DISCLAIMER: I do not own the characters. They are the property of DC comics and the WB network. I'm just borrowing them for a short period of time.
MUSIC DISCLAIMER: Song lyrics don't belong to me either; no profit gained or infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Another beer, another crummy tip.
Helena wondered if the bartenders at yuppie martini bars pulled in better tips than she did. Even if they didn't, she thought that the chance to mix up something interesting once in a while had to be a perk. Of course, on the other hand, she had to offset that if the place had some kind of piano player tinkling Burt Bacharach as background for the whole shift.
Nodding to acknowledge a hand raised for a refill, she allowed that at this particular moment -- with Sting crooning the same damned song for the fourth time in the last hour -- maybe some innocuous muzak wouldn't be such a bad thing. After all, she'd never had elevator music stick in her head, but if those two moony-eyed coeds in the corner pumped money in the jukebox and hit Number Fifty-seven one more time, she didn't think she'd ever get that particular song out of her brain.
The brunette checked her watch and did some quick calculations. It was 8:30; only thirty minutes 'til her shift ended and she could hit the rooftops -- and, hopefully, hit some perps, too. So, if she fed the jukebox for three or four songs, that should see her through. Cheered at the prospect, she fished into her tip jar -- all those quarters were finally coming in handy for something other than laundry -- and headed across the room to peruse the play list.
Okay, "Werewolves of London" was a no-brainer. Didn't know why, but for some reason she was in the mood for Dionne Warwick; so, the young woman spent a minute considering which would be better: "Walk on By" or "I Say a Little Prayer"? Then, maybe something -- anything -- by Annie Lennox.
A buzzing from her pocket distracted the young woman from her mental debate about whether Carly Simon's "I Haven't Got Time For the Pain" would be too cliched. Digging out her cell, she stepped into the alcove by the restrooms, where the noise was only a low din, and checked the Caller ID.
The brunette was distracted for a moment when she saw the love bugs heading to the juke again.
No - no - no...
She plugged a finger in one ear and tried to focus on the voice in her other ear.
"Helena? I'm glad I caught you before you left work. I mean, you are still at work, right?"
Helena rolled her eyes but kept it civil.
"Just barely. What's up?"
"Uhm, it's Barbara."
The young woman snapped to attention, all traces of flippancy instantly evaporating.
"She's, well, kind of -- well, not upset or anything. 'Cuz you know she doesn't get upset, right? But--"
The brunette breathed slowly, seeking patience and wondering if she had any Excedrin upstairs. Maybe she could run up and get it, and -- by the time it kicked in -- Dinah might have gotten to the point.
"Uhm, anyway, I think something might have happened on her date or something. And, I thought that, uh, well, I'm supposed to go to Gabby's tonight so we can get to school early for the Quiz Bowl trip, and, well..."
Helena silently waited through the pause until the teen finished in a rush.
"I thought that maybe you should come over before sweeps?"
The dark woman couldn't be certain, but she had a sinking feeling about what could have happened -- or not happened -- on the redhead's date the night before. She clenched the tiny phone tightly and kept her reply to the point.
"I'll be there."
Blowing off the remaining twenty minutes of her shift without a single twinge of conscience, the young woman grabbed her duster from her apartment and was out on the roof in ninety seconds. For a few moments, she stood quietly and stared at the clock tower across the skyline. She was so positive of the redhead's location and actions -- hell, even her posture -- that she could almost see her working at the Delphi with determined, fixed concentration, every muscle rigid and tense.
The dark woman blew out a breath. It was six minutes over there at top speed, but she didn't want to come roaring in like gangbusters or anything. If she just made a brief stop on her way and could force herself to keep her pace down to a slow jog...
Helena landed on the balcony with a noisy thump at 9:20.
There had been a bit of a line at the bodega.
She unlooped the handles of the plastic grocery bag from her left wrist and raised blue eyes to Orion. Her wish was the same as always: for courage, for Barbara's happiness. Smiling without any humor, the young woman decided not to consider the similarities to a night about a month ago which she knew had somehow gotten this whole ball of... wax rolling. She figured that, as long as "Starship Troopers" wasn't on again, it'd be okay.
Helena breezed in from the balcony with a dramatic swirl of her duster. She noticed that, despite the older woman's seeming concentration on the screen in front of her, Barbara hadn't been startled by her entrance.
Yep. Red was working hard, but her head -- and heart -- wasn't in it this evening.
"Helena. I thought you'd be checking in?"
Posture even more perfect than usual -- although Helena wasn't sure how that was possible -- the older woman turned slightly to offer a puzzled smile. The brunette bounced into the kitchen to tuck her groceries away and called out a cheerful reply.
"Nah. I thought I'd grab a snack, maybe get your take on the sleuthing that the Kid and I did last night."
She emerged from the kitchen a moment later with a slice of cold meatloaf in one hand, thankful as always that Alfred kept the refrigerator stocked for them. Hopping onto the Delphi platform, the young woman didn't miss the slightly queasy look being directed at her chosen sustenance.
"It simply escapes me how you can eat meatloaf like that."
Dark brows furrowed briefly before Helena brought the item in question to her mouth and took another big bite. Her response was a bit muffled.
"Well, yeah. I guess ketchup would really punch it up, but -- "
She swallowed and grinned broadly.
"-- then I'd need a plate and fork, which would sort of take this out of snack territory, wouldn't it?"
That got her a smile, but no laugh. With a sinking feeling, Helena decided that something pretty bad must have gone down the night before. Nothing to do but soldier on.
The brunette stuffed the final bite of meatloaf into her mouth and then planted her hindquarters on a semi-clear section of the computer table. She didn't miss the way that emerald eyes carefully observed her movements when she licked the final traces of her snack from her fingers.
"So, uh, did the K -- Dinah tell you about our recon job last night?"
