DISCLAIMER: I do not own the characters. They are the property of DC comics and the WB network. I'm just borrowing them for a short period of time.
MUSIC DISCLAIMER: Song lyrics don't belong to me either; no profit gained or infringement intended.
SERIES: This is the final installment of the "Elemental" series fics (Landslide, Watershed, Windshear, Veneer, Stainless, Obsidian, Nuclear and Dark Matter).
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Oh, dear heavens, did she hurt.
Enrobed in inky darkness, Barbara worked for reason... or at least for coherency. The best that she achieved was a soul-deep body memory of a suffocating struggle to breathe, of a pain that consumed her.
It was too much. Surrendering, she floated.
She did not want to breathe.
If sheer force of will had been enough, she would have let go. Yet, crawling upward through a film of gray, Barbara had no choice. Anticipating agony, she drew air into her body.
It wasn't enough. Gasping, she heard her own deep, ragged inhalation as she sucked at the oxygen she'd been starved of.
She could breathe.
It was real.
Without opening her eyes, Barbara easily identified that she was lying in her own bed. Without doubt, she recognized the softness of five-hundred thread count sheets and the faint aroma of baby powder that permeated the room.
Cautiously, she pried open her eyes, expecting... Well, frankly she wasn't quite certain what she'd expected. The light of day, muted by the heavy blackout curtains, and the faint brush of warm air from the central heating somehow seemed too prosaic.
Carefully, Barbara worked to free her hand from the covers, bringing it to her chest. She felt the tremor seize her fingers but pushed on, needing to know.
There were no bandages, just the oversized button-up oxford shirt that she sometimes slept in. There was not the agony she anticipated, only a lingering ache as if she'd contorted herself for the night and slept too long despite the protest of her muscles.
There was no wound.
It was a dream.
Simply put, it was the only reasonable explanation.
With that thought came hope, and, without conscious volition, Barbara's hand snaked under the covers, and reality struck: The disconnect was still there. Below her waist, her fingers registered skin and bone and muscle; however, the nerves of her lower body did not respond to the touch with an answering signal.
Apparently, not everything had been a dream.
For an instant, she teetered, nearly vertiginous, as she tried to process the chasm of what she could trust. Panicked, Barbara whipped her gaze to the side. The motion did nothing to settle her disorientation, but she calmed instantly when she made out the small Helena-sized lump that was curled next to her under the covers.
So, that too hadn't been a work of an overactive imagination and too much junk food after midnight.
Or whatever it was that had inspired such a horrific sequence to play out in her subconscious.
More slowly, she ticked her eyes to the far wall of the bedroom; the presence of a crib was equally reassuring. Still shaken by how real the suffocating agony had seemed, Barbara released a long breath and allowed herself to relax against her pillow.
Helena's tone was mild, yet it scratched at Barbara's puritan work ethic. On instinct, she cast a guilty glance at the alarm clock, shocking herself by the lateness of the hour.
She simply didn't lounge in bed until all hours of the morning.
She had to stop and clear her throat before she could continue. She took the opportunity to turn to her bedmate and painted on a rueful smile.
"Indeed. I-- I had a nightmare."
The realism of it all still set her pulse racing. More surprising was the fact that she'd endured such a dream at all: In the first years after The Joker had attacked her, Barbara had endured almost nightly dreams of being shot; however, it had been quite a while since she'd been plagued by one.
Obviously, her subconscious was telling her that she was overdue, even if the appearance of Matter Minor in the place of The Joker were an unexpected twist.
For a few seconds, Helena absorbed her partner's words. She drank in Barbara's presence, the brightness of her eyes and the beauty of her smile. Damned near giddy, she pushed herself up on her elbow and reached over to brush the hair back from Barbara's temple.
It all crashed back.
They'd done their best to clean Barbara up, but there was only so much they could do while she'd been... like that. There were still traces of blood in that gorgeous crimson mane, the scent of it sharp and offensive to Helena's senses.
Fingers shaking, Helena dropped her hand to the covers.
"Yeah. I had the same one."
Red brows furrowed as Barbara took in the younger woman's serious expression, her grave tone, the fatigue that lined her eyes.
Reality struck with the force of a blow to the solar plexus.
"It hap-- " She dragged in a mouthful of air, trying again. "I was-- ?"
Barbara saw her partner swallow; she registered the way the muscles in her jaw clenched.
This time, the redhead opted not to dance around the matter. Pushing the covers down to her waist, she fumbled with the buttons on her soft sleep shirt, allowing her fingers to explore her chest.
There. Just to the right of her sternum, there was a patch of reddened, tender skin. The size of her fist, it could have been nothing more than a bad sunburn that was healing or... nascent scar tissue.
Battling nausea, Barbara swallowed rapidly and hunted for words.
Completely annoyed with her lack of ability to articulate a simple question, she shook her head and searched deep blue eyes.
"How long have I been out?"
Helena felt her lips twist into a half-smile as she sat upright, crossing her legs camp-style on the bed.
No surprise that Red was taking the logical, factual question, instead of The Biggie, first. She'd probably want to assemble all the pieces and fit 'em together like a puzzle.
"Not quite two days."
Barbara did the math.
"Today is Thanksgiving."
It hadn't been a question. Helena's response seemed to serve not as confirmation but as a way to fill the gaps in the conversation.
Something inescapable clawed at the back of Barbara's throat. Swallowing against the terror that constricted her chest, she worked to give voice to the words.
She plucked at the blanket that was pooled around her waist, and then looked into Helena's eyes. The pupils were huge, leaving nothing but a ring of deepest blue surrounding them.
"I was... gone."
It could have been a trick of the light, but Helena's hands seemed to shake as they rose to scrub her eyes. The normally graceful young woman's movements suddenly seemed stiff and disjointed.
For a stuttering heartbeat, Barbara was overwhelmed with images and sensations. Almost instantly, the sensory memories faded, and she was struck by the realization of an utter lack of sensory stimuli. Even as she battled with something much too metaphysical for her comfort, a small analytical portion of her brain noted that she should be grateful that the entire monosyllabic conversation had taken place so quickly. It meant that she was still lying down and the wave of dizzy disbelief that washed over her didn't knock her flat.
The impossibility of thinking about those moments, given that she had simply no frame of reference, was astounding. Accordingly, she tackled the elements of the experience that, hopefully, would be more comprehensible.
"How -- ?"
Although she was a little surprised that Babs had jumped right to the sixty-four thousand dollar question, Helena figured that anybody who did the Lazarus thing was entitled to get right to the heart of matters.
Very gently, she rested her hand on Barbara's, managing to still her partner's restless fidgeting with the covers. The warmth of Barbara's skin, her wonderful solidity and *thereness*, went a long way in easing the sour taste that threatened to crawl up Helena's throat every time she thought about those horrible minutes two days before.
Red lashes blinked once.
Then green eyes widened, confusion morphing into disbelief and inevitably settling into recognition.
Helena nodded slowly.
When Barbara had... died on Tuesday afternoon-- When Dinah and Gabby had pulled Helena off her and she'd heard Katie wailing from her crib in the bedroom, just like she fuckin' *knew* something bad had gone down--
Well, Helena hadn't been thinking miracles. She just knew that she owed it to their daughter to give her any remaining time that she could with her mother.
It was important.
She'd slipped once running down the short hallway; the blood on her clothes and shoes was still slippery. She'd slowed down coming back, but probably not more than a minute or two had gone by since... since Barbara had shut her eyes.
She'd put Katie on Barbara's stomach and then lifted Barbara's hand, trying not to think how cold and lifeless it was, and rested it on Katharine's back. That's when all the energy and will had just drained away, and she'd curled up on the floor next to Barbara, holding Barbara's hand against their daughter.
Willing it all to go away.
She'd felt it first. A few seconds before hearing Dinah's startled squeak, Helena had felt a small shiver in the hand she held in hers.
And then... Well, honest to god, if she hadn't seen the shards of bone and shredded flesh knitting, if Dinah and Gabby hadn't seen it, Helena could have pretended it was all a dream.
