It means she's making sensory associations. It's actually a good sign."
Yeah a good sign.
"Does that mean she's in pain?" No, wait. I know that voice. But who is it? It's the kid. Who's the kid?
"Yes. You really need to stop doing that."
Yeah don't mess with the Doc and Barbara whoever you are. I'll kick your ass, kid.
"What did she say?"
I said, I'll kick your ass.
"I think she said, 'I'll kick your ass.'"
Finally, someone's listening to me. I knew the kid was smart. She just likes to pretend.
Her name is Dinah. What's she doing here? I don't meet her until three years later.
Barbara's laughing. That's right, Barbara, laugh. That's how happy I'll be to kick her ass. I wish I could make the real Barbara laugh so easily. I'm really sleepy. Who cares where Freeze is. At least it's dark and I don't have to stare at his ugly mug anymore. I'm just going to go to sleep.
I'm trying to sleep here.
Wait a minute. How can I close my eyes if they're frozen open? Can my eyes be shut wide?
Shut up! I'm trying to concentrate here. I'm trying to feel my eyelids.
"...It's important that you try..."
I'm sure but so is this - this is an important experiment. Yes, those are my eyeballs behind my lids. My eyes are closed. But that would mean...
"What's up, Doc?"
"We've got to stop meeting like this."
"Your girlfriend jealous?"
"No, but yours might be."
Don't have one, Doc.
Hey! Barbara. That's a pretty awesome smile she has on. But why is she crying? "Welcome back, sweetheart."
I'm dreaming. I just need to go back to sleep.
"All right. Go back to sleep."
This ceiling is not my ceiling.
I can hear a steady beep-beep of a monitor keeping track of vital signs. My mouth feels dry and gummy. I push myself off the bed I'm lying in and encounter a pain in my arm. There is a clear tube running clear fluid into my arm.
"Glucose - you really haven't eaten much these last few days. I thought you needed a little boost - you were starting to look peaky." Laura's voice carries just little hint of raggedness but other than the fact she looks like she has just woken up from a long sleep, she looks remarkably good.
I clear my throat and say, "Thanks." My voice is like sandpaper. And I'm aware of how tired I really am. I wonder if Laura's electrical abilities have anything do with how she manages not to look like something the cat dragged in.
It seems she's read my mind. She holds her right hand out in front of her and inspects it as she flexes and curls it. "It's the electricity. I think the low grade field has a regenerative effect on the epithelium - keeps me looking young." She clears her throat and sniffs in a way that you might mistake for a cold but only people who have not slept for a very long time do.
"Does it make you need less sleep too?"
She shrugs, "Yes," and waves her hand around her head, "as long as I keep eating the right foods I can keep those neurons fired for a very long time." My nod starts in my chest - again in the way that only tired or overwhelmed people nod. Laura comes up beside me and holds her hand out as I push upwards and back with both hands. "Need a hand sitting up?"
I shake a my head, no. "It's okay, Thanks."
She returns to take her seat at the foot of the bed. "I ran some tests and scans on her this morning. She's recovering well. Her physical condition is excellent, as far as I can tell. Cardio is good. Muscle tone is good. Respiration is good. Neurologically - temporal lobe misfiring is down. Frontal and pre-frontal cortical activity is...well, it seems to be normal." She thrusts a doubtful chin to rest on the outstretched fingers of her hand. "Her stimulus response is still..." Expressions flit across her face as she searches for a word. "...Fucked up."
We both share a laugh at her rare vulgarity. "But she's okay now?"
"She's out of the woods, yes," she nods once, definitively. "She is not in any physical or neurological peril, no." The headshake, though, is a little nebulous as her face slips into the protective cage of her open fingers.
"I don't know...It's nothing. I'm being terrible. A big part of me wants to take her back with me to Metropolis and study her. I keep telling myself that it'll be for her good. I've already started objectifying her."
"That's good sign. For you." Somehow her smile manages to be self-deprecating and open at the same time. She only treats her patients like things when they're not critical. "I want to take her home."
"There's plenty of recovery to go," she says doubtfully. "There's still the question of her amygdala."
She winces but concedes. "I'll start them processing the paperwork." She scratches her ear.
"Will it be a problem?"
"No. I'll just sign her over into my personal care. If it were anyone else, I'd say no. But, honestly, you'll probably do just as well by her at your place."
We stare at each other for a while. I am so grateful to her at this very moment I have no words for it. We may be friendly, but we're not friends. And yet... "Thank you. I don't know how to thank you."
"You're welcome, and you can do it by having Alfred send my bags home."
She nods. "I'll come by the clock tower tomorrow, and later when I can."
I remember that it is the holidays and that she has someone to go home to. "Lydda? How is she?"
"Fine." Her lips and cheek draw up in a wry grimace of a smile. "I haven't seen her in a month. She's just returned from..." she shrugs, "somewhere. And she's haring off on a mission to...somewhere. It's all need to know, and I never need to know - until I get to go in and patch someone up." She shakes her head. "I like to see her before she goes on these things. Just in case..." I nod in understanding. Laura knows better than most people what the rate of attrition is for heroes - she's been partnered with one of the more volatile ones for a few years now. It must be hard for her.
It must be the situation I find myself in at this very moment, but I find myself thinking about Laura Reade's life beyond the simple biographical facts I know from her dossier. She is a doctor who now works almost exclusively with the League. She sees more than her fair share of injuries to the costumed crusaders. And from the sad melancholy, I get a small glimmering of the cost to her. "How do you do it?" I ask her. "Knowing that each time she leaves may be the last time."
"The same way you do it, I suppose," she replies with a dip of her head that speaks of a hard bought acceptance. "One day at a time, and each day we have together is forever." She turns a sympathetically amused gaze on me. "How do you do it, when she's out there and you can't do a damned thing to help her?" The expression is amused but her voice is filled with the pain of needing to make sense of a world where her lover puts herself in harm's way everyday of her life.
The weight of that kind of pain is too much - I don't have the right to bear camaraderie with her on this. Hastily I shrug off her sympathy. "It's not the same. You and Lydda - you're..." I shake my head. "It's not the same."
Her gaze is deeply piercing and appraising, and I'm not sure I understand it. I rub my face to try and clear some of the fuzziness. When she is done inspecting me she shakes her head, "I should go." She pushes off the armchair with both hands. "You need to wake up."
As she walks away, I cannot help feeling that I have just been chastised.
The bed I'm lying in is soft and warm. It's exactly the way I like it - the mattress is firm but the duvet is downy and fluffy. So I have to wonder where the hell I am because this sure as hell isn't my bed. I shift on the pillow and hiss when tender skin on the back of my neck stings. Fuck! Falcone. I'm going to kill that bastard.
I smell the scent that rises from the pillow; I see the light - it's filtered through glass. This is the clock tower. Holy hell, she found me. I'm okay. I'm okay. It's okay.
I let myself sink back into the bed. I'm okay. And she must be okay too. A small burst of light spikes through my head like a nova. Oh god...ahhaha...heh...Hennhh heee...oh god. I don't know why I'm laughing. Ha hahh ha haha uhhaa. It must be the relief. Hah. Unh hah. It's amazing. I'm in one piece and I'm in Barbara's bed. Maybe I'm dreaming.
I've been having the strangest dreams. Old things, like that fool Freeze, and Doc Reade. I haven't seen her in three years. I wonder how she is. And I dreamed about mom. And Barbara. Oh god. I dreamed about Barbara, that I was a part of her - that was the good part. But then I dreamed that she was in me; that she saw right into me. Into all my hopes and fears, into all my dark places and every ugly feeling I've ever had about her and for her. I felt like I was being stripped naked without my permission. Thank God she doesn't really see me. I'd have nowhere to hide. I don't think I could live like that.
When the spike of light subsides, I slowly raise my head off the bed, this time making sure to avoid any friction with the pillow. Still a little woozy. My feet hit the ground before I'm ready. That's right, Barbara's bed - lower to the ground. I steady myself and stand up. I wonder how long I've been out. Everything feels rusty. I feel like Rip Van Winkle. Except without the long ass beard or the weird clothes. Come to think of it, there are no clothes. Except the large man's shirt I'm wearing. Jesus Christ, this better not be the Boy Blunder's shirt that Barbara's got on me or I may just have to puke.
I look round for something to wear. There has to be something to wear, Barbara's a regular girl scout that way...and there it is - a pair of sweats. I wonder where she is. I should let her know I'm awake. And tell her about the crazy dreams I've been having. Well, maybe not all of it. Bet the kid gets a kick out of it. She can tell me if Opal is anything like what I dreamed.
I hear the soft rise and fall of her voice as I open the door, and Dinah's too. She's asking something. The green glow from the Delphi lights the stairs from underneath as I walk down as quietly as I can. Boy, she sounds tired. I round the bookcases and catch a flash of her head as she gestures. Won't she be surprised to see me? Bet she falls out of her chair and is quiet for at least ten seconds before she starts lecturing me.
"Hey Barbara," I call out. My voice is so rusty. "You wouldn't believe the dreams I've been having."
I was right. Her face goes blank. And then she pales. She didn't fall, but it looked like she could have jumped out of the chair.
"O my Gawd!" Dinah yells.
And then I notice the third person standing in the room. My brain stumbles as it tries to piece the features into order. First, I wonder if I'm still dreaming because everything seems a little surreal - it's Laura Reade. Doc Reade.
I stare back at the three of them staring at me. Dinah is the first one to come towards me. I hold my hand out to stop her and step back. And then Barbara speaks. "Sw... Helena, how do you feel?"
"How long was I out?"
She starts turning her chair toward me, slowly inching forward. "Helena you've been unconscious for days. We've been so worried."
The feeling creeps up on me like ice in a river: Barbara, Doc Reade, Dinah. I've been dreaming about them. I look at Doc Reade and she holds my gaze steadily. But she's always like that - completely up front. Dinah dodges her eyes away from me with a guilty flush and starts with the hair tucking. So I turn to Barbara. And even though I know I shouldn't ask, I don't want to know. I say the words, but my mouth refuses to move. "I've been dreaming about you." The words come out as a mumble but she understands them and looks away. Damn her. "It wasn't a dream." She shakes her head. "You were really there." She nods. I turn to Dinah. "And you too." She takes a step toward me and I back away. "Don't you fucking touching me." Don't you fucking dare touch me! "How could you?"
Dinah's young voice cracks and wavers, "I'm sorry. But you were..."
"Not you." I look at Barbara. And she looks back at me, her eyes boring right into me like in the dream. I fight to break the link but I can't; and once again I feel like she is seen into me. I see her expression stiffen into something unreadable and hard. Nothing like the dream. "Damn you," I say to her and head to the balcony. I don't know how long I've been unconscious but it's not long enough to kill all my speed. I can still move faster than anyone else in the room.
Behind me both Dinah and Barbara cry out to stop. A cold blast of clean air slams into the room when I fling the door open and step out on to the flagstones.
"Hel...No!" Barbara's voice is sharp and high with panic and fear.
My feet find the top of the balustrade and I lift myself onto it.
Now it's Dinah's voice shrieking at me. "Helena, don't."
Well, fuck her. Mind-prying little snoop. It's all her fault. I stand on the railing and turn. I can be gone in ten seconds and then I don't have to look at Barbara looking at me with that half sorry, half painful expression. One jump and I'm out of here. I step off the railing to look down to gauge my landing spot and a cold vacuum blooms in my stomach. I feel the blood drain away from my skin while the fear seeps out making me cold and clammy at the same time. My head spins as the ground moves further and further away from me. What am I doing, I'm a hundred and fifty feet in the air. The thick air turns thin - so thin that I can't breathe. I twist in desperate fear and scramble for a hold on the railing, but the air lets me down and all that my fingers meet is the cold slide of frostbitten marble that scalds my skin. Each half-second is an eternity as I feel myself slipping away. The choke of sour bile burns in my throat as my floating leap turns into a dead fall. The wind snatches the shout from my throat.
But the scream that cuts the air is not my voice but Barbara's. It's her hand thrust through the balusters that vises around my wrist, suspending me between earth and air. The feel of concrete slamming into my side is a relief - something solid. Two sets of arms and one mind grabs on to my shoulders and I am laid in a shivering heap on the balcony. I shut out the burning feel of the body that cradles me, and squeeze my eyes shut against the pain, and the shock of tears that comes from the realisation.
I am afraid.
"Well...I was going to explain this to you..." she rubs an eye brow with one finger and then rests the back of her thumb against her lip, almost starting to bite the nail. "...In a nice therapeutic environment." She chews on her lip and then gives me a half grimace, half smile.
The sedative may be starting to move through me but I'm still conscious enough. "No bullshit doc."
"No...no... It's pretty bad. It's not physical...it's neurological. I'm hoping the symptoms will subside as the trauma lessens." She's hoping? "Not as hard as you of course, but...you are my patient, Ms. Kyle."
Well, shit. Maybe she should just "...Call me Helena."
"Thank you, Helena." She fiddles with her tan case and snaps the locks shut. "You need to be here. You need to let people take care of you. Ms...sorry. Helena, it's not good for you to be alone right now." She hefts the case and turns away from the bed. "I'll be back in a day or two and we can talk some more."
There's only so much pain that you can feel, after that it means nothing. There's only so much sadness that you can bear, after that all sadness is as light as a feather. There's a certain point in you - in your body, in your mind - that is the tipping point. It's like the brim of a cup, you can fill it only so much; or it's like walking in the rain without an umbrella. You get to a point where you're so wet and so cold, it doesn't make a difference if it's pelting or it's drizzling all you know is that you're wet and you can't get any wetter. I always thought that there was nothing left between us that could hurt me. Between her seeing me as a child to her not seeing me at all, what else was left? That she would always pick someone else over me? Been there, done that - twice; didn't want the T-shirt.
I even learned to bear the pain of her touching me casually, as if I were just someone else she knew. It took a while for me to not want more when she touched my shoulder or grabbed my wrist to grab my attention or just laid her hand on my ankles to let me know I didn't have to move when she sat on the sofa. I learned to steel myself when I worked out with her. I schooled myself to not think about the relationship of my body to hers when we sparred, when I helped her stretch. I tried to put out of my mind that there was some physical therapist out there who knew more about her body than I did now. So the casual brushes of skin and the brief caresses of absent gesture were a pain I learned to push out of awareness. It was so easy to hide from my own response to her. I just kept telling myself that I didn't feel anything when the two of us laughed together. I told myself that her calling me if she felt a little under the pink was not a reason to be in a good mood for days. If wanting not to want could be a religion, I was the holiest penitent on the path. I told myself that it didn't make me happy if she stayed up way past her bedtime after sweeps on a school night talking to me. And I told myself that my body didn't rise to meet her touch when she gave me a massage after a long work out. And everything I told myself became true after a point. Because if I could let the effect she had on me pass unnoticed, then maybe she wasn't having an effect on me at all. Sure it's denial and self-delusion but if you can practice it effectively then what's so fucking wrong with it. Whatever floats your boat, right?
But what do I do now? I can't lie anymore; not to her - she's seen everything; and sure as hell not to myself. Before I was talking about some vague poetic bullshit pain, now the pain is real. It's real. If she touches me, when she touches me - it's a burning pain.
Fuck! Doc Reade has this great explanation for me about what's going on in my brain. But I know the truth - it's taken a long time but now my body matches my heart.
She's crying, quietly by the foot of the bed. She's even holding back her body, but I can tell. I've hurt her. That's always been my problem - I make her cry, I make her worry, I stress her out, even when I don't want to. Whenever she hurts it always something I've done. And now she's crying.
She thinks I'm sleeping, but I'm awake. God I'm such a good liar. Why am I such a good liar? Her hand is on the bed, in the space between us. Her hand is lost in the paleness of the sheet - but I know it's there.
I have no idea what kind of drugs the doc is using on me but they're strong as hell. I can barely croak out my words. "It's not your fault."
She starts, with a swipe of her hand to her face. "You're awake."
"Barely. What's she giving me?"
"I..." she doesn't know. That's pretty trusting of her, I'd have thought she had a full FDA safety sheet downloaded and memorised by now.
"...Doesn't matter." She looks...I don't even know what she looks; I think she's...scared? I'm so scrambled I can't read anything. And my head is so heavy - oh man, that's so funny. I have no idea why this is funny, but it just is. I think I'm going to fall asleep in a second. "Look," I tell her. "It's just a feeling. You can't touch it. You can't feel it. You can't hold it. It doesn't make you need your coffee any less. You can't even boil an egg with it." I shift my head on the pillow and try to find a comfortable position. Everything's so hot. I must be bleeding heat. I never knew falling asleep was so painful. "It's nothing. It's less than air - it doesn't exist. It's not even idea it doesn't change anything. Nothing has to change. All right?"
She bends he head down till I can't see her face. Great! She can't even look at me. Well, it's all her fucking fault anyway. She didn't have to go inside my head and steal every last one of my secrets. "Helena, I'm sorry I..."
"No, it's fine." Whoa...my voice sounds like a creaky door. "Look, can you..." I'm going to fall asleep any second now, "...tell her to stop giving me whatever she's giving me? It makes me feel like puke." I try to move my head again but it's too much effort. "Just go to sleep Barbara. You can't sit there all..."
It is a stranger that lies cradled in the warmth of my bed. The body that lies here is utterly unfamiliar to me. I study the tingeing variations of her skin, the contour of her muscles, the marks of time and the vicissitudes of life, and they are all alien to me. Who is this pale, corded stranger breathing softly in my bed? How far we have both gone from each other. Is this how my father feels about me? Is this what he had felt when he saw me in my hospital bed after my shooting? This stinging sense of loss, of betrayal; of wondering what other secrets had been locked away from him, what else he had failed to see unwittingly and by wilful suppression. Had he felt this attacking shame of inadequacy? How could I not have seen her before this? How could I have known her this long and not know her at all?
I had known all along that she was strong. I had known all along that despite her much worn front of arrogant dismissal, she was deeply loyal and sincere. I had known that we were family, bound by something beyond blood. I had known...but I had no idea of the depths. She allowed herself to be captured and tortured for me. She stopped an assault on my identity and on the city's integrity by turning into a diversion. And she did it unblinkingly, knowing she might lose, knowing she might not leave unscathed, she faced the danger on my personal behalf and somehow she has lived.
Sitting in the comfort of my own room as I keep vigil for her I realise why the scene is so shockingly alien. Despite my continuing familiarity with the sight of Helena in my life, despite the familiarity of my role as her caretaker, she has never been in my bedroom except for once. As intertwined as our lives have been for all these years, there have been some boundaries that we have never crossed. And her presence in my room, the last refuge of my privacy, is one of those boundaries. Early on in our relationship, as early as the first three weeks of living in the same apartment, I had realised that we were too close. She had seen me at my most vulnerable; she had looked at the depths of despair in my soul and had found me wanting. She alternately coaxed and goaded me into independence. Her broods and moods had impressed me in their passive-aggressive efficacy. She had seen too much of me. In an effort to take back some of myself I had with unspoken action created my bedroom as a zone of impenetrability. Whatever else she did, however she spread herself through the house, however she infused the place with her energy, my room remained the one place where she could not see me; where she could not reach me.
And after all these years, here she is, her chest rising and falling, her muscles twitching with stray electricity. She's dreaming now. I can tell by the trembling under her eyelids. And I wonder what she's dreaming of. I have been in Helena's head once before. Just once. And just as I had suspected, I discovered then that underneath the fighter was the child. But I had never dreamed of the woman who lay beyond the fighter and the child.
The nights I spent in the hospital waiting for Helena to wake up were very long. But the nights here, watching her sleep are just as long. The fact that I'm in my own room makes no difference. My mind wanders - this way and that way. Mostly it thinks about all the new things it has learned and turns them over.
Helena Kyle is in love with me.
Helena is in love with me.
Helena Kyle loves Barbara Gordon.
Helena heart Barbara
Huntress n Oracle 4ever
It must be the stress combined with the every day familiarity with puerile jargon that lets my brain descend into idiocy. Either that or I'm so thoroughly frightened by this information that my mind is doing everything it can to protect itself from the gravity of the knowledge. Seven years. I have known her seven years and have somehow missed this little detail of my life. Helena is in love with me; which in the light of my recent behaviour begs the reciprocal question: is Barbara Gordon in love with Helena Kyle? Is Barbara Gordon in love with her former ward and pupil?
Love is a big word. Not the word itself, you understand, but the thing that it stands for. It's a scary thing, implying all that it does about trust and vulnerability and the willingness to be consumed and subsumed in another entity. It's a terrible thing; it makes you do things you wouldn't otherwise do - like grow up to be a crime fighter; stand in the way of speeding bullets; pretend to be someone you're not so that that someone can be safe. If you let it, it will eat away at your identity until you don't know who you are anymore. Love will warp you like nothing else on this earth. It takes time to come to grips with the fullest extent of what love really means. Which is why when we find ourselves in the middle of love we describe it as falling - because there is no control. No control. Think about what a loss of control would mean to different people. Think about what it mans to someone like me.
I don't think I'm ready for love, at least not a love like this - it's too much
I pass my fingers through the flame of the candle, slowly, and wonder if Barbara has some weird masochistic, monastic complex going. All her sweaters are scratchy. I mean horsehair, I'm-a-penitent-this-stuff-is-going-to-leave-me-with-a-rash scratchy as hell. Why does she wear the damn things, they can't be comfortable. The fire leaves a red band on my skin. I guess I can't complain too much. I do it again and the red turns a little redder. It's pretty much the only thing that feels really good to wear right about now. God! I'm so fucked up. I can't even enjoy my real food anymore: I found myself taking a bite out of Barbara's tuna sandwich the other day and I enjoyed it. I do it again, and this time the skin turns white.
I try to think about how it would have felt before. I would never have run my hand through a goddamned flame if I didn't have to. I know it's hurting me. I know that my skin is burning when I do it - I can smell it. But it's kind of funny; it tickles. It's kind of fucked up, but funny. May be it's even really fucking funny, because right now I could stick a knife through my heart and die thinking it was the funniest thing in the whole world. Now, that's pretty damned funny.
I think I've just turned into the most dangerous person in the whole world - I think pain is funny.
Maybe I should stop. I wouldn't want to leave a blister.