The young woman was pretty certain that her partner for the previous evening's B&E job wouldn't have been able to keep quiet about their activities, thus providing her level-headed older partner time to digest what they'd done and, hopefully, cool off. But, maybe a little redheaded temper wouldn't be such a bad thing either.
The older woman chuckled softly.
"Yes, she did, Helena. And, sometimes I just don't know what you're thinking, pulling a job like this without any backup."
The brunette ducked her head apologetically and waited. The older woman exhaled and looked over her glasses sternly.
"Still, no harm done."
"Yeah, and no real good done either, I guess," Helena admitted sulkily. She held back her smile when she saw the older woman's gaze soften.
"I'm not sure I'd completely agree. If nothing else, you found out why Mr. Martin had so many, er, helpers with him the night that you first encountered him."
The young woman threw back her head and laughed.
"Sure, I can see why he'd want help to suspend all of the Voter Registration office's computers from the ceiling with bungee cords. I just don't get why he thought that asking a bunch of guys from a bar to come along was the best way to go."
Laughing softly, the redhead nodded her agreement before sobering again.
"It is a shame that Rocko never had any face-to-face contact with the person who's behind all of this."
Helena scrunched up a corner of her mouth in wry acknowledgement.
"I guess, when he got a call out of the blue offering to wipe out his student loans, our guy was just too blown away to care about who was, uh, retaining his services."
"Indeed," the redhead murmured, turning back to the display screen in front of her.
Refusing to be ignored, the younger woman slid from the desktop, strolled around, and bent down to peer over her partner's shoulder.
"Making any headway on that packet thing?"
The redhead tensed slightly, raising her fingers a few millimeters from her keyboard.
"I've had a decryption algorithm hammering against it most of this afternoon and this evening, but I'm not sure it's making any real dent in the wrapper. It's quite madde--"
The older woman stuttered uncharacteristically when Helena brought her hands to those tense shoulders and began to knead firmly. She quickly recovered.
"--maddening. The structure of the wrapper seems so... familiar somehow, but I'm just not making the connection."
Behind her partner, stroking her thumbs against the vertebrae in her neck, the younger woman winced at the frustration and self-recrimination in the low voice. She had a pretty strong suspicion that it wasn't all directed at the other woman's data puzzle. Since there was no time like the present, she decided to tap-dance around the elephant in the room.
"You'll get it, Red. You probably just need to not think so hard about it for a while. In fact,"
She bent again to extend her kneading strokes down the length of strong arms whose muscles were tightly flexed.
"...you're too damned tense to think about anything right now."
Straightening again, she continued to work at the tight trapezius muscles under her hands and sucked in a fortifying breath.
"So, uh, bad date last night?"
Well, fuck. There went all of her un-tensing work down the drain.
Other than the tension which suddenly flooded through her partner's frame, there was no response to the question for a long thirty seconds or so. Finally, the redhead exhaled impatiently and reached up to remove her glasses, tossing them onto the desk.
"No, I wouldn't call it that, Hel."
Blue eyes blinked.
Allll-right. Maybe she -- and Dinah -- had misread the situation.
Helena kept her tone carefully neutral.
"What would you call it, Ba--"
"An unmitigated disaster."
The older woman suddenly pushed back from the desk, Helena's extraordinary reflexes the only thing keeping her toes from harm's way. Close call to her feet aside, as she watched her friend move down the ramp to the living area, the younger woman felt on more solid footing with Barbara's admission out in the open. She hopped lightly from the platform.
"You wanna tal--"
The word was sharp, and Helena pursed her lips in reflex. The redhead seemingly recognized that she'd been a bit terse and looked over her shoulder apologetically.
"I'm sorry, Helena. That was uncalled for. I simply don't want to... think about it right now."
The young woman stepped to the other woman's side, moving with her -- subtly guiding her -- toward the couch. Once there, she smiled winningly, snagged the remote, and began clicking through channels almost too rapidly to follow.
"Well then, Ms. Gordon, I'm your girl. If not thinking is what you're up for, let me help you kill a few brain cells."
For a split-second, Helena was afraid that her partner was going to refuse. Ignoring her own feelings of panic about what she'd do in that case, she plopped herself on the couch, careful to leave room for the other woman, and continued to talk.
"Hey, 'She Devil' is just starting. That's a pretty good 'Romantic Partners Are Scum' movie."
From the corner of her eye, the brunette observed a tiny lessening in the older woman's tension. She finally relaxed marginally herself when Barbara set the brake on her chair and transferred herself to the couch with a chuckle.
"You are not comparing me to Roseanne, are you, Helena?"
Batting her eyes innocently, Helena fixed her friend with a bright grin.
"Only if I can be Linda Hunt for you, Red."
This time, the redhead's laugh sounded a bit more full.
"I think you might not be tall enough, Sweetie."
Helena practiced her Not-impressed expression as she stood and headed to the kitchen.
"Fuh-nee, Barbara. Just for that, I may not share any of my fudge ripple ice cream..."
Seventy minutes later, as Ruth Patchette's lying, cheating ex-husband received yet another well-deserved comeuppance, Helena accepted a second empty bowl from her companion and stretched over to set it on the coffee table. Shifting ever-so-slightly, she reached out and placed her hand on the other woman's and spoke quietly.
"Can we talk about it now, Babs? What'd she do?"
The redhead released a long breath. Helena felt her heart squeeze tightly at the pain in those beautiful green eyes.
"Nothing, Helena. Sabina was wonderful and sweet. It was... The problem was... is with me."
Barbara's soft laugh, the young woman decided, didn't contain much humor.
"I'm beginning to suspect that I'm simply not cut out for...having a little fun."
After the briefest of hesitations, the older woman shifted, the unnecessary motion telegraphing her discomfort. Her voice was bitter.
"I'm... It just doesn't..."
