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 Two

Barbara couldn't help it; she gasped at the sight of her captor. The woman looked like a harmless pixie with her petite frame, blonde hair, and big blue eyes. But there was a mix of madness and fury swirling in her eyes and the aura of menace she radiated was impossible to miss. What troubled her more than anything was the fact that she should have been aware of Quinn's escape from Arkham; her monitoring program should have sounded an alarm on the Delphi and then sent an urgent alert to both her cell phone and her laptop. Something, besides the obvious fact of the woman's escape, had gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Taking note of what Harley was waving around in her hand, Barbara recognized it as her cell phone. Even as she put two and two together, the woman handed it off to the incredible bulk standing silently beside her. While the hired muscle didn't look overly bright, he apparently knew what his boss wanted. He opened the flip phone, dropped it on the floor, and then literally jumped up and down on it, pulverizing it. Barbara felt her eyes grow wide with surprise. She'd have to remember that that particular brand and style was not nearly as indestructible as the consumer reports made it sound. Otherwise it wouldn't have so quickly turned to so much high-tech dust under the man's boots.

"I suppose it might have been fun to watch you listen helplessly to your ringing phone when someone finally figures out that you're missing. But it's been three hours since we...liberated you from the airport, and no one's bothered to call you yet. And I don't want anyone to get the bright idea to try and trace you through the phone's GPS."

Quinn locked eyes with Barbara. "It's so sad. There's no one to pick you up after a little trip – to notice or care that you're not home. Then again, being a hero must be an awfully lonely life...Batgirl."

There was real menace in that last word, but Barbara only felt a curious sense of relief. The main reason was simple -- Helena and Dinah obviously weren't prisoners. Indeed, Harley seemed to think no one even knew she was missing yet, so obviously hadn't looked at the phone to see the record of missed calls or the little voicemail envelope. While she wasn't thrilled about being in the clutches of a woman who was not only insane but clearly pissed off at her for some reason, at least she didn't have to worry that her teammates were hurt or in danger too. Thank God.

The other reason for her relief was related -- that Quinn knew her as Batgirl, not as Oracle. Despite knowing the other woman's link to the Joker and that things were likely to get ugly, at least her biggest secret was still safe. Since her former alter-ego was known for working alone, especially once Batman and Robin left town, Quinn wouldn't expect anyone to come looking for her.

She had no doubt that however long it might take, Helena and Dinah would find her.

Hearing Quinn clear her throat, Barbara came abruptly out of her mental meanderings. The woman was staring at her expectantly and she didn't know how she was supposed to respond. It wasn't like she had a script to work off of or anything. Threats probably would be laughed off; not to mention that she didn't want to tip her hand about her teammates. Pleas and posturing weren't her style, even if she thought either tactic would be effective. Questions about Quinn's plans and her fate would probably be acceptable, but she knew the woman wouldn't be able to resist boasting about that anyhow. Being too inquisitive would probably come across as false bravado, which might make things worse for her in the long run.

And silence, while a tool she'd long found highly effective, would probably just infuriate Quinn.

She settled for answering the implied questions in her captor's little spiel. "So you've figured out that I'm Batgirl. Yes, it is a lonely life...working alone from a wheelchair...not able to leap tall buildings in a single bound."

For a moment she thought the reference to Superman might have been a little over-the-top, but Quinn merely laughed. "Yes, that must be incredibly difficult for you. Poor little Bat who lost her wings. The Joker was smart to leave you alive but crippled. He has a sort of genius for what will hurt people the most."

Barbara frowned as she weighed the woman's words. She knew Quinn had been officially diagnosed as psychotic and that she probably shouldn't read too much into her words. Even though the woman had her completely lucid moments, it didn't make her mental issues any less real, or her ranting any more believable. But Quinn had said "the Joker" instead of "my beloved Mr. J." And there was something in the flat tone of her voice – something important. She looked up at the pixie standing outside her cell, noting the way the blonde head was cocked to the side like a bird. The blue eyes were fixed expectantly on her, studying her, waiting for her response.

Not sure she was doing the right thing, but certain she'd drawn the right conclusion, Barbara spoke quietly. "Yes, he does. You'd know that better than anyone else. You've been his worst victim...haven't you?"

She watched the woman carefully, so saw the flash of pain in blue eyes. It didn't surprise her when Harley raised a hand in command and the incredible bulk ambled off, presumably to let them speak in private. Not that he'd seemed to register anything that had been said up to that point anyhow; she wouldn't be surprised if he'd been thoroughly hypnotized…

A shiver of fear ran through her at the reminder of Quinn's dangerous power. Then, she forced herself to calm down. If the woman had intended to hypnotize her, she'd have done so already -- she would have woken up in restraints and been put under a spell before she had time to clear the drugs from her head. After all, if the woman were to try that now, Barbara could think of a few tactics that would decrease her susceptibility to being controlled.

"He always said you were smart." The words weren't quite a snarl, but close to it.

Barbara couldn't decide whether the anger was at her – or him. Quinn's next words left no doubt. "Then again, he said a lot of things that weren't true. I couldn't even tell the difference between truth and fiction most of the time. And they wonder why I lost it...why I went nuts."

The blonde head shook emphatically. "I keep telling that dingbat prison shrink that it was the Joker who did this to me. Oh sure, I had the genetic predisposition, but that man put me completely over the edge – demeaning me, humiliating me, physically and mentally hurting me every chance he got. He did it all on purpose to break me down so he'd have a little harlequin doll to fulfill his every whim."

She heard Quinn snort, heard the derision laced through her words. "You know what the shrink does when I say that? He persists in asking about my childhood – like the good little Freudian he is. He doesn't believe me when I tell him my parents were distant and non-nurturing but didn't cause this. Hello, I'm a shrink too...I know how this works."

Against her will, Barbara felt a surge of sympathy for the woman holding her prisoner. She knew what it was like to be browbeaten and abused, to be the victim of a bully. She had a strong will and people outside of her biological family who loved her and yet even she knew her childhood had left scars that hadn't healed completely. If she'd been vulnerable to mental illness, if she hadn't had any outside support – she couldn't imagine where she might have ended up.

None of that excused what Quinn had freely chosen to do, especially once the Joker was locked up and out of her daily life. But it explained a lot. It also lent truth to the concept of, "Physician, heal thyself."

Still, she didn't think sympathizing with her captor would do much good, though she couldn't be completely sure about that. It struck her how little she knew about the woman – and she was a strong believer in knowing her enemy. As if that thought was a prompt, she asked curiously, "How can a psychologist adequately evaluate you when you're kept in a special cell and he can't truly look in your eyes and see what's there or see who you are?"

She caught a flash of sadness in blue eyes that was quickly disguised, followed by an indulgent laugh. "Wow. That's almost word-for-word out of the crisis response handbook – sympathize with your captor so she thinks you're on her side."

Barbara, who hated her motives and actions being misunderstood, regardless of circumstances, was ready to protest the characterization. But she held her tongue, realizing the woman was still talking. "Actually, if you were anyone else, I'd assume you were doing just that. But you always were too curious for your own good…and don't think I don't realize you're fishing for information."

There was a long pause there, and Barbara didn't know what to say. She couldn't quite tell if she should keep the conversation going or just let it drop off. After all, asking more questions probably wouldn't get her any useful information since her captor knew what she was up to. Then again, maybe the woman just needed an audience. Her internal debate ended when Quinn spoke up again. "Believe it or not, Batgirl, I respect you as an adversary. You're smart and you don't just see me as an extension of him."

There was no mistaking the bitterness in the woman's tone at that last word. "To answer your question, the prison shrink doesn't really care to see what's in my eyes. If he fixes me, helps me get better, he no longer gets paid. He wouldn't look at me even if I didn't have the reputation for having such a…hypnotic personality."

Barbara knew better, but couldn't hold back her groan. Much to her surprise, Quinn smiled at her with what looked like honest delight. "You see…most people would have forced a laugh at that pun, to try and get on my good side. You don't play that game."

Quinn leaned against the bars for a moment, lowering her voice conspiratorially. "So I'll tell you a little secret. That meta-human power I stole? It's gone. Seems the good doctor failed to tell me that a non-meta can only make temporary use of meta-powers, because her physiology isn't evolved enough to permanently integrate it and utilize it."

Half-expecting a long-winded explanation, Barbara was somewhat surprised when the woman stopped there and watched her expectantly. She turned the idea over in her mind and found that it actually made sense. She just hadn't thought about it before, or thought to have the Arkham staff monitor Quinn for signs that the hypnotism was gone. It was possible, of course, that the words were just a ruse, that the woman was lying to her in hopes of throwing her off-guard. But she believed the bald statement. Meta-gifts were unique to the people who had them, the people who had the subtle mutations that made them meta-human in the first place. Their abilities weren't like a computer flash drive that could go from one machine to another.

Instead of asking the obvious question, she asked the next obvious one. "So why did you continue the charade? You could have been in a more comfortable cell, treated as less of a danger, given more privileges."

She shrank back against the wall of the cell when she saw stark fury suddenly blazing in the blue eyes. Quinn actually raised a hand and Barbara had no doubt at all that if the bars weren't separating them, she'd have been slapped silly. Chilled by the volcanic change, she watched helplessly as the woman's face turned crimson and her eyes almost literally bulged out of her head. The sight was so disturbing that she found herself mentally reviewing the warning signs of a stroke; not that she could do anything to help from inside her cell.

After what seemed like an eternity, the color faded from Quinn's face, though anger still blazed in her blue eyes. Barbara found she could breathe normally again. When the other woman finally spoke, her tone was sharp enough to cut diamonds. "Because then he would have been allowed to come visit me."

Barbara didn't want to argue with the woman, but she found herself shaking her head and saying, "That can't be right. The asylum's policy is very clear that prisoners in isolation – like the Joker – can't have personal interaction with any other inmates. He wouldn't have been allowed to get any closer to you than a phone."

"Fat lot you know about it." Surprisingly, Quinn's tone was flat, not angry.

Barbara found herself bewildered at the continually shifting emotional state of her captor. It was like watching bi-polar disorder on fast forward or something. She shook her head in confusion. While a part of her didn't want to continue the conversation, the curious part of her was glad when Harley explained further.

"The Joker has two guards in his pocket. Well, not entirely in his pocket, since neither is stupid enough to ever help him escape. But they bend the rules for him, so he gets catered meals and they never listen to the conversation when he calls me. Otherwise, they would have known about the escape plan he came up with for me."

A chill walked up Barbara's spine at that revelation. But she didn't have much time to think too hard about the implication, since Quinn was still talking. "If they didn't think I needed to be locked in a special cell and have no contact with anyone, he'd have managed to get in to see me. That was the last thing I wanted. I'd finally managed to start being my own woman. The crimes I was doing were my idea, not part of his master plan."

A bittersweet smile crossed the pixyish face. "For the first time in years, no one belittled me or told me how worthless I was. I had a job that I'd gotten on my own merits and an apartment that I paid for with my own money. I was even on more stable ground mentally. I was in control of my own life and it felt good. I didn't want to go back to being his puppet."

Barbara felt another surge of sympathy, especially as she recognized that the last few sentences sounded like a child showing off her accomplishments. Ready to play the part of the parent and offer a verbal pat on the back, she felt herself on the verge of whiplash when Quinn suddenly stiffened and her face contorted in anger again.

The blonde came right up to the bars of the cell and waggled a finger at her. "And you…you put me in there with him! How could you? You fucking bitch!"

Feeling oddly helpless at the out-of-control conversation and struck by a sudden sense of self-doubt, Barbara struggled to find a response that wouldn't set Quinn off again. She did her best to keep her tone of voice even and neutral. "How did you manage to escape? Arkham is probably the best-guarded place in all of New Gotham. And why didn't he try to get out with you?"

She breathed a little easier when the questions seemed to have a bit of a calming effect. At the very least, the woman didn't look like she was ready to crawl through the bars and beat her to a bloody pulp. And Quinn's voice was flat when she answered.

"It's actually pretty simple. As you no doubt know, most prisoners have triple, even quadruple layers of security – old-fashioned backups in case a power failure turned off the main defenses. But they only had one layer of security for me, since their main concern was to deflect my gaze so I wouldn't hypnotize a guard. They figured even if I got out of my cell during a power failure, the guards at the door would stop me."

Barbara heard the woman chuckle then, saying, "For some odd reason, no one thought of little ol' me as a physical threat."

Oh, how she could relate to that.

Quinn paced briefly as she continued. "My meals are delivered by some sort of automatic one-way tube system, so my guards never set foot in my cell. They just watch me on their security monitor. My shrink only comes to see me once a month, and he's the only one who comes to see me. The Joker got his idiot guards to make him a DVD of my security camera footage, saying it would keep him company since he couldn't see me in person."

Barbara wanted to laugh at the way Quinn stopped and batted her eyes at the last sentence. But she didn't, keeping quiet so the woman would finish the explanation. "Then all he had to do was get some unwilling accomplices to load it into the security system, rig a power failure, and give me enough time to get out of my cell and into the ventilation system. The power came back up, the DVD kicked on, and the guards saw me safe and secure. It's a brilliant plan, actually."

"So why didn't the Joker have you come and break through his bars while the force field was down? Then he'd be free too."

Despite knowing that the information wasn't pertinent to helping her escape from her own cell, Barbara had to ask anyhow. She truly was puzzled by that because it didn't make any sense. The man might be a sociopath, but he wasn't stupid. She watched Quinn carefully, grateful that her questions didn't seem to be triggering the woman's dangerous rage. There was another unsettling flash of sorrow in the blue eyes, but it was gone before Barbara really had time to puzzle out the reason why.

When Quinn answered, it was in a monotone. "His plan is for me to break him out later. You see, he desperately wants revenge on you. He never expected to be caught and locked up for what he did to you. He's extremely angry about it…furious, really."

The utter lack of emotion in the last sentence unnerved Barbara immensely. She didn't have a clue how to respond, even though Quinn was looking at her expectantly. Seriously, what the hell was she supposed to say to that? She simply shook her head – clamping her mouth shut – and watched as the woman shrugged and resumed her narrative in the same monotone.

"So his plan is for me to take out his revenge. He has such unpleasant plans for you, little Bat, and you're going to have a very unhappy time before I finally kill you. And then, once you're out of the picture for good, he wants me to come break him out. His plan is for us to take over New Gotham and have our own little reign of terror."

Quinn slammed her hand against the bars and Barbara jumped. "I told him I didn't want to do any of it, but he wouldn't listen. He never listens to me. And this is all your fault. You put me back in there, under his control."

The blue eyes boring into her were bitter, and Quinn's tone was venomous. "All I wanted was to establish myself as an evil force to be reckoned with, steal enough money to let me get far, far away from this damned place, and live a quiet, comfortable life where no one could find me. Maybe get a dog and have a penthouse apartment and open another psychiatry practice. And you ruined all my plans when you put me in Arkham."

Barbara felt her breath catching in her chest as the relentless torrent of words washed over her. "And worst of all – I know why he's having me take out his revenge rather than doing it himself. It's so that if something goes wrong, I'm the one who will get caught, I'm the one who will suffer the consequences. He gets to cackle away in his cell and get his revenge on you without lifting a finger or taking the blame."

Quinn grabbed the bars in both hands, holding tightly enough that her knuckles went white. "That's always how it goes: he tells me what to do, I do it, and then I end up suffering in the end anyhow. It never occurs to him that some of his plans are flawed – he just thinks I screwed them up so he punishes me. See what you did to me by putting me back in his clutches?"

Barbara felt her heart beating too fast and clenched her hands into fists. The conversation chilled her to the bone – due to both her horror at the man's plans and her sudden sense of guilt from the woman's accusations. With an effort, she reminded herself that Harley Quinn was still a criminal, regardless of the reasons behind her actions, and that she'd earned her place in Arkham. She had no doubt that some of the woman's actions were due to her untreated mental disease and the way it had been exploited by the Joker. But not all of them. The woman had confessed that herself in the middle of her ranting.

Quinn had made her own choices and suffered the consequences of them – and that had not been Barbara's doing. Being a victim didn't give her the right to victimize others in turn.

Barbara unclenched her hands and took a deep breath. In light of what the woman had just revealed, she decided that when Helena and Dinah did rescue her and recapture Quinn, she wouldn't let them take her to Arkham. She would do everything in her power to send the woman to another prison where she'd have no contact with the Joker. Not to mention that she'd insist that Harley have sessions with a psychiatrist who was actually competent. That way she could pay her debt to society and get some much needed help at the same time.

Shaking her head slightly at her meandering thoughts, she refocused on the woman in front of her. Barbara decided to go with the opening she'd been given and try to reason with Quinn. It might not work, but she had to try something. Just sitting there and meekly accepting her fate was not an option.

Steeling her resolve, she spoke as steadily and reasonably as she could. "So if none of this is really what you want, if it's all just what the Joker wants you to do, then why not just cut your losses and leave town? He's still behind bars and can't possibly get to you; you're free from him now. You can get back to living your own life on your own terms."

She thought she saw something wistful on the woman's face and persisted quietly. "If you follow the Joker's plan for revenge, at best you'll be his harlequin doll again and at worst you'll be caught and go back to Arkham. Either way, you'll be back under his control. So why go through with it?"

Barbara's eyes widened when Quinn's response was a maniacal giggle. The woman's blue eyes were no longer sane. Then she felt her heart turn to ice as the blonde abruptly stopped laughing and stared down at her with a malicious expression. The woman's sing-song voice terrified her.

"Because the Joker's not the only one who wants revenge on you. And because despite the risks, I'm just nuts enough to think it will be fun."

With the one part of her mind not focused on driving, Helena still felt the weight of Alfred's last, worried gaze on her. It was like a completely unwelcome presence in the back of her mind. She knew what had prompted it, of course, but it annoyed her under the circumstances. Hell, she'd work with her own despised father if it meant that they'd get Barbara back safe and sound. With any luck, she and Dinah would find the woman quickly. But if not, well, it was a big city and she was no fool –she'd take all the help she could get.

From looking at the GPS grid back at the Clocktower, Helena knew they'd be going into the industrial area by the docks. But she hadn't studied the map closely enough to know how far back they'd have to go. With each passing moment of snaking by dilapidated warehouses, she felt her impatience growing exponentially. Thankfully, after what felt like eons, she heard Dinah say quietly, "Turn right. The coordinates from her GPS signal were 105 feet down that alleyway."

As Helena followed her instructions and then skidded to an ungraceful stop in front of a concrete barricade that probably shouldn't have been there, Dinah felt a bizarre sense of relief. She'd been too anxious to talk during the ride here. Her silence wasn't so much out of fear of what they might find, but out of fear that there'd be nothing there at all. She was less than confident in her ability to operate the Delphi and her mind persisted in running little apocalyptic scenarios in which she'd written down the wrong address or gotten the coordinates and distances wrong.

Not to mention she'd completely picked up on the whole "Helena's not objecting to Dick coming" vibe and it worried her. While she liked the guy, she knew Helena didn't, and didn't want to think too hard about the implications of that. She was having a hard enough time coping with the situation, and was trying very hard not to let her imagination run away with her.

Lost in thought, Dinah jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder. When she looked up and saw the concern on Helena's face, she felt a little ashamed of herself. She'd been so caught up in her own fears, trying to battle through them on her own, that she'd forgotten they were in this together. The reminder didn't decrease her worry, but at least she felt a little less alone.

Helena watched a variety of emotions play over Dinah's face and pulled her into a half-hug. She didn't know exactly what was going through the kid's mind, but it didn't really matter. She didn't need to know. She was just glad to feel Dinah lean into the embrace, seeming to draw strength from it. Good. The last thing she needed was her teammate falling apart on her.

Keeping an arm around Dinah's shoulders, Helena propelled her to one side of the concrete barricade. It wasn't exactly a "sneak in stealthily and be ready to fight" sort of position, but her senses weren't alerting her to any danger. And when the kid didn't pull away or offer even a token protest, she knew that she wasn't alone in thinking that they were alone here.

Squinting against a sudden burst of sunlight as she looked down the roadway, Helena made out the outline of a car about 75 feet away. She glanced at Dinah and saw she'd registered it too, though probably not with the same clarity. Seeing the question in pale blue eyes, she merely shrugged, and wasn't too surprised when the kid slid out from her loose embrace and took off running. She didn't bother to follow suit, though she did walk quickly. If they'd been on sweeps, she already knew Barbara would caution them about approaching slowly, sizing up the situation before jumping in. But they weren't on sweeps and could only follow their own instincts without Oracle's omnipresent electronic eyes, and steady guidance to rely on.