I'm not sure what it is that wakes me but I find myself sitting up in bed straining to hear the sound that has roused me from sleep. Just as I decide that I must have been dreaming I hear it - a small grunt, and panting as something hits the ground. Since the clock tower now has more alarms and early warning systems than NORAD I'm not worried; but I am curious.
As I open my room door I notice that the door to the guest room downstairs is wide-open, spilling city-light onto the hallway. The sounds are coming from the gym, and since I know there could be no way that Dinah would indulge in a little late night exercise that leaves Helena.
As quietly as I can, I make my way to the open door of the gym and peek in. The whippet thin outline of her body is outlined in the dark as she swings from the high beam of the uneven bars. I follow the arc of her body as she describes a full circle around the pivot of the bar - again, and again - and then hold my breath as she stands upside down, supported by the corded strength of deceptively slender arms. The blade of her palm is a perfect flat when her right arm stretches out to her side before crossing over her left wrist to reverse the direction in which she is facing. The shadows ripple over the surface of her body as muscles flex and pull in the delicious tension of unfettered perfection. Draped in the darkness she is the outline of a soft shadow come to life. I follow the line of taut tendons standing out against the spare muscle of her thigh as her legs split in an un-trembling V. My stomach lurches softly as she descends in an arc and uses the kinetic motion of the circle to propel her towards the lower bar; and then my stomach lurches again when I realise that her direction and momentum are a little off. As soon as she releases the bar I can see she knows it too; I can read it in the tension of her muscles as her body jerks in a reflexive urge to find balance. She curls herself into a ball and tilts downwards but the adjustment is too late for the speed at which she is flying through the air and she hits the floor with an awkward thump. The impact draws a bark of laughter out of her; her teeth are a flash of white when she stands to massage her shoulder.
"Fuck!" she swears, making her way below the bars and leaping up to try and get a hold. She tries twice before her fingers close over the bar; she shakes her head when she finally does get a grip. "Crazy as a fucking loon," she mutters to herself before attempting the exercise all over again.
I watch for over forty minutes as she tries various combinations of jumps and relief movements, wincing each time she falls or misses. The entire exercise is an endeavour in idiotic intractability - she knows that her body needs time before she can demand the things she is asking from it now. As I watch, the feeling that rises in me is a curious mixture of tenderness and anger - I don't know whether I want to cradle her damp head and stroke her forehead or grasp her by the collar and beat her about the head; there has to be some combination of the two that's possible but my imagination fails me. When she does come to a sweat soaked stop, it is after she has fallen exactly fourteen times and missed her landings nineteen times. And when she strips the sodden cotton vest from her torso and throws herself to the ground laughing, with the sheen of sweat glistening on her skin, my breath moves with hers. Finally, it is not the anger that prevails, but the feeling has nothing to do with tenderness either.
The waft of masculine cologne reaches me before he actually arrives. Wonderful, my brilliant week is getting better by the god damned minute. I actually get a baby sitter to watch over the sharp things and matches in the apartment.
He knows that I must have heard him walk up to the balcony and open the door; still, like the well-bred brat he is he gently clears his throat to let me know that he is here.
"Dick," I acknowledge his presence. "Come to join the suicide watch?"
"Well, if you're planning to jump, I wanted to see it."
I snort. Our days of trying to be polite to each other for Barbara's sake were very short lived. Even if he never actually articulates the thought for himself he knows exactly why we don't get along. "I'd have to get up the balls to jump then, wouldn't I?"
"Thought you had plenty of those?" I hear the subtle click of arms of his sunglasses closing against each other as he ends his acerbic sentence.
"Not enough, apparently. Just ask Barbara."
"I don't think she's worried your balls or the lack of them. She just wants you to get better."
"Why does she want me to get better?"
He walks up to me and stands next to my shoulder as he follows my line of sight. We're both looking at the looming figure of the Wayne tower. "Why did you want her to get better when she was in the hospital?"
I can't believe he would ask me something so dumb. "That's a stupid question, Grayson."
"Maybe. Guys like us, we like to ask the stupid questions - we're not so much into feminine subtlety. Barbara tells me you've been standing out here for the last four days."
"It's not stupid it's de-sensitisation therapy," I sneer at him. "I'd really like to be alone now."
"Helena, I don't know why Barbara likes your smart ass. I was very happy when you finally showed a few signs of growing up. And I was happier when you moved out. Unfortunately for me, she's always happier when you're around."
"Are sure about that, bro?"
"You are an idiot."
"I thought I told you I wanted to be alone."
"Helena I know you think I'm really stupid, but..." he walks back to the balcony door. "Now I don't know how it's going to turn out, but I suggest you get your head out of your ass or it's never going to turn out well. So help me god if you make her anymore miserable after all that's happened this year I'm going to throw you off this balcony myself." He walks to the door and pulls it open. "I'll be in the living room."
"Alfred," I call out from my perch on the balcony, noticing that Dick is gone from his seat in the living room. "Is that the mail?"
There is second of hesitation before he turns toward me. "I beg your pardon, Miss Helena."
It must be the years of discreet service that lets him hide his surprise at my voice - the lie falls from his mouth without a single twitch of his face. But since I've known him for so long and he does fold my laundry so well, I let it go. "Is that the mail?" I repeat.
He bestows the envelopes with a slightly befuddled look. "Yes, indeed it is Miss Helena."
I eye the mail; it's like a mountain of papers and magazines. I've been seeing the journals delivered to Barbara's desk for so long I can make out the titles of the monthly subscriptions just by the designs on the spines. There are some new ones - Elle and...? "Elle, and Glamour?" Must be the kid. I know I cancelled my subscription when I moved out.
Alfred shuffles the expertly shuffles the envelopes around to bring the magazines to the top. "Yes, Miss Dinah is equally enamoured of her fashion magazines."
I hop off the balcony railing and reach out - he looks flustered. "Miss Helena?"
I can't be behaving that badly, he looks a little scared of me. "It's cool Big A. I just want some reading material I can actually understand."
"Of course, Miss Helena." He hands me the two fashion rags and The National Geographic. I love National Geographic. He winks at me when I take it from him and then rushes off to sort the mail.
Well, that was weird.
I suppose it could be a violation of privacy, but the damn envelope is addressed to me, I mean it has my name on it. The interesting part is that the return address is for the Wayne Foundation lawyers. I haven't dealt with those guys since the hoo-ha over my custody way back when. That's not true, I heard from them when I turned 21 and they sent me a ton of paper advising me about my rights and privileges as a board member of the Wayne Corporation.
I take Barbara's paper cutter - such a neat thing she is - and slit the envelope open. It's a bill for medical expenses. $156,238.72. Holy shit! I try to think how much cash mom's trust has left. It sure as hell isn't one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. I'll have to work double shifts for the rest of my goddamn life to clear that little number. That or start doing my crime fighting not so anonymously and actually collect on some of the awards the police department has on some of those scum bags I wrap up for Barbara. And then I see the receipt of payment confirming that Helena Kyle's balance due is $0, and thank you for the prompt resolution of your account.
Paid! Paid? Who the hell paid that? I shuffle through the mess of long-winded corporate legal hokum. My proxy, my godforsaken proxy, and there it is in digitally reproduced images, the signature of my fucking proxy, Barbara Gordon.
Damn it! I throw the sheet of paper onto the table. I run my hand through my hair and realise I don't have enough hair to get a proper grip on it. That's right, hospital gave me a trim. But the simple jar of not being able to something as dumb and stupid as that is a slap to my face that calms me down, and I slump into the chair. I pick up the piece of paper and stare at it. I pick up the entire packet of papers and take it into my room with me.
Inside the dark room I snug the headphones over my ears, and pump up the volume as I study the printed sheets. The loudness of the music as it pounds against the inside of my head helps calm me even more. Why the hell am I so upset? Because, once again, Barbara's treating me like a child; never leaving me alone, always having someone around to watch me, dancing around me like she's afraid to hang around me. And now...now she's signing off on papers that I should be signing off on, making decisions about my finances, and then hiding it from me. What the fuck! Does she think I'm going throw a foot stomping tantrum, does she think I'm some kind of kid? Does she think I'm going to run off into a corner and throw a sulk? Oh wait...
Shit! I rip the headphones off, head outside to the balcony and step up onto the railing again, but I don't look down. I know what'll happen if I look down, I'll get dizzy. Even though I don't really care how high up I am I'm still going to be scared. Even though I know I'm not scared, somewhere inside me my body will be scared. So I don't jump - I can't.
I haven't exactly made things easy for her, have I? Locking myself up in the damn guest room, hanging around on the balcony when I can barely stand up, not talking for days, not letting her near me. Maybe Dick is right, maybe I do deserve to have my pathetic ass thrown off. "Nothing's changed," I told her. "Nothing has to change." Except for my acting like a horse's ass.
Fuck! Time to suck it up and start behaving like the adult I claim to be. So she signed my name to a hundred and fifty six thousand dollars of my father's money that belongs to me. So what? I've been spending it for years, haven't I? Clock tower's maintenance fees, the Delphi's operational costs, Dinah's tuition, all the fancy equipment we use. It's not like he was there for me growing up, maybe the least I can do is take his goddamned money.
I step down from the railing and wander back into the apartment. And there he is, the smug little fucker.
If Helena did not run rough shod over my feelings I wouldn't know I had any.
Helena spent all day watching movies. I guess that's why I've been paying the cable bill all these years, for her to watch movies whenever she's here. And then she spent all night working out. I wonder if she knows she's doing exactly what I did when I first got out of the hospital after the shooting.
I can feel Helena watching me. She stands in one corner of the room. She thinks I don't know but I can feel her watching me.
Everyone at school is worried about me. They've noticed that I don't look at all rested after the holidays. I have told them that Helena has been in an accident and was in a coma for days. But if I don't pull myself together Principal Bartlett is going to want to speak to me about my performance at school. The upside to this is that my students have been subdued around me. If Helena had been in my class with the way I've been behaving in class she would have taken very opportunity to take advantage of my distraction.
I wonder how her session with Laura will go today.
Yesterday she said that looking down from the balcony did not make her feel dizzy.
Dinah. I should thank Dinah for how mature she has been these last several days. We missed her birthday in all the mess with Quinn. Helena quietly reminded me of it the other day. The two of them have been sitting on the balcony talking a lot these days. I wonder what she talks to Helena about.
My every thought is consumed by Helena.
I suppose that answers my question.
Just a feeling.
The way she said it were a twisting awl in my chest. The affect, flat and uninflected. The words, pat and un-stuttered: words that she had considered over and over again until she reached this conclusion she laid at my feet without expectation and without recrimination. They are words that I would say. They are words that I have felt everyday of my life for about as long as I care to remember. But somehow, hearing them fall out of her mouth, the words are wrong.
Just a feeling.
She says it like it means nothing.
She's wrong. I can touch it. I can hold it in my hand. And I can use it to do things no one has ever dreamed of. And even though it doesn't make me need my caffeine any less in the morning, it brews it for me. And it does make it easier to live - it kept me breathing when no one thought I would survive; it reminds me to eat when I haven't left my console for hours on end; it makes me go out for walks in the park. It brushes the tears off my cheek when I don't know why I'm crying. It does exist - it has form, it has shape, it has a body, it has a voice - it is a mirror of me, only I have drawn a sheet over the mirror because I have been too frightened to see the image reflecting back at me. Its name is Helena.
Panic lances through my stomach when I see the empty spot on the balcony. I stifle the urge to dash to the balcony and peer down. I know that it is a visceral reaction and not rational. I can tell from the lazy rustling of a page that everything is all right. Dick would hardly be sitting here reading nonchalantly if Helena had jumped. Considering the antagonistic relationship they once had - he'd be breaking out the tequila.
He looks up at my approach and smiles. He puts the book away and picks his feet up off the coffee table. "Hey, Babs." He takes in my haggard expression and the circles under my eyes. "Long day at school?"
I simply nod in reply. "She's not outside."
"She's listening to...I don't know if I can call it music." He tosses his head in the direction of the entertainment centre. "It keeps leaking out of her headphones. She says it makes her feel better."
I nod at that. As it turns out the constant noise of loud music helps with the nausea she's been experiencing.
I realise that Dick is the soul of understatement when I get within fifteen feet of her still form. The music is an assault even through the cushioned enclosure of the studio headphones. I beat a hasty retreat only to be greeted by Dick's very amused expression. "I think she's feeling a little better," he says.
"Did she talk to you?"
"We had a little chat. It was enchanting as always."
I smile. Wonderful, they sniped at each other. "Thank you for looking after her today."
Dinah is eating her cereal trying very hard not to crunch too loudly. While I appreciate her desire to give me a little more peace and quiet, I find anger and annoyance rising inside me like a rotten carcass from the deeps of feeling; and with it comes the guilt. How badly have I been behaving if she finds the simple act of eating strewn with the minefields of my moodiness?
"Dinah, please feel free to chew your cereal completely," I say to her.
She looks like a rabbit startled in the middle of a meal. "I'm chewing."
"No you're not. You're taking little tight-jawed bites and then swallowing because you're afraid I'm going to snap at you." It's no use, I've just snapped at her to stop being afraid of my snapping at her. She freezes at her meal, trying to look everywhere but at me. "I'm sorry."
I shovel a spoonful of cereal into my mouth and try to ignore the taste of cardboard that all food seems to be generating these days.
The sound of laughing pulls me out of the reverie I have slipped into and I catch Dinah's start when she hears the sound. I remain seated at the table and sigh deeply at the feeling of desperate helplessness that overtakes me. I want to cry, but what slips out of my lips is laughter. I let my head drop down into my hands and ignore Dinah's discomfort.
Dinah hems and haws before she turns to me. "Should I..."
"No," I cut her off. "She'll be fine." And she will be, I can hear her moving around.
She comes down the stairs, as wobbly as a newborn colt, as hesitant as a cub on its first hunt. Before I can even turn my head I hear Alfred breaking out the pan. By the time she reaches the breakfast table the smell of perfectly fried eggs, sunny side up fills the kitchen and wafts out to us. She is wearing an old grey sweater that I haven't worn in years - washing in hard water and poor care of it have rendered it too scratchy for my taste, almost a coarse felt; besides, it's never that cold inside the clock tower and I haven't been riding any motorcycles lately. But she seems to like it. The chair makes only a soft hiss on the floor as she draws it back from the table and takes a seat. Dinah squirms in hers, struggling with excitement and hesitation. But the raspy, "Hey," from Helena lets the excitement prevail and she beams her smile over the table.
From his place in the kitchen Alfred calls, "Your usual Miss Helena?" the sizzling hiss of bacon hitting a hot pan is followed by the smoky, salty smell.
She tries to smile but grimaces instead as her complexion pales. She holds her breath and takes a breath through her mouth before speaking. "I don't think so, Alfred." I hope she doesn't throw up. "Ask Dinah if she wants some."
Dinah flashes me a quick look of bemusement before asking Helena, "Are you sure?" Helena nods. Alfred returns the eggs to the pan to cook them through. Runny eggs make Dinah nauseated.
I watch her hands on the table, small pulses move through them; if they were closed her fists would be flexing and relaxing. She is stacking her breaths, trying not to breathe too deeply. "Alfred," I say, "do you do you think you could turn the exhaust on higher? It's getting a little smoky in here."
Her expression changes only minutely as the tension around her eyes relaxes - but her relief is a palpable thing. She looks at me and then at my bowl. "What are you having?"
Reflexively I look down at my cereal. "Grape nuts."
"I'll have some of that." I don't know whether to laugh or cry - she hates Grape Nuts, says it tastes like crumbled mud.
I can see by the way Dinah bites her lower lip that she is having the same problem. "Sure," she says, pushing her chair back with a scratching squeal against the floor, "I'll get you a bowl." Alfred meets her half way with a bowl and a jugful of milk that she places in front of Helena; by the time she returns to her seat, Alfred brings around Dinah's eggs and the box of cereal for Helena.
"So kid," she says to Dinah, inundating the cereal with milk, "What're you doing today?"
"That sounds about right," she says approvingly, as she takes a mouthful of the Grape nuts and crunches on them heartily. "I never did anything much in school either." Dinah's small snort of amusement is very undignified; she knows better, she's already heard all the stories from Sandy.
I study her face as she chews. Even Alfred is standing discreetly by to observe this anomaly. "Good?" I ask her.
And even as she says it, the disgust and childlike confusion on her face is apparent. "Mmn mmh. It's not bad, actually." Dinah bursts out laughing as Alfred and I share an amused glance. "Shut up," she growls, "or I'm going to going to make Barbara let me drive you to school." Dinah's eyes widen in horror; Helena has not been cleared for driving yet. If her unsteady descent down the stairs was any indication it's not going to be for a few days yet.
Mollified by Dinah's quietness she returns to her scowling repast. It's the quiet English snigger in the background that cracks my control. Before I know it, there are three of us laughing at the table with Helena looking sullenly on.
"Fine!" she huffs, "Make fun of the sick person," and picks up her bowl and moves out to the living room. "I'm going to watch TV."
And just like that - without talking about our feelings, without a big discussion, without really doing anything - she lets me off the hook; and normalcy establishes it self.
The best way to deal with an issue the size of a giant whale between two people is to ignore it completely. Good breeding isn't about not making a fuss when someone spills ketchup on your white tablecloth; it's about pretending not to notice that someone spilled the ketchup.
"Head north through the parking lot, once you get around the warehouse..."
<"Isn't that, like, a dead end?">
"Isn't it, like, totally awesome how I'm the one supposed to be giving you the directions and like you're supposed to wait to let me finish before you pipe up?" She huffs over the comms and lets me finish. "When you get around the warehouse there's a small shed thing there - it's hiding a set of rungs in the wall, use them - should save you something like a minute, even though you can't really..."
<"Are you sure?">
"Who's running this thing, you or me?"
<"It's just that I've never noticed...">
"It's just that I've only been doing this way longer than you have. Can you just do what I ask you to?"
<"I can,"> she wise cracks, <"but..."> She's getting on my last nerve.
"...You're letting the guy get away."
"Do you see the rungs or not?"
"Jesus!" I thumb the mic off and turn to Barbara who has been sitting there trying desperately not to laugh as I rub my head. "Is it always like this?" I whine. I'm allowed to whine, I'm still convalescing.
She bites her lip and straightens her expression. "Worse," she says quite seriously, "especially when it's you." With that she wheels off as the alarm beeps, and she goes to get me my slew of drugs. I sneer at her lame attempt at humour. She thinks she's so funny.
So here we are, back in a routine...well, kind of, once I got over the shock and surprise of it all - she's letting me touch her precious computers. Not that I still know how to use the damn behemoth but she's letting me run the police routines and "train" Dinah while she's out on sweeps. It's like fucking holiday for Barbara, she gets to dig around the world for whatever creepy thing she wants and I get to herd the kid through the city.
When she comes back the first thing she hands me are the pain killers which I palm, and as I'm gulping the water she holds out the anti-inflammatories, and the pills for the nausea, and the sedatives so that I can sleep well, and the iron supplements and the vitamin supplements...Jesus, it's like I'm in an old folks home or something. I'm very careful about how I take each pill from her hand, careful not to touch her as I do it, careful not to look at her when I'm being so careful. I really don't want to spook her or anything.
Yep! The best way to deal with an issue the size of a giant whale between two people is to ignore it completely.
I can hear Dinah scuffling with our hold up guy. Everything sounds good - it sounds like she's connecting solid blows, "You're doing okay," I reassure her. And she's not giving him time to get any hits in. I suppose the surprise factor of a cherubic, blonde kid whomping on your ass helps. Now, if we can only get her to stop making those little squeaky grunts - that completely gives the game away. Oh boy, that was an uncomplimentary thing to say to her. Jeez, stop with the squeaking already kid, he's starting to think it's okay for him to fight back.
"Holy shit!" I open my mouth to say something to her when I notice Barbara looking at me with a raised brow. "What?" I mouth back at her.
She simply raises the other brow and keeps staring expectantly at me
And there it is again, little girly squeak when he hits her. "Damn it, Canary, you need to slap him down before I come out there to give you a hand!"
<"Shut up!"> she shouts as she knocks him down one last time.
"I will not shut up! You really need to focus on what you're doing out there."
<"How am I supposed to focus,"> she asks, flipping the guy over, <"when I've got you in my ear badgering away at me?"> I hear the plastic zip of the restraint. A second later I hear another small zip of tightening. Oof! She's vindictive. I think I like her more and more every day.
"Let me tell ya, kid, better me than Oracle, she's really bossy."
<"And you're not?"> Her retort coincides with the bounce of a pen against the side of my head, very hard. Ouch. It makes me smile.
"Oh ha." I look over the map that Barbara's been so kind to show me how to use. "Okay, cops are on the way. What's the situation otherwise?"
"Okay, so I want you to head by Robinson Park, see how the rich and famous are faring tonight."
<"This is so unfair!">
What, I want to ask her, that no one's shooting at you? But I'm too busy being hustled away from the controls by Barbara who has had enough of me needling the kid. She's not actually hustling me, that would involve touching. We're ignoring the dead whale in the room. But she's pretty close to ramming with the wheelchair so I hop out of the way.
<"Nothing happens there,"> Dinah whines.
"It can't all be blood and guts."
"Canary," she says, "It's important to patrol the seemingly non-violent neighbourhoods as well, some of the biggest crimes are often planned there. It's an important part of your training."
Yeah what I said
<"You promised I could have a real route to myself.">
Oh my god! How old is she 6?
"Canary, for better or worse, this is the grid pattern you have. It allows for the most comprehensive scan of the city while Huntress is recuperating
<"It's not fair.">
"It's this route or more sparring time with me," I cut in. "You decide."
<"Fine."> That shuts her up. I don't care how much Barbara laughs or snickers; I was never this much trouble on my first sweeps.
After that things quiet down in the clock tower as well. I lean back in my chair and finger the Weekend Arts and Leisure section of the paper. I listen to the gears of the clock moving, and the tick of the smaller wall clock. I stare at the small moving dot that is Dinah move across the map in systematic patterns. I listen to the rapid clicking of the keyboard as Barbara hammers away at it. The scanner is filled with nothing more than routine chatter.