Helena waited, motionless, as the strong, passionate woman next to her drew in a deep breath and spoke without inflection.
"I don't work, Hel. I think I just don't have it in me, and the trying and the failing is just too much..."
Green eyes shimmered behind tears that the older woman would not allow to fall. Gently clasping Barbara's other hand in hers, massaging the palms of both tenderly with her thumbs, the brunette said what she had to: she spoke the truth.
"Bullshit, Barbara. Just look at--"
She stumbled over the words and hoped that her companion wouldn't notice.
"--how things are with us."
Helena remained still for a long sixty seconds under the redhead's searching gaze.
"True. I don't know why you..."
The words were thoughtful, and the younger woman had to clench her teeth against the urge to scream. She wished, desperately, that she could be alone for a minute, just so that she could bang her head against a wall.
She loved Barbara to distraction, but sometimes -- hell, most of the time -- her digitally obsessed friend had the emotional compass of the Titanic in a thick fog.
Almost smiling at that thought, the dark woman decided to try for a logical rebuttal. Her partner usually appreciated logic.
"Hey, Red. Maybe the stars weren't in the right alignment last night or something, huh? You really seem to like this woman, so,"
She swallowed around the lump in her throat and softly squeezed the hands that were still in hers.
"...don't give up just yet 'cuz the karma or kismet was off a little."
Helena inhaled sharply when the redhead raised her hand and pressed a lingering kiss to her fingers. She hoped that the sound hadn't been as loud as it had seemed to her own ears.
"You really are too good to me. I don't know what I'd do without you, Sweetheart."
Ducking her head, attempting to hide the raw emotion in her eyes, the young woman ground out the truth.
"I hope you never have to find out, Barbara."
Helena couldn't help but notice that the other woman had yet to lower their joined hands. Instead, Barbara rested her mouth lightly against their tangled fingers.
"Nevertheless, Hel, if it is a problem with the planets and stars, I suspect that Sabina simply may not be in the stars for me."
The redhead sighed. It sounded like surrender... or defeat.
"It's simply possible that the stars aren't in the stars for me, Hel."
As unobtrusively as possible, the brunette coaxed their hands back down to the relative safety of the other woman's thighs. At the moment, anything seemed better than having the redhead's soft lips against her fingers and her warm breath ghosting her skin. She chewed at her lip for a moment, trying to find her way through the nuances of the conversation.
"What do you want, Barbara?"
Impossibly saddened by the way green eyes shuttered and squeezed shut, she waited. The ragged words that whispered across the small space between them tore at her heart.
"Everything that... I... You don't..."
The red head shook once, briskly, and the older woman opened her eyes. Still, she averted her face.
"It's not important. In fact,"
Helena couldn't mistake the effort that her friend put into lightening her words.
"I think that I may just want another bowl of ice cream."
Out of pure reflex, the young woman reached for the bowls on the table and started to stand. Something -- it might have been a soft gasp; it might have been the way she noticed the other woman's eyes following her; it might have been the way the redhead's expression hardened for a fleeting second. Whatever it was, something stopped her, and she turned back to the other woman.
In that instant, she knew -- she knew -- what the redhead would never allow herself to ask at this moment. She could see it in the other woman's face; she could hear it in her heartbeat; she could smell it on her skin.
Blue eyes widened helplessly, and the brunette wondered if she would cry.
At that moment, Helena also knew something else: namely that she wouldn't -- couldn't -- be with Barbara like it was nothing. She'd never been able to lie to the other woman, and she couldn't start now with her body.
Or her heart.
Smiling softly, she cracked open the tight lid she'd tried to put on her feelings, and leaned in to rest her forehead against the other woman's. Fascinated, she watched the green eyes dilate, becoming dark orbs surrounded by thin bands of color.
"Ice cream, huh?," she growled softly, "Is that really what you want right now?"
The younger woman easily heard Barbara's heart rate accelerating. The redhead's words were ragged and halting.
"I don't want -- I don't want to use this as..."
Helena swallowed again, then licked her lips. She pulled back a few inches and studied the other woman's face, finding so many emotions present: unhappiness and hope; nervousness and resolve; love and sorrow.
And, that other one: want.
Something -- a phrase, a hint of melody from earlier -- scratched at the young woman's mind as she shifted to rest on her knees, facing the older woman, legs folded under her on the couch. She placed her hands lightly on her thighs.
You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in the fields of gold
"Ask me what I want, Red."
The older woman's expression shifted unmistakably. Helena clenched her jaw against something that burned in her throat and concentrated on not just what she was doing, but why she was doing it.
So she took her love
For to gaze awhile
Upon the fields of barley
In his arms she fell as her hair came down
Among the fields of gold
"What do you want, Helena?"
Rising on her knees, the dark woman leaned in and brushed her mouth to the other woman's ear. The words wouldn't come, held back by her own sharp teeth biting at her lower lip, by her lungs' refusal to draw in air.
Will you stay with me, will you be my love
Among the fields of barley
We'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we lie in the fields of gold
Helena blinked rapidly and drew back again. She fixed blue eyes on green and then lowered her head to watch as she raised her hands from her thighs. She knew by the other woman's soft hiss that Barbara had followed her gaze. Deliberately, she brought her eyes back up -- even as she began to unfasten the buttons at the waistband of her pants -- so that she could see the woman she was offering herself to.
See the west wind move like a lover so
Upon the fields of barley
Feel her body rise when you kiss her mouth
Among the fields of gold
It seemed like a lifetime had passed, but Barbara's question still hung in the air for the young woman to answer.
The brunette finally found the words -- and the will to speak them.
"I want you to fuck me, Barbara."
The older woman inhaled roughly. When she spoke, her voice was tight, almost pained.
