DISCLAIMER: I do not own the characters. They are the property of DC comics and the WB network. I'm just borrowing them for a short period of time.
MUSIC DISCLAIMER: Song lyrics don't belong to me either; no profit gained or infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Oh crap. This was really going to hurt.
Green eyes blinked once in vexed dismay as the crimson-haired crime fighter took in the eighteen-wheeler roaring into the intersection less than fifty feet in front of her. Quickly checking the narrow alley which she was barreling through for maneuvering room -- and finding none -- the athletic woman calculated her speed and trajectory, grimly noting that even attempting to apply the brakes at her current velocity would result in a sudden flight through the air which would leave her plastered against the side of the big rig like a bug against a car windshield.
Accepting the inevitable -- not only was she losing the carload of crooks she'd been pursing but she'd also be lucky to limp away from the chase -- the redhead viciously hit the throttle, increasing her speed.
'Sometimes you're the windshield; sometimes you're the bug.'
The catchy lyrics from an old Mary Chapin Carpenter song popped through the woman's forebrain, and she laughed aloud. At the same moment, she threw her full slight weight hard to the left, dragging the big bike over, nearly horizontal to the debris-littered asphalt. Hoping that she'd timed this little maneuver correctly, the redhead released the throttle, opened her eyes wide, and allowed momentum and gravity to carry the heavy machine -- and its fragile human cargo -- toward the heavy truck in front of her.
In less than a heartbeat -- although, frankly, the crime fighter suspected that her heart had simply ceased to beat when she'd spied the approaching behemoth -- it was all over.
The big Ducati slid neatly under the body of the truck, and before red hair had fully cleared the undercarriage, the rider twisted the throttle and jerked herself upright with all of her not-inconsiderable upper body strength. She remained calm, absolutely convinced of her ability to thwart the pull of gravity and right the big bike. For a long, sphincter-clenching moment, she feared that the smooth racing tires might not find purchase and she'd be dragged down and across the pavement.
No way her neoprene garb would protect against a case of road rash like that.
Gritting her teeth, the redhead twisted the throttle all the way back and dropped her booted left leg a few inches to give a well-timed kick against the pavement. The tires caught with a squeal and the acrid stench of burning rubber, and the rider was suddenly upright. Grinning triumphantly, she smoothly turned the bike in the direction of her quarry -- less than half a block away, the entire "Stuntgirl" incident having taken only a few seconds -- and raised her gloved left hand in a cheery farewell to the stupefied driver of the big rig as she resumed her pursuit.
The athletic figure took the next corner at breakneck speed, again nearly horizontal as she angled the cycle around a taxi. Seamlessly melded to the machine, she wove through late-night traffic, exulting in her prowess on the bike and the sheer thrill of the chase.
Not to mention, she admitted wryly, perhaps a touch of gratitude for still being in the chase.
When she was within shouting distance of the goons she'd interrupted mid-break in at the museum, she laid off the throttle and bided her time.
A pronounced wobble of the sedan as the panicky crooks took another corner gave the vigilante an opening. Cutting across a sidewalk, she pulled a cable from her utility belt and snagged a newspaper vending machine with an expert flip of her left wrist. Accelerating in front of the dark sedan, she released the metal box and gunned out of harm's way just as the car crashed into the machine and spun 540-degrees to the sound of exploding tires.
Cruising in a wide circle, the redhead rolled to a stop and neatly dismounted, taking a moment to radio her position to the local police. Green eyes carefully reassessed the sedan's position, deciding that the battered vehicle had probably undergone more of a 570-degree rotation. She waited, poised, listening to the ticking from the car's stalled engine, until three shaken-looking men stumbled from the vehicle.
The dark vigilante had already wrapped up their three comrades back at the museum while Moe, Larry, and Curly made their exit.
The men regarded the slender woman incredulously, and the redhead instantly assessed what she might be up against. The two who had exited the car on her side would be no problem; however, it looked like the one on the far side was considering his chances on foot.
Smoothly bringing her hand to her utility belt and freeing a batarang, the crime fighter spoke confidently, keeping the object cloaked by her short cape.
"I wouldn't try it if I were you."
Almost conversationally, she added, "The police are on their way, and avoiding arrest is just going to add to the charges you're facing."
Green eyes glinted.
"Not to mention, your bruises."
Surprisingly -- perhaps they'd seen how she'd handled their buddies -- the three men listened to the voice of reason, and, in short order, the redhead found herself back at the museum, checking the back entrance that the crooks had been attempting to jimmy open. A sudden change in the air around her, followed by a soft thump, alerted her to the fact that she was no longer alone. Fully aware of her companion's identity, she continued her perusal of the door jamb.
