DISCLAIMER: If I owned them, the subtext would be main text, so it's clear they aren't mine. The characters and settings belong to the likes of Tollin/Robbins, DC Comics, the WB, and many more. They're all just kind enough to let me play in their sandbox. I didn't make a dime for writing this – and no one even offered me any bribes.
WARNING: Character torture, aka Barbara-whumping. This story gets pretty dark and some not-nice things happen to our favorite redhead. Some of the descriptions of violence, and the aftermath of violence, are pretty graphic. Read at your own risk. (The violence does *not* include rape, for those of you who can handle one but not the other.)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story was started about five years ago and has been languishing on my hard drive ever since. I started it, realized it wasn't going to be a short story, and abruptly dropped it. I have a fear of novels. Writing novels, that is – I don't jump out of my skin every time I pass a bookshelf <g>. I decided to pick it up and see if I could finish it for Ralst's challenge. I'm not entirely sure where some of the themes came from – especially since it's a lot more "doom and gloom" than my usual style. I only had time to get through one edit, so I know it's a little rough around the edges. And as always, there's probably way too much exposition. Despite all those problems, I'm proud of the fact that I actually finished it and I hope you enjoy it. Though given the whumping and all, enjoy may be the wrong word <g>.
ADDITIONAL NOATE: A big thank you goes to ficmail, for reading this monster and giving me a few things to keep in mind when I did the edit.
CHALLENGE: Submitted as part of the Epic Proportions challenge.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Fear of Falling
By ocean gazer


Part One

"You…What?! Oh my God. You can't be serious."

Barbara Gordon leaned back in her wheelchair as though Helena Kyle's voice was tangible and had pushed her. Puzzled by the outburst, she studied the younger woman's expression, looking for clues. Granted, she'd just shared something with her friend that didn't qualify as the best news on the planet, but it was a far cry from the worst. Given what the women did on a daily basis to keep New Gotham free from crime, it could almost be considered a "No-news, no-film-at-eleven" sort of thing.

And since it had absolutely no impact on Helena's life that she could discern, the brunette's reaction seemed just a wee bit over the top – even coming from such a volatile source.

Frowning, Barbara repeated herself. She was no stranger to the technique of parroting sentences, though she couldn't recall the last time she'd done it with her own words. "I broke up with Wade," she said softly. Belatedly, it occurred to her that perhaps Helena misunderstood her the first time – that her apparent irritation with Barbara's love life, or lack thereof, was because she thought Wade had dumped her.

"I heard you just fine," Helena replied irritably, pulling away from the redhead's chair and pacing. "Meta human senses, remember?"

It was clearly a rhetorical question and Barbara didn't bother to answer it. As much fun as it could be to play verbal games with her protégée, she really wasn't in the mood today. No, today she wanted an actual adult conversation that wasn't riddled with sarcastic asides. Given her options for conversational companions, however, that was pretty much a pipe dream.

She cocked her head, watching as Helena kicked her foot out to the side, sending an errant paperclip flying across the room. Seeing the look of satisfaction on the woman's face, Barbara chuckled. "Feel better now that we're safe from attack by small, metal objects?"

Helena spun around quickly, her eyes flashing with sudden amusement. While her shrink kept pointing out that her reliance on sarcasm was just another defense mechanism, she didn't see what the problem was. Personally, she thought her sense of humor was entertaining, even charming. "Infinitely. You never know when they'll develop a mind of their own." She paused, slinking back over to Barbara's chair and squatting in front of the older woman. Pointedly trying to keep things light, she added, "With Dinah's telekinesis still kinda out of control, you can't be too careful what you leave lying around."

Barbara sighed dramatically and leaned forward again, closing the small gap between them. "Don't I know it," she groused. "Though honestly, I can't decide which is more annoying – your tendency to punch holes in things and destroy them so I can't use them or her tendency to mentally move everything around so I can't find it to use it."

Helena, not at all bothered by the mild rebuke, simply raised an eyebrow, smirking. "At least when I'm around, your stuff is still where you left it. It might be smashed beyond repair, but at least you know what happened to it."

"True," Barbara conceded. She waited a few heartbeats and then subtly turned the conversation back to its origins. "So why are you so upset if I'm the one who just broke up with someone?" It wasn't the most tactful question in the world, but she knew the other woman tended to prefer a more blunt approach to things.

"Smooth," Helena whistled through her teeth. "What makes you think I'm upset about it?"

Barbara could not resist rolling her eyes at that. Maybe it was a juvenile gesture, but somehow, it just seemed appropriate. "Oh, maybe because your voice went up about an octave when you asked in your oh-so-sensitive way if I was serious. It's the little things like that that give you away."

Genuinely amused by that, Helena laughed fully. "And here I thought I was the queen of cool. Damn, you keep seeing through every façade I have."

A soft chuckle greeted that statement. "Not all of them, just the really obvious ones."

Keeping a smile on her face, Helena levered herself up to lean against the edge of the other woman's work table. Despite the teasing and trading of barbs, she knew her mentor had her mind set on hearing an explanation. And when Barbara Gordon had her mind set on something, watch out. The redhead might look like a mild-mannered teacher – which she was, come to think of it. But she also had the tenacity of a…of a…She gave up trying to find a metaphor, or a simile, or whatever it was called. She was a crime fighter and bartender, not a linguist.

Helena looked at the redhead, seeing the frank interest in green eyes, and sighed softly, letting herself grow serious. She rarely allowed anyone to see anything except her fun-loving, kick-ass, quick-witted self; Barbara, however, was an exception to that rule. The woman had been by her side during some of the worst moments of her life and had seen sides to her that no one other than her mother had ever seen. And while it was nice to know that the one person in the world who knew the real Helena still cared about her in spite of all her faults and flaws, it was something she tried not to think about if she could help it. It made her feel too vulnerable.

"I just…well…I worry about you. I thought you could actually be happy with Wade. He's…nice." It wasn't the most eloquent speech on record, but she thought it sufficed.

Barbara sat back in her chair, seeing the very real distress clouding her friend's face. Automatically, she moved her wheelchair closer to Helena, reaching out a supportive hand. The irony was not lost on her that she should be the one receiving comfort under the circumstances rather than giving it. "You don't need to worry about me. Really. I chose this life as Oracle freely, already knowing what the costs would be. What I do is important – both to the city and to me – and if I have to choose between romance and crime fighting, then the work wins hands down. I've made my choices in this life and I don't regret them."

Helena cocked her head to the side, studying the older woman intently. She wanted to believe her, but wasn't quite sure she did. "So what made you break up with him? I thought you said the sex was good."

Barbara groaned aloud and covered her face in her hands. "I still can't believe we had that conversation. Honestly…"

A hearty laugh echoed in the cavernous room. "C'mon, you should have known I'd worm it out of you eventually. I don't know why you were so surprised by that. Remember, I'm Huntress. Once I have prey in my sight, there's no stopping me."

The redhead dropped her hands away from her face, settling them in her lap, and shook her head. "You really need to get some new lines. No offense, but that was pretty lame." Expecting a reply, or at the very least a protest, Barbara found herself a bit confused at the silence.

Sighing softly, her mood turned thoughtful again as she got back to the essentials of the conversation. "Sex does not make a relationship, Helena." She held up a hand to forestall the almost-inevitable smart-ass comment. "It was becoming very clear that Wade and I weren't really compatible in terms of what we each wanted in a serious relationship – at least one more serious than the casual dating we'd been doing. What he wants is a woman who needs him, someone he can take care of, someone who wants to be adored and spoiled."

Shuddering at the mere thought, Barbara stated the obvious. "That's so not me."

It was Helena's turn to groan. "I can't believe you just said that. Those kids at school are having a bad effect on you." She might not be a linguist, but she damn well knew slang when she heard it.

Barbara chuckled. "What can I say? It's a side effect of teaching high school." She paused and then added earnestly. "Honestly, it wouldn't have been fair to Wade to keep dating him. He deserves someone who can be what he wants…someone who can look up to him and can share her whole life with him. I'm too private a person. I couldn't…wouldn't do that for him."

She was surprised by the ferocity in her own words, in that last sentence. But she didn't let herself get too sidetracked in pondering it, opting to finish her thought. "And privacy issues aside, he wanted someone to coddle. I refuse to be dependent on anyone…well, not any more than I have to be anyway." She heard Helena's snort, and mustered up a tiny grin. Talk about stating the obvious.

Glad for the slight break in mood, Barbara finished on a more cheerful note. "Besides, I don't think he'd have been all that open to the whole 'Guess what, honey, I have a secret identity as a crime-fighting vigilante' thing. He's a little too…vanilla for that."

Helena tried to force a smile and keep things lighthearted, but couldn't quite manage the trick. She pushed away from the desk and paced for a good sixty seconds. Coming up alongside Barbara again, she rested her hand on one of the woman's narrow shoulders and squeezed gently. "I just want you to be happy, Barbara," she said simply, not trying to disguise the genuine emotion that laced through the words. She would have hidden it from anyone else. "I know I…well…I just want nothing but the best for you, y'know."

Reaching up, the redhead covered Helena's hand with her own. "I know," she said softly, carefully. "I am happy…or at the very least, I'm satisfied with my life. I have you…as a trusted friend…and I have Dinah. And I have a great teaching job, cyber-sleuthing work that I love, and people who need me. What else could I ask for?"

She smiled up at the younger woman, still seeing the faint glimmer of uncertainty in blue eyes, and having the sense that she knew better than Helena what that reaction meant. Deliberately going for a laugh, she used one of the brunette's favorite phrases. "I'm good, thanks."

The declaration got the reaction she'd hoped for. "First you tell me I need better lines and then you steal one. What's up with that?"

Barbara chuckled as well. "It's just that your way of expressing yourself is so unique."

That was an understatement if she'd ever made one. Everything about Helena was unique – from her meta-abilities to the strong, often contradictory personality traits she'd gotten from her parents. But she also knew better than anyone what a struggle that particular mix of traits and personality was for the younger woman. Then again, no one ever said that being one-of-a-kind was easy.

Helena didn't even bother to try hiding her snort of disbelief. She'd buy that she was unique solely in terms of her meta-abilities and her fucked up life; but the other woman's tone hinted at her being special or something. Shoving aside the discomfort of that idea, she went back to her usual swaggering sarcasm. "Yup, that's me. I'm such the poster girl." She moved away from Barbara's side, primping and posing for effect as she went.

A strangled laugh that didn't come from either of them was the only warning the women had that they were no longer alone.

Helena whirled around to see Dinah standing in the entrance, face red with semi-stifled laughter. She growled low in her throat, considerably less than thrilled to see her teammate under the circumstances. She liked her ok for the most part, but still wasn't sure how she felt about having someone tagging along with her on sweeps or always underfoot around the Clocktower. Not to mention that she was used to having all of Barbara's attention to herself. She'd tried, like the good little patient she was, to talk about the situation with her shrink – though it obviously was a highly edited version of her life with the names changed to protect the innocent. But the only response she ever got to that was a disinterested reminder that it was only natural that she'd feel resentment and anger because she had abandonment issues up the wazoo.

Helena personally couldn't figure out why Ms. Quinzell felt the need to keep pointing that out. She already knew that, thank you very much. What she needed wasn't a lecture about why she had issues, but some advice on how to get rid of them.

Barbara craned her neck around the human brick wall standing in front of her. Seeing Dinah so clearly enjoying Helena's discomfort, she sighed and maneuvered her chair to a more visible position, hoping to help break up the sudden awkwardness between the younger women. She still hadn't quite adjusted to the fact that there was another person living in the Clocktower, let alone found a way to help the other two make the transition. It wasn't that she regretted taking in the runaway, not at all; but such a big change took a while to get used to. And she was all too aware of the friction between the younger members of her team-cum-family. It had improved in recent weeks, but they were still competing for her attention. If it hadn't been so annoying to be the one caught in the middle, it might actually have seemed somewhat sweet.

"Dinah, I didn't hear you come in."

Barbara opted to state the banally obvious just as a way to try and paper over the scene the blonde had walked in on. But she didn't miss the way the teen turned slightly away to hide her rolling eyes. Clearly the girl was picking things up from Helena, not all of them helpful.

Shifting easily into teacher lecture mode, she continued, "You're definitely making progress in being stealthy. As Helena's been telling you, that's something that will be an advantage out on sweeps." She choked back the momentary flash of pain that sometimes came when she referred to her protégée's knowledge of crime fighting tactics rather than her own. She'd spent too much time as Batgirl to ever completely get over the loss of that part of her life.

Automatically shoving her own reactions back into their place in a tightly locked emotional box, she refocused on the teen. "But it's not really a good idea to go sneaking around the Clocktower. Startling someone with meta-human reflexes is a good way to get yourself hurt."

"Or killed," interjected Helena, casually studying her nails.

In an attempt to hide her discomfort with the interruption, Helena was striving for an air of nonchalance. A quick sideways glance told her that her mentor wasn't fooled by the act. Not that she was surprised by that, since the woman noticed damn near everything, and probably knew her better than she knew herself. Hell, it was why Barbara was so good at being Oracle. It just was a pain in the ass when she was trying to get away with something.

But glancing back at Dinah's startled face Helena could see the teenager was still clueless and uncertain about how to take that statement. Good. That was the whole point. While she'd warmed up to the kid, she wasn't ready to let her guard down that much.

Barbara cleared her throat, but opted to let Helena's comment pass. Now really wasn't the time or place to get into it. Especially since Dinah was looking suitably chagrined and apologizing out of both sides of her mouth. She held up a hand to stop the relentless word flow and said gently, "It's really ok, Dinah. Just consider it another lesson and keep it in mind, ok?"

Dinah nodded emphatically. Getting lectured was bad enough since she desperately wanted to make Barbara proud of her. But getting a not-so-subtle threat from Helena was worse. She wanted the other woman to like her, to see her as an asset to the team and maybe even like a little sister, not just some annoying stray puppy that got dumped in her lap. She'd been in Helena's mind that one time, so she knew the brunette did sorta like her, no matter how hard she tried not to show it. But she'd also had enough bad experiences in her life to want more than just a sense of being tolerated. Otherwise, she might as well have stayed in Opal.

Not wanting to think too much about that, Dinah put on her best bright and sunny face. "So…what did I interrupt?"

Not wanting to answer that, Helena circled around the girl and made her way over her snack food cupboard. While most of the food was kept in the kitchen, where it belonged, there was a stash of stuff kept out here for her especial use. Her physiology made her something of a human garbage disposal and when she'd first moved in with Barbara, she'd started storing food out here, claiming it took too long to go to the kitchen and get things when she was hungry. It had actually been a combination of laziness and limit-testing, but for some reason, the older woman had allowed it. And even after she'd moved out, Barbara made sure that Alfred kept the shelves stocked for her visits. It was a little thing, but it meant a lot. She smiled at the thought, and started rummaging, almost back to feeling like normal despite the conversation and the interruption.

Barbara wheeled herself over to her work station, picking up her reading glasses and putting them on. "You didn't really interrupt anything," she said briskly. "We were just talking."

There was a noticeable silence then, one that dragged on long enough to get uncomfortable, and Dinah found herself wondering what on earth she'd missed. Before she could stick her foot in her mouth and actually ask, Helena turned around, speaking somewhat indistinctly through a mouthful of strawberry poptart. "We were just talking about why Barbara broke up with Wade."

Barbara shot Helena a dirty look. Talking about her personal life just wasn't what she wanted to spend her afternoon doing. And it certainly wasn't something she would have brought up in front of the teenager. She was not only Dinah's guardian, but a teacher at her school, for heaven's sake! As far as she was concerned, teenagers shouldn't think about the sex lives of either parental figures or teachers. But she knew she had a slightly more…parochial view on the subject than either of her teammates. Helena had grown up in the Jerry Springer era, and Dinah was coming of age in the era of the raunchy and ubiquitous faux-reality show. No wonder they didn't seem to share her views on the concept of personal privacy.

She pushed her glasses down to the tip of her nose, knowing from experience with her students that it made her look stern. "Ok, we've spent entirely too much time talking about a relationship that no longer exists. Do you suppose we could possibly get back to work?"

Unfortunately, her attempt at intimidation fell short, since neither of her teammates was paying the slightest bit of attention to her. She glanced at each of them in turn, trying to figure out when she'd turned invisible. Helena was smirking, and it didn't take a genius to figure out why; she knew the younger woman had effectively moved past her discomfort by shifting the attention to Barbara. Dinah, on the other hand, wore a smile that could have lit the entire city.

Barbara shook her head in confusion. While she wasn't exactly heart-broken – since she liked Wade as a friend but didn't love him as anything more – she wasn't exactly happy about the situation either. And so she thought the teenager's apparent delight with the news was just a tad odd. Especially since she knew Dinah had a class with Wade and really liked him.

She opened her mouth to ask the obvious question, but Dinah beat her to it, providing the answer before she could say anything. "Well, I know it's like really sad for him and all, but it's great for you. I mean, it's not like you really liked him like that. Not like you like Helena." Barbara felt her jaw hit the floor. She sat dumbly as the girl prattled on, clearly oblivious to the effect her words were having on her audience. "I never did understand why you went out with him. I mean, he's a nice guy, but I know you love Helena."

Barbara heard someone groan. It took a few seconds before she realized it was her. She also heard a deep, rumbling growl, but she knew that wasn't her. It was Helena.

Dinah froze. She suddenly picked up on the fact that the other two seemed anything but happy about the current state of affairs. And neither one of them seemed to share her optimistic view of their post-Wade future. She flinched as Helena paced over to her, got right in her personal space, and stood there glowering. She tried to find something to say, to break through the sudden tension, but having a tall, dark, and annoyed Huntress growling at her only served to short-circuit her brain cells. All she managed was a stuttered, "Uh…um…"

"Helena." Barbara kept her voice soft, but commanding. She blew out the breath she'd been holding when Helena backed away from Dinah, slamming her fist against her thigh as she moved.

Dinah slumped where she stood, hunching in on herself in an effort to make herself less of a target. She was relieved that she hadn't been turned into Hamburger Helper, but still had no idea why her teammates were acting so weird or what she'd said to set everybody off. She watched Helena pacing furiously around the edges of the room, and then looked over at Barbara to gauge her reaction. The redhead looked inexplicably exhausted and there was unmistakable sorrow in those bright green eyes. The sight felt like an arrow to Dinah's heart, and she felt an overwhelming surge of sympathy, though she couldn't say what exactly she was feeling sympathetic about. She took a deep breath, not sure what to say, but feeling like she had to say something. "Uh…was that one of those 'too much information' things?"