In reply, the young woman offered a smile full of promise and reached for the other woman's hand, bringing it to the half-unbuttoned fly of her leather pants. She stretched forward and tenderly brushed her lover's mouth with hers.
I never made promises lightly
And there have been some that I've broken
But I swear in the days still left
We'll walk in the fields of gold
When she felt Barbara brushing her hands aside to take over, the brunette dropped her head to the redhead's strong shoulder. When the other woman touched her flesh, blue eyes squeezed shut, and Helena fought with everything she had to silence her voice.
Moving in rhythm with the hands that had begun to possess her, she managed to cut off the sound rising from her chest. However, Helena simply could not stop her lips from moving over and over against the redhead's neck, mouthing the only words she knew.
'I love you, Barbara.'
"Helena Kyle, I love you."
Somehow, when she heard Barbara's throaty declaration, the young woman managed to avoid spewing the mouthful of soda she'd just chugged. She swallowed and carefully set her drink down before tilting her head to one side and flashing an uncertain smile.
"I love you, too, Red."
Suspecting that -- as with most of her friend's emotional revelations -- there was something more behind the words, she quirked an eyebrow and spoke lightly.
"Uhm, so other than my fantastic fashion sense and sparkling wit, what's got you noticing my lovability today?"
The redhead half turned from her station at the Delphi and laughed happily.
"I've located the source of the television station hacks uplink, and I've almost cracked the data wrapper algorithm."
Yeah. Helena had figured.
The brunette reclaimed the liter bottle of Mountain Dew she'd picked up on her way in from sweeps -- after last night, she needed as much caffeine as she could get -- and sauntered up to the other woman, grinning wolfishly.
"Broke through that little mental block, didja?"
The older woman offered a decidedly arch look -- and the expected blush -- but couldn't hold the expression.
"I don't think that was behind it, Sweetheart..."
Green eyes blinked behind those sexy glasses and the blush deepened as a wicked -- and very self-satisfied -- smile graced those lush lips.
"Well, perhaps that was part of it, Hel."
Helena smirked when the redhead turned cheerfully back to her primary keyboard and toggled through several screens.
God, she loved it when she could tease her partner into a playful mood. Hell, really just about any mood that wasn't filled with self-doubt.
The young woman stepped behind her, preparing to be dazzled yet again by her mentor's brilliance.
"It was something you said last night, Helena -- "
"Hmmm," the brunette purred into the other woman's ear, "Which thing: 'Harder' or 'Don't stop'?"
That question earned a none-too-convincing pained sigh, and the blush raced around to the back of the older woman's neck.
"In fact, it was..."
Barbara paused, obviously waiting to see if her younger partner had finished.
"...about Rocko's being called out of the blue about his student loans."
Dark eyebrows wrinkled in puzzlement.
"I don't get it. What about...?"
"Oh, that Rocko wasn't called out of the blue, right?"
The older woman nodded, looking pleased that her protege had picked up on her line of reasoning so quickly.
"Exactly, Hel. Somebody had to know that Mr. Martin has a mountain of student debt."
"Okaaay. And...?", the young woman prompted, knowing how much the redhead enjoyed these Sherlock Holmes-ian explanations.
"And, Helena, since most people with student loans aren't immediately amenable towards performing criminal mischief to reduce their debts, it seemed possible that whoever contacted Rocko also knew that the man had a criminal record."
The brunette bobbed her head up and down in agreement, aware that the other woman would probably detect the motion in the reflection of her monitor. She clearly saw the reflection of white teeth as the redhead smiled and continued.
"With that information, it was then a simple matter to cross-reference recent hacks into the National Student Loan database with searches for people with criminal records in New Gotham."
The young woman rolled her eyes indulgently at that statement, careful to raise her soda bottle for a swig in order to cover the gesture.
"I pinned down the origin of the searches earlier today."
The redhead twisted her head to catch her partner's eyes.
"Oddly, both came from an Internet Cafe only a few blocks from the Dark Horse, Helena. That turns out to be the location for the satellite uplink transmissions as well."
The young woman heard the hint of a question in Barbara's words but could only offer a faintly puzzled half-smile as the other woman turned back to her monitor and gestured at some lovely patterns on the screen.
"As you can see," she split the screen to display another pretty pattern, "the digital transmissions for the searches are almost identical to the packet wrappers for the TV hack. Fortunately..."
The cyber genius brought up another display, and this one Helena could clearly identify as a graph of some sort.
"...they differ just enough -- almost as if the early searches were using a prototype of the digital encoding wrapper -- that I've narrowed down the structure of the later wrapper. It's an incredibly tight dodecahedron structure."
She clicked to an image of something that looked like a molecule or a cut diamond or something.
"Very secure and extremely efficient for packaging and transmitting large quantities untraceable data."
Helena finally offered a comment.
"Pretty elegant, huh?"
"Indeed it is. Somebody is very, very good at what they do."
Detecting both admiration for the structure of the wrapper thing and a small amount of pride about cracking it in the older woman's voice, the brunette couldn't keep a fond smile from creeping across her face. She waited, knowing that there was more to come.
"While I don't think that our prankster would be foolish enough to transmit from the same location for the next attack, having the packet structure pinned down allows me to place a digital filter throughout all of New Gotham's net hubs. Meaning..."
Helena grinned more broadly and moved to the older woman's side to catch sparkling green eyes.
"Meaning, when this bozo makes his move, you can cut off whatever he sends, right?"
"Not just that, Hel. I can immediately trace it back to its origin, and -- if we're fast enough -- we can catch our prankster in the act."
Discretely checking the time on one of the monitors, the dark woman smiled in anticipation. It was still pretty early and, according to Barbara's models, the Grudge Prankster was likely to make a move this evening. She thought the chance to catch the source of a lot of recent aggravation in the act and have a chat -- or something -- sounded pretty appealing.
"You want me to stick around for a while in case our friend makes his move tonight?"
