DISCLAIMER: I don't own them – that honor belongs to Tollin/Robbins, the WB, DC Comics, and others whose names escape me. I just borrow these characters from time to time to think about life, the universe, and everything. I have made no money off this little story, nor have I gotten any bribes. To those who own these characters: thank you for letting me play in your sandbox.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Not really sure where this one came from. The title came first and the story followed (which is practically unheard of for me). It's not the strongest thing I've ever written, but if you like stories focused on Barbara sitting around thinking, you might enjoy it. As always, feedback is appreciated, but never required. Thanks for your time.
SPOILERS: let's assume everything is spoiled, especially Lady Shiva and Devil's Eyes.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

To Drive the Cold Winter Away
By ocean gazer


Barbara shivered in the cold air as she positioned her wheelchair right beside the marble grave marker, and leaned to the side to place the bouquet of yellow roses directly at the base of the stone. Then she wheeled backwards so that she could see the grave with its floral decoration. Her eyes lingered over the inscription on the headstone – the brief listing of name, dates of birth and death, and one line epitaph that said nothing of who Wade Brixton had been in life. Not, she thought, that it really mattered what was inscribed here; the legacy of the dead was in the memories they left with the people they loved.

She sighed softly, reaching up to brush a lock of hair behind her ear. The slight chill of her fingers against her head reminded her that sitting out in the cemetery for too long would not be a good idea. She managed a brief, mirthless chuckle, knowing it was all her own fault. It had been her idea to have one day a year set aside for mourning life's losses, though Helena and Dinah had both agreed with the logic. There had been no real reason for that day to be in early winter. Well, other than the anniversaries of her shooting and Selina Kyle's death; not to mention the symbolism of changing seasons and cycles of life.

Shaking her head and tucking cold fingers inside her coat sleeve, she refocused on the grave. Nearly two and a half years since his death, and the pain had subsided to a dull, occasional ache. The sensation was familiar – she felt a similar ache when she thought of Carolyn Lance or any number of other friends she'd lost over the years. What lingered in her heart more than anything was the guilt; the guilt that a good man had died because he'd wandered into the part of her life that she'd deliberately kept hidden. Despite the fact that she hadn't really loved Wade as anything more than a friend, he deserved better than an untimely death.

The thought of Carolyn brought a brief, wistful smile to her face. She'd already made most of her rounds in the cemetery – visiting the graves of Carolyn, Selina, Guy, Jesse Reese, and some friends from her Batgirl days. In the first four instances, she'd seen from the bouquets already gracing the graves that Helena had been by to pay her respects. She'd suspected as much when she'd woken up to find the other half of the bed empty. The previous evening the brunette had mentioned getting an early start and then heading up to Bludhaven University to spend some time with Dinah and Gabby. That was a good thing, as far as Barbara was concerned; she knew the younger women liked to spend the day doing life-affirming things that reminded them of the people they'd loved and lost. To her mind, that was much healthier than her own tendency to get lost in melancholy introspection.

Shivering slightly, she let her gaze wander over the yellow roses. It hadn't surprised her much that Helena had selected the same type and color for Jesse's grave. The relationship between the vigilante and detective had pretty much been the same as between her and Wade – friendship masquerading as love. It had been hard on all of them when he'd been gunned down in the line of duty a mere three months after he'd helped capture Harley Quinn.

In a twisted way, she supposed it could be considered a blessing, for the simple fact that she and Helena had gone through their grief together, rather than separately. It mimicked their shared grieving of several years before, only this time they were both grieving the same sort of loss. And both of them had come to the same realization: that their love for each other as friends was far stronger than the love they'd felt for their respective boyfriends. That, coupled with the very real sense of carpe diem that had pervaded their lives after Quinn's attack, led them into the land of romance … though it was far from the stuff of fairy tales.

At least one good thing had come out of the whole terrible mess.

Unfortunately, it didn't make Wade's death any less senseless, any less sorrowful.