For a moment, the reminder of how blindly they were flying made a lump rise in Helena's throat. She walked faster, willing her tears away, and swearing to herself that they would find the older woman. It was a "when," not an "if." Any other option was unacceptable.

Helena found herself next to her teammate before she realized she'd covered the distance. She scrubbed angrily at the one tear that had leaked from her eye, glad that Dinah hadn't seen it. Then again…She frowned at the realization that Dinah was just standing there, completely immobile. The odd sight brought her back into the moment with a vengeance, and she moved forward to look into the girl's face. The pale blue eyes were locked on a point in the distance and the blonde brows were knit in concentration. It took a moment before she realized that the kid was scanning with senses other than the normal five. And that was nothing she could help with, so she moved towards the car…the Bentley.

The doors were wide open and as she walked around to the other side of the vehicle, she saw Barbara's wheelchair sitting next to the rear left door. The redhead's luggage sat neatly in the seat as if substituting for the person who should have been there. It didn't look like anyone had even opened the bags, let alone rifled through them. Helena unzipped the two bags and did a quick search, finding the laptop and comms set sitting exactly as they'd been packed. The woman's wallet was there, complete with ID, credit cards, and cash. The only thing that seemed to be missing was Barbara's cell phone, which she'd probably had on her person.

Without even thinking about it, she slid her own phone out of her pocket and dialed Barbara's number. She got a recorded message saying that the phone was off the network and to please try her call again later. For a moment, Helena was chilled by the thought that the woman could, almost literally, be anywhere in the world. Fighting down her fear, she forced herself to think. It would have been hard for anyone to take Barbara too far without her wheelchair – and certainly not into such a remote area that her cell phone was off the grid. So the most likely explanation was that the phone had been damaged so the signal couldn't be traced. While it wasn't exactly good news, it at least made sense and gave her hope that the woman was still somewhere in or near New Gotham.

When she felt a hand on her shoulder, Helena nearly jumped out of her skin. She whirled around and saw Dinah, her face abnormally white. In unison, they said, "Don't DO that!"

Dinah gulped in a breath, telling her heart to stop racing. She was annoyed with herself for startling Helena, but she couldn't remember the last time she'd been able to surprise her like that. She certainly hadn't expected the woman to space out like that at a time when they needed to be alert.

When she'd touched Helena, she hadn't been shielded, so she'd picked up on what the woman had observed and concluded. It saved her from having to ask the obvious question. Instead, she said simply, "I tried to pick up on any trace of an aura – or any psychic traces still floating around. All I could tell for sure was that Barbara was here." She paused before adding, "I didn't get any sense of a struggle…like she was asleep or drugged or something."

She saw Helena nod abstractedly at her words, the woman's eye back on the luggage. "It makes sense. Whoever did this planned it in advance. They knew when and where to find her. And they left everything of hers here, like they were afraid it could be used to trace her. They must know something of her night life…of who she is. But then why…"

Dinah didn't have to use telepathy to know what was bothering Helena. She finished the sentence, despite the sudden lump in her throat. "Then why did they go to the airport to get her when they should have known we were on our way? And if they were after the Birds of Prey, why are we still out walking around?"

She looked down at the ground and kicked a clump of dirt. She felt tears welling up. If anything happened to Barbara…She didn't think she'd be able to live with herself. Just when she thought she was doing a good job, she had to go and fuck it all up. What was wrong with her?

Lost in thought, Helena drummed her fingers on her thigh, staring down at Barbara's baggage as if it held the answer to her mental questions. There was something important – and obvious – that she was missing. If only she could think…Suddenly, something occurred to her and she looked up triumphantly. It was only then that she noticed Dinah's hang-dog expression.

Helena turned and pulled the kid into a firm embrace. She'd caught a glimpse of the shame and guilt in the downcast eyes, and knew exactly why they were there. She felt Dinah struggle against her for a minute and tightened her hold. "Stop beating yourself up, D. It's not your fault…it's not my fault. It's the fault of whoever kidnapped her."

Dinah heard the words but didn't believe them and struggled harder against the confinement of Helena's arms. "But if we hadn't been late, they wouldn't have been able to kidnap her! How can you say that that's not our fault?"

Helena took a deep breath. "Listen to me, D. Whoever did this knows an awful lot about Barbara. They know who she is in real life. If we'd been on time and picked her up as planned, then they might have killed us and taken her anyway."

She paused to let that thought sink in. "Or they could have simply waited and gotten to her some other time. Even if they don't know where she lives, they could find out where she works. Or, hell, they could find out which library branch she likes to go to, which Sunday she has brunch with her dad, or where she gets her hair cut. If someone was that determined to get their hands on her, they would have – no matter what we did or didn't do."

She took it as a good sign when Dinah's struggles ceased and she felt the girl sag against her chest. "So here's what I'm thinking. I don't think they know she's Oracle…I don't think they know about the Birds of Prey. Whoever took her obviously didn't think she'd have anyone coming to find her right away or else they'd never have left all this stuff sitting out in the open like this. They probably figured the police or someone would stumble on it eventually, but that by then, the trail would be cold."

Helena felt Dinah's head move and it took a moment for her to figure out that the kid was nodding. Emboldened, she continued thinking out loud. "I think whoever did this knows her as Batgirl, and thinks she's working alone. That's why they went to the airport – figuring they could grab her while she waited for a taxi – and that it would be days if not weeks before anybody figured out she was missing."

She heard Dinah's slightly muffled voice. "Ok, so that all makes sense. But that's a good thing because why?"

Helena couldn't help it; she laughed at that. Feeling Dinah's renewed struggles, from indignation this time, she released her and found herself face to face with an irritated teenager. Ah, irritation was good. If Dinah was angry enough, she'd have less room to be scared. Turning her attention back to the question, she said, "It's a good thing for two reasons. One is that they're probably planning to keep her captive for a while. Otherwise they would have just…killed her and left her body here with the car, not gone to all the trouble of taking her somewhere else."

She saw Dinah's grudging nod, and plowed on ahead to get to a much more cheery thought than that of Barbara being killed. "And two –if they didn't think anyone was coming to get her at the airport, they certainly won't be expecting it when we come charging to the rescue."

When she saw a sudden, ominous grin light the girl's face, Helena felt her own mouth curl into a matching smile. It wouldn't be quite that easy, she knew. But she was certain that, no matter what, whoever had Barbara was going to be in for quite a surprise.

Two hours later, Dinah had a profound sense of déjà vu. For the second time that day, she was walking through the airport's baggage claim area looking for someone. Of course, this time was a little different because Helena was strolling alongside her and they weren't looking for Barbara. They were there to find Gus, the security guard who had helped her earlier.

She sidestepped a little old lady just in time to avoid being elbowed, and pulled Helena with her. They ended up next to a bank of chairs and Dinah held on to the back of one as she stood on her tiptoes, hoping it would help her spot the man she was looking for. Not, she reminded herself, that it would really help, since it wasn't like he was short enough to blend in with the crowd. She fought the urge to sigh when she didn't immediately spot her quarry, trying not to give any sign that she was beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea. Helena certainly hadn't thought so, seeing it as just another waste of time.

Dinah did sigh then, as she mentally replayed that scene. After they'd found the Bentley, Helena had called Reese to come check the car for fingerprints and other such evidence. He'd gotten there in record time and done a thorough search. None of them had been surprised that there was nothing to find, except one strand of long red hair in the back seat. They'd given Reese an edited version of their theories, and he promised to see what he could find out through official channels. Despite the fact that he'd never met Oracle, he nonetheless had great admiration for the mastermind who'd done so much to help him clean up the streets.

They'd loaded Barbara's luggage and wheelchair into the Hummer and then had a quick planning session to figure out what to do next. Reese was going to track down the Bentley's owner for them, though he warned that it might take him a few hours since he still had his regular duty shift to finish. He'd taken off then, leaving the two of them floundering to find a direction.

Helena's suggestion had been to go wander around the nearby docks and "question" anyone they ran across in hopes that one of them would cop to seeing Barbara. Dinah still couldn't believe she'd been bold enough to veto that plan on the spot. While she didn't remember exactly what she'd said, she thought it had something to do with needles and haystacks.

Her idea had been to come back here and see if they could get a better description of the Bentley's driver from the one person who'd seen him. At least then they could look through their criminal database and see if they got a hit. Between that and whatever Reese managed to dig up on the car, they might at least have a starting point, even an idea of who they were up against. Helena had thought her idea was stupid since – as she'd pointed out in her less-than-charming way – hundreds of men in New Gotham might fit whatever generic description they got.

In the end, though, Dinah had convinced her teammate to come with her. Namely, she'd challenged Helena to come up with a better idea and the woman hadn't had one. And then she'd thrown in the thought that they might even get lucky and get their hands on a copy of the airport's security tape – though she knew that was a pipe dream at best.

Now, however, unable to find the person she was looking for, Dinah wished she'd never made this suggestion. Helena's nervous energy was starting to make her nervous, and she was sorry she'd opened her big mouth in the first place. Unexpectedly, she felt an elbow in her ribs. Looking around for another little old lady, she instead saw Helena. Ready to protest, she realized the woman wasn't looking at her. Following her gaze, Dinah swiveled her head around and saw what had caught Helena's eye. Her teammate had, going off her earlier description, found Gus.

Helena wasn't all that surprised when, once she'd gotten Dinah's attention, the girl headed straight for the man they'd been looking for, leaving her to trail behind. She didn't really care though; she just wanted to get this nonsense over with and then get back to doing something useful. Well, as soon as they had something useful to do, anyhow. That was ultimately why she'd agreed to go on this little field trip. Until Jesse called, they had nothing to go on. A slim chance of getting actionable intelligence was better than no chance at all.

As soon as those words echoed in her head, she had to tamp down on a sudden lump in her throat. That was one of Barbara's sayings. The familiarity of it made Helena wish that she was just in the grip of a particularly bad dream and would wake up at any moment to find that everything was as it should be.

She joined Dinah and Gus, who'd found a little corner away from the hustle and bustle of the high-traffic area. Telling herself to get a grip, Helena forcibly brought her attention back to the topic at hand, only half-listening to Dinah's breathless explanation. The story they'd concocted about why they needed the driver's description was lame at best, and she'd told the kid that it wasn't likely to fool anybody. She took a moment to size up the security guard. His eyes shone with intelligence – and despite his intimidating size, he had a comforting presence.

Helena could see why her teammate had wanted to talk to him, even if he couldn't tell them much more than he already had. She found herself somewhat taken aback to see that he was listening very carefully to Dinah's spiel before holding up his hand to stop the flow of stuttered and frankly unbelievable words.

"That's probably the most unconvincing story I've heard all day, so save your breath, Miss."

Helena swore under her breath and saw the way Dinah's face fell as though the man had just run over her puppy. Fists balling at her side, she stepped forward, ready to play hardball with the man, even if he was twice her height and girth.

She opened her mouth, ready to rip him a new one, when a surprisingly gentle hand caught her under the chin and nudged upwards. The shock of him closing her mouth like that made her see red for a moment. Then she realized that his hand had fallen away as swiftly as it'd made contact, and heard the mildness in his tone as he kept talking.

"I don't know what's going on, and I really don't want to know. What I do know is that you both have good hearts and are on the side of the angels."

That was certainly news to Dinah, and she glanced sideways to see that her teammate looked equally shocked. She heard a rumbling laugh and looked up to see brown eyes twinkling down at her. "You aren't the only one who can get a vibe off the people you touch, Miss."

The admission surprised Dinah to the point of speechlessness. She'd never before run across anyone who could do anything like what she did, and it took her aback. Thankfully, her teammate seemed to have recovered her wits, since she heard Helena speaking urgently.

"Then you know that there are people in this city – masked crusaders, some call them – who work behind the scenes to keep ordinary citizens safe from villains like the Joker or the Riddler."

Helena paused there, gauging the man's reaction to see if she'd read him right. She saw his nod and noted that there was not a single sign of surprise or disbelief on his face. Encouraged, she continued, wishing for a moment that she dared to tell him the whole truth.

"Our friend knows some of those crusaders and they have a lot of sworn enemies who'd love to use her as leverage to get to them. We think she was kidnapped by the man you saw. It's important that we find her before anything bad happens to her. Please, if you can give us a description…security camera footage…anything that might help us track him down...we'd…it'd…"

She wanted to say more, but her desperation made her stumble over her words, and she was afraid she'd already said too much. When she felt a huge hand come to rest on her shoulder, she had the sudden feeling that it would somehow be ok. She glanced over to see his other hand on Dinah's shoulder and noticed that her teammate also seemed calmer because of it. Whatever other meta-powers Gus might have, she could tell he had empathy in spades.

When she heard his quiet, "Unfortunately, the security cameras don't cover that part of the outside area," her heart fell despite his comforting hand. But his next words perked up her spirits considerably.

"How 'bout I draw you a picture of this man? I'm considered something of an artist, and would be happy to help."

Helena stood just inside the balcony door and scrubbed her hand through her hair in frustration. She was used to Barbara's almost uncanny ability to pick up on her presence whenever she returned to the Clocktower after a little…reconnaissance work. But Dinah and Dick were bent over something on the table in front of them and Alfred had his hands full with plates. All of them were completely oblivious to her entrance, even though she hadn't exactly been quiet about it when she'd landed on the balcony and sauntered through the door.

She tamped down as hard as she could on the discomfort that arose from the lack of familiarity. Normally, she poked fun at the redhead for being so predictable. Now, she realized just how comfortable the predictability had been – her visceral reaction surprising her with its intensity. Pushing that thought violently away, not liking the direction her thoughts were heading, she forced herself to focus. Time to get her mind back on business.

Clearing her throat loudly, she derived a great deal of satisfaction from the way Dick and Dinah jumped at the sound. She strode forward into the room, fixing her customary smirk to her face, and noted that even Alfred appeared to be startled by her abrupt presence. Studying the butler closely, she caught the way he returned her gaze with not even a hint of his customary deference. She thought she saw something like displeasure in his eyes before he dropped his gaze and busied himself with the food. What the hell?

For a moment, Helena thought about asking just what his problem was. Then, with an effort, she stopped herself. After all, Barbara was more than just his employer; she was also his friend. So of course he'd feel the strain just like the rest of them. And with that English determination to keep a stiff upper lip, he wouldn't say anything about his frustrations – hence the look in his eyes. Yeah, that had to be it. She draped herself over the back of Dinah's chair, waiting to speak until the kid and Dick were done with whatever it was that they were doing.

Dick deliberately kept his eyes focused on the paper in front of him, fighting his growing annoyance with Helena. He'd come to New Gotham at once when Alfred called – since things were slow for him in Bludhaven – arriving about an hour after the two women came back from the airport with a sketch of the suspect. That had been about five hours ago, and even though Helena had been out of the Clocktower for more than half that time, she'd managed to thoroughly get on his nerves anyhow.

He knew their relationship, such as it was, had more than the usual share of mutual antagonism. He was used to the constant bickering and back-biting, even enjoyed it on some odd level. But this was something different. Ok, so she'd been unusually supportive of Dinah, clearly aware of how hard this was for the girl. But in every other way, she acted as though this was all just some bizarre game and that Barbara would turn up any minute, unharmed. He'd caught the look on Alfred's face, and knew the older man felt the same way he did. Namely, he wanted to reach up and slap the smirk off Helena's face.

He wasn't stupid; he'd figured out a few years ago that Helena loved Barbara in the same way he did…had. But after Barbara confided in him, heart-broken, about her confession of love for Helena and Helena's "I don't feel the same" reaction, he'd kept that knowledge under wraps. He knew there was no way Barbara would believe his objective observations over Helena's subjective statements. And after a time, he'd decided that his half-sister must have had good reasons for not pursuing a relationship, so he stopped worrying about it. Especially once Barbara seemed over the worst of her sadness about it.

Still, he knew feelings that deep didn't just disappear; even if they changed from romantic to platonic. So Helena's current nonchalance seemed completely out of place, given all that. He'd caught a few glimpses of worry, as if her armor had started to crack. But as quickly as they'd come, they were covered up by another bad joke or an eye rolling protest. It was like watching someone put on a show…He drew in a quick breath at that thought.

Oh God, poor Helena. That was exactly what she was doing. And not for their benefit, either. He'd thought Barbara was a mistress of denial; now he realized she didn't hold a candle to Helena.

Unfortunately, realizing all these things didn't change anything. He sure as hell wasn't going to be the one to sit Helena down for a heart-to-heart to tell her to get her head out of her ass and stop pretending that she didn't have feelings for Barbara. At least, he wasn't going to do it now. Later, when they got Barbara back, was another story…

Dinah tapped Dick on the arm, not sure why he'd spaced out on her, but aware that she'd totally lost his attention. And she wanted someone else to confirm that she'd mapped things out correctly. She could have asked Helena, she supposed, since the woman was hanging over the back of her chair, but it would be easier to talk to the person she'd been working with. She caught a brief sense of annoyance when she touched his arm, but wasn't able to read anything else, even with her barriers down. And she was grateful for that. She was having a hard enough time dealing with her own emotional ups and downs. Once she was sure his focus was back on her, she traced the lines on the grid with her finger.

While Helena had been out trying to track down the owner of the Bentley, based on the information Reese had faxed them, she and Dick had been busy with other stuff. They'd scanned in the picture Gus had drawn of the suspect and were running a search on the New Gotham police database, in case the man had a prior record. Unfortunately, Dinah didn't have access to any national criminal databases, to broaden their search. Then again, she felt a little out-of-her-depth with just the local one.

Leaving the search to run on its own, they'd decided to see what happened when they mapped out the coordinates where the Bentley had been spotted. Along with the ownership information, Reese had sent along three intersections where the vehicle had been captured on camera for edging too far into the crosswalk on a red light. It was a long shot, but they hoped to come up with a likely search area, based on the route the driver had taken from the airport to the docks. After all, it wasn't like there was only one way to get there.

Dinah caught Dick's nod at her projections and felt heartened by his agreement. Not that the mapped path helped them, though, since as far as she could tell there was no rhyme or reason to the zigzag pattern. Still, there could be a clue there; she was just too tired and hungry to analyze it at that moment in time.

Abruptly reminded of Helena's presence, she half-turned in her chair and said, "Well, we've come up empty here – at least for now. Did you come up with anything?"

Helena shook her head, wishing she had something useful to tell them. "Well, I'm sure it will come as no surprise that the owner claims his Bentley was stolen. I asked him why he didn't file a police report, since it's not like some used piece of crap car. After he hemmed and hawed for a while, I finally intimidated him enough to admit his business ventures are not entirely legal and he didn't want to give the cops any reason to start poking around into his stuff."

She grinned to herself at the memory. What a wuss. Even Dinah could have given him a stern look and had him singing like a lark. Pushing aside that mental image, she went on. "He admitted he'd seen the driver before – said he caught him poking around a couple days before the car disappeared. He seemed honestly shocked when I said his car had been used in a kidnapping."

She caught Dick's questioning look and fought to keep from showing her irritation with him. "I think we should keep an eye on the guy, but I don't think he's got anything to do with it. I'd bet money that the suspect stole his car because he figured he wouldn't call the cops."

She moved out from behind Dinah's chair. The kid, at least, was nodding at her summation. And hell, even Dickie-boy didn't look quite so doubtful any more. After all, her theory made sense. Snatching up a sandwich from the tray Alfred left on the table, Helena suddenly realized she was starving. She took a healthy bite and saw the twin looks of astonishment from Dick and Dinah, as if she was betraying them somehow by stopping to eat. She wanted to defend herself, stopping herself only because her mouth was full.

So it was with some gratitude that she heard Alfred's no-nonsense tone from across the room where he was fiddling with something or other. "It may indeed seem selfish to take the time for a meal in the midst of the search. But you all need nourishment and rest. It will serve no one, least of all Miss Barbara, if you are fatigued and your senses dulled from hunger."

Dinah tilted her head down in embarrassment at the lecture. She'd totally forgotten Alfred was still in the room. He was probably making up things to do, just so he could stick around and make sure they actually ate something. She ought to have known; she'd seen him do it to Barbara more than once. She met Dick's gaze briefly, glad that he looked as sheepish as she felt. Reaching across the table, she grabbed two sandwiches and gave one to him. The moment she took the first bite, she realized just how hungry she was. They'd skipped breakfast and lunch, and were running late for dinner to boot. She still felt guilty for stopping when Barbara was missing, but it wasn't like they had more leads than they knew what to do with and were stopping off for a seven course Italian dinner or something.