Dinah thinks it's boring out there - she should try it in here. At least Barbara is keeping amused, hacking NASA or whomever.
Since I've got every sound in the clock tower memorised already, I start paying attention to the sounds coming off Dinah's transceiver. She must be throwing a sulk because she sure isn't talking. It's a little strange, everything sounds different from her point of view. She's right there by the traffic. I'm usually looking down from a height, but she likes to stick close to the ground. Not that I could do any high wire stunts these days.
The little red dot that means Dinah stops moving. I hear the sound of an engine idling, boots, another large engine pulling up, doors slamming; and then a small catch of breath like she was about to say something but stopped. Barbara must have noticed that Dinah's stopped moving too, because she looks up.
"Canary? What's going on?"
<"I don't know. Probably nothing. I was just watching these guys unloading stuff by the museum and I thought I saw something.">
"With the cargo?" Barbara asks.
<"No, it was more like a feeling. I'm just going to stay here and watch them finish.">
"What do you see?"
<"Big truck. Packing crates. There's a bunch of guys guarding the crates.">
"That's right. The museum has a new exhibit opening."
Barbara stalls for a second before she looks it up on the web. I'm shocked. She usually knows this sort of thing by heart. I guess she's been distracted. We're not going to talk about why. Because we're still ignoring the dead whale in the room. I flip the broadsheet and turn to the back page and there it is - a quarter-page black and white for the exhibit and isn't it going to be a grand old party because the museum is going to be returning some expensive and rare pieces to their rightful third world owners. I take in the illustration of a mottled cat figure carved out of stone, and my exclamation of surprise falls out exactly at the same time that Barbara says the title out loud. "Holy fuck!"
I like Mondays. I didn't always like Mondays. But now I do. Now that I have accepted the fact that about a third of my students will not turn in their homework on a Monday, and that about half of them will still be on weekend time, and that I shouldn't try to introduce any especially new concepts on Monday, it's become my ease into the week day. It also helps that I have a short teaching schedule on Monday, which allows me to leave early.
Of course, the thing I don't like about Mondays is that I have my physiotherapy appointment on Mondays. Not that I don't like Mark, but even after all the head shrinking and counselling, I can't help the little twinge I feel every time I arrive at his office. When we first met I had some awful days there.
So maybe I am overstating my love of Mondays. But the fact remains I get to leave at three when everyone else leaves at four - it puts me in a decidedly good mood on a day when most of my colleagues might not feel quite so chipper. Also I get to roll down the hallways without dodging, either, over-enthusiastic or goggling students, and then get to the driveway without having to dodge other drivers. Mildly pathetic, but you take what you can get. And Mark is a good listener - it took me a few sessions to figure it out, but after I did a little digging around on him I discovered that my physiotherapist also had a degree in clinical psychology. So sometimes when I'm talking to Mark, I'm getting two for the price of one.
The January sun is unseasonably warm and toasty on my skin. I turn my face to it and enjoy the sensation. For about five seconds there is just me and the sun - no alternate vocation, no worrying about Delphi, no crime statistics running through my head, no worrying about Dinah, and no gnawing doubts or recriminations about where I stand with Helena, or about my feelings for her - if I should act on them or not, if they're appropriate or not. All these things evanesce under the gentle heat of the sun leaving me soft and pliable as I bring my head down and shake my shoulders loose.
I raise my arm to deactivate the locks on the SUV when I see something highly unusual. The languorous figure of a boneless Helena is lounging on the hood of the van. The sharp chirp jolts her off the hood where she has been sitting all this time. She has a very determined expression on her face.
She scratches the side of her face and ducks her head. "Surprise!"
"What are you doing here?"
"I... dropped by the tower earlier today and the phone was ringing, uhh..." She pauses and then says more firmly, "Have you checked your messages?"
"What?" I say fumbling for my phone, "No, I have it turned off in class." I check the beeper just to make sure I haven't missed a page. Highly unlikely but...
"Yeah...Mark called. His dad had a heart attack; he flew back out to...Jackson?"
"...ville," I correct her.
"Great," she says sarcastically. "Yeah so, he can't see you today. He doesn't know when he's going to get back."
"That's it?" I ask as I hold the phone to me ear to hear Mark's message. 'Hi Barbara, I know you're teaching. I've left you this message at home too; I don't know which one you'll check first...'
"He also left the numbers of a couple of people you might like."
I hit the end button and feel all the tension creeping back into my shoulders. "You came here just to tell me this?"
Her shoulders move in a small shrug. "Actually I thought..." she looks away, "Umm..." and then making some decision looks right at me. "I've got an invitation to the opening gala at the museum." I gaze at her blankly. "Old Egypt?" she clarifies. I nod. She straightens her shoulders. "Would you like to go?"
"To the opening?" I say dumbly.
"With you." She nods. What should I say, fine? Too lackadaisical. Okay? Too informal. Sure? Too...something. "Yes." Yes is good - a perfectly acceptable answer to a terminal question.
"Cool," she says lightly, as if she hasn't just asked me out. Has she asked me out? Perhaps she's just asked me to go with her. Her next sentence as she rounds the passenger side interrupts my internal rambling. "It'll be just like old times - only without any kicking the shit out of each other." The dry air catches in my throat and gives me a coughing fit. "Say, can you drop me off on Parade Street? I'll need a new outfit."
"T. S. Eliot once wrote, 'A people without history is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern of timeless moments.' You could say that great art too is about timeless moments; for what is a work of art, if not a timeless moment captured in a physical medium? History creates art, and art preserves history. Too little knowledge of history and we are condemned to repeat it. Adhere too closely to it, and we do not progress. History is not a mere, luxurious hobby - our entire civilisation today is built on civilisations past. Our actions today are judged against the actions of the past. The more we know about the past the more we can know how to behave in the future - we build on our successes and learn from our mistakes. So we must study history; we must preserve it for study for future generations. Because the shadows of our past travel with us from afar and what we have been makes us who we are.
"Our ideas of the world today arise from long ago ideas that have either withstood the test of time, or were disproved by time. Our Gods today are descended from gods before; or they have created themselves in opposition to gods before. And nothing captures our sense of looking at the world better than art. Even when we do not speak the language of distant strangers, we understand their images and forms. Art, then, is the most consistent and persistent record of the history of humankind.
"The Metropolitan Museum of New Gotham is dedicated to this intersection of art and history. We recognise that our lives are lived in the meaning of context, both cultural and historical. One of the challenges that historians have always faced, and that we in our electronic global village realise acutely today, is an erosion or blurring of context - by colonisation, by imperial suppression, by greed, by commerce, by neglect, by disdain. Those of us who acquire art through capital or main force, to hoard in sequestration, deprive not just the cultures we steal from, but also the world at large by denying the cultural and historical context of the art we so single-mindedly pursue. So much art is lost when it is looted from historical sites. So many people are left ignorant of their own heritage when looted artefacts are spirited away from their home soil to be displayed in foreign countries.
"So, at this, the rededication of the Carter Wing of Egyptology, it gives me great pleasure to announce a new era of restoration and goodwill amongst nations. In a rare gesture we acknowledge our collective sins as oblivious historians, as rapacious art collectors, and indeed as a neglectful people.
"It has taken years of painstaking research and documentation. But today we restore some priceless historical artefacts to their homes. Their rightful owners have graciously acceded to loan us these lots for the current exhibition. The moneys received from this special exhibition will go toward the proper care and handling of these priceless pieces in the future as return to the homes from which they had been stolen.
"Ladies and gentlemen to conclude these opening..."
Whatever, this speech is already two minutes too long. I wander over to the glass case enclosing the reason I made a hundred phone calls and impersonated three different people.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped cats. In wealthy families, when their cats died they would mummify and inter them in family plots so that they could meet up with their faithful companion in the after life. The cat was so beloved a figure in ancient Egypt that the penalty for killing a cat - even by accident - was death.
She came in all forms - the domestic protector, Bast; and the wilder, destructive Sekhmet. But whether she was the sleek domestic cat or the wild-maned lion, she was still the protector of humanity.
These were the things I read in my books on Egypt that mom bought me. Had mother told me that the mutant genes that made me a meta-human were cat genes? No, she hadn't. Something in me naturally gravitated toward the myths of these cat gods. Something in me always knew. That was why I badgered mother to take me to the Revell exhibit all those years ago. I just wanted to be in the presence of the myth. And maybe I just wanted to find out if there really was something magical about the Cat Goddess. What I found out instead was that my life was more complicated than I wanted. In a way, my life as an adult started that day on a rooftop fighting over a cat statue with a bat. It was the first time that the open current of the animal inside me was met and stopped by someone outside me. You haven't known desire, they say, until you have hungered for a true equal. That was the day I first met a true equal. I've hungered ever since.
This is why I've come back. To see if there really is magic in that statue, if the power I felt flowing through me the first time was a fluke, or if everything I saw and felt on a moonlit night almost nine years ago was a drug induced hallucination. Because if there really is magic in that statue, I want some of that magic. If Bast really is the protector and guardian, I want her to bless me with some of her magic so that I can be whole again. Because if she really is magic maybe she can fix whatever's broken in me, because just like Barbara told me many years ago on the gym-floor of the clock tower - I can't live like this.
"You're missing the ceremonies." The accent is very English and proper - more proper than Alfred even, if that's possible.
I should be spooked that I didn't even feel her walk right up to me. All I notice are the strong features of her tanned face and the way she seems to look through me even when she's looking at me. "I'm not here for the ceremonies."
"Really, what are you here for?"
A miracle. I shrug. "The exhibition."
"Everyone else seems to be here for the opportunity to network and drink champagne." I wish she would leave. I don't want to talk to her right now. I've got plenty to think about with what's going on between Barbara and me. Maybe I should leave - come back when the snotty lady's gone. "You know there's a legend behind that statue." She has my attention now. "The local people who used to guard the buried temple used to say that only someone who hears the call of the goddess can hold on to it. In the old days the priests of her temple were also the judges and peacekeepers of the city. Legend has it that this statue is one of the first deities of the city of Bastutis. The interesting thing about this cat is how she's almost sprouting a mane. You're never quite sure if it's a tame house cat or a feral predator."
"You know a lot about it. Is this what you do?"
She laughs, and the laugh manages to be full of warmth and coolness at the same time. "Oh dear, no!" she says moving closer to me, and laying her hand on my arm. Great! A toucher. "I'm simply an idle philanthropist with more family money than sense. It's a bit of a hobby of mine."
I nod and continue to stare at the statue. It's exactly the same as it was all those years ago - the red, the green, the wide unseeing eyes looking out into eternity. But this time, there are no voices in my head - no feeling of power waiting to burst through me. I'm still Helena Kyle, recovering from a coma, scared of heights, pained by pleasure, and feeling nauseated at any expression of the meta-human power inside her.
For the first time, I wonder about the person who carved it. Was it a man, a woman? How old was this person? What was he or she like? Where did he find this piece of stone - this perfect piece of stone in this unlikely size - even back then it must have been worth a fortune.
The woman leans into me and drops her voice. "It was a cult. Only the chosen faithful were allowed in her presence. Everyone else made their offerings to the priests. The impure were often scourged, or cursed by the goddess for daring to raise their eyes at her. She would never have been put on display like this - it would be considered an insult. Of course, when you look at the workmanship you can believe it."
Not that I mind the history lesson, but this chick is seriously beginning to freak me out. It's something in her voice - she says the last part as if she really believes that anyone who 'unworthy' ought to be cursed. Maybe this lady really does have way more money than good sense.
"Well, you can hold off on the scourging, lady, she's going back home after this exhibition."
"But not to her temple - to her high priestess, the one who really understands and appreciates her power."
The applause from the centre of the hall gives me my out. The diplomatic tour will soon be coming around with the photographers at their heels. A flaring flash of red, like a beacon catches my eye - Barbara's being accosted by some old police force, twerp friend of her dad's, and she doesn't look happy. I smile an excuse me at the idle philanthropist and head toward Barbara.
Barbara is visibly relieved by my arrival and introduces me to Lt. John MacIntyre (retd.) formerly of the NGPD, but now working as a personal security consultant for Privileged Rich Bastard, the third, whose parents couldn't be bothered to think of a new name for their children. Well, hasn't he moved up in the world? And, he wonders, is Barbara still wasting her brilliant mind as a high school teacher. So before he can piss Barbara off any more I turn on my own Privileged Rich Bitch voice and say I'm so sorry but I just have to steal Barbara away for a quick meeting - Wayne foundation business, don't you know? I see his eyes widen in recognition when he finally makes the connection between my last name and the Wayne name. Oh yeah, I think, that's exactly how much money I'm worth. I ignore Barbara's look as I sweetly pocket Jack's business card and watch him blush when I compliment his suit with a brush of his lapel.
What a windbag. "Jesus, do they all turn into pompous old farts?" I ask her.
"No. Only the ones who were pompous young farts." She takes a delicate sip from her glass, and asks me quite seriously, "So who was the woman you were flirting with?"
I choke mid-gulp but manage not to splutter out any liquid. The downside of it is that my nose is burning. "I wasn't flirting." I wasn't flirting. There is no flirting. I mean, I'd like there to be flirting - with Barbara. But clearly from the signals she's been sending, there isn't going to be any flirting.
"The way she was standing next to you? It looked like flirting to me."
"I wasn't flirting!" I snap unnecessarily.
"Helena, I was just joking." She reaches out her arm to soothe me and I draw back.
She looks a little hurt when recoil from her hand, so I rush to explain. "I'm sorry, I think it's the drugs - they're starting to wear off. I...I should go take some. They're in my coat, I'll be right back." She nods at me a little dubiously but essentially buys my explanation. The drugs I've been taking do make me a little cranky sometimes. But before I leave I decide to mend my fences. "So you think she was flirting with me?" She nods. "Hmm...maybe I should go find her again."
She smiles and shakes her head. "I don't know, Hel. She looked like she was a little too fast for you."
There's something illicit about this sensation of being next to Helena Kyle as she flirts her way through the crowd at the museum. There's also something strange about being unable to refer to her as anything other than Helena Kyle, as if she were a stranger - someone I didn't know, or knew only in passing. Because Helena - my Helena - cannot be this sleek creature moving deftly through the sea of faces whose names I should know because they are on the very bricks and tiles that make this museum - not precisely their own names but belonging to them by virtue of the family fortune. But, as I wave the champagne-toting waiter by because he is obscuring my view of Helena chatting effortlessly in French with the Nigerian High Consul, it occurs to me that Helena Kyle belongs here by virtue of blood and family fortune, her hidden name - the one she will not take - is one of the corner stones on which this museum is built.
Helena may be angry and brooding, with a flair for foul-mouthed imprecation but Helena Kyle is socially adept and charming. Helena is a pacing beast rebelling against the restraints of normality with feral intensity, but Helena Kyle is a languid sybarite. And while I know Helena intimately - more intimately than I should have any right to - it's Helena Kyle who's fascinating tonight.
The sensation of watching her is slightly unreal, perhaps surreal, or even hyper-real... My contemplation of reality and awareness is interrupted by a known but unfamiliar voice.
I redirect my attention to the steady, white-haired gaze of Quentin O'Grady, director on the board of the Wayne Corporation, and nominally Helena's solicitor. "Quentin!" I cannot help the small smile that slips out of me. It's a rare pleasure to meet any of Bruce's old friends these days, and rarer still to meet ones who do not paint me with the awkwardness of Bruce's absence. "How are you?"
"Good, thanks," he responds with a smile. "You're looking well."
He's being too kind. I start to wave off the compliment but he stops me with a wag of a meaty finger. "Anh ahh, you have to take the compliment. But if you like, I can water it down for you," he offers. "You look tired but happy," he says glancing fleetingly in Helena's direction as he flags down a roving waiter. "I must say I was very surprised to hear from Helena so soon after she was released from the Hospital."
Quentin correctly interprets my inarticulate vocalisation and explains. "She was very anxious to attend this fund raiser. Said that perhaps it was time for her to take more of an interest in the family holdings." To say that I am shocked is an understatement of staggering magnitude. "I found that I wasn't really prepared to have that conversation that day. But Richard assured me that..."
Richard? "Richard Grayson?"
"Yes, of course," he says, his tone clearly saying 'who else?' "He thought it was an excellent idea; that it would give Helena a chance know some of the board members in a social setting..." I lose the trail of the rest of what he says.
An interest in the family holdings? A chance to meet the board in a social setting? That would imply that she plans to meet the board in a business setting. And why has she been talking to Dick. When did she start talking to Dick? The whole idea is too bizarre. Where is the girl with the rabid antipathy to her father's legacy? I do my best to insert the appropriate noises and gestures as Quentin keeps talking - he mailed her a packet of the latest stock figures. Where is the girl who rolls her eyes and mock snores every time I talk numbers and statistics? Does she plan to take a seat on the board? Will they let her?
"...And do give my best to the commissioner when you see him next. When does he return from Europe?"
"Next week," I say absently, and smile and nod as Quentin excuses himself to catch up with a colleague.
Sixty feet from me, Police Commissioner Kelly throws his head back and laughs as Helena touches his arm and says something ostensibly humorous. Where is the snappish, sullen youth I know? And why is she wearing this adult skin?
I observe her she as she turns to move in my direction. She is a confounding ripple in space and time - now the child I knew when I was little more than one myself, now a woman; now the angry diffident, now the confident charmer; now the skin of darkness, and now the coruscating brilliance of civility. She is all these things and none of these things. But finally, as she comes to stand next to me with two flutes of bubbly in her hand, she is simply Helena whom I have known all along, but never really seen; whom I have seen for long but not really perceived.
She smiles as I drink shakily from my newly proffered glass and I am surrounded by the sensation of giddy flight. For so long I've been running from this feeling; from this sensation of flight and being raised up in the air. I have never trusted the air or my capacity for flight. Even when I flew I trusted only the integrity of my lines, tethered always to the solid earth for fear of falling. This was the lesson that loving my father taught me - when love lets you down, you fall so far that it breaks you. So, to make sure you never hurtle off the cliffs of emotion, you go live in the open and featureless plains of the heart - as arid as you are safe.
But as the earth turns and time passes, little by little, the landscape around you shifts; and where you were once seared by the harsh winds of loneliness you find that you are surrounded by steep walls of protection - like the earth buckling under the molten heat of its deepest heart.
She looks concerned when she notices my shaking hand and the changing cast of my features. Her hand comes to rest on one arm of my chair, and she kneels next to me not caring how this gesture looks to everyone surrounding us. "Hey, are you okay?" I nod. She tilts her head. "Do you want to go home?" I nod again and she steps aside, holding her arm aside to let me lead the way.
We head toward the exit. I know there are eyes following us as we leave, but the solid presence of her at my back keeps their collective gaze from piercing me.
Sometimes you don't fall in love. Sometimes you look upward, and love has grown up around you.
What is the largest distance between two persons?
What is the smallest distance between two persons?
The answer to both is the same: Silence.
Silence expands around us like a birthing universe filling the air with a heat and potential that is irrepressible. Maybe the universe that expands is simply a gaping vacuum between two people who don't know how to talk to each other about the thing that matters the most; and maybe the universe that collapses is simply a black hole of melting, crushing, gravitic attraction that draws two people - slowly, infinitesimally, inexorably - toward each other; and everything in that pregnant silence, including the stars and the planets and the nebulae are simply the unrealised possibilities revolving around unspoken desires.
And as we circle each other in the gym like two elemental particles drawn mutually together by magnetism but held locked in our orbits by electricity, I have to wonder how long we've been dancing this dance.
The quick flash of a smile gives away her pain, but the slight narrowing of her eyes masks her annoyance. As slowly as I can, I let the convexity of the modified bat-a-rang slide down my thumb as I hook my index finger into the inside curve. Her expression darkens with each manoeuvring of the chair. She's distracted by the chair. She's already told me in no uncertain terms how low an opinion she has of the 'bionic, octopus, spinal tap chair'. Maybe this is something I can use to my advantage. She may be experiencing a few side effects from her neurological trauma, but a loss of strength certainly isn't one of them.
Behind her, Dinah is slowly creeping up on her. And just as Dinah launches her attack, Helena lashes out with a smoothly executed backwards kick right to Dinah's stomach that empties all the air from the girl's lungs. Simultaneously she catches the projectile hurtling towards her with ballistic velocity. The bat-a-rang thumps to a dead fall by her booted foot when she lets it drop. I realise that if I don't veer out of her range, I will be right at the point of impact when she completes her scissor kick and leap.
But just as I start to back away I notice that the arc of her movement is interrupted. A stream of obscenities spills out of her mouth as she attempts to right herself. As soon as her feet touch ground, she whirls on Dinah. I use this moment to grab both batons and close in on her. The first strike to her elbow makes the fingers around Dinah's collar fall away nervelessly, but the second strike is blocked expertly by her forearm as she wraps her entire arm around the baton to grip it just millimetres away from my own grip. Unceremoniously, she drops Dinah, who tumbles to the ground like a sack of potatoes, and jerks on the baton. Since sheer cussedness and a desire to win at all costs will not let me relinquish my hold, the impulse sends me flying out of the chair and straight into Helena.
The impact arrives with a shocking gasp of proximity, but there is no collapse as her arms lock around my middle and lower back to keep me upright. In a nova of sensitised awareness, I become aware of every fluttering tendon in her wrists and even the pulses in her fingers; of the heat of exertion between us; of the rhythm of her breath. In the eternal second where we share the same lungful of air, I bring my right hand around the back of her neck to place the head of the baton against the nape. She closes her eyes on contact.
"Gotcha," I breathe out.
"Damn," she whispers, matching my tone.
A pained groan from the floor draws us out of our clinch.
"Okay," whines Dinah accusingly, "that hurt."
Helena rolls her eyes as she takes a step forward and lets me down into the chair. If she sees the flush creeping over my skin, she graciously ignores it.
"Oh and that sneaky move you pulled on me wasn't even a little annoying."
"Aaah, oww," pants Dinah as she sits up with a hand on her belly. "It's not the same."
"Christ, kid!" Helena responds as she flops to the floor and rubs her head, "You almost made me puke all over the place."
I gather myself and stow the batons away. "You weren't concentrating..."