She sighed softly, eyes fixed on the man's grave, on the headstone that would tell future generations nothing more than the mere fact that he had lived. It was the same with all the people buried here whose graves she was honoring. The slabs of stone and marble that marked their final resting places couldn't convey the importance of their lives, the little habits that marked them as unique people, the traits that had brought joy and light to the world. Not for the first time, she wondered why she bothered to visit the cemetery when all it did was depress her. It wasn't the physical reminder of the loss that bothered her, but rather the knowledge that unless they were famous enough to be mentioned in a history book, their legacy would end with the memories of those who knew them. Why that disturbed her so much, she had no idea.

A shiver racked her body again and she was vaguely aware of something wet on her cheek. Reflexively, she drew her hand out of her sleeve and reached up to brush at the corner of her eye, fully expecting that she'd started to cry a little while lost in thought. But her eyes were dry. She pulled her attention fully into the moment and looked up enough to realize that a gentle snow had begun to fall. And by the look of the white-grey sky above, the flakes weren't going to stop falling any time soon.

Her practical side took over. Despite wanting to sit here longer, she knew it would not be productive to catch her death of cold. It wouldn't do anything to help honor the dead, and it would make life harder for the living. She wheeled forward again, placing her hand on the cold, unfeeling headstone, caressing the marble gently with semi-numb fingertips. "May you rest in peace, Wade," she whispered.

Then, repositioning the remaining bouquet of flowers on her lap so that it wouldn't slide off, she crept past his grave. Moving cautiously on the wet ground, she turned her chair in a half-circle, until she was facing the direction of her Aunt Barbara's grave. Out of both habit and sense of familial ties, she always paid her respects there last. She looked down at the chrysanthemum blossoms overflowing from their plastic wrapper; they were her aunt's favorite flowers. Mustering up a tiny smile at the memory of the woman's beloved face –the closest thing to a true mother that Barbara had ever had – she maneuvered the wheelchair and started forward.

She didn't bother to look back.

Barbara pulled the afghan tighter around her body, warding off the brisk wind that sent snowflakes dancing. Worming one hand out from under the soft knit coverlet, she reached down to the floor beside her to pick up a rapidly cooling mug of green tea. The liquid had been boiling when she first wheeled out on the balcony, and though she hadn't been outside long, the chilly weather had made itself quite well felt. Bringing the ceramic mug to her lips, she took a cautious sip, the mild and faintly bitter taste warming her mouth.

Settling back in her chair, her hands wrapped around the mug for warmth, she stared out at the city skyline. Usually, mid-afternoon was not her time of choice for sitting and looking over the city. Either early morning or late evening were her brooding times of choice: when the rays from the rising or setting sun illuminated the buildings and the scant twinkle of lights inside the various structures hinted at the life going on all around her. But she was here and it was mid-day and she couldn't stand being cooped up in the Clocktower any longer. Especially not alone.

By her own choice, the Delphi was off-limits on this day and the Birds of Prey were off-duty. And somehow the space that seemed so comfortable on normal days seemed to be sterile and confining today. With the computer machinery shut down, an eerie silence hovered over the Clocktower, reinforcing Barbara's sense of being all alone. She could have put on some music, she supposed, or watched a movie. But neither type of entertainment fit in with her melancholy mood. She shook her head in mock exasperation as she realized just how much her life revolved around her work – both the mundane and the unconventional. Her hobbies had fallen by the wayside since she normally had no time for them … and she was no little disturbed to realize just how much she felt at loose ends without work to distract her. Not that her current mood would have allowed her to spend time playing around with a hobby, but the realization was disturbing nonetheless.

So she sat out on the balcony, tucked back under an overhang so that the snowflakes didn't fall directly on her head. And she stared out at the city – the grey light of the sky bleaching out the color, causing the grime and soot coating the building exteriors to be all the more apparent. And she shivered under her afghan as the wind danced around her.