"Kind of," Barbara finally managed to answer, setting her glasses down on the work table and massaging the bridge of her nose. It was amazing how a few simple little words could send her heart rate through the roof. Seeing that Dinah looked like a puppy fearful of being kicked, she carefully schooled her anger, though she could hear the obvious rebuke in her tone. "You need to work on your sense of discretion."

Dinah nodded glumly, not entirely sure why it was all her fault, but too bothered by the tension in the room to question it. And she was all too aware of Helena, who was just a blur of angry motion. God, she was gonna get her ass kicked even harder than usual in their next sparring session. She almost wished Barbara would yell at her or something, but the older woman was just looking at her with both irritation and understanding written across her face. The latter just made her feel guilty. At least when people yelled at her, she could get angry in return – which did wonders for keeping her guilt at bay.

"I'm really sorry," Dinah managed to say after a long moment. She tried to radiate sincerity with every fiber of her being. But at the same time, she knew what she knew and she wasn't quite willing to let the topic go so easily. "It's just I didn't think it was anything secret. I know how you feel about her and how…"

Barbara cut her off before she could say anything else, not wanting to hear a protracted spiel that might just make everything worse. "It's not exactly a secret. It's just complicated."

She held up a hand to forestall any further commentary, fixing Dinah with a pointed look and waiting until the girl closed her mouth. Then she looked over her shoulder, trying to catch Helena's eye. As if aware of the scrutiny, the younger woman stopped her pacing for a moment and turned towards her. Barbara saw a myriad of emotions on the expressive face. Some – like anger – were obvious, but some she couldn't read at all. Under the circumstances, she didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. But she did pick up on a question, no, a plea, in dark blue eyes. She nodded slightly, giving Helena her blessing to leave. Not that the woman normally wanted or needed her permission to do anything. But she was grateful that this time her friend had thought to ask rather than just running out, had thought to make sure she was ok with handling the fallout on her own.

She saw a tight smile on Helena's face before the woman rushed out of the room towards the balcony, wind almost literally whirling in her wake. Within moments, she heard the thud of the sliding door shutting and knew the brunette was gone. Steeling herself for a conversation she really didn't want to have, she looked over to see Dinah hugging herself. The girl's voice was hesitant. "Is she ok?"

Barbara sighed softly and wheeled her chair over towards the teen. "Not right now, but she will be. This isn't a comfortable subject for either of us and she just needs some space. Give her some time to blow off some steam and everything will be all right."

Dinah moved away, finding the nearest chair and sinking down into it. It wasn't that she needed space or distance or anything. She just felt drained and shaky and was afraid if she didn't sit down, she'd topple over. When Barbara moved closer, parking her wheelchair next to her, she found herself comforted by her presence, even knowing that the woman was still upset with her. She leaned forward, chin resting in her hands, staring fixedly at the floor. "I'm sorry," she offered again, before repeating her words from earlier. "I just didn't think it was a secret."

Barbara reached out and lightly smoothed an errant strand of blonde hair off the girl's forehead. The situation wasn't entirely Dinah's fault and she could see the teenager was clearly shaken by what had happened. "It's not a secret. She knows how I feel about her. It's just that she doesn't feel the same way."

At those words, Dinah pulled abruptly away from the older woman's comforting hand. She cocked her head to the side, studying Barbara's face intently. What the hell? It felt like she'd been dropped into the middle of some low-budget sci-fi movie without a script and was talking to some kind of alien or something. That was not what she'd been expecting to hear. It seriously was not what she'd been expecting to hear.

Barbara stared at her ward in confusion, unable to figure out why she suddenly felt like a specimen under a microscope. Given that despite her best efforts, her nerves and emotions were on edge, she found herself shying away from the intense gaze. Instead, she stared down at her hands, trying to regain her composure. It made it a little easier to get back to the explanation that she knew Dinah needed to hear. "About two years ago, we were tracking down a mad scientist type who'd been hunting meta-humans, trying to kill them. He'd developed a virus that, put simply, targeted the meta cells in someone's body and made them go haywire. When Helena caught up with him, he injected her with it before she managed to subdue him."

She couldn't keep from shuddering as the words sent a flood of horrible memories through her mind. If at all possible, she wouldn't have shared this specific ordeal with the teen, not wanting to relive it in the retelling. But she knew all too well that it was better for Dinah to hear it from her now, rather than pestering Helena for details later. The girl didn't know either of them well enough yet to know when to pursue a subject and when to leave it alone – and this was definitely a "don't ask, don't tell" sort of thing. As uncomfortable as she was with topic, she had a responsibility to make sure Dinah knew what had happened and understood where things stood. Otherwise, the blonde's insatiable curiosity might cause more trouble than she knew how to handle.

Getting a hold on her own reactions, Barbara continued. "She got so sick and I was terrified that she would die before I could find an antidote. One night when things looked particularly grim, I told her how deeply I cared about her. It wasn't something that had happened overnight or something that I'd even noticed while it was happening. But when I saw her so close to slipping away, I realized just how much she meant to me."

Even without looking up from her hands, Barbara felt the weight of Dinah's gaze on her. It didn't make it any easier to go on with the narrative, but she soldiered onward anyhow. "Once the crisis was over and she'd recovered, we talked about what I'd told her – and it was clear that she didn't feel the same way about me. I promised her that it wouldn't have to change anything and that I'd keep my deeper feelings under wraps. She trusted me to do that – and I have. We've already dealt with this and we're both happy with the friendship and partnership that we have."

She would have stopped there, but knew there was still one more thing left unsaid. "The reason Helena got so angry wasn't because what you said was some kind of revelation. It's just hard for her when the subject comes up – hard for her to be reminded that I could be in love with her if she had any interest…in me."

Her last two words were barely a whisper, the sharp reminder of the loss causing her voice to crack. It wasn't the loss of something she'd ever had; it was the loss of the possibility. Some days it seemed like her whole life was nothing more than lost possibilities.

Despite her brain spinning to make sense of the narrative, Dinah managed to bring herself back to the present at the faint note of pain in Barbara's voice. She probably wouldn't have noticed it a few weeks ago since the woman was a master at keeping her emotions contained. But in the course of living with her, she'd learned to pick up on some of the subtleties in her moods. Thankfully, she'd only had to learn it with one of her teammates, since Helena was as open a book as Barbara was a closed one.

Barbara was vaguely aware of movement, and looked up to see Dinah inching out of her chair. The next thing she knew, she was folded in a warm hug. She stiffened in surprise for a moment, not usually being the touchy-feely type, before permitting herself to relax into the embrace. It did feel nice to receive spontaneous comfort. But she allowed it mainly because she thought Dinah needed some tangible reassurance right about then.

After several moments, Barbara pulled away. She reached out and ruffled blonde hair, saying softly, "Thanks. Don't worry too much, because everything will be ok. Helena and I are friends and teammates; and at the end of the day, that's really what's important to me."

Feeling as if she'd gotten her point across, she purposely injected a lighter note into the conversation, figuring Dinah needed the emotional reprieve as much as she did. "Besides, if I were really into the whole dating and mating thing, I would not have chosen this life. Being a crime fighter isn't exactly conducive to romantic, moonlit evenings. Not to mention the added difficulty of trying to find time to go on dates when I'm wading through twenty-five essays, laden with creative spelling choices, about the symbolism in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter."

Dinah groaned loudly at the reminder of one of her less appealing homework assignments. Though in a way, she was glad for the interruption of the previous conversation, since picking up on Barbara's discomfort had been discomfiting, to say the least. "At least I use a spell checker," she argued, not quite sure why she felt the need to defend herself. It wasn't like she was actually in one of the woman's classes or anything. Apparently, the school board hadn't been eager for a repeat of the Helena-Kyle-living-with-her-teacher experience.

Barbara laughed and leaned back in her chair, warming to the subject change. "Spell checkers are fine as far as they go. But if you don't understand the differences between you with an R and you with an apostrophe R E, or if you don't know whether it's a T with one O or two O's that means also, then just running the program isn't going to do anything to help your writing."

Dinah shook her head in dismay, suddenly sorry she'd tried to change the subject. She didn't even bother to hide the whine she could hear in her tone. "Can we please save the lecture for after I've actually written the paper?"

Not wanting to give Barbara a chance to actually answer the question or go off again about grammar, she cast about for something that would take the spotlight off her. Without thinking about the wisdom of the choice, she went back to the original conversation. "So, you're really ok with things…I mean with Helena?"

Despite the abrupt subject change, Barbara nodded her head decisively. "I have her friendship and trust. What more could I ask for?"

She studied Dinah for a moment, realizing the girl didn't seem entirely satisfied with the answer, but not sure how to make her point any clearer without inviting her to read her mind. She really didn't want to go down that path…and suddenly the light bulb above Barbara's head turned on with 100-watt intensity. "So, Dinah," she began in a deliberately gentle voice, "why were you so certain that I had feelings for Helena? Most of the time, I'm barely even aware of them."

Dinah tried and failed to keep from wincing, and the guilt she'd managed to push aside earlier came back full force, though for a different reason this time. She'd been subconsciously hoping that it wouldn't occur to her mentor to ask that particular question. Great, now she would get her ass kicked by Barbara as well as Helena. She shook her head miserably, getting a jump on New Year's by making a resolution to keep her mouth shut in the future. Clearly this whole talking thing was way overrated.


Barbara's tone was soft, but it was nonetheless clear to Dinah that it wasn't a question as much as an order. With the small part of her mind that wasn't freaking out about having this conversation, she wondered how on earth the woman had learned to do that. She found she couldn't look at Barbara, so she took a page out of Helena's book and started to pace. At least that way, she wouldn't have to see any disappointment or disapproval on the woman's face.

"I…well…it was an accident. I wasn't just randomly rooting around in your head or anything." Too late, she realized that made it sound like she had been looking for something specific in the woman's thoughts. "Damn it, that's not what I meant."

Belatedly, Dinah realized she had voiced the first part of that sentence aloud. Great. And here she'd been trying so hard to watch her language around the woman, not wanting to sound like the typical teenager swearing for shock effect. This was so not shaping up to be her day.

Barbara saw Dinah's look of chagrin at the unintended outburst and was all too aware of what was likely going through her head. The teen had a worse poker face than either Helena or Alfred – and God knew neither of them had particularly convincing ones. She was the only one of the bunch who seemed wholly comfortable with the concept of masks, both literal and figurative.

She stifled a tiny grin as Dinah stumbled across the paperclip Helena had kicked across the room earlier and lashed out with her foot to send it flying back to almost its precise original location. It was definitely not a good day to be small and metallic. Pushing the bemused thought away, she wheeled over to the pacing teen and grabbed hold of an arm. She was caught off-guard when Dinah whirled around, shook out of her grasp, and started to strike out. The teenager's hand didn't get far, since Barbara saw the look of recognition in pale blue eyes a scant second after she moved. Not that she was in any danger of being struck, since her reflexes were good enough that she already had her own hand poised to counter the blow.

On the one hand, she felt a surge of pride that the girl was using with some of the defensive moves she'd been taught by Helena. On the other hand, since Dinah wasn't actually under attack at the moment, it wasn't good that she was just reacting mindlessly. But Barbara reminded herself that the blonde was young and inexperienced, and that it took time for trainees to be able to control their newly ingrained responses. And she really should have known better than to reach out like that when the teenager was upset and not expecting it.

Dinah recoiled in horror as soon as she realized just what she'd done. Ok, so she hadn't actually hit Barbara, but she could have. If she'd done anything like that with her foster parents, there would definitely have been serious consequences. Having spent her life being told she was always wrong, always at fault, she prepared for her mentor to, at the very least, verbally tear into her. When the redhead just sat and looked at her with sympathy and understanding on her face, Dinah felt something crumble inside.

Overwhelmed by the sensation, she fell to her knees, leaning forward and settling her head in Barbara's lap. "I'm sorry," she whimpered.

She fought back tears, unsure why she felt like crying or even what she was actually feeling. Since she'd followed her visions and come to live in New Gotham, she'd felt at home in a way she never had anywhere else. She'd been so happy with her new life; it almost felt like what she imagined being high was like. Everything had seemed wonderful and right with the world – like a Disney movie where every day was full of sunshine and blue skies and the birds were always singing. Now, everything was all messed up again. And it was all her fault.

Barbara felt her heart melt at the pathetic note in the girl's voice. She didn't need the gift of telepathy to know why it was there. Reaching down, she softly stroked blonde hair, wishing she had the perfect words to put everything right, to make Dinah believe that it really would be ok. She had a sense of the struggles that lay under the teenager's sunny exterior, and wanted nothing more than to help her learn to trust that the wounds would heal in time. But there wasn't any panacea; nothing that words could do. Unfortunately, knowing that didn't make it any easier.

"It's ok, Dinah," she soothed. "I know you were just reacting…that you didn't intend to hurt me."

She knew the girl had been waiting for angry words or a slap in the face, not just because of the near hit, but because of the earlier scene with Helena. If she'd been dealing with someone else, she might have indulged her temper a bit. But with Dinah, that would only be counter-productive, given the conditioning she'd had at the hands of her foster family. Barbara knew that the best approach to take with her newest ward was to reassure her that she was safe and cared for; and once Dinah really trusted in that, she'd blossom. Despite the fact that the girl had gotten off to a rocky start in life, she knew Dinah actually was less scarred by both life and innate personality than either herself or Helena.

Barbara felt a remarkable sense of irony that she and Helena, with all their issues, were the ones responsible for the teen's well-being. But even she had to concede that sometimes the wounded were far better at taking care of others than they were at taking care of themselves.

"Why aren't you mad at me?"

She actually had to cock her head to the side and listen to the echo reverberating in the air before she could make any sense of the words. And it didn't help her deciphering skills when she felt Dinah lift her head from her lap, and sit back on her haunches, fixing her with a hang-dog expression. She supposed, all things considered, that it wasn't surprising that the blonde would question Barbara's admittedly subdued reaction. But she hadn't exactly expected the query to be voiced aloud. That seemed a little odd.

Pausing for a moment to consider her answer, all too aware of the currently fragile ego kneeling in front of her, Barbara finally decided that her normal dry humor might be a good tactic. "Well…I could be mad at you if you'd like."

She tried very hard not to laugh as confused blue eyes met hers. She knew the moment Dinah got the joke, hearing a soft giggle, followed by a snorted, "God, I'm such an idiot."

"Nah, you're just a teenager. Some people might argue that it's the same thing, but I know better."

Barbara finally saw a genuine smile creep onto Dinah's face and was relieved by the sight. She had her hands full as it was dealing with Helena's generic moodiness; she didn't need someone else going all dark and gothic on her. She reached out again to ruffle blonde hair and offered a smile before getting serious again. "I'm not mad because I know you weren't trying to hurt me. And I do believe that it was an accident that you picked up on my feelings for Helena. Though I do want to know exactly how you got into my mind in the first place."

Dinah sighed softly, still not wanting to have that conversation, but feeling a little less anxious about it because of the comfort she'd just received. "I wasn't trying to pry, I swear. It was during one of the times when you…when you helped me with my mom…after her death."

It wasn't the most informative statement ever offered, but it painted a clear mental picture in Barbara's mind. Despite the girl's claim that she was "fine" after Carolyn's death, she'd found Dinah awake and sobbing in the middle of the night on more than one occasion. She'd held the teen, listening to her sobbed words, offering what little consolation she could. It had reminded her in a way of the early days in the Clocktower with Helena – only then she'd had her own demons to deal with as well, and the comfort had been mutual.

Dinah fought down the tiny threat of tears the words brought, glad and irritated at the same time that the mention of her mother hurt less than it had even a few weeks ago. While it was true that she hadn't really known the woman and that she still was angry about being left behind, once she began to mourn the loss, she thought the pain would be sharper for longer. After all, Helena still had issues about her mother's death and that was seven years ago. Then again, Helena had issues, period.

Shaking off the irrelevant thoughts, Dinah struggled to provide Barbara with the explanation she deserved. "I'm not really sure how it happened…or why, since it's not like I can normally read you very well. But one night when you touched me, I just got this rush of feelings."

She paused and stared straight at Barbara, hoping to emphasize the sincerity of her words, but not sure how to read the woman's unreadable features. "Most of what I got from you was just random stuff that didn't mean anything to me. I know that probably sounds lame, but it's true. Just being able to see into someone's mind doesn't mean the images make any sense. It's only when I'm looking for something specific or when a specific thought is really strong that I can piece together what I'm seeing."

Dinah still couldn't read her mentor's expression and she hoped the woman knew she was telling the truth. The last thing she needed was Barbara, of all people, to worry about what she knew. "Seriously, the only thing I picked up clearly was a sense of sorrow that you didn't have Helena…the one person you really loved."


Barbara weighed what Dinah said and found that she believed her. And she was human enough to be thoroughly relieved by that. She had a hard time letting anyone get too close to her; Helena was the only person in a long time – possibly ever – who had ever been allowed to see past her façade. So the thought that Dinah might have accidentally seen too much was scary. It was actually a relief to know that all she'd picked up on was her feelings for Helena. As volatile as that subject was, it was one of the few truly personal things Barbara didn't mind the girl knowing about – mainly because she herself had already come to terms with it.

And the way in which Dinah had picked up that little tidbit gave her a pretty good idea what she could to say to convince the girl that things were really ok between herself and Helena.

"You know how we talked about the stages of grief?" Barbara asked quietly. She saw Dinah's solemn nod. "I've done my grieving over the loss of a romance with Helena. I've dealt with it and moved on. Just like you're dealing with your grief over your mom and finding ways to move on."

By the suddenly thoughtful look on the girl's face, Barbara figured she'd made her point. She didn't bother to explain further, instead switching gears slightly. "Now that you know the story, I want you to promise me that you're not going to mention it to Helena again."

Dinah shivered, suddenly reminded with a vengeance that there was a brooding brunette out prowling the streets who was more than a little pissed at her. While it was normally a great deal of fun to bait Helena and push all of her buttons, this was a little more serious than their usual faux-sibling rivalry.

Barbara noticed the reaction and pressed her point home. "This is something that Helena and I have dealt with, but she still has some bad feelings about what happened. Even when you aren't attracted to someone, it's still hard to reject them – particularly when it's a friend. I need you to leave her alone about it."

Dinah was aware that there was more to it than just Barbara's abbreviated version of the story, and despite the touchiness of the subject, she wasn't sure she would be able to leave it alone once things had calmed down a bit. She was still learning about herself, but she recognized that curiosity was one of her driving traits. It was, truthfully, the main reason she got harassed so much back home – she couldn't pretend not to be interested in the things her visions showed her.

She settled for nodding in response to the request. She knew Barbara would take it as an agreement, but since she hadn't said anything specific, she wouldn't feel bound by it. It felt a little bit like lying to be rationalizing her decision like that, but she also didn't want to make a promise she wasn't sure she could keep. Better to just keep things kinda vague.