She turns her head to look at me. "Oh yeah?"
I do a visual check to make sure that the batons are snugged away. "You let me get a hit in."
"Yeah." She looks away. "Everything feels so different."
"Jerky...not smooth...just wrong. And then there's this puky feeling every time I do a flip or a somersault."
"Laura said that'll go away."
"Yeah, but it still makes me feel like puke!" she snaps. "Shit...anyway, good work, Dinah - almost didn't hear you sneaking up behind me." Dinah starts to break into a smile. "I could feel you moving, but I had to push to hear you."
I look over at Dinah who is beaming with pleasure and massaging the pain away at the same time. "All right," I say, "that's enough for today."
Dinah groans thankfully and heads to the showers. "Is Alfred making dinner?" she calls out as she leaves.
"No," Helena calls out, "I am. I thought I'd try this recipe I saw on Food Network the other day." Both Dinah and I freeze at the convincing nonchalance of her tone. Dinah lets out a small squeak of protest. "What the hell sort of question is that, of course Alfred's making dinner. It's not like any of us cook anyway." Dinah's relief is palpable as she hobbles away.
"You know," I say, "she could have just been asking if we were ordering out."
She shrugs. "Kid freaks out if I'm nice all the time." She's right, of course - Dinah does get a little paranoid if Helena is consistently nice to her. She stands up and walks over to the benches while flexing her elbow.
"Does it hurt?"
"Nope," she, says tugging at her shoelaces.
"Are you going to stay for dinner?"
"I'm going to the museum and then, 'cause you won't send me out on sweeps, I figured I might as well take a couple of the shit shifts. Leonard's short on help again."
"So, how did it work out with Leonard?" I can't help being a little intrigued with what she plans to do. My conversation the other night with Quentin led me to believe that Helena might be giving up bartending.
"Fine," she says balling up her socks and tucking them into the right shoe. "I don't know what you told him about my 'accident' but he hugged me when I showed up the other day. He fucking hugged me!" her voice rises in indignation. "He was all teary eyed, and all 'I'm so glad you're okay'." She shakes off a shudder.
"He was very worried about you. You're one of three people who've worked for him more than four years, he likes you."
"Yeah," she scoffs, "he likes me so much he stuck me with the dead shifts. Saturday mornings? I have to open up on Saturdays. You know what kind of business we see on Saturday between noon and six thirty? Four people that's what we see. Six if it's a mad rush."
"Helena, I told him you were in a car accident that put you in a coma for a week. That was three weeks ago. Have you considered that he might have given you a few less strenuous shifts so that he doesn't tire you out?"
Apparently the notion hasn't occurred to her because it gives her pause. "Well, fuck!" she murmurs under her breath as she rests her elbows on her knees.
I know that Helena has some cat in her, I think, as I watch the feline bobbing of her shoulder blades, but there must be a little animal in me somewhere, as well - that or she's rubbing off on me. Because I'm looking at her as she bends over to hang her head, and I have a clear view of the back of her head, her neck, and the secret arch of her spine where it is hidden by the clothes she is wearing. The sight of her sweat-beaded nape is like a jolt of something in my stomach. I want to run my tongue through the ruff of small furry hairs. Not 'nape', I think. Nape is such a civilised word. And I don't think it could honestly be applied to Helena. No, I want to sink my teeth into the *scruff* of her neck and feel her buck underneath me as I ride the sinuous snake of her spine. I want to taste the bitter salt of exertion on her skin, I want to hear her gasp, I want to feel her move. Good God! There is nothing gentle or tender about this feeling - it's all about wanting to subdue and conquer, about exerting dominion. My mind is starting to go. There's the word I'm looking for: dominate. And suddenly I discover what is meant by the taste of a word. I say the word as softly as I can, and it's a hot, hard sound in my chest - like a huff of burning air from a heat vent, like a branding iron - it would be so easy to do...It's simply a side effect of having been inside her head... now when she's so vulnerable to me, when my every touch could flay open her very mind; it wouldn't matter how strong she is she would simply crumble. A yearning gap like a black hole opens up in my belly right below my sternum.
I close my eyes.
Something inside me teeters on the brink of an abyss, starting, just starting to tip forward, but before it can go over the edge, I pull myself back.
When I open my eyes, I am looking right into the slitted cat eyes of an intent Helena. I swallow and spin the chair away
"Barbara?" comes the confused voice behind me.
"Yes?' I say not turning back.
"Nothing," she says. "I thought you said something."
"No...I just need to take a shower."
Once more I fiddle with each attachment on the fucking belt. It completely ruins the line of my clothes to have that chunky thing hanging off my waist. It's just so...so... butch. How the hell did Barbara run around wearing something like this? Forget Barbara, didn't mom used to wear something like this when she was stealing the world?
The thing has so many little cords and attachments on the side my hands keep bumping into them. I have to broaden my shoulders and hold my arms out just a little to stop from rubbing the insides of my wrists raw. But I need some place to hang all the doodads and thingamajigs for the jump lines. It's like having fucking training wheels on a tricycle to send me out here with fucking safety lines.
I don't know why I'm bitching, at least I'm back on sweeps.
I tried doing a run across the roofs last night and almost fell right into the street below me. And then I threw up. It's not the dizziness and nausea I mind as much as the actual puking. Doc Reade and I had a less than joyous talk about it.
"Well, it's not entirely unexpected but in my experience that particular cell cluster has never really...."
My exaggerated huff stopped her mid-monologue. " The nausea is probably from the swelling. I'm quite sure that it's temporary - it should get better in a few weeks...I think."
"You're not sure?"
"Well...No. It might be a weeks, it might be months..."
"...It might be never."
She shrugged. "I doubt that. You're already showing small improvements in your reaction to stimuli. Remarkable, really considering your condition since Christmas...But you do need to get more rest - it's vital. I've spoken to Barbara about your exercise regimen it..."
"Was it your idea?"
"What you did? With Dinah and..."
"Ah." She brushed her nose with her finger. "Yes, it was my idea."
"Were you in there?"
"No...no...I was more interested in the physical body that produced the memories rather than the memories themselves. So I'm...I'm not privy to your secrets." She cracked her knuckles and looked a little embarrassed. "I didn't realise, you see, about..." she points to me, "...you and..." and then at the door.
Of course she didn't. There's nothing to realise. "So I'm not *always* going to be dizzy when I try to jump?"
She laughed a little and let me have my change of subject. "Well, Ms. Kyle...No. You're not always going to be scared to take a leap. The important thing here is time." She turned away from me to look at the door. "I think it's just a question of time...to get used to the enormity of changes. Be patient."
"Are we still talking about my condition?"
She sat up straighter and looked very wide-eyed. "Why would we be talking about anything else?"
I gave her the look - the same one I use on the punks in the street - but she didn't flinch.
She's a sly one that Doc Reade - very slick. I wonder if she's related to Quinn.
But if she's seeing it, that means I'm not imagining things. There really is something going on between Barbara and me. I was starting to wonder if all that holding on to me during the workouts and all the close contact is strictly necessary.
But Barbara's got me back on a training routine - exactly the same one I had in high school. Actually, it's exactly the same one some dumb-fuck junior gym team kid would have had. It's Doc Reade's big therapy outline - retrain the neurons to do what they're supposed to, start from scratch. It's kind of like learning to walk all over again - including the falling on your butt all the time. Only this time around I'm not a year old, and I can remember every embarrassing detail.
I aim the gun at the roof across from me and the line crosses the gap with an invisible hiss, and connects with the brick and mortar with a reassuring thunk. I tug the line, close my eyes and give my whole weight to the line as I go arcing through the air. The wind skitters through my hair and I give into the temptation to open my eyes. The windows race by me in a solid blur, but it's when I look down that the nausea sweeps over me. Bad idea. I shut my eyes and will myself into a flip over the lip of the roof. This is going to take getting used to.
Once I find my feet I tuck the line gun into its hook on the belt. That's when the design on the buckle catches my eye again. I run my fingers over the raised bat logo. She actually gave me her belt to wear - her actual belt from her actual costume. The mesh of the belt was warm against my fingers when she laid it over my outstretched palms, not cold like I imagined the metallic links would be. And tonight when she put it on me it was like a warm hug, and a kiss where the clasps clicked together with a soft snick. Her eyes were very green and serious, and fingers were a solemn blessing where they hovered over the tight drum of my skin.
Her expression was straining with unspoken words. "Helena, be careful and..."
"I won't talk to strangers and I'll go straight to the teacher if the other kids are mean to me."
"I don't think I need to worry about other kids being mean to you," she smiled and straightened the flap of my jacket as I stepped back from her.
There's no way I'd have been able to concentrate on work if I had let her say what I thought she was going to say. Besides the kid was watching.
I brush my thumb over the amulet of her seal and smile what is a completely dopey grin. I couldn't scare a thirteen-year old truant with this expression. I think I could get used to this.
<"Huntress, I'm not getting any movement from your signal. Is there a problem?">
"No," I say. "No damn problem."
<"Good. What do you see?">
I move to the edge of the building I'm standing on. "I spy with my little eye a yellow bird starting with the letter C." Dinah waves at me from the super duper souped up hummer, to let me know she hears me loud and clear.
<"Good. Lets make our way east in a zig-zag pattern. Four block switchbacks. By the book.">
I nod, even though she can't see it. The petulant whine of a police siren sweeps through the night air; I take a deep breath. All right, bring it on.
Sometimes when you say 'bring it on' maybe someone out there is listening because, in less than two and a half hours, this night has been one fucking thing after another. I've lost one suspect because I can't give chase fast enough, almost made Dinah crash the hummer, dodged some intrepid reporter with a camera - probably one of Reese's spook-in-the-night friends. Shit, I should call Jesse let him know how I'm doing; after all, he did help Barbara out. And now I'm running down Broadway chasing the bagman from a gang of jewel thieves.
Breaking into a jewellery store before midnight? How fucking dumb is that? Everyone knows that police response doesn't fall off till after 1:30. I jump over the roof a squealing Ford. Damn! Please don't crash, please don't crash. I couldn't bear it if I had to hear the destruction of property lecture again. But these guys are serious - with Uzis and everything. They just weren't counting on some vigilante action. And right as I fall onto the hood of the car behind the Ford, I see my guy turn onto a side street. Shit! Why do I get the feeling there's a get away car there. As soon as I'm done playing tag with the traffic I duck into the street to see the bastard's taillights getting away from me. Son of a bitch! I pour on some more speed and by the time I count to thirty, I can feel the car getting away from me. I remember my handy dandy utility belt and shoot a retractable line into the boot of the car. I let the wire pull tight and let the machinery do its work. I'm shredding my boots as the car drags me along but at least I'm gaining ground.
<"Huntress! Police are reporting a high-speed chase on the Sprang Bridge. I think it's a second getaway car.">
Like I don't have enough to do. I haul myself onto the back of the car and try to hold on as securely as I can. "Where's Canary?"
<"She's headed there.">
It's a little hard to hold on to a speeding car when it's swerving violently from side to side. Fuck! "I need a little time here, Oracle. I've got a scumbag to secure."
I say my prayers and start pounding the glass on the rear window. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven...lucky seven. Thank god for safety glass, I think as I turn my face aside to avoid the fragmenting shards, and then throw myself at the window. I slide in and elbow aside the firing gun. Since I have a real problem with people who shoot at me I don't feel bad about the scream that comes from his breaking arm. Asshole. Another elbow to the side of his head and he is out cold. Even without a driver, the car runs in a straight line. In fact, the car is actually more stable now that no one's trying to make any fancy moves. I jump into the front seat and take over the wheel. I pull over to the side of the road and pat my guy down for a phone. As I wait for 911 to run through the automated response system, I restrain the guy. By the time a real person gets on the line I've had time to go through the entire contents of the bag, pat him down for more weapons, and empty the clips.
"Hello," I say, "I've just robbed a jewellery store and have been arrested by a citizen. I'm going to leave my phone on so you can triangulate me. Goodbye." I tuck the phone into the guy's front pocket and shove him out of the car onto the pavement. Once that's taken care of, I pull into gear and head to the bridge. I can hear the squeal of tires and wail of the sirens a mile away. Scratch that - I can hear the sound of two cars crashing a mile away. By the time I get to the crash site, I hear Dinah pulling up with the hummer, but the driver of the getaway car is missing. That's when I notice that he was driving a Volvo and the front and side airbags have deployed very nicely and our guy is probably hotfooting it out of here. I look up to scan the buildings and wonder if Volvo could sell more cars by pushing it as the preferred choice for get away vehicles. The clang of feet against a metal stairway gives him away. I point him out to Dinah and signal to her to circle around the block.
I reach to my side and look for the retractable line when I remember that I don't have it anymore. Oh well, the old fashioned way is fine too. At least jumping up high is something I can still do with no problems. As long as I get to him before he crosses the block of buildings, he's mine. Barbara lets me know that more cops are on their way.
Okay, this should be easy, I think, when I see the running figure of one man with a bag slung across his back. But the more I run the less easy it is. The buildings in this long block are all different heights. Which means I'm jumping down as much as I'm jumping up which means I'm losing time on this bastard. This is the simplest thing - it's the first thing I did when I first started sneaking out of the apartment as a kid. I should have no problem doing it. But today it's almost like I've never done this before. I wish the kid were here with me. She could float me over the roofs no problem. I've never been this frustrated with myself; I've never felt like a bigger asshole. But...no way through it but to do it. I push myself just a little harder and tackle him.
It's pure luck that his elbow catches my head. It's not painful, but the force knocks my head back far enough to let him slip away from my grasp. But luckily for me the bark of laughter that bursts out of me freezes him for a second before he can make a complete getaway. I tackle him again and he's ready for me - he lashes out with a well-practised roundhouse that I don't bother to dodge because, really, if it doesn't hurt why bother? In the meanwhile Barbara is going nuts in my ear because she can hear me laughing. I wish I had the time to tell her it's because this time it's actually really funny.
The laughter must piss him off because where he was trying to get away from me he pulls out a knife and crouches into a fighting stance. Ooh! I've hurt his little ego. He feints and lashes at me hoping I'll back away, but I step into him as the blade passes right by my eye. I don't know who's more surprised by the close shave. The shock throws him off balance and he takes a step back taking my weight with him. I stagger with him, and that extra half step takes us off the roof. His arms tighten around my body on reflex. The memory of years of falling and jumping off heights kicks in, and I turn around in the air to face the wall of the building and stretch my arms out to find a hold. I curl my fingers around the first protruding resistance.
Mr Hotshot thief is squirming like a roach as we hang from the side of the building. "Listen mother fucker," I try to impress on the guy that the only thing between him going splat and his living is me, "if you don't stop that right now you are about to find out what breaking all your bones feels like." Once that sinks into his head he stills for a second then starts to crawl up my body - the fucker is using me as one giant handhold. "Canary," I mutter, "you'd better be down there."
<"I'm here, I'm here!"> Her voice coincides with the sound of a slamming door.
"I'm about to do bad things to this fucker. Try to cushion his fall."
"Shut up you crazy bitch!" he yells at me as he tries to gain the same handhold that I have a grip on. How original! Like I haven't been called that before. I close my eyes and count backwards from twenty, waiting till he feels more secure. I can't really do much until he eases some of the pressure off me. He thinks he has me at a disadvantage and head butts me. I have to laugh. Doesn't he know that if I let go now he's going to fall with me? He stretches his arm out and I can feel his fingers curling around the thin angle of the ledge. Slowly he tries to draw himself up to the roof. This is it, I let go of one hand and grab the back of his shirt and yank backwards. All flailing arms and jerking feet, he comes loose and then bounces into me, into the wall. His weight presses into me dragging me an inch down the rough wall as I feel the brick biting into my face. And then with a shrieking girly squeak he goes falling into the street below. It's too bad that Dinah's been practising her TK skills, because instead of hearing a body hit the ground all I hear is screaming.
I roll onto the roof and wipe my forehead. It comes away wet with blood. In fact the whole side of my face is wet and sticky under the mildew and dust from the wall.
"Yes, Oracle I'm fine," I respond to the insistent questioning in my ear. "We have the looter and loot." I turn around and look how far I chased the asshole - a hundred, maybe a hundred fifty yards. I laugh. What a fucking joke.
I wipe my hand on my pants and then remember that it's leather - it's not going to soak up a damn thing.
Aw man! I suck.
Dinah keeps looking straight at the road with a worried look when I point out to her that she's missed the turn off to get to my place.
"What is up with you?" I ask her, and she lifts one hand from the wheel to tuck her hair behind her ear. Uh oh, here comes trouble.
"Umm...maybe you should have Barbara look at that."
"Are you stupid!" I say, mopping more blood from my face with the Kleenex sitting on the dashboard. "She's going to freak out if I come home with this." Why there're no gauze pads inside this thing I don't know.
"She's going to freak out even more if she sees you with it tomorrow." Well, she has a point. But there's no reason to let her know that. She bites the inside of her lip and then looks at me out of the side of her eyes. "I think you should let her fix it for you."
The kid's working up to something. I can tell by how twitchy she is. "You weren't there...at the hospital. She was ready to take the whole place down until you were okay. She didn't sleep for days...like three..."
Shit! I forgot. If Barbara's been inside my head, she didn't get there all by herself. "And you know how many days she didn't sleep how?" She looks away and chews on her lip again. Even in the fluorescent light of the van's GPS display I can see the blush rising on her face. That's what I thought. "Look, she's done enough fixing of me. She doesn't need to patch me up one more time because I can't handle things, all right?"
The kid shakes her head. "No. No..." she sighs. "Okay, you have to promise not to freak out on me."
"Okay. I won't freak out on you."
"I know things are like all weird for you now but...just let her in."
Oh this is nice. I'm taking advice from a sixteen year old. "Let her in? *I* should let her in? She's the one holding me at arm's length."
"Look," I cut her off, "I know you worship the ground she walks on because you want to be some sort of über-geek like her, but you don't know fuck about us."
She rolls her eyes at that pronouncement. "I know plenty."
"Yeah, because you're a head snoop."
"I don't need to snoop inside anyone's head to see this," she yells at me. "It's been like this from the first day I met you. You walk around with a goddamn attitude like nothing can touch you and that you're way above everything. How the hell is she supposed to get close to you? Anytime she asks you something you make a joke, or you blow it off, or you snap at her. Can't you just slow down for one minute and stop pretending that you're unbreakable?" I think about it. She's right - about the attitude part anyway. But the unbreakable part - if there's anyone who knows how breakable I am, it's Barbara. "She didn't give you that belt because she doesn't want you around. Just let her see you, even if you don't let her fix it for you."
Fuck! What the hell do I have to lose anyway? Barbara's picked up so many of my pieces through the years, what's one more?
The stinging ointment on my skin is a cool ticklish feeling that makes me smile involuntarily. Before I can hide this small smile of pain she catches me, and the look of concern on her face turns to sadness. Another time I'd hide from her. Make a joke about anything being an improvement to my face. Maybe grouse and take the swab from her hand to do it myself. But there's nowhere to hide anymore. She has all my secrets now. She's seen right through me like cheap gauze. This is a scary feeling - like I want to bolt, like I want to run, like I want to melt away into a puddle, like I want curl up into a huddle, like I want the earth to split and swallow me, like I want anything except have her look at me in this way. But it's also a relief. Whatever she feels, whatever she thinks at least there's no more lying. But because this is not another time - because this is now - all I want to do is take this sadness away.
"It's okay," I say. "It's not your fault." She looks away and shakes her head as she douses the swab with some more anti-septic. "You're not hurting me. It's actually kind of funny." This time my smile is real, and hers is the one that's pained. She leans away from me and I stop her. "It's really not that bad, honestly." I see the slight twitch of her eyebrows that signals disbelief. She leans away and pulls a small mirror from the kit. It's pretty bad.
The cut starts from my scalp in the centre of my forehead cuts down and out in a diagonal - through my brow over the top lid, catching the sunken hollow of my lower lid, and over the ridge of my cheekbone. And it's not clean. It's a jagged laceration; a puffy eruption of traumatised tissue. The right side of my face is swollen. I wince simply looking at it. The sight is so grotesque it squeezes a laugh out of me. "Okay, so it looks worse than it is."
She's not buying it. I let out a deep breath and shake the laughter from my voice. I know it unsettles her these days. I look back at her evenly. "I'm sorry. You're right. It's pretty bad. And you're right, I'm not quite back. But let's face it, maybe this is as back as I'll get. But I can't be scared. It's just my face, Barbara, it's not my head. And it sure as hell isn't my spine. So you can stop looking at me like that. Four or five days and you'll barely notice." I lick my very dry lips as she considers what I've said.
Her lips purse in thought and she looks up with a sigh. "You're right. You're right. It's just..." She shrugs, angles the chair a little closer and goes back to cleaning the wound. My chin is cupped in her left hand as she swabs the lower end of the cut with her right. "I know this makes me sound like a fussy mother hen but...it always breaks my heart whenever you hurt your face. You have such a beautiful face."
The last five words are a whispering vibration in the air between us. And in the silence that stretches between us as she starts to suture the torn wound I don't need to fight to blank my expression - I am too stunned have one. This is the first time that she has made a declaration like this. And despite all the years of reinforcement from random strangers and random lovers, the words make me feel shy. As if this is the first time I have ever heard them after years of wanting to hear them.
When she is satisfied with her handiwork, she palms my face and gently runs her thumb over the uneven ridges of the sutures. The backs of her curled fingers stroke the swollen skin on my cheek and I draw a hissing breath at the piercing touch. She uncurls her hand and stills the pads of her fingers on my face as I gasp. Her face is still, without expression; her touch is very gentle, almost absent. For some reason I think about the time I spent with her in the hospital in the first two days after the shooting. This is the same feeling of communicating without talking, of knowing without consciousness.
"Did that hurt?" she asks. I nod dumbly. "I'm sorry," she says, but continues to stroke my face. I blink against the tingling in my nerves. Wherever her hand skims along the surface of my face, I feel a wake of fire trailing through my skin. My breath comes in short panting puffs. By the time the cradle of her hand reaches my chin I am inhaling in harsh rasping breaths, my chest is rumbling in a tremor of distress - I am burning. And when her thumb comes to rest on my lips I gasp and flince away from her. She removes her hand.