She loved this city; she always had. But today, especially, she had to wonder whether all the sacrifices had been worth it. So many lives lost fighting to keep the ordinary citizens of New Gotham safe against super-villain dangers most of them didn't even believe in. So many lives irrevocably altered by loss of parents, loss of friends, loss of innocence. And her own loss: her useless legs and subsequent lack of freedom.

Most days, her logical mind told her that no sacrifice was too great if it protected the innocent.

Today, as on every yearly anniversary, she wasn't entirely sure she believed it.

A cold weight settled in her heart as her thoughts refocused on Wade. With the exception of her aunt, whose death had nothing to do with the world of super-villains and crime-fighters, the others whose graves she'd visited had all been victims of that world. Except for Guy and Wade, all the others had been knowing participants in that world. They still didn't deserve to die, but they had been aware of what they were getting in to. Guy – well, the blame for his death lay with the person who had engineered him. But Wade … Wade was her responsibility. She wasn't sure she'd ever get past the guilt of putting him in harm's way.

She sighed heavily, noting absently that her breath stood out in white puffs in the winter air. Placing the mug with her by-now-cold tea on the balcony floor beside her, she hugged herself tighter under the loose knit wool covering. The gesture had more to do with her mental meanderings than with the fingers of cold reaching under her clothing.

Managing a mirthless chuckle, she swept her eyes from the horizon of buildings to focus on the clouds above. She'd already been round and round on this subject with Helena, Dinah, Reese, Alfred, and even – with a carefully edited version of events – her Uncle Jim. All of them said the same thing, that there was no way she could have known what Quinn was going to do and that she had no way of knowing Wade would be in danger for showing up unannounced at the Clocktower. Dinah had added in the fact that killing him had been Quinn's handiwork, not hers. Alfred had added in the fact that bringing the man to their home in the first place had been his idea, not hers. And Helena had added in the fact that telling Quinn about their secret lives had been her doing, not Barbara's.

The sad thing was that she saw the truth of their statements and agreed – intellectually – with all three of them. But it still didn't change how she felt inside – that sick, sinking feeling that ultimately she bore the blame for his death. Granted, the guilt and the pain had lessened in intensity over the past couple years. But it hadn't entirely gone away.

She followed the path of a snowflake from cloud to balcony, watching as it disappeared into a growing pile of white. The little snowdrift captivated her for long moments, the way in which the individual flakes just meshed seamlessly with one another, changing form as they came together. She'd been so focused on the monochromatic sight, that when she looked up and saw a nebulous face floating in front of her, she assumed she'd gone snow-blind and was just seeing things.

Of course, when her vision returned to normal a few moments later, she assumed she really must be hallucinating. Given that Wade was long dead and buried, she knew he couldn't possibly be standing in front of her, frowning down at her. Especially since the only thing distinct was his face. The rest of the man was nothing but a shimmered blur.

She fisted her eyes, hoping to clear them. No such luck. She freed one of her hands from its nest inside the afghan and pinched herself on the cheek. Yep, she definitely felt that. She shook her head hard enough to make her brain feel as though it were rattling inside her skull, and then reassessed the situation. Ok, she could feel all her working body parts, so it was unlikely that she'd somehow frozen to death on the balcony. Granted, she didn't have a watch on, but her internal chronometer told her that she hadn't been outside nearly long enough for something like that to happen. To run the risk of catching a cold, yes. But not to die from exposure.

Still, the only way to explain the figure floating in front of her was to assume that something had happened to her. Despite all that she'd seen in her life, Barbara Gordon did not believe in ghosts. And even if she had, she would not believe that Wade was just hanging around Earth for no particular purpose. He'd be off with the other ghosts somewhere, doing whatever it was that ghosts did. So if he was here, she must be … well … not exactly alive.

Just as quickly as all those thoughts flitted through her brain, she dismissed them all with her inborn logical streak. She was definitely still alive, sitting on the balcony and shivering slightly in the chilly air, her cup of tea stone-cold beside her. And Wade was definitely dead, and there was no such thing as a ghost. Taking a deep breath, she started to speak, and the figure in front of her mirrored her words perfectly. "You're just a figment of my imagination."