And she knew that Barbara would be the first person to tell them all to take care of themselves. Even if the redhead's lectures were of the "Do as I say, not as I do," variety.

For several minutes, the room was silent save the sound of chewing and the soft whirring clicks of the Delphi. Alfred sighed, very quietly, under his breath, glad that the trio wasn't going to be difficult. It might get to that point, he knew, as hours turned into days. With any luck, days would not turn into weeks. If so, however, he was prepared. He had not yet called Bruce, contenting himself with the fact that Dick's help would be enough for the moment. But he would have no qualms about involving his former master if he felt the need. He didn't doubt the trio's skills; not at all. But he did have doubts about their ability to detach themselves from Barbara in order to look realistically at all the options and outcomes. Bruce had proved well to him over the years that he could detach from anyone in order to accomplish his mission. It was a mindset Alfred shared.

Helena swallowed the final bite of her third sandwich, watching Alfred out of the corner of her eye as she did so. There was something about the look on his face that set her nerves on edge, and she couldn't tell if she was imagining things. Her mind was running around in odd patterns like a mouse trapped in a maze, and it was all she could do to keep her normal masks in place. Thankfully the food helped a bit, and she made a mental note to take a sleeping pill tonight to make sure she got enough rest to keep a grip on herself tomorrow. The last thing she needed was to get all weepy and maudlin on everybody, especially with Dick hanging around.

She respected him as a crime fighter. But between him being so chummy with her dad and the way he'd taken off after Barbara got shot, she resented it when he showed up out of the blue like everything was all sunshine and roses. That wasn't the case here, since this was an actual emergency. But she had a long memory, and could still see the sadness that Barbara hadn't quite been able to hide after some of his other "hey, just me, Mr. Handsome Big Shot, thought I'd drop in" visits. The last thing she wanted was to give him something else to be superior and condescending about.

Helena shook her head as if the motion would help keep her thoughts from running away with her. What the hell was the matter with her? Well, apart from the obvious that Barbara was missing. She was thankful when a loud chime from the Delphi made all of them jump. At least it gave her something concrete to focus on. Since she was standing, she made it to the computer before the other two, and gave a low whistle when she realized what she was seeing. She felt Dinah slip in beside her and heard the soft, "Oh my God, it actually worked."

Dinah was so impressed that she couldn't take her eyes off the screen for a full minute. There was an actual color photo of the man they were looking for. And underneath were all his particulars: name, aliases, criminal record, last known address, and so on and so forth. It was more than she'd dared hope for. At least they had something to start with, someone to track down and question. She slid into the chair in front of the Delphi. She heard Helena's phone trill with Reese's ring tone, but tuned out the conversation, concentrating instead on the information the computer had pulled up. Not wanting to risk losing it, she saved it in that program. Then, after two false starts, she managed to copy it into a file to save on the hard drive itself. Then, to be even more thorough, she found a piece of paper and wrote down the directory address, just in case.

Once she was done with all that, Dinah turned in the chair, suddenly aware of the deathly silence in the room. Her heart seemed to be beating in her throat and for a moment she couldn't have formed words to save her life.

Lost in her own frustration, it took Helena a moment to interpret the look on the kid's face. When she did, she wanted to kick herself. She spoke hurriedly. "No, it's not like that. No news about Barbara – good or bad. But, well, Jesse called to tell me he'd found our suspect."

She saw the quick gleam of hope in Dinah's eyes, and barreled ahead, not wanting to let the kid get her hopes up too high. "Unfortunately, he's dead. Jesse didn't know it was him at first – he got a call from a patrol cop about a dead body. He had a copy of the sketch with him and when he got to the scene, he recognized the guy. He was found lying on a park bench in the old cemetery, the one that overlooks Arkham. No fingerprints, no footprints, no scraps of clothing or hair that weren't from the dead man. And no sign of foul play…at least nothing obvious."

Helena sighed. "There might be more info once they do an autopsy, but that's gonna take a while. Apparently, whoever this guy was working for wanted to make sure he didn't talk."

Dinah felt her heart sink at the words. She should have known it couldn't possibly be that easy, but she'd never felt quite so lost. Most of the time, their jobs were straight-forward – they found lowlifes committing crimes and stopped them. Even when they were trying to track down a "big bad" like Quinn or Al Hawke, they usually had something to work with – a suspect to question, a paper trail to follow, or evidence to analyze. But right now, they had nothing. No evidence, no clue who the man had been working for, no idea exactly why Barbara was taken. It was like trying to find a needle in a very big haystack while blindfolded.

Dinah blew a breath out between her teeth and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "So we're basically at a dead end." She winced along with the others at her unconscious choice of words.

Barbara fought to keep from groaning as she was deposited -- none too gently -- in her cell. The hard floor didn't make a very good cushion for her growing bruises. She managed to keep quiet; but since the man who'd dumped her here wasn't paying attention to her anyhow, she probably could have screamed without him batting an eye. Still, her restraint wasn't for his benefit. It was for hers.

She fought her way to a sitting position, ignoring the flare of pain along her side as bruised ribs protested the movement. It was nothing serious, she knew; she'd finished active patrols in her days as Batgirl with worse injuries. Still, knowing that didn't make it hurt any less. Balancing herself with her hands, she scooted towards the wall until she was leaning back against the cool concrete – facing the door of her cell and the woman framed in it.

She fixed Quinn with her best look of cool determination, the one she'd perfected while squaring off with foes on rooftops and in alleyways. Despite the fact that the two of them were not on equal footing, being able to put the mask on in the first place made her feel stronger. No matter what happened, she'd fight with everything she had. She watched Quinn jerk her head towards the incredible bulk who'd brought her here, clearly dismissing him. That was perfectly fine with Barbara. She'd had quite enough of his attentions.

Once he'd left, she sat staring down her captor, not surprised when Harley met her stare-for-stare. For at least a minute, they were locked in the visual showdown, neither woman giving an inch. Finally, Quinn's eyes slid to the side, and Barbara inwardly cheered. Score one for her. There were still chinks in her captor's armor, and if she played her cards right, maybe she could reach the real woman hidden behind the harlequin's mask. She might even be able to negotiate an end to all this. She had nothing to lose by trying.

But that would have to wait for later, she realized, as she noticed the man returning. She saw him hand a misshapen bundle to Quinn and then walk away as quickly as he'd come. Not sure what to expect, she watched warily as the woman came towards her, extending the bundle to her. She didn't reach up to take it and saw her roll her eyes. "Oh for heaven's sake, little Bat."

Barbara fought her instinct to recoil when the woman knelt next to her, and she saw rather than felt the bundle dropped into her lap. Quinn reached out and unwrapped it. Looking down, she saw two bottles of water and a loaf of crusty – and presumably stale – bread. She couldn't help it; she snorted at that. In response, she heard Harley laugh delightedly.

"I know, I know; it's such a cliche. But it seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, we've got to keep your strength up for the next round, hmmm?"

She didn't bother to answer, recognizing the rhetorical question for what it was. And she was already preoccupied with the more pressing question of whether she dared eat or drink. As if Quinn read her mind, she felt a soft touch on the back of her wrist. "Don't worry, little Bat; it's not poisoned. If the goal was simply to kill you, well, you'd be dead already. It would have been a lot less trouble to just shoot you and leave you with the car."

Oddly, she found she believed the statement. Quinn and the Joker clearly had plans for her and wanted her to stay alive long enough to enjoy them – though enjoy was clearly the wrong word. She nodded once in response and the other woman abruptly rose to her feet, in a surprisingly fluid move, heading towards the door. There was a soft whirr when Quinn activated the bars across the doorway. Expecting the woman to leave, Barbara was a little confused when she simply stood there for a moment, regarding her with an inscrutable expression.

Keeping her head up, she watched her captor, waiting. Finally, she heard, very softly, "Get some rest," before Quinn walked away, leaving her alone in the cell.

Barbara frowned, trying to figure out what the hell that was about. Then, she slumped against the wall, shutting her eyes, too sore and tired to puzzle over it any further. It didn't matter anyhow, not at the moment. She couldn't work to widen the chinks in Quinn's armor when the woman wasn't there. Besides which, while the lengthy beating she'd suffered wasn't serious in the sense of broken bones or permanent damage, it was painful. The incredible bulk might not have many brains to boast of, but he knew how to use his fists.

She absently rubbed one of her wrists, trying to ease the lingering ache from the chafed skin. They'd hung her by her wrists from the ceiling in a room that looked like something out of a medieval dungeon, so the man could beat her and not be hindered by her paralysis. And she knew exactly what the dual points of the exercise had been. The first was to physically soften her up for whatever lay in store for her. The second was to mentally intimidate her by making her imagine what that might be.

They'd succeeded on the first point simply due to the limits of human biology. But on the second point, they'd managed to do the opposite of what they'd intended. If she were a different type of person, she had no doubt she'd be terrified after seeing some of the torture devices they had in that room. But for her, knowing what might lie ahead only served to focus her thoughts on the best way to survive for the longest period of time.

It also helped that she knew something her captors didn't. She didn't have to hold out until they decided they were done with her. She only had to hold out until Helena and Dinah found her.

Picking up one of the water bottles, she unscrewed the cap and took a small sip. She was thirsty enough to want to just chug the whole thing, but knew that would be a bad idea. For one, her stomach wasn't entirely stable and she couldn't risk making herself sick by drinking too much, too fast. For another, she had no idea when or if she'd get more water, so she needed to ration it as best she could. She took another tiny sip, and then waited a few minutes to see how her body would react.

When it was clear that the liquid wasn't going to come right back up, she put down the bottle and picked up the loaf of bread. Tearing off a small chunk, she took a bite, pleased to find that it wasn't nearly as hard as she'd expected. At least she didn't have to worry about breaking a tooth on it. She took another bite, chewing slowly, feeling immensely better for having some nourishment, no matter how slight. After finishing half of the loaf, she set it aside, neatly wrapping it up again in the cloth to save for later. She reopened the water bottle and took a few more sips until it was about half gone. Then she re-attached the cap and set it and the full bottle off to the side with the bread.

Sighing softly, she began the painstaking process of maneuvering herself into a prone position. For a brief moment, the old resentment blazed at the fact that she couldn't just move freely to accomplish what she wanted. It was a resentment she hadn't felt in months, if not years, and was fueled, no doubt, by this whole "must get further revenge on Batgirl" nightmare she was living. There had been times right after the shooting when she'd just wanted to die, feeling there was no point to living if she was paralyzed. If not for Helena's presence, she might have done just that – stopped taking care of herself and let death overtake her.

But she hadn't felt that way since that first horrible year. At some point, she'd realized that just because her life couldn't be the same, it didn't mean it wasn't still worth living. She'd never completely get over the loss of her legs; how could she? If a medical break-through offered her the chance to walk again, she'd take a great deal of risk to try it. But she was happy in the life she had, and she was glad she hadn't missed out on it. She'd even found a way to keep fighting crime. Hell, she was more powerful a force for good now than she'd ever been running around in Batman's shadow.

Since she was content with the life she had, the resentment rarely flared up. But now, faced with enemies who didn't think she'd suffered enough and who blamed her for the consequences of their actions – it was no surprise that it was resurfacing. It probably also had to do with the fact that she was afraid. She didn't want her life to end like this. She'd been prepared to die in the line of duty for years, to go out in the proverbial blaze of glory. But not like this – imprisoned, alone.

Shuddering at the gloomy cast to her thoughts, she forced herself to concentrate on the matter at hand. Getting herself situated, she wished she had something to use as a pillow. Her shoulder and neck muscles were killing her. Summoning the considerable force of her will, she closed her eyes. Knowing she needed to sleep, but that she was too tense, she started in on one of the relaxation techniques she'd learned in her physical therapy.

Taking a deep breath, she tried to clear her mind and focus on relaxing her muscles in turn. One thing at a time, Gordon; one thing at a time.

Dinah shook her head the moment she and Dick were down the sidewalk, out of easy sight of the little old lady who she just knew was watching them from her front window. Not that the woman could see them that clearly in the fading evening light, but she could still feel the sharp eyes on her back. That had been an exercise in both pointlessness and frustration. It wasn't so much that the woman didn't know anything useful – just because her son was a criminal didn't mean that she had any clue about who he associated with or what he did. Most of the people they'd talked to over the past few days hadn't known anything worthwhile either. It was the way the woman had alternated between accusing the police of framing her precious boy and threatening to sue the two of them for harassment simply because they'd asked a few questions.

Somehow, spending the better part of half an hour being lectured and belittled had done nothing to improve her already glum mood.

Shooting a glance at Dick as he strode quickly beside her, en route to the alley where they'd left the Hummer, she could tell he was as irritated as she was. Good – it wasn't just her being overly sensitive then. She knew full well her emotions were on edge, though she thought she'd done a pretty good job of keeping them controlled, all things considered.

Dick's composure during their investigating hadn't surprised her in the least. Even though he and Barbara were friends, she wasn't a part of his daily life. He'd also spent years learning the same kind of composure from Batman that Barbara had. And he was a cop, which meant he had lots of practice at keeping his cool. She had been surprised when Helena had shown the same sort of poise over the past few days, staying focused on the mission of tracking down everyone connected with their dead suspect. Not that the woman couldn't concentrate when necessary, but she normally wore her emotions on her sleeve, and this was a seriously messed up situation.

She wanted to ask her teammate about it – to find out if she'd found a practical way to push her worries off to the side, one she could teach Dinah in return. But she couldn't quite muster the courage to ask, not wanting to deal with any potential emotional weirdness. Whatever Helena was doing, it was her thing and Dinah was going to stay out of it. She'd just muddle through on her own and do her best. She was very conscious of the fact that she was the junior member of the team, and she didn't want the others to think she was a burden or something. They'd been nothing but supportive, and she appreciated it. But still, she didn't want to push her luck.

Somewhat surprised to find that they'd reached the Hummer already, Dinah slid into the passenger seat and turned to face Dick, who was scowling. She already knew it was related to their counter-productive interview with Mrs. Sourpuss, so didn't bother to ask what was bothering him. And when he snapped open his cell phone and started ranting, she was glad she hadn't said anything. Instead, she listened with one ear as he described their lack of progress, presumably to Alfred, and said something about this having been their last lead.

Surprised by that, she dug around in her pocket and pulled out the list she'd made of the people they were going to interview. Glancing over the set of names, she mentally checked them off and realized that they were, finally, finished with the task. It was a good feeling on the one hand, knowing that she and Dick had worked together as a team and accomplished what they set out to do. It was a bad feeling on the other, because they knew little more now than they had when they'd started. Not to mention the fact that they were out of leads to pursue and no new directions had popped up in the course of their investigating.

She could only hope that Helena, who'd gone off with her own list of people to talk to, had had better luck. Before she could get too lost in depressing thoughts, she heard Dick clear his throat and realized abruptly that he was off the phone and talking to her. "Well, that was Jesse. Figured I'd keep him in the loop about where things stood. He said he was pursuing one other angle and he'd let us know if anything panned out with it."

Dinah raised her eyebrows. She didn't know Dick had the detective's number and was a little surprised that he'd consult with Reese over Alfred. Then she smiled at her own silliness. Jesse and Dick were both cops – of course they'd consult with each other. Heck, for all she knew, they were in regular contact, comparing notes on criminal activity in their respective cities. She caught his puzzled look and simply shook her head, not wanting to explain. When she heard the back door open, she was relieved at the interruption. Turning in her seat, she looked back into Helena's grinning face.

Ok, it was a little weird that the woman was that happy. Then she noticed what the brunette had on the seat next to her.

Helena nearly laughed out loud when she saw Dinah's eyes track to the cardboard cup holder next to her. Without a word, she pulled one of the green stenciled cups free from the cardboard and handed it to the girl. Not discouraged in the slightest by the hint of disapproval on Dick's otherwise expressionless face, she pulled a second cup free and handed it to him, not missing the slight rise of a neat eyebrow. "A vanilla latte for Dinah…a boring black coffee for you…and a double iced mocha for me."

It didn't escape her notice that the kid wasted no time before taking a long sip. She also didn't miss the pensive look she got from the boy blunder before he nodded his thanks and took a tentative swallow. She rolled her eyes at him, though she wasn't nearly as annoyed as she was pretending. Hell, it was his problem if he thought she was too self-centered to do something nice for someone else. Besides, while they'd all tried hard to be conscientious about eating regular meals and getting at least five or six hours of sleep, they were all still running a little ragged. Hence, her thought that coffee would be a welcome addition to the day. Finding her straw, she took a long drink of her mocha, ready for her fix.

Once she had a decent amount of caffeine and sugar coursing through her veins, Helena leaned back against the seat and got down to business. "Well, I hope you guys had some luck because I sure didn't. Every person I talked to was completely clueless about what our buddy was up to. Hell, a couple of them were pissed that he'd been so secretive lately. Guess they were some of his old friends from his petty criminal days and they thought he was holding out on them about some big job he'd stumbled into."

She didn't miss the dejected look in Dinah's eyes or the sudden tensing of Dick's jaw. Well damn. She listened with one ear to Dick's run-down of the fact that they'd learned absolutely nothing. And even knowing Jesse was tracking down something else didn't pique her interest since she had a hunch it would prove to be just as pointless as everything else.

Not that she was trashing Dinah's skills at finding the guy in the database in the first place. That had been massively impressive, and she'd made a point to tell the kid that Barbara would be proud of her. It just sucked that nothing had panned out with any of his friends or family or past criminal associates. Even the info Reese had gotten on his bank accounts and phone records hadn't helped at all. Whatever he'd been paid for the job must have been in cash, and whoever hired him had obviously talked to him in person rather than on the phone. They could probably try digging out more info from the computer, but that felt like a waste of time.

She wasn't aware that she'd voiced that last thought aloud until she saw twin looks of disbelief leveled at her. Sitting up straight in the seat again, she took another long swallow of chocolate-flavored coffee. "Look guys, I know we don't have much to go on and so it probably would be good for you to work with the Delphi and see if you can pull up anything else. It's just not my cup of…er…tea. I think I'd have just as much luck patrolling around the docks or running sweeps or something."

Helena realized her statement hadn't mollified her companions, but she didn't care. She thought her idea was a good one and she charged ahead with the rest of it. "Actually, I was thinking we should stop off somewhere and get something to eat before heading back to the Clocktower. And then I thought I'd go out and do some patrolling after dark. Figure I can knock some sense into the usual petty scum, and maybe I'll get lucky and find a lead that way."

Dinah couldn't help it; she gaped at the completely casual tone of her teammate's voice. She stared at Helena, who was leaning back and sipping her drink with one arm draped over the seat back, apparently unconcerned with anything. What the hell? Ok, so she had a point that they had run into the proverbial brick wall and had absolutely nothing else to go on. And if anyone could catch a lucky break on sweeps and run into a minion of Barbara's kidnapper, it would be Helena. And yeah, it was getting late and she was hungry and they really needed to stop and eat.

Still, even if all of that was true…Oh. She thought she got it. Probably Helena wanted to go out on sweeps to work off some energy, but just didn't want them to know she was feeling so restless. That must be it.

Helena watched the various emotions play over her teammate's face and leaned forward, reaching out to ruffle Dinah's hair. She knew the kid was worried, but they really couldn't do any more investigating tonight. And after all, Barbara wouldn't want them to leave the city wholly unprotected at her expense. She'd let Dinah and Dick stay at the Clocktower and play with the computer and see if they found something to check out tomorrow. It would keep them occupied, anyway. And if they didn't find anything, well, they weren't any worse off.

She found herself actually looking forward to going out on sweeps. Hopefully, a somewhat normal night of kicking ass and hauling creeps off to the cop shop would do wonders for her mood. All this interviewing and leg-work stuff was boring and pointless and just made her irritable. She caught Dick giving her another odd look and glared at him.

"What?" She didn't bother to hide her annoyance. Her brother dearest was getting on her nerves.

Helena watched as he met her eyes for only thirty seconds before looking away. Yes! She'd won that round. When he mumbled something about how they should check in with Alfred first, she knew he was lying, but didn't bother to challenge him. Instead, she waved a negligent hand in his direction and watched him flip open his cell phone. She knew he was frustrated with the lack of progress, and with being part of a team again when he was used to flying solo. But that didn't give him the right to walk around giving orders and expect that she'd just blindly follow.