She doesn't say anything but her hand on my knee burns right through. "Does this hurt?" I nod. She draws my palm into her lap and traces the lines of my life, my head, my heart. "And this, does this hurt?" she asks as she holds my hand between both of hers. I nod again and she mirrors me in sympathy. My breath moves in slow, silent heaves and I can feel the pressure that starts to push me into a transformation.
What are you doing, Barbara? a little voice in my head asks. But all I say is, "Are you done?"
When she clears her throat and replies, "Yes," I stand up and move away from her as she methodically starts putting the med-kit away.
Luckily for me, Dinah picks this moment to creep around the corner. The look on her face is self-conscious and full of concern. The kid really needs to learn that if she expects me to snap at her, I will, just so that I don't disappoint her.
"Wow!" she exclaims with an exaggerated wince. "That still looks pretty ugly."
I shake my head with a long-suffering sigh, and Barbara snorts. "Well..." she says, "anything's got be an improvement."
"Hey," I protest, "I'll have you know that my face is my fortune."
Dinah pipes in. "Sure, that's why you're totally..." and pulls up short. "Wait, you're not though. You're like, totally rich." Her hand flies to her face the second she says it. "Oops."
I don't know if I should be offended at Barbara's small gasp or if I should kick myself for being a sensitive ass about the whole thing. I go with none of the above, and pounce on the kid. "Oh yeah? How totally rich am I?"
She shrieks when my fingers find her ribs. "Aaa! Stop it."
"I knew it," I tease her as she tackles me right back. "You gold digging tramp. You followed me back to the tower for my money, didn't you? Didn't you?"
"Yeah," she says as she jabs me in the side with her elbow. "I saw it all when I touched you - all the money. And I knew I had to follow you." Damn, the kid has bony elbows.
"Girls," Barbara calls out, "take it to the mats. I'm done suturing cuts for the night. You bust it, you fix it."
"No problem!" I shout back as I put Dinah in a head hold. "Just a quick lesson for the kid and I'm done."
"I'll show you quick lesson," Dinah counters and pushes me back toward the sofa. Except that she gets distracted when I tickle her again and we plough right into the side table with a crash of breaking plate glass.
"What was that?" Barbara's voice comes floating down.
"Nothing!" Dinah and I say together. When we look back at each other, a staring contest ensues. When the kid's expression starts to falter, I relent.
"Fine! I'll sweep, you vac."
If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound?
If you never sleep in your apartment is it still yours?
I should go inside my apartment. I should fix that damn hole in the window, and pick up the socks from the floor, maybe do the dishes, toss out the carton of half-eaten ginger chicken in the fridge that's been sitting there since before Christmas; maybe even pick up my silk shirt from the sofa - the wrinkles are going to be hell to remove. There's all that mail I need to sort through. I should dust. I haven't cleaned in forever. The door hinge needs oiling too...
I stand on the sidewalk and wonder at the sheer fucking idiocy of standing outside my own apartment building staring up at my room. Why am I here? There's a perfectly good, warm bed waiting for me at the clock tower. But there's also a perfectly good, warm Barbara waiting for me at the clock tower. A perfectly good, warm Barbara who's taking more liberties with me than I ever...well not more than I ever imagined, but more than I ever thought would actually happen. I mean it's a little spooky when the woman you've been fantasising about for years suddenly puts herself in your hands. That's the whole point of a fantasy - you don't actually think it's going to happen which is why you fantasise.
Leonard better not find me standing out here staring up at my window. He'll want to hug me, or something, the bald faggot. Did you know he was gay? I didn't, until he told me. I've never met a single one of his boyfriends. Or maybe I have and I just don't know it. How can I know the man for something like four years and not know this about him? I talk to him all the time. He covers some of my shifts when I'm off being a superhero. Four years of...
Okay, yes, I'm scared - of me, and what it means to let her love me now when I'm not whole; of her, of what the way she looked at me tonight means. I don't like being scared.
I think of what Barbara asked me when she touched me - "Does this hurt?"
Yes it hurts. But the thing is...it hurts more when you don't do it.
The feeling of being watched is like a pinging alarm that I cannot ignore. Cursing my frustrated reflexes, which sometimes fire in my sleep just to keep me in practice, I drag myself from sleep only to find a dark figure making a depression on the edge of the mattress right next to me. The rapid pounding of my heart resolves itself into simple pounding when I realise who it is. I swallow my somnolence and push up against the headboard.
"Helena." My voice is coarse from the grit of sleep sliding down my throat.
Her voice is quiet and diffident when she speaks. "I didn't mean to wake you." When my brow twitches reflexively in disbelief at her motives for sitting down next to me, she stutters out a qualification "......Just...yet," and turns her head away. Her voice suddenly sounds as raspy as mine.
I push myself to sit upright and brush the hair back from my face. The sound of the rustling strands of hair between my fingers is preternaturally loud in my ears as it crackles in the silence. I observe the red weal bisecting her profile, the twitching of the muscles in her jaw, the expansion and deflation of her stomach, and the tip of her tongue as it wets her lips. She is nervous about something. I wonder if she hears the sharp draw of breath when, suddenly, I realise what it is she could be nervous about, and then I'm nervous too. I am thankful for the silence, and her face that's turned away because I'm not sure that I want her to be able read my face in this very second. I wait for her to break the silence.
Whatever it is she is evaluating, she is done and she turns to me. "Tonight, when you were cleaning my face...?" I nod, hoping she will catch the motion out of the corner of her eye. She sighs silently and turns on the bed to bring her knee to rest next to my thigh. She shifts forward, moving her body closer to mine - so close that I can feel the heat emanating in waves. "You were looking at me." The statement is many things - an observation, a question, a challenge; but above all, it is a plea.
If I say yes, I will be opening myself to a vulnerability so deep that until now my mind had stratified it over with layers and layers of denial and repression. If I say no, I will be a liar. So, "Yes." I say. Yes, I see you. Yes, I want you. Yes, please touch me.
Her arm reaches out bringing her knuckles to my face. She traces the outline of my cheek and then my jaw. The sensation is a phantom one - so slight and so light that I wonder if she is really making contact with my skin. My breath comes in gasps now - as if I were struggling against something or as if I were scared. I am very aware of the speed of the beat of my heart and I wonder how clearly she hears it.
As she studies my expression, I study hers, but the contact is too intense. I let the hair fall over my face and her hand withdraws. Before she can withdraw from me altogether, I stretch my hand out and place four tented fingers on her stomach. Both our gazes travel to that point on her body where the dull brass of the jacket zipper keeps her safe from me.
My fingers curl up the leather and draw the zip down. The sound of separating metal teeth cannot the hide the sound of her swallowing. I push the jacket aside and open just one button of her white shirt. Underneath, her skin is pale but not as pale as mine. She gasps, and the filling breath raises her chest into contact with my fingers. As I slide my fingers over the smooth swell of her breast she hisses and stiffens.
I cannot help the stab of anger and guilt that I feel - to be shown this feeling so clearly; to know this between us and not be able to act on it without pain - the anger swells like a hot stone in my throat that I push down with all the force of will I possess. I snatch my hand back in shame. But before I can complete my retreat she grabs my wrist. Basketing my palm in hers, she lifts my uncurled hand and runs my fingers over the healing gash on her face. "Don't stop," she whispers, and holds my hand on her face just as she might a pack of salve against a burning wound. I feel the heat from the healing laceration. It is ironic that the thing that should hurt her should be the thing that soothes her.
She brings her lips to the heel of my palm and lays an open mouthed kiss on it. The flicker of her wet tongue is like electricity through my arm. She holds my palm against her mouth, just breathing; then holding my hand in place, she rubs her face against it. Her breath comes in heaving gasps and her body tenses and relaxes. The rumbling vibrations carry through her bones and into my flesh. And even though I tell myself to stop - to stop touching her, to stop hurting her - my body has other ideas. My hand travels to the back of her head as hers traverses the length of my arm, stroking over my breast and to the placket of my nightshirt and counts over each translucent button. I stroke the velvet scruff of her neck; learn the planes of her unmarred cheek; travel over her lips, down her neck and find the opening where I have unbuttoned her shirt. I find myself leaning forward, and with my other hand I drag her closer to me. As my hand closes around the curve of her breast, her hand against my waist falls away and I feel her tense against me. I draw back to bring her face back in focus - her eyes are so tightly closed that I can see the lines of distress around them and her hand is a tightly bunched fist straining against the mattress next to my hip. When I pull back she allows her other hand to rest against the bed as well, bracketing me tightly between her arms. Her spine bucks as a wave of pain passes through her.
And it is ironic beyond words that the thing should bring her pleasure should bring her pain. These are life's little jokes on me. Each time I think that there is nothing that it can bring me that can hurt anymore, life finds a way to mock me. I let my arms fall away from her. "I'm sorry Hel...I shouldn't do this."
She pushes herself closer to me. "God..." her breath is hot against my cheek, "...I want you so much. I don't think I've ever stopped."
Pushing aside the very irrational tears I feel burning my eyes, I lean back against the headboard and say, "I don't want to hurt you."
Pushing even closer, pushing me against the headboard, she grabs hold of my right hand and presses it over her heart. Lowering her head to my neck she whispers against the throbbing pulse, "I want you to hurt me." I tip my head back involuntarily and her mouth moves to lip the flesh that covers the bobbing bone as I gulp. "You can hurt me as much as you want..." Her teeth find my chin, "...All I'll feel is pleasure." I gaze at her balefully at this unlikely declaration. While she has mastered the art of stoicism to spare my guilty self-flagellation, at heart she is a hedonist who deplores discomfort of any kind. She quirks a small smile at my doubtful look. "I swear."
I flick a glance to her still bunched fist and then feel her gasp as I run soft fingers over her lips - she closes her eyes in reflex. When she opens her eyes, they pulse a flickering topaz in the faint light from the top arc of the clock face, which falls all around us. She casts her eyes down shyly and murmurs, "I don't want to hurt you."
When I reach for her fist with my right hand, she struggles against it for a fraction of a second and relinquishes the tense grip. Gently, I uncurl the fingers and wrap them around my left wrist. I give a little squeeze to let her know it is okay to hold on. Then I slowly unbutton her shirt entirely and push it half way down her shoulders. And even though I am intimately familiar with the landscape of her body I feel shy and unfamiliar - like a schoolgirl. Seeing her like this is entirely different. It is shocking and it is soothing; it is frightening and it is comforting - completely familiar in the mirror of femininity and so alien in the context of desire.
As I run my hand over her, I compare my own body to hers - so different and yet so similar. Her breasts are fuller than mine; her nipples are slightly dusky where mine are pink. Her waist is slimmer than mine, as are her hips. Where my stomach separates itself into bisected segments, hers is one round muscle defined against her diaphragm. My hand travels back up her side and I feel the full weight of her breast. I brush my thumb back and forth against the soft tissue of the nipple and watch as it pebbles tightly into a hard tip. I hear her tongue separate from the roof of her mouth as her jaw drops in a silent articulation.
Her grip on my wrist tightens with each increasing expansion of her ribs. When I lean forward, her eyes are closed and the touch of our lips comes as a surprise. Her lips dance against mine in tentative touches before I lean forward and increase the pressure. Her tongue is hot and slick; and the harder I press, the harder she presses back, wetly sharing herself with me. Our kisses are alternately duelling tongues and dancing lips. I wind my fingers through her soft black hair and pull her into me. I can feel her moving her legs, and before I know it she is on top, thrusting her hips into me, pushing me deeper and deeper into the bed. I feel each undulation of her back as the waves of her wanting surge under my hand. Each breath she takes comes closer to being a scream. As I savour the feel of her lips I am reminded of her nipple and I slip under her to find that swell of flesh and trace the outline of her areola, which grows smaller and smaller with each wet circle of my tongue. She bucks as her ribs bellow with the strain of holding back the sounds she is suppressing. When I suck her nipple into my mouth and run my teeth along it she collapses on me with a throaty groan.
When she pushes away, her chest heaving and her eyes blazing fire, I place a wet kiss on the sweaty hollow between her chest and throat. Her skin is salty and spicy - like bitter sea salts. She groans once more and moves to intercede her hand between my mouth and her neck when she notices that her hand is still tightly wrapped around my wrist where it is making a dent in the bed. I raise my wrist along with her hand as she disentangles herself. I flex my hand to restore the full flow of blood. The impression of her fingers is clearly written into my flesh. I pull her back as she jerks away. "Look," I say, "now you've hurt me." Her wry smile is grateful, disapproving, and resigned. Holding onto my hand she rolls off me to sit on the side of the bed once again. "Come to bed," I tell her. "It's late."
She places a soft kiss on the inside of my bruised wrist, inhaling deeply. "I can't..." Before I can give into my sense of hurt she continues, "...without my painkillers... you'd kill me. It's too much." I take in the rumbling from her chest, the heaving of her chest, the trembling of her muscles, and the sheen of sweat on her skin and consider that she's right. I nod dumbly. She buttons her shirt and stands up. "I'll see you in the morning."
When she leaves the room as silently as she arrived, I heave a sigh and throw my head back and cover my face with my hands.
Oh God, what am I doing?
Right here. On this line. Where your heart flutters like a wild bird trapped in a cage. Where your breath disappears like an escaping animal from your chest. Where the ground falls away from you into a place that you can't see. This is the edge.
Yesterday, this was not the edge. Yesterday this place, where I've been standing for years, was the door to which I had no key. But then yesterday the door opened and there's no room here - it's simply another edge. That I'm scared to step off. You're not scared of edges, I try to tell myself. You've never been scared of a single fucking edge in your goddamn life. But I am today. She's an edge I've never stood on - the ground from here is very far. Alice never fell down a rabbit hole this deep.
A burst of static, and Canary checks in with her position in the jeep. A reply from Oracle sweeps through me like no wind I've ever felt. I think I'm having some strange sequela, because I look up at the sky and think of every vague and trite cliché - moon and June; snow and glow; and far and star. I know that the moon is almost full, but should the world really be shining like this under the light dusting of glittering snow?
<"Canary, I have a situation on 275 Monmouth. Police are already responding. But I'd like you to check it out,"> she says in a quiet voice that tells me she's concentrating on something else right now.
<"I'm on my way.">
<"Huntress?"> she asks in that same low voice, which makes my head buzz uncomfortably.
"All quiet, here."
<"Change beats, and head south."> Is this the same voice she's been using all these years? It's like having her standing right behind me. How did I go on sweeps all these years and not melt into a puddle of frustration? Oh that's right! I sublimated it through aggression. It's all so clear in retrospect.
"Okay." I shake my head to clear it of the buzzing her voice creates when I listen to the cadence. I know the kid is listening too, and wonder if there's anything gives away the tension that pulls between the silences tonight.
<"Sure is,"> the kid cuts in. <"Hey Huntress, d'you want to do a cart run, later?">
<"A cart run?"> I can hear the smile in Barbara's voice.
"Sure," I reply. "We're already headed in that direction. I'll meet you by the concert hall."
Oracle's voice perks with interest. <"Rashid's?">
"You know it."
<"I'll have my usual.">
"Okay! One jumbo plate coming up."
You haven't had dinner until you've sat on the Griffin's head at the top of the Free Library and had one of Rashid's famous shawarma sandwiches, with raw onions, white sauce and hot sauce. With an almost full moon behind you.
You shouldn't really use this much hot sauce - but I guess this is one of the few times I can load it on, so what the hell.
It's one of the most perfect views in the city. This is a part of the city recreated exactly as it was before the quake. And because it was so far inland, and without the really tall towers it wasn't damaged very badly. The old gothic buildings and classic revivals still stand proudly with their marble columns and gargoyles looking out into the night like they've always done. From top of the library you can look out over the mile of monolithic, stone built museums and concert halls that anchor the vast sheet of green spread out in the centre of the city. The tallest thing in this part of the city is a hundred and fifty year old poplar.
I prop my heel on a giant eye and sit down to wolf my sandwich. "You'd better get here in the next seven minutes it takes me to eat this sandwich, kid. Or me and the jumbo plate are headed back to base without you." I lean over too far reaching for the bottle of water and almost knock off Barbara's snack. The plastic bag snaps smartly when I snatch it out of the air, and loop the handles over the griffin's ear.
<"All right, all right, jeez! What's the hurry?">
"These things stay hot only so long. You don't want to keep Oracle waiting for her midnight snack." I wait for Barbara to back me up but there's only silence. "Oracle? Oracle!"
<"I hear you."> I know that tone of voice. She's on to something, but she doesn't want to say.
"What's the problem?"
<"Nothing. Finish your sandwich.">
Okay, now I know there's something going on. I take two large bites of my sandwich and gulp. "Finished," I mumble.
<"Someone just broke into the museum,"> she says, and then there is a long silence when all I hear is the hissing of my earpiece over the sound of my own breathing.
"The Museum?" I ask with a whisper of premonition.
I twist in my seat to look at the grey building shining dully in the moonlight. "I'm..."
<"A block and a half away from it. I know.">
"On my way."
<"Does this mean, I can't do a cart run?"> Canary whines.
"You snooze, you lose."
<"I was subduing a suspect.">
"Fine! You take too long to subdues, you lose. Just move it."
The groan from Oracle lets me know how little she appreciates my rhyming skill. <"Roof sensors just went off.">
I scramble over to the roof of the museum and reach the skylight that Barbara tells me has been breached. I look down into the hall where I was celebrating with the glitterati only a few days ago. Rappelling down to the floor I notice that I'm in the new exhibit, and then with a click like the sound of a snapping wire, the lights cut out, plunging the room into murky darkness.
From two rooms away, the sound of shattering glass is followed by the sound of two bullets being fired. My heart starts like a hydraulic hammer. I head to the source of the shooting. Suddenly, I have a feeling that I know exactly what this is about. Running across wax polished floors, in the direction of the white flashlight beams slashing through the darkness, I arrive at the central display podium in the Temple exhibit. And sure enough, when I look for a certain familiar green statue, I see a groaning guard on the floor thirty feet from the display as dark booted feet disappear through the sky light in the roof.
I press two mental hands to the side of my head and shake it. I still don't understand why there can be millions of dollars of art and history in a room with this many glass surfaces. It's fucking déjà vu all fucking over again.
And then, hoping to god that my medication is going to last, I take a running jump for the now open skylight. When the sandwich in my stomach decides to protest, I congratulate myself for staying away from the soda, and stop myself from falling backwards into the skylight and back into the hall of the museum by only a few millimetres.
Over the sounds of sirens, radio calls, raised voices and slamming doors, I hear a faint chinking sound sixty feet away from me. A slender shadow races crosses the darkness over the lip of the neighbouring building - it's a woman.
Automatically, I push off from my back foot getting ready to spring over the crevasse when the vertigo overtakes me and I careen to a halt at the edge. What the fuck am I doing? Don't look down, I tell myself, don't look down, just go. I feel the anchor bite into the groove of the wall, and I tug the line taut before I jump. I let the wall stop with me a slam before I scramble up and run after the dark figure. I've never been happier to run into a building that sprawls over a whole block. She may not be afraid of heights but she can't run faster than I can. I press down the nausea that I'm starting to feel and keep going after her. Fuck! There's nothing like puking to cut into Huntress time. I take a half second to curse my healthy childhood. If I'd been sick more often I'd have known this little fact, as it is I'm running on fumes.
I look up to gauge my progress - she's getting closer to the edge of the wall but I'm getting closer to her too. She stops at the edge of the wall to assess the distance between this building and the next. If she had stopped to ask me I could have told her it was too wide; we're in the posh neighbourhoods, they like their streets to be double-wide. She takes a step back and takes aim sending a line across the distance. Good, I think, buy me some time. I take the second to check in with Canary. Not like I need the help or anything, but I don't want the kid to feel useless. No, really. I also have this really beautiful bridge I could sell you.
My mysterious thief hefts her bag, tugs the line one more time to make sure everything is secure and gets ready to jump.
"Hey you!" I shout, and her head turns. "Oracle, I've got her." The nausea I've been feeling disappears and the adrenaline kicks in, really kicks in. Like a switch going off in my head, everything comes alive with a growl. I can feel the burning in my eyes, and the little tingle through my muscles that means that it's not just me anymore - there's me and the thing inside that loves the dark and it wants to come out and play.
Everything that was shades of black and white is now clearly outlined in shades of gold and silver. What was a black blur is now clear. I take in the shiny black bodysuit, the jagged silver lines of haphazard stitching, my momentum as my body slams into hers, and the feel of lightness as we both launch into the air as she jumps. In that eternity of flight I hold something that I didn't think would ever be possible. It's impossible. This is not happening. This is a hallucination. I'm still recovering. I shouldn't be out here playing hero. Because there is no way that this is happening.
The expertly placed elbow to my the side of my jaw and neck is nothing compared to the shock I'm feeling, but it's enough to loosen my grip on her and send me hurtling towards the cars below us. I shake my head to clear it, and look up as I fall. There she is, with the moon shining behind her head - the familiar shape of the mask, the taunting tilt of head, the colour of her hair, the sound of sharp metallic claws on the lip of the concrete moulding.
Oh my god.
<"Oh my god."> The softly whispered exclamation is accompanied by a soft inhalation of murmured sadness and innocence. And then nothing, just the whisper of air flowing over the transmitter, until the silence comes to a crashing halt with the sound of a body landing on the roof of a car. The raucous laughter begins almost immediately.
I snatch a glance at the monitors and see Dinah's signal approaching hers.
"Huntress. Huntress!" I prompt her, "Are you okay?"
The laughter as she rolls off the crumpled roof of the car is hysterical, almost tinged with desperation - a little like the day I found her in Falcone's house in Blüdhaven. The worry clenches in the exact middle of my body like a seizing spasm.
<"Christ,"> she laughs, <"I'm going crazy.">
<"What happened? Are you okay? Canary's headed for your position. Don't move."> But it's too late I can already see her signal flickering before it starts to move away from Dinah's. "Stay put!" I order her, but she doesn't listen.
Dinah's eager, <"I'm almost there,"> sounds over the speakers at exactly the same time as Helena's signal disappears from my screen.
"Damn it, Huntress!"