The lone syllable was small and lost.
Helena figured there was no need to go into all of the agonizing hours since then. Barbara had been alive... breathing, but she sure as hell hadn't showed any signs of waking up. Waiting it out had been too much a taste of what could have been.
Blinking, Barbara worked to digest-- or synthesize-- or merely to grasp-- what this might portend.
In hindsight, of course, she couldn't pretend to be completely surprised. Apart from the mysterious disappearance of the clear cell cancer that had nearly caused her to terminate her pregnancy over a year before, there had been other signs: Dinah's sunburn at the pool in June; Helena's gouged finger when she -- well, then "he" -- had been assembling Katie's crib in late spring; the fact that she, herself, had barely suffered from her usual hay fever, from any of the usual high school crud viruses, or, for that matter, from a hangnail since giving birth.
Clearly, chalking matters up to aloe vera after-burn lotions or to testosterone-enhanced meta-healing or to the efficacy of breast-feeding was a severe slight to their daughter's abilities.
With that, Barbara recalled herself and looked across the room.
The crib was empty.
Flailing, she struggled to sit up. She simply couldn't entertain the possibility of what Katharine's miracle of healing could have cost.
"Where is she?!"
Barbara's panic was unmistakable, and Helena was pretty sure she'd followed her partner's train of thought enough to get what lay behind it. Instantly, she caught Barbara's shoulders and helped hold her upright.
The redhead stilled her efforts to throw the covers off, but her upper body remained tense. Stuffing a couple of pillows behind her back, Helena sought green eyes.
"Alfred's showing her how to cook -- "
Pointedly -- and purely for show -- Helena sniffed, confirming the scents that had been wafting from the kitchen for the last hour.
"-- turkey and all the fixings."
Alfred had managed to shoo her out of the bedroom for a little while the day before -- to "take some air with Miss Katharine" -- but Helena hadn't been willing to budge yet this day. Something had told her that she needed to be there, but that didn't mean she was gonna keep The Peapod cooped up with her all day.
Although her voice was still a little... lost, Barbara's smile was, finally, real. Helena's was even more so.
"It sure is."
Sure, none of 'em would do justice to whatever Alfred was putting together. Hell, Babs would probably stay hooked up to the IV Ringers and glucose solution that they'd put her on after pumping her full of the blood that she insisted that each of them keep in storage. But Helena was planning on celebrating big time.
She had a helluva lot to be thankful for.
Pretty certain that Red was over her bout of freaking out, Helena stretched over to the night table and retrieved the cup of water that she'd kept handy with a bendy straw already positioned in it.
The liquid tasted like ambrosia when Barbara managed a few swallows. Somehow, she forced herself not to gulp, accepting the cup from her partner and idly tapping against her legs as she waited to see if it would stay down.
A tentative question drew her from an array of confusing thoughts concerning all things metaphysical.
"So, uh, I guess that Katie doesn't think your legs need fixing, huh?"
Relieved to have something relatively factual to focus on, Barbara pursed her lips, contemplating her daughter's rather amazing abilities and the fact that she hadn't seen fit to use them to repair her spine. Giving a mental shrug, she nodded.
"Either the damage occurred too long ago or she simply doesn't see that part of me as... broken."
When Helena nodded, Barbara firmly pushed thoughts about other attempts to the back burner. There would be time enough to see what Katie was capable of later.
"So, how are you feeling now?"
Deciding that her experimental drink wasn't going to bounce, Barbara took another sip, then reached over to settle the cup on her night stand. The movement gave her time to reorient to some of the physical manifestations of her recent experience, most notably the soreness in her chest.
"Like I laid down the bike," she finally allowed.
In her nights on the street so many years ago, during various high speed chases on her souped-up Ducati, there had been more than one occasion when Barbara had undergone an unexpected dismount. Even with the heavy latex and neoprene of her costume, such occurrences inevitably resulted in a wicked case of road rash and some phenomenal bruising.
It was remarkably similar to how her chest currently felt.
Testing herself, she inhaled deeply and considered her analogy. She decided that it was a bit lacking.
"And then got run over by a truck."
Wide blue eyes widened, presumably in surprise, before Helena barked out a laugh. In deference to her sore chest, Barbara simply worked a smile as they shared an image of the Wile E. Coyote-esque sequence of events that she'd painted.
When they sobered, Barbara reached for her partner's hand and added the rest.
"Considering the alternative, I feel wonderful."
"Honestly, Sweetheart, you don't need to fuss so."
The sweetheart in question paused in the act of tucking an afghan around Barbara's legs and looked up, one slender hand resting on the arm of the couch. The pointed elevation of a dark eyebrow and the patent disbelief in bright blue eyes eloquently expressed the younger woman's thoughts on the matter.
Barbara found a clue.
"But I do appreciate it, Hel."
That earned her a half smile, enough to make enduring the careful attentions of her lover less trying.
That thought brought with it a wash of guilt, and Barbara instantly corrected herself.
It wasn't Helena's care-taking that had her on edge. It wasn't the slow, gentle shower that Helena had helped her with, shampooing her hair with an attention that would have done Lady Macbeth proud, that was causing her to chafe. It wasn't the deliberation that Helena had insisted on in choosing her wardrobe -- sweatpants and a button-up shirt -- that had her antsy. It wasn't even Helena's refusal to allow her to navigate her manual chair down the short hallway by herself that had her ready to say something a bit... curt.
Rather, it was her own growing desire -- need, perhaps -- to get back into her world, to see Katharine, to ascertain what had occurred while she'd been... sleeping. She was, Barbara decided, very ready to catch up with her life.
It was at that moment, just as Helena finally straightened and stepped back, apparently satisfied with her efforts in transferring her from the chair to the couch and getting her settled, that Alfred appeared from the kitchen. In his arms, with what appeared to be a smudge of flour on her nose, was the solution to at least one part of Barbara's edginess.
Honestly, the redhead couldn't be sure whether to attribute the uncanny timing to the abilities of stellar butlers everywhere or to the sensitivity of this particular friend and confidant.
He came to a stop beside the sofa, his expression remaining bland despite the warmth in his eyes.
"Miss Barbara. It's a pleasure to see you."
Despite the manners that had been drilled into her by her Aunt Barbara, she found it difficult to concentrate on her old friend when a curly red head turned and the wide blue eyes of her daughter focused on her.
"Thank you, Alfred. I'm glad to see you, too."
Gratefully, she accepted Katharine from him, cradling the back of her head in her palm and cuddling her to her chest. A soft coo, actually a series of M-sounds that could have been mistaken for a word, nearly distracted her from the immediate purr that vibrated against her. The answering ache in her chest left Barbara wondering if her injury were not as fully healed as she'd assumed.
"Would you like me to prepare a bottle for Miss Katharine?"
The bump of a little head against her chin suggested that Katie might be weighing in on the matter, however Barbara thought that she should make things clear as well.
"No, thank you, Alfred. I'd like to feed her."
It was true that the ten-month-old was starting on soft cereal, but Barbara was fully convinced of the benefits of breastfeeding and intended to continue for as long as she could. Truth be told, she'd also discovered that she enjoyed the process far more than she ever would have imagined; rather than feeling like a human milking station, she felt connected to her daughter -- and to a nurturing side of herself -- in the most intrinsic of ways.
"Well, that's good news, Kitty," Helena leaned in to buss the soft spot on the back of their daughter's head. "We were down to the last bottle that your mom had on ice for you and might have had to go with the imitation."
"Formula?" Barbara allowed one brow to arch. "Heaven forbid."
With Alfred discretely returning to duties in the kitchen, Barbara shifted her daughter to one arm and worked the top buttons of her shirt. Immediately, the infant burrowed forward, one soft chubby hand coming to rest on the reddened patch on Barbara's chest as her mouth latched on to a nipple.
Stunned all over again by the odd events and amazing individuals that filled her life, Barbara looked up into her lover's eyes.
Katharine truly did have her mother's eyes.
"I'm utterly at a loss in terms of what to think about what she did, Hel."