The synchronicity amused her for a moment, but the feeling faded quickly as she realized the implications of it. Not even caring that she was talking out loud to herself, since there was no one else home to hear her, she said quietly, "So why am I manifesting my own thoughts into a visual form?"

The manifestation that wore Wade's face deepened its frown and appeared to shake its head. "You already know why. You just don't want to admit it."

Great. Just what she needed – her own thoughts scolding her as if she were a child. A shiver wracked her frame and she decided that she really wasn't in the mood to play this game, even if only with herself. And distantly she wondered whether or not she was finally losing her grip on her sanity. While she tended to dismiss a lot of psychology as somewhat tenuous, she knew there was a lot of truth in much of it … and by any psychological standpoint, the current situation seemed distinctly unhealthy. She looked up at the manifestation in front of her and muttered in her best petulant tone, "So why don't you tell me just what it is that I'm supposed to know."

Much to her surprise, a wide smile split the ghostly face in front of her. It was somewhat unnerving, not only in its implication, but in the fact that she could see right through the image to the snowflakes beyond. "Since I'm you, you already know what I know. The fact that you even conjured me up indicates logically that you're finally ready to look at the subject."

And with that unspecific remark, the manifestation wisped into thin air, leaving Barbara alone again on the balcony. Not that she hadn't been alone the entire time, but it left her once again with her thoughts safely tucked inside her own head. And it reminded her that she must be suffering some ill effects from the cold for something like this to have happened to her. Still, she made no move to wheel her chair back towards the balcony doors, remaining huddled in the blanket and staring at the snow, which was falling more heavily now.

Eyes tracing the patterns of snowflakes swirling in the wind, she abruptly realized that she knew what was going on. She knew why her brain had conjured up Wade's image, and though she still didn't want to look at it, she couldn't escape the knowledge. And contrary to what a psychologist or therapist might tell her, it had nothing to do with holding on to the past to keep from enjoying the future. Or holding on to what happened to justify not moving forward with her life … or any of one hundred and one other plausible explanations.

Plainly and simply, she was holding on to the guilt and the pain because she was a person who took the notion of being into control to new heights.

Even as the words echoed in the chamber of her mind, she knew they would sound stupid to anyone else. But that was it – one of her guilty little secrets. Her entire life had been built on the need to be in control: of herself, of her circumstances, and, often, of the people around her. Anytime that sense of control faltered, she felt insecure and small and – quite frankly – scared. The kind of fear she'd known as a tiny child when her father's taunts and blows left her world upended and unpredictable. From the moment she was old enough to use her brain logically, she had built walls around herself and taken control of everything within her power to do so. She even fought back against her father in the only way she could: when his temper started to flare she would either challenge him so that the abuse was directed solely at her because of her words or play the servile daughter and calm his anger.

She'd taken control early and never let go. Even to this day, she could count all her mistakes and her failures, keeping them close where she could remind herself of what happened when she let down her walls. People envied her discipline, but no one other than her nearest and dearest saw the slightest glimpse of what it took out of her. Of the nearest and dearest, only Helena had really seen the toll it took. And even with the woman she loved, Barbara still kept those last few walls up. The reason she still felt such a well-spring of guilt over Wade's death was because to let go of it was to admit that she had not been in control in any way during Quinn's vengeful little rampage. And that thought was more painful than her quasi-boyfriend's death. If she admitted she hadn't been in control, then she admitted to herself that her ability to protect and safeguard the people she cared for was limited.

The mere idea made her shiver violently, far more violently than any chill she'd felt from being out in the bitter wind. She wasn't sure whether her desire to protect people, to help people, was a side effect of her childhood or an innate part of her personality. Regardless, it didn't really matter – the drive was there and had been ever since she could remember. And to admit she couldn't control everything around her was to admit that there were limits to what she could do for other people, which was the basis on which she'd built her life.