The redhead's expression was hopeful.
"If you wouldn't mind, Sweetheart. And -- "
Helena thought she heard a tiny hesitation before Barbara continued, words teasing.
"...if you think your citrus-scented public can do without you for a bit longer tonight."
What the h--?
The dark figure managed -- just barely -- to mask her pain at the teasing reference to her nocturnal habits; however, she simply couldn't get her brain to fire fast enough to come up with a clever rejoinder. Unfortunately, the brunette discovered that this little fact didn't keep her mouth from moving.
"Shit, Barbara, we both know that I can get my skank on any ol' time, right? No secret that I'm not the kind of relationship mat--"
Horrified, the young woman heard the sharp words pouring from her own mouth, saw the hurt flash through green eyes so quickly that she might have imagined it.
Goddammit. Why was she always assing up and hurting the redhead? Sure, maybe she was still a little... tender about the night before, but that didn't mean she had to go and say something like that.
"Helena? I'm sorry, Swe--"
Warily turning away from the Delphi to look directly at the younger woman, the redhead appeared, and sounded, lost. Helena slowly shut her eyes and then reopened them, studying the toe of her boot and trying to find some way to excuse what she'd just said.
Of course, it was at this point, she observed sourly, that her mouth finally decided to get in sync with her brain and simply shut down. Miserably, she listened as the older woman spoke almost diffidently.
"You know that I was just-- You know that I don't think... that about you, Hel. I don't want you to think that I take you for granted, Sweetheart. Not the time you spend on sweeps or..."
The young woman clearly heard the shakiness in the next words.
"...nor the-- nor everything that you share with me."
Something inside Helena twisted painfully at the cautious statement. She honestly wasn't certain if the anguish arose from the fact that Barbara at least did recognize that they were sharing... something or from her own absurd gratitude about that fact.
The dark figure decided that this was not the time to get all introspective. Instead, she knew that she needed to focus on the only things that truly mattered in her life: this woman and her promise to her.
Taking a quick step forward, Helena dropped to one knee in front of the redhead. Despite being at eye level, she found that she was simply unable to meet those knowing green eyes directed her way.
"No. I'm sorry, Ba--"
The young woman felt the tiniest shift in the air and realized that her partner had raised one of her hands -- as if to reach out to her -- and then dropped it back to her lap. As the older woman spoke quietly, cutting off her attempt at an apology, Helena wondered how that aborted touch could feel -- actually frikkin' feel -- like a slap.
"Please, Hel, let me finish. I... You have so much life, and you're constantly... seizing the day."
Peeking through her lashes, the brunette watched her mentor marshal a tentative smile.
"I admire that in you, Helena. It's not something that some of us -- "
The older woman shook her head and, apparently, decided not to hide behind vague words and abstract concepts.
"... It's not something that I'm very good at, but you've even helped me try..."
The redhead's rueful chuckle at her own expense seemed to transform to something that Helena couldn't quite identify.
"...for better or, perhaps, for worse."
Fuck. Now she'd gone and gotten Barbara even more insecure.
"No. I'm sorry, Barbara. I shouldn't have jumped on you like that."
She looked up, worked on a small smile of her own, and, as usual, spoke the truth.
"And, never 'for worse', Red..."
The young woman somehow managed a playful smile as she made quote marks in the air with her fingers.
"I mean, hell, I guess, maybe, I'm a little jealous of what you have going with Sabina. It's something... Well, it sounds like it could be something good."
Rising to her feet, the brunette noted her partner's downcast eyes and tightly pursed lips; however, recognizing her own limits, how close she was to saying something irreparable, she simply couldn't go any further.
Helena inhaled deeply, deliberately shook the tension from herself, and allowed a slightly dangerous light to come into her eyes.
"Mostly, Babs, I guess I'm just antsy to do some seizing of my own -- "
She waggled her eyebrows, managing to draw a tiny smile from her companion.
"-- with our prankster."
Relieved, she observed a slight lessening in the older woman's nervousness.
"So, really, no problem about hanging out here for a while. I'll just..."
Helena gestured vaguely towards the French doors leading outside and stepped off the platform, seeking the solitude and darkness of the balcony. Once there, she planted herself on the low parapet and swung her legs over to dangle above the empty street eighteen stories below.
Allowing the cool night wind to dry the moisture which insisted on pooling in her eyes before it could spill down her cheeks, the dark figure had no trouble detecting the sound of her partner's soft typing through the closed doors. With a feeling of resignation, she wondered if she'd ever be able to understand how the woman she loved could be so damned brilliant and so damned... clueless at the same time.
Like last night.
After that first frantic... encounter -- Helena couldn't bring herself to call it what it was -- the young woman had collapsed on the couch, half on the redhead's lap. Still shuddering from the force of her reaction to the woman, she'd hidden her face against Barbara's legs. It hadn't been hard at all to pick up on her partner's excitement from that vantage point, but -- understanding how fragile the older woman's feelings about her abilities were at that time -- Helena remained still, digging her nails into the palms of her hands against her nearly overwhelming need to touch the redhead.
All the while, Barbara had been gently stroking her hair, rubbing her back, and whispering brokenly through her own harsh breathing.
"Oh, Helena. Sweetheart. You just don't know -- Nobody has -- It hasn't been like this..."
The older woman had shifted just a bit and bent, and then soft lips had pressed melting kisses to her hair.
"Thank you, Hel."
The words had been so sad and joyful, so hesitant yet... still impossibly aroused. Helena had had no choice but to respond to the other woman's need, to the way that Barbara was finding whatever it was she needed then -- a little boost of confidence or her own pleasure or... whatever.
So she had.
She'd rolled onto her side, scrubbing her tear-stained cheeks across the redhead's jeans in the process, and looked up into green eyes that were still dark and hungry. Not trusting her own voice, she'd kept it short.