She leaned back against the seat again and when he turned to ask where they should go eat, she suggested Antonio's Pizza. As she'd expected, Dinah managed to muster up a tiny smile at that idea. Granted, it slid off about as quickly as it'd come, but still, it was a good sign. The kid was gonna have a nervous breakdown or something if she didn't relax.

Helena finished up her mocha in the few minutes it took them to get to the pizza parlor. The place wasn't full, so they were seated quickly. And since she and Dinah already knew what kind of pizza they wanted, not giving Dick a chance to weigh in, they ordered as soon as the waiter came by to ask about drinks. She bounced up from the table the moment the pimple-faced boy left and said, "I'm gonna play video games while we wait. Wanna come, D?"

When she saw the blonde's tentative head shake, she simply shrugged and walked away from the table. Oooo, the pinball machine was free. Kick ass! She fumbled for the quarters she always kept in her jacket pocket and clunked them into the slot. Maybe she'd get lucky and beat her last best score.

Dick nursed his beer while shifting his gaze between Dinah and Helena. The teenager looked exhausted and while she was doing her best to stay positive, her eyes showed her worry. His half-sister, by contrast, didn't seem to have a care in the world. He saw Dinah glance over at her teammate, then look away quickly, and heard her mutter, very quietly, "I wish I knew how to cope with things as well as she did."

He took a hasty sip of his Michelob, to bite off the sarcastic reply on the tip of his tongue. Somehow, he didn't think it would help matters. Dinah had enough on her mind already. He settled for shaking his head, glad that the teenager's attention was now on the TV screen behind him. Let Helena play games and then go run around on the streets tonight playing super-hero. What-the-hell-ever. He didn't have the energy to deal with her right now.

He'd stick around the Clocktower with Dinah and help her find something useful to focus on. He liked the girl and wanted to offer his support to help her through this crisis-cum-reality-check. After all, he'd been there himself – every crime fighter had. And Dinah was handling it better than most. He could see she was worried and on edge, but at least she wasn't pretending she was too cool to be upset. That would be a recipe for disaster.

As he knew all too well, the problem with building up a dam of denial was that inevitably, as the pressure built, the wall eventually cracked.

Barbara groaned as she was dropped abruptly on the floor of her cell. She couldn't help but hiss as pain flared to life again, and she lay in the undignified position she'd been left in, breathing hard to try and control the pain. For what seemed like several minutes, but was probably only one, she couldn't focus on anything other than her physical discomfort. Though she'd lost what little track of time she'd had, she guessed she'd been a captive here about three days. This was the third beating she'd suffered in that time, and by far the most severe. This time, it hadn't just been the incredible bulk relying on his own meaty hands and feet. Quinn had added a cane to the mix, handling it herself and leaving raised welts in its wake.

Pushing aside the painful memory, she concentrated on her breathing, until she was able to think clearly enough to focus on her surroundings. She looked up to see the man still standing next to her, looming over her. Harley had entered the cell as well. The bulk's guarded stance didn't escape her notice and if she'd hadn't felt so awful, she'd have cheered. Score another point for Barbara Gordon.

She'd fought back every time her captors came to take her from the cell, and she wasn't the only one who sported bruises from the encounters. The first time, Quinn had finally gotten her in an arm lock and she'd backed down to avoid having her wrist broken. The second time, the bulk had back-handed her hard enough to daze her. Today, however, Quinn had simply stepped away from the initial struggle and pulled out a Taser. Barbara had weighed her options and decided that they weren't good, so she'd stopped fighting and let them carry her away. She had little doubt the Taser would be the tactic of choice in subduing her from now on, and took a small bit of satisfaction from the fact that they took her seriously as a physical threat.

She flinched when Quinn knelt beside her and ran mockingly gentle fingers across her bruised face, before wiping a ribbon of blood off her split lip. In light of the previous violence, the scene was extremely disorienting and left her feeling both confused and strangely vulnerable. There was an odd look on the woman's face and the way she looked at the blood on her finger made Barbara shiver. Had the blonde been a vampire, she had little doubt the woman would have put her finger in her mouth and sucked the blood off.

There was something almost sensuous about the gesture and the blue eyes almost seemed to reflect longing. Barbara swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly dry. Thankfully, the moment didn't last more than a moment before Quinn abruptly laughed and wiped the blood off against Barbara's torn shirt front. The redhead fought a surge of nausea as she realized just what she'd seen. There was no sensuality in the gesture as she'd thought; it was just another form of control, of power. And she knew without a shadow of a doubt that Quinn had been on the receiving end of it many times, that this was the Joker's mockery of a loving touch.

The mere intimation made her sick, and gave her another unwanted surge of sympathy towards her captor. She wasn't ignorant of the dynamic of domination and submission, or of pleasure deriving from pain; she'd had her own experiences with both. But there was a difference between these things being part of a free and open relationship, and them being forced on one person by another under the guise of "You're mine and I can do whatever I want to you."

She felt a hand on her face again and looked up. Quinn was looking down at her, a question in the blue eyes. No doubt the woman had seen the horrified expression she'd been unable to hide. Pain dulling her normally sharp sense of control, she rasped out, "You're worth more than that...so much more than what he's ever given you."

Bracing for whatever mood might strike the woman, she found herself unaccountably relieved when the fingers against her cheek stroked softly, almost unconsciously. Quinn said simply, "I wake up every day trying to believe that."

Then, unceremoniously, the hand left her face and Quinn stood up. The woman gestured and the incredible bulk laid a wrapped bundle down next to Barbara. She didn't have to look to guess it was another loaf of bread and more water. Without another word, both her captors left the cell, drew the bars, and left her alone again.

The moment they were out of sight and she could let down her façade of strength, the pain washed over her again, leaving her gasping. She managed, barely, to roll to her side in case nausea struck. She knew her legs were propped at awkward angles, but lacked the energy to reach down and straighten them. She lay there trembling, feeling as if every inch of her body was bruised. And now the welts raised by the wicked little cane were starting to throb, though thankfully she didn't think any had broken the skin. Remembering the look of insane delight on Quinn's face, she shivered. The woman might have been forced into a masochistic role with the Joker, but she clearly had her own set of sadistic tendencies. Barbara didn't even want to think about how things were likely to escalate...

Wrenching her mind away from that thought, she closed her eyes, trying to focus on nothing much at all. She needed nourishment and hydration, but she couldn't even think about eating or drinking. All she could think to do was lie there and wait for the pain to fade into a dull ache. And with any luck, she'd fall asleep.

Concentrating on her breathing, she found herself saying a little prayer that Helena and Dinah would find her soon. She just had to hang on until they came.

Helena paced in a furious circle around the raised platform where the Delphi sat, kicking at errant wads of paper – the overflow from the trash can – as she went. Not that playing soccer with the little balls was doing anything to work off energy, but as distractions went, it was helping. A little bit, anyway. She tuned out the slow sound of Dinah's fingers on the keyboard, since the uncertain rhythm was driving her batshit, and experimented with walking ever faster in her loose circle.

This was insane. How could a person just fucking vanish off the face of the fucking earth without leaving any fucking clues behind?

Dickhead was out running down some stupid little clue he and Reese had dug up from some stupid place. And earlier, just for something to do, she and Dinah had checked out the cemetery where the suspect had wound up dead. Even though the cops had already declared the place free of evidence, they'd gone over it with a fine-toothed comb anyhow. All they'd found was the usual grass and mud and flowers, and a very surprised family of squirrels that had made a little home in one of the bushes. Not a fucking thing that would help them get Barbara back.

She kicked the side of the wheelchair ramp as she went by, liking the solid sound it made and the way it made her foot protest. When she came to it again in her pacing circle, she kicked it again. This was fucking stupid. There was nothing else to look at, nothing else to track down, and it was pointless for Dinah to sit there typing away like everything would fucking fall into place if she just kept at it long enough.

Helena had gone out on sweeps the past couple nights, hoping that maybe she'd be in the right place at the right time and catch some kind of a break. But it had just been the usual assortment of burglars and rapists and low-level drug pushers. It had felt good to break out of the routine and just beat them bloody, even though she'd wished like hell that she'd had Barbara's voice in her ear to tell her not to. Of course, she'd just had to get that fucking lecture from Dickhead when she came back last night, since he'd been the one listening in over comms. She'd told him where he could go and what he could do when he got there. She didn't take orders from his fucking highness; she only took them from Barbara.

A cold chill crawled up her spine as she wondered what she'd do if they didn't find the older woman, if she never again had that calm, steady voice in her ear. She whirled around, stomped over to the wall, and punched it as hard as she could. It felt good, despite the flare of fire across her knuckles, so she did it again and again.

Dinah literally jumped in her chair at the sound. She'd barely managed to ignore the incessant pacing, and had started in surprise every time the woman kicked the platform. But the crack of knuckles against brick echoed loudly through her ears. She was out of the chair and down the ramp before she even realized she'd moved. "Stop it, Helena! You're driving me crazy!"

Helena glared at her teammate, wanting to ask just who'd died and made her the fucking mom. But the fatigue and worry clearly written across the kid's face struck a chord and made her hold her tongue. It wasn't Dinah's fault that they were at a dead end. Granted, she wished the kid would stop wasting her time with the damn computer, but at least she was trying to do something.

She sighed heavily, trying to keep the frustration out of her tone. "Yeah, I know. Wasn't trying to, just have a lot of energy to burn off."

Dinah took the non-apology in the spirit in which it had been intended – as an apology. Instantly, she regretted her harsh tone. Well yeah, she was going bananas dealing with her teammate's restless movements. But she knew Helena had a lot of energy to burn under the best of circumstances and that even though the woman had been remarkably blasé the past several days, it didn't mean she was any less in need of motion and activity.

If she'd been thinking more clearly, she'd have suggested they do a training session this afternoon while they waited for Dick to get back. But oh no, she just had to go sit in front of the Delphi, even though she knew she was just going through the motions. Well, maybe they could still go have a little workout, even though Helena's knuckles were visibly scraped and reddened. Dinah was still about ready to suggest it, when she saw Helena flex her hand and grimace a little. Ok, probably not a good time to go spar.

Helena winced as her knuckles protested the movement, but knew it was only temporary. With her meta-healing abilities, she wouldn't even get to the stage of swelling and bruises. She saw the self-recrimination in Dinah's eyes and reached out to pat her shoulder. Shit, it wasn't the kid's fault that she was all restless and edgy and that everything was so fucked up. She should have gone and beat the stuffing out of the punching bag in the training room rather than pacing around and making her teammate jumpy.

"Not your fault, D. Seriously. Don't even go there. I'm a big girl and should have gone for a run or something."

Seeing the uncertainty shining in pale blue eyes, Helena lowered her voice confidentially, not quite sure what to say, knowing only she needed to say something so the kid understood she wasn't upset with her or anything. "Look, Dinah…if we don't…I mean…it's just so hard…"

She broke off mid-stammer when she heard the ding of the elevator bell and turned to see the door sliding open. Now what? Hearing Dinah's slight gasp, she guessed she wasn't the only one caught off-guard. Dick and Alfred emerged, Alfred with two bags of groceries. Oh right. The butler had said something about going shopping. Guess he and the boy blunder had run into each other in the parking garage.

Patting Dinah's shoulder again, Helena stepped forward and neatly snagged a bag from Alfred's arms. "Hi guys. I hope there's some ice cream in one of these bags; I'm totally ready for a snack. Any luck out there chasing down leads?"

Dinah blinked hard at the bright and cheery note in her teammate's voice. Where the hell had that come from? Sixty seconds ago, the woman had been all sharp edges and on the verge of saying something actually meaningful. For a moment, she wished she hadn't been shielding herself; maybe she could have caught a clue when Helena touched her. Of course, the irony was that she'd put the shields up because of Helena in the first place. The woman's frenzied pacing this afternoon had been hard enough to handle without feeling the frustration behind it to boot.

She trailed behind the others as they made their way to the kitchen. Then, she stood silently in the doorway watching while Alfred put the groceries away and Dick explained to Helena that his last lead had come up short. She heard Helena snort "I told you so," before snagging a pint of Rocky Road and vaulting up to sit on the counter, swinging her feet like a little kid.

Dinah saw Dick scowl at the woman before walking over to stand next to Alfred. She gaped when Alfred, in turn, glared at Helena, not even trying to hide his exasperation. From her vantage point in the doorway, she thought her teammate had seen the twin looks of disapproval, but if so, she didn't seem at all bothered by them. Then, from the corner of her eye, Dinah caught Dick jerking his chin in her direction and saw Alfred nod once before schooling his face to a more neutral expression.

She could not make sense of their reactions, and was starting to feel like she was missing something really important. She just couldn't figure out what. Balling her fists, she wondered why they didn't just speak their minds and clear the air once and for all. All this cloak-and-dagger stuff was getting on her last nerve. But before she could blurt out something to that effect, she heard Alfred's voice – his tone deferential but pointed.

"Perhaps, since all the other leads have proven unhelpful, now would be the time for at least one of you to look through Master Bruce's files. He may have run across someone who operated in such a fashion or have notes on any unofficial associates of the suspect."

Dinah braced herself for an outburst. She knew Helena had next-to-no use for her father and figured that as edgy as her teammate had been all day, she'd have some choice words to say about that idea. So she couldn't believe her ears when she heard the woman say blithely, around a mouthful of ice cream, "It wouldn't hurt to check into it. Maybe Dick and Dinah could go do the whole Batcave tour thing. No offense, but research isn't my thing. I'll hang out with Jesse or do some more patrolling around the docks, that kind of thing."

When Dick offered up his approval of that plan, his tone matching Helena's for nonchalance, Dinah found her annoyance slipping away to be replaced by worry. It wasn't that she thought it was a bad plan. On the contrary, it was a whole lot better than nothing, which was what they had to work with now. But there was something very wrong here and she didn't know what. All she knew was that it felt like she was sitting on a volcano or something.

For the first time in several days, when she thought about impending disaster, it wasn't Barbara's image that came to mind. It was the rest of them.

Barbara woke with a scream, her abruptly opened eyes blind from both the dim light overhead and the pain rippling along her nerve endings. She panted with adrenaline, unsure for a long moment where she was or what had woken her. Riding a tumultuous wave of random thoughts, she somehow found the presence of mind to concentrate on breathing, knowing it would help, even if only to slow her heart rate. It felt like the muscle was beating hard enough to force its way through her chest.

After a few moments of fighting the panic, she woke up fully and knew where she was. The cold concrete of the cell was hard against her back, and her left hand was flat on the floor, agony pulsing through it. She had little doubt that the pain had woken her; she had a fleeting memory of tucking her hand into the loose waistband of her pants to keep it immobile. Her memories were, granted, extremely fuzzy, which was probably due to the fact that she'd been slipping in and out of consciousness after her last session with her captors.

She blinked hard, though her eyes had already adjusted to the light. Her heart rate had slowed, but she felt weak as water and was having a difficult time breathing through the pain. Of course, that might have something to do with the fact that she'd had five days of increasingly rough treatment at the hands of her captors. She'd lost track of time on her own, but Quinn was taking pains to taunt her with the information. The woman was taunting her with anything that might hit a nerve, actually, but so far Barbara had been able to hide her reactions to the verbal jabs.

Though, the cheerfully sing-song voice the blonde had used during today's session had been hard for Barbara to ignore. She'd come so close to reacting to it, since it was almost as unnerving as what Quinn and the incredible bulk actually did. Today, they'd forgone the usual beating and introduced a whip into the equation. It had been extremely painful. Most of the strokes hadn't landed hard enough to even break the skin. But coming on top of the other beatings, it left her feeling raw. A handful of lashes, however, struck hard, tearing parts of her clothing to ribbons and lacerating the flesh beneath. She'd passed out after the fourth or fifth one, waking to the sound of Quinn laughing at her.

The madwoman had released the manacles from her abraded wrists, laughing again as her paralyzed legs collapsed and she fell in a heap on the floor. They'd dragged her to a table and tied her down to it. Then Quinn had the incredible bulk break the little finger on her left hand. She'd stayed conscious for that and for when he broke her ring finger, but passed out when he repeated the trick on her middle finger.

It hadn't been a very long session, but the increased intensity of the violence made it seem interminable. She shuddered at the knowledge that things would only get worse from here.

She knew, intellectually, that she wasn't in immediate danger of dying from her wounds. Mostly, she was just a huge collection of bruises and damaged tissue, and her captors had been careful not to strike too hard near her internal organs. Presumably, they didn't want her to die from internal bleeding before they had a chance to finish their fun. But now that she had open wounds, she knew infection would become a problem.

Presumably, that was part of the Joker's plans for her.

A part of her wished she knew how long-range his plans actually were. She'd been here five days already. She couldn't imagine if she was to be kept alive a week, ten days, two weeks. But while part of her wanted to know, part of her didn't. If she knew for sure, it would be too easy to give up. And she had to hang in there; she had to have faith in her team. She didn't doubt they were doing everything in their power to rescue her. But she knew exactly how big a city New Gotham was. Since Quinn's escape had obviously gone undetected, they probably didn't even have much of a starting point…

Still, she knew them well enough to know they'd never stop looking. She just had to stay strong until they found her.

Secure in that knowledge, she was able to breathe through the pain and release some of her tension. Warmed by the thought of her teammates, she felt herself slip back into sleep.

Dinah shoved aside the pile of papers in front of her and stuck her elbows on the table. Leaning forward, she held her head between her hands, massaging her temples lightly in the hopes that it would help her headache go away. She'd been bent over Batman's files all day, reading page after page after page. It should have been interesting, since the man kept meticulous records on his dealings with each and every serious foe, every criminal who was more than just some petty thief. It should have been like reading an action-adventure novel.

But his dry, factual style made even the most exciting encounters seem dull, like she was reading an analysis of a bank's financial transactions or something. And so far, she hadn't run across anything relevant. The only similarities in M.O. she'd found were with people like the Joker – all of whom were behind bars.

Dick started in on the files with her after breakfast, and had dutifully gone through his share. But he and Helena had left about an hour ago to go talk to Reese about something he'd heard from an informant. And so she was stuck here with piles and piles of paper, and the sinking feeling that these files were another exercise in futility. What bugged her as much as anything was the certain sense that she'd already seen or heard the one thing that would point them in the right direction – she just didn't know what it was. It was like the "tip of your tongue" phenomenon, but like a billion times more annoying.

Despite her best efforts, she was starting to lose hope. They were no closer to finding Barbara than they'd been a week ago. She was starting to fear that by the time they did track her down, all they'd find was a corpse. She was exhausted from too little sleep, too much worry, and an overall sense of helplessness.

And her companions weren't helping matters any. Even knowing they were as stressed and tired as she was didn't entirely explain the way they were acting. Dick had gone all grim and gothic on her, being curt to the point of rudeness. Alfred kept muttering disparagingly under his breath whenever Helena was around, and then denying he'd said anything at all. And Helena – she didn't even know where to start with Helena...

As if her thoughts were the goad, she heard a thud on the balcony at the same time the elevator bell chimed. And with his usual impeccable timing, Alfred came in to the living area with a tray of coffee and pastries. She lifted her head and turned in her chair as Helena breezed in from outside and Dick stomped off the elevator. Hearing his heavy footsteps, Dinah frowned and stared at him. His eyes were as searing as his voice.

"What the hell is the matter with you, Helena?"

Helena quirked her eyebrow as her half-brother came storming over to her. She glanced at Alfred, breath catching in her throat momentarily at the look of contempt on his face. What the…? She looked away quickly, regaining her composure, just as Dick barged into her personal space. She met his eyes squarely, not backing down an inch. If he thought he could intimidate her that easily, then he'd better damn well think again.

Pasting a smirk onto her face, she asked sweetly, "What? Can't a girl take the express route upstairs?"

Dick couldn't believe his ears. He pulled back from his nose-to-nose position in front of Helena, just far enough so he could waggle his finger at her threateningly. "Don't give me that bullshit. You know damn well what I'm talking about. Where do you get off dismissing a clue just because you can't be bothered to follow up on it?"

Helena's smirk fell off her face as quickly as she'd put it there. Shoving Dick away, she took a few steps back, getting into her fight stance – legs apart, hands on hips, muscles tensed. She snapped, "If we had a clue worth pursuing, then I'd pursue it. But this is just another dead end, just another way for us to run around in circles and accomplish abso-fucking-lutely nothing."