She was fully aware of just how … messed up … those thoughts were. While she could play normal along with the best of them, she knew full well that she wasn't. Odd that she, who had made denial something of an art form, was so cognizant of this aspect of her personality. Then again, she was analytical enough that certain things were just obvious to her.

She bit her lip, felt a tear trickle out of the corner of her eye. Almost desperately she focused her gaze back up to the clouds, trying to distract herself and avoid a full out crying jag. She probably was overdue for one, given that she'd spent her morning in a cemetery, but she wasn't sure she had the strength to deal with losing it that completely at that precise moment in time. The irony reached up and smacked her, and she felt a chuckle burble up in her chest.

Only she could be on the verge of losing control at the mere thought of losing control.

She was pretty sure she didn't want to know what a therapist would say about that.

Thankfully, the amusement at her own twisted thought processes managed to push the threat of tears aside. And though she still didn't want to deal with the implications of what she'd realized, she knew that she wouldn't be able to avoid it. Once the specific awareness of why Wade's death was still affecting her so strongly had filtered into her conscious mind, instead of lurking in the shadows of her subconscious, she couldn't stuff it back down and pretend it didn't exist. She was good at denial, but not that good.

She studied the grey underbellies of the drifting clouds, then brought her gaze back down to the skyline of buildings stretching across the horizon. The sky was beginning to darken slightly with the shortened days of winter, and she could start to make out the twinkle of window lights through the hazy white of the sky. She wasn't entirely sure she wanted to know how long she'd been sitting outside in the cold, lost in her own thoughts and self-recriminations. Somehow, the self-punishment inherent in her choice of location made sense to her and she could understand why some religious groups saw value in self-flagellation. Not that she advocated that sort of thing, usually thinking of it as vaguely masochistic, but given where she'd spent her afternoon, she didn't really have much room to talk.

She shivered again inside her little huddle of afghan and arms. Still, she made no move to go back inside, her gaze captivated by the city she loved so dearly, the city whose protection had cost her so dearly. Sometimes she resented those sacrifices, resented that taking on the mantle of Guardian had stolen away so many pieces of her life. But she loved it … the city … her role as Batgirl … her role as Oracle. Those things were in her blood, and she could no more renounce them than she could change the color of her skin.

And yet she'd just admitted to herself that she couldn't always protect the people around her – that sometimes her sacrifices were in vain because people still got hurt, people still ended up dead.

For a moment, that thought defeated her, brought up anew all the guilt and pain surrounding Wade's death, reminded her of how she'd killed Shiva's little sister, whispered to her of the times she couldn't stop Helena or Dinah from getting hurt. The emotions coursed through her, swirling through her heart and mind in a dizzying array of colors and tastes. This was what she'd been avoiding for so long: this utter lack of control, this deep fear of failure, this feeling that she might just break under the deluge. She could hear her long-dead father's voice echoing in her head, taunting her, laughing at her, telling her how weak she was.

"I am stronger than you ever knew."

Her words were barely more than a whisper; she wasn't even sure she'd spoken aloud. But the mere act of forming the sentence in her own mind started to make some sense of the chaos swirling there. She repeated the words, speaking them slowly and clearly, letting them rise on the wind and drift where they would, as if she were setting free something inside herself.

Barbara took a deep breath, feeling as though she was regaining her somewhat tenuous grasp of herself. And with the rapidity that marked most of her mental activities, she sorted through some of the nebulous things that had been floating around the fringes of her head for the better part of the day, seeing something that she had never really processed before, though it seemed so obvious now.

Being strong and being in control was not the same thing.

She'd spent her life striving for control, berating herself for her mistakes, always wanting the answers before she'd even asked the questions, feeling as though being perfect was the only thing that could keep her loved ones safe. And yet she never could be in total control, could never be perfect, could never guarantee that bad things wouldn't happen. What she could do, however, was be strong for the people around her, so that when the inevitable bad things happened, she would be able to take action, would be able to do what was within her realm to minimize the damage.