Barbara couldn't quite figure out what was going on in Dinah's head, though she was conscious that there was some sort of inner struggle. But she didn't really want to think too hard about it, as relieved as she was that the conversation was over. She knew the girl was scared of Helena in her dark and gloomy moods, as were most sane people, and she figured that alone would prevent any future confrontations on the subject. Still, there was one more thing she needed to deal with before she could let the matter drop entirely.

"I think it's time that we put some of your physical training on hold and started working a little more on getting your mental gifts under control. At the very least, you need to learn how to barricade yourself, so that you can't run around reading people's minds when you aren't trying to. It's for your protection as well as the protection of the people around you."

Barbara was well aware of the dubious look the girl was shooting her. It wasn't too hard to figure out that Dinah thought she was just making up excuses. "If you don't know how to control your powers and to barricade your mind, you leave yourself open to a mental attack by anyone who has the same sorts of powers you do. Worse, you open yourself up to being controlled by someone else. I know you've been exploring how to use your mental powers in a fight, but I think that for now we need to focus the mental training on defense and just have you use your physical training for offense."

It wasn't quite the smooth figure of speech she'd been going for, but she could tell from the way Dinah had paled at the idea of being controlled by someone that the point had hit home. Encouraged by that, she continued. "From a strictly ethical standpoint, you really do need to be in control of your gifts so that you aren't reading people's thoughts just by having random contact with them. It's one thing when it's necessary, like when you went into Helena's mind and helped bring her back. It's another thing…"

Before she could complete the sentence, Dinah finished it for her, "…when I do something like what I did to you. I really am sorry, Barbara. I didn't mean to."

Barbara smiled down at her. "I know you didn't." Not really wanting to rehash the same old stuff, and seeing that Dinah looked like she was starting to berate herself again, she deliberately opted to switch gears and give them both a little breathing room. "So, now that we've got that settled, why don't you work on getting your essay on The Scarlet Letter done so that we can do a little training later tonight?"

She wasn't too surprised to hear a theatrical groan in response.

Two months later…

"Why haven't you told her?"

Helena actually paused in mid-swing, looking at her questioner as though she were speaking Greek or something. "What?" she asked in her typical non-loquacious fashion, blocking the clumsy blow Dinah sent towards her midsection and knocking the kid's hand aside.

"Why haven't you told her?" Dinah repeated, once again trying to land a blow with the side of her hand while her opponent was caught off-guard.

Helena growled low in her throat and flipped Dinah down onto the mat. Being completely clueless about what was going on tended to make her irritable – well, more irritable than normal, anyhow. She stood over the blonde, staring down into the flushed face. "Stop talking so much and concentrate on what you're doing," she advised. "Usually you can get in at least a few blows before I knock you flat."

Dinah pushed up on her elbows, but didn't bother to get off the floor. Her muscles were a whole lot sorer than she'd anticipated. After the blow-up with Helena and her little heart-to-heart with Barbara, she'd spent much of the past several weeks working with her telepathic powers. One of her mentor's old friends had taught her how to barricade herself, and she was still amazed at how vulnerable she'd been before, without even knowing it. Now, she felt safe and secure inside her own head for the first time ever. And she'd been practicing defensive telekinesis, working to refine her control. Focused on her mental powers, she'd only spent a couple days a week sparring with Helena. And even that had been more form and technique, not actual fighting. Until the past few days, anyhow. She was truly disturbed at how out-of-shape she'd gotten. She didn't even see a lot of action on the nights she did sweeps, with Helena throwing most of the punches and her practicing her telekinetic skills.

Helena cocked her head to the side, wondering just why on earth her sparring partner was still lying there. It occurred to her that maybe she'd accidentally hurt the kid. She'd tried to be extremely careful in all of her sessions with Dinah, since she knew that she was far stronger and more skilled than her opponent. And now that Barbara had decided that the blonde's mental powers shouldn't be used during their training sessions, Helena had been even more careful, knowing Dinah had one less form of defense.

Personally, she agreed with the idea, despite the way the kid had thrown a fit about it after the first session where she had to rely solely on her own physical skills. In Helena's not-entirely-humble opinion, however, Dinah would be a better crime fighter if she relied more on her fists and saved the mental stuff for a last resort. After all, Helena had learned the hard way that it was a good idea to keep a few tricks and maneuvers up her sleeve. That way, when a situation got desperate, she could pull out all the stops and still have the element of surprise on her side.

"Are you ok?" Helena asked, reaching out her hand to help the kid up.

Dinah couldn't help but grin as she grabbed the proffered hand and promptly yanked downwards, hoping to surprise the other woman and get some long-awaited revenge at the same time. That plan didn't quite work out the way she'd hoped, since she didn't manage to pull Helena down to the mat with her. Hell, she didn't even make the woman lose her balance. All she managed to do was strain a muscle as the brunette wrenched her hand up and out of the grip. With a yelp, she sat up quickly, cradling her aching forearm.

Glancing up, she saw Helena smirking at her. She knew she deserved that reaction; she really did. But still, all it did was piss her off. She hated it when the brunette acted all high-and-mighty. Dinah wanted nothing more than to be considered her teammate's equal, not some silly little tagalong. Ok, so things had actually gotten better in the past few weeks and Helena had stopped being quite so catty with her. But she still felt like an outsider.

She knew it was because Barbara and Helena had gone through a lot of stuff together and it created a deep bond. Still, even knowing that, she didn't like feeling inconsequential.

Helena squatted down next to Dinah, sensing the sudden shift in mood from fun to glum. Reaching out with surprisingly gentle hands, she lightly massaged the muscles in the kid's forearm. "We should probably go ice this down so it doesn't get too bad."

Seeing the odd expression on Dinah's face, Helena instinctively pulled away. She tried to decipher the look, but failed miserably. It was clear even to her that the kid had her mind on something other than the sparring session. And twenty bucks said it was related to those out-of-the-blue questions she'd been asking just moments ago.

"So, Kid," Helena drawled softly, feeling a little out of her depth since this sort of probing was really more Barbara's forte. "What's bothering you? You've been distracted all day."

Dinah bit her lip, suddenly unsure if she wanted to pursue the subject. It had seemed like a good idea five minutes ago, but now…Well, things looked a little different from her current position on her ass on the floor. She sighed softly, debating with herself.

"C'mon, Kid. I don't bite – at least not very often."

It was a typically Helena remark and Dinah felt some of her doubts ease at the oh-so-normal sound of it. It also seemed to have a loosening effect on her tongue. Before she could think better of it, she repeated her earlier question. "Why haven't you told her?"

Helena shook her head. Nope, it didn't matter how many times she heard those words. She still had no idea what the hell Dinah was talking about.

Dinah saw the flare of confusion in blue eyes and almost decided to drop the subject altogether. But she wasn't sure Helena would let it drop so easily now that she'd piqued the woman's curiosity. So she squared her shoulders and dove in completely. "Why haven't you told Barbara how you feel about her? Why haven't you told her you love her?"

It probably wasn't a good sign that Helena's eyes instantly turned feral. And the menace in the woman's voice really wasn't a good sign. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Dinah actually cringed away from the brunette, wishing that she had kept her promise to Barbara and kept her mouth shut. Oh, this was so not a good thing. Trying not to sound nearly as freaked as she felt, she stammered, "I…well…it's just what…you know…"

Helena snarled and backed away from the teenager, before she lost her somewhat tenuous hold on her control. And she really didn't want to hurt Dinah – partly because she'd started to like her, and partly because Barbara would kill her if she did. She clenched her hands into fists, struggling to stop her heart from beating out of her chest. Jaw tensed in an effort to regain control, she managed to spit out, "Leave it alone, Dinah. You don't know what the fuck you're talking about."

Despite her sudden nervousness at the way Helena had gone all ballistic, Dinah bristled at being told she was wrong. Damn it, she knew she was right! She'd been in Helena's mind. She'd seen and sensed how the woman felt about Barbara. And it wasn't a friendly, or even a sisterly, feeling by any stretch of the imagination. She'd seen in crystal clear images that Helena Kyle was head over heels in love with Barbara Gordon.

Spurred on by that knowledge and her anger at once again being treated like a nuisance, Dinah pulled herself up as straight as she could. She was nearly quivering with resentment and didn't even try to hold back. "Yes, I do know what the fuck I'm talking about. I was in your mind, remember – trying to save your life, I might add. I know what I saw and I know how you feel about her. And I can't figure out why you haven't told her – why you're letting her think that she's the only one who feels that way."

Quickly as a striking snake, Helena squatted down and shook her finger in Dinah's face. "Don't you DARE tell me how I feel. You have no idea."

She pushed back up, pacing away from the teenager, heart racing and struggling for control. She clenched her fists and gulped in several deep breaths. "Yes, I care about Barbara; she's the best friend I have in this world. But that's it. I don't know why or how you got any other idea about us…me…whatever. But you'd better be damn sure you know what you're talking about before you go shooting off your big, fat mouth."

Ok, so that had come out a little harsher than Helena had planned. But really, she thought she deserved some credit for not just pounding the girl into the mat. She knew damn well that Dinah had essentially been ordered not to talk to her about any of this.

Dinah felt her temper flaring higher. She did too know what she was talking about. Why the hell did everyone have to treat her like she was the village idiot or something? Pushing to her feet, she stomped over to Helena, fixing an accusatory gaze on the woman's back. "If I'm wrong and you don't love her, then why are you so defensive and angry?"

Helena turned around, glaring at the blonde who was mere inches away from her, invading her personal space. Having regained a modicum of control, she shook her head in response to the question. "Just drop it, Dinah. I'm not having this conversation with you."

Dinah glared back. Tired of being treated like a child and frustrated at being summarily dismissed, she lost all sense of discretion. "Oooo…maybe you're scared of your feelings. Wouldn't that be something…the big, bad Huntress scared of her own feelings."

When Helena took a step closer, anger radiating off of her, Dinah froze for a moment. But just as quickly, her unleashed resentment made the fight or flight question irrelevant. "Who the hell do you think you are; running around and stepping all over people's feelings. You've been doing it to me for weeks, and I thought it was just because I'm new and you didn't want me around. But you've been doing it to Barbara for years, denying your feelings and hurting her in the process. All because you're scared to admit you're in love."

She didn't even flinch as Helena growled at her and raised a hand to slap her. Dinah saw the fire in feral eyes, watched the woman whirl at the last second and slam her hand into the wall, and still didn't back away. She clenched her fists, heart pounding in her chest, and took another step forward. It felt like an emotional tornado was swirling inside her, demanding to be released. It was months and years worth of people taunting her, dismissing her, blaming her. Helena was just the only target she had, and she couldn't hold back any more.

"You're no big, bad superhero. You're nothing but a coward, a chicken-shit. You're afraid to let Barbara love you. And you're scared of me…scared of what I know about you."

She might have said more, but a resounding slap across the face sent her reeling. Staggering back, she heard angry words, but her ears were ringing and she couldn't understand them. Not that she cared. She launched herself at Helena, slamming into her midsection in an attempt to tackle her. An elbow in her back made her gasp but she met it with an elbow of her own, and smiled when she felt something soft give under the force.

That was the last coherent thought she managed as she rained blows on her opponent, almost oblivious to the ones landing on her in return. The fight was on in earnest.

"HELENA! DINAH! Stop it!"

Barbara heard her voice crack on the last two words. When she'd come to the training room to see how the workout was progressing, a full-out fight was the last thing she'd expected to find. The intensity of the scene froze her in the doorway, her hand still on the knob. The sound of her voice must have had some effect, since both women stopped and turned as one to stare blankly at her. Horrified, she stared at the reddening marks and the trickles of blood. While she'd seen both of them in worse shape physically, it had never before been at the other's hand. And the complete lack of recognition in their eyes scared her. Fear turned to anger when she saw Dinah lash out with her foot, kicking Helena in the shin, and in turn getting an elbow in the ribs.

"Stop it right now, both of you," she managed to grind out. What the hell was going on? She wheeled forward, physically inserting herself between the two women and shoving them none-too-gently to either side of her.

Helena felt the shove and was about to lash out at her newest attacker when she recognized something familiar about the touch, something familiar about the angle of the palm resting firmly against her abdomen. Scant seconds later, she also recognized the scent of honeysuckle shampoo and the faint aroma of Chocolate Hazelnut coffee. It was Barbara touching her…and Barbara would never hurt her. She felt her muscles start to relax and the rage that blinded her began to slowly ebb away.

Dinah knew only that someone was pushing insistently at her, right in a spot that was already bruised. She struck out with the edge of her hand, feeling the pressure on her stomach disappear as her hand was caught and held in a firm grip. Not at all discouraged by the counter-move, she struck with her other hand. She felt a surge of adrenaline when her hand met pliable flesh and she heard a sharp gasp. There were words spoken as well, but she was past the point of hearing them. All her concentration was on besting this new opponent.

Barbara gasped again as another backhand knocked her head to the side. She'd managed to deflect most of Dinah's blows one-handed. But she was also trying to keep Helena under control with her other hand, which definitely left her at a disadvantage. The absurd thought occurred to her that the So You Want to Train Superheroes? handbook failed to cover situations like this.

Helena blinked rapidly, eyes focused on her feet, as she shook off her blinding rage and came back to full awareness. God, she hated the way it felt to come down from that, like a freight train had skidded to a sudden stop inside her head or something. She still felt Barbara's restraining hand on her stomach and wondered why. Usually the woman could tell the very instant she came out of one of her feral moods. Then, hearing the unmistakable sound of flesh on flesh, she looked up and realized that the woman had been too preoccupied with other matters to notice.

Barbara felt a sense of panic when she felt Helena pull her restraining hand away. Oh, this was not good – she couldn't just sit here and let the two younger women beat the crap out of each other again. She knew an escrima stick to their heads would prevent that from happening, but she didn't want to go that far unless she had no other choice. She spared a glance at Helena and felt a surge of relief to see her eyes were their normal blue. She opened her mouth to ask the obvious question, but was distracted by deflecting another of Dinah's blows.

"I'm ok, Barbara," Helena said quickly. She barely waited for the woman's nod before she was in motion. She rushed over to Dinah, pinning the girl's arms behind her back.

"Thank you," Barbara breathed. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and wheeled a little closer to where Dinah was struggling against Helena's grasp. She reached up and lightly stroked the girl's cheek, speaking as gently as she could. "Dinah, I need you to calm down."

Ok, so that probably wasn't in the handbook either as a recommended approach to dealing with an out-of-control teenager. But she had a hunch it would work in this situation. The mere fact that Dinah hadn't lashed out with any of her considerable mental powers told her that the teen wasn't completely beyond her reach. The girl was still lost in powerful emotions, yes. But Barbara had a lot of experience with a wildly angry teenaged Helena, and thus knew a trick or two.

Dinah, immobilized by Helena, couldn't get away from the insistently soft hand on her cheek or the insistently soft voice telling her to calm down. Something about the touch or tone struck a chord with her; she sagged where she stood as the last remnants of her long-suppressed anger withered and died. And then she began to struggle against the hands holding her as she came back to full awareness and realized what she'd just done. She couldn't face Barbara after that, she just couldn't.

Holding on tightly, Helena felt a surge of sympathy, knowing exactly how Dinah felt. She'd done the same thing a time or twenty – lashing out at whoever happened to be there in front of her – and it had been Barbara on more than one occasion. And afterwards, she'd wanted nothing more than to skulk away and hide; just as Dinah did now. But that understanding didn't cause her to loosen her grip. If anything, it made her hold on tighter. The sooner the kid faced up to her actions, the better it would be – for her and for all of them. After all, Helena hadn't faced up to her actions soon enough, which was how she'd ended up in therapy for anger management issues. She didn't want to see Dinah go down the same road if there was a way to avoid it.

"Dinah, look at me."

The teenager felt a tremor work down her spine as she heard the clear note of command in Barbara's voice. She wasn't sure she could face either of her teammates right now. But a tiny voice whispered in her head, pointing out that she'd have to face them sometime, so why delay the inevitable? Still, even accepting the logic of that, it took every ounce of courage she had to stop fighting Helena and to bring her eyes up to meet Barbara's.

Barbara saw the girl's internal struggle, and sympathized with it. Nevertheless, she knew what needed to be done. She held pale blue eyes, but didn't speak immediately. Instead, she let silence reign for a full minute, watching the play of emotions on Dinah's face. Finally, she spoke, her voice solemn. "If Helena lets you go, will you promise not to run away?"

Dinah blinked in surprise. That was about the last thing she'd expected to hear. It seemed like a stupid question, until she realized that she might have done just that. After all, she'd done it before, to get away from Opal and the problems she had there. But if she did it now, she'd lose the only place in the world that felt like home. And without the question, she might not have realized that she wanted nothing more than to stay. Fighting to get the words past the sudden lump in her throat, she managed a simple, "I promise."

Barbara sighed in relief and heard Helena do the same as she released her grip. That reaction didn't surprise her, since the brunette had been in Dinah's shoes before, and knew the stakes. Besides which, she thought the two younger women had started to like each other, no matter how tenuous their bond might be. And she knew that even if Helena had loathed the teen, she still wouldn't have wanted her out on the streets full of guilt and shame. Shaking off the meandering thoughts, since now was clearly not the time for them, she spoke quickly. "I'd like you to go to your room and lie down while I get my medical supplies together. Will you do that for me?"

Still astonished that she hadn't been yelled at, Dinah simply nodded, repeating her earlier words. "I promise." She backpedaled to the door, unable to look at her companions as she went, and murmured, "I'm sorry," as she fled the room.

The instant the blonde head was out the door, Helena saw Barbara slump in her chair. Her meta-enhanced eyesight caught sight of the faint bruises on the woman's fair skin. She felt her own surge of guilt, for the fight and for putting the older woman in the middle of it. Without pausing to think about what she was doing, she bent over, ignoring the pain flaring in her back. Deftly, she reached out and put her fingers under Barbara's chin, coaxing her head up and to the side so she could study the faint marks.

Barbara couldn't help but laugh at the irony that Helena – bloodied and battered – was so concerned about her few minor bruises. "I'm fine, really."

She met Helena's gaze, easily seeing the shades of guilt and regret layered in blue eyes. And she also saw something else: anger. Ten to one it wasn't directed at her. She heard the woman's choked whisper. "I'm so sorry. If I hadn't lost it…if you hadn't needed to hold me back…you would have been able to defend yourself better."

Barbara sighed, wanting to deny the fact. But she couldn't. "I know. But it's not all your fault. You weren't the one swinging at me." She watched Helena absorb the idea and saw another flash of anger. Ten to one it was directed at a certain teenager.