She dropped her hands off her hips, fisting them at her sides. "So his informant saw – from behind and at a distance – the suspect talking to a woman with honey blonde hair. He never saw her face and thinks – only thinks – she's between 5' and 5'6" tall. And the only other thing he can tell us is that she was in jeans and a blue tee-shirt."

Dick didn't seem impressed by her words, still staring at her with blazing eyes. She let her sarcasm come to the fore to drive her point home. "Do you have any fucking idea how many women in this city fit that description? Last time I checked, there were hundreds. Want me to go hit on every blonde woman I see, and then bring her back here so we can interrogate her?"

Dick threw his hands up in the air. "You're impossible! At least it's something more concrete than we had an hour ago. I'm sorry it's just too boring for you, Helena."

He shook his head, trying unsuccessfully to rein in his anger. "You know what…screw it and screw you. I give up. If you don't really care, then just go run your sweeps and beat the crap out of bad guys. Do whatever the hell you want. But you damn well better stay out of my way while I'm busting my butt trying to find Barbara."

Dinah screamed when Helena rushed forward, grabbed Dick by the throat, and slammed him up against the wall. She heard the loud thud his body made when it impacted the brick and she tasted bile. She wanted to move, to try and help him, to do something. But she was frozen in place by the scene, watching him thrash helplessly. The ice in Helena's voice made her shiver.

"Don't you ever say I don't care. EVER. I would give my life for Barbara…my life! I'd give anything to get her back safe. How the fuck could you even suggest otherwise…"

Dick wheezed for breath, and then coughed and stumbled as Helena unexpectedly let go and backed away. He brought his hand up to his throat and rubbed it. This little confrontation hadn't played out quite the way he'd planned. But there was no turning back now. Better to get everything out in the open and deal with it, instead of giving it more time to fester.

He brought his eyes up and met his half-sister's gaze full on. He deliberately kept his voice soft. "What the hell else should I think, Helena? You've been running around here like this is some game, like you don't have a care in the world. If I didn't know you, I'd assume you could care less whether we got Barbara back alive or not."

He saw the sudden shock in her eyes, followed quickly by twin flashes of pain and anger. Despite feeling a sudden surge of sympathy towards her, he pressed on. "I know why you're putting on that mask, Helena, and I feel for you, I really do. Believe me, you're not the only one who has tried to keep her feelings for another person under wraps. But is denial really helping?"

Seeing the color drain from Helena's face, Dick almost went over to her. But he knew better. Quietly, he added, "Under any other circumstances, I'd say this was your business and leave it at that. But you're not working alone, and if you crack under the pressure, you put me at risk. You put Dinah at risk. And most importantly, you put Barbara at risk. If your repressed feelings come out at the wrong time…"

Helena's ears were ringing and she had to lean against the couch to keep from falling over. It wasn't just Dick's assessment of how her attempts to play it cool came across as not giving a shit. It wasn't just the unwelcome knowledge that he'd somehow read her mind just like Dinah had and knew how she truly felt about Barbara. It was the sudden realization that he was right. Her denial was putting all of them at risk. The picture played in her mind like a low-budget movie scene – them finding the redhead and her kidnappers, her feelings overwhelming her, and Barbara's throat being cut right in front of her eyes while she was frozen with emotion and unable to stop it.

She sank down to her knees, still holding on to the back of the couch, feeling faint. Suddenly, she felt Alfred's hand come to rest on her shoulder, and tried to shrink away from the touch. But his fingers felt like a vice and his voice was stern. "We are all aware that you care for Miss Barbara – very deeply. But you cannot allow your feelings to get in the way of your duty."

It took Helena several heartbeats to process the words, her mind reeling. She'd buried her feelings for Barbara so deep that most of the time she was honestly convinced they didn't even exist. And except for Dinah – who had an unfair advantage with her touch telepathy – she'd never imagined that anyone could tell how she felt. But apparently her big secret was no secret to anyone here. The only person it was still a secret to was the one person who should have known it before anyone else.

Taking a deep breath, trying to center herself, she heard Alfred pick up his lecture. "You cannot continue to indulge your feelings and act like a child. It is time for you to step up and shoulder your responsibilities. You have a duty to perform and it is simply not fair for your personal life to get in the way of that."

Helena bristled. Reaching up, she grabbed the hand that was on her shoulder and shoved it away. She didn't want the butler anywhere near her, and she sure as hell didn't want the call to duty he was giving her – complete with his implication that nothing else in the world was as important as that. At least Dick's lecture had focused on the impact of her actions on the people around her. She could respect that; he wasn't telling her to be some kind of emotionless robot or something. Hell, even Barbara – whose sense of responsibility and duty was extraordinarily well-developed – had never preached this particular gospel.

Alfred was just like her fucking father – duty came before everything and everyone else. No matter what the cost. They could call it noble all they wanted. She called it selfish.

Helena heard the butler's exasperated huff. "I'm sorry, Miss Helena, but this needs to be said. It's time to face the fact that Miss Barbara is probably dead and that your responsibility is to find the ones responsible and bring them to justice."

She clung harder to the couch at the stark words, her anger dwarfed by the fear clawing at the back of her throat. She didn't want to hear any more, but the stern voice washed relentlessly over her. "You are carrying on Batman's legacy, whether you admit it or not. It is time you learned once and for all that nothing matters but your duty to keep the city safe. There is the most important thing. Your father sacrificed everything for that, and you should aspire to do no less."

Feeling faint, Helena rested her head against her forearm and closed her eyes. The weight of the old man's expectations and disappointment was crushing and for a long moment she could barely draw breath. That wasn't what she'd signed up for, was it? How could anyone live up to all that? And who the hell said her father was some kind of saint in the first place…

Struggling to say something, anything, she found herself grateful when Dick stepped in, his tone clipped. "Just stop it, Alfred. She's not Bruce, I'm not Bruce…hell, even Babs isn't Bruce. We're creating our own legacies, not trying to imitate his."

Dick saw Alfred's eyes flash and spoke quickly, before the other man could draw breath. "Maybe Bruce could detach himself from the people around him. Maybe you can too. But the rest of us aren't like that. And I happen to think we're stronger for the fact that we do give a damn about other people and don't try to shut that side of ourselves off like it's some kind of weakness."

Alfred's words were clipped. "It is a weakness when it gets in the way of your duty."

Helena held her breath, unsure what to make of the tense argument. She'd never realized just how outspoken Alfred could be. And she'd never expected to hear her thoughts coming out of Dick's mouth. She heard her half-brother sigh and heard the sadness in his words. "Alfred, I know you and Bruce share the same set of values and I take my hat off to both of you for it. But it's not fair to expect the rest of us to live up to those ideals and be willing to make the same sacrifices."

Alfred laughed at that – a grim sound. "You all freely chose to follow in Master Bruce's footsteps. If anything is unfair, it is the way in which now that things have gotten difficult, you no longer wish to emulate your mentor – to carry his mantle."

Dick's nostrils flared as he studied the other man, taking in the stubborn set of his jaw, the flash of anger in his eyes, and an expression of disdain on his face. He met the older man's eyes, staring him down. "Let's not forget that this is the same man who abandoned Helena and who later ran out on Babs when she needed him most. Tell me, what's so noble and heroic about that? Is that what you'd like the rest of us to ascribe to? Bruce is worthy of admiration and respect, but he's not perfect and it's time that you stopped acting like he is."

For a long moment, there was nothing but silence in the Clocktower.

Helena's heart was beating too fast and the world seemed fuzzy around the edges and she couldn't quite draw a complete breath. She couldn't bear to look at either of the men, facing off like foes in a gun battle. Instead, she raised her eyes and looked over at Dinah. The kid sat motionless in her chair, mouth hanging open, looking fully as shocked as Helena felt. But as she studied the teen, she saw both understanding and relief glinting in the pale blue eyes. She wasn't quite sure what that meant, then decided it didn't really matter. Her teammate was a vision of normalcy in a world that had suddenly flipped upside down.

"Perhaps you have a point, Master Dick, and it is unfair to expect so much from any of you. In that case, you clearly will have no need for my assistance, so I'll take my leave."

Before Helena could process the information, the butler was gone, and the ding of the elevator told her he wasn't just going to his quarters. She managed to wrench her eyes away from Dinah to look at Dick, who'd walked over to kneel in front of her. She was thankful he still didn't try to touch her. "Thanks…for what you said…for all of it…but Alfred…is he…"

Dick shook his head, not sure where to start. "You're welcome. Alfred and I have had this fight before…and I've been in your shoes with his lectures more than once. So has Barbara. It's not the first time I've seen him walk out like this, and I'm sure it won't be the last."

He didn't miss the look of surprise on Helena's face. On Dinah's too, for that matter. It made sense, he supposed. "Alfred was actively involved in Batman's work – and Barbara and I had to answer to him as well as Bruce. He's never completely forgiven us for adopting new identities and breaking off in our own directions."

He broke off for a moment with a snort. "Hell, Barbara wasn't entirely sure about having him work for her, even though she knew becoming Oracle meant she needed someone to help with the daily chores. She was afraid that even with the boundaries she'd set, he'd want to be involved with more than just the domestic duties. Thankfully, it worked itself out."

Helena loosened her grip on the couch slightly, though she still leaned against it. "I knew there was some tension at first, but they were both very careful to try and hide it from me. Not that I really paid that much attention anyhow. But…is he ok? I mean, he didn't leave forever, did he?"

Dick didn't mean to chuckle at the pathetic note in Helena's question, but he couldn't quite help himself. "He'll come back; he always does. Don't even worry about it. He just needs some time to soothe his hurt pride. Because he loves Bruce dearly, he has a serious blind spot when it comes to the flawed man behind the myth. And because he shares Bruce's 'duty above all else' mentality, he can't see that there are other ways to fight the good fight."

He sighed softly, memories of other times and places washing over him. After a moment, he shook free of them, fixing his attention back on his half-sister. "He'll stay away for a while, but he'll be back. When he does return, though, he's going to act like nothing at all happened. He won't even allude to it. As long as you don't bring it up and act like everything's normal…it will be."

Dinah listened to Dick's words with interest. She'd been frozen in her chair since the whole thing started. Part of it was that she hated conflict – at least conflict between people she knew and cared about. But mostly it was that she'd been too busy processing what was happening to do anything about it. It felt like she'd had a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle putting itself together inside her head. She knew she had been right about Helena's feelings all those months ago, and she understood now why all her companions had been acting so weird since Barbara went missing. Hell, she finally knew why Barbara didn't involve Alfred in the Birds of Prey – a question that had vexed her since she moved in to the Clocktower.

Now, finally freed from her analysis-paralysis, she stood up and walked over to Dick and Helena. Standing next to her teammate, she placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. She wasn't entirely sure it was a good idea, since the woman could be very prickly about being touched. So she was a little bit surprised when Helena pushed away from the couch and leaned against her. Shifting her hand, she pulled the woman closer, feeling faint tremors in the muscles under her hand.

Oh God. Poor Helena.

Dropping her mental shield for a moment, she focused her attention completely on the woman. The flood of feelings would have overwhelmed her, but she'd seen what she'd expected – namely, that the worry and anger about the fight with Alfred was just the tip of the iceberg. Her probe was simply to make sure. Quickly, she put her shield back in place. Feeling eyes on her, she looked over to find Dick watching her, nodding at her as if he knew what needed to happen now with Helena. He wasn't psychic so how had he…Oh right. Despite their outward differences, Dick and Helena were a lot alike.

Dinah wasn't too surprised when Dick stood then, speaking softly. "I'll give you two some space. Helena, I'm sorry for pushing you earlier. I honestly didn't plan for things to happen that way. But I can't say I'm sorry that this is finally out in the open."

The minute she heard the elevator doors close behind him, she moved slightly away from Helena, not missing the slight start of surprise. Since the woman had been using her as a leaning post, she waited a moment for her to regain her balance, then reached down and offered her a hand. She watched as Helena stared at her hand, stared back up at her, then stared at her hand again, as if not entirely sure what to do with it. When the woman finally reached out and grabbed it, tentatively, Dinah pulled her to her feet and led her – like a child – over to the couch.

She pushed gently so the woman would fall back into the cushions, then sat beside her and wrapped an arm around her. At first, her teammate just sat there – somehow stiff and trembling at the same time. Dinah gently extended her empathy, hinting at comfort and caring. And then all at once, Helena turned to her, eyes lost and dazed. Sympathy surged through Dinah and she pulled the woman into a hug. The next thing she knew, Helena returned the embrace, wrapping her arms around her like she was some kind of life-size teddy bear. She laid her cheek against brown hair, holding her friend close.

Within moments, she realized that Helena was crying. She blinked hard, fighting the tears that welled up at the realization. She'd never seen the woman cry. It was a quiet expression of grief – nothing loud or dramatic – but that almost made it seem worse, like it was too deep to be given voice. Through the shared embrace, Dinah could feel the sobs wracking Helena's body, could feel the strength of the emotions coursing through her.

It was overwhelming.

Dinah discovered she was crying too. At first, it was her own grief at Helena's sorrow. But once she started, she felt her own powerful emotions welling up as the days of worry and fatigue finally found a release. It was painful and messy, but she felt better for it even in the midst of crying her heart out. She wasn't like Dick and Barbara, able to shove her emotions off to the side and focus on what was in front of them. She realized then that she didn't have to be. Being emotional didn't make her any less effective, it just meant that – like with her telepathy – she had to learn a different set of coping techniques than the people around her. She didn't have to be just like Barbara any more than Barbara had to be just like Bruce.

She smiled through her tears as a weight she hadn't even known she was carrying lifted from her shoulders.

Even though the storm of emotion had started to ebb, Helena still clung to her teammate, grateful for the supportive, empathetic presence. It was terrifying to be so vulnerable, so aware of the depth of her feelings. She knew people thought she was an emotional open book. But it was only the negative things she showed so freely: anger, impatience, frustration, hatred. Those things were comfortable, familiar – they protected her. She didn't want people to see the tenderness, the compassion, the love. They were a weakness that could be exploited. Hell, she didn't even want to feel such uncomfortable things, and kept them buried down deep so she could forget they even existed.

Now, it was if her barricades had been blown to bits and she couldn't hide her truth from herself any longer.

Her voice was small and muffled against Dinah's chest. "I love her but never told her…and now I'm scared to death that I'll never get the chance. I thought it would be better this way…if I didn't let myself give in to my feelings…if I told her we should just be friends."

She clenched her fingers against Dinah's back, fighting another series of sobs that left her unable to speak for a moment. Finally, she was able to take a long, shuddering breath. "After my mom died, I thought I'd die from the pain. I swore I'd never let myself get so close to anyone again…I couldn't bear the thought of going through that again. I didn't even let myself make friends with people – not really. I just kept everything as casual as I could. I thought I was playing it smart, keeping myself from getting hurt."

Helena blinked through her tears, her voice dropping to a whisper. "But…this hurts anyway. It's almost worse…somehow…because I've got all these 'if only' thoughts running through my head."

Dinah knew how hard it was for her to make that confession and her heart went out to her teammate again. She hugged Helena tighter, feeling for the first time in days like she knew exactly what to do. She kept her voice low and soothing. "I know you wanted to protect yourself from the bad feelings. But you also missed out on the good ones. I know I don't know a lot about love and stuff, but I do know you can't live your life in a bubble."

She reached up and stroked her fingers through Helena's hair. "It's scary to love people and to know that they might not always be there. But I think it's a lot scarier to not love people and to try to go through life completely on your own. Bad stuff will happen no matter what – and it's easier to get through when you don't have to do it alone."

Dinah stopped there, debating whether to say more. Feeling fresh tears soaking into her shirt, she decided the time was as right as it would ever be. It wasn't very often that Helena was open to conversations like this. She said softly, but emphatically, "I know you wish you'd told her how you really feel. But if it helps, she's happy with what you do have. She knows you let her see sides to you that no one else does – and that's more precious to her than I can even tell you. Never doubt that your friendship alone is enough for her."

She paused for a moment, to give her words emphasis. "Even if you never get the chance to tell her you're in love with her, she does know you love her."

When she heard Dinah's words, Helena felt the lump in her throat slowly start to dissolve and found it easier to blink back her tears. She found the kid's declaration more comforting than she could have imagined. It didn't help her forgive herself for her cowardice, but that was a process that would take months, if not years. Still, she took heart from the assurance that if the worst happened, Barbara at least knew that much – knew she was loved.

She pulled out of Dinah's embrace slightly, so that she could lean back and look into the kid's eyes. "You're sure about that?"

Ok, so the words came out a little rough due to her earlier sobbing, but she didn't expect Dinah to chuckle at them. Still feeling vulnerable and exposed, she tensed up, not sure what to make of that. But then she registered the kid's response. "Of course I'm sure. Touch telepath here – remember? There are some things I just know, you know? Even when I'm not trying to read people…"

Right. Of course Dinah was sure or she wouldn't have said it. At any other time, the reminder of the kid's gifts would have made Helena uncomfortable. Now, however, it gave her something tangible to hold on to.

Helena scrubbed her hand over her face, picking up a few stray tears. She felt raw, somehow, and emotionally drained. But there was also a sense of peace in the aftermath of the storm. Things weren't any better than they'd been forty-five minutes ago: Alfred was still gone, she still needed to straighten things out with Dick, Barbara was still missing, and they still didn't have any substantial clues. But somehow, it all seemed a little less overwhelming for the fact that she'd released some of the fear and the tension she hadn't known she was carrying.

"So…what do we do now?"

Dinah wanted to wince at the bluntness in her own voice. She knew it was because she was worn down from the emotional overload, but that still didn't make her feel better. Thankfully, Helena seemed to understand. She let her teammate pull her into another hug, and leaned her head against the woman's shoulder. She felt a slight gust of air near her ear when Helena finally answered the question. "Well, I don't know about you, but I at least need to wash my face. Actually, I think I'd feel better if I took a very long, very hot shower."

Helena heard Dinah's wistful sigh at the suggestion and felt a confirming nod against her shoulder. "Then, after that, I'll call Dick and apologize and ask him to head back here. Then, we'll make a full pot of coffee, get something to eat, and do some brain-storming. Maybe now that we're both a little less on edge, we'll have some new ideas for how to find Barbara."

She tried to keep her tone hopeful – even if she wasn't sure she believed what she was saying. She'd said it primarily for her teammate's benefit anyhow. After all, Dinah didn't need anything else to worry about.

Barbara bit her lip bloody, balling her one good hand into a fist. She'd managed to keep from crying out thus far during this latest torture session, but was aware she was reaching the end of her control. The knowledge scared her – as if her continued existence somehow depended on not losing control completely, not letting Quinn break her. Even though the logical part of her mind knew that was ridiculous, knew that there was only so much punishment the human body could take, it didn't keep her from being afraid.

Another flash of pain broke through her thoughts and her muscles tensed with the effort it took not to cry out. The incredible bulk was showing incredible patience as he drew random patterns on her stomach with a very sharp knife. It wasn't a constant motion; he'd cut her skin very, very slowly, drawing out the effect, and then pull away and wait for a while before digging in again. Which of course only served to make it more torturous for her; moving her from sharp pain, to minor sense of relief, to incessant throbbing, and back to sharp pain.

Over and over. Relentlessly.

She gritted her teeth against the throbbing ache, trying to distract herself from feeling too much. But with each new cut, the widening circle of pain became that much harder to ignore. The only good thing – if it could be called that – was that the man was marking an already-scarred and misshapen area of her body. He was mapping the same overall path as the Joker's bullets of seven years ago. It wasn't like he was leaving indelible marks on her face or arms, places where she'd have to see them every time she looked in the mirror. Assuming, of course, she survived this little encounter in the first place.

Earlier in the day, she'd tried mentally reaching out to Dinah, prompted by her increasing anxiety as the sessions with her captors grew harsher. She knew it probably was a waste of energy since she wasn't a telepath and Dinah couldn't read people if they were too far away. But she was at the point of grasping at straws. She had nothing to lose if it didn't work and everything to gain if it did.

In her growing desperation, she'd even tried reasoning with Quinn earlier, before being dragged out of her cell. She'd tried to remind the woman that she didn't have to be the Joker's puppet any more, that she had choices and could walk away a free woman if she just stopped now. And she'd actually thought she'd gotten through to her captor, seeing a sad and pensive look in blue eyes as she talked. But then, Quinn had squatted next to her, Taser in hand, and said carefully, "Right now, my choices and his plans are the same thing. If you're strong enough, you'll still be alive when we reach the point where they diverge."