Not that it would be as simple as that to retrain a lifetime's worth of thinking. But the ability to at least recognize what was going on in her own head meant that it was something she could work on. More specifically – and importantly – she had a feeling that she was one step closer to finally being able to let go of some of the still tender feelings surrounding Wade's death. She wasn't over her guilt, not even close. But she understood it now, and for someone as relentlessly analytical as Barbara, that knowledge would give her the ability to work her way through it. For one of the first times in her life, she could see why people went to therapy, why they poured their hearts out to a stranger who sat there and asked them questions. The feeling of recognizing something that was suspected but never clearly seen was incredible. It didn't make everything instantly okay, and in some cases, probably never would. But it was like the difference between seeing things in colors versus shades of grey.

And with that very sensory thought, her attention was pulled back to the physical world around her. The sky was growing to be a noticeably darker shade of grey and the snowflakes seemed to be falling ever faster. More windows twinkled with inner lights, hinting at the night-time city view that she'd loved even before taking up the cowl and cape.

Suddenly aware of just how cold she was, she carefully untangled her fingers from their woolen sanctuary and leaned over in her chair so that she could pick up her long-forgotten mug of green tea. She shook her head briefly as she saw that a thin skin of ice had formed on top of the liquid. And she paused for a moment to be thankful that, despite her preoccupation, she'd at least put on some warm clothes before coming out on the balcony to brood. Yes, she was shivering inside the afghan she'd thrown on to ward off the wind, and yes, she had let herself get entirely too chilled. But she wasn't overly worried about the specter of falling ill from her folly.

Casting one last look out over the snowy cityscape, she turned her chair around carefully with her stiff hands. The sacrifices she'd made were worth it. They didn't hurt any less, but they were worth it. Better that she be the one to pay the price than someone innocent of the things that went bump in the night. And while Wade hadn't been entirely aware of what he'd gotten himself into, she knew now that he'd had enough of a glimpse into her hidden life to know that it was neither safe nor secure.

Though the memories of his needless death still panged her, she resolutely tucked them into the back of her mind. She couldn't change what had happened, and she couldn't have been expected to protect him when she didn't even know he was going to show up at the Clocktower. All she could do now was move on, trusting that he was in a better place, and try to forgive herself for not being omnipotent. For someone like her, that was neither as easy as it sounded, nor as arrogant.

Wheeling over the threshold, she left the cold night behind her.

Barbara repositioned herself against the pillows cushioning her back and pulled her heavy comforter up over her legs and stomach. She fussed around for a moment, tugging on blankets and pajamas, rearranging them until all the ridges of fabric were comfortably smooth against her body. Fastidiousness might not be next to godliness, but she certainly thought it ought to be up there on the list. Reaching up, she ran her fingers through hair still slightly damp from an hour-long hot shower, smoothing the strands down on her head and tucking stray pieces behind her ears.

Stretching out her arm, she grabbed hold of the handle of the mug sitting on the nightstand beside her bed. As she brought the container closer to her mouth, the rich smell of hot cocoa drifted up to tickle her nose. She had decided to splurge on herself this evening, foregoing the easy-to-make powdered hot chocolate mix, instead heating a saucepan of milk and adding in cocoa powder and sugar. Taking a sip of the heavenly concoction, she smiled. It had been a long time since she indulged in this sort of treat.

She felt momentarily guilty for not leaving any for Helena. Then again, she didn't quite know when the younger woman would be home and figured that she could just make a fresh batch if needed, rather than trying to reheat the beverage after it had gone cold. Not that she had any real interest in getting out of bed for that reason, now that she was comfortably settled in. For someone with her nocturnal proclivities, it felt no little bit odd to be propped up in bed – in pajamas no less! – at such an early hour. But after taking a nice, long hot shower and filling her stomach with grilled cheese sandwiches, she had started to feel drowsy and had decided to just curl up in bed and read for a while. On any other night, she might have ignored that little voice, since self-care had never been high on her list of priorities. Tonight, however, she listened. For one thing, she'd already pushed herself entirely too far on the self-neglect front already. And for another thing, as she'd relentlessly preached to various students, a person had to care for herself before she could care for others.