At some point during her shower, possibly during Helena's second application of baby shampoo, the redhead had decided to decide that Katharine had resuscitated her rather than actually... well, returning her from the dead. From what Helena had told her, the healing had occurred only a minute or two after she had... left.
While the difference was theoretical at best from a metaphysical perspective, from a medical point of view, it was huge.
Not to mention from the point of view of her sanity.
Helena's smile was sympathetic, perhaps even a touch rueful.
"No kidding, Red."
Since Barbara still looked pretty... lost, Helena dropped down to perch on the edge of the coffee table and quirked a grin.
"Just promise that you're not going to go hooking her up to electrodes or anything, okay?"
It wasn't like Barbara would go all Dr. Mengele or something on The Peapod, but she did have a curious streak a mile wide. And, hell, with Studs' cage parked prominently on the far end of the computer table, Helena figured that temptation might just rear up.
As she'd hoped, the question earned her a rueful chuckle.
"Scout's honor, Hel."
Sobering, Barbara turned her gaze back to the small being in her arms. Emotions roiled in her chest, overwhelming in number and intensity.
"I'm not even sure what to feel about it all, Hel."
Helena knew the admission wasn't an easy one for the redhead, and she gave it its due. Stretching forward, she captured Barbara's free hand, circling her thumb gently over the palm.
"Sometimes you just have to stop thinking about what you're supposed to feel, Barbara, and.. just feel."
While she didn't doubt the wisdom of Helena's words, Barbara wasn't certain that she was quite ready to reconcile herself with the application of the words. It was too soon.
Accordingly, she shifted gears.
"What happened with Mandrill, Hel?"
As she'd suspected it might, the question neatly ended the softer moment. Her partner's face hardened as she stood and moved toward the gear closet. When Helena spoke, her voice was utterly devoid of inflection.
"He's not going to bother us again."
Without looking back, Helena opened the door to the closet and started digging for the supplies she needed. She knew that she was pretty much cutting Barbara off, but she figured there wasn't any reason to go into the crushed husk that the ambulance had carted off to the hospital.
Or to think anymore about how the bastard had died in surgery. Alfred and Dinah and Gabby had already put in some serious time with Detective Reese to get it all cleared up.
So, she owed Jesse a favor -- or another favor -- and there was no reason for Red to worry about the man who had set everything off.
While Barbara freely -- and sometimes cheerfully -- allowed that she wasn't the quickest on the uptake with emotional matters, she had no problem reading her partner's expression when she returned.
Helena's nod was brief as she grabbed Barbara's chair and dragged it over to rest next to the Delphi platform.
She watched Helena seat herself on the edge of the platform and drop a bundle of something into the seat of the chair, then Barbara was distracted by a bit of squirming from the other party in the room. In the process of getting Katharine settled on her other side, the redhead noticed her laptop resting on the coffee table, within easy reach.
Presumably another one of Helena's -- or perhaps Alfred's -- thoughtful touches.
Musing on using the computer to do a bit of investigation into the topic of Mike Mandrill was interrupted by a rattle from the Delphi platform.
Time enough for that sort of investigation later.
"What on earth," she craned her neck just a bit to take in the picture of her companion busily... fussing with her chair, "are you doing with my chair, Hel?"
The brunette looked over, flashing her a grin. Without conscious intent, Barbara felt an answering smile touch her lips.
"Putting in a seatbelt."
The smile that had crept across Barbara's features ebbed into something more quizzical as the redhead pondered the response.
Safety was important, however this seemed a bit extreme.
"Are you certain that's necessary, Hel? I have been sitting without much difficulty for quite a while."
Giving an exaggerated roll of her eyes, Helena waved the small length of webbing that she'd been measuring.
"It's not for you. It's to hold Kat in."
Green eyes blinked.
Helena straightened from her measuring and extended the makeshift belt in front of her.
"So you don't have to hold her when you're trying to move around."
She fastened the two ends together with the Velcro she'd just glued in place.
"The Velcro will make it quick for you to fasten her in."
For a moment, Barbara worked to digest that, then she collected herself.
"What about the motorized ch--"
The younger woman cut her short.
Barbara nodded slowly, finally grasping what Helena was up to and the reasons behind it.
Earlier, in the bedroom, when Helena had appeared with the manual chair, Barbara had assumed that her motorized chair was temporarily out of commission. Given the... situation of two days before, it was hardly unreasonable to expect that some mechanical fixes or cleaning might be required.
Apparently not, thank heavens.
Touched beyond words, the redhead raised their finally-sated daughter to her shoulder and rubbed between her shoulder blades.
"I don't think that Velcro will hold her," she observed.
Katharine's physical development certainly had been at the top of the curve, and Barbara saw no reason to suspect that it wouldn't continue to be so.
"Yeah, but you'll hear --"
A surprisingly robust burp interrupted their conversation, and a smile passed between the two mommies as Barbara settled Katharine into her lap.
"You'll hear the sound of the Velcro rrrrippping -- " A visual and audible demonstration accompanied Helena's description. "-- if she pulls it open."
Barbara tilted her head to one side and blinked.
"Thank you, Hel."
Her efforts to find some other way to express herself were interrupted by the arrival of the elevator. Barbara barely had time to lift Katie to one side before she found herself enveloped in a hugely enthusiastic -- if somewhat gingerly applied -- hug.
"My goodness, Dinah."
It was the best she could manage as she worked to slow her heart rate. Something about the unexpected arrival of the elevator had set it racing.
"Oh, god, Barbara! Alfred called and said you were up, so I got here as fast as I could. I mean -- "
The blonde finally released her, dropping to the cushion next to her on the couch.
"-- I was already on the way back from Gabby's and I was here earlier, but I had to leave just to --"
Taking care to insure that she was smiling, Barbara raised her free hand, palm out.
"It's fine, Dinah."
She was quite aware that Dinah *and* Gabby had been Sitting Shivah, so to speak, at the Tower for the last day and a half. It had been Alfred, according to Helena, who had finally insisted that Gabby spend at least a few hours of the holiday with her family; apparently, Dinah had been persuaded to accompany her.
"How are you, Honey?"
While a great many details from the events of two days before remained mercifully hazy, Barbara was very aware of the implications for her most recent protege. Resultantly, she was resigned to tackling what could grow to be a very large elephant in the room sooner rather than later.
"I'm just so glad that you're okay and -- "
Barbara interrupted what had the signs of being a typical verbal deluge without a qualm.
Pale blue eyes met hers. To Barbara's surprise, the young woman didn't hide behind her hair or any of her usual nervous mannerisms when she finally spoke.
"I... I don't know how to feel about any of it, Barbara."
"Few would, Dinah."
She remained still under Dinah's inspection for several long heartbeats. Eventually, the girl nodded.
"It'll be okay, right?"
Already nodding, Barbara was spared a verbal response by the appearance of Helena, who was pushing the manual chair toward the training room, several ribbons of Velcro-enhanced webbing slung over one shoulder.
Helena was determined that her answer *would* be the truth. Barreling along, she smiled broadly at Barbara and set to work to make it happen.
"You mind if I put the kibosh on the whole sensitive chat thing for now?"
It wasn't hard to pick up on the fact that Dinah's headshake almost rivaled Barbara's in enthusiasm, and Helena swallowed her snort of amusement.
Pretty clearly, Dinah wasn't immune to the influence of Barbara's distaste for the touchier aspects of relationships.
"C'mon, Kid, I want to solder these D-rings to the chair and you can hold 'em with your TK."
Dinah was already up and on the way to the training room before Helena saw her grin falter a little, and she wondered if the blonde had caught the use of the nickname that had slipped out. It had been a while since Helena had used it, but she wasn't surprised.
Point of fact, it was Dinah who was the surprised one when they got into the training room and Helena shut the door behind them and then spun around to face the younger woman. Ignoring the Kid's startled blink, she stepped close, backing the girl up against the padded wall. As an afterthought, Helena hooked her index finger into the ribbed collar of Dinah's NGU sweatshirt and gave a little tug.
"Pay attention, Kid. This is important."