She still didn't understand the tone or the statement any better than when she'd first heard it. But she tried to take it as a sign of hope somehow. There was still something within Harley that was beyond the Joker's control. Maybe she could still reason with the woman, could still negotiate an escape. And maybe Quinn was having second thoughts about killing her.

Then, the knife slid into her flesh again, pain flashing along her nerve endings, short-circuiting her thoughts. With the earlier damage to her stomach, parts of her skin were even more sensitive than they'd been before, almost as if the nerve endings there were making up for her lack of sensation elsewhere. She fisted her good hand more tightly, her nails breaking the skin of her palm, but couldn't stop a strangled moan from escaping. As if the sound were a goad, the knife play increased in intensity and duration, leaving her gasping for breath.

Within a few minutes, the pain became all-encompassing and she couldn't seem to focus on anything else. She began to whimper. The sharp pain disappeared, but her whole stomach felt as if it were on fire.

Weakened as she was by her ordeal, she still fought to stay strong, to endure. An image floated through her mind's eye and she grabbed hold of it, took refuge in it. Her friend; her rock. She felt another sharp pain and it was too much. She screamed once, then panted for breath. Overwhelmed, she couldn't stop a word from slipping out.


It was the first time she'd involuntarily spoken during any of her sessions with her captors. She heard Quinn's taunting laughter, and though her eyes wouldn't quite focus, she still saw the triumph on the pixyish face. The woman's voice echoed in her ear, full of cheerful menace. "I know you're in hell. That's the whole point, little Bat."

If she hadn't been nearly unconscious, Barbara might have managed a grim laugh at the woman's lack of comprehension. All she could do, however, was say Helena's name over and over in her mind, like a mantra. Like a lifeline.

Helena will save me...Helena will save me...

Dick took a long sip of coffee as he watched the two young women on the other side of the table. He was, frankly, surprised to be back in the Clocktower so soon after exiting stage left. He'd been prepared to be gone most of the evening to make sure they had enough space to hash out whatever they needed to hash out. His plan had been to show up just in time to crash on the couch and get some sleep. Still, it was a relief to be back here, not out looking for ways to kill time.

And he had to admit that Helena's apology on the phone had felt good. Not because he'd won an argument or anything, but because she'd acknowledged her own shortcomings. And hell, he'd apologized too – for his arrogance and tendency to dismiss her contributions. They were both strong-willed personalities, so he had little doubt they'd clash again. At least now they knew it could be as friendly adversaries, not enemies.

The situation with Alfred remained unresolved, but it never would be completely. After all, the older man wasn't like Bruce solely in terms of his ideals, but also in terms of being stubborn and running away from emotional challenges. He already knew where the butler had gone – back to Bruce's hidey-hole where the two of them could commiserate about the spoiled, selfish young. It wasn't his problem and he wasn't about to make it one. It didn't mean he didn't care about them, or wasn't grateful for their tutelage. But they were bound to the past; he'd moved on to the future.

In some ways, he envied Helena for the fact that she'd never idolized the man and thus never struggled to separate herself from his formidable personality. Both he and Barbara still had issues with that…

He leaned back in his chair and popped a cookie into his mouth. He hadn't asked what happened after he left; it wasn't really his business. But from watching them, he got a sense of where things stood. They weren't talking to each other or anything – both were busy doodling on scratch paper and taking distracted sips of coffee. But he saw the shared sideways glances, like they were totally attuned to each other, and something in the overall mood had shifted. He couldn't put his finger on what it was, exactly, since they were all still stressed and tense. Then again, it really didn't matter if he could identify it or not; it was enough just to feel it.

Busy musing on that, he about jumped out of his skin when he heard two voices, simultaneously, blurt out, "Arkham!"

Helena almost laughed when she saw Dinah staring wide-eyed at her. Ok, granted, the synchronization had been a little weird. But the kid looked like she'd seen a ghost or something. Reaching out, she tapped a finger on the underside of her teammate's chin, nudging her mouth closed. Though she immediately ruined the effect by asking, "So what made you…?"

"I just keep thinking about Harley Quinn. And there was the power surge…"

"Yeah, me too. And Quinn could have figured out who Barbara was…"

"And there's something odd about the reports of Quinn just pacing her cell…"

"And she's blonde…"

"And the cemetery…"


Dick waved his hand wildly at the duo and was glad when the nearly overlapping voices stopped abruptly. He shook his head, glad for their sudden burst of enthusiasm, but not happy about being so thoroughly left in the dust. "Back the truck up for a sec. I thought Arkham was one of the first places you checked and they didn't have any escapees."

Dinah leaned forward in her chair, and then suddenly turned to look at Helena. She was chomping at the bit to explain, but wanted to make sure she wasn't stepping on any toes. An encouraging smile and a nod was all she needed, and she was off and running. "We checked the logs but never went down there to check in person. There was a power failure, but they reported that all their prisoners were accounted for. Still…it's possible that something happened…that someone like Quinn got out."

She saw the question on Dick's face and finished her explanation in a rush. "We know she's kept isolated because of her hypnotism. Well, it's possible that the guards don't even go in her cell…that they just watch her on their security monitors. What if she's not really there?"

Dick leaned back in his chair again and sighed. He really didn't want to throw cold water on the idea, because it was a relief to see a spark of life in the girl's eyes again. But he'd learned over the years that it was always helpful for someone to play devil's advocate. "It's possible…but it's a stretch. I mean, to do this, she would have needed to escape before Barbara's plane landed. That means no one would have noticed her absence in several days – which for a prison, makes no sense at all."

He shook his head at that last thought before continuing. "We'll go check it out, and maybe we'll get lucky. But what if we show up and Quinn is sitting nice and safe in her cell? What then?"

Helena smiled when Dinah didn't wilt under the weight of the questions. She saw a glint of determination in the pale blue eyes. Good – so her teammate obviously thought there was something to this. She was certain they were on the right track now, though she couldn't say why. Not giving the kid a chance to answer, she added her two cents. "If Quinn is there, then we'll talk to her, see what we can find out. At worst, we'll waste an hour or so to find out absolutely nothing – which is exactly what we know now. At best, well, we'll find out she orchestrated the whole thing and can tell us where to find Barbara."

The dubious look on Dick's face didn't surprise her in the least. Anticipating his next objection, Helena pointed out, "We do have a couple of options, you know. I can walk in there and appeal to the psychiatrist in her, play on her need to give advice in order to worm information out of her. Or you can go in as the Boy Wonder and threaten her to see what she does."

"Or we could get into her cell and while the two of you restrain her, I could read her thoughts."

Helena's head whip-lashed around in surprise and from the corner of her eye she saw that Dick's had done the same thing. Even though the words had been matter-of-fact, they still took her aback. Searching Dinah's face, she saw nothing but calm determination written there. There was no hint of ruthlessness or anger in the kid's eyes – nothing that suggested she was out for vengeance. She was thoroughly relieved by that. The last thing Barbara would want would be for them to abandon their ideals and principles in the effort to find her.

Certain of Dinah's intentions, Helena turned the idea around in her head and thought it made a lot of sense. She was proud of her for making the offer, actually, since doing an in-depth reading of someone took an immense toll on the kid. She murmured her agreement, and heard Dick echo her words. Then, her mind still going over things, she just sat there for a moment, glancing back and forth between her companions.

Helena wasn't sure why, but for the first time she felt like they finally had the missing piece of the puzzle. It was nothing obvious, nothing that should have jumped out at any of them sooner. In fact, it was less solid than the leads they'd followed. But her subconscious had piped up with something that had obviously been nagging at her – something she'd been too tense and guarded to see earlier. She felt a change in the energy of the room, as if the possibility that they were finally on to something had breathed new life into all of them. It was impossible to tell exactly what Dick was thinking – though his expression was much more animated than it had been for days. But Dinah was practically like a harp string vibrating next to her, her eagerness almost contagious.

She jumped up from her chair, picked up her lukewarm mug of coffee, and drained it in one healthy swallow, grimacing at the taste. "Who's driving?"

"But this prisoner can't see nobody. Says so right on her door."

Helena fought the urge to deck the tall, dark, and ugly guard staring stubbornly at them. The only thing that stopped her was the knowledge that she couldn't help Barbara if she was in jail for assault. Glancing over at Dick, she was glad to see her impatience mirrored on his face. They'd been arguing the point with the front desk guard for about fifteen minutes now. They'd asked to speak with his supervisor, to no avail. Even Dick flashing his badge and saying it was official police business hadn't worked. The thick-headed guard failed to understand how there could be any possible connection between New Gotham and Bludhaven. She was about ready to ask for the man's name and badge number so that the next time she ran into Barbara's father, she could have him pull some strings and get this meathead removed from the job.

Her heart sank at the reminder that – sooner or later – she'd have to deal with Jim Gordon. He knew his daughter was missing, but at Alfred's insistence they'd down-played the possibility of foul play. Instead, the butler had concocted a story – saying that Barbara mentioned the possibility of extending her trip and visiting a friend's rural cabin. Helena, listening in on speakerphone, had heard the open disbelief in Jim's voice. Not that she blamed him – she wouldn't have bought that story either. Thankfully, he'd chosen not to make an issue of it – probably aware, from his years of knowing Alfred, that it wouldn't do any good. Instead, he'd told Helena point-blank to let him know when she got his daughter back – and to do her damnedest to make sure she was in one piece. The frankness had surprised her a little, but not completely. She was about ninety-nine percent sure that he had a fairly accurate idea about Barbara's night life and her role in it. Still, it didn't make the prospect of facing the man any easier.

And those cheery thoughts just made the stonewalling by the guard all the more frustrating. She was on the verge of raising her voice and explaining yet again that Quinn's help was crucial to a case they were working on, when a low voice from behind her made that unnecessary.

"What's the problem here? Why haven't you let my agents in to see the prisoner?"

Dinah's eyes nearly popped out of her head when she heard Reese's voice. The detective walked up to stand next to her and she saw him flash a piece of ID at the dim-witted guard, who immediately straightened up and looked nervous. Of course, she might have done the same on seeing an FBI Special Agent card. What the hell? She looked over at Reese and caught his quick wink before he looked back at the stammering guard, who was busy trying to justify his actions. Ah. She should have known that a cop who hung around with vigilante crime fighters would know a thing or two about fake identities and skirting authority. Not for the first time, she was very glad for Dick's insistence on keeping Jesse in the loop.

Within moments, they were standing in front of the room containing Quinn's cell, all fitted with the special anti-hypnotic contact lenses Dinah had the foresight to grab from the Clocktower's supply closet. The guard unlocked the door and then stepped back hastily, as if scared to poke even a single toe inside. The rest of them entered the room and stood in a huddle until they heard the clang of the door and the thud of the lock sliding home. Then, as with one accord, they all looked to the reflective cell in the center of the room.

Somehow, no one was surprised to find it empty.

Reese was the first to break the silence that followed that visual revelation. "So, what now? Do you want to go question the Joker, to see if he's involved in her escape or if he knows whether she planned to kidnap Oracle?"

He wasn't sure what response he expected, but it wasn't the emphatic shake of two heads and Helena and Dick saying "No" in unison. Though Jesse hadn't spent much time with Dick, he knew from anecdotal evidence that he and Helena rarely saw eye-to-eye. Either she'd been greatly exaggerating over the years or something had changed very recently.

Helena sent a quick smile in Dick's direction, glad that he seemed to be thinking along the same lines she was. But she hastened to elaborate, seeing the question in Dinah's eyes and the confusion on Reese's face. "There's no point in talking to the Joker. Even if he knows something, there's no way in hell he'll tell any of us. He'd just stand there and cackle at us or something. It'd just be a waste of time."

She rolled her eyes at the mental image, before explaining further. "And if he's involved somehow – as the mastermind or even just Quinn's confidant, he might manage to get a message to her. And that could be a very bad thing. I don't think it's a coincidence that she escaped right around the time Ba…Oracle went missing."

Even though Jesse was in this with them and had enough clues to Oracle's identity to be able to put two and two together, the habit of secrecy was hard to break. And there was still the chance that he hadn't put the pieces together and associated them with Barbara Gordon.

At the very beginning of this whole nightmare, Dick had asked if they should tell Reese everything, to involve him as a full partner or something. Helena had vetoed the idea on the spot, pointing out that there was a big difference between him thinking he'd figured it out and him knowing for sure. Besides which, as she'd explained with no little sarcasm, there was a good chance that he'd be no better at figuring out Oracle's identity, sight unseen, than he'd been at figuring out hers when he'd seen her face and known where she worked. Dinah had laughed and agreed.

Dick echoed Helena's statement. "I'm sure we'd all agree that when it comes to stuff like this, there are very few coincidences. And in reality, we don't really need the Joker's help – we'll get as much help from Batman's old files, now that we know who and what we're looking for. One of the few things that's nice about tracking down super-villains is that they tend to be creatures of habit – either because they're arrogant and think they're smarter than everyone else or because they like the thrill of the chase."

He didn't bother to say which option likely applied to their current quarry. He just finished making his case. "I'd say there's a really good chance that Quinn's holed up in one of the Joker's old hide-outs. Between knowing where most of them are and Dinah's ability to sense Oracle's aura once we're in the general vicinity, we should be able to find her."

Dick saw his companions nod, then turn back towards the door, debating about which one of them got to tell the guards that they'd lost a prisoner. As he trailed behind them, he said a quiet prayer that his optimism about finding Barbara wouldn't prove to be unfounded.

"This is it."

Despite her exhaustion, Dinah's voice held a note of triumph. She'd done it. She'd managed to zero in on Barbara's aura. It was faint – very faint – but unmistakable. After a night of research, three hours of sleep, and then spending the last three hours checking out various hide-outs, she'd finally felt what she was looking for.

She felt completely shaky – drained by the heavy use of her telepathic powers after too little sleep and not enough food. But with Helena's arm around her – steadying her – as they sat side by side on a low brick wall, she was able to draw strength from the other woman. And it didn't hurt that now that they were here, so close to the prospect of success, her adrenaline was kicking in. She knew she'd have the mother of all headaches once this was done and would probably want to spend a week in bed. At the moment, however, she was ready to kick down doors and lead the forward charge herself.

Of course, her enthusiasm was tempered by the knowledge that even though she'd sensed Barbara was in the general vicinity, they still had a lot of ground to cover.

Helena kept one eye on the teenager and one on Dick, who was busy consulting a set of notes. He was, no doubt, trying to decide which one of the two nearby hidey-holes they should check into first. If she'd been on her own, she would have just picked one at random and charged in, antsy as she was. But she could feel Dinah trembling slightly beside her, and that helped curb her impatience for action. If at all possible, they needed to narrow in on the right location without continuing to use the kid as a homing pigeon. Dinah had done more than her part by doing a cursory mental check of the places on their list, saving them from wasting time on a thorough physical search.

Jesse had wanted to come along with them, but the three of them had been unanimous in their rejection of that idea. Helena had seen his frustration, but she knew him well enough to realize it wasn't because they'd said "No." It was because he wouldn't get a chance to sweep in on his horse and play the knight in shining armor. Given how annoying she found that particular trait, she was thankful that Dick had taken care of the situation. He'd reminded Reese that they had no idea who all was involved in the kidnapping – and that if he was spotted alongside known vigilantes, his career would be all but over. They'd given him a set of comms, told him they'd keep in touch, and promised that if there were arrests to be made, he'd be the one to do it.

Fondly, Helena took her arm from around Dinah's shoulders and ruffled blonde hair. The smile she got in return was thin, but genuine. Apparently, she wasn't the only one feeling better just for the fact that they finally had something productive to do. Sometimes she'd thought Barbara had it so easy, sitting there playing on the computer while she was out doing all the grunt work. Now, having gotten a small taste of just how much work it took to sniff out leads and connect the dots, she thought the role of muscle girl was a pretty damn good one. And when – not if – Barbara was back behind the Delphi, she'd never again take the redhead's work for granted. At least not on purpose, anyway.

Finished with his planning, such as it was, Dick walked back over to Helena and Dinah, seeing the way their attention immediately focused in on him. No doubt about it, they were as ready for action as he was. With that in mind, he kept his comments brief. "I think we should start with the underground cavern, rather than the old railway tunnels. It's deeper beneath the city, but an easier space to search, so if it's a dead end, we'll know pretty quickly."

There were other, more logical, reasons he could have added, but didn't see the need. It wasn't like they needed convincing. Both women jumped up from the wall at his words and stared expectantly at him. What…? Oh right – he was the one who had the notes and knew the way.

Without another word, he led them into the alleyway between some long-vacant industrial buildings. They walked straight back until the narrow lane came to a dead end by virtue of running into a thick, tall concrete wall. Ostensibly, the wall was to block access to the building on the other side – some manufacturing company with alphabet soup for a name. But from Bruce's notes he knew that the contractors who built it – from the HaHa Company, which even now made him shake his head – had another purpose in mind. He stood on his tiptoes and ran his fingers along a slightly discolored patch of concrete. Ah – there it was. If he hadn't known what he was feeling for, he would have assumed it was a small rock that had dried in the concrete. He pushed the disguised button to one side, rather than down as would be expected, and grinned when a trap door opened in the floor of the alley, exposing a metal ladder bolted to a concrete wall that went down about twenty feet. With a nod to his companions, he turned and climbed down.

The ladder took him to a small open chamber that had tunnels branching out in four directions. Once Helena and Dinah stood beside him, he kicked the underside of the bottom rung and heard the grind of the trap door closing. He took a moment to be thankful for Bruce's tendency to be pedantic; otherwise, he wouldn't have had a clue how to get down here and then shut the door behind them. Then, they stood in darkness until his companions took out their mini-flashlights and turned them on. Not a lot of light, to be sure, but the three of them were used to night patrols. It didn't take long for their eyes to adjust to the scant illumination.

Dick pulled his mask out of his pocket, watching from the corner of his eye as Helena and Dinah followed suit. They'd decided against full costumes, given that they'd be out roaming the city streets in broad daylight, agreeing that the masks would be enough of a disguise. They just had to keep Quinn from recognizing them. Though he wanted to chuckle as he realized for the first time that all three of them were wearing black cargo pants and black long-sleeved T-shirts. They looked like a gang of cat burglars. Not bothering to voice that thought aloud, he took a moment to get his bearings before saying, "This way," and heading into the tunnel that led west.

Helena kept Dinah in front of her as they followed Dick down the rough pathway. That way, if the kid stumbled, she'd be able to catch her. She handed her flashlight off to Dick, since he needed it more than she did, and made do with following the weaving light in front of her.

As they walked what seemed like an endless mile, she fought the urge to ask her teammate to take down her shields and see if the sense of Barbara was getting any stronger. But she kept her mouth shut, knowing that it wasn't exactly fair to ask Dinah to expend that much more energy when she was already running on close to empty. After all, they had no idea what they were up against – whether it was one lone psycho with a big gun, or a group of twenty seasoned fighters with muscles coming out their ears. They may well need some of the kid's telekinetic powers before the whole thing was over.

And then, Helena was too distracted by the uneven downhill slope to think about much more than where to place her feet. It seemed to be getting darker the farther they went, and the air smelled damp and musty. Without warning, there was a bright flare of light and she blinked hard, trying not to stumble into Dinah. It took a few moments before she realized that the light was coming from a door that Dick held open, and that it wasn't really that bright after all. She glanced over at the boy wonder and saw that he had a finger to his lips, signaling silence. She rolled her eyes at the needless reminder.

Moving forward, she gently shoved Dinah along as well, so they could peer through the open door. The room beyond was big, but empty. Squinting even with her enhanced eyesight, she made out three dark shapes set into the far walls. It took a moment, but she finally recognized them as arched doorways, though she couldn't see any actual doors. Presumably, they led into other tunnels, since she vaguely recalled from Batman's notes that most of the Joker's hideouts had multiple rooms and multiple escape routes.

Helena saw the question in Dick's eyes. Shrugging, she whispered, "This room is clearly empty, but there might be someone in one of the three tunnels on the far side who I can't see."