"Thank me again, Red."
That time, the young woman's request had gotten her a ravenous, eternal kiss which had left her shaking and swollen and clenching into herself. When Barbara had finally broken the kiss, the older woman had immediately taken charge again. In seconds, the young woman had had her pants roughly tugged off her hips and down to her ankles and she'd been positioned on her hands and knees against the arm of the couch. And then... then, she'd been filled and consumed and... claimed.
When both women had been totally spent, Helena had somehow managed to right herself and drag her pants back up. She'd been, once again, dumbstruck by the intense pleasure of being with the beloved woman -- in whatever capacity she was needed. She'd been, again, frustrated to the point of pain with the force of her desire to give back to this woman she loved so much.
Lost in their respective recoveries, the two women had settled back against the couch, breathing in time together, until Helena had straightened just a bit and inched next to the redhead. Cautiously, she'd put an arm behind the other woman -- around those strong shoulders which carried so much -- and coaxed the other woman's head to her shoulder, absurdly grateful that Barbara had permitted her that much.
Just before the older woman dozed off -- not reawakening until the morning sun peeked through the transom windows -- she'd wrapped her arm across Helena's stomach and whispered four words that were filled with wonder.
"So easy with you."
In the dark hours of the long night, Helena had cradled the sleeping woman tightly to her, whispering her reply: "Always, if you'd just let me."
Less than twenty-four hours later, all she could do was look into the night sky and wonder about the tenderness she thought she'd detected from that sweetly demanding mouth, about the emotion that she believed she'd felt in the sure strokes from knowing hands. Only a few minutes after their oddly charged exchange, she could only puzzle over the redhead's odd, reticent apology, coupled as it was with Barbara's acknowledgement -- such as it had been -- that she at least recognized that the two of them were sharing something.
Caught up as she'd been the night before in her own ecstasy -- and agony -- it was difficult to know if any of that had been real. Caught up as she'd been this evening in her own embarrassment and shame, it was impossible to know if Barbara's words meant anything.
Picking out the constellations in the dark canopy above her, Helena tried not to choke as she forced herself to accept that -- very likely -- it was all only her own wishful thinking... or projection... or whatever psychobabble bullshit could explain the workings of her heart. As much as it might mean -- or she might wish it to mean -- to her, harsh experience from the last month showed that only heartache lay that way.
Helena snorted softly and admitted that, while she was in possession of a whole host of less-than-desirable traits, dishonesty -- with others or with herself -- was not one of them. She'd just have to keep trying... trying to...
The young woman felt her control shattering, her face fracturing in tandem with her heart, as she realized what she was facing. With as much patience and love as she possessed and with as little hope as she could permit herself, she was just going to have to do... to be what she was. She was, simply, the woman who loved Barbara Gordon enough to offer her everything: the support to find happiness; the shoulder to cry on if it didn't work out; even, herself, with no strings attached.
Staring at the brightest star in Orion's belt, the dark woman swiped roughly at her face and wished that she could pretend it didn't matter. Bitterly, she forced herself to admit what she knew in her heart: Even if Barbara never saw it, she'd always -- always -- have no choice.
At that instant, another thought blazed through the young woman's mind with the intense brightness of a meteor against a backdrop of empty space.
The idea was so overwhelming, so absolutely -- literally -- breathtaking, that the brunette gasped -- feeling like she'd been sucker-punched -- and doubled over, nearly tumbling heels-over-head into empty space.
What if -- Could there be some way to make... or to help... Barbara understand? Could she take a chance -- the young woman smirked at that idea since taking chances was what she was all about -- and find a way through word or deed? Well, probably deed since she didn't seem so good with the word thing when it really counted...
Gingerly pushing herself back from the parapet, Helena rolled onto the balcony, then collapsed on the concrete, huddled with her back against the low wall. For long moments, she sat utterly still, save for her own soft panting, trying to understand what -- if anything -- that searing flash of insight could mean, trying to figure out how the hell else she could possibly show Barbara how she felt.
The call was soft, but the brunette was instantly on her feet and almost through the doors to the living area before she caught herself.
Probably not such a bad idea to take a second, make sure that whole puffy-faced thing wasn't going on...
Less than half a minute later, reasonably confident that any color in her cheeks could be attributed to the cool night wind, the young woman sauntered inside.
"Hey -- is it going down?"
Helena didn't even try to mask the excitement in her question; however, one look at her partner stripped the feeling away.
Rotating a quarter turn from her keyboard, the redhead exhaled loudly and removed her glasses with a rough motion. Blue eyes widened slightly, and the younger woman slowly approached the platform.
"About four and a half minutes ago, our prankster unleashed a massive attack that would have gridlocked all of the internet search engines. The filters caught the transmissions immediately and triggered my alarm. Unfortunately, this bozo is good. Seems like he or she --"
Helena thought she heard an odd inflection on the last word but remained silent so that her partner could finish.
"--caught on to the filters right away and shut down. I pinpointed the origin of the attack at another public internet access site, but I'd imagine that the prankster is long gone."
The young woman felt a little at a loss. She knew how much the cyber crime fighter disliked being outsmarted in her own arena, but that didn't seem enough to account for her agitation.
"Uhm, okay. But, maybe I can run by and see if anybody noticed somebody making a hasty exit or something...?"
Sighing, the older woman tilted her head towards a monitor and replaced her glasses when Helena moved to her side.
"That may not be necessary. This last round of data was enough to correlate the wrapper structure, and I just broke the algorithm. I found a digital signature."
The brunette smiled, raising her brows in question while Barbara muttered something about the hubris of criminals.
"That's good, right?"
"I'm not so sure of that, Helena."
The older woman glanced up, and the young woman was pinned by an unhappy green gaze.