Pretty certain that Dinah was about to go all mouthy on her, Helena raised her free hand to her lips in a shushing motion. When Dinah's mouth snapped shut, she leaned in, making sure to keep her voice down.
The padding on the walls dampened sound from the room but didn't cut it out all the way from the living area.
"You can't do this gig half-way."
She'd already questioned her own half-wayness. She didn't have all the answers for herself, but she sure as hell needed to put some of the same questions into Dinah's head.
"What are you talking about, Hel? And let me--"
Helena cut her short.
"Listen. I know I have to blame myself first cuz if I hadn't wanted to get my body back so bad you never would have had to do what you did."
She waited, finally getting a cautious nod from her companion.
"But that doesn't mean you don't share the blame."
She closed the non-existant distance between them and let her voice drop to a growl.
"I know what you were up to with him."
Barbara had talked to her during the summer about discovering that Dinah had visited Mandrill in jail. A quick phone call to Jesse yesterday and some simple addition made it all clear.
"Visiting that asshole and doing the goody-two shoes guilt thing -- "
Probably trying to draw him out about using the wand. And for certain running off at the mouth and giving him an in about who Dinah was and how to find her... and them.
Still, Helena had to hand it to the girl: she didn't back down.
"That's right, Hel."
Suddenly, the skinny teenager was standing tall and brushing Helena's hand off her shirt.
"I screwed up. But it's not like I'm the only one who's ever screwed up and let the Tower get invaded, is it?"
Yeah, the Kid was learning how to hold her own.
"No, you're not."
Forcing herself to push aside the guilt that she thought she'd worked through over the little Quinn debacle, Helena narrowed her eyes.
"So, everybody on the team gets one biggie. You just claimed yours earlier than I did mine."
After a second's hesitation, she corralled her temper, blew out a breath, and took two steps back.
"But remember that this job isn't all sunshine and kittens, Dinah."
She chewed at the inside of her cheek and turned to look at the rack of staffs on the far wall before she could finish.
"If you can't stop wearing your heart on your sleeves for these scumbags, then you better pack it up now because I'm not going to let this happen to Katie or Barbara again."
When she looked back, pale blue eyes had gone flat and hard. Dinah's voice was pure ice.
"Don't worry about me. I'm not going to let something like this happen again."
Deliberately, Helena raked her up and down, taking her measure.
"We're not done yet, Kid."
Helena wasn't sleeping. She couldn't.
At least not right now.
Helena wasn't really surprised. She had managed to snag a nap out in the living room this afternoon, after their holiday dinner.
Hell, it had been a requirement after the way the whole Thanksgiving meal was so weird: Dinah had been kinda quiet after their little chat in the training room earlier; Barbara had put up a bold front, sipping cranberry juice and picking at a piece of pumpkin pie, but Helena had known she was tired; and Helena wasn't sure why, but she really hadn't had much of an appetite. Out of the whole family, only Katharine and Alfred had seemed like they were enjoying the get-together.
So, yeah, escaping to the living area and some football on the big screen had been a serious relief. Then, with Barbara and The Kid nattering about nothing she wanted to listen to, it had been easy enough to curl up in the wing chair with Katie and shut her eyes.
And, now, well, who could blame a girl for being not sleepy?
Shifting minutely under the covers, Helena curled a smidge closer to Barbara. When her partner responded to the movement by humming softly in her sleep, Helena somehow -- and just barely -- managed to push down the rumbling that tickled her chest.
Sooo not going to sleep just then.
The bedroom was almost black in the darkness of night, but Helena's senses were fully attuned. Her nerves thrummed in readiness; her muscles refused to let go fully.
Just like it had been since she'd felt Barbara relax against her and drift into sleep. Since then, she'd been spooned up next to Barbara, just... being there.
She knew her eyes were augmented; there was no problem seeing Barbara's pale features under the mane of her hair. She could hear the almost sub vocal mewling murmurs of their kitten in her crib, the sound counterpointed by Barbara's soft sleep noises. Opening her mouth slightly, she leaned in, drawing in the scent of her hair, her skin.
Finally, mercifully, there was no longer any hint of coppery blood; only the baby shampoo that she'd used earlier and the sweet scent that was all Barbara's filled her.
Gingerly, Helena brushed her face against her partner's, feeling the fine downy hair on her cheek rise in response.
Still, it was the sound of Barbara's steady respirations -- breathing in, breathing out -- that just seemed to be drawing her closer. Unable to resist, Helena drew in her lover's air, easily detecting a hint of the herbal tea that Barbara had been drinking before bed. Unwilling to deny it, she settled back to watch the rise and fall of her lover's chest under the faded lettering of the PALS tee shirt that she'd selected for bed. Impossible to fight, Helena allowed her hand to rise and then settle lightly on Barbara's chest, her fingertips easily detecting the steady thump of the great heart beneath her hand.
Shutting her eyes, the brunette eased her hand away, bringing it to her own chest.
For a minute or two, she tried to concentrate on her own breathing. She breathed in, then exhaled long and slow, trying to keep her chest from growing and aching from too much.
She couldn't. It wouldn't stay inside.
Without opening her eyes, she slipped from under the covers and silently padded into the master bathroom. The click of the door shutting seemed loud in the silence, and she readied herself by the door until the continuing sounds of rhythmic breathing convinced her that she hadn't roused anyone. Only then did she open her eyes and step over to the sink.
Helena didn't turn on the light. She didn't need it.
Or want it.
She could easily see the ghost of her reflection in the mirror over the counter. Swallowing roughly, she heard her own hiccup and spun around to turn on the shower to cover her noise.
She looked at her reflection again, watching the clouds of steam begin to obscure her. Then, just because there was no reason to waste all of that hot water, she shed her boxers and the Devo shirt she'd snagged from Barbara and stepped into the oversized stall.
It was hot, but it wasn't hot enough. Lifting her face into the spray, Helena reached out, turning back the cold with her right hand and throttling the hot all the way up with her left. Then, she stood there, letting it strike her face and wash over her skin and run down the drain.
Years ago, around the time that Helena had really started patrolling in earnest and had started coming back to the Tower covered in... stuff, Barbara had had a huge-assed oversized hot water heater put it. Over the years, it had gone a long way in allowing the brunette to master all three hundred verses of the Rubber Ducky song.
This night, it kept the hot water coming for a long time. Helena wasn't sure how long, only that at some point it had finally gone cold.
She took her time toweling off, wrapping a second towel around her hair while she shimmied back into her sleep outfit. For about half-a-second, she flirted with crawling back to bed with wet hair, then gave up and started blotting at it with the towel.
Hedgehog head was so 1997.
Still, with all of the blotting and rubbing she was having to do so she didn't wake anyone up with the dryer, she had to wonder if it was time to trim it back to her usual short length. It was getting long, damned near down to the collar of her tee shirt, and the maintenance stuff was a hassle.
In the darkness, Helena quirked a half-grin, knowing there was no way she was cutting her hair yet. She kind of liked it long, especially when she and Barbara were on the couch together and Barbara was reading or grading papers or doing her big brain thing. That's when Helena could work herself down to rest her head on her partner's leg and, sure as eggs is eggs, she'd feel Red's hand come to her hair, just sort of stroking and letting her hair sift through strong fingers.
Yeah, longer was good.
Her smile feeling pretty good, Helena stepped silently from the bathroom and came to a sudden stop.
"Oh - shit."
Barbara was sitting up in the big bed, the dim light of the bedside lamp glinting off the metal IV pole that was parked next to her.
"I'm sorry, Barbara," she kept her voice down, aware that the other occupant of the room was still sleeping. "Did I wake you?"
The redhead shook her head minutely and smiled.
Technically, it was the truth. It had been Helena's absence, the niggling awareness that she was no longer being watched, that had somehow permeated Barbara's sleeping brain and dragged her to wakefulness.
"Why are you up showering at this hour?"
She kept her tone mild, even if the duration of the shower that she'd heard had almost caused her to investigate.
The brunette's smile was tight. Her unconcerned shrug, a bit too offhand.