<"What?"> Dinah asks. <"What happened?">
"She's gone off line."
I am at an utter and complete loss for why she went off line. I play back the last few seconds of communication before she fell.
<"Oh my god."> The softly whispered exclamation is accompanied by a soft inhalation that I cannot make out.
I highlight the small graphical waver that represents that whispered sound, and stretch the time.
>>Oh my god...no!<< That doesn't sound right.
I tweak the graphic equalisers suppressing the breathy sounds and bringing out the articulation. >>Oh my god...my...<< That's still not right.
Once more I return to the processing bar on the software and try to remove as much of the background noise as I can and play the clip back. >>Oh my god...mom<<
The last thing she said was, "Christ, I'm going crazy." And I have to wonder if she isn't; if she isn't still experiencing problems that she isn't telling me about. It wouldn't be the first time she's done it.
But three hours later, and there is still no sign of Helena. And as I work with the images of the thief from the museum's cameras I think I'm beginning to understand - each additional sharpening of the blurry image, each little adjustment to the contrast, and I see the image that unsettled Helena so much.
As I slip the jacket over one shoulder, I realise that it's mildly stupid but I head out onto the balcony anyway. Somehow, I know that she'll come back here no matter where she has gone. All these years, no matter what's happened between us or to us, one thing she's always done is come back here to this balcony. If I wait here long enough she'll be there. The handle clicks open and I hear the hiss of the wheels in their tracks as I push the door open. Or, I think, seeing the huddled figure in the shadows of the balustrade, she can just be sitting there waiting for me to find her.
I leave the door open, letting the warm air from inside provide a small buffer against the cold outside. She looks up when I clear my throat. "Do you want to come inside?" I ask her. She doesn't say anything. "Helena?"
"I think I'm going crazy," she says.
"You're not," I assure her.
"Are you sure?" she asks, "Because it feels like I'm going crazy."
She shakes her head. "I can't take this. I know I'm broken inside but I can't break anymore, because if there's anything more in me that breaks, I'm going to shatter."
Ah, I wondered when it would come to this. I wheel a little closer to her and lay one hand on her shoulder. "You're not broken." She snorts her bitter disagreement at my assessment. "And you're not going crazy," I re-assure her but it doesn't seem to help. Instead, her shoulder shudders with the pressure of whatever feeling she's holding inside herself. Without thinking I move my hand to her face and tilt her face upwards to meet my gaze. The edge of her cheekbone is sharp against the pressure of my thumb as I try to impress my point on her. "You're not. Going. Crazy."
"I saw her, Barbara." She's too spooked to even say it. "I saw..." her lips close around the first phoneme of the word but the words do not come.
"Who?" I press her.
Quietly, she joins a trembling hand to mine on the untarnished side of her face. I feel the muscles in her jaw clench and relax before she says the word. "Mom." The word is so filled with wanting and longing and pain and anger that I cannot even imagine the depths of confusion in which she must be drowning. In the hospital when she was unconscious she had many conversations with Selina. And to see something like this, of course she feels like she's losing her mind.
I slip my hand out of hers and slide my fingers over hers. Wheeling backwards, I give a small tug to indicate that she should follow me. Her expression is a little bewildered, so I say, "Come on." She sniffs and nods her head. Tentatively, she follows behind me as I move toward the Delphi. "Wait," I say, as I move to grab the sheet from the printer.
The sigh of relief that falls from her mouth when she sees the enhanced image from the museum's cameras is a living thing. "Oh my god," she exhales when she sees the image. "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" I nod. "I'm not going crazy?" I shake my head. "She really was there." I nod again. "I'm going to kill the bitch whoever she is."
"No, I'm going to kill her. Slowly."
"I'm going to watch her bleed all over her fucking costume and then I'm going to burn it."
I raise my eyebrow at her. " 'I'm going to watch her bleed'?"
She stares at the picture and then systematically rips it to shreds. "And then I'm going to deliver her corpse to NGPD HQ." I have to laugh. I suppose that's her little concession to law and order. "What?"
"You're going to do nothing of the sort."
She gives me a wry grimace. "Maybe I'll just kick her ass..."
"You had me a little worried there..." she looks up just a little sheepishly. "It's a transceiver unit, not a fashion accessory."
"Can you at least let me know you're going to do that?"
"So how do you feel?"
She shrugs. "Could be worse I guess - I could have landed on the road."
"Take it off." She goggles at me. "Don't be coy, Helena, take off your shirt."
"Here?" she says as her fingers fiddle with the top button of her shirt.
"We can do it in my room if you want."
"Okay," she smiles, dropping her hands to her side. And this time I'm quite sure that it's a smile of mischief. I can't imagine what she finds humorous about having her injuries tended to.
"What?" I ask.
"Nothing," she says schooling her expression into one of neutrality, "here is fine."
And when she turns around she exposes a nice ten square inches of bruise splattered across the right side of her back. "Nice," I wince, reaching my hand to touch the lurid haematoma. Her skin is radiating the heat from healing cells.
She shivers and recoils from my touch. "It's not so bad."
I insist on keeping my hand in contact with her back and she freezes. "No, it isn't," I agree with her as I feel the warmth seeping into my hand and trickling through my veins. "You've had worse."
"But not in a while."
I nod in response and follow the plum coloured splash down the diagonal of her ribs, and around her front - she turns with the movement of my hand to face me. In the faint blue and green light of the monitors she is all shadowed curves and darkly glinting edges. But where my hand is ought to be glowing with the radiant heat of her. For a long moment we simply stare at each other - I, unable to take my eyes off the point where our skins touch and she, unable to stop watching me touch her. It's only later that realise that some of the heat trickling through the back of my hand isn't imagined and is actually from her hand on the back of mine. "You should get a pack on it."
"What's the point? It'll be gone in a couple of days."
"It'll make me feel better."
"Lets do it in your room." I nod and lead the way. It may be a long time since it's been used but the small refrigerator in my bathroom is still always fully stocked.
We ride the elevator silently. Helena pads meekly after me toward my room but pauses at the entrance of the room. I find this hesitation both pointless and charming. She certainly had no such qualms about entering the room last night when she came to sit on my bed. And thinking about it sends my heart pounding as I skitter into the bathroom to retrieve the cold pack from the fridge and the inadvertent double meaning of my earlier words strikes me. I spare a quick glance over my shoulder at the half dressed woman gazing very intently in my direction - thankfully her eyes are a cool blue. I fumble the painkillers as I grab for the new bottle I obtained just so that she wouldn't have to go back to her apartment if she needed any. I hadn't realised how quickly the cold pack would numb my fingers. Yes that's it, says a small voice in my head, it must be because of the cold pack.
I ignore the voice of snarky nervousness and turn back to motion Helena over to the bed. I hand her the pills as she turns to sit. Expertly, she twists the cap off and taps two pills into her hand and pops them into her mouth. "Water?" I ask. She shakes her head with a gulp, not taking her eyes from me. "Why don't you go ahead and lie down," I tell her. "I'm going to go get changed."
Inside the bathroom as I move about my routine, I am stricken by a sense of panic. What am I doing? Can I really be considering what I'm about to do? I know Helena loves me, but how much of it is an echo of arrested teenage infatuation and how much of it is real feeling? And even that thought is a lie. I'm not concerned with her feelings; I'm paralysed by *my* fears - but, really, with 'paralysed' being the operative word. We're still on the edge of flirtation - the extreme edge to be sure, but still the edge. There's nothing that we can't pull back from. But if I fall into her here and now, there's no turning back. If we let our bodies say to each other what we cannot find the words for...I don't want to be disappointed by her. She's never failed me as a friend. I don't want her to fail me as a lover. I have far too much insecurity about my body as it is.
When I turn the bathroom light off and open the door, I notice that Helena is sitting in exactly the same spot that I left her in forty minutes ago. "Are you scared of me?" she asks.
Yes! Everything about you scares me - your intensity, your earnestness, your willingness to stand in my place, the depth of your wanting, your willingness ignore so many paths in your life just to follow mine... "No!" I rush to reassure her, "I'm not scared..."
"Because it was one of the first things mom taught me when we used to play hide and seek - you can tell if someone is on the other side of the door by the shadows on the floor." I let out a shaky breath. There really isn't any defence to that. I've been sitting on the inside of the bathroom door for a good ten minutes. I don't need to look at her to see the small expression of hurt.
Thanking my choice of manual chair for the physical exertion it allows me, I slowly make my way to her. I see how her hands flex and relax - the first signal of her wish to be anywhere but where it hurts to be - I've seen that signal too many times in the past to not comprehend what it means now. I soothe her worried fingers and grasp her hand in mine firmly, until I can feel my heart beating in her hand. "I just got nervous."
Her expression lightens just a little bit. "I can tell."
"Yeah, you probably can." We are now sitting very close to each other - knee to knee. If I lean forward I can kiss the shaggy locks of her downcast head.
She reaches out and trails her hand down and up my bare calf. "Because of this?" I nod. And her fingers press up my thigh under the hem of my shorts. And even though I can't quite feel it I know her hand is right there, slowly inching its way closer to my centre. And as nervous as I feel, the sight of her hand disappearing underneath the ruck of the fabric draws a gasp out of me before I seize her wrist. "Because of this?" she asks, and I increase the pressure on the joint when her hand continues to move upwards.
"Hel..." I warn her.
"What?" she asks, challenging the stopping pressure of my hand, but not moving any further.
My throat is dry with the burr of humiliation and the words are sticky barbs of anger, but they have to be spoken, so I rip them out hoarsely. "...Things aren't...It's just not as easy as it used to be..."
"That's okay, I'm plenty easy for the both of us."
"Helena!" I chastise her with a stronger grip around her wrist. "This isn't funny."
"No. No it's not."
I can feel the muscles in my jaw tightening with the tension. "You're not the only one who worries about being broken."
Still not relenting to my grip, she moves her free hand to my face. With the backs of her fingers, she slowly strokes along the line of my cheek - the gesture is delicate. When she speaks, her voice is soft and soothing, her tone infinitely intimate and terrifyingly tender. "You're the strongest person I know, Barbara Gordon. You're more now than you ever were before. You're not broken." And the thrilling sharpness of her blue eyes pierces me with a sudden reminder of too many things I've lost - friends, abilities, a whole life.
The intensity of their blueness, the exact shade of their gaze: it's Bruce all the way. He was my teacher, my brother and my friend. After the shooting I wanted him to be there to hold my hand and tell me it was going to be okay. And he did, but then he left. He wasn't there when I really needed him - on nights that the nightmares woke me up; on days that physiotherapy was one long, disappointing and disheartening torture; on days that I was deadlocked in an unending struggle with his daughter. I hated him for abandoning me when I needed him. But I had seen his eyes and I also understood - Selina's death absolutely broke him. On the day that he came to visit me in the hospital and found out that the distraught and intense looking girl who had been sitting guard over me was his newly motherless daughter, something inside him snapped. I remember the exact way the blue of his eyes bled into blackness before contracting into the deepest heart of a flame; the way the muscles of his face exploded in a paralytic grimace of inexpressive pain. His love for Selina broke him. For all those years, even apart and not speaking to each other, he had loved her and her death unhinged something inside him. And when he never returned to speak to me again, despite the pain in my broken body, I counted myself lucky; because I knew that whatever the bullet had broken in me - my spine or my spirit - it hadn't broken anything that could never be fixed. Even in the deepest abyss of depression, somewhere inside I knew that I could learn to cope. Because it wasn't a feeling that had been taken away from me. I was lucky because it wasn't love that had been taken away from me - I had lost that to a bottle long ago and watched the last remnant of it go up in flames over the embankment of a bridge many years ago. I was lucky because I would never love the way that Bruce did, that Selina did. However else anyone might try to destroy me, no one could destroy me by destroying my love.
Helena's eyes - the pain I saw in them - were always too graphic a reminder of what the loss of love could do to a person. Many times, after she had blackmailed her way into my life, I wanted to scream at her to stop looking at me with those eyes to stop reminding me that there could be such a thing as love. And here she is again, with those same eyes - searching through me, piercing me, asking for something that I'm not sure I know how to give her. "Yes, I am. I'm broken in ways you can't see."
"Then lets just," she slides off the bed to kneel at my feet, "be broken," and kisses my hand, my knees, my stomach, "together."
It's a very simple thing - and a hardest thing. But it's also the purest thing anyone has asked of me in the longest time. And I don't have the strength to deny it. So I let her slip her arms around my unresisting body and hold her tightly to myself, pressing tight desperate kisses to her head when it rests on my chest. "I'm still nervous," I confess into the veil of her hair.
"I can tell," she replies with a small laugh. She draws back from my embrace to tuck the hair behind my ear. "I won't hurt you."
"We don't have to do anything except sleep." I decide that it's an excellent idea and nod my approval of it.
She folds the sheets back on the bed and waits for me to climb in on my side before turning off the lamp. But there is till plenty of light pouring in from the windows. And when she shucks her leather pants to slide into bed with me, she glows silver from the lamplight.
Her head on the pillow is too far from me - an entire length of elbow to hand. I draw her closer to me by the crook of her arm, and she settles herself on her side very gingerly next to me. With her head this close to my head; with the sound of her quiet breathing lightly dusting the side of my face; with the sight of her slightly parted mouth this close, suddenly, I find that I'm not quite ready for sleep.
I'm not sure who begins the movement, but before we know our lips touch in a quiet whisper, again and again; and then wetly and then deeply. I turn my upper body to meet hers just as I feel her surging off the mattress to throw her leg over mine. For the longest time, the room is filled only with the sound of wet kisses full of heat and musk and laboured breathing. And the only sensation I am aware of is the sensation of lips and lips and tongue and tongue and lips and tongue.
I marvel at how soft the skin of her cheek is and how steely the tendons in her arms are. She moves against me and I wonder how something can be so powerful and pliant at the same time. And how can she breathe and kiss so deeply at the same time? The little hisses of sound as she draws out the kiss are little feral sounds of devouring, little whines and moans of animal contentment - like some hungry creature denied its food too long. But when she breaks the kiss to nuzzle my neck, I feel the bones of my neck vibrate against her lips and realise that she isn't the only one making the sounds. In fact the only sound she's making right now is a rumbling purr like a growl at the very bottom of her throat. We break apart for a second and her eyes are already glowing with wild fire. Her arms vibrate with tension and her breathing is shallow and rapid.
Her fingers find the bottom of my tank top and curl underneath the hem of the fabric. Her request is unspoken and I raise my arms above my head, "Please." I don't know which sensation tightens my naked skin - the coolness of the air or the heat of her hungry gaze.
She runs the back of her hand down my breastbone and all the way back up again to my neck, before she bends down to kiss the under curve of my breast. I brace my hands on her shoulders as my body arches into the exquisite sensation of the circling kisses that wetly close around the tightening peak of my breast. And when she opens her mouth to engulf me completely with the flat of her tongue I can feel little pools of heat forming in my stomach and chest.
She touches me thoroughly, everywhere, with her hands, with her mouth, with her tongue. I weave my fingers through her hair, but she resists any guiding so I give up and give into the touches, dragging her lips to mine only when the sensation is too much for me to endure.
She lays her hands across my chest spanning the width of my ribcage with open palms before softly running both hands down my stomach and over my hips. Her hands follow the curve of my pelvis all the way to the tip of spine gently working their way under, cupping the roundness of the full flesh before coming to rest on the front of my thighs when she leans in to bury her nose between my legs. The sight of Helena rubbing her face against me in lustful abandon is more than I can take.
And when she hooks her fingers in the bands of my shorts asking, "May I?" it's two words too many. In a rush of impatience I reach for the band of her underwear. The rustle of actions transforms into frenzy of mutual disrobement, punctuated by hungry explorations of skin and tongue. I am lost in a flow of sensation - the softness of her hair against my arm as I kiss her lips, the surge of her shoulders when she kisses her way up my breastbone, the silken feel of her skin against my lips, the soft shuddering gasps that are torn from her throat every time I touch her.
For so long I believed that I was not capable of raging lust; that I would have to be satisfied with a steady saturation of desire; that whatever else, I could not be swept away by my body anymore. But she proves me wrong. Each inarticulate gasp and whimper torn from her throat is a spur that drives me to wrest more from her.
To give your body someone and to trust that they will not hurt you is not the easiest thing in the world. I know - I have my own share of insecurities relating to the betrayals of my body. But to give over the pleasure of your body to someone when every soft place is open to hurt - how do you do that? How could she let me do this to her? How could I want her more simply because she is willing to be this weak with me? And what does it say about me that it makes me feel infinitely powerful and alive?
I find that I really don't care about the answer when she drops her head to my shoulder and arches against me, driving her hips against mine when I find the wetness between her legs.
How do I describe this feeling? What is this like? It is like nothing else. It is this specific sensation - of holding on to her thighs, of the curve of her navel, of feeling the breath in her belly when she gasps. What does she taste like when I dip my head to press my tongue against her? Does she taste like salt, like blood, like rust, like clover leaves on a sunny day, like the juices of the sea? No, she tastes like this moment now; like the flavour of her body with me, here; like the wetness of my tongue against the wetness between her thighs. It is her fingers in my hair dragging my lips to hers; it's the feel of my bare skin against hers; of my sweat mixing with hers. It's not feathers but her breath against my neck; it's the rise of blood and body against the pull of her mouth. Yes, right here, is the bite of teeth against tendon. This is the jerk of my head as she tugs backwards, and the movement of my shoulder as her fingers grip around my shoulder. It is this slipping of skin against skin, this clumsy fall of arms and legs; the friction of tangled sheets stripped jerkily away from bare bodies; this careful arrangement of limbs. And when her hand moves down the bone of my rib, across my navel and comes to stop at the pulsing fork of my legs, it isn't heat that blushes across me in a radiating flush; and this isn't me floating in the cradle of her hand as I rock back and forth on a sea of desire - it's just my back, rising and falling on the rapidly dampening cotton sheets as I thrust myself onto her; it's simply the feel of her fingers stroking softly, then firmly, through the wetness, pushing further and deeper until the throbbing blood in my veins beats with the push and pull of her hand inside me.
And it's unbearable. Why am I doing this, when she could break me just as easily as she mends me? I want her to stop. I want her to keep going. I know it's only a trick of my broken brain but every touch is pain. "Harder,' I say to her and so she does. "No. Here," and I show her where, as I join my hand to hers where she cradles my head. I slip my arm around her and pull her into me, pull the pain a little closer to me, closer into me and ignore the stabbing ache that is the sensation of her lips on mine, her tongue in my mouth. If her every touch draws pain to the surface then I will join us seamlessly together, until she touches every part of me, and let her leach the pain all out of me. I curl my fingers tighter around her fingers and press the sharp edges of her blunt nails into my skin. I want her to break into me, I want her to score me; let her peel back the skin of me; let the pain rise up to the surface and flow out of me, let her break me. If I must break then let me break, here and now, in the heat of her presence where I have made myself - it is the best place. But nothing in me breaks, only my body's resistance to her touch; nothing rises, only my body in her arms as I curl myself around her in a rearing spasm of obliterating sensation.
This is what it is to be in my body now, to be bound to it, to feel what it feels, to see what it sees. In the dim of night her eyes are not green but this colour of wide pupil and flickering iris as they look down at me. Her heart is not a tattoo that drums, but the animal muscle that beats through her chest against my breast. And when I sink into the mattress by her side, this is my hand that brushes the scattered red hair from her forehead; and this is the feel of soft burning kisses on this cheek, and shivers of coolness on that one.
Where are the words, there are so many things I want to say to her. Where's the air to form the words? "Barbara, I..." and even those sounds are an effort as great as trying to move my body from this lassitude.
"Shh..." she says, soothing the hair on my scalp.
I rest my hand on her face and stroke her arrogant lip with my thumb. "You," I demand, in a whisper.
And her whispered reply is, "I'm here." And maybe, just maybe, this is the feel of her smile on my cheek as she rests a tired and sticky hand on my bursting chest. "Rest for a minute."
Yes, rest, I think; but there is one thing. I lift her hand from the teeming cage of my heart where she's burning an impression on my skin, and guide it down - down there where her legs have fallen open when I arranged them over mine, and run fingers wet from me through the wetness of her. And carrying our two entwined essences I raise her hand to my mouth to savour the taste of me with her here, now. And when her mouth falls open in a shut-eyed, involuntary sigh, this is the feel of my smile against her fingers.
I can feel the surface of the mattress shifting; I'm not supposed to, that's the point of my very expensive heat sensitive, foam mattress, but I do. It's only a subtle movement, but it impinges on my sleep-submerged consciousness like sunlight striking the water's surface. It's a little...annoying, I suppose. Instantly, I know it's Helena, and guilt follows the irritation.
The fact is I don't sleep very well with someone else in my bed; I have never been comfortable with the unconscious demands of a sleeping body next to mine, especially after the shooting. The entanglement and chaos of arms and legs is not conducive to the restful arrangement of my sleep. And even though the movement is very subtle, almost like breathing, I'm now aware of her through my nodding haze.
What is she doing?
Slowly, very slowly, not quite waking up, I crack my eyes to see the dark curve of her head, propped up on her elbow, at the level of my waist.
What is she doing?
Her free hand is running along the length of my leg; I cannot feel it, but I can see the silver silhouette of her hand brushing lightly back and forth, now with the pads of her fingers, now with the back of her hand; now across the diagonal curve of the quadriceps and now down to my knee. Her fingers glide so lightly on my skin that they might as well not touch me at all; it might be the blur of sleep but there is a refracting corona of light between her fingers and my skin - she's touching me so lightly.
I thank the deep, bone tired sleepiness of this night, and the dopey haze filling my mind for buffering against the emotion that fills me, because even though I cannot see her face, I can sense how she touches me, almost as if I were a thing most fragile; I would like very much to be able to feel this gentle touch stolen in the dark of dawn. And then, before my body can rebel against this rising tide of emotion, very gently she leans forward and places a ghost of a kiss on my lower belly - the absence of sensation is searing. Reverentially, she touches chaste lips to one starburst scar that glows bone white against my body, and she holds her head there as if salvation and absolution were to be found in the intensity of this doing. And as profound as the swell of emotion is, I would rather have the sensation of her lips than this feeling. Then, making sure not to touch another single portion of my body, she leans back and lets her head sink down onto the mattress and into sleep.