With no small amount of trepidation -- after all, Barbara was normally pretty freakin' unflappable -- Helena turned to look at the screen. What she saw there was initially so incomprehensible that it took her a beat to put the pixels together and decipher -- no, to comprehend -- the word they spelled out.
Helena grappled with everything that the three letters meant.
For starters, she realized that this was sure gonna throw a monkey wrench into whatever chance at happy Barbara had had with the other woman. For another, she acknowledged with a small measure of shame at her own selfishness, it was probably going to put the brakes on any... personal deed-ifying on behalf of her own happiness that she might come up with for a while. For now, helping the older woman deal with any fallout was the only priority.
Sighing in resignation, the brunette wondered what had happened to all of the air in the room. She couldn't seem to get enough oxygen into her lungs to say anything except two short, heartfelt syllables.
It was the best that the young crime fighter could come up with at the moment. It seemed to get the message across to her partner.
The redhead straightened, removing her glasses and carefully placing them next to her mouse. Awed, Helena watched the older woman settle that implacable mask of command on herself.
"Well, Helena, after my last class tomorrow, would you be available to take a drive out to Wayneboro?"
"Ms. Gimler can see you now."
Acutely aware of the extremely rigid set of her companion's shoulders, Helena tossed her magazine onto the waiting room end table and offered a sympathetic smile as she rose. She thought that Barbara's answering smile, visible for the briefest moment before they turned to follow the receptionist, looked decidedly forced.
It had been a long, mostly silent, thirty minute drive out to the New Gotham suburb where Sabina's company was located. The ten minute wait in the reception area at Data Solutions, Inc. had also been painfully quiet. Knowing how she was feeling about the upcoming meeting, Helena could only imagine the emotions that her older friend might be struggling with.
Somewhere back in the warren of cubicles and offices, their guide stopped at a closed office door. He tapped lightly and cracked the door, poking his head in.
"Sabina? Ms. Gordon is here."
Helena heard a desk chair rolling back and the sound of someone rising as the receptionist gestured them towards the door and then headed back to the front. She noticed that her companion drew a deep breath before moving inside, Helena a few steps behind.
"Barbara! How wonderful to see you."
The brunette detected only genuine pleasure in the high, dulcet tone. The resident of the office continued to speak as Helena entered.
"Is this business or pleas--"
Big brown eyes snapped over to the young woman, and Helena smiled awkwardly, nudging the door shut behind her.
The brunette observed how those expressive eyes widened in puzzlement, then darted down to take in the way that Helena had casually placed her hand on the back of the redhead's chair. At the exact instant that comprehension flooded the mousy woman's features, the young woman peripherally noticed the sharp awareness in emerald eyes which were carefully observing their host.
Sabina dropped into her chair, looking a little more pale than usual.
Barbara's tone was... contemplative; her eyes were speculative.
Not quite certain of the proper protocol in a situation such as this one -- Man, her life was weird sometimes -- the young woman lifted her shoulders in a minute shrug and offered a helpless quirk of her eyebrows. First to Sabina, then to Barbara.
From too many misadventures in high school, the brunette readily recognized the expression in her partner's eyes. There would be some chatting later.
As Helena concentrated on making herself as unnoticeable as possible, Sabina visibly pulled herself together, and the older woman turned back to her, clearly once-again focused on business.
"Thank you for seeing me... us, Sabina."
Barbara's voice was smooth, even cordial.
"Uhm, no problem. I'm guessing that this is business of some sort?"
Helena allowed her partner to answer, having decided the moment that she'd set foot in the office that keeping her mouth shut was her best option under the circumstances.
The redhead pulled a disk from the pocket in her chair and held it up.
"We have some questions about this and believe that you can shed some light on it."
The young woman extended her hand, silently accepting the disk, and took two steps to hand it across the desk. Sabina smiled her thanks, fumbling for her glasses, and the brunette smiled fondly. When Helena turned around, she found that Barbara was also seating her glasses on her nose. The brunette sighed silently, with an almost imperceptible shake of her head.
Talk about having a "type".
While Sabina loaded the disk, the older woman moved to the end of the desk -- her dark companion right behind her -- where she had a vantage point for the monitor. A few moments later, the small woman twisted to look at them with a puzzled smile.
"This is one of my data encryption packet schemas. One of my newer designs, in fact, for specific broad band transmission..."
She trailed off, awareness creeping across her features.
"But, I suppose you already knew that, Barbara?"
The redhead nodded.
"Yes. We found your signature embedded in the structure."
Brown eyes tracked up to meet blue, question evident, and Helena cocked her head a bit and quirked her lips.
It was nice of Red to include her in the whole "we found it" thing, but...
The data profiler laughed with some embarrassment, cheeks tingeing pink.
"Well, yes. That is my own little bit of self-aggrandizement. Something for posterity and all."
When Barbara nodded and smiled softly in understanding, Helena felt a rush of warm affection course through her. Even if Sabina was a criminal nut-case, of course the older woman understood the instinct to take pride in top-notch work.
"It certainly made our job a little easier, Sabina."
At this, the small woman turned her chair to face them fully.
"Your job? I'm afraid that I'm not quite following you here."
She paused for a beat, seeming to consider something.
"For that matter, Barbara, where did you get this? It's supposed to be a proprietary design for a client."
Helena felt one of her eyebrows edging up under her bangs and was pretty sure that the movement was being mirrored on her partner's face. She didn't miss Barbara's quick exhalation or the way the tension in her shoulders eased a tiny bit.
"Ah. I see." The redhead's words were thoughtful. "We're going to need to know which client."
Now Sabina was starting to look a little irked, and Helena struggled to hide her grin.
"And, may I ask why that is? If you have some sort of data modeling requirements or something..."
Hearing the redhead's long, slow inhalation, the young woman knew that her partner was weighing the risks. After a pregnant moment, the older woman relaxed and spoke frankly.