Completely unconvinced, Barbara simply hummed noncommittally and patted the bed beside her. Instantly, Helena was next to her, stretching out on the covers to rest her head on her lap and wrap her arms around her waist.
Helena snugged her arms a little tighter around Barbara, making sure that she was hugging where her partner had sensation. Then she buried her face against her stomach and closed her eyes.
Barbara was back. Everything else was just details.
Barbara's voice was soft.
"Did something happen?"
Surrendering to the overwhelming feeling of being with the exact person that she was supposed to be with, Helena simply shook her head. With the scent of Barbara -- so clean and pure and just utterly Barbara -- filling her, there wasn't anything she could say.
"Sweetheart -- "
Feeling her brows knit, Barbara carded her fingers through Helena's hair. The silky strands were barely damp. In response, she received a murmur that was lost as Helena nosed against her stomach.
"-- I'm getting a little worried."
The younger woman finally looked up.
Barbara felt a smile tug at her lips.
Struck by a wave of tenderness, the redhead brushed the knuckles of her hand lightly across her partner's cheek. Before she understood what was happening, her index finger had been caught between sharp teeth and pulled into the wet heat and soft suction of Helena's mouth.
Unable to deny the rushing electricity that pulsed in response to the pulling of her lover's mouth, she caught her breath and drank in the vision of her partner, seemingly lost in her absorption. Distantly, she managed to wonder if Helena were even aware of the effect she was having.
The tickle of the stud in her partner's tongue against the vee of her fingers persuaded Barbara that it was past time to stop wondering. Carefully she extricated her hand and tipped her fingers under the sharp line of her lover's jaw.
The world, the night, rushed back on her, and Helena shook her head, painting on a rueful smile.
Crimson brows rose a few millimeters.
"It's -- I'm-- " She shook her head, wishing for the right words. "It's not that."
For a heartbeat, Barbara seemed to look inside her.
The word -- her name -- was breathed so softly. Helena almost could have missed the note of command.
But, she didn't.
Without thinking, she was in Barbara's lap, her legs straddling Barbara's thighs, their mouths mated so hard... so hot... so fast. The kiss was so deep it almost had Helena coming right then before she remembered and pulled away.
Four word, spoken over a breath in the silence, seared her.
"Let me touch you."
Already, she could see that Barbara's lips were swollen from their kiss. Helena ran her tongue across her own lips and whispered her own four words.
"It's not about that."
Eyes that were almost black, banded with a thin rim of emerald, found blue.
"It is for me."
Normally, Barbara didn't find herself in the position of needing to persuade her lover. Yet, she saw Helena's need, and she wouldn't deny her own.
"Let -- "
Stretching forward, she brought her mouth to the shell of the younger woman's ear.
"-- me touch you."
She felt the shiver that coursed through wiry muscles, and pressed her lips to the soft skin of Helena's throat.
Helena almost bolted when Barbara ran a hand down her side.
She also almost screamed from being turned on and trying to do the right thing.
"You're -- "
She captured that wickedly knowing hand in hers, rubbing her thumb across the sharp ridges of Barbara's knuckles.
"You're supposed to be resting."
She kept her eyes focused on the beautiful hand in hers, but from the periphery of her vision, Helena saw Barbara raise her other hand, setting the tubing that was hooked to the IV bag swinging.
"This glucose drip is remarkably bracing, Sweetie."
They shared a smile, then Helena sobered.
"Still, you're heal--"
Barbara was having none of it. Ducking her head, she caught her lover's eyes with hers, offering something.
"Let me touch you, Helena."
The words were low, but somehow they seemed to fill the sacrosanct stillness of the darkened room.
Helena didn't want to. Fuck, she didn't even know if she could come... or how she could do it without crying. But, like most everything with Barbara, there was only one answer that she knew.
She'd tried the usual stuff, the boxing jabs and spinning kicks and backward elbow thrusts, but it wasn't what she was looking for. Now Helena had the heavy bag off its hook and down on the floor of the training room, and she was giving it hell.
Over and over, the bottom side of her clenched fists came pounding down. The dull thwack of skin meeting leather was echoed by a single word the reverberated through her brain.
Helena raised her right fist over her head, bringing it down as hard as she could in another hammer-blow. Her left immediately followed.
Three more measured blows, each with its own happy little chorus line.
No. No. No.
Then she stopped counting, just letting loose with a flurry of fists to the bag.
That had felt pretty good, so Helena stood, ducking her head to wipe the sweat off her face against the shoulder of her sweatshirt. Then she took aim and started kicking the bag with enough force to inch it across the mats that covered the floor.
She couldn't do this any more.
She. Just. Fucking. Couldn't.
Here it was, the first day back at classes after Thanksgiving, and she'd sailed onto the balcony this afternoon just in time to see Barbara inching her manual chair up the ramp to the Delphi. Yeah, Katie had laid hands and all the week before, but there had been a lot of damage, and moving around was still hard on Barbara.
Helena hadn't even wanted her to go to school, but, no surprise, Barbara had just come up with some lame story about a fender-bender to explain why she was "a little sore" and gone on in to teach all day. Helena had been trying to beat her home from running inventory at the Dark Horse, just so she could have some hot tea and a bath ready, but she hadn't made it.
It hurt to see that Red was having to fuckin' *work* to get up there. It hurt more that she was working so hard to get up there.
Panting just a little, Helena stopped kicking at the bag, surprised to realize that it had moved halfway across the room and was jammed under the pommel horse.
She snagged the chain at the top end and gave a jerk. As she dragged the dead weight back to the middle of the room it hit her: Not quite nine months before, when she'd been sporting a guy's body, and she and Barbara had been having brunch at the Roosevelt, and Miz Harkness had showed up and made her spray her salad or something all over the table: Helena had been waving down the wait-staff for fresh place settings when she'd realized that she'd just gotten it.
This town that Barbara fought so hard to protect was seriously screwed up. Or, just screwed.
Somehow, in the process of getting her body back and trying to smooth things over with Dinah and, well, just doing their thing, Helena had let the epiphany fade, but that didn't make it go away, and no matter how hard they tried, they weren't going to fix the world.
Hell, just changing it was pretty much off the table, too.
Shaking her head roughly, the brunette swiped her forearm across her forehead and then dropped onto the heavy bag to start another round of punching.
She couldn't do this. They couldn't do it.
"I give up, Katie."
Shaking her head, Barbara pulled off her glasses and set them on the table next to her mouse. Barely registering the characters on the screen, she logged out of several terminal sessions and then quickly verified that the Shimmer Project code that she'd been testing was still running.
The code, so far, had worked very well as a way to hide her ports cryptographically while she logged in to various locations. An added bonus was the possibility of retrofitting some of the source code to support the encryption/decryption algorithms that she'd been allowing to languish for the last year.
However, she wouldn't be tackling that today. The ongoing Bam-Bam-Bam echoing from the training room, presumably indicating the repeated application of something against the heavy bag, was simply too pervasive for concentration.
"Have all of the young women in my life gone a little mad, today?"
Barbara didn't realize that she'd vocalized her question until the very young woman sharing her manual chair responded with an emphatic gurgle. Smiling, Barbara looked down, discovering that her glasses were now being clutched in a tiny little fist with Katie busily gumming on one lens.
"I was referring to the young women of age, Katie," she murmured.
The statement was certainly true enough on at least one count. When Dinah had come by the high school at lunch to bring Katharine for *her* lunch, Barbara had been delighted to see her. Given the events of the last week, she was determined to keep an eye on the blonde in the event of... emotional fallout.
When Dinah had dropped the bombshell of all bombshells, Barbara had realized that her plans might be overdue.
"I'm sorry, Dinah."
In the act of unhooking her nursing bra, she'd had to look up, certain that she'd misunderstood. Given that her companion was turned toward the wall, ostensibly inspecting her bulletin board while giving her the privacy to get Katharine settled, it wasn't out of the realm of possibility.
"What did you say?"