Barbara had always been a prime example of "do as I say, not as I do."

Rolling her eyes at herself for the direction in which her thoughts had wandered, she deliberately took another sip of the cocoa, focusing her attention on the smooth, rich taste. It wasn't nearly as sweet as a commercial mix would have been; she tended to add only enough sugar to take away the bitter edge of the unsweetened chocolate. It probably was a good thing that Helena wasn't here to share the drink batch with her, since the younger woman probably would have spit the beverage everywhere and complained bitterly that it needed more sugar.

The mental image made her chuckle and she carefully set the mug back on the nightstand, not wanting to spill it in a moment of inattention. She'd finally managed to get halfway warm; she didn't want to risk spilling cocoa on herself and having to crawl out of her cozy nest of blankets to clean up and change clothes.

As if the mere thought of warmth were a prompt, she felt a slight shiver move down between her shoulder blades. While the Clocktower had a very efficient heating system, she tended to keep the heat turned way down in her bedroom. Ever since she was a child, she'd slept better in a cold room than in a warm one. And once Helena had moved in and begun sharing her bed, she'd realized that the lack of heat in the room was a necessity. One of the interesting effects of the younger woman's meta-human physiology was that her core temperature was a few degrees higher than most people's. So at times when everyone else in a room was shivering, Helena tended to not even notice that it was cold, fueled as she was by her inner warmth. Had they tried to sleep in a room with the heat turned up, the younger woman would have been uncomfortably hot. And given how her bedmate radiated heat, Barbara usually was more than warm enough just lying next to the woman.

She pulled the comforter up higher on her body, then decided that she didn't have the energy to sit there and hold the heavy fabric up with her hand. So she used her hands to help maneuver herself on the bed until she was lying down, head propped up on the pile of pillows and the comforter tucked around her shoulders. The mere act of lying down seemed to accent her tiredness and she yawned loudly, not bothering to bring a hand up to her mouth to cover it.

She practically jumped into a sitting position once again when she heard a soft chuckle from the doorway. Given that earlier she'd manifested a vision of Wade, she wasn't entirely sure at first whether or not she was imagining things when her gaze landed on Helena, the lithe form lounging against the doorframe with an insulated Starbucks cup in hand. Barbara fought the urge to rub her eyes and take a harder look at the figure. Since, unlike earlier, this figure was completely solid, she figured it was probably real. Not to mention the fact that she doubted her imagination would come up with a cup of coffee in a manifestation.

The younger woman must have read either her body language or something in her face. She watched as Helena straightened her posture, a look of worry crossing gamine features. "I'm sorry, Barbara … I didn't mean to startle you. Or … um … is it something else … do you need space?"

She pushed up on one hand, a denial immediately on her lips. "No, I'm …" Breaking off, she realized that she wasn't sure if the remainder of that sentence was actually true or not. She was better than she had been, but she wasn't quite sure that "fine" was the appropriate word. While she could have easily mouthed the words to anyone else, she couldn't do that to her lover, to the one person who knew her most intimately and who loved her, faults and all.

Realizing that Helena was standing shock still in the doorway, watching her intently, she managed to come up with a soft laugh, hoping to put the younger woman at ease. "You just startled me. I didn't hear you come in." She remained propped up on one hand and snaked the other one out from underneath the covers, gesturing for the other woman to come and join her. "Did you and Dinah have a … not too bad day?" She stumbled over the words; given the whole theme of the day, there didn't seem to be an adequate vocabulary to ask about how it had gone. The English teacher in her was once again dismayed to realize just how limiting the English language could be.

It caught her a bit by surprise when Helena laughed, even as the woman walked over to set her paper cup down on the nightstand next to the mug of cocoa. Not quite sure how to read the younger woman's reaction, she nonetheless managed a smile upon seeing her pick up the mug, take a hearty sip of the cocoa, and crinkle her face in mock disgust. She started to slide over to make room for Helena to sit next to her, but the younger woman put a hand on her shoulder, effectively stilling her, then climbed over her to snuggle up behind.