Dick nodded. That was always a possibility in labyrinths like this, but it was a risk they'd have to take. All they could do was stick to the edges of the room and hope that if someone was lurking in the shadows, he or she was looking the other direction. He edged in to the room, motioning to Dinah to follow right behind him, then flattened himself to the wall on the left side and inched along. Despite knowing that if there were someone in one of the tunnels he wouldn't be able to see them anyway, his eyes kept darting between the three archways. At the very least, he might see the flash of a gun or some other sign that would warn them of trouble. They were about halfway in when he heard Helena's whisper. "I can see at least fifty feet into each tunnel now. There's no one there."

Dinah was relieved by the words, and by the fact that they could stop hugging the wall. Not that she wanted to get too far out in the open, but at least she didn't feel like she was doing her best imitation of a pancake. Her relief was short-lived, however, when they got to the other side of the room and she saw Dick and Helena exchange "Which way?" glances. She was pretty sure they weren't going to split up, since they had no idea who or what they might run into. But with the adrenaline pumping through her veins, she wanted to get a move on, not waste time checking into dead ends.

Making a quick decision, she closed her eyes and prepared to drop her shields. This time, she wasn't reaching out to feel for Barbara's aura; they already knew she was nearby so it wouldn't tell her anything new. This time, she was going to experiment with her empathy. It wasn't a gift she normally found all that useful. For one thing, it was usually pretty overwhelming. Even though she only picked up on the strongest emotions around her, that still could be too much input if there was more than one other person nearby. For another, it simply took too much energy to pinpoint who the emotion was coming from. Mostly it was just like a directional tug in the back of her mind – at school, for instance, she might know it was coming from the hallway and not the classroom, but that was about it.

In this specific instance, however, it might actually prove useful. After all, there was only one person likely to be feeling strong emotions like fear or...She didn't want to think too hard about the possibilities. Taking a deep breath, she unshielded...and felt like a freight train had hit her.

Helena heard Dinah's strangled gasp. She looked over to see the kid's eyes were closed, guessed what she was doing, and reached out to hold her upright as she started to wobble. The minute she touched her teammate, it seemed to break whatever had her in its thrall. She steadied Dinah, who was panting for breath, and shared a concerned glance with Dick. From what little she could see of the kid's face beneath the mask, she'd gone stark white. After a moment, her breathing evened out and Helena sighed in relief.

She was irked at Dinah for not warning them that she was going to zone out like that, but the brief flare of temper burned down quickly. She placed her hand on the kid's shoulder, hoping to reassure her, and asked quietly, "What did you see?"

Dinah was shaking her head before the sentence was out of Helena's mouth. Rattled to the core, she couldn't form a coherent thought, but spoke rapidly anyway. "Not see…not telepathy…tugging. Pain…terrible…must be Barbara…this way…"

Dick didn't quite get the nuances of what she said, but understood the main point. Though he'd tried to mentally prepare himself for all the possible outcomes, he still felt white-hot anger knifing through him. Though he couldn't see Helena's face through the mask, there was pain in her eyes and his heart ached for her. Still, they didn't have time to indulge their feelings; and when he said softly, "I'll go first," he saw grim determination flare to life in her gaze.

For the first time in his life, he saw the hints of Bruce in Helena, saw what Babs had seen when she agreed to train her. And at that moment, there was no one else Dick would rather have watching his back.

Helena fought to keep her rage from boiling over. If she lost control of herself now, it might get her killed. And that wouldn't help anyone. She took a deep breath, concentrating on what was most important – finding Barbara. Lost in her self-battle, she was surprised to feel a hand cover hers, and looked up to see that it belonged to Dinah. The kid's eyes were still haunted, but fire blazed in them, and Helena felt herself warmed by it. Whatever happened, she wasn't alone.

She glanced over to see that Dick was already at the entrance to the tunnel Dinah had pointed at, waiting for them. On the verge of telling the kid they should catch up with him, Helena heard a soft whisper. "She's in pain, but she's still alive. It's not too late."

Helena had to blink hard against the tears unexpectedly welling up at the words. If the situation wasn't so serious, she might have let them spill over. Instead, she tamped down on her emotions, squeezed Dinah's hand, whispered a "thanks," and then jerked her head towards the tunnel.

The trio moved quickly but stealthily down the tunnel. Despite the urgency of their mission, they all knew better than to rush in headlong. Adrenaline gave them speed, and it wasn't long before they neared the end of the tunnel, a patch of light showing the doorway to the room beyond. Quietly, one at a time, they inched forward, still hidden in the darkness of the tunnel, but able to see out in to the open space.

Helena could only look at the chilling sight for a bare second before she backed away, fisting her hands and biting her lip. She wasn't surprised when Dinah quickly joined her, leaning against the tunnel wall as if about to faint. When Dick edged back to where they stood, she saw disgust and anger in his eyes. She started forward, ready to go kick some serious ass, but felt two restraining hands on her arms. Looking between her companions, she saw Dick mouthing, "We need a plan." She wanted to argue, but knew he was right. If they went in uncoordinated, they might all go for the same target – and that could be catastrophic. Thinking quickly, she pantomimed an idea with her hands, and saw the nods of agreement and confirmation. She edged back to the doorway, waving her companions forward, and then counted down on her fingers.

She launched herself forward, Dick right beside her, and headed straight for the mountainous man standing next to Barbara, who was tied to a table. Having the element of surprise, they managed to knock the hot poker out of his hand and shove him aside before he could even think to fight back. But then, it was a fight in earnest.

Helena ducked his return punches as best she could, but a few hit home, causing her to stagger. Beside her, Dick landed blow after blow on the guy before a hard backhand sent him tumbling down. Moments later, a meaty hand connected with her cheekbone and she crashed into the side of the table. But that just fueled her anger and she launched herself at the man again, letting her speed and reflexes take over. After all, he was bulky but slow. The man began to falter under her onslaught of blows, and then Dick was back in the fight as well. She wasn't sure who landed the knockout blow, and didn't really care. She was just glad the man was down for the count. Pulling a pair of handcuffs from her pocket, she tossed them to Dick, letting him do the honors.

Breathing hard, she wanted nothing more than to check on Barbara, but the situation wasn't yet under control. There was still a psychopath to deal with. She turned to see that Dinah had Quinn telekinetically pressed up against the wall, as they'd planned. But even at a slight distance, she could tell the kid's muscles were trembling and knew she was nearly at the end of her strength. Fighting the desire to pummel her former shrink bloody, she walked over to Quinn. Glaring fiercely, she placed a controlled punch to a vulnerable spot on the underside of the woman's chin, knocking her instantly unconscious. She heard Dinah gasping as she released her telekinetic hold, and then heard the thud as the kid collapsed to the floor, completely spent.

And then Dick was beside her. "I've got them. Go."

She didn't need any more than that, just turned and practically ran over to Barbara's side, pulling her mask off as she went. Fingers moving cautiously, she untied the ropes that bound the woman to the table. Not wanting to leave the woman lying on the spot of her torment, she lifted her with infinite gentleness and laid her carefully on the floor. Kneeling down beside the woman's naked body, she fought nausea at the bruises and welts that covered nearly every inch of skin, and the angry red cuts and burns standing out in random spots. It was sickening to think of what they'd done to her; she already knew it would haunt her nightmares for years to come.

Part of her hoped Barbara was unconscious so that she wasn't in pain. But part of her was comforted beyond measure to look down and see dazed and tear-filled green eyes looking up at her. "I knew you'd come for me."

The whisper was so low and ragged that she wouldn't have heard it without her enhanced senses. In that moment, her world narrowed to just the two of them, and she leaned down, pressing a tiny kiss to the tip of Barbara's nose. "I'll always come for you, Barbara. Always. I love you."

Helena felt tears brimming in her own eyes and felt her heart skip a beat when she saw the mouthed, "Love you too."

Then the tender moment was interrupted by Dick's deliberate cough. He walked over, carefully looking just at Barbara's face. "Sorry to play twenty questions right now, Babs, but is there anyone else we need to go round up?"

Helena wanted to resent the intrusion, but couldn't. This wasn't a movie or soap opera – they were in hostile territory and there might still be danger lurking. When she heard the faint reply, she knew Barbara was coherent enough to understand that as well – and it was a huge relief to her. "I don't think so. I never saw anyone but the two of them. Quinn has a Taser…probably should get it away from her."

Dick nodded and turned around again quickly, trying to give Barbara as much privacy and dignity as possible under the circumstances. And the fact that he wanted to throw up every time he caught a glimpse of her vivid, multi-colored bruises was another motivating factor. He walked over to the unconscious, handcuffed Quinn and searched her with no pretense at gentleness. He found the Taser and a knife, but no other weapons. Then, he repeated the search as best he could on the mountain man. Nothing.

Confident the situation was secure, he signaled Reese on comms, giving him the quick run-down and asking him come arrest Quinn and have an ambulance waiting. Then, Dick suggested he bring two or three cops who could be trusted to keep their mouths shut to come deal with Quinn's accomplice. He gave Reese both the directions to and the coordinates for their location and then signed off of comms. He figured with a little help from Helena or Dinah, he could move Quinn and the mountain man into the open room on the other end of the tunnel. That way, he could meet the cops there, turn over the prisoners, and still preserve Barbara's privacy. And then, after everyone else left, he and Helena would get Dinah and Barbara out of here.

Looking around the room, he took in the devices for the first time and whistled in disbelief. It was like a medieval torturer's dream dungeon or something. Then, he took a closer look at two particular items and felt a bloodthirsty smile curl his lips. Dog collars and accompanying choke chains. Not so medieval after all. He could definitely make use of those. Put them on the two prisoners and they wouldn't get far if they tried to escape.

Dinah blinked hard and tried to get the room to stop spinning. Why was she on the floor? Oh right – she'd pushed herself way too far and collapsed. For a brief moment, she wondered why her head didn't feel like it was going to explode. Not that she was complaining about it, but she always had a reaction headache after something like that. She puzzled it out for a moment and then the subtle tensing of her muscles gave her the answer. They weren't home free yet and the adrenaline still had her pumped up, ready to act and react.

She felt shaky when she braced her hands on the floor and it took way too much concentration to lever herself into a sitting position. But once she was upright, her reactions took over and she was able to get to her feet without falling over, which felt like a victory, all things considered. She noticed Dick making his way over to Helena and Barbara, and for the first time, she took a good look at her mentor. Seeing the extensive injuries, she felt anger burning through her veins, revving up her adrenaline levels and pushing her own exhaustion and weakness aside. Taking care of Barbara was the most important thing – everything else could wait.

Helena looked up, her hand lightly stroking Barbara's hair in an effort to soothe the woman, and saw Dick standing there looking at her. Catching movement from her peripheral vision, she saw Dinah taking unsteady steps towards them as well. She knew the kid would be down and out for a few days with the backlash; hell, even she and Dick were gonna need some time to recuperate. But for the moment, she was just ecstatic that they'd all survived the encounter.

She listened as Dick recounted his conversation with Reese and his plan for handing over the prisoners to protect Barbara's privacy. A surge of gratitude for his thoughtfulness made Helena blink back tears again. She reached up with her free hand to wipe them away and then heard Dinah's reminder that she should probably put the mask back on until it was just the four of them again. Unable to argue with the logic, she pulled it over her head. And just in time too; they heard the mountain man starting to stir.

With her hearing, she caught Barbara's faint, horrified gasp, and automatically got to her feet, standing in front of the woman, shielding her from her tormentor. She was both warmed and amused to see Dick and Dinah mimic the movement.

Half-expecting him to wake up and start fighting, it was a bit of a shock when he appeared completely docile and said meekly, "I give up and I'll go quietly."

The next several minutes were a complete blur in Helena's mind. She knew Dick and Dinah were fastening collars around the necks of the prisoners, and securing the man so he couldn't escape from them. But she didn't really pay much attention to the specifics. Instead, she started scrounging around for something to cover Barbara with, since the woman was shivering from both shock and cold. She found her clothes, but since they were essentially in shreds, they were worthless to her. Finally, she found a thin sheet and decided that would have to do.

When she came back into the room with it, Dick, Dinah, and mountain man were gone, and Quinn was still unconscious. At first, she thought Barbara had passed out as well, but then she heard an agonized hiss when she gently draped the fabric over injured skin. Helena bit her lip in vexation, but then calmed a little when green eyes opened, full of understanding. Though clouded with pain, the expression was so familiar – so Barbara – that it eased some of her worry. She knew the woman was seriously hurt, but her fear that the redhead would die down here in her arms was starting to ease a little.

Sitting next to her, Helena began stroking her hair again, hoping the gesture would help her sleep. The trip back up through the tunnels would likely be a nightmare for the woman if she was awake for it. Concentrating on the slide of red hair through her fingers, she lost track of time. So she was somewhat surprised to see Dick and Dinah come back through the door. She was even more surprised to see that Quinn was awake, watching her and Barbara with an unreadable expression.

Dick's voice was almost cheerful as he faced the psychotic shrink. "Well, the cops have hauled one of our little friends away. And there are two more outside to take you back to Arkham!"

Between the unrelenting pain and the lulling motion of the hand in her hair, Barbara was only vaguely aware of what was going on around her. But that single word brought her out of the fog she was floating in. She opened her eyes and actually managed to lift her head, shouting, "No!" Ok, so it was more of a croak than an actual shout; no doubt because her voice was hoarse. But still, it got the attention of everyone in the room.

She forced herself to look at the woman who had tormented her so mercilessly. Quinn had been hauled to her feet, and was bracketed between Dick and Dinah. Forcing the words through her raw throat, Barbara said as clearly as she could, "Not Arkham. Some place where she's…away from the Joker's…influence. Some place with a good psychiatrist, so she can get help."

The effort exhausted her and she felt her head fall back. Thankfully, Helena's hand was there to cushion her, support her. Still, Barbara needed to know she'd been heard. She whispered, "Promise me…Robin, not Arkham."

Once she got over her astonishment at the use of Dick's old codename, Helena found herself alternately irritated with Barbara's little speech and proud of her for being able to make it. She saw the same emotions play over Dick and Dinah's faces. It was reassuring in a way – the sense that she wasn't the only one who found Barbara's code of honor exasperating.

Helena felt Dick's eyes on her – asking a question and seeking her opinion. It surprised her; but it also warmed her to know that – despite the way she'd been acting – he saw her as a full-fledged partner now. She nodded once in response and heard him make his promise to Barbara, offering to take Quinn up to Bludhaven where there was a good prison that specialized in mental disorders. She saw the relief in green eyes, and made a note to ask what the hell had happened to prompt that request. But that could wait 'til later. Much later.

As Dick and Dinah led their prisoner towards the doorway, Helena was surprised to hear Quinn say, "Wait." She looked up apprehensively at the woman, who had dug in her heels as if expecting her escorts to refuse. Glancing down, she noted Barbara's eyes were locked nervously on her former captor, and Helena's protective instincts kicked in full force. If this was some kind of trick…

But then Harley spoke, quietly. "Thank you for that. We're Even Steven now."

Barbara tried to shake her head, but the flare of pain in her neck muscles stopped the gesture quickly. She looked up at Quinn, seeing that the blue eyes were as sane as they ever got, despite the childish phrase she'd used. She wished her voice was stronger than a croak, but it would have to do. For better or worse, she couldn't just let matters rest there. "Not quite. This went a little beyond the pale for just getting even. You're still going to jail for this…for what you've done. There are always consequences."

It took all Barbara's concentration to watch as Quinn processed her words. Her brain wasn't operating on all cylinders and she had no idea what to expect. Then again, she hadn't known what to expect even when she was thinking clearly. Still, the woman's answering laugh seemed completely bizarre, even for a psychotic.

But once Quinn spoke, Barbara understood the laughter – as well as the implied threat in the words. "My choices, my consequences. I'm no longer anyone's puppet. Jail time for the specifics notwithstanding, we're still even as long as you don't make me look like one. Settle for justice for me, not vengeance on him, and I'll remember that the next time our paths have the opportunity to cross."

What the hell was that little conversation about? And why didn't Quinn ever just come right out and say what she meant – or was that whole talking in riddles a shrink thing? Helena dearly wanted to ask the questions, but Harley seemed content to be led away once she'd said her piece. And then she heard Barbara sigh, the expression on the redhead's face suggesting that a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders by the bizarre words. At least momentarily, anyway, before she gave a little whimper and her eyes slid shut again.

Helena tamped down on her curiosity and turned her attention back to the only thing that really mattered – taking care of the woman she loved.

Helena drifted to wakefulness slowly. She kept her eyes closed, her brain feeling a little foggy, and became aware of an ache in her back. Not quite ready to be awake yet, she slowly stretched each of her limbs in turn. For a long moment, she tried to puzzle out where she was, since there were unfamiliar scents and sounds that she couldn't quite identify. And then she woke up fully as she identified the steady beeping sound as a heart rate monitor. She was in the hospital.

She opened her eyes, glancing around the room. On the wall in front of her, she saw a clock telling her it was nearly 11am; she'd been sacked out for a good sixteen hours. Obviously, the lack of sleep over the past several days finally caught up with her. Yawning, she let her gaze wander. To her left, near the window, was Barbara. The redhead was swathed in bandages and hooked up to an IV bag and a couple of medical monitors. To her right was Dinah, fast asleep on the room's second bed. The inevitable back-lash headache had hit, and the doctor had given the kid a dose of migraine medicine to knock her out for a while. And here she was in the middle, on a cot the nursing staff had managed to scrounge up somewhere.

Helena chuckled to herself, remembering the fuss that ensued when two nurses objected to her and Dinah being in the room with Barbara. Then, Dr. Mendez and Nurse Daniels appeared – saying that the two of them were Barbara's family and that since she was paying out-of-pocket for a private room, they could stay as long as they wanted. And while all that was true, it also didn't hurt that the duo had taken care of Barbara after the shooting and knew they wouldn't be able to pry Helena out of the room with a crow bar anyhow.

Shaking off the irrelevant thoughts, Helena glanced over at Dinah. She smiled fondly at the way her teammate was sprawled ungracefully on her stomach across the bed, drooling into the pillow. The needle-in-the-butt routine had sent the kid straight to La-La land, and she was gonna be high as a kite from the powerful drug even after she woke up. But better that than miserable. She smiled again. The kid had done an outstanding job during the rescue – and she knew Barbara would be proud of her, once the woman was recovered enough to hear the whole story.

As if the thought was a prompt, she turned her head and looked over at the redhead. Moving quietly, she got off the cot and paced around the room for a moment, working out the kinks from her little nap and the residual stiffness from the fight. Then she went over to the chair sitting between her bed and Barbara's. Moving it a little closer, she sat down, her knees touching the frame of the hospital bed, and leaned forward slightly.

She took Barbara's right hand in hers carefully, mindful of the thick gauze covering the raw abrasions on her wrist. Even now, the visual memory of it made her shudder – as did the memory of the other injuries she'd seen. There didn't appear to be an unmarked inch of flesh from Barbara's neck to her ankles. But worst of all were the horrific knife cuts on her stomach that criss-crossed each other like some macabre spider web. The mere reminder of them had Helena tasting bile.

She took a deep breath, then another. She listened to the steady beeps of the monitors, calmed by their rhythms, and got her stomach back under control. She felt the warmth of the hand in hers, and took comfort from it. As horrible as it was to see the woman like this, she knew it could have been a lot worse. At least Barbara had survived…

Though she'd been dog-tired, Helena had stayed awake yesterday until Barbara had been examined and treated. There was no way in hell she could have slept without hearing the doctor's prognosis. Leaving Barbara and Dinah asleep in the room, she and Dr. Mendez had found a quiet corner and he'd given her the run-down. None of Barbara's injuries were life-threatening, though she'd be out of commission for a while. She was fighting infection, but the doctor expected that the antibiotics would take care of that in short order. The burns, bruises, and minor abrasions should heal without problems, as should the broken fingers. He'd been straight-forward about the fact that the wounds on her stomach would scar, as would one – possibly two – of the whip marks. Then he'd wrapped things up by saying, "As you know, there's always a small chance that something unexpected will create complications. But I honestly can't see that happening here. I expect her to recover completely – given time – and not have any lingering effects from the injuries – except a few new scars to show for it."

Since Dr. Mendez didn't make promises he couldn't keep, that had been a huge relief to Helena. She knew it would be a long, painful road to recovery. But compared to the last time the woman had been on that road – it would be a cakewalk. And unlike last time, Barbara wouldn't have to go through so much of the process alone…

She felt tears welling and looked out the window, still holding the woman's hand. Barbara had been given another chance at life…and so had Helena. The realization was overwhelming.