The sensation of tiny fingers pulling at hers had reminded Barbara of the task at hand, so to speak, and without looking away from Dinah's face in profile, she'd finished getting Katharine accommodated.
"I said that I'm dropping out of college, Barbara."
It had taken a few discontented bumps from her daughter's head to her chest for Barbara to recover from her complete shock. To her surprise, she had managed to relax enough for Katharine to procure her meal.
Quite certainly, the necessary delay had been fortuitous in that it had given Barbara time enough to collect her wits and attempt to draw out her former ward about her reasons.
"I just need to focus on more important things, Barbara."
There had been no hesitation, no nervousness. Dinah's tone had been one of calm certainty; the set of her jaw, one of determination.
Somehow, Barbara had managed a concession that the young woman would complete the semester. With only two weeks before finals, she was gratified that Dinah embraced the wisdom of not abandoning the work she'd done.
She hadn't tried to push for anything further at that point with Dinah.
Now, however, she simply couldn't put off investigating whatever was going on with the other young woman in her life. Helena had stalked into the Tower not too many minutes before, and with barely a greeting had dropped her books on the coffee table and headed straight into the training room to pound out god-knew-what frustrations.
"Don't be in a hurry to grow up, Katharine."
She accompanied the request with a bit of sleight of hand, offering the tiny redhead her spare optical mouse in exchange for her glasses. That done, she cruised down the ramp and settled Katharine into her bouncer in the living room before turning to the training room.
Given her energetic daughter's physical development, Barbara had to acknowledge that she would not have been surprised to find Katie bouncing the device across the floor in her wake. However, when Barbara reached the doorway and looked back, the infant seemed content to chew on the mouse for the time being.
Working up her courage, Barbara cracked the door to the training room. Within, she saw Helena on the mat-covered floor, apparently attempting to wrestle the heavy bag into submission, possibly in homage to the UFC sorts of silliness that she'd been attempting to hook Barbara on.
From the corner of the room, the opening strains of a song that Barbara hadn't heard in years warbled forth from the boom box.
Here I am
Just like I said I would be
I'm your friend
Just like you think it should be
Did you think I would stand here and lie
As our moment was passing us by?
Barbara didn't attempt to hide her smile as she entered the room.
"Is my 80's fetish rubbing off on you, Hel?"
The question was tempered with gentle affection, erasing most of Helena's ire over being interrupted.
"If you can't beat 'em, right?"
Barbara allowed one eyebrow to tick upward just a bit and then inclined her head toward the heavy bag -- or the remains thereof.
Honestly, she'd just replaced the bag not five months before.
"Who are you beating here?"
Rising gracefully to her feet, Helena followed the direction of emerald eyes. She thought she felt just little warmer when she realized what a pounding she'd given to the bag.
She shrugged and snagged her towel, looping it around her neck.
Not quite ready to let it go so easily, the redhead moved a dozen feet further into the room, taking care that the door remained open behind her so that they could hear Katharine.
"Ah. I thought it might have to do with your Children's Lit assignment."
It was a softball that she'd lobbed. Barbara was quite aware that Helena had completed her field assignment in early October. To the redhead's surprise, her partner had met with the classroom of fifth graders without displaying her usual horror of all things school-related. Nevertheless, Barbara *had* seen the T.H.White book on the coffee table with an educator's visitor pass for one of the elementary schools tucked inside, offering her a reasonable opening.
The brunette raised the ends of her towel and dabbed at her face.
"It was kind of fun last time, so I thought I'd go back and do a different chapter."
Caught flat-footed, it took Barbara a beat to catch up.
"That's wonderful, Hel."
Her partner continued to read to Katharine each day -- from a variety of sources -- however, Barbara certainly hadn't expected her interest to extend beyond the family.
"Which chapter are you covering this time?"
The younger woman took a few steps closer, blue eyes peering from under dark bangs.
"The one where The Wart gets turned into an ant?"
Barbara nodded, even as she worked to conceal her puzzlement. If Helena chose to focus on the early chapters, in which Merlin transformed the young Arthur into a variety of animals to foster his education, Barbara had simply assumed that she'd select the chapter that dealt with his transformation into a bird of prey.
"You know, how Art's learning and everything."
"Dinah's dropping out of university."
The segue wasn't completely out of left field. Hell, Helena could even follow the little neural leaps that Barbara's brain had made in jumping from literature to Dinah. But, judging from the way those gorgeous green eyes got wide, Helena sort of thought that Red hadn't been expecting to just blurt it out.
Catching her lower lip in her upper teeth, the brunette dropped onto the weight bench and gave herself a second to consider the news. She hadn't heard about any of this from The Kid, but she really couldn't say she was surprised.
Not like Barbara clearly was. Heck, knowing how proud Barbara was about Dinah's brain thing, Helena had to figure that the redhead probably had had a cow or something when she found out.
A second later, Helena changed her mind on that. After all, Barbara had always been good about letting them make their own choices.
Which, the brunette remembered a little sourly, was part of the reason they were in the situation they were in.
"Maybe she's got the right idea, Barbara."
Although Barbara had certainly not expected to broach her conversation about Dinah quite so... abruptly, she found herself relieved to be able to unburden herself. Her partner's response, regrettably, did little to ease her confusion.
"I'm not following, Hel."
Closing the small distance the remained between them, Barbara snagged one of the two-pound weights, idly working it from hand to hand.
"Well, what about Katie?"
The redhead settled the small weight on one thigh and blinked.
"What about her?"
Honestly, Katharine shouldn't be starting college for at least another decade...
Perhaps fortuitously, Helena's reply cut short Barbara's thoughts about looking into college prep activities for toddlers.
"So are we just gonna carry her around on sweeps in her snugli to do the laying-on of hands any time somebody gets injured?"
"Of course not, Helena."
Absolutely certain that she did not care for the implication behind the question, Barbara didn't even try to quash the snappish tone of her response. Her ire didn't seem to deter Helena in the slightest.
"Well then, what about her?"
This time, Barbara took a deep breath, forcing herself to try to read behind the confrontational words. Taking in her companion's serious expression and the pain in her eyes, she softened.
"Helena," she set the weight back on the rack and stretched out, lightly touching the brunette's jeans-clad knee. "What about Katharine?"
It appeared that her partner was also attempting to corral her temper, for she took a long breath before answering.
"Do you know how much fuckin' danger she's going to be in if somebody outside--"
A slender hand waved toward one of the exterior walls of the Tower.
" -- finds out?"
Straightening in her chair, Barbara clasped her hands in her lap, saddened. She, too, had had that realization.
"Yes, I do, Hel."
Helena's blue eyes seemed to fill Barbara's vision.
"And, the more danger that we're in, Barbara, the more likely that her... her healing stuff or--"
"Gifts," the redhead supplied quietly.
"Her gifts," Helena nodded, unable to dispute the term, "are gonna get found out."
Barbara's answer came just a little too quickly.
"We'll cross that bridge when we--"
"Yeah, right," Helena interrupted without a qualm. "Ms. Barbara Cross-every-T-and-dot-every-I Gordon without a plan?"
Feeling her hackles rise instinctively in response to the younger woman's sarcasm, Barbara knew that her answering words were a bit... tight.
"Not a finalized plan yet, but--"
"What about Katie if you're not here?"
Dizzied, absolutely convinced that conversational whiplash lay on her horizon, Barbara shook her head.
"If--? Wha--? I'm not here? Why wou--"
Helena cut her short.
"Yeah. What's our daughter going to do without her mother?"
The question hit Barbara hard, almost as hard as the blow that had taken her down six days before. Instantly, a number of things clicked into place, and she heard herself speaking before she was aware that she had an answer.
"I certainly didn't ask to be shot, Helena."
Immediately, Barbara raised her right hand, bringing thumb and forefinger to the bridge of her nose as she wished for a way to reel her statement back in and try again. It was less the words than her waspish tone that had her cringing; however, since reversing the space-time continuum had continually proven elusive, she could only try again.
"Helena," she softened her tone and extended her hand in invitation. "I didn't go looking for any of this to happen."