She felt her body being pulled back into Helena's waiting arms, even as the other woman spoke. "Sorry for laughing, Barbara. It's just that … well … I wouldn't say we had a good day … but it was not too bad. It was … positive … lots of sharing over pizza and beer."

She couldn't resist turning her head around to fix the woman with a pointed glare. Yes, Dinah and Gabby were college students and she knew full well that college students drank. But since the two blondes were still underage, she preferred not to encourage illegal activity.

It was obvious that Helena understood the reason for her arch look, because a teasing note crept into the other woman's tone. "It was non-alcoholic beer. Well, mine was the real thing, but they drank the fake stuff. Y'know, I think Gabby is even more of a goody-two-shoes than the kid."

Barbara chuckled softly as she reached up and smoothed a lock of dark hair off Helena's forehead. Then she settled back into the woman's arms, no longer looking up at her. She lay back listening as the brunette continued, "Seriously though … it was good for both of us … and I think it was good for Dinah to have her girlfriend sharing in the ritual. We talked for a while, then went out and wandered through some museums and did some of the artsy stuff that my mom liked. Then we did some shopping, since that's one thing she remembered her mom liking."

There was a noticeable pause and Barbara didn't bother to end the silence. Her thoughts were focused on her two younger partners, and on how well they'd learned to cope with the adversity that had touched their lives way too young. She felt a kiss ghost against her ear and wasn't too surprised when a soft question followed. "Are you okay?"

She sighed softly, weighing the question before coming up with a response. There was more than one question layered in the three simple words and she took a moment to be grateful that Helena knew her well enough to allow her some latitude in answering. She snuggled a little more deeply into the strong arms holding her close. "It wasn't the easiest day. Had to face some things about myself … some habits and demons that tend to come up when I think about Wade's death." She felt the embrace tighten, as though the younger woman wanted to protect her, to keep her from having to think about these things. She felt some of the lingering chill in her heart fade with the gesture. Her words were barely above a whisper, though she knew they'd be plenty loud to Helena's heightened hearing. "I am okay. Just don't always like looking too deeply into my psyche."

She felt a kiss pressed against the top of her head, heard the soft declaration of love that followed it. And not for the first time she felt a sense of amazement that the younger woman did love her – had seen her at her worst and still hadn't run away. She wasn't sure what she'd done in this life to deserve such a gift, but she was infinitely grateful for it. Twining her fingers with one of Helena's hands, she squeezed lightly. "I love you too, Helena. More than I know how to tell you."

Another kiss graced the top of her head and she felt the shift behind her as Helena lay down, pulling her back down as well. The strong arms stayed wrapped around her and Barbara felt the limber body pressed tightly against her back. With a soft sigh, she let herself lean into the woman behind her, let herself be held and snuggled. She moved her head on the pillow, finding a comfortable spot, then spoke quietly. "I'm glad you had a decent day, Helena. And … thank you … for caring." She paused for a moment, hearing the soft murmurs behind her that told her the last sentiment was mutual. It wasn't too surprising, she supposed, since neither of them had had particularly supportive or giving partners in the past. Then, she spoke quietly again, asking for something that she rarely allowed herself, but something that she needed today. "Will you please stay here with me … hold me while I fall asleep?"

She felt the arms around her tighten fractionally, heard the soft voice against her ear. "Anytime, Barbara. You don't always have to be the strong one … to be the one taking care of everyone else." She wanted to respond to Helena's reassurance, but her eyelids were starting to droop and she just wasn't in the mood for anymore deep conversations – mental or spoken. There would be time enough for that later. Instead, she relaxed into the embrace – closing her eyes and listening to the soft cadence of the younger woman's breathing, letting the familiar sound soothe her towards sleep.

Safely wrapped in her lover's arms, she finally felt completely warm – both in body and in heart.

The End

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