Helena fought down her temper, trying to get a grip on her somewhat confused mental state. Ok, so she couldn't absolve herself entirely…but certainly the fiasco wasn't all her fault. Bolstered by that thought, she found it was easier to meet Barbara's level gaze. She realized she was still lightly stroking the underside of the woman's chin and abruptly dropped her hand away as if burned. "I'm just sorry it happened at all."

Barbara was glad for the opening she'd been given. She wanted to know what had happened before she went in to treat Dinah's wounds and have a very serious talk with her. She knew she also needed to have a serious talk with Helena and treat her wounds, but that could wait a bit. It wasn't like Helena was going to run away on her. Their bond of loyalty and friendship was too strong for that.

She wasn't quite sure how to approach the subject, and after a moment's consideration, she just opted to get right to the heart of the matter. "So what did happen? How did things go from a training session to…that?"

Helena wasn't particularly surprised by the questions. After all, this was Barbara, who lived on information like most people lived on air. Still, she really didn't want to explain the whole thing. She blew out a breath, gulped in another. "Dinah pushed my buttons and instead of just walking away, I let her get to me. I attacked her."

Barbara noted the way the woman was trying to take all the blame, even though she had a sneaking suspicion that things weren't quite that simple. And she had a sinking feeling that she already knew what buttons had been pushed to get Helena to the point where she lost control. "Was she asking you about…my feelings for you?"

It wasn't her most eloquent verbalization ever, but Barbara knew it would be sufficient for the other woman. She saw the confirmation in blue eyes before a word was spoken, along with another emotion that she couldn't quite name. It took her aback for moment, suddenly unsure of what was going on under the surface. But she didn't have time to puzzle over it the way she normally would, all-too-aware that there was a wounded teenager waiting for her.

By some miracle, Helena managed to keep her voice steady as she answered. "Uh…yeah. I told her I didn't want to talk about it, but she persisted." She sighed regretfully. "I should have left the room when I realized she wasn't going to stop."

Once again, Barbara saw the flash of indecipherable emotions in blue eyes, but filed the mystery of it away in the back of her mind. It could wait to be solved another day. She had her hands more than full enough as it was.

Trying to console the younger woman, she said simply, "We'll talk about it in a little while. It's not entirely your fault, you know." She saw Helena's look of mingled surprise and gratitude, and reached up to pat the woman on the shoulder. "Why don't you go lie down on my bed and rest? I know you heal fast, but you've still got some nasty cuts. Once I get Dinah squared away, I'll doctor you up as well."

Lightly squeezing Helena's shoulder, she added, "And then we'll talk. It'll be ok."

Helena stood up slowly, not sure what to say to that. Without a word, she walked across the room to a supply cabinet and pulled out a first aid kit. Bringing it over to Barbara, she offered it to the redhead, along with the only response that came to mind. "I hope so."

"I'm really, really sorry," Dinah said for probably the twentieth time in twenty minutes. She knew she was repeating herself, but her nervousness made her babble. All she knew was that she'd totally screwed up and was scared of what might happen next. If they didn't want her here any more…if they kicked her out…She fought down tears at the mere thought. If it had been her foster family, she honestly wouldn't have cared about consequences; she'd often hoped they would get tired of her and turn her over to state care. But now that she'd found a place that felt like home, she couldn't bear the thought of losing it due to her own stupidity. She couldn't even meet Barbara's eyes – just sat with her gaze fixed on the floor as the woman tended to her various injuries.

Barbara heard the note of fear in the girl's voice, but honestly didn't know what to say in response. She'd already assured Dinah that she knew she was sorry, had assured her of that each of the previous nineteen times she'd said it. In truth, the game had long ago lost any bit of appeal. After all, it clearly wasn't absolving the teen's guilt. And while she wanted to assure the teen that she was forgiven, it didn't mean there wouldn't also be consequences.

She finished binding the last of Dinah's wounds and saw pale lips part, presumably to utter yet another apology. Hastily, Barbara reached out and covered the girl's mouth with her hand. She fought down the very inappropriate urge to smile when the unexpected gesture caused the blonde head to snap up and glassy blue eyes finally looked fully at her.

Dinah wasn't quite sure what to make of the scene she found herself in. She'd been terrified of seeing rejection on Barbara's face, of seeing rage in her eyes. She'd half-expected to be thrown out on the streets, with barely any time to collect her belongings. But here she was, her injuries treated and her mentor had yet to yell or scream at her. She could see anger in those sharp green eyes, but there was also compassion. The teen finally felt some of the weight lift from her shoulders. She wasn't going to be thrown out. Maybe it shouldn't have surprised her, given the stories she'd heard about Helena's teenaged behavior, but it did. While she still wasn't sure what would happen next, at least she felt a little calmer.

Barbara dropped her hand away from Dinah's mouth. She sighed softly, not looking forward to the coming conversation. While she'd never shied away from physical confrontations with criminals, emotional confrontations had never been her strong suit. Ironic then that she kept finding herself in situations that required them. Pushing that thought away with the ease of long practice, she refocused on the situation at hand. Steeling herself to the inevitable, she sat up a little straighter in her wheelchair.

"Dinah, I know you're sorry about what happened. I want to be very clear that you still have a place here, that this is your home. And you're still going to be training as a crime fighter."

Dinah sat very still, scarcely daring to breathe. So far, it all sounded good. She was enough of a telepath, however, to realize that the other woman hadn't quite gotten to the bad news part of the program yet. Hearing the next words out of Barbara's mouth, she knew she was right.

"But you're going to take a break from training for a while. I've been wondering if it was such a good idea for me to let you jump right into things so quickly. Your loss of control with Helena made me realize it wasn't."

Dinah jumped in quickly. "I know I got kinda out-of-control and I'm really sorry about that. You know I'd change it if I could. But Barbara, I can do this…I know I can." Stung by the questioning quirk of a red eyebrow, she plowed ahead defensively. "I know I screwed up, but it's not all my fault. Helena hit me first, and once we started fighting, I just kinda lost it. If she hadn't started it, I never would have gone all postal."

Barbara held up a hand and shot a warning look at the teen, who closed her mouth abruptly. Battling a surge of anger, she sat very still for a moment. She knew from her brief conversation with Helena that the younger woman could have done more to keep things from getting out of control. She also knew, however, that Dinah had been the one to push things to the point of no return. And that was something that could not, under any circumstances, be allowed to happen again. While the brunette mostly managed to save her aggression for sweeps, she still had a tendency to snap when backed into a corner.

"You're right that it's not entirely your fault. Helena should have left the room, instead of allowing you to taunt her into a rage." Barbara watched Dinah carefully, seeing the girl's face flush at the words. "But you shouldn't have pushed her in the first place. And that's what we need to work on."

She reached out and placed a hand on the girl's arm, knowing the touch would provide a measure of reassurance despite the harsh words. "I simply cannot allow you to go out on the streets and do sweeps until I know you are in control of yourself and your emotions. Otherwise, you'll get distracted at best and cocky at worst. And that will get you killed."

At that last sentence, Dinah swallowed the argument she'd been ready to make. Suddenly, she realized just how out of her depth she was. She'd thought that having cool mental powers and learning to fight was enough – that once she got out on the streets, she'd be a badass like Helena. She hadn't really paid much attention to the fact that if she screwed up out there, she'd be pavement pizza. The thought was sobering. And now that she was pondering all this, it occurred to her that no matter how nonchalant and arrogant Helena often seemed, she always kept her comms on and was quick to listen to Oracle's advice and directions.

Damn, she'd been a total idiot, thinking that she was the next hot thing.

Barbara saw Dinah's mental gears turning. She didn't need to be a telepath to know exactly what thoughts were running through the blonde's head. It wasn't a surprise at all, since every vigilante or superhero she knew had gone through the same thing. They'd all had some experience that opened their eyes to just how human and vulnerable they really were, some experience that prompted one of two reactions – give up "the life" for good or start taking their training and craft seriously.

She had a hunch which reaction Dinah was going to have, but it wasn't until she saw a new look of determination on the young face that she knew for sure. Good. She'd hoped the girl would stick with the path she'd started down. She softened her tone slightly, wanting the girl to know that she wasn't going to give up on her, especially not now. "What I think you should do for a while is concentrate on your school work and on controlling your mental powers. For now, I think you should give sweeps a rest entirely. You've been trying to do too many things at once, I think."

There was a flash of disappointment in blue eyes, but Barbara didn't miss the teen's nod of acknowledgement. Good. At least Dinah saw and understood the necessity. Continuing, she said, "Not to mention the fact that we haven't really dealt with the emotional repercussions of you running away from home, coming to a new city, and adopting a new life. That's a big change, and instead of giving you time to adapt and grow up a bit more, I allowed you to jump right into fighting crime. I never allowed Helena to do that – I made her wait until she'd dealt with the worst of her demons."

Barbara paused there, feeling the weight of guilt on her own shoulders. Really, she was as much to blame for this whole mess as anyone. What had she been thinking, letting Dinah just jump in like that? Granted, the girl had been remarkably mature and seemed up for the challenge. As her guardian, however, she should have exercised better judgment. Still, better to own up to her mistake and fix the problem now, while she still could, instead of letting it get completely out of hand.

Her voice was quiet. "I'm sorry for doing that to you. I should have known better."

Confused, Dinah started to reach out to pat her mentor's arm, before thinking better of it. She wasn't entirely sure why Barbara was blaming herself all of a sudden. After all, she'd been pretty insistent on training with them, since her vision of Barbara and Helena was the whole reason she'd run away to New Gotham instead of going somewhere else. But she didn't think reminding the woman of those things would actually help. Instead, she said simply, "No big deal. I mean, it's not like I'm the first teenager to do this. Look at you."

The clumsy attempt at reassurance made Barbara laugh. "I was also a blithering idiot. I nearly got myself killed more than once because I was trying so hard to prove myself to Batman, so he didn't think he'd made a mistake by training me. I don't want to watch you make the same mistakes I did."

Shaking her head, Barbara finished soberly, "Not at the risk of your life."

Dinah swallowed hard, hearing the gravity in that last sentence. It didn't exactly make her change her mind about wanting to be part of the Birds of Prey, but it did remind her anew that this wasn't a game – it was literally life and death. And today was almost the first time she'd really thought about the price she might pay for the life she wanted to lead. She had a lot of work to do before she'd really be ready for the challenge.

Sensing the shift in mood and aware that the girl was ready to be alone with her thoughts, Barbara knew there was still one more thing that needed to be said. She made her voice stern, which wasn't too hard since she was still angry about the situation. "One more thing, Dinah. Give Helena plenty of space and leave her alone until she's ready to talk to you. When she's ready, she'll approach you. And do not, under any circumstances, bring up my feelings for her again. The subject is off-limits."

Dinah nodded emphatically. She still knew what she knew, and couldn't figure out why the hell Helena was denying her feelings. But it clearly wasn't any of her business. Not to mention that seeing the woman so furious had scared the shit out of her. She never wanted to be on the receiving end of that again. "I promise I won't mention it. Cross my heart. And I'll stay away from Helena, but I just want to apologize to her first."

Barbara sympathized with that. "I know you do. It's hard when you have things you want to say. But she needs some time before she'll be ready to face you. And you have to let her set the pace or else it will make things worse."

She reached up and gently patted a bandaged cheek. "Speaking of Helena, I need to go see how she's doing. And you need to get some sleep. It's going to be fine, Dinah, it really is. We just need to slow things down for a while, ok?"

She was answered with a tentative smile and a muttered "'Kay." Then, as Dinah obediently lay down on her bed, pulling her stuffed bear into her arms, Barbara wheeled out of the room. Time to see what was waiting for her behind door number two.

"There. You'll be good as new."

Barbara snapped the lid of the medical kit shut as she finished her sentence. The statement was completely superfluous, she knew, since by the time she'd made it back to check on Helena, the other woman's meta-human healing powers had already kicked in. Still, it didn't hurt to add some antibiotics and bandages to the various cuts and scrapes. No sense in tempting fate.

Helena hopped out of the chair she'd been sitting in, and snuggled back into the comfortable nest she'd made for herself out of Barbara's bedcovers. She'd gotten good and cozy in the warm spot, and had been very reluctant to get out of it, even for medicinal purposes. It wasn't even that she was physically tired. Her emotions were topsy-turvy after the fight with Dinah, and she wanted to just pull the covers over her head and shut out the world for a while.

Barbara watched intently as the other woman got settled. She was struck by the image of a cat, especially since the woman's little nest just happened to be in the middle of a patch of sunlight slipping down through the skylight. Had she not been so angry and worried, she might have laughed aloud at the sight. Instead, it only managed to bring a ghost of a smile to her face. She busied herself with straightening some clothes that were draped over the back of a chair, and then dove headfirst into another conversation she really wasn't in the mood to have.

"I asked Dinah to give you some space and to let you make the first move. And I guess I just need to know that you'll stay away from her until you're calm enough to actually talk to her."

Helena's spine stiffened at the words and she struggled to keep her temper in check. Did the other woman really have to ask? But, recalling the events of the past few hours, the red tide turned quickly. Under the circumstances, she supposed the question was only natural. She couldn't quite keep the hurt from leaking into her tone, however. "I will. I mean, I have learned a few things over the years, you know. And I kinda thought I was doing a lot better with the whole anger management thing."

Barbara winced when she realized just how her question had sounded. Wonderful; now she'd hurt Helena's feelings. This day just keep getting better and better. "I'm sorry – that didn't quite come out right. You are doing a lot better with it. It's just…with Dinah's ability to push your buttons, I don't know if I need to be worried about the two of you."

Helena interjected – her tone deliberately dry, "If the kid keeps her mouth shut about things that are none of her business, then there's nothing for you to worry about."

Despite the situation, Barbara snorted with laughter. "And that's the kind of response that makes me worry."

Helena managed to chuckle at that, feeling a little better for the fact that they were edging back onto normal conversational ground. While the two of them had had their "deep and meaningful" moments… they'd been few and far between in recent years. And that was just fine with her. After the angst of losing her mother and coming to terms with the reality that there were a lot of bad people in the world, Helena didn't like looking too far under the surface. Over the years, she and Barbara had fallen into a comfortable routine of bantering, saving the more serious conversations for things related to crime fighting.

She offered Barbara her most winning smile. "Glad to know I haven't lost my touch."

Then, conscious of the fact that the other woman was still worried about the situation, she sobered up a bit. "Look, Barbara, I'm not proud of what happened. Believe me. But give me a few days to get over being pissed, and I'm sure I'll be ready to do the whole 'kiss and make up' thing. I may tease the kid, but…well…she's grown on me and I want everything to be ok with us."

She paused for a moment, weighing her words, not sure if she should say the rest of what she was thinking. "But I do want to have a little talk with her, to make it clear that she needs to stop talking about things she doesn't understand – and that it's called personal space for a reason."

Somewhat to her surprise, Barbara nodded at the words. "I've already told her, essentially, the same thing. I made it clear that she's to not bring up the subject again, and I think she now understands why."

Hearing those words, Helena smiled again. "I bet my version of that little speech will be far more entertaining than yours, though. At the very least, it will have a lot more four letter words."

Barbara rolled her eyes. She was not fond of the habit, but living around smart-alecks made it almost impossible to avoid. Not that she'd planned on this being yet another banter-filled conversation. She'd intended to have a heart-to-heart with Helena; indeed, had expected that the woman's tumultuous emotions would lead to one automatically. But clearly, the younger woman was not receptive to that today, any more than she ever was. She'd just have to be content to know that Helena would work through her anger in time.

She tried to keep her tone even, but was relatively certain the underlying sarcasm snuck in. "Great, just what I need. You helping Dinah increase her vocabulary."

Helena burst out laughing at that. Normally, she didn't have quite such an noticeable reaction to the woman's dry wit. But under the circumstances, she honestly hadn't expected the older woman to keep up on the repartee. It was a huge relief, truthfully. She wanted to end this conversation, put this whole rotten day behind her, and never think about it again. Realistically, she knew she'd have to face the kid at some point, but it would at least be when she was calmer and at a time and place of her choosing. And if Barbara was right, Dinah would have enough sense to just let sleeping dogs lie.

Getting her giggles under control, Helena offered, "I'll try to avoid the more…er…creative phrases."

She paused for a moment, overtaken by a huge yawn. She hadn't really realized she was so tired. Still, she wanted to offer one last bit of reassurance before she curled up into a ball and went to sleep. "Look, Barbara, I know you're worried. But we're going to be okay. Sometimes, you have to hit the brick wall like this in order to know when to stop."

Barbara found the general sentiment, if not the precise wording, to be fairly accurate. She still wasn't entirely convinced that the two younger women would be able to get around this hurdle. But there wasn't much she could do except take them at their word – that Dinah would leave the topic alone and that Helena would work through her anger and not hold a grudge. All she could do was offer support to both of them; they had to do the actual work. She was still upset about how out of hand things had gotten, but again, she'd done all she could to put things right. The rest would just take time.

Helena watched the woman's face closely, seeing the mental wheels turning. She wouldn't even pretend to know what was going on in the woman's mind. The only thing she knew for certain was that Barbara was still angry – with Dinah and with her. The thought made her feel guilty. Helena vowed to herself that she would never let things with Dinah get so messed up again. She hated seeing Barbara have to deal with the fallout.

Yawning again, Helena's eyes drifted over the faint bruises on the woman's pale skin. Thankfully, it didn't look like they would get too colorful. That would have been like a knife to the heart. She cared too much for Barbara to want to see her hurt in any way. They'd both been through too much pain already; the only thing that had gotten them through some of it was that they had each other to lean on. She thought about it for a moment, deciding that maybe the bond they'd forged with each other over the years was what the kid was picking up on. From all accounts, Dinah had never been that close to anyone, so no wonder the kid misinterpreted what she'd seen, misunderstood the feelings she'd picked up.

She yawned again. The insight didn't entirely pacify her anger, but at least now she had a logical reason for Dinah's know-it-all declaration. That must have been it.

Barbara noticed Helena's drooping eyelids and increasingly frequent yawns. She wheeled closer to the bed. "Get some rest, Hel. And thanks…for the reassurance."

She was gratified when Helena murmured a quiet, "No worries," and settled back down into the little nest she'd made. Smiling at her, Barbara turned her chair around and made her way out the door, heading back to her work station. The conversations with her teammates hadn't brought about quite the resolution she'd hoped for. Then again, few things in real life turned out to be as neat and tidy as they did in the movies and on TV.

Shaking her head at the thought, she rolled into the living space and towards the Delphi, grateful that – at the very least – they'd achieved an uneasy peace. Better that than no peace at all

Six months later…

"No he didn't!!" Dinah exclaimed.