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. Chomsky might argue that the sentence has no meaning, but this morning there is a colourless blue thought called Helena sleeping furiously in my bed. Or maybe she's sleeping fiercely, but she's sleeping like sleep is going to be banned tomorrow. I've never really seen her sleep before; be unconscious, yes, but sleep, no.
It's ridiculous, I should just go. What's the point of sitting here staring at her when I should be on my way to school? I should just let her sleep. But lying on her stomach at the edge of the bed with her head cradled on my pillow, she looks very tousled. I decide that I like this word, tousle. It's a perfect mixture of toss of head and rustle of sheets, with just enough of a liquid curl of tongue at the end to make the thought slightly, vaguely, lascivious. In my enjoyment of the word, I have quite without realising it, drawn the sheet down to expose her back. And my other hand is running through her hair.
She comes awake with a small whimper and a shift of her shoulder. Slowly she shifts her face to expose one blue eye. "Hey," she murmurs.
Her head creeps up on the pillow a little and my fingers fall onto her nape as she rocks her head. The tiny groan she makes is almost lost to the pillow. "You really need to stop doing that," she says with a hissing inhale and tensing of shoulders.
Ah. It's been hours since she's taken her painkillers. "Sorry," I say and draw back.
I find my hand caught in her grip. She eases onto her side, tugging my hand toward her. "Don't you have to leave for work soon?" she burrs. I nod, and she soothes the sharp nip of canines on my middle finger with her tongue. I feel the purring vibration run through her teeth and up my arm as she worries the finger with her mouth. She tugs again, more firmly, and I lean into the bed. She pulls me closer; and when I blink I see how her irises are pulsating round to oval. "There's an animal inside me Barbara; it wants to do things to you," she whispers hoarsely. "Animal things."
I feel my breath catch as her grip around my arm tightens and the pressure of her teeth approaches danger. "Hel..."
"So unless you plan on staying here all day, you should stop touching me."
I gulp when I realise that the words tickling the tiny hairs on my skin are as filled with threat as they are with promise. But I'm also confused. She arches her eyebrow and rolls her eyes toward her shoulder. I follow with my eyes and go down the curve of her back - I am stroking the small of her back, and the smallest of waveforms is propagating itself through her spine in a sinuous motion. Her silent laughter when I snatch my hand away from her back releases my other hand from her lips. I can feel the heat climbing up my face even as I feel it spreading through other parts of me. "I just wanted to say good morning."
She curls around the pillow. "Good morning." And closes her eyes. Her breath floats back into the sway of sleep. Once again she looks tousled and adorable. "Go," she growls, when I do not move. "You'll be late."
What is it that changes in the world after the moment when you've fallen away from your body into someone else's? Nothing. The only thing that changes is you. If the world looks different it's because you have spun off your axis. Or maybe sometimes, it's because you've righted yourself for a moment; and in that one moment of alignment, everything around you comes into focus. But like all systems, the heart and body too are prey to entropy - I have assignments to return, faculty meetings to attend, exam syllabi to determine; and even after all these years I still haven't figured out the best way to beat back the adolescent bodies to get to the bulletin board just to pin a sign up for the drama club. The perfection of one morning bleeds away into the chaos of afternoon.
Dinah and her friend - what's her name - Gabby are leaning on the van when I get there. Dinah is gabbing away, gesturing with her hands and talking non-stop without taking a breath, and behaving so completely like a kid that I remember why I call her 'kid'. Sometimes I wonder what the hell kind of kid I'd have been between the ages of seventeen and twenty if mom hadn't been murdered. Whatever she's talking about, she's totally into it, because even over here, without trying I can hear the high-pitched excitement in her voice. Her friend, though, is a little cooler - her shoulder is set a little squarer than the kid's, her expression a little more reserved. But I can tell that she finds whatever Dinah is saying funny. She catches my eye and starts to sit up. Dinah notices and turns around.
"Beat it kid! Barbara and I've got things to talk about."
"Hello, Dinah, nice to see you. Won't you introduce me to your friend, how was your day?" Gabby hides her laugh behind her hand.
"I see you everyday. Your friend is Gabby, you never stop talking about her, like, what are you, joined at the hip? And you're going to high school; I already know what your day was like - it sucked, except for your best friend. Now beat it." Dinah's affronted huff doesn't hide Gabby's snicker. "You're still here. Why're you still here?"
"I always drive home with Barbara." I raise a sceptical eyebrow. "Umm...except, like, on Monday and Thursday and whenever I have a science lab thing. Or if I'm going to Gabby's place."
I roll my eyes and look at Gabby, "Look don't mind me, I'm rude, and I don't care if you stare at my face. Yes it's a scar," and then look at Dinah, "Why don't you go to Gabby's today. I'll come pick you up later."
"Because," cuts in Gabby before Dinah can get all indignant, "Ms. Gordon's dropping us off at the mall." I don't know if I like her for stepping up for Dinah or if I don't like her because she's just ruined my fun.
"Ms. Gordon?" I bait her. "You sure you want to step on your cool image by driving off with one of the teachers? Let me tell you, your reputation will suffer."
"I'm not worried about my reputation," she replies.
"'Course you're not - you're hanging out with the kid. That pretty much ruins it right there."
"You know, Dinah here talks a lot about you," Gabby cuts in. "You hang with her all the time, and you used let Ms. Gordon drive you when you went here. What does that say about you?"
"Ooh snap!" I look between the two of them as Dinah looks all proud of her friend and Gabby looks a little embarrassed at the effusive attention. I know why I used to hang out with Ms. Gordon. What's your story, kid? "Look, here's some cash. Take a cab, take a hike."
"Miss Gordon!" a young voice prompts me. As I duck out of the crush of eager actors dying to find out if they've been selected to perform in the theatre festival, I look up to see the harried expression of Susan Rodriguez, holding out a sheaf of papers.
"Yes, Susan?" Susan is one of my brilliant problem children. Eminently capable of doing the work but somehow unable to work in the midst of sports and debate team and science team and sports and an attitude problem and have I mentioned she's a junior national athletics champion?
Susan's expression is clear and earnest. "Umm... I know I was supposed to hand this in last week but I wasn't in class."
"Susan, you know that was your last chance. In fact, it was your extended deadline because you were at the sports meet. Everyone else handed theirs in two weeks ago." She twitches with the weight of my denial and stiffens her jaw. Across the corridor, her friends, Jeff Sweet and Sheena Grantham, look on avidly as they halt their pace.
Her expression turns in the blink of an eye. Under the sniggering gazes of her friends her earnest expression vanishes to be replaced by her veneer of don't-give-a-damn. "I did the work," she insists, thrusting the papers at me once again.
"Almost a month too late." As much as I know I will enjoy reading her work, I cannot accept it - it is patently unfair to anyone else who has handed in his or her work on time. "I've already turned in the grades."
"Fine, whatever," she exclaims and walks away. Her friends hide their laughter behind their hands. Everyone knows that I don't accept late assignments; it's pointless even to try.
But as she walks away, it's only a flash of something, a subtle expression - or maybe it's something in her bearing that reminds of another time and another student who was eminently capable of doing the work but was somehow unable to. "Ms. Rodriguez," I call out, "see me in the faculty lounge at 3:30 tomorrow. Come prepared to write an exam. Maybe we can salvage your grade."
She juts out her stubborn jaw. "What kind of exam?"
"It'll be a surprise. But if you've done the work, it shouldn't surprise you all that much."
Gilbert, the physics teacher falls into step with me as I head to the parking lot. "You're in a good mood today Gordon." I shrug and grin at him. "You better watch out. Word about that gets around and you'll lose your tough reputation." I shrug my indifference to this mythical reputation and keep moving towards the parking lot.
"Helena!" Dinah whines.
"Dinah!" I mock her tone as I see Barbara approaching. "You're still here; and I gave you money to be gone."
She reaches out to take the money from me. The slight brush of our fingertips is enough for her to grab an impression from my pre-occupied mind. I don't know what she sees but moving in double time, she snatches their backpacks off the hood of the car and starts to hustle Gabby off in the opposite direction of Barbara's arrival. "OK, that's cool. I'll call you when we're done."
Fuck! Mind snooping little jerk. At least she knows to keep her mouth shut, I think as I turn to watch Barbara head toward the car.
The slashing silhouette of a third figure, standing by the hummer, watching Dinah and Gabby scamper away, gets my heart beating a little faster. When she waves and turns her half sheepish, half rakish smile on me, my body exults as high as the leap my heart takes.
Or maybe the feeling of rightness lasts exactly as long as you let it.
You know, yes, my mother was a thief. She was the best in the business. She did things that no one after her has been able to do. Not because she had superpowers or she was meta-human or anything like that. It's because she was just that good. When you say Catwoman you're thinking of a kind of perfection. And no god fucking damn copycat bitch has the right to wear her name. I don't care if this entire city falls down around my ears, but if I have to sit here 'til kingdom come, waiting for this psycho bitch to show up again - and I know she will - I will.
My mother stole that statue that twice before she gave back. She didn't have to give it back, but she did, so I'm going to make damn sure that it remains un-stolen. Who the hell does the demented idiot think she is?
I count her one thousand one hundred and forty fourth breath since 1:17 a.m. when I officially called an end to this night's sweep of the city. Eleven breaths per minute - as steady as a quiet metronome. I start to wonder if she isn't a little obsessed by the idea of this statue as a symbolic connection with her mother and her own fluctuating grip on her meta-human abilities. But before I can work myself into good snit I realise that I'm the one sitting here counting her breaths over a period of a hundred and four minutes; perhaps I'm not really the person to talk about obsession.
I wonder if she knows that I'm still here listening. Better question - what do I say to her if she does? I may talk a good game, but I'm not really good at this talking thing. Apparently I'm not even very good at formulating coherent sentences inside my own head.
<"Huntress?"> I don't know what surprises me more - that I haven't turned off my transceiver or that she's still there listening.
"Yeah?" I scowl.
<" Say again.">
"I didn't say anything." I keep my eyes peeled in the darkness checking in with my feral vision only once every few minutes because it gives me a headache. All I see is the cold wind kicking up spirals of discarded tissues, and shredded plastic bags like whispering ghosts.
There is long pause before she speaks. <"Do you see anything?"> she asks, but I know what she's really asking me. Why are you still out there? What are you doing? Why don't you come home?
<"I've got Delphi monitoring the museum's cameras and I have alarms set up. You don't have to..."> she trails off not wanting to say anything to upset me, which upsets me even more. I guess we're fighting. Why not, we're always fighting, why should that change now?
"I don't want to miss her."
<"It's three in the morning. I don't think she's going to show tonight.">
"It's okay. I can wait one more hour." Which reminds me... "It's three in the morning, why don't you go to sleep?"
<"That's okay, I can wait one more hour with you.">
Damn it! "You don't have to watch over me."
"Selina was my friend. I hate this as much as you do."
Murky clouds scud over the almost full moon and the dead leaves flail in wind. I hear a clink of glass against concrete and aim my gaze in its direction - just an empty beer bottle left by some urban picnicker. Once I start paying to the minute sounds around me there are a hundred sounds that fall on my ear - the squeak of mice, the rustle and click of insects skittering about, voices floating up from the street, the fall of feet, more wind, the sound of my own breathing, the sound of Barbara's breathing in my earpiece... I look over my shoulder and see half of the large, round clock face staring implacably up at me. A small black figure flits across the glowing expanse - must be a bird, more likely a bat. I turn back to the skylight at the museum sitting there some like lump and hear the laughter and voices of the guards patrolling the grounds, and then I hear the slam of a patrol car door. I turn back to look at the clock tower - Barbara's sitting there by the computer. No wait...I hear rustling as she moves to be more comfortable - she's waiting in bed; with her super laptop making a giant crater on the expanse of the fluffy comforter; her glasses falling half way down her nose...
There's nothing happening here.
I sigh and the sound practically echoes around me. I blow a slow raspberry just to hear the noise, and on cue the wind kicks up the dust and I have to spit the grit out of my mouth. I sigh again. Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn, stupid! It must come from my dad, because mom sure as hell had a lot more good sense than this. You wouldn't catch her dead on a fool's errand like this.
"There's nothing happening here. I'm coming in."
I can hear her hiding the smile in her voice. "I'll leave a light on."
It's the small light that catches my attention. Just a little hint of red so small that I wouldn't even notice it except for the fact that I tried out my feral vision just for kicks, pushing the transformation just a little longer than is comfortable each time. Normally I wouldn't even see it except for the fact that every two blocks I've been turning back to look at the museum as I head home. I stand still and stare at the blackness. I press the burn in my eyes just a little to slowly push the blackness back and wait. There it is again - like a laser pointer. Laser lighting. It dances on a black surface and then disappears. Could be anything. Plenty of people carry them on their key chains to relieve the boredom. Sometimes patrol guards will carry it too. Could be some guy who can't sleep and needs to do something, anything to pass the time.
"Oracle?" No answer. "Oracle!"
<"Yes!"> comes her sleepy voice.
"Is Delphi going nuts or anything?"
<"Where are you?">
"What's the status on the sensors at the museum."
I hear the rapid clicking of keys. <"They're quiet. What's going on?">
"I'm going back."
<"What?"> she exclaims indignantly over a yawn.
I shimmy down the rungs I'm poised on and hit the street, jogging over to a less used avenue. Cars and the occasional surprised face rush past my vision as I sprint in the direction of the museum. "I think our mystery thief is at the museum."
<"Helena, I know that y..."> The interrupted sentence is punctuated by the clicking of keys. <"Uh oh.">
<"Something just tripped the sensors that you set up in the museum the other day.">
A policeman barks out at me to stop as I streak through the traffic. He tries to follow me but I lose him in under ten seconds. I push harder - jumping across cars when they're in my way and dodging the odd drunken body being thrown out of a bar. Somewhere in the distance, I hear patrol car sirens powering up. The museum alarms must have finally gone off.
"What's the ETA on the cops compared to mine."
<"You have a two minute head start. With the response time that gives you ten minutes,"> she says and then there is a long silence when all I hear is the hissing of my earpiece over the sound of my own breathing.
"Talk to me, Oracle."
<"Sorry...switching work stations.">
"Do you have any visuals?"
<"Not yet. By the way, Canary's coming out.">
"Jesus! Can she drive when she's asleep?"
<"She'll be just fine."> There's some more rapid fire clicking. <"The statue's gone.">
I roll my eyes. "No kidding! Still dressed the same?"
<"The chatter on scanner says the word is Catwoman.">
<"I tend to agree with that opinion.">
"I'm going to get her."
"No, I am. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind."
"No damn it! The sooner this bitch goes down the faster I get back to you."
<"In that case, Huntress,"> her voice dips just a little, <"Good luck.">
Well, I guess we're not fighting anymore.
There's a place inside each of us. It's the place that hangs in balance. It's not forward or backward, not past or future. It's not scared or proud. It's not frightened or happy. It's just this place inside - where everything just is; where everything that we do is perfect.
Barbara's voice is flat and businesslike. We're doing this by the book, we're going to do this together. <"The museum's systems show a breach in the east and north lines. Trip lines on the roof are still intact.">
"You think she got underground access?"
<"Probably the same way you did nine years ago.">
<"Sometimes life takes a little luck."> I skid to a stop a block from the museum. Squad cars are arriving. So I dodge around the back instead of storming the front steps. <"Roof sensors just went off.">
I cock my head to listen for the sound of an anchor hitting a brick wall. Over the sounds of sirens, radio calls, raised voices and slamming doors, I hear a faint metallic chink, and then a shadow races crosses the darkness above my head.
"She's headed west," I let Barbara know.
<"I need a marker.">
I race along on the street below, straining my hearing for the sound of soft-soled boots on a roof above me. "General direction of the Metro Hotel."
<"There's a parking garage four blocks north west of you. Pre-paid, 24 hour, electronic card access. Or she could be headed to the park - easy to lose pursuers in the cover.">
"Park I think." I can hear helicopters starting to circle in from the river. When I start to hear the steps veer away from me I close my eyes and leap up the fire escapes to get to the roof. I spot a bobbing black figure carefully ducking her way across completely oblivious to the fact that I'm onto her. From here I can see brightly lit buildings fall away into the darkness of the tree line directly in front of us.
I duck behind a water tank when a police helicopter makes a sweep with its beam. Damn! The cops would choose this day to get off their Keystone asses. I don't know what it is they think they've seen, but the pilot hovers around the tank for what seems like forever before veering off, back toward the museum.
When I arrive at the edge of the roof I realise that I've lost my quarry while playing peekaboo with the helicopter pilot. I see her step off the other roof, in a backwards motion, rappelling down to the street. Shaking my head, and cursing Falcone and his electrical fetish in every language that I know, I load the line and swing across the gap.
Inside each of us is a place where time has no meaning. Things don't happen quickly, and they don't happen slowly - they just happen and you can either touch that place or you can't.
I hear the sound of a motorcycle engine sparking to life. I reach the edge of the roof and see the bike starting to move away from me.
There's a place inside each of us that hangs in balance - not moving or still, not thinking or doing. It's a moment of just being.
I close my eyes.
I don't know if I say a prayer and, if I do, to whom - I simply hope. I let my ear find the sound of the bike and aim my body at it. And I let the momentum of my running propel me off the roof.
Falling is exactly like flying, except when you fall you know the ground is flying up to catch you.
Slowly I un-squeeze my eyes and take in the view. My breath fogs the air in punctuated puffs. One, two, three, four...the clouds float away in secret Morse messages that my body is sending out into the frozen air. I look up at the height from which I have just fallen and then at my feet. I'm on my feet. I'm standing. Actually I'm crouched, but I'm on my feet. There's a motorcycle, it's front wheel pawing the air helplessly, gasping in weak splutters on its side as the engine bleeds out of oil and gas. And I'm in one piece. And I'm holding on to one struggling copy cat burglar who is hurling the most eye raising epithets at me in a voice I know I've heard somewhere.
The simple satisfaction of landing on my own two feet cuts something loose inside. A growl starts at the back of my throat and rolls down my chest. I lift the struggling woman up in the air and tell her to shut up. She raises her hands to slash at me, but before she can complete her slashing action I lift my hand up to the side of her neck and give her a nice chop to land on the plexus of nerves. One tap and she's out. I drop her to the ground and grab the bag out of her limp hand.
Standing in the middle of the road, I slowly pull the drawstrings apart and draw the statue out. I hold the statue in my hand and stare at it. It's just a statue. It's not alive. It's not magical. It's just a carving of a cat. A weird looking cat with a mane but it's still a cat. It's made of stone, and it just sits there. It does nothing. I don't have any visions. My sight doesn't change. I don't feel any different. I almost got myself killed for this? It's, pretty yeah, but it's just a piece of stone.
In my ear, Barbara is asking me to respond. She's not yelling yet, but I can tell that she wants to. "I'm fine. I've got her."
<"There are patrol cars closing on your position. You need to move.">
"I hear them." I push the figurine into the bag, zip the strings closed and make sure to wrap them thoroughly around the woman's hands. I wouldn't want anyone to be confused about the fact that she's the thief.
By the time I get to the fountain by the bowling green, I hear the sound of van wheels squealing around a corner. And two seconds later the van comes to a skidding halt. The passenger-side window rolls down with a whirr, and Dinah leans forward with an anxious expression. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm great. How'd you find me?"
She looks at me like I'm a little dumb. I don't mind, sometimes I am. She shrugs, "GPS. That's what that little screen with the buttons is for."
Goddamn. So it is.
Inside the elevator, I don't say anything about the fact that Dinah didn't offer to take me to my apartment; and she doesn't say anything about the fact that I'm headed upstairs instead of to the guest room downstairs.
"I guess...no school for you tomorrow."
"I guess not."
"All right," I say to her when we step off the elevator, "later."
Barbara is in bed. The folded laptop is also asleep on the table next to the bed. The covers on the other side of the bed are turned down.
There is a place
In the bathroom, on the counter, is a pair of shorts, a white t-shirt, a fresh towel and two little red and black gel capsules glinting on top of the fluffy brightness of the white towel.
inside each of us
I swallow one pill and pop the other one down the sink.
I take my time with my shower, letting the lingering newness of using her shower, her soap, her towel, and her moisturiser soak in. It's all very familiar and new at the same time. I brush my teeth and take the time to use her toothpaste. I hang the towel that I have used next to the one that she has used today. When I turn off the light and come back into the bedroom, she is lying on her side of the bed but with her red hair spilling over onto the pillow next to her. I pull the covers back and crawl in. And because, wheel chair or no wheel chair, she is still taller than I am, I scoot down and rest my head on her shoulder.
that is the still centre -
It takes a minute for me to adjust to the tight feeling of bare skin on bare skin. When my muscles soften into relaxation I feel a light kiss on my hair. "You okay?"
"Mm mmh," I smile against her.
Her voice is slurry with sleep. "Want to talk about it?"
She burrows her arm under me to pull me closer and rests her fingers on my side, absently stroking back and forth.
not moving or still; not thinking or doing. It's a moment of just being - a warm, happy animal curled up to sleep - perfectly safe and perfectly content. Perfectly perfect.
I let out a sigh and close my eyes.
It's something that's taken me four years to realise properly, and it hurts to realise this. But Alien: Resurrection is a really bad movie. Not campy bad like Army of Darkness or even Killer Tomatoes, but really bad. Like Glitter bad. It's terrible; I mean awful. I'll even tell you why it's so bad - it takes itself so seriously. Sure, Aliens 3 was pretty damn bad, but this...this is bad like only a pretentious French movie aspiring to philosophy can be bad. You know why else it sucks? Because even Sigourney Weaver's acting is stunningly awful. I can't believe I actually paid 7 dollars to go see this piece of crap in the theatre, once. What was I thinking? What was I smoking? Jesus this movie is so bad.
"Touch the remote and die."
"You're not even watching."
"Yes I am."
"This movie sucks so bad, I can't believe you're watching it."
"You thought Firefly was bad."
"You thought Firefly was good?"
"Touch it and die." What do you know, the kid has a spine. I dodge the remote away from her.
"Barbara said I'm supposed to make sure you don't hurt yourself."