"Sabina, whoever has your packet encoding code is the person behind some recent criminal activity in New Gotham."
Brown eyes widened again behind thick lenses before the small woman carefully removed her glasses and placed them on her desk.
Her voice -- and movements -- clearly suggested that she thought she was being set up for some sort of elaborate practical joke. Helena half-expected her to get up and start looking for a hidden camera with Art Linkletter behind it.
Feeling for the woman's situation, she spoke for the first time.
"No shit, Sabina."
Barbara nodded and ticked off some of the crimes in question.
"Did you hear about the encyclopedia thefts at the public library? Then, there have been some prank attacks at the voter registration headquarters, the newspaper, a political office, and a news radio show."
Sabina's jaw was slowly dropping as the redhead continued.
"Not to mention the hack last week into the late news broadcasts?"
The brown haired woman nodded slowly. Helena wasn't sure if the movement signaled her acceptance of what she was hearing or just that she was familiar with the incidents.
"And, last night, there was an attempt to cripple all of the internet search engines."
Sabina got it. She sagged a little.
"Oh dear. Information sources."
Two heads -- one red, one chestnut -- bobbed in unison.
The small woman's voice was barely a whisper.
Helena's disbelieving echo came a split second later.
Barbara turned to fix her younger partner with an incredulous stare.
Helena cast about and decided to go with the truth.
"They were at the Dark Horse one night a few weeks ago."
She observed comprehension and a flash of something else -- relief? -- in emerald eyes before the older woman turned her attention back to Sabina.
Possibly picking up on the rather charged atmosphere, the small woman piped up quickly, waving towards her monitor.
"Uhm, yes. He's my first big client here. Harv had some very specific needs which led me to come up with this structure."
When the redhead replied, her genuine admiration for the other woman's work was obvious.
"It's quite efficient and, as Helena described it, truly elegant, Sabina. Not to mention...", she continued ruefully, "incredibly difficult to crack."
The small woman smiled a distracted thanks, speaking thoughtfully.
"Harvey's always ranting and raving about right-wing conspiracies and how all of our information is tainted... That the voice of the common person can't be heard in the misinformation glut... "
Helena pursed her lips. That sure tied in with the 411 thing -- the phone number to dial for information -- and the tongueless shoes.
"...but I just thought he needed to cut down on the Red Bulls, or something. I had no idea that he'd even consider doing anything like this to get his message across."
"Guess he figured that a letter to the editor wouldn't cut it, huh?"
Pinned by two simultaneous hard looks, the young woman decided to revisit that not-talking thing as Barbara spoke quietly.
"You can see why we'd appreciate the opportunity to speak with your client?"
Looking a little overwhelmed, the mousy woman rotated her head from her monitor, then to Barbara, then to Helena. She repeated the circuit before emitting a strangled laugh and lowering her head to thunk her forehead against her desk.
"Oh shit. I'm beginning to believe that I'm just not a lucky person."
The words were slightly muffled by the desktop.
"What do you mean, Sabina?"
Barbara stretched forward to rest a hand lightly on the other woman's arm, puzzlement and concern in her voice. Since she had a few more pieces of the puzzle that Sabina was having put together in front of her, Helena held her breath, waiting for the bombs to drop.
The small woman raised her head and gave Barbara a long look.
"What do I mean?"
Helena didn't hear much humor in the pale woman's quick squeak of laughter.
"I knew -- I just knew that it was too good to be true. For the first and only time in my life, I had not one but two gorgeous, funny, smart women interested in me."
Blue eyes blinked quickly.
Sabina thought she was smart?
When brown eyes rose to find hers, Helena again shrugged minutely and offered a small, apologetic smile.
"Only, it turns out that I'm just some sort of... of... I don't know. Some kind of fulcrum or something in the middle of some screwed up O'Henry short story."
Sabina paused, and added, with a surprisingly limited amount of bitterness, "Of course."
Now, Red was looking seriously... interested. For a split second, she caught Helena with an appraising glance. Then, with what the brunette recognized as an almost dangerous calm, the older woman carefully removed her own glasses and spoke even more carefully.
"O'Henry? I'm not sure that I'm following you, Sabina."
Oh, fuck. Here it came.
Helena chewed at her bottom lip and weighed her chances of slipping out the door unnoticed.
"Oh, come on, Barbara. 'Gift of the Magi'? Only, instead of watch bobs and hair combs, I've got one woman cutting off her chances and the other one not taking any at all."
Absolutely looking like she was at wit's end, the small woman caught sight of her monitor and waved at it a little wildly even as Helena found herself again briefly pinned by totally inscrutable emerald eyes.
"And, to top that off, I find out that my biggest client is a total nut job and my software has been used in criminal activity? I can just see how that's going to go over during my New Hire Review next month..."
Nodding, the brunette grimaced sympathetically as Sabina hit a button on her keyboard and sent something to her printer. The woman had a point: New Gotham hadn't been kind to her.
The brown haired woman pulled the page out and handed it to Barbara.
"Harv's company, his contact information, everything."
The older woman accepted the paper with a soft nod. She started to speak, then seemed to think better of it. Instead, she turned and looked up at her dark companion.
"Helena, would you excuse us for a moment?"
The young woman nodded her acquiescence, then caught herself. She chewed on her bottom lip for a beat before stepping quickly to Sabina's side and leaning down. She spoke softly.
"I really am sorry about... everything, Sabina. I didn't know until..."
The small woman reached out and quickly squeezed her hand, sighing.
"Yeah. It figures, huh?"
With a brief nod, the brunette left the office hastily, shutting the door behind her. She moved to the end of the hallway to inspect a badly matted print of a waterfall. She knew that if she tried, she could probably hear the conversation from inside the office. For some reason, she found that she had absolutely no desire to do so.
The fallout from this particular meeting would hit soon enough.
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