Startled, she sat upright so quickly that she knocked the earpiece of her cell phone headset loose. With one hand, she tugged it back into place before once again sprawling ungracefully across the couch. Despite the fumble with the earpiece, she didn't miss a word of Gabby's breathless confirmation. She just didn't believe it. "That's just…just…no way. Are you sure Gina heard it right?"

Helena winced at the awkward phrasing, but kept her mouth shut. Lounging in an easy chair, she pretended that she was deeply engrossed in…well…whatever magazine it was that lay open on her lap. She'd already offered a number of snarky comments about the phone conversation, but figured she should try and keep them down to a bare minimum so she could continue to eavesdrop. It wasn't like Dinah actually forgot she was there or anything. But every time she'd interjected something, the teen had lowered her voice and spoken in nearly indecipherable slang. Well, until she got excited about something again and went back to her normal volume.

Normally, hearing only one side of a conversation drove Helena absolutely batshit. But this one – ripe with uninhibited gossip about people she didn't know – had turned out to be fun.

Of course, part of the appeal was probably that she was bored out of her skull. She had been for a couple months, if she really thought about it – ever since she and Reese broke off their on-again-off-again…thing. Helena wasn't quite sure what else to call it. They'd never officially dated, but had fallen in to a pattern of hanging out with each other during their free time. She understood his erratic work schedule; he knew about her secret life; it just kinda made sense. And she'd welcomed the outings, since it gave her something to do other than tend bar and kick ass. After all, most of her old friends had moved on to post-college lives that didn't look a thing like hers, and the kid and Barbara spent nine months of the year focused on homework and teaching respectively.

Dinah stuck her hand over the back of the couch, waving to attract Helena's attention. She knew full well that her teammate was there and listening, but she didn't care. It wasn't like the woman was going to show up at her school and start spreading the gossip around or anything. And this was something she'd probably want to hear. Besides, she was just happy that things between them had finally gotten back to normal. If it meant having to listen to snide comments while she was trying to talk to her best friend, then so be it. It was way better than having to endure two weeks of the silent treatment. So not a road she ever wanted to go down again.

"You can't be serious that Mr. Brixton did that. Come on, Gabby."

Helena perked up her ears on hearing Wade's name. Ah, another failed relationship for the erstwhile crime fighters of New Gotham. Just like her and Reese. Not that they'd had a real relationship, but still. There had come a point where they'd realized they just weren't destined to be anything more than friends. He wanted someone more passive and admiring; she wanted someone more independent and intelligent. Not that he was a moron or anything, but come on. He was a detective, had seen her face early on before she took to wearing a mask, knew some of her hangouts, and still couldn't figure out her name until she handed it to him on a silver platter. Please.

"But Miss Burnette is like older than him. Like way older. And she's…well…y'know?"

Helena stifled a laugh at what Dinah didn't come right out and say. Give the kid a PC award. She'd met the teacher in question, who was a good twenty years older than Wade. And she was probably the dictionary definition of the word homely. That – in and of itself – was not an actual problem. Hell, in her time tending bar, she'd met a couple of downright ugly people who were married to potential model material. But Burnette had a chip on her shoulder the size of Texas and it was her negative personality – not her looks – that caused most people to run screaming for the hills.

She shut the magazine and stuck it back on the table next to the easy chair before walking over to the couch. She swept Dinah's feet off the cushions, grinning impishly at the indignant response, and plopped herself down next to the kid. The conversation was getting juicy and she didn't want to miss any of it – at least the parts she could hear.

Now this was more like it as far as Helena was concerned. School had just gotten out for the summer, yesterday in fact, and while Barbara was still there finishing up with grades and getting everything in order for fall, she'd be done soon as well. Helena was glad that both her teammates would be around during the day, so she'd have people to hang out with and pester. Being at loose ends was not a lot of fun. She was sure her former shrink would have offered up some choice words about that; then again, her shrink had turned out to be a complete whack job.

Helena shivered slightly at the thought of how much damage Harley Quinn could have done with the powers of hypnotism if they hadn't captured her in time. Thankfully, Barbara had managed to ferret out the woman's lair. While Helena and Dinah dealt with all the hired muscle, the redhead had snuck away from the fight, surprised Quinn in her lab, and knocked the psycho out cold before she started in on the almost-obligatory super-villain rant about her evil plans. She still wanted to laugh at Barbara's description of the scene and at the fact that Quinn hadn't even known her hideout was under attack. Hell, she probably didn't even get enough of a look at Barbara to know who she was, let alone why she was there. By the time Harley regained consciousness, the Birds of Prey were long gone and she was in a New Gotham police car, on her way to Arkham Asylum for the same kind of "forced retirement" as her beloved Joker.

Noticing that the brunette's thoughts seemed to be wandering, and not to a happy place, judging from the look on her face, Dinah set out to reclaim her attention. Sticking out her tongue, she put her feet back on the couch, deliberately rubbing them against Helena's leather pant leg, just to irk the woman. When she felt the pad of a finger running threateningly over her toes, she jerked her feet back and fixed her companion with a mock glare. Still listening with one ear to Gabby's rambling explanation, she updated Helena on what she'd heard.

Leaning towards the other woman, Dinah held her hand over the headset's mouthpiece. Lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, she said, "Apparently, Wade asked Miss Burnette out on a date. He got her flowers and everything. And she turned him down in front of a roomful of people. Which just goes to show…" She took her hand off the mouthpiece and effectively yelling into Gabby's ear. "You are so lying to me! No freaking way. He did not. She did not. Wait…Gina saw the whole thing?"

Helena had to admit that while it was maddening to have to wait for the explanation of the fragmented sentences, it was really nice to see Dinah having a normal teenage chat with a normal friend about a normal high school. Well, normal by New Gotham standards anyway. But after a few moments, when it appeared that the kid had forgotten all about the cuing-her-in portion of the program, Helena leaned over and tapped her on the shoulder. Ok, so it was harder than strictly necessary, true. But still just a friendly little tap. Though no one would have known it, given the way Dinah winced and rubbed her shoulder.

"Ow…that hurt. No, Gabby, I'm fine. You know how Helena gets when she's horsing around." Dinah was only half-kidding; the tap really had hurt. But she knew what it was about, so she muttered an encouraging "Uh-huh" to Gabby, and leaned towards Helena again, whispering.

"So like Wade got rejected by her in the faculty lounge. And then he turned right around and offered the flowers to Ms. Mbunde. You know…the deaf lady from Africa who reads lips so well that like everybody forgets she's deaf? She said yes, which was like 'duh' since everybody knows she's got a crush on him. It's actually kinda cute to watch her watching him."

Helena smiled at that, since her teammates had somehow roped her into going to one of those interminably dull school formals, and she'd seen Mbunde mooning over Wade. Not that she'd understood the attraction, but to each her own. So she could buy the idea of him asking her out, and her saying yes. Still, that left some unanswered questions. "So…how does Gabby know any of this? I mean, yeah, I know she's hearing it from her girlfriend and all, but if this happened in the faculty lounge, how did Gina see it? And why was she there when school's already out?"

The questions weren't new to Dinah since she'd already asked them herself. Obviously Helena hadn't been listening at that particular point in time. Still blocking the mouthpiece with her hand, she shrugged and put on her best innocent face. "Well, she was there because she volunteers in the library and they wanted some extra help. And as for how she saw it…well, you know how there are a couple of pretty big air vents between the ground floor and the basement at school…and kids get into them sometimes when they're skipping class but don't want to go out and wander around in the snow or rain or whatever."

She stopped there, waiting for Helena's nod of comprehension. She hadn't known for sure if her teammate had known about the hiding places or not, though she'd figured there was a ninety percent chance that she did. "There's one more on the third floor that like no one knows about. Gina stumbled on it by chance last year – a couple homophobic football players were chasing her so they could beat her up, and she found it while looking for a hiding spot. It goes right over the lounge. You can hear everything that goes on down there."

Dinah cringed when she realized that she'd just implicated herself, making it clear that she'd experienced this firsthand. Great. She really needed to learn to think before she spoke.

Helena saw the blush of embarrassment creeping up the girl's face. She wanted to act all stern and parental and make Dinah think she was in trouble or something. But she couldn't keep from chuckling. She'd spent plenty of time in high school doing the same thing – skipping classes, roaming around the parts of the school that were supposed to be off-limits, spying on teachers. She had no room to talk.

"Oh damn. My phone's beeping…the battery's going. Listen, Gabby, have fun tonight with Gina and tell me if the movie's any good. I don't want to spend ten bucks on something stupid. Just be glad Gina has a rich daddy who gives her a huge allowance and thinks the two of you are made for each other. Yeah…you shut up too…ok…call me tomorrow."

Dinah slammed the phone shut just as the battery failed for good. "Wow. I didn't realize we'd been talking so long."

Helena couldn't resist giving the girl a playful slap on the leg. "Hello – it's been almost four hours, D. What on earth can you possibly talk about for so long? Didn't you just spend the entire day together yesterday? Ok, so granted the gossip about Wade and sourpuss and Mbunde is pretty interesting, but it sure didn't take up four freakin' hours."

"Ah, I see the school grapevine is working to its fullest capacity."

Hearing Barbara's dry voice, both women jumped, being completely unaware of her presence in the doorway. Helena couldn't believe that she'd missed the redhead's arrival with her enhanced hearing and sense of smell. Then again, she'd been totally focused on the kid and the conversation and had long ago learned to tune out extraneous noises when she was concentrating on something specific. As for Dinah, she felt her face flush. She hadn't expected Barbara home so early and she so wasn't looking forward to having to explain how – or from whom – she'd heard the gossip.

Barbara noted their reactions, particularly Dinah's embarrassment, but chose to overlook them, focusing instead on the incident in question. "I overheard Brenda Burnette talking indignantly to several different teachers this afternoon; I just hadn't expected the news would filter down to the student body so fast. Too bad she's the one spreading the story, since she's making Wade out to be a complete jerk."

Helena blinked in surprise at that. She thought Wade was boring and pompous and a big ol' wuss. But none of that made him a jerk. Ok, so asking another woman for a date right in front of Miss Battle Axe wasn't very nice. Then again, she thought the old sourpuss had brought it on herself by being such a bitch. She'd suffered through more than one class with the teacher and been on the receiving end of the woman's temper before.

Dinah shook her head in disbelief. Impulsively, she blurted out, "Why would anyone think Mr. Brixton was the jerk? I mean, all the kids at school think he's the nicest guy ever. Miss Burnette is the jerk. I mean, she's so bitter and mean all the time, and here's some younger guy asking her out and she just rejects him. And not nicely either."

Whoops. And there she went, implicating herself again. She really needed to put a lock on her tongue or something. It was one thing with Helena, but with Barbara…

Barbara looked hard at the teen, putting two and two together to get four. She knew about the air vents, including the one over the teacher's lounge. And a couple months ago, she'd run across Gina in the hallway outside that particular one, looking suspiciously red-cheeked. So she had a pretty good idea where Dinah had gotten her information about Brenda and Wade. But she decided not to get into that. After all, it wouldn't really be fair to lecture the girl for something someone else did.

Pulling her thoughts together, Barbara wheeled herself into the room. "Well, he did come off like a jerk by asking someone else out immediately after Brenda turned him down. Not to mention the fact that he did it in front of her. But I honestly don't think he expected her to say no. She'd been complaining about men being shallow and fixated on looks, and he decided to prove her wrong. And he really does like her – they share some hobbies and have a lot in common."

She paused, shaking her head. "Anyhow, I'm sure he wasn't trying to be a jerk about it. I think he was just hurt and felt like he'd been put on the spot, so he asked Winifred out instead, without thinking about how it might look. He really was just trying to be nice."

It occurred to her that it might sound a little odd that she was defending her ex-boyfriend. Still, she considered Wade a friend and the fact that their lives were on two entirely different tracks wasn't his fault – or hers, for that matter.

Helena rolled her eyes. Leave it to Barbara to make the guy out to be a saint. Please. "So if he just wanted to be nice, why make such a big production out of it? Just so people will notice how nice he is? And what's up with him and the whole 'I'll only date people my parents will object to' thing? It's not like he's James Dean or anything."

Dinah practically bounced in her seat. "Yeah, totally. No offense, Barbara, but you know his parents weren't comfortable with the fact that you're in a wheelchair. And they wouldn't have liked the fact that Miss Burnette is like their age or something. And they really won't like the fact that Ms. Mbunde is…well…you know…"

"Deaf?" asked Barbara acidly.

She knew full well that Dinah's reference had been to the woman's race. Still, the disability would be an issue as well, at least to Wade's parents. They were narrow-minded people, insulated by their money and connections to power. They were white, upper-class society's version of the Ugly American. The few dinners she'd had with them had left her feeling like she needed to wash her mind out with soap.

But she wasn't really as put out by Dinah's comment as she was pretending. She just sat there, watching the girl and Helena trade glances and gestures. While she could guess what they were discussing in their silent conversation, it didn't really matter. She was just glad to see it – taking it as yet another sign that things were back to normal. For a while after the blow-up, she'd feared the wounds would never heal. In the past few weeks, however, Barbara had noticed the growing closeness between them. They started going places together and arguing about clothes and fighting over the TV remote. There was a definite sibling vibe there. They'd even started to look automatically to each other for backup against her. It was annoying when she was trying to make a point or explain consequences But all things considered, she'd rather have them ganging up on her than turning against each other.

Helena nodded emphatically at Dinah, hoping to finally get her nonverbal point across. When the kid jerked her chin at her and then at the redhead, she knew the message had been received. Putting on a lazy smile, hoping to deflect Barbara's attention away from wherever it had wandered, she jumped back in to the stalled conversation. "Well yeah, that too. Sure, it's cool that Wade sees past all the ridiculous prejudices his parents tried to indoctrinate him with. But I think sometimes he's just going through a rebellious streak that never ended."

She paused and then shuddered for dramatic effect. "At least he didn't try to do the whole biker thing…or the whole wild-child thing. Can you imagine him with green hair and a Mohawk? Or see him in leather trying to face off with a bunch of guys on Harleys?"

Dinah choked with laughter at the mental images. Oh, that was evil. Picturing her teacher with a neon-green Mohawk made her giggle. She looked around and saw that even Barbara had a hard time keeping a straight face. Mentally, she thanked Helena for jumping in so she didn't keep sticking her foot in her mouth. It was a huge relief to know her teammate had her back.

Pleased with the reaction she'd gotten, Helena smiled. While it wasn't hard to have the kid cracking up, it took a lot more effort to get that reaction from Barbara. It was one of the best feelings in the world. She segued into a description of the iridescent hair colors of some punk rock kids she'd seen at the bar yesterday. Partly it was to keep the conversation moving away from Wade and school. Partly it was because it felt really good to make her teammates laugh. It didn't happen often enough.

"One of them even had little beads on top of his spikes…"

Helena continued to ramble, one part of her mind focused on her story, the other part lost in thought. Their crime fighting work was usually dark and depressing, like the world was just an unrelenting cycle of evil and violence. So it was no wonder that things around the Clocktower were often serious. Still, maybe their lives didn't have to be quite so grim all the time. Actually, that was one good thing that came out of her sessions with her psycho shrink. Quinn helped her see that there was a bright side to life – and given her reasons to believe that even angst-ridden heroes could have happy endings. At the time, she'd thought she'd find hers with Jesse. Still, despite that monumental failure, she hadn't given up on finding her happy ending. That, in itself, was a minor miracle.

Shaking her head to get her mind back on her story, she continued, "So there was this other guy there who was pretty loaded. He stumbled over and asked the kids why they were using plain rubber bands when pony tail holders came in all sorts of neat colors. And then he pulled out a handful of Barbie doll themed accessories – don't ask me why he had them – and handed them to one of the kids…"

Barbara chuckled when Dinah tumbled off the couch because she was laughing so hard. She hadn't seen that happen before. And since the girl was still laughing, it was clear that she wasn't hurt. Glancing at Helena, she saw the woman grin at the reaction and keep right on going with her outlandish tale. While she had no doubt that the bare kernels of the story were accurate, she was pretty sure the details were highly embellished. Still, the story was fun and the levity much-needed. They'd all had a difficult year.

Barbara had been nervous when Helena moved back into the Clocktower two months ago. The reasons all made perfect sense, but she'd feared the close quarters would just make the friction between her teammates worse. Thankfully, the opposite had happened. And she'd been surprised at what a difference the move made for her personally – brightening up an often dull daily routine. She'd been lonely without Helena's vibrant presence, but hadn't realized how much until the woman was back under her roof. Still, she kept her feelings tightly under wraps, not wanting to give Dinah any reason to read too much into them. While she knew she'd love Helena until the day she died, that was her own private reality, not the actual life they shared.

Forcing her mind away from that sensitive topic, she went back to the thought that it had been a dreadful year. Still, life seemed to have come full circle and things seemed like they were finally going to be ok. Sometimes, good things did come out of bad experiences.

"You've got to be kidding. Helena, Dinah, I'm only going to be gone three nights, not three months. You've got enough clothes here for half the people in New Gotham."

Barbara scratched her head as she surveyed her bed. Or rather, surveyed the piles of clothes covering the top of the king-sized bed; they covered it so thoroughly that she couldn't even see a hint of her neutral beige sheets. What on earth had she been thinking when she asked her teammates to help her pack? Oh, that's right, she hadn't been thinking. She'd been busy writing out and memorizing her speech for the "Teacher's Association for Literary Competence" conference.

It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a gathering she'd ever intended to attend, though they invited her every year like clockwork. For one thing, the group usually met during the school year, when she was literally too busy to get away. For another, they tended to take their roles as high school English teachers just a tad too seriously for her taste. Yes, their jobs were very important. But it wasn't as though the fate of the free world depended on them being able to interest students in the finer aesthetic aspects of The Scarlet Letter.

And for another thing, she just couldn't handle being overly involved with a group whose acronym was TALC. She didn't know why it disturbed her, but it did. Not for the first time, she wondered how that little quirk had gotten past an entire group of English teachers.

Still, one of their presenters had fallen ill and the group had contacted her in desperation. She almost said no, but two things changed her mind. The most important was that – given the stresses of recent months –she thought Helena and Dinah could use a mini-vacation. The other was that it wasn't every day that she was offered an all-expense paid trip to Atlanta. And, if she was honest with herself, there was a third reason she'd finally said yes. She couldn't resist the chance to give a speech contradicting TALC's stated position that a successful English teacher was one who could point out all the stylistic splendor and symbolic significance of "The Classics." She intended to argue that real success came from helping students understand how the morals and lessons of literature related to their lives and the world today.