"Got 'em all wrapped up?"
The warm voice was whispered almost directly into the tall woman's ear, and she straightened slowly to speak over her shoulder.
"Yes, Ro-- "
Uncharacteristically, she stumbled briefly over her comrade's new name.
"Nightwing. Pretty routine, although I did almost crash the Batcycle going after three of the guys."
A low whistle sounded appreciatively.
"That would have really pissed Batman off, huh?"
Both crime fighters chuckled softly before the redhead supplied a few more details about the chase.
"Well, fortunately, I don't have to find out. All of that trick riding practice paid off. But, "
She gestured toward the doorway.
"I did want to make certain there's no evidence that these dopes were working with someone else."
"Uh huh," she murmured distractedly, feeling her companion move directly behind her.
Strong hands wrapped lightly around her waist, and she leaned back against a solid muscular chest.
"But," she managed to continue, "no sign of her usual tools or tech--"
The redhead stumbled again when a faintly stubbled cheek rubbed against the side of her jaw. The faintest whiff of familiar aftershave tickled her nose, giving her already humming nerves an unnecessary boost of adrenaline.
The rumbling tenor words were punctuated by strong hands tugging her cowl back before warm lips teased the shell of her ear.
"I'm glad -- really glad -- that you're okay, too."
Adrenaline racing from the fight and the exhilarating chase, the crimson-haired woman arched into the contact.
"Mmmm. You have a nice way of sho-- showing it."
The athletic woman relaxed into the sensual contact, feeling Nightwing caressing her hair with one hand as he raised the other to her chest. Green eyes snapped in irritation, and she stiffened slightly.
How many times did she have to remind her occasional lover?
Mastering her ire, the redhead firmly grasped the hand which was tenderly cupping her breast and lowered it to her hip. She spoke quietly, but, well-aware that no one was around, didn't bother with code names.
"Dick, you know that doesn't do it for me."
She felt what she recognized as one of the young man's boyishly charming grins against her jaw.
"Yeah. I know, Babs, but you can't blame me, can you?"
Barbara laughed in spite of herself and sank back further against the alluring firmness of strong pectorals, shivering lightly at the large hand which was teasing at the almost invisible seam on the right side of her costume. Feeling heat and moisture building between her thighs, unmistakably aware of her lover's arousal pressing against her, she groaned softly and brought her left hand to the other seam of her skin-tight costume.
While dark alleys weren't her usual choice for a romantic interlude -- even in the moment as she was, Barbara couldn't suppress her soft snort at that euphemism -- the familiar feel of strong muscles and solid flesh against her and the welcome promise of Dick's very capable -- and ample -- attentions lent a tremendous weight to just going with the flow.
The redhead twisted slightly at the pleasurable sensation of even teeth nipping at her neck, of a warm tongue tracing her ear. Barbara's always-active mind noted the gentleness of the touch, and the strong woman decided that Dick might finally be learning a little more finesse.
Pushing that thought aside, she straightened for a moment to release the final catch securing the top and bottom of her costume, then leaned back again on a sigh. Simultaneously, she reached back and down with her right hand, searching to tease between...
The oddly slender thighs which were behind her?
This realization was accompanied by the awareness that the firm pecs she'd been rubbing her back against seemed to have been replaced by much more pliant, soft flesh, leaving the crimson-haired crime fighter briefly vertigous.
Had she fallen into some sort of twilight zone?
Marginally recovering her wits, Barbara drew in a harsh breath and jerked away. Her movement was summarily halted when she was gently, but very firmly, held in place by slender hands at her waist.
A low voice purred -- literally purred, the redhead realized with shock -- in her ear.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa there. Where you going, Red? Did I do something wrong..."
Delicate fingers suddenly dipped into the redhead's costume and danced across her abdomen.
"...or didn't I do enough? Yet."
Despite her brain's screaming awareness that the entire situation was horribly, horribly wrong, the dark vigilante discovered that her body seemed completely unable -- and unwilling -- to fight the wave of pleasure coursing across her skin. Unlike the raw, driving power of her couplings with Dick, this... this was something altogether different -- previously unexperienced and totally unexpected -- and Barbara felt herself succumbing rapidly.