She'd spent most of her life running on impulse, going along with whatever flight of fancy entered her head. Tending bar and kicking ass were the only things she'd taken seriously. Everything else was just for fun – for a distraction. But after the soul-wrenching experience of the past several days, it was like her world had somehow turned 180 degrees.

Since the day her mother died, she'd shoved the world away, trying to keep from being hurt again. Maybe it was time she reached out to embrace the things that might bring her joy. Pain and sorrow were inevitable – but they might be more endurable if balanced by joy and love.

Helena realized in a rush that she didn't want to be all alone someday, looking back on her life, and having only indistinct, colorless memories. Her memories of her mom were vibrant and rich, reminding her of laughter and walks in the park and balloons on her birthday. They hurt a lot sometimes, reminding her of exactly how much she'd lost. But at least she'd had something special enough to leave that kind of sorrow behind.

And now, having Barbara safe with her again, she knew she had someone else who was special enough to risk that sorrow for. She only wished she'd been brave enough to realize it sooner. And it wasn't just Barbara – she had real friends in Dinah, Dick, and Jesse. She didn't have to be lonely, or alone. Not any more.

Hearing a raspy chuckle, she started in surprise and looked down to see Barbara staring up at her. Ready to ask what the woman needed, she was pre-empted by a creaky whisper. "You looked like you were a million miles away."

Helena's first instinct was to make a joke out of the implied question, the way she usually did. But she found she couldn't force teasing words past the sudden lump in her throat. She reached up with her free hand and lightly stroked Barbara's hair off her forehead. "I was just thinking about how lucky I am to have you here with me."

She almost stopped there, but gathered her courage quickly, helped along by the wistful look in green eyes. Taking a deep breath, she fumbled for the right words. "I love you…am in love with you, Barbara. I have been for a while, but was too scared to tell you. After my mom…well…I was scared…was afraid that I couldn't handle getting up if life knocked me down like that again."

Barbara watched quietly, love filling her heart, as varied emotions played over the expressive face. Despite the painkillers, she knew she wasn't hallucinating; she was completely lucid. Still, she couldn't quite believe the evidence of her eyes and ears, half-afraid that the heart-felt declaration was just wishful thinking. She'd wanted to hear those words for so long – maybe this was just a dream, a reaction to her ordeal. But then she turned her head slightly and felt pain throbbing through her strained shoulder muscles and knew this was no dream. It was real.

"You're in love with me…"

Helena smiled at the innocent wonder in Barbara's voice. And then her smile widened when she realized she felt free for the first time in years. It felt as if finally speaking her truth released her from chains of her own making that she hadn't even known were binding her. "I am in love with you, Barbara Gordon. I'm just sorry it took me so long to say it…that something like this had to happen before I did. I've wasted so much time…been such a fool…"

Feeling the press of long fingers against hers, Helena looked down in surprise from her self-recrimination. She'd forgotten she was still holding Barbara's hand. "You aren't the only one, you know. You nearly died before I realized how much I loved you. We are who we are, Helena, and we've both had a lot more loss in our lives than most people. It only makes sense that our life experiences make us scared of taking risks…but…"

Barbara broke off, rattled by a series of coughs, and was grateful when a cup of ice chips magically appeared in Helena's hand. The woman brought the cup to her lips, shaking a few of the chips into her mouth, and she sighed as they melted on her tongue, soothing her dry and irritated throat. Without being asked, Helena helped her get a little more ice into her mouth before setting the cup aside.

She wanted to say more, but physically she just wasn't up to it. So she was glad when Helena gave voice to what she'd been thinking. "It's time we stopped living out of fear and started living out of hope. I've spent too much time stuck in the past and forgot to create a future, and I kinda think you've done the same thing."

Helena saw the agreement shining in green eyes and leaned forward, dropping a tender kiss on Barbara's forehead. She said softly, "All I know is that whatever happens in life, I want to go through it with you at my side."

Wanting to echo the sentiment, Barbara could only manage a simple "Me too," before she started coughing again. She lay back against the pillow, suddenly exhausted. Helena picked up the cup and fed her more ice chips, and she didn't miss the look of concern in dark blue eyes. She also didn't miss the no-nonsense note in the woman's voice. "Ok, so we've done our long-overdue touchy-feely thing. But you're exhausted and need to rest. We have all the time in the world to talk about this – we don't have to do it all right now."

Barbara wanted to agree or say thanks or something, but she couldn't keep her eyes open. She felt Helena squeeze her hand and heard the woman's quiet, "Sleep now, Barbara. I'll be right here with you; I'm not going anywhere. I love you."

Still holding tightly to Helena's hand, she murmured, "Love you too." Her last thought before she slipped into sleep was how thankful she was that she had a second chance.

"Anything interesting happen today?"

Helena didn't bother to look up at Dinah's arrival. She just sat, swinging her feet over the edge of the hospital rooftop, waiting while her teammate got situated on the ledge beside her. Only then did she look over, flashing the kid a smile. "I could make up a whole big long story, but...nah. Same old, same old. Barbara still looks like a gigantic bruise, she's still chomping at the bit to get out of the hospital, and the doc is still pleased with her progress."

She paused for a moment, considering. "And I still hate cafeteria food and hospital coffee still sucks."

Dinah laughed. "And this surprises you why?"

She heard Helena's chuckle, but wasn't surprised at the lack of a verbal response. Her teammate's attention was back on the New Gotham skyline. She dangled her feet over the edge and looked out over the city as well. They had a perfect view of the setting sun, painting the sky in pinks and oranges. She sighed at the beauty of the sight – and at the peace of being alone up here, away from all the hustle and bustle down on the street.

For several minutes, they sat in a comfortable silence, watching as the sun sank completely below the horizon and the colors were slowly swallowed by darkness.

At length, Helena spoke. "So, how did it go with Alfred coming back today?"

She heard a snort from beside her and looked over to see Dinah shaking her head. "It was just like Dick said it would be. He was there when I got up this morning, busy getting things cleaned up in the kitchen. I...uh...tried to talk to him about, you know, what happened, but it was like talking to a brick wall."

Dinah rolled her eyes. "I mean, every reference I made to it was completely ignored – like I'd say something and he'd respond by asking if I wanted toast with my eggs. It was the weirdest thing and I finally just dropped it altogether. After that, it was just like normal. Well...except for the fact that we now know that he has a temper and all that."

Helena nodded, unable to disagree with that last bit. Once they'd rescued Barbara, she'd started having fits of guilt about the Alfred situation, wondering what the woman would do when she found out what happened. Thankfully, Dick was the one who handled that explanation, and to her surprise – and Dinah's – the redhead had been completely nonplussed by it. Clearly, Helena had missed some of these nuanced clues over the years. Getting back to the conversation, she said, "Guess Dick knew what he was talking about after all. Who knew?"

Dinah play-punched her in the arm, before growing serious. "I think there's a lot of things neither one of us knew. I wonder why they went to such lengths to try and hide it from us..."

Helena heard the slight hint of doubt in the kid's voice and knew exactly what she meant. One night while she'd been sitting on the cot next to Barbara's bed, watching her sleep, she'd done a lot of thinking about that very thing. "I don't think it's got anything to do with us – like it's not a sign that they didn't trust us or anything. I think they just figured it was their issue to deal with and they didn't want to drag us into the middle of it."

She paused there for a moment, fighting down the instinctive negative reaction she had to anything connected with her father. Looking out over the cityscape again, she said carefully, "I think Dick and Barbara felt like they were between a rock and a hard place – trying to create their own legacies but still respect Batman's. They wouldn't see any need to drag us into that struggle when we've both got more than our share of other issues to deal with. As for Alfred...I honestly don't know what's going on in his mind..."

Helena looked over to see the kid nodding pensively. She reached out and pulled Dinah into a sideways hug. "Don't worry about it. Seriously, D." Pausing for a moment, she tried to lighten the mood a little. "Do you really want to get in the middle of that soap opera?"

Dinah chuckled at that, but didn't bother to say anything, figuring Helena would know what she meant. Instead, she leaned her head against the woman's shoulder, taking comfort in her presence. The past few weeks had been hell and she was glad that things were starting to get back to normal. That thought triggered something in her brain and she turned it over for a moment before saying it aloud.

"How are you, Helena? I mean, are you ok? It's like...you got hit with a lot of stuff all at once."

She trailed off there, not sure if she'd said too much or not enough. She'd sensed a huge change in her teammate, almost since the very day they found Barbara. It was hard to put her finger on, exactly – it just felt like the woman was lighter, or she'd dropped some of her defenses. But even though she sensed it, based on past experience, she just kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So she was reassured when Helena scooted a little closer and when she felt the woman's arm tighten around her. The answer didn't come right away, but that was ok. It was enough to know that she could ask and not get her head bitten off. Eventually, she heard the woman's voice, quiet but earnest. "Y'know, I really am ok. Being so emotionally out of control and having you guys see it wasn't the highlight of my life, but I've dealt with it as best I can. I wouldn't want to go through that again, but I can't say I'm sorry for how things turned out."

Helena felt Dinah's head nudge her shoulder at the words and could almost picture the kid smiling at what she'd said. It even had the virtue of being true. She sighed softly, happily. "I'm just so glad that I didn't miss the chance to tell her how I feel, D. I mean, it's not like Barbara and I can really do the whole hearts and flowers thing while she's laid up, but we don't really have to. I mean, hell, she's seen me at my worst and hasn't run away yet."

Dinah snorted at that. "That street goes both ways, don't you think? I mean, you've seen her in some pretty dark places and you haven't run off either." She heard the answering chuckle, and than added softly, "I'm really glad for you – both of you. Not just that you're ok, but that you got your second chance."

The words touched Helena deeply and for a moment she couldn't speak, the thought of all that she could have lost washing over her. But then, she took a deep breath, reminded that she hadn't lost it. She couldn't change the past, but her future could be whatever she made it – sappy and Hallmark-card-worthy as that sounded. She leaned her cheek against the top of Dinah's head, suddenly remembering that the past few weeks had been hard for her teammate as well.

"So how are you doing, D? Seriously."

Not sure what to expect, Helena was a bit taken aback by the prompt response and the certainty in Dinah's voice. "I'm good – really good, actually. It feels weird to say that since what happened to Barbara was so horrible and what we went through to find her was so stressful. But...I feel like it kinda pulled some things together for me...like overcoming all that doubt and worry and stuff helped me grow into myself or something. I really don't know how to explain it..."

Dinah heard the soft "I get it," and didn't bother to say anything else, figuring that Helena – of all people – probably really did understand. And she didn't really feel like there was a need to say much more. They were both ok and Barbara would be ok in time. And that really was the bottom line. She was content to sit there, leaning against her teammate, feeling comfortable with the silence between them.

"Your obsession with sitting on ledges is unnatural, you know."

Dinah nearly jumped out of her skin at Dick's words and was thankful for Helena's hold on her. She hadn't heard him come up behind them – but Helena must have since she didn't feel the woman so much as flinch. Regaining her composure, she pulled away from her teammate and swiveled carefully on the ledge, turning to look at the newcomer. From the corner of her eye she noticed the other woman mimic the movement, though a lot more gracefully.

When she saw what Dick had in his hands, Helena started salivating. She heard him laugh at her reaction, even as he handed her a monster-sized cup of coffee before handing a slightly smaller one to Dinah. Taking a cautious sip – having learned the hard way that she couldn't enjoy her coffee if she scalded off all her taste buds – she smiled at the taste of vanilla and hazelnut. "Thank you. You have no idea how tired I am of that god-awful diesel fuel the cafeteria calls coffee."

Dick smiled at the words, and then squatted down in front of them, not really wanting to be so close to the roof edge. It wasn't fear, exactly, but he wasn't a meta-human like the other two and didn't normally carry his utility belt around in his civilian clothes. Watching the two women carefully, he had an idea what he'd interrupted. It made him conscious of being the outsider in a way, but he was glad to see it in another way. After all, his life lay elsewhere and the two of them had bonded in a way that could only make the Birds of Prey stronger.

That thought – in a weird way – brought him back to the reason he was here. Clearing his throat, he said, "Well, I thought I'd come tell you the news."

He waited until he was sure he had their attention before continuing. "I just got off the phone with Barbara's lawyer. He and Quinn's public defender worked out a plea bargain – actually, it was Quinn's idea and Barbara signed off on it. She'll plead guilty to master-minding the attack, the Joker's name will never enter the picture, and she gets ten years tacked on to the end of her sentence."

Seeing the look of outrage on Dinah's face at the slap-on-the-wrist penalty, he hastened to add, "Her sentence is already life without possibility of parole. It's not like she'll ever get out."

Helena hadn't missed her teammate's reaction. "It's not that bad, D. Think of it as a peace offering – we give Quinn what she wants and she has no reason to ever come after Barbara again." If it came right down to it, she'd let the psycho run free if it kept her from coming after the other woman again. Not that she'd ever tell her that.

Dinah sighed. She understood the logic of it, but still didn't like the idea of it. Still, it wasn't her call. If Barbara could be that forgiving or compromising, then good for her. And at least the deal meant that Quinn was out of their hair for good. That thought brought a hint of a smile to her face – knowing that part of the ordeal could be put behind them.

Helena glanced at her teammate and saw her face brighten a little. She reached out and draped her arm over Dinah's shoulder again. Striving to keep things on a positive note, now that the topic of Quinn was out of the way, she offered cheerfully, "I don't know about anyone else, but I could use a snack. How 'bout we go get some ice cream and then bring it back to Barbara's room and have a little party. I'm pretty sure she'll be up for that, especially if it means getting something other than hospital-grade ice cream."

When Dinah jumped up eagerly, Helena smiled. Yeah, it was good to feel like things were slowly getting back to normal.

A month later…

"Are you sure this is such a good idea?"

The concern in Helena's voice came through loud and clear, and Barbara found it surprisingly touching. She smiled up at the woman, who hovered nervously in the doorway, and said simply, "I don't see why not."

She saw that the woman was not convinced, but was glad to see her move out of the doorway, walking over to stand next to the bed. Barbara patted the space next to her, in invitation, and then frowned when Helena simply stood there, shaking her head. She sighed softly. "There's nothing to be afraid of. Honestly, it's not like you're going to hurt me or anything."

Hearing those words, Helena rolled her eyes. She knew she was probably over-reacting and treating Barbara like a china doll or something. But the woman still had unhealed wounds and she was scared she'd run into a sensitive spot or something. She'd been taking care of Barbara since her release from the hospital, and knew exactly what was under the bandages. Stammering, she somehow managed to spit out her concerns.

Barbara understood what was troubling the younger woman, and wished impotently that she could just reach out and take hold of her hand – to help reassure her that it would be ok. But she couldn't quite move that far, especially since her left hand was still out of commission while her fingers healed, and that affected her balance significantly. She settled for patting the bed beside her again. "I know I'm still not fully recovered. But I'm not that fragile. Unless you somehow manage to hit the wrong spot on my stomach somehow, I think we can sleep next to each other without it turning into a disaster."

Hearing the faint touch of sarcasm in the last few words, Helena managed a chuckle. It didn't quite alleviate all her nervousness, but she had to admit the woman had a point. And there was a part of her that, despite her worries about causing pain, desperately wanted to be close to Barbara. Given her injuries, they hadn't even been able to hug each other until two weeks ago. She missed the casual touches that had been a part of their just-friends relationship.

Pushing aside her worries, Helena sat down on the bed. Moving cautiously, she swung her legs up and positioned herself so that her back was against the headboard and she was shoulder-to-shoulder with Barbara. Ok, that hadn't been so hard.

Barbara reached out with her good hand and grabbed hold of Helena's hand. She smiled when the younger woman twined their fingers together. The slight pressure of the woman's shoulder against hers felt nice – very nice. But it wasn't quite enough. After the hell she'd been through, she needed to feel safe, to feel loved.

It wasn't that she and Helena hadn't talked. They'd had a handful of very deep, very intimate conversations – her lying in bed swathed in bandages and Helena in a chair beside her, careful not to touch more than her hand. And the words did mean a great deal to Barbara; they touched her soul and warmed her heart, mushy as that sounded. She just needed something more concrete, something tangible. She needed to be touched kindly, gently – in a way that would chase away the remnants of pain, the reminders of what she'd endured.

Taking a deep breath, Barbara squeezed Helena's hand slightly. Her voice sounded shaky to her own ears. "I need you, Helena. I mean…would you hold me?"

She broke off there, embarrassed by her own need, unable to find the words to express what she wanted to say. And here she was being selfish, thinking about herself, when she knew perfectly well that Helena was nervous about hurting her. What an idiot. She opened her mouth to apologize, when she heard a fierce whisper.

"Stop beating yourself up – and never apologize for saying what you need. Look, Barbara, I want to be close to you. I need you too. But I'm scared of hurting you…I don't want my touch to remind you of what she did…"

Barbara squeezed Helena's hand tightly, and turned her head as far as her neck muscles allowed so she could see the woman's profile. She put as much force into her voice as she could. "You could never remind me of her. Never. You could map my injuries with your hands right now – and while it would hurt, it would erase the memories of what she did because it would be your hands, your touch. It would be a symbol of love."

Helena's worries melted away at the heated conviction in the woman's words. She lifted their joined hands and pressed a gentle kiss to Barbara's knuckles. "Thank you." She paused for a moment, then said softly, "I want nothing more than to hold you in my arms and never let you go. Think you're up for that?"

There was no mistaking Barbara's wistful sigh.

It took a little cautious maneuvering, and despite Helena's carefulness, Barbara hissed in pain a few times before they got settled. But soon, Helena was sitting with her back against the headboard, Barbara sitting between her legs, leaning back against her.

Happily, Helena wrapped her arms around the woman she loved, hugging her close. Barbara's head was cradled against her shoulder, her body a warm weight against hers. This was what she'd been missing – this sense of intimacy, of connection. Not to mention the security of having Barbara here with her – safe and sound.

Barbara sighed deeply, relaxing into the warm embrace. This was what she'd needed – to be safe in the shelter of Helena's arms. She hadn't even known how much she needed it until now. She felt tears welling up, and for the first time since her ordeal began, she started to cry. Through it all, Helena held her close, whispered endearments, and kept the worst of the demons at bay.

After a while, she sniffled, whispering, "I'm sorry."

Helena felt her heart break at the words and pressed a kiss to Barbara's temple. "There's nothing to be sorry for. You've been through a lot – time to let some of it go." She loosened her hold on the woman just enough to let one hand reach over to grab a handful of Kleenex off the bedside table.

Barbara blew her nose, wadded the used tissues up and lobbed them at the trash can, then wiped her eyes with her shirt sleeve. Reaching up with her good hand, she rested her hand on Helena's arm, fingers caressing softly. "Thank you for that. I…it was just too much – the sudden feeling that I was finally safe."

She paused, then whispered, "You're the only person I feel that safe with. I love you, Helena."

Helena hugged the woman a little tighter, overwhelmed and awed. She'd never imagined meaning so much to anyone – or anyone meaning so much to her. There was so much she wanted to say, but she couldn't find words. She settled for stating the obvious. "I love you too."

They sat quietly for a long time, just enjoying the feeling of being together, of being safe, of being loved.

Barbara felt her eyelids starting to slide shut. She never wanted to move away from the comforting embrace, but she was about to fall asleep and it wouldn't be fair to trap Helena in that position. She said as much, her words slightly slurred, and was surprised to hear a soft chuckle in response. Then she heard the woman's voice in her ear. "I'm not ready to let go of you yet, so you may as well get comfortable. A stiff back is a small price to pay for being able to hold you and let you get some sleep. Don't think I haven't noticed that you've been having nightmares."

Barbara should have been surprised by that revelation, but she wasn't. They'd always been remarkably attuned to each other in that way. She felt selfish, but she was glad that Helena wanted to hold her close. She'd be able to fall asleep – knowing she was safe and that the woman would be right there to soothe her when the nightmares came.

Yawning, she dropped her hand away from Helena's arm, her muscles relaxing as she leaned back against the woman's body. She felt fingers start to stroke her hair, the motion lulling, soothing. And she heard Helena's gentle murmur, "Get some rest. You're safe here with me. I love you."

Reaching up again and lightly stroking the back of Helena's hand, she whispered, "And I love you." Comforted by the woman's presence and comfortable in the shelter of her arms, Barbara let herself drift to sleep. Her last coherent thought was that she was the luckiest woman alive.

The End

Return to Bird of Prey Fiction

Return to Main Page