Helena could tell Barbara was lost in thought again, and coughed near the woman's ear to get her attention. She struggled not to laugh when the redhead looked up, startled. Trying to act innocent, though she'd been told before that her attempts were not at all convincing, she said, "Well, you're the one who asked us to make sure you're prepared for any conceivable type of weather or event."

Dinah tried to stifle a giggle, and failed miserably. She glanced from Helena's best nonchalant face to Barbara's trying-not-to-be-exasperated face, and laughed again. It had been way too much fun going through the woman's closet. When they'd first started the task, about an hour ago, they'd made an honest attempt to find suitable outfits for a boring old teacher's conference. That had lasted about five minutes. She still wasn't sure who had started it – her or Helena. But one of them had emerged from the walk-in closet with a garish pink, orange, and olive striped sweater that practically screamed "unwanted and unasked for Christmas gift." After that, any pretense of helping Barbara pack had flown out the window. They were too busy seeing what other weird clothes were hidden away at the back of the oversized space.

Barbara glanced back and forth between the two, but still couldn't figure out why they'd emptied her closet – or what was so funny. Ok, so she had told them to make sure she was prepared for anything. Then again, it was June and she was going to Georgia. There was no possible need for heavy sweaters or ski socks. And why, at a teacher's conference, would she need the forest green negligee that was draped out over her pillow? Come to think of it, she didn't even remember owning the thing. No, wait; she did remember it after all. It was a gift from Dick, a Christmas gift that had made for a memorable evening…She was sure that the sudden warmth in her cheeks meant that she was blushing. Hoping her companions wouldn't notice the reaction, she wheeled closer to the bed, focusing on other long-forgotten items. Apparently she should clean out her closet more than once a decade.

Helena watched in amusement as Barbara looked over her clothing with a faint air of surprise. The older woman was so not a clotheshorse; she, on the other hand, knew exactly what was in her closet at all times. Glancing over at Dinah, she raised an eyebrow, and cocked her head in Barbara's direction. The kid's answer was a pantomimed laugh and a raised eyebrow of her own.

Reluctantly, Helena decided that they'd had their fun, but that it was time to stop horsing around. After all, it wasn't every day that the redhead asked for any kind of help, even when she needed it. She'd be even less inclined if it always turned into a joke. It was ten-thirty at night, the packing still wasn't done, and she knew Barbara still had to do some tinkering with the Delphi to set things up for her absence. And since the woman's flight left at the ungodly hour of seven a.m., they'd have to be up at the butt crack of dawn to get her there the requisite two hours ahead of time.

Forcing herself to act like a grownup, Helena offered, "Ok, so maybe we got a little carried away. You go play with the computer and we'll get your packing done – for real this time – and then we can all crawl into bed."

Dinah wasn't sure if she should be worried when Barbara turned her chair around and headed towards the door without a word. On the one hand, the woman didn't actually seem upset with them. On the other hand, she figured there should have been some kind of response to the suggestion, so maybe Barbara was mad. It was still hard for her to read someone so self-contained. Looking over to gauge Helena's reaction, she saw no signs of concern and relaxed slightly. Then she nearly choked when she heard a dry voice drifting back from the doorway.

"I'd better make a donation to Goodwill soon before the two of them start playing dress-up whenever I'm not home. God only knows what kinds of costumes they'd want to start wearing out on sweeps…"

Hearing sputtering protests behind her, Barbara was careful to keep her smile hidden as she rolled away.

"Remember, I've got my cell phone if you need me. The…computer shouldn't give you any problems. It should just run its normal programs and only sound an alarm if something…er…catastrophic happens. And I've got things set up so that I can use my laptop to access the…database if I need to."

Helena rolled her eyes – quite conspicuously – at the other woman. Despite the fact that they were standing just outside of the airport security line, she didn't bother to keep her voice down. "Yes, I know…I mean, we know. We won't play with your tech toys, we'll call you if anything even remotely interesting happens, and we'll eat our veggies and brush our teeth and stick to our bedtimes and share our Barbies."

Dinah nodded, adopting Helena's petulant tone. "Yeah, we'll be good, Mom; we promise. Seriously, we'll be fine. What are we…three? We're just going to kick back and watch some movies and order pizza."

Barbara felt herself flush, knowing she'd hit a nerve. She should have held her tongue, since the two were more than capable of taking care of themselves. Apparently, her control freak tendencies were coming out in full force again. Chronic sleep deprivation and lack of caffeine probably played a role as well. It was just that she cared about them, so she felt protective. Normally, it wasn't an issue. After all, even if they were out chasing down criminals, she was in constant contact, tracking them, talking to them. She was secure in her ability to do something to help them if things went wrong, even if all she did was alert the police. But now she was going to be several hundred miles away, without easy access to her usual equipment and contacts. It was only natural that she'd worry a bit.

Helena, while irked at the reminders, knew that it was just the woman's way of showing she cared. Not that she'd confess it, but it was kinda touching to have Barbara fussing over them. She didn't have a whole lot of people in the world who really knew her, really cared about her. Yeah, she had Dinah, and she and Reese were on good terms, and she had a friend in Gibson – despite his weirdo crush on her. But still, it was different with Barbara.

She gave Dinah a pointed look, telling her to put the sarcasm away, and then leaned down to give Barbara a hug. Helena held her close for several moments before pulling away and straightening. "Listen, Barbara, just go already. Things have been quiet lately and we can all use a break. I promise that if anything pops up, you'll be the first to know. I know you only worry because you care…but don't. We'll be fine. Trust me."

Barbara smiled up at her friend, fighting the sudden urge to pull her back down for another hug. She settled for gesturing to Dinah and drawing her into an embrace. She knew Helena was right and there was nothing to worry about. Despite her tendency to focus on the worst case scenario, her teammates were capable and could handle whatever might come up.

Releasing Dinah, she took the brake off her wheelchair. "I guess I should get in line for security if I want to actually catch my plane. And I do trust you. I'm sure everything will be fine."

A few moments later, after they'd said further goodbyes and Helena and Dinah had wandered away, arguing about where to stop off and get coffee, Barbara found herself waiting in a seemingly endless line of people. She tried to tune out the chaos around her, tried not to get too irritated with the waiting. Soon enough, she'd get through the line and be on the plane, where she could put on her headphones and lose herself in a book. Still, even trying to focus on that, she found that she was still worried. Clenching one fist, she told herself sternly to stop it. They'd be fine. It wasn't like they were little kids or anything.

And even with both of them having impulsiveness issues, there was only so much trouble they could get into in three days.

"We're so dead."

Helena shook her head in disbelief, not in disagreement. Unfortunately, she knew Dinah was right. The minute Barbara wheeled herself through the door and got one look at the place, heads would figuratively roll. Maybe the two of them should just have their bags packed and be ready to flee to Canada.

Dinah looked around the room morosely. Giving Alfred a mini-vacation while Barbara was gone was, apparently, one of the stupidest ideas they'd ever had. It wasn't like she and Helena had thrown a party or anything. But they hadn't bothered to pick up after themselves either. They'd left junk food wrappers and pizza boxes and soda cans all over the living room, figuring they'd save time by cleaning everything up all at the same time. They'd emptied their closets in an impromptu "let's trade some clothes" party, left trails of dishes and cups all over the spacious apartment, and had a pillow fight that scattered feathers in every imaginable direction.

In short, the place was a disaster zone. They'd gone to bed late last night, neither remembered to set an alarm clock, and now they didn't have time to do the leisurely clean-up they'd intended. They'd barely managed to get five minute showers. Barbara's plane had landed fifteen minutes ago, and they were supposed to be at the airport in another five minutes so that they could meet her on the sidewalk outside baggage claim after she'd retrieved her suitcase. The Clocktower was twenty-five minutes away from the airport, even with Helena driving.

"We're going to be dead *and* late."

Helena rolled her eyes at the fatalistic note in Dinah's voice. Not that it was misplaced or anything. First they'd get their asses chewed for being late and then they'd get their asses chewed for the dorm-room look of Barbara's precious living space. But it was a little late to be freaking out about it now, when they didn't have time to do anything about it. And since they had to go pick up Barbara at the airport, it wasn't like they could just run away and hide. While she avoided things whenever possible, she'd always believed in facing a situation head-on when avoidance just wasn't an option.

Pasting on her best game face, Helena draped an arm around Dinah's shoulders and literally pushed her towards the elevator. Despite the fact that the teen didn't resist, she could hear the anxiety in the muttered, "What are we going to do?"

Helena snorted. "There's nothing we can do. We'll act like everything's normal, get Barbara back here, and then make our escape once she starts having her conniption fit. Or we could try telling her it was a necessary part of our sisterly bonding. Maybe if she's tired enough after her trip, she'll even buy it."

It didn't surprise her that there was a touch of hysteria in Dinah's laugh. Yeah, they were so dead.

"God, where is she?"

Helena rolled her eyes. Like she had any idea. Spotting the airport traffic cop heading towards the Hummer, she pulled abruptly into the crowd of cars cruising for passengers, heading for the far left lane that would take her on a loop back towards the airport. Ignoring the agitated honking behind her, she put her foot on the gas and the vehicle leapt forward. She smiled grimly at the peripheral sight of Dinah's death grip on the dashboard.

Finally answering the teen's question, Helena muttered, "How the hell should I know where she is? What…are you *that* ready to get in trouble or something?"

Dinah glowered at Helena. "No, but I'd rather just get it over with and not live in fear." She paused briefly, letting the sarcasm die down. "It's just that she should be here, as late as we are."

"Well, try her cell again."

There was a distracted air to Helena's answer, which Dinah assumed was due to the sudden convergence of two lanes into one, and the huge shuttle bus bearing down on them. Her teammate might be reckless, but she wasn't suicidal. She pulled out her cell phone, and dialed Barbara's number. Once again, the phone didn't even ring, just went straight to voicemail. She didn't bother to leave a message, figuring it would be pointless since there hadn't been a response to the five she'd already left. Maybe the woman had just forgotten to turn on her phone after she got off the plane, or maybe she'd forgotten to charge it and it had turned itself off. Somehow, neither option seemed likely.

She'd started trying to reach Barbara the minute they got in the Hummer and took off for the airport. Having no luck, she'd called the airline to check the flight status, thinking that maybe they'd gotten lucky and the flight was arriving late. Finding out that the plane had actually landed fifteen minutes early made both of them cringe. It wasn't the fact that Barbara didn't pick up the phone when it rang that bothered Dinah; it was probably too loud in the airport and the waiting area for her to hear it. But it bugged her that the woman, knowing they were coming to get her, hadn't called back to scold them for being late or to ask about their ETA or anything.

Helena sent the Hummer skidding to a halt in a loading lane, figuring it was safe to stop there for a moment. She didn't have to be a telepath to know that Barbara hadn't answered the phone and that Dinah was starting to get really worried. Hell, she was getting an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. It wasn't the lack of a return call that bothered her though – she figured that the redhead was going to let them squirm for a bit because they hadn't shown up on time like they'd promised.

What bugged her was that Barbara was nowhere to be seen. As ridiculously late as they were, she should have been waiting on the sidewalk for them. Helena had a sinking feeling that the woman was thoroughly pissed at them and was trying to make a dramatic point.

Abruptly, she became aware that Dinah was muttering anxiously, repeating variations on "Why?" and "Where?" And, of course, those were the exact questions she couldn't answer. Reaching out, she put a hand on the kid's forearm, hoping to help calm her. Normally Helena was all about venting and letting emotions run free, but in this case it would probably do more harm than good. She knew her teammate had an over-active imagination.

Seeing that the physical contact seemed to have an effect, she spoke as evenly as she could. "Ok, stop it. You're freaking out about worst case scenarios when you don't even know that there's anything wrong. She's probably just mad at us and trying to make us worry."

Hearing her teammate's words only made Dinah's anxiety come back full force. That just didn't sound like something Barbara would do. She knew she didn't know the woman as well as Helena did, but still. There were some things a person could take to the bank, and Barbara's dependability was one of them.

"You can't seriously think she'd let us worry like this, can you?"

Helena sighed, considering her words carefully. It was a valid point and she understood why Dinah's tone was so sharp. But she also knew better than nearly anyone in the world that Barbara was just as human as anyone else, no matter how much people tried to put her up on a pedestal.

She kept her voice as matter-of-fact as possible. "Normally, I'd say no. But think about it – right before she left we were whining about her treating us like kids. And then what do we do? We turn right around and act like we are. So now, maybe she's making a point, seeing how freaked we get before coming out to find us."

While Dinah didn't look convinced yet, Helena could tell her words had given the kid something to chew on. Feeling like she was on a roll, she kept going. "Maybe she just got tired of waiting and called a cab. Maybe she ran into a friend in baggage claim and they're having a cup of coffee while waiting for us. Or maybe one of the things you're imagining is true – she got sick with stomach flu, missed the plane, and is too sick to talk…or she was locked in the airport bathroom by a psychotic airport janitor."

Pausing for effect, she met Dinah's eyes before finishing. "There are literally hundreds of bizarre things that maybe happened. But seriously, D, are any of them really all that likely?"

Dinah carefully let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding as Helena drove home the point. Ok, so maybe she got a little carried away. Her sense of guilt over being late and leaving a mess probably made this seem like a much bigger deal than it really was. She mulled things over and much as she hated to admit it, Helena was probably right.

Watching the kid intently, Helena could tell that her words had made an impression. But she knew that wasn't quite enough – that Dinah needed something more tangible to hold on to. While she and Dinah weren't very much alike, they did have a few things in common. She knew the kid – like her – needed to do something physical when she was upset or anxious.

With that in mind, Helena spoke briskly. "Ok, so we'll go back to the terminal. You can go inside and look for her. She's probably sitting there somewhere, just waiting for us to get nervous enough to start searching. And if you don't find her, then you can check around and see if anyone remembers seeing her get into a cab or anything."

Seeing Dinah's enthusiastic nod, Helena rolled her eyes. It was a very simple idea, but the way the kid was acting, it was like she'd come up with some brilliant plan. Please. She was all for flattery, but really, this was a little much. Not knowing what to say, she checked her mirrors and put the Hummer into gear, while Dinah started babbling excitedly. She didn't even try to follow the chatter. The sooner she dropped the kid off at the terminal, the better.

In less than a minute, they were back in the jumble of cars competing for an open space to pick up passengers. Helena sat up as straight as she could in her seat and scanned the curbside crowds. Not seeing any glint of red hair, she waited until the car in front of her stopped in the middle of the lane, and then turned to Dinah, jerking her chin at the door. "I'll keep circling until I see you. Don't rush, though, take as much time as you need to check things out. Just do me a favor and meet me down at the far end where there aren't as many people."

She saw the confirming nod and then the girl slid out of the vehicle and shut the door. Not sparing a glance for her, Helena turned her full attention back to the traffic jockeying for position. Seeing that the car in front of her was moving again, she pressed down on the accelerator slightly, checking to be sure no one was trying to cut in from her right side.

They were already in enough trouble with Barbara; she didn't need to make it worse by wrecking the Hummer.

Dinah sighed wearily as she swept her gaze around the baggage claim area again. After Helena dropped her off at the curb, she'd walked along the entire outside perimeter, scanning the crowds just to be thorough. Then she'd headed inside, hoping that she'd walk through the revolving door and find the redhead sitting there with a stern look on her face. But that hope had been in vain. She'd already wandered through all the baggage claim areas once, looking around at everyone in hopes of spotting the older woman. Now she was doubling back in case she'd missed Barbara coming out of the bathroom or something.

Walking slowly, her eyes roamed over the assorted people rushing past her and bumping into her in their hurry. She kept a tight rein on her mental shields, not wanting them to slip. Over the past several months, she had learned how to control and use her mental powers, but still got overwhelmed in crowds when unshielded. Too many people, most of them preoccupied or tired or downright unhappy, and too much input to avoid it all. She'd found out the hard way how hellish it could be to be in a crowd and inundated with random swirls of thought and emotion.

If not for that, she would have gladly dropped her barriers and felt for Barbara's presence. While she was primarily a touch telepath, her empathetic powers had grown to the point that strong emotions in her immediate vicinity were readable without physical contact. And within a certain, though short, distance, she could tell if her two teammates were nearby by sensing their auras. Of course, she used these gifts only rarely, finding it much safer to stay shielded.

Shaking off those irrelevant thoughts, she continued her scan of the crowd, hoping that at any moment, she'd spot the older woman. But she reached the end of her return path and still no sign of Barbara. For a moment, despair clawed at the back of her throat and she felt defeated. Then she took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm down and think.

Ok, it was pretty clear that the woman was no longer at the airport. That meant that most likely she'd either gotten a ride from someone or taken a cab. So her next step should be to check with the customer service desk to see if anyone remembered seeing Barbara or noticed where she'd gone. If she'd been trying to find a brown-eyed brunette of average height, she probably wouldn't even have bothered to ask without having a picture handy. But a green-eyed redhead in a wheelchair ought to stand out in the memory of anyone who'd seen her.

Waiting patiently for a group of meandering and oblivious tourists to pass her, she made her way over to the lone customer service cubicle which actually had a staff person inside. Again, she waited, less patiently this time, for the pink-haired, middle aged lady in front of her to catch a clue and listen to what she was being told for the tenth time – namely that she couldn't buy a plane ticket at that desk and she'd have to go upstairs. Finally, the woman got the point and Dinah was able to step up to the counter.

Impatient and worried, she blurted out, "Hi there. I'm trying to find someone and I was hoping you could help me."

The customer service rep didn't miss a beat. He went straight into an obviously memorized speech about where the paging telephones were located and how she'd need to go to the security desk for any additional help. Dinah recognized her mistake as soon as the man started talking and mentally kicked herself. When he took a breath to continue his spiel, she interrupted him. "No, that's not what I meant. Not exactly anyway. See, my…sister and I were supposed to pick up our…aunt…but we ended up running late, really late, and her plane came in really early, and now she's not answering her cell phone. I think she probably already left the airport, so paging her isn't going to help."

She realized that she was taking a long time to get to her point when the rep broke in, politely enough, but clearly dismissive. "I'm sorry, but if she's already gone, there's not much…"

Holding up her hand, she interrupted him again. "I know that." She saw the flash of irritation in his eyes and couldn't really blame him, given that he had to deal with people like her and the middle-aged lady all day. Shaking her head ruefully, she continued. "I'm sorry. I'm not making myself clear. I just wanted to check here to see if maybe you saw her."

Seeing that the man looked like he wanted to say something, probably to remind her how many hundreds of people passed in front of him on any given shift, she spoke quickly. "She's hard to miss because she's got fiery red hair and is in a wheelchair. I thought maybe she asked someone to call her a cab or that maybe she was hanging around here while she waited for us."