I raise my eyebrow at that. "Who's going to make sure you don't get hurt? That was almost three weeks ago and I don't think I'm in any danger of hurting myself."
She sniffs. "I think watching this movie for the third time qualifies as hurting yourself." Shit! The two of us actually agree on something.
"Don't you have things to do, like homework or something?"
She stands right in front of me blocking the television. "Don't you have things to do? Like go pretend to be a gargoyle or something?"
"Do you have a death wish?" I hiss at Dinah incredulously. This is insane. Start treating her like a person and she gets all sorts of ideas - like the idea that she can have the remote control whenever she wants.
Our little stand-off is interrupted by Barbara swooping down to the arm of the sofa, snatching the remote from my hand, and changing the channel to a broadcast station.
"Watch this," she says to me, shushing Dinah out of the way.
I give Dinah a glare when she jumps to obey - oh, Barbara she'll listen to, but I'm chopped liver...wait a minute, I like chopped liver...but I'm pickled herring - and she makes a small little motion with her wrist and a small sound like the sound of a cord lashing through the air. Jesus Christ, I'm going to kill her. I start to turn up the heat on the glare when I hear a small gasp from my side.
Barbara is frozen, with the remote control in her hand and her sight fixed on Dinah - uh oh! She saw that. Her face turns slowly pink as the meaning and direction of the gesture becomes apparent to her. Good - bonus for me - she's not going to say a damn thing when I strangle the kid. But a firm grip on my wrist keeps me on the sofa, and Dinah leaves the room, spluttering apologies at Barbara, her own face turning red when she realises that she can't make any more innuendo at me without implicating Barbara in it too.
"Uhh...do you think I should...just to make sure she's...?" Barbara asks, waving the remote in Dinah's general direction.
"No. She's fine."
"Maybe I should sit down and have a talk with her."
I interrupt her responsible adult monologue. "What are we watching?"
"Oh," she starts, and pushes her glasses up her nose. "The news."
...say that the suspect was apprehended by the entrance to the west meadow of Robinson Park following a botched get away attempt. The suspect was found lying a few feet from the crashed motorcycle. The identity of the suspect has come as a shock to the museum's patrons.
Katherine Jehan Sharif, a longstanding contributor to artistic causes is no stranger to controversy. In 1997, when Ms. Sharif was appointed curator of the Revell Collection, she made several contributions to museums and arts foundations in Europe and Egypt. At the time many art historians and critics pointed out that the contributions were timed to coincide with the sentencing of her estranged father, William Revell and to generate goodwill for Revell's Royal Corporation, which was suffering diminished investor confidence.
I don't know why Barbara's making me see this news report, I know all this - she's already told me. The creepy lady at the museum who wouldn't stop talking to me at the opening is the thief. I knew there was something about that smile I recognised - it was that same look-at-me-I'm-so-beautiful smile William Revell used to flash at the cameras. It's just perfect, the kid's going to go to jail right as daddy-o is coming out.
The stolen statue, an early representation of the Egyptian Cat Goddess, Bastet, originally part of the Revell Collection was sold to the private collection of James Hayes-Whittington in late 1995 and has been displayed only occasionally in museums in Europe.
I know it shouldn't make me his happy, but it does. That chick is about as cuckoo as her old man. Does maniacal thievery run in their family I wonder. Of course, I have no real right to say but...I can't help the giddy feeling that runs through me when I think about it. Or maybe I'm giddy because Barbara is sitting by me with her hand on my thigh and I can do something about it if I feel like it. And since we've already run the kid off, maybe I should do something about it. She looks absolutely wonderful sitting there with her brows furrowed in concentration, a small little smirk on her lips, and looking so in charge with the remote control in hand.
As some of you may remember the first time the statue was displayed in public, it was stolen by a mysterious thief called Catwoman, but equally mysteriously returned to the NGPD by an anonymous person.
I lean over the arm of the sofa and slide the remote out of her hand; and before she can protest, I slip into the chair with her. Just this once, I decide to forgive the spinal tap chair because it's solid enough for the two of us and Barbara doesn't really need both her hands to run it.
...Ms. Sharif, of course, impersonating Catwoman in her effort to regain possession of this statue.
Her lips are very warm when I find them. Her tongue is warm and tastes like coffee. "Hel..." she gasps. Out of sheer reflex her hands grip around my hips, her thumbs curving around the seam of my thigh - the woman has good instincts.
"Yeah?" I mumble from the crook of her neck, as I taste it.
.. one final bizarre twist to this tale of stolen antiquities and identities. Dr. Abdul Rahim Mustafa, who along with Jason Burnham of the Metropolitan Museum, engineered the museum's much publicised deal to restore many priceless historical artefacts to their rightful nations, today revealed in a press conference that during a routine evaluation for insurance and customs travel papers, he noted that the statue showed some damage.
Her hands move up my side. Oh yeah, right there...just a little higher. "Hel..." her tongue darts out to taste my lower lip, "Dinah..."
"...Will stay in her room if she knows what's good for her." I cup her hands with mine and move them up a little higher - sometimes she needs a little prompting. The deep kiss that move generates leaves me wondering how soon I can get my next round of drugs, and drag her into the bedroom with me. When she draws back with an audible inhalation, her eyes are dark with a corona of green. I lean in for more and she holds me back.
"You really need to watch this."
She blinks when I remove her glasses and grasp her by the collar. "You need to shut up."
"No, Hel..." she breathes, and pushes me back, "Listen." I fall out of Barbara's lap and watch the rest of the report from my spot on the floor.
Closer examination of the small chip near the base of the statue showed that the figure was in fact composed of a complex ceramic compound. Dr. Mustafa estimates from existing photographs of the original Revell collection, that the statue recovered from the first robbery in 1994 was probably a clever replica...
"A fake?" I yell at Barbara. The goddamn thing was a fake?
The kid's head jerks in surprise when I let out a growl of satisfaction and lick my lips as I cap the bottle of water. His wide eyes continue to watch me even when his mother turns around to look for someone. I growl again, but this time more sharply so that the sound carries a little better toward him, and his eyes go a little wide. "Mommy! Mommy!" he cries out to his mother as she spots whoever she was looking for and shushes him gently.
"Helena," Quentin calls over my shoulder as he steps over the stone bench and hands me my two hot dogs. He winks at me when I smirk at his chocolate dipped softee cone. I take a healthy bite of the first dog, demolishing a good third of in one go. He shakes his head and takes a dignified taste from his cone. "I don't know how you can eat that stuff."
"It's easy," I mumble through the bite, and prepare the next one for devouring.
"Do you know what they put in those things?"
"Sure - parts." He shakes his head like a dog shaking off water and proceeds to bite the head off the cone of ice cream. "So according to the terms of this agreement, I actually have to work for dear old dad before I can hang with the big dogs?"
"Any Wayne subsidiary, in any capacity, for at least one fiscal year."
I spread the mustard around a little more evenly and flip through more columns and see what kind of monopoly Wayne Corporation has. "So...I could pick up trash in the park for one year and the board would have to accept me as a member despite my qualifications." Quentin stares at me blankly when I mention the trash picking. "The Robinson Park Consortium," I point to a sign across the street and quote the tag line. "A private corporation in the public good. It's financed by the Wayne Foundation. That would make it a subsidiary, right?"
He licks at the chocolate layer on the ice cream thoughtfully while studying the healing wound on my face. Maybe I should get some ice cream too. Eating hot dogs is no fun when Barbara's not around to turn pale when I eat half a dozen of them at once. "Yeah... yeah, you're right. Technically you could do that. But Richard thought..."
"Richard," I can't help the slight sneer that slips into my voice when I say his name - years of habit, "doesn't know dick about what I want." Quentin schools his expression into neutrality. "Don't worry about it - Dick and I haven't got on for years. You can call it sibling rivalry. So what did Dick tell you?"
"He thought that maybe you'd like to work with one of the non-profits that Selina used to manage. An arts program, perhaps."
"Mom's charities? What happened to Wayne subsidiary?"
"Well..." he looks confused, "I thought you knew. It was in her will - she transferred all her powers of office to Bruce. All her companies except for her art dealership, which was dissolved, are now Wayne subsidiaries. You signed off on all of them."
Well, shit! I signed off on a lot of stuff back then. I just wrote my name where Barbara put the little stickies with the arrows on them. "Oh yeah..." I keep flipping through the papers Quentin's brought for me as I chew on my hot dog. Including the papers from mom's original lawyers, there's plenty of reading here to fill my time between drink orders on a Saturday shift. "Do you have the rest of them?" I ask wiping my hands on a tissue. Quentin hands me a briefcase full of folders. I stuff the file I'm reading into the case and thank Quentin.
"Well, it's been lovely having this meeting. " he stands and brushes the seat of his pants. "I must say..." the sharp beep of his wrist watch interrupts his sentence and he silences the alarm without even looking. "...this is the most interesting lunch meeting I've had in years."
"You know us Kyles, Quentin!" I slap his shoulder and wave at the dappled afternoon light. "We're unconventional."
He grimaces from the force of my slap, speaks into his cell phone and then hangs up. "Can I offer you a ride somewhere?"
"It's cool," I shake my head. "I'm headed to the museum. Thanks for the reading material."
Magically, his limo pulls up at the curb. "It's my pleasure, Helena," he grasps my shoulder as the chauffeur opens the door for him. "I think this old man would like to see a Wayne back at the helm in his lifetime."
"I'm not a Wayne," I say as I turn toward the changing light.
"I guess we'll have to wait and see."
You think you know someone. And then you realise that you never knew her. You knew only what she showed you, and that she showed different parts of herself to different people. But does that mean she was a liar? Because if she was a liar, then which part of her was true? Was she really the thief, or the mother, or the best friend, or the woman so in love with one man that she risked her life to protect him in any way she could? Which part of her was the real her?
I think about everything that she was and everything she meant to me, to Barbara, even to my emotionally benighted father. And all she came down to was this - my memories of her; stacks of papers and papers strewn over my bed and my table; a brief case full of file folders; and six boxes that I was never able to open.
I thump the rolled up newspaper article, speculating how long the very well protected, historical artefact has been a fake, on the table once more. And I suspect that Barbara and I are the only ones who know the answer to that one. I stare up at the camera in the corner and smile at the operator on the other side. It's been more than ten minutes since I ruffled the bank manager's skirts with my arrival. Not literally, of course, Barbara would kill me. I pull the shiny silver key from my breast pocket and stare at it - the metal is very cool against the backs of my fingers as I twirl it around and around.
The manager returns with a let-me-kiss-your-ass smile. "I'm so sorry to keep you waiting Ms. Kyle. We had a little trouble with our network, you know how computers can be sometimes."
Oh, she has no idea. "Not a problem."
"Your identification is all in order," she says handing me back the billfold of papers and my passport. "I'm just waiting for Ken to come back with the register and then we can sign you in on your visit. Can I offer you a drink in the meanwhile."
"Sure, Coke is fine."
She walks over to the fully stocked refrigerator and pulls out a bottle of Coke and then retrieves a crystal tumbler. "Ice?" she asks.
"You bet." I take a big gulp of the drink with a relishing sigh and realise that this is the first Coke I've had since before Christmas. The manager gives me a strange look. "First one I've had in weeks," I say after I kill the drink in three gulps.
"Don't worry," she waves at me when Ken returns with the register and plops it in front of me. "Just sign here," she says pointing to a small 'x' at the end of a column. "I have a nine year old, drinks his Coke just like that. I guess," she waves the guard away, "I can look forward to him never growing out of the habit. Thanks Ken, I'll take her in myself." She stands up. "If you'll follow me."
We take an elevator to the basement of the bank and go through two security checks of my person and my bag before arriving at the vault door that protects the deposit boxes. At the end of the sterile looking corridor she punches in an access code and keys open a door for me before leaving me there alone.
The numbers of each box are emblazoned onto the metal doors of the hatches. I search for the number discreetly engraved into my key: 420. I turn the cylindrical key in its lock and lift the door. The large box in the hatch slides out with a quiet rush of paint against metal.
I open the box and slam it shut on a stinging finger when I see what's inside. I suck my finger and open the box, staring at the contents for almost a minute. I think about what I told my father once, She lied. She was good at that. But you knew that, didn't you?
I feel the heavy weight in my hand - the coolness of stone, the smoothness of time - and then place it on the table in the room.
Mother, you beautiful liar, what did you do?
The statue glints in the light of the room. Despite the silver sheen of the fluorescent lighting, the statue seems to glow goldenly, the flecks of iron oxide like sprays of blood in the green chalcedony matrix. Her head, bisected at the forehead by a baptismal streak of bright jasper. And on her chest, the iron oxide shines like lava bubbling through as if the heated core of her heart is bursting through her skin. Standing proud and wild in this cage of concrete and metal. And even though I know that this time it's not a trick of light, I wonder if it's not a trick of my wishful imagination - but she glows with an inner power. It feels vaguely obscene to see her just sitting there on the bland grey tabletop.
But the sense of obscenity is displaced by satisfaction when the image of this idol is replaced by a negative image of another regal figure I'm familiar with. I picture the marble sheen of her body flecked through with the scars of old bloodied wounds, her eyes quickened with a deeper green than this dull mineral, her head crowned by a halo of fire, and the heated core of her heart and spirit melting only in my hands.
Whatever power this figure has, I am bound to something else. I take her and place her gently in the bag and close up the box.
Helena's list of top 10 people to kill, 2003
1. Eddie Falcone
2. The copycat bitch
Annhh, fuck it!
Let the bastards take care of themselves.
I've got better things to do
The wind whips around her, flaring the jacket over her body like a cape. But instead of looking out at the city as she has done all these years she's looking inside. The way her shaggy hair dances around her head, it looks like she is standing in the middle of a hurricane. I wonder how long she has been standing there. In fact, when did she get here; I never heard the elevator. Twenty minutes? An hour? She smiles and I smile in return, and head toward the balcony door. She shakes her head and holds out a palm in a stilling motion. She taps one finger to her ear indicating that she wants me to use the transceivers.
I furrow my brows and cock my head in confusion, and she makes an encouraging gesture with her head. The wind howls over the speakers when I turn on the comms, and I settle the headset around my head and mouth.
She undoes the one button holding her long coat closed and slowly moves her long fingers to her waist. Despite the wind, or maybe because of my imagination, I hear the snick of metal latches slipping out of their snug grooves before she slides the banded gold utility belt off her waist. "Hel...?"
Her eyes glint with a predatory glow when she smiles. She licks her lips and when she replies, my imagination coats the word with a lascivious gloss. <"Watch.">
With a shrug of her shoulders her coat hisses of her body. What is she doing? She holds her arms out and flexes her knees. The part of me that realises what she's about to do freezes in panic and anticipation; and before I can rouse myself into movement, she dives backwards into the darkness.
I wrestle the balcony door open and listen to the rush of air over her mic. I hear the even breathing. I hear the swirl of a body gathering itself into a spring, the soft impact of feet impacting solid ground and then more air singing through the speakers. A triumphant yell cutting through the night air points me in the right direction. I look at the rooftop across from the clock and see a lithe figure waving an arm at me - with that she takes off running, until I can't make out the difference between her and the darkness. My grip on the balcony railing loosens with the calming of my heart and I slump back into the chair.
I sit there long enough to lose the feeling in my fingers. I blow into my fingers to warm them up as I try to search for her. I know she's out there somewhere. I can hear her.
"You're going to start freezing in two minutes. The lazy voice almost frightens me out of my chair. 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. "I don't think I should wear your belt anymore. The whole flying rodent thing - so not me."
I reach out and pick up the belt where she left it draped over the railing. My grin matches hers. "Bats belong to the order Chiroptera, not Rodentia."
Her clear laughter comes falling from above. A second later she floats down with a whoosh of air and leans nonchalantly against the balustrade. "You say potato...I just eat it."
Her head jerks up at exactly the same time I hear the sound of a silver tray being settled against the desk. I turn slowly around to see Alfred laying my tea.
"Miss Helena, you're feeling better," he observes as he serves my sandwich.
"Yeah, sure am."
He glances over the tea service, "Perhaps a small celebration is in order - something a little stronger than tea?"
"Thanks, Alfred. Hot chocolate would be awesome. Could you burn it just a little, get that charred flavour going?"
Alfred winces a little at her request to char the chocolate just the littlest bit. "As you wish," and starts to walk away."
"Hey Alfred," she stops him.
"Yes, Miss Helena?"
"Speaking of celebration...I've got something for you."
Both Alfred and I share a surprised look as she bends to a corner of the balcony and pulls out a sizeable wooden box.
She kneels by my feet and opens the box to my inspection. "I just want to make sure Barbara approves of my selection before I give it to you," she tells him.
My eyes widen in surprise and shock when I see what is nestled in the dark fabric of the cloth. "How...?" I whisper, low enough that only she can hear.
And she replies, barely moving her lips; but I hear every word clearly over the comm. unit. <"I love her. But she was a lying bitch,"> she winks up at me before standing up and closing the box. "Here you go Alfred." Alfred opens the box cautiously and peers at the contents, his expression following the same arc as mine did. Helena's face is a contradiction of disdain and seriousness as she offers, "If you don't like it, I'm sure you can find someone else who will."
He and Helena share a long look before he nods and shuts the box. "I'm sure I can," he says with a soft smile, and leaves the room.
I study the grave expression on Helena's face as she bites her lip - it's a heart wrenching expression of unsureness. She shakes her head and then turns back.
"Are you sure?" I ask her.
She rolls her eyes and shrugs. "Who knows? I guess I had to grow up some time," she says and the looks up from her down turned eyes. "Is that okay, I did that? I don't want to mess up your operation."
I shake my head and pull her down to me. "No," I whisper over her lips, "It's not going to mess me up," and kiss her softly. In a flash she returns my kiss with a feral intensity to match her glowing eyes.
The sound of jaunty footsteps headed our way makes me pull back but her fingers woven through my hair keeps me in contact with her as she deepens the kiss.
Dinah's perky and baffled, "Hey, Barbara! What's up with Alfred h..." turns into a flustered squeal of, "Oh my God!" and then a petulant whine of embarrassment. "You guys..."
Helena draws back with a fortifying sigh. "One for the road," she whispers before springing back toward the balcony. "Come on kid!" she shouts over her shoulder as she leaps onto the balustrade, "Time to get to work," and disappears over the edge.
A fish-mouthed Dinah points one gaping finger at the empty spot on the balcony. "Did she just...?"
I toss Dinah her comm. necklace as I wheel to the Delphi. "You'd better get to the van before she decides she wants to drive tonight."
On my monitors, I see Dinah pull into the garage. "She's in," I let Huntress know.
She doesn't say anything, but I follow the leap of her GPS marker on screen from one block to the next and I know she's heard me.
"Quiet tonight," I say softly.
<"Yeah,"> she says, matching my tone.
"I think we can call it a night."
<"I'll keep an eye out just a little longer - make sure no annoying little fuckers bother me when I'm already in bed.">
"Okay. See you soon." I instinctively reach across the table to flip the switch on the comms. But the sound of her breath flowing across the silence of the static stops me. I listen to the deep resonance - it's nothing like the shallow and tortured breaths I listened to for so long in the hospital. These breaths are strong, and steady, vital and full of life; like her breath when she is in bed with me - sleeping or not sleeping.
I return to my search algorithms, and my project following some suspicious money across several transactions. Time rolls by, punctuated only by the scratch of static. I'm scanning gigs and gigs of data for a pattern to catch my eye - there is software to find the patterns but, sometimes, human intuition can make leaps of logic that a machine cannot. The work I'm doing is tedious and somewhat boring - but I let the steady sound of her breathing ground me as I turn inwards to concentrate on my code-cracking skills.
When I look up again I realise that forty-three minutes have passed since Helena and I have exchanged a word. The latter half of the night has been quiet and she, quieter still. I look up at the tracking display and see that she is standing still - in the same spot as she was a little while ago, my mind supplies. I tilt my head to change my internal perspective of the city's geography in relation to the positioning display. She is standing still at a spot four blocks north, and five blocks west of the clock tower. I know that spot. There's no way I couldn't know it. I know it from my own experience. I know it from what it stands for in this city. I know it from its absence in all conversations I ever have with Helena. And I know it as the one place I have never seen her signal.
I open the balcony door and look out onto the city. The pyramidal atrium glows fiercely, like a beacon in the night, burning away the darkness around it. I listen to the night as it revolves around the glowing tower, and even the doom-prophesying wails of the sirens fall away until there is only the sound of the river, the sleepy murmur of human voices and the sparse flow of traffic, rising and falling with the rhythms of life and the city. The city is well protected tonight; it is alive.
How many nights did I look across the skyline of this city listening exactly for this sound, waiting exactly for this feeling of a job well done? And how many nights did I look out over the head of some stone guardian to see a dark figure looking down, watching over the city under the cover of a wind-swept mantle?
There she is - a dark silhouette on top of the brilliant W emblazoned across the front of the building - looking down on the city that breathes with the rise and fall of her breath.
The quality of the shared silence across the electronic ether changes, and I can feel her regard directed toward me. Her voice is filled with a smile. <"I see you.">
I take a breath and join it to the city's, to hers. "I see you."
She is there, and I am here, and we look over the city together.
What is love?
Is love sex? Is love passion? Is love suffering? Is love a feeling, uncontainable and indefinable? Is love flowers, champagne, grand gestures, beauty, romance? Is love saving the world? Is love justice? Is love righteousness? What is love, is it distance or is it nearness? Is it silence or is it eloquence. Is it sureness or is it not knowing? Is it lust or is it affection? Is it to be understood or is it to be lonely? Love is so many things at so many times.
Love is simple but hard; it is complex yet easy. If you are wounded, love is to heal; if you are hard, love is to be weak; if you are soft, love is to be strong; if you are broken to be broken together, if you are whole to be whole together. Love is simply this - to stand with, always. To stand next to each other in the same space whether the distance is great or little. To look out on the world and know, whether you stand two feet away from each other or if you stand two thousand feet apart, you still stand together.
And above all, it is to know that you are alive. Know that you are a thing alive; that your body is a thing alive, that it sings with life, so let your heart sing that song. Love is to breathe, so breathe together.