The words and the sentiment were very much the truth, and -- point of fact -- the redhead had decided that she was getting thoroughly sick and tired of being targeted in her own home. In general, it was considered the norm for superheroes to suffer their injuries on the street, yet in her case, first The Joker and then this two-bit wannabe BDU had invaded her private life.
Quite honestly, if she were the type given to introspection, Barbara supposed that she would have to wonder what sort of odd karma she possessed that seemed to invite evil-doers into her home. Fortunately or not, Helena saved her from further thoughts along those lines.
"I know, Red."
Helena accepted her hand, the warmth and solidness of the younger woman's hand remarkably steadying despite the topic at hand.
"But having you... hurt..."
She saw Helena swallow, could feel her reaching for words.
"It's too much, Barbara."
Despite herself, the redhead felt her brows wrinkle.
"Hel, you've been hurt more times than I can count. There have been at least a score of times when I've thought that you were --"
As if giving voice might usher evil too close, Barbara couldn't speak the words.
Helena's response was so certain... so sweetly obstinate and self-effacing that Barbara had no choice but to raise their joined hands and press her mouth tenderly to her lover's fingers.
"Your life has a great deal of value, too, Sweetheart."
Wide blue eyes regarded her earnestly.
"Not without you in it, Barbara."
Helena hadn't meant it to hit Barbara quite like it had. And, fuck, she knew that now that Katie was in the mix, there was more to it. Still, it didn't mean it wasn't true, and seeing the way Barbara was looking at her she thought that her lover understood.
"Perhaps, Sweetheart -- "
Barbara pressed another kiss to Helena's knuckles and then lowered their hands, insuring that she never lost eye contact with the other woman.
"-- perhaps it's like your willingness to risk everything to reclaim your body last spring."
She gave that a moment to sink in and then gave voice to the rest.
"Just like you, I can't be anyone other than who I am."
Helena hated it. God, she hated it, but she nodded grudgingly.
It was who Barbara was.
"That doesn't mean that I-- "
Helena didn't complete her thought, but Barbara understood. When they'd first undertaken their joint venture to help safeguard her city, she'd asked Helena for her reasons.
"So people don't have to feel like I did that night," had been the telling answer.
Sometimes, Barbara acknowledged with a barely perceptible nod, it took a long time to figure things out. Perhaps Helena was discovering some things about her passion for justice.
"I... " Helena sucked in a breath and pushed on. "I don't know if I can keep doing it."
Perhaps, Barbara grasped, they were both discovering some things about their passions.
Green eyes met blue. Helena saw only genuine understanding in the eyes of her partner and mentor and friend.
"I understand. There's no deadline, Hel."
Although, maybe there was. A deadline, that was.
Or, it dawned on Helena with a sinking feeling, more likely there was just a limit to Barbara's patience.
Hell, Red had never been one for delayed gratification and all, and she had let the whole issue of sweeps and patrols and doing the do-gooder thing pretty much slide all the way through Christmas. Or, Barbara had let it go as much as she could: she'd made some noises about the digging she was doing on some kidnapping ring or something, and the police scanner had continued to run, but she hadn't pushed.
So, all the way through Christmas, while Helena figured that other vigilante head-cases were out making the shopping season safe for conspicuous consumers everywhere, Helena had been grooving along with what was maybe the most normal holiday she'd experienced in a long time.
Well, when she thought about her mom and how they were usually on the cocktail party circuit at this time of the year in search of little gifts for her mother to pick up, maybe it was her most normal Christmas ever. Except for the part when she'd put on the Santa suit that she'd auditioned the year before and come in to surprise Katharine. Since the Peapod was only 11 months old, she hadn't made much of an impact. Come to think of it, the reception she'd gotten from Barbara when she'd pulled out the old "naughty or nice" checklist hadn't been that enthusiastic either.
Things had been... low key.
Barbara was quite aware that her partner was absorbed in the NGU spring course catalog. She was also far from oblivious about the fact that she was ending the tacit peace they'd established over their crime-fighting activities. Accordingly, she suspected that her tone was just a bit... tentative as she worked to solicit some sort of response from her partner on the couch.
"Did you hear me?"
Nevertheless, this was the first relatively serious event in quite a few weeks, and she couldn't just sit silent. There was also the possibility that enough time had elapsed since the incident with Mandrill.
"I said that a silent alarm just went off at the Federal Savings and L---"
"Loan," Helena finished for her. "I heard you."
Punching numbers into the handheld calculator that she'd dug up from Barbara's work area, Helena didn't look up. She figured that there had to be some way for her to fit in all of the classes she wanted to take this semester.
Fuck, there were twenty-four hours in a day.
Behind her, Barbara felt her eyebrows furrow. Unable to pretend that she hadn't noticed the younger woman's complete lack of enthusiasm for her announcement, she caught her upper lip against her lower teeth, worrying at the skin for a moment.
"External cameras are showing some heavy-duty fire power outside the bank."
The presence of machine gun muzzles jutting from the windows of three armor-plated HumVees left little doubt that the robbers inside the bank would be similarly armed.
Finally, her companion looked up, turning a few degrees on the couch to face Barbara as she muted the sound of the U-2 classic that was playing on one of the satellite music stations. When Helena spoke, the redhead's hopes that she'd sparked her partner's interest rapidly plummeted.
"Did the police catch the alarm yet?"
Schooling her features, Barbara responded as factually as possible.
"Dispatch just called it, however I'm concerned that there could still be workers in the bank--"
Although unlikely, it was only 6:00p.m., and she simply hated to take chances.
"-- and there could be a hostage situation."
For as long as Barbara had known Helena, the brunette had worn her emotions on her sleeve. Her eyes, her face, were simply too expressive for her to hide. This evening, Helena's emotions were on display as well, however, Barbara was simply at a loss to read them.
"Barbara, it's New Year's Day. The only way some employee is going to be there is if they're in on it."
Helena was sad.
The realization blazed across Barbara's cortex in three foot neon even as she heard herself responding automatically to her partner's very logical argument.
As pressure tactics went, Helena knew that this was nothing. Barbara wasn't pulling out the big guns, like saving lives and protecting innocent bystanders. Hell, she wasn't even pulling out the little guns, like duty and doing The Right Thing, but Helena knew that nothing was just that simple. A miasma of hopelessness blew through her, and she roughly pushed the mess of papers covering her lap to one side.
Fuck it all. She was the one who had come to Barbara all those years ago. She was the one who'd been young, dumb, and full of come, begging her guardian to teach her, promising to do it right.
In the heartbeat between one lifetime and the next, Helena was on her feet and around the couch. In two quick steps, she was at the edge of the platform, looking up at her partner.
"The police can handle it, Barbara." She ran the toe of her boot along a seam in the hardwood and said the rest. "That's their job."
Barbara nodded slowly, weighing Helena's words and their import. There had been no anger, nor sarcasm or defensiveness, in her partner's statement. Accustomed as she was to Helena's volatility, Barbara simply didn't want to make any assumptions.
Deliberately, she stretched out and lowered the volume on the police scanner, and then she turned her chair to face her companion.
"That's true, Helena. It is their job."
Barbara removed her glasses, tapping one of the earpieces lightly against her lower lips as she debated her options.
"Do you have any idea when you'll be returning to sweeps, Hel?"
The question was as mild as milk, but Helena didn't miss the way Barbara had put it. She knew the phrasing -- "when", not "if" -- wasn't an accident. She understood very, very well how much Barbara depended on her.
Helena stepped lightly onto the platform. Resting one hip against the edge of Barbara's work table, she poked her tongue into the inside of her cheek and took it all in: the supercomputer, the monitoring systems, the lab equipment. None of it did Barbara much good in her quest for truth, justice, and the American way if she didn't have a partner to do a bit of legwork.
For years, Helena had been those legs. She'd been plenty happy to think of herself as the muscle in the operation.
It was what she had to give Barbara. It was what she'd promised.
Bending down, she placed her hands on the arms of the chair. She waited for Barbara to look up, then she made her decision and leaned in, kissing her lover hard.