She watched as the man stared off into the distance for a moment, clearly going over something in his head. After a long moment, in which she had to fight not to tap her foot or otherwise vent her growing frustration, he looked at her with a sense of triumph. "I did see your…aunt, was it? She came back inside through the regular door not the…er…handicapped door, which was what caught my attention. I only saw her from the corner of my eye, but she was talking to one of the security guards. That was all I saw, since I had a line of customers in front of me…but…Hey Gus! Come here for a minute."

Dinah turned around to see who he was shouting at. A big, bald, black man with muscles coming out of his ears walked over to them. As he took up a position beside her, she stared up in amazement. He must have been at least seven feet tall. She felt herself blush as he looked down at her, catching her staring, but he merely gave her a kind look and a wink and she felt much better.

Abruptly, she became aware that the rep was talking to her. "This is the guard your aunt talked to. Maybe he can help you find out what happened to her."

That was a clear dismissal if she'd ever heard one, and she thanked him for his help, then stepped away from the window. Gus motioned her to follow him and she did, letting him lead her off to the closest approximation of a quiet corner that the baggage area had to offer. She felt a hand the size of a baseball glove rest gently on her shoulder, squeezing encouragingly. "Tell me what the problem is, miss. I'm sure everything will be just fine."

It suddenly occurred to her that she must look nervous, which, in fact, she was. Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and felt his hand drop away. She repeated the explanation she'd already given, adding in a little more detail about why she was worried. Before she'd even finished her description of Barbara, Gus nodded thoughtfully.

"I do remember her; it's not every day you see someone with hair that color of red. She seemed to be having a hard time balancing both her bags, so I came over to see if I could help. Got one of them strapped on to her chair for her, and she told me she'd been waiting outside for her friends, who were running late."

Dinah felt a little of the weight lift from her shoulders just from knowing that Barbara had clearly gotten her voicemail messages. It made it a little easier to concentrate on the rest of what Gus had to say. "She thought she'd gotten a bee sting, which was why she came back inside. I took a look at her shoulder and there was a red spot, so I got her an ice pack. She thanked me and said she was going to make a phone call and go back outside to wait, so I went back to my rounds."

She wasn't entirely sure why the man paused there. Looking up at him, she saw his gaze turned inward, as if he wanted to be certain his words were accurate. Momentarily, his eyes met hers as he said, "I saw her a little while later. Her wheelchair was sitting right next to a black Bentley and the driver was loading her bags into the back."

Dinah frowned, trying to fit the pieces together. Who in the world would Barbara have gotten a ride from? And why would she go with someone else if she knew they were on their way to pick her up? And why did a Bentley sound so familiar…?

A light bulb went on and she asked, "What did the driver look like?"

If Gus was surprised by the question, he didn't show it. "He was an older white man with white hair. He wasn't very tall, maybe 5'6" or so. He wore a black suit and tie…if it wasn't for the car, I would have taken him for one of the guys who drive for the airport limousine companies. You know how nicely they dress."

She smiled fully, relieved beyond measure. But she didn't miss the man's quizzical quirked eyebrow. "Do you know him?"

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure I do." Impulsively, she reached out and put her hand on his arm. "Thanks, Gus. You've been really helpful…and you totally made my day."

Moments later, still smiling at the aw-shucks grin he'd given her, Dinah made her way outside and down to the end of the pick-up area to meet up with Helena. She figured she'd have to wait, but to her surprise, the Hummer was idling at the curb and no one was chasing it away. Whether that had to do with the dwindling traffic or with the glare on her teammate's face, she had no idea. She climbed in, buckling her seatbelt. Expecting the other woman to shift into gear and drive off, she was confused to find blue eyes boring into her. She blinked rapidly, uncertainly. Then she heard an impatient snort.

"Ok, so you don't have Barbara with you, which I'm guessing means she's not inside. So…what did you find out?"

Dinah groaned and slapped herself lightly across the forehead. Duh…of course the woman would want to know what was going on. Quickly, she repeated the chain of events as Gus had stated them, not adding in her own two cents. To her disappointment, Helena put the pieces together even faster than she had.

"Why the hell did Alfred come pick her up? He wasn't even supposed to be back until tonight."

That was a good question. Dinah was ready to venture a guess, but was distracted when Helena abruptly put the Hummer in gear and lurched into traffic. She grabbed on to the dashboard for dear life and glared at the other woman. Not that the look had any effect, since Helena's full concentration was on the road. At least, she thought it was, until she heard the woman answer her own question.

"I should have known he'd come back early. He probably wanted to get things squared away and make a nice dinner and stuff. But I thought I told him that we were going to pick Barbara up from the airport…oh shit…"

Dinah raised an eyebrow, not sure what caused that little outburst. But she didn't have long to wonder about it, since she heard Helena's breathless explanation. "I can't remember if I told him or not. I planned to, but I was a little sidetracked that day. I mean, it's not like we've traveled much lately, but he's usually the one who does the airport runs so he probably didn't even think to ask. He probably just figured he'd stop by the airport on his way back into town."

Helena felt like banging her head against the dashboard. Hard. The only reason she didn't was that she was the one driving. "Damn it. We are so dead. Did your security guard friend say how long ago that was?"

Mulling it over, Dinah finally shook her head. "No, and I didn't think to ask." She stopped there, wondering what difference it made, and then the mental picture of the mess they'd left in the Clocktower popped into her head. She swore under her breath. "Oh man…They're going to kill us when they see what we did…or what we didn't do."

Leaning forward, Dinah held her head in her hands, massaging her temples. Yep, they were in so much trouble. And then there was the little fact that they'd given Alfred some time off without asking Barbara first. Who knew how upset she might be about that? After all the ranting she and Helena had done about wanting to be treated like adults, they'd gone and royally screwed that up. And here everything had been going so well lately.

Sunk in her own despair and knowing her teammate probably felt the same way, Dinah was surprised to hear Helena's dry chuckle. It caught her completely by surprise and she sat up straight, staring open-mouthed at the woman. She could not possibly imagine what was amusing about the situation.

"Well, there's one good thing in this whole stupid mess we've made for ourselves. At least we won't be there to watch them flip out when they walk in the door. They'll still be pissed, but at least the initial shock will have worn off by the time we get back."

Dinah couldn't argue that point. But as the Hummer sped its way back to the Clocktower, she found it was cold comfort indeed.

"Oh Lucy...I'm hooomme."

Dinah winced as Helena stepped out of the elevator with that greeting on her lips. They'd argued about their upcoming entrance most of the way home from the airport. She'd strongly vetoed the idea of drawing attention to their presence, hoping that if they slipped in quietly, they might go unnoticed until Barbara had a chance to calm down. But Helena had argued against it, reminding her that with all the bells and whistles on the Delphi, there was no way in hell they could enter the Clocktower without the redhead noticing.

She'd tried to persuade her teammate that this was a bad idea, but Helena had simply done the whole "la la la la la...I can't hear you" routine. Sometimes Dinah wondered which of them was in most need of growing up.

Helena noted her teammate's reaction out of the corner of her eye, but didn't bother to respond to it, not really wanting to argue the same old point again and again. She stepped forward, ignoring Dinah in favor of finding Barbara. From years of experience dealing with the older woman, she knew that it would be best for them to just face the music directly. While it wouldn't dull the edge of the long lecture they were bound to hear, she knew Barbara would at least respect them for taking responsibility and all that jazz.

She walked farther into the room, her puzzlement growing with each step. The living space was fully as trashed as they'd left it, and there was no sign of either Barbara or Alfred.

Helena frowned, not sure what to make of their apparent absence. Feeling Dinah's presence right behind her, she led the way through the various rooms of their apartment, scanning for any clues she could find. There were no signs of wheelchair tires rolling over any of the trash on the floors. The woman's bedroom was empty with no luggage waiting to be unpacked and no clothes in the hamper to be washed. The Delphi was as silent as they'd left it the past few days, which was almost a dead giveaway that Barbara wasn't home yet. It was utterly inconceivable that she wouldn't have opened up at least one or two screens, just to get a summary of what data had been gathered in her absence or to get the machine back up and running its usual programs.

Several minutes later, she and Dinah stood silently in the empty kitchen, the last room of their search, staring blankly at each other.

Opening the fridge, Helena didn't notice any new groceries or see any sign that Alfred had been there recently. She couldn't quite decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, it wasn't good if the missing duo had gotten into some kind of accident or something on the way home. On the other hand, if there'd been an accident, they would have seen it. There was only one route that any of them took between the airport and the Clocktower – it was the most direct and had the least amount of traffic.

Pondering it, Helena decided that the only logical explanation was that Barbara and Alfred had stopped off for a late lunch. She smiled to herself, pleased with both her reasoning and its implications. They'd just gotten a major break. They could get at least some of the mess cleaned up before the others got back. Hell, with any luck they could get everything done and avoid a lecture or scene altogether. Kick ass!

Dinah scowled when she saw the sudden grin lighting the woman's face. Really, what the hell was the matter with Helena? Her uneasiness was growing by the nano-second and there was the brunette looking like it was Christmas morning or something. She snapped her fingers impatiently and waited for dark blue eyes to rest fully on her. "What are you so happy about? How on earth is this a good thing?"

Helena snorted in disbelief. How completely dense could the kid be, anyhow? She'd have thought that after nearly a year of training with them, Dinah would have learned a little more common sense and to take full advantage of any opportunity she was given.

Fighting the urge to roll her eyes, Helena instead shook her head. "Hello, pick up the clue phone. We've been handed a golden opportunity on a silver platter to clean this place up. Of course, we could just stand here wringing our hands helplessly and looking worried, and do nothing at all. Except get in trouble, of course."

Dinah found herself growing increasingly irritated with her Helena's cavalier attitude. She knew, of course, that the woman hid her deepest feelings behind a mask of cheerful nonchalance and usually wasn't quite as happy-go-lucky as she seemed. But it still surprised her to see that mask go on so quickly under these particular circumstances. Actually, surprise wasn't the right word for it. It infuriated her.

Still, she was proud that she could counter Helena's retort with one of her own instead of either bursting into tears or angrily spinning out of control. "Maybe instead of worrying about the damn apartment, you should be a little more worried about why we have this opportunity in the first place. They should have gotten back here way before us."

This time, Helena did roll her eyes. Had she been such a drama queen at that age? Oh wait, she was that much of a drama queen now. She just used it to get a laugh, not to be all doom and gloom. Suddenly recognizing the anger in the pale blue eyes fixed sternly on her, she turned her attention back to the matter at hand. Taking a step forward, she rested a hand on the blonde's shoulder, smiled widely, and batted her eyelashes in her best imitation of Southern belle charm.

"C'mon, D. They must have stopped off for lunch and will be back before we know it. Don't be such a worrywart."

Shaking off Helena's hand, Dinah continued to glower at her, not believing what she was hearing. "Aren't you even a little concerned about the fact that Barbara and Alfred are missing?!"

Dinah watched her teammate closely, thinking she saw the smile falter for the barest second. But then it was firmly back in place and she saw Helena's mouth open, probably to offer up another pithy comment or something. But the voice she heard wasn't Helena's.

"Miss Dinah, Miss Helena. I most certainly am not missing. Though upon seeing the state of the apartment, I begin to think perhaps I should have remained on holiday."

Dinah couldn't help it – she literally jumped when she heard Alfred's voice behind her. She turned around slowly, not missing the triumphant expression on Helena's face as she did so. Still, despite the butler's timely appearance, her uneasiness was growing exponentially. Something felt very, very wrong and she couldn't put her finger on what. She noticed that Helena didn't seem to share her qualms in the slightest. The woman brushed past her, still grinning like an idiot, and focused her conversational charm on Alfred.

"So…how much trouble are we in? I mean, I know you'll just shake your head and mutter about us under your breath for a while, but how mad was Barbara when she saw it? I mean, we'll clean it up and everything, but she's probably still having a conniption or something…"

Helena trailed off when she saw Alfred looking more and more confused with each word she spoke. Then her brain registered the complete lack of sounds coming from outside the kitchen. Suddenly unsure of herself, she tried again. "You did bring Barbara back here after picking her up at the airport, right?"

Alfred looked from one young woman to the other. He was unable to determine what was going on, but was reasonably sure that whatever it was, it boded ill for all of them. "I did not pick up Miss Barbara as I was under the impression that you intended to do so." He kept an expert eye on the duo, his concern growing when Helena's smile disappeared entirely and her face turned ashen. She looked as though she might faint. The silence stretched for a moment and he was grateful when Dinah finally broke it.

"At the airport, the security guard saw Barbara beside a Bentley with a white-haired man in a suit and tie. That wasn't you? You didn't pick her up?"

Had he not been in service to superheroes for his entire adult life, he might have let some of his rising concern show. But he'd learned early on to school his emotions. His reply was slow and cautious. "I have not driven that car in half a year and it is stored at the Batcave. I have been utilizing something far more fuel-efficient. I was nowhere near the airport today and have not seen Miss Barbara since before she left on her trip."

Helena and Dinah exchanged worried glances, then spoke as one. "Then where the hell is she?"

Barbara woke slowly, cautiously, wondering where exactly she was. Her head felt like it was stuffed with cotton candy, which made it difficult to think. But the one thing she knew for certain was that wherever she was, it was no place good. She'd spent enough time on the streets fighting crime to have a particularly strong sense of imminent danger. Not that she generally heeded that warning voice, as she'd demonstrated time and again, but it was usually very reliable.

Now, her spidey sense, as Helena had dubbed it, was practically screaming in her ear.

She kept her eyes closed and concentrated on breathing evenly. Extending her senses as much as possible, she tried to gather what information she could without letting on that she was awake. As she started to focus on her surroundings, the fog in her head started to dissipate, for which she was grateful. Despite the loss of her legs and the profoundly crippling impact that had on her ability to live her life on her terms, the only time she truly felt helpless was when she wasn't in control of her own mind, when she couldn't analyze or plan.

Ok. There was a slow drip of water somewhere in the distance. The air around her was chilly and damp. Considering it was summer, that probably meant she was somewhere underground – maybe an old water storage chamber or one of the semi-forgotten underground tunnels from Old Gotham City. Her back was on something hard, unforgiving. Her hands were, surprisingly, free. That probably meant she was behind bars or in a locked room, going on the assumption that she'd been taken captive. That assumption, unfortunately, seemed highly likely. Otherwise she'd have been picked up at the airport as planned and not have this completely blank space in her memory about what had happened...drugs!

The sudden realization hit her hard. She vaguely remembered feeling a sting in her shoulder and turning around in her chair quickly but seeing no one close behind her. She remembered the quick moment of panic she'd had, before deducing it must have been a bee sting. After all, she'd been sitting near one of the flower pots the airport had hanging outside in their vain attempt to make the pick-up area seem more "inviting." No wonder her head felt so foggy, and no wonder she couldn't remember anything between going back outside to wait for her teammates and waking up here. Wherever here was.

Listening hard for another several moments, she didn't hear any sounds of breathing other than her own. Cautiously, she opened her eyes, steeling herself in case there was sudden brightness, but not terribly surprised to discover that the ambient light was very faint. Sweeping her gaze around quickly, she breathed a soft sigh of relief to realize that she was, indeed, alone for the moment. It didn't decrease her sense of danger in the slightest. But it gave her a measure of comfort to know that she had at least a moment to get take in as much information as she could.

It might not help, but it certainly couldn't hurt. After all, for her, knowledge was power.

As she'd guessed, she was a captive. She lay on a stone floor in a small, windowless room. There was a door shaped rectangle cut into one wall, and thick bars criss-crossed it, rather than running along it vertically or horizontally. She frowned at that, knowing there was something familiar about the sight, but unable to place it off the top of her head. Even knowing that the drugs in her system were still impeding her mental processes, she found herself annoyed at the failure of her memory.

Levering herself into a sitting position, she scooted back so she could lean against the wall and face the door. Experimentally, she made a fist and knocked on the concrete behind her. As expected, it stung her knuckles and made a dull thudding sound, indicating that it was solid and thick. Not that she was surprised by that, since it didn't make a whole lot of sense to create a prison with insecure walls, one where a determined prisoner could conceivably dig herself out. But she'd had to check it anyhow, just in case.

Of course, her wheelchair and luggage were nowhere in sight. Not that she had any hidden weapons other than her escrima sticks, since she hadn't wanted to call attention to herself by trying to take weapons through security. Or worse – packing them in her checked baggage with the risk of having them stolen. While everything was locked, she had few illusions about it being completely secure. After all, she'd known a number of thieves in her life…

Pulling her mind away from its wanderings, she forced herself to focus again. Where was she? Oh yes, the lack of luggage or wheelchair. Ok, so no help there, not that she was really expecting any. Letting her eyes move around the small space slowly, she searched for any detail she could find that might prove useful in some way. The walls were completely smooth, with no rough edges or cracks. More importantly for her immediate concerns, there were also no inset rings or shackles as would be found in a dungeon. That might mean that her captors didn't see her as much of a physical threat and so didn't see any need to keep her tied up.

If so, that could work to her advantage later. Lack of weapons and wheelchair aside, Barbara was far from helpless.

The ceiling was also smooth, which fed her suspicions that this room had been designed specifically as a holding cell within a much larger space. What little she could see of the area beyond the cell showed rougher walls, appearing to be stone rather than concrete, and the ceiling seemed higher. It looked like an underground cavern, a dilapidated one at that, abandoned and forgotten years ago. That sent a shiver down her spine, that sense that her prison had been recently built, and built by people who knew exactly what they were doing. And it wasn't a very large space; she estimated it to be approximately 8ft. by 8ft.

That wasn't a terribly comforting realization either, highlighting as it did the notion that this was just a secure lock-up for prisoners until they were wanted for questioning...or worse. Given some of the enemies she'd made during her days as Batgirl, she had few illusions about what might lie in store for her if any of them had figured out her true identity. Of course, as she pondered that, any who had the brain cells and resources to do so would already know what the Joker had done to her.

After a quick mental tally, she found herself somewhat surprised at the realization that most of her old nemeses were dead or in Arkham. The few who remained at large were those who ran relatively straight-forward criminal operations and weren't looking to be super villains. They'd treated crime as a business venture, not as an epic clash between good and evil. And in the run-ins she and Bruce had had with them, she'd seen no sign that they were out for personal revenge whenever one of their operations was disrupted.

She couldn't fathom any of them running the risk of getting caught to get their hands on her. After all, she was no longer any threat to their activities. Batgirl hadn't been out patrolling in more than seven years and the NGPD was their enemy these days. However, her old nemeses aside, there were undoubtedly many other people who'd want to have a little "quality time" with Oracle for sending her vigilantes after them.

She couldn't imagine how anyone had uncovered her current secret identity, but if anyone had...

Fighting the sudden chill of terror that knifed through her, she fought to stuff away that disturbing thought. No sense in imagining the worst and panicking herself; she'd find out soon enough who held her prisoner and what lay in store for her.

She took a series of deep breaths, marshalling her not inconsiderable self-control, and focused her attention back on the details of the imprisoning space. The only light in her cell came from a fluorescent panel inset in the ceiling; she couldn't tell if one of the tubes was burned out or if the wattage had been dimmed on purpose. At the moment, it didn't really matter. The ceiling was a good ten feet above her head and with nothing to climb on or brace herself against, she couldn't get to the light fixture to fashion a weapon from the fragile tubes.

Something in the corner next to her caught her eye and she braced one hand on the floor and leaned over to get a better look at it. It was a hole, perfectly round, and about a foot across. Scooting herself across the floor, she ended up next to it and peered down inside, trying to figure out both what it was for and if it could help her in any way. She could see a bottom to it, about two feet down, so it was clearly not an access point to a tunnel or a way out. Her heart sank at that realization, even though she hadn't really expected that anyone smart enough to build this prison would be dumb enough to leave an escape hatch open. The edges of the hole were perfectly smooth and had obviously been created at the same time as the room itself.

Maybe it was intended to store water...but then why have it flush with the floor itself? Her unconscious choice of words provided her with the answer. It was the room's version of a toilet. She could see that a bucket would fit easily into the indentation.

The thought made her extremely nervous. Not from any bad experiences in her past or anything, but from the sense of a prisoner being left here for hours or days on end. Then again, the whole thing made her nervous. She suddenly wondered if she was the only captive, or if Helena and Dinah had gotten nabbed as well.

The last thing she remembered was sitting outside, an ice pack on her shoulder. She'd been debating whether to call her teammates to let them know she'd gotten their messages or whether to let them squirm a bit longer and worry that they'd annoyed her. Which they had. She remembered that clearly because of the fuss they'd made about being responsible. Still, replaying things in her mind now, she wanted to kick herself for acting like a child just because she was annoyed. She should have called them back promptly, not played games with their heads. Hell, she shouldn't have set her phone to go straight to voicemail after Dinah's first call; she should have just answered it and had an adult conversation with the girl.

Wrestling her emotions back into place, she continued going over the sequence of events, looking for a clue in it. She remembered feeling sleepy as she debated the question, finally deciding to let them off the hook. There was a fuzzy memory of reaching for her cell phone in a pocket of her cargo pants. After that, nothing. She had no idea if her teammates had found her passed out in the wheelchair, put her in the Hummer to take her home, and were ambushed on the way, or if someone else had taken her before the duo even made it to the airport. Damn it. The mere thought of her teammates being captured nearly made her heart stop.

She could deal with her own imprisonment; she didn't think she could handle theirs.

Forcing herself to breathe deeply, she fought her rising anxiety. The only thing that helped was the stern reminder that if they were here, she couldn't help them if she was immobilized by panic. She had to keep it together, for their sake and for hers. After a moment, she calmed down enough to think clearly again.

Prompted by the walk down memory lane, she slid a hand into her pocket to see if she still had her cell phone. She figured her captors had taken it, but it wouldn't hurt to check. Her fingers encountered only fabric and she could feel the contours of her own leg underneath it, not a hard lump of metal and plastic. As always, she glanced down reflexively, her brain needing the visual cue to reconcile the discrepancy between the sensation transmitted by her fingertips and the lack of sensation transmitted by her leg.

"Looking for this?"

She couldn't help it; she jumped at the unexpected words. Heart beating rapidly, she looked up…and found herself staring into the eyes of Harley Quinn.

"Damn it!"

Though Helena's outburst wasn't entirely unexpected, Dinah found herself wincing anyway at the obvious frustration in the woman's tone. While she'd been working to get some rudimentary programs booted up on the Delphi, the other woman had been calling every last taxi and limousine company in New Gotham to find out if any Bentleys had been dispatched to the airport to pick up a woman in a wheelchair. She knew this had been the last one on Helena's list and she didn't even have to ask to know what she'd found out.

Ignoring the woman for a moment, she pecked away at the keyboard. Of course, she didn't have anywhere near the same kind of access to the complicated computer system that Barbara had. But her access levels were much higher than Helena's. At least Dinah concentrated on learning the software programs and following their protocols, rather than getting impatient and trying things at random. She'd heard horror stories about her teammate uploading viruses and deleting command codes.

Helena slammed the phone book shut. The gesture wasn't nearly forceful enough to vent her frustration, but it helped a little bit. Not a single company had been able to help her. Very few companies used Bentleys; the ones who did hadn't dispatched any to the airport today. All in all, a complete waste of time. And sitting still so long made her edgy, her muscles tensed with the need to be doing something…anything…to figure out where Barbara had gone.

She walked over to the Delphi and swung herself up to sit on the work table next to the keyboard. Swinging her feet impatiently, she watched Dinah type in some long string of gobbledygook. The girl's fingers moved slowly over the keyboard and she found herself missing Barbara's usual rapid-fire typing. Almost immediately, a fifth window popped up on the oversized screen and she stared at it blankly, not understanding a word of the scrolling sentences. But apparently her teammate did because she leaned forward, nodding thoughtfully.

When Dinah did nothing more than nod and stare, Helena felt her frustration start to get the better of her. To keep from lashing out at someone who didn't deserve to be on the wrong end of her temper, she pushed off the edge of the table and started to pace. Balling her hands at her side, she concentrated on her strides, forcing herself to focus on something other than her frustration…or the missing woman. Resolutely, she told herself to be patient and give Dinah as much time as she needed to do whatever she was doing. The pep talk wasn't very convincing, but it helped her keep her mouth shut and her feet moving in tight little circles.

Dinah tuned out her teammate as best she could, though she took a moment to be thankful that Helena wasn't hovering over her and radiating nervous energy. She didn't have the same intuitive understanding of the computer programs that her mentor did, so it took a lot more concentration for her to understand and assimilate the data the machine was spitting at her. And she didn't want to open her mouth and explain what she was seeing until she, well, knew what she was seeing.

After all, between her inability to state things clearly and Helena's inability to listen completely, that would just be asking for trouble.

Leaning forward intently, Dinah concentrated on the scrolling information. Once the readout stopped, the cursor blinking at her insistently, she thought for a long moment. Then she found the menu for that screen and went through the steps she remembered to try and narrow the scope of the data she'd just perused. After all, there was an awful lot of it and as far as she could tell, most of it was irrelevant to them. Not for the first time today, she found herself feeling out of her depth with the massive computer system. She looked at the box that had popped up, waiting for her to type in her criteria to sift through the data.

Chewing her lip, she hesitantly typed in a handful of words and hit the "OK" button. Expecting to have to repeat the exercise a few times before getting the results she wanted, Dinah blinked in surprise when, after a moment's processing, the machine presented her with a new list of data. Reading through it quickly, she found it was exactly what she was looking for. Either she was getting better at this whole computer thing, or Barbara had done some tinkering to the rudimentary programs to make them more user-friendly. Whatever the reason, she was glad for it. She scrolled slowly through the page again, reading carefully this time. Not that it took too long, since there wasn't a lot there. Finally, sure of herself, she sat back in the chair and sighed softly.

Helena heard the sigh and before she had time to process her own reaction, was back at the work station, swinging herself up to sit on the table top. She watched Dinah nervously tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear. For a moment, her heart stopped, wondering what on earth the teenager had found that made her so nervous. Then, seeing that the kid didn't look panicked or anything like that, she realized it was just generalized worry. Dinah's words confirmed her guess.

"Well, that was a summary of all the reported incidents at all the nearby jails over the past five days. Even though I know Barbara said there'd be an alarm or something if there was like a break-out, I thought it would be a good idea to double check. According to the Delphi, it's only been the usual minor stuff, inmate fights, that kind of thing."

Helena nodded, impressed that Dinah had thought to check into that. Hell, she was impressed that she knew how to check into that.

Dinah continued her narrative, hands flexing in her lap as she spoke. "I narrowed it down to see if anybody had tried to escape…like any of Barbara's enemies. There were two escape attempts at the minimum security jail and one at the maximum security one. Only one person managed to get out and he was recaptured within half an hour. All the other prisoners were accounted for when the guards did head counts."

Catching Helena's eye to emphasize her words, Dinah got to the important part. "There were no escape attempts at Arkham. They had a weird power glitch four days ago and thought it might have been an escape attempt, since some of the secondary defenses on the cells were compromised. But all their inmates are accounted for. With regard to Barbara's enemies, the Riddler was making his usual threats, the Joker was telling everyone how surprised they'd be when his plans finally came to fruition, and Harley Quinn was still pacing around her special cell."

Dinah shook her head at the reminder that Helena had actually spent one-on-one time with such a psycho. Mentally reviewing what she'd read, she offered up more details. "Apparently Quinn doesn't talk much…except to the Joker when the guards let him call her. It's like all she does is walk around her cell in circles and talk to herself. Like if you didn't already know it, you'd never even guess she used to be a psychiatrist..."

Hearing Helena clear her throat, she blushed. And there she went again, running off at the mouth about stuff that, obviously, wasn't at all relevant. Half-expecting a verbal jab, she blushed again at the belated realization that her teammate was just sitting and staring at her. Granted, the woman didn't appear to be waiting patiently, but that wasn't one of her virtues anyhow. Taking a deep breath, Dinah summed things up as succinctly as she could.

"According to this info, we can rule out an old nemesis escaping to kidnap Barbara."

Helena shook her head, but not in disagreement. She wasn't disputing the girl's summary, even though she knew perfectly well that they couldn't rule anyone out yet. All of Barbara's old foes had plenty of contacts on the outside. If they'd wanted to enact their revenge from behind bars, they could have. Why wait until now? She moved her head from side to side, stretching her neck muscles. "Don't you think we're jumping the gun a little bit? We don't know for sure that she's been kidnapped. We don't know what happened…or if it's really all that bad."

Ok, so she didn't really believe that. Judging from the scathing look Dinah was giving her, the kid didn't believe that either.

"You can't be serious. If everything was fine, she'd have called by now." Dinah glared up at her teammate, daring her to contradict the statement.

She wasn't at all surprised when there was dead silence. Seeing the layered emotions in dark blue eyes, she suddenly felt a weight land on her shoulders. Clearly, Helena was still in shock and wasn't really functioning on all cylinders yet. And she couldn't say, all things considered, that she was surprised. Still, Dinah wasn't sure how to deal with the situation, wasn't entirely sure she could take on the role of the grown-up. She was scared out of her mind and wanted someone to reassure her that everything would be fine. But that was a luxury she didn't have right now.

Dinah spoke quietly, imagining what Barbara might tell them if she were here. "Denial isn't going to help anything. If we pretend nothing bad has happened, we won't be very effective at doing everything we can to find her." She was proud of the fact that her voice didn't shake and that she didn't sound nearly as uncertain as she felt.

Helena curled her hands into fists, her normal humor failing her under the weight of the statement. Dinah was right; pretending wasn't going to make everything ok. And since neither of them was exactly the brains of their little operation, they needed to put all their efforts into finding Barbara, not keeping up a happy little state of denial.

"You're right, Kid," she breathed, feeling momentarily deflated by the admission.

Taking a deep breath, Helena somehow pulled herself together. Bracing her hands on the table top, she jumped off, walking over to stand behind her teammate. She put her hands on Dinah's shoulders, squeezing encouragingly, and then spun the chair slightly so they both were facing the Delphi. Not that she understood any of the stuff on the screen, but she wanted the kid to know she was trying to focus. "So, what do you suggest? Any idea where we should start? We've ruled out some stuff, but the city's a little too big to search every inch of it without a starting point."

Surprised by the sudden shift in Helena's mood, Dinah reached up and squeezed one of the hands resting on her shoulder. Then, dropping one hand to the keyboard and the other to the optical mouse, she closed out the windows she no longer needed. She couldn't concentrate with too much data on the screen or too many programs running. It overwhelmed her under the best of circumstances – when she was just screwing around with games or doing research for her homework. It was even more overwhelming now.

Dinah had had her share of fantasies where some crisis had left Barbara unable to get to the computer and she'd coolly saved the day by working magic on the keyboard Now that the crisis was here, she couldn't help but think that her daydreams were a bunch of BS. Rattled by the enormity of it all, she muttered, "Gimme a minute."

The slight edge of panic in her teammate's voice didn't help Helena's emotional state any. She wanted to reassure Dinah, but didn't know what to say. All she knew was that the information accessible from the Delphi ought to be able to help them somehow, and the only one who could get to it was the teenager.

"Perhaps, Miss Dinah, you could attempt to track the location of Miss Barbara's comm set. I believe that program is one you have access to, and I know with certainty that her comms were packed along with her laptop computer."

Helena heard Dinah echo her sigh of relief at Alfred's unobtrusive but extremely timely entrance. She wondered briefly if that particular knack was something all butlers learned, or if it was a skill unique to him. Hell, for all she knew, Alfred had as much access to the computer as either of them did. If so, however, he showed no sign of it, simply came over with a tray in hand. She watched as he set down twin mugs of coffee, a bowl of sugar, and a creamer full of half and half.

As he began to walk away, Helena called him back. "Why not stick around for a bit, Alfred. I'm pretty sure Dinah and I can both use a little help figuring out where to start."

She was relieved when he made no comment, simply stopped in his tracks, then came back over and set the empty tray down on the table. And since she could feel the muscles beneath her hands loosening, she could tell Dinah was relieved by the man's presence as well. Well, duh. Helena could have kicked herself for being surprised at that little revelation. The two of them weren't solo operators; they were used to having well-defined roles and working as a team. And the teenager had even less experience with making decisions and dealing with an actual crisis than she did.

Helena resolved then and there to do what she could to be strong for Dinah's sake. They both needed to be on their game to get through this.

She massaged the girl's shoulders briefly and then moved to the side so Alfred could take her place and peer over her shoulder at the screen. Knowing there was precious little she could do to help, Helena busied herself with the coffee. She doctored up the two mugs, adding liberal sugar to hers and fixing Dinah's the way she knew the teen liked it – with just as much sugar and even more cream so that it was beige colored. Under any other circumstances, she would have teased the girl when handing her the mug, asking if she wanted some coffee with her cream and sugar. Today, she kept quiet, not wanting to disturb the girl's concentration any more than necessary – or needlessly get on her nerves.

Dinah smiled her thanks and took a healthy sip of her coffee, one hand still on the mouse, clicking and moving in accordance with Alfred's steady instructions. For a moment, she thought about offering her seat to him, suddenly certain that he knew more about the Delphi than she did. But she stopped herself. If he'd felt it necessary, he would have suggested it himself. While he was the Hollywood stereotype of the perfect butler, he wasn't shy about voicing his opinion and took action when he saw fit. In a situation like this, where his employer and friend seemed to be in danger, she had no doubt he'd step up to the plate if he thought that she and Helena weren't taking the right approach.

Obviously, he had confidence in her ability to operate the Delphi and get into the program with just a bit of guidance. The thought steadied Dinah more than she would have expected. Within moments, she found herself in a directory she remembered using before. She deftly made her way through the menus that popped up, barely aware that Alfred had stopped speaking.

Seeing how Dinah's confidence increased as she zipped through a series of commands, Helena shared a fond smile with Alfred. She sipped her coffee, fighting the continued urge to pace, and forced herself to do something she'd never been good at – wait. But she didn't have to wait long. Within moments, she saw a familiar grid pop up on the computer screen with three blinking red lights on it. She knew as well as the other two that it was the GPS location program that tracked their comms signals. Two of the red dots were next to each other and the location was, from the overlaid map, indisputably the Clocktower.

The other red dot…She moved in and leaned over the teen's shoulder, so close that she felt Dinah's hair tickling her neck. Reading the map coordinates and checking them against the street names, it looked like the other red dot was about ten miles away. And from what she could see, it wasn't moving. A shiver of dread crawled up her spine at the thought that Barbara was lying dead in a ditch somewhere, which would explain the lack of motion.

Even as that morbid thought occurred to her, Alfred spoke, his voice optimistic – though she was almost one hundred percent sure it was solely for Dinah's benefit. "Perhaps we have found the location where Miss Barbara is imprisoned."

Glancing over at the butler, Helena saw that the expression in his eyes didn't match the tone in his voice at all. As he looked at her, meeting her gaze, she saw the slightest jerk of his chin in Dinah's direction. She simply nodded at him, keeping her mouth firmly shut. She knew as well as he did that it probably wasn't that simple. Anyone who could get their hands on a woman like Barbara Gordon knew exactly what they were doing and would be professional enough to look for any sort of transmitter or GPS beacon.

Still, as she pondered it, absently watching Dinah scribble down the coordinates and the cross streets, she realized her own initial thought was equally improbable. If someone simply wanted Barbara dead, they could have easily shot her while she waited at the airport, not gone to the trouble and risk of kidnapping her. Until they arrived at the site and saw the scene with their own eyes, there was no sense speculating about what they might find.

Dinah finished making notes from the information in front of her, doing her best to block out the overwhelming silence from behind her. She was pretty sure she knew exactly what they were thinking. The same terrifying thought had occurred to her as well. While she didn't have their wealth of experience, she wasn't nearly as naïve as they seemed to think. She knew there was evil in the world and that human beings did some truly horrible things to one another. She just didn't see those things as unchangeable, inevitable. Not when there was so much good, so much kindness, and so much love to be found. If that made her naïve, so be it.

Clearing her throat, Dinah started to push back in the chair, moving slowly so she didn't roll over the feet of her companions. Unsurprisingly, they moved quickly off to the side. She finished backing away from the work table and then swiveled around in the chair to face them. Uncertain how to proceed, she was grateful when Helena set down her mug and said matter-of-factly, "Let's go check it out, Kid. Alfred, you wanna come with us?"

"I think not, Miss Helena. I'll remain here, as there is always the possibility Miss Barbara might attempt to contact us. I thought perhaps I would inform Master Grayson of the situation and determine if he can offer any assistance."

Alfred said the words as neutrally as possible, watching Helena carefully. He knew that she and her half-brother had a strained relationship at best, so he was prepared for her vehement opposition to his perfectly reasonable proposal. Instead, she narrowed her eyes and regarded him warily, but voiced no objection. In fact, she even offered a curt nod. It actually took him aback for a moment.

Watching the two young women walk towards the elevator, their faces grim and determined, he felt his thoughts turn dismal. Given the lack of protest, Helena must be worried indeed.

Part 2

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