"You know I'd do anything for you, Baby," she husked when she finally broke the soul-deep kiss.
Meaning it more.
She forced herself to meet and hold those beautiful green eyes. The pupils were wide -- surprise, she figured -- and full pink lips were still parted, and for just a second or two, Helena teetered a little, wanting to let go and give in.
To give Barbara what she wanted, what she'd promised.
To have everything be like it was.
Right in front of her was everything that Helena wanted, that she needed. Barbara always had been.
"But I can't do that."
Also meaning it.
She couldn't face Barbara. She wouldn't turn away from her.
Helena leaned back in, resting her cheek lightly against her partner's and fighting the terror that clawed inside her.
There just wasn't any way around it. Whatever she'd promised all those years ago, Helena was the one who was pretty much responsible for bringing both reigns of terror down on the Tower.
And her family.
First Quinn. Then Mandrill.
Fuck, even the guy in the alley outside work at the end of last summer had come back to haunt her after she'd done the Good Samaritan thing. And, as much as she was all about thinking with her fists -- or, fuck, even her clit -- she couldn't keep doing the same thing and hoping for better results. If nothing else, her little chat with Dinah on Thanksgiving had brought that little fact home.
To them both.
She held her breath, waiting. It seemed like no time passed before she felt the slight twitch of the muscles of Barbara's cheek. Helena squeezed her eyes shut, almost able to see her partner's mouth pursing into the pained, slightly exasperated expression that she sported when she wasn't happy with the way things were going.
Still, the brunette held her position, her cheek just touching Barbara's, breathing deeply of the sweet scent of Red's shampoo while vibrant red hair tickled her nose. She waited, bracing herself for the fallout.
When it came, Helena wasn't prepared at all.
Barbara pulled away from her.
No surprise there.
What was the surprise was that she pulled back just enough to turn her head, to bring their mouths together. The gentlest of kisses lingered against Helena's lips before she heard a husky whisper.
"I understand, Helena."
It was only a handful of hours later, however, when Barbara had to wonder if she'd been completely off-the-mark with her statement. At the very least, perhaps the word "understand" had been premature.
When Helena had informed her that she would not respond to the alarm at the bank, Barbara had known that something significant had shifted. Even if the shift had begun some time before -- with one shooting or another, or a stabbing, or a transformation, or something else -- the firmament was finally cementing itself. Thus, when Helena had approached her at the Delphi, she'd seen the truth in her partner's eyes before Helena had spoken the words.
Immediately afterward, she had felt Helena tense as if expecting the gates of hell to blow open, yet the younger woman hadn't backed away. As overwhelmed as she'd been, somehow Barbara had managed to bite back her first response -- and to swallow her second. Apparently the words she'd finally selected had been... lacking.
Granted, the almost comical level of incredulity that had met her words was understandable. As was the somewhat measured stiffness that had marked Helena's return to the couch while Barbara had monitored the bank situation. However, Helena's noticable lack of appetite over the dinner of ham and black-eyed peas that Alfred had brought by earlier had certainly roused Barbara's suspicion. Later, as they had, nominally, closed out the evening by watching an episode of some Kyra Sedgewick drama that had been surprisingly entertaining, Barbara had been unable to miss her companion's restless edginess.
It had brought to mind a cat in a room full of rockers; however, the redhead acknowledged on a slow sigh, that unease in no way compared to this.
"This" being the two of them in bed.
Katharine had been tucked in minutes before and was already sleeping soundly in her crib. The two adults in the room were both under the covers with Barbara already stretching, out of habit, to turn off the bedside lamp.
It was, she had to assume, the sheer volume of the stilted silence from the other side of the bed -- palpable even to her -- that stayed her hand at the last minute. Looking to the side, she took in the Helena-sized lump that was huddled on the far side of the bed. Her partner's back was to her, her muscles vibrating tension that was visible under the heavy comforter, as she practically teetered on the edge of the mattress.
Great shivering timbers.
Without the usual preplanning that accompanied such moves -- any movement -- Barbara found herself turning on her side to take in the outline of her partner, and the realization struck: Helena was waiting for the fallout from her decision.
The redhead freely admitted that she had never been proficient with the concept of "no", specifically with being on the receiving end. Nevertheless, the visible evidence of her shortcomings in this area was impossible to deny.
She reached over, lightly touching the brunette's shoulder. Instantly, Helena's tight grip on the covers eased.
Helena didn't know just what she might have been doing, but she hoped it was something less likely to piss Barbara off than her decision earlier.
"Was I hogging the covers or -- "
And she really, really, really hoped that Barbara didn't want to talk about that right now.
"-- or -- "
"Did you want some tea?"
She was already pushing the covers away, ready to swing her feet out of bed and make like the wind when she felt lightly calloused fingertips brush her cheek. So softly. Unable not to, Helena turned on to her back, hunting her lover's face through a curtain of her lashes. What she saw was almost too much to believe.
Even in the less than stellar lighting of the room, even through the fall of overlong dark hair, even through her own myopia, Barbara had no trouble reading the emotions that were at war in her lover's eyes.
While she certainly had not been in a mood before that instant -- she had, in fact, meant only to pursue a hug and snuggling -- there was simply no way to ignore the hot wash of affection and desire that blazed through her chest. There was no way to bypass the powerful ache that spread through her. There was no way to deny this need to show Helena the truth.
"Would you come here, Hel?"
Not willing to be misconstrued, she stretched her near arm out on the bed in invitation.
Typically, sweetly, Helena was already in motion as she spoke.
Pulling her close, Barbara brushed her mouth across her lover's forehead, pressing a kiss to the perpetually raised left eyebrow that forever seemed to call to her. Since she absolutely needed to be understood, she spoke again as their mouths met.
The muscular frame under her hands seemed to surge with a different sort of tension. Barbara felt as much as heard a noise that registered somewhere between a laugh and a growl.
"Jesus, Barbara -- "
For a moment, she was enveloped in an enthusiastic embrace, slender hands working the tight muscles of her back even as warm breath danced over her throat.
"-- let me make you feel good... "
As heavenly as Helena's back rubs were, that wasn't what she wanted. Marshaling a not-inconsiderable measure of willpower, Barbara worked free of those tempting hands and caught her partner's face in her hands.
"Slowly," she murmured across a tender brush of their mouths.
It took several more of the gentle remonstrances; however, the slow and tender focus that followed was more than she'd anticipated. Somehow, as the minutes ticked by, time lost its solidity, growing thick and liquid. Their mouths never parted as Barbara allowed her hands to wander at will, stroking velvet skin and tracing the trembling muscles beneath. When her fingers eventually found their haven in the wet heat that opened to her, when she felt Helena's hand convulse against her side, and when she heard them both whisper the same words at the same moment, Barbara was grateful that they'd forgone passion for something more. Capturing her lover's hand in her free hand, she guided their intertwined fingers to the juncture of her own legs.
"I want you to touch me, too, Helena."
The words seared Helena's skin, easily penetrating the haze of pleasure that had been layering across every nerve ending. The world narrowed to a crystalline emerald clarity as she searched Barbara's eyes.
"Yes, with me, Helena."
Tenderly, she touched, barely parting silken folds, awed anew by the textures and flavors racing from her fingertips, through the nerves of her arms, to her heart.
Barbara had always been her heart.
Searching, Helena raised her face to her partner's, melding their mouths so softly, sharing the air they breathed.
"Yes, show me, Sweetheart, what you feel. What you want to feel."
Dimly, apart from the radiance that exploded within her, beside her, Helena understood: This was a mirror, a dancing echo of the first time that they had made love. Just like that time, they were showing each other.
Thrusting deeply, Helena almost climaxed at the sensation of the movement returned. Molten heat coursed through her, and then she was laughing and crying and coming. And Barbara was in her arms, her own laughter low and sexy and content.
"Good heavens, Hel. I didn't know that I was that good."
Just then, meta-recuperation or not, Helena just didn't have it in her to say anything. But, in a minute or two, when she caught her breath and collected her wits, she was going to remind Barbara that she *was* that good.
They were that good.
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