Feather light touches left trails of heat and fire in their wake on her skin. Tender nips and kisses to her neck and ear left her panting and breathless. Oddest of all, the sensation of small breasts rubbing against her back -- pebble-hard nipples distinct even through the thick neoprene of her costume -- left her pressing back, desperate for more contact.
Had the breathy moan come from her?
Barbara's unknown companion breathed what seemed to be agreement before slipping shockingly talented fingers between her legs. The crime fighter's first reaction to the teasing, knowing touches was that her legs would simply give out. This response was immediately replaced by the realization that the sinewy, strong arm wrapped around her waist simply wouldn't permit her to fall. Fear assuaged, the redhead surprised herself by spreading her legs in invitation as she panted wildly at the thick pleasure thrumming through her nerves.
Holy cats! She never remembered anything feeling like... like this.
Every nerve, from the roots of her fiery hair to the tips of her toes, was alive and on fire. Her blood seemed ready to boil, pounding relentlessly in her center. She could feel -- actually feel! -- the shy flesh between her thighs swelling as her core seemed to balloon within her in readiness.
Desperate, seeking contact with the soft lips by her jaw, she twisted her head, barely catching a glimpse of glittering eyes and dusky skin in the darkness before her unknown... assailant?... lover?... seductress? ducked to clasp her shoulder with strong, even teeth. The other woman -- Barbara dimly noted that the dark figure was almost a head shorter than she was -- grunted softly, thrusting her hips forward in tempo with her hand. Thrilling from the realization that the other woman was, apparently, as turned on by their contact as she was, the redhead forgot her curiosity in the face of...
Need. Raw need.
The still-functioning portion of the vigilante's rational mind distantly supplied that the words were, quite simply, the only accurate description for her current state. In addition, that same tiny portion of her mind demanded that Barbara not simply go quietly -- or even moaning and groaning -- into the good night.
"Who are...? What...?"
Not her finest verbal salvo, but at least Barbara felt that her libido could claim to have tried when she was later confronted with the inevitable questions from her rational mind.
An impossibly soft mouth came to her ear while a slim hand trailed up, under her costume, to tease the underside of a suddenly heavy and aching breast.
Barbara couldn't hold back the soft exclamation at the sudden, heretofore unknown, tremors racing through her torso and causing her nipples to tighten and burn. Incredibly, the whisper of her companion's reply to her halting questions only served to increase the sensation.
Through the thick haze of her own arousal, Barbara detected a trace of hesitation.
"I'm loving you, Barbara."
The soft declaration snapped the crimson-haired woman back to her senses faster than semi-automatic rifle fire. She stiffened and wrapped her fingers around a slender forearm, arresting any further movement. Barbara registered her body's instant, outraged protest over the loss of sensation -- a reaction of an intensity that she'd never, ever experienced -- and filed the response away for later consideration. Attempting to recover some modicum of control over herself, she drew in a halting breath and choked back an almost wild urge to laugh when she noted the delicacy of the bones and muscles under her gloved hands -- a complete counterpoint to her usual tastes.
Whoever this person was... whatever this situation had seemed to be... It was simply impossible.
Staring straight ahead, the redhead spoke without inflection.
Behind her, the other woman slowly exhaled, drawing her hands from under Barbara's costume and effortlessly slipping free from the redhead's grasp. Soft lips touched her ear, and Barbara shivered involuntarily again as the dark figure placed warm fingers lightly on each side of her jaw, coaxing her gaze to one side, just enough to bring the Ducati into the crime fighter's view.
"Why not, Red?"
Oddly, given that the woman behind her was unknown to her, Barbara was certain that the muted question contained more than frustration. The sadness of the world seemed to hang in the three quiet syllables, causing the redhead's heart to clench.
Barbara felt the dark head behind her nod at the bike before a tongue traced her ear, eliciting an entirely unexpected groan from deep within the taller woman. She wasn't entirely certain just what the hell was happening, but, at the very least, Barbara was beginning to realize that her body had completely revolted, was -- in fact -- still mourning the loss of the amazingly unexpected delight engendered by the touch of dark hands.
"You're made for it... for this."
Warm breath whispered across the fine down on the crime fighter's left cheek, and she shivered. Again.
"You're made for the rush... and the passion."
Again, Barbara couldn't suppress a low moan at the darkly sensual words. Her seductress emitted a purring rumble that echoed from the redhead's back to the tips of her breasts before radiating outward through her torso and limbs. Blood heating again, nerves singing in ecstasy, the dark vigilante felt fixed in place. Knowing that she was dangerously, terrifyingly, close to giving in, she reached behind her with one hand to clasp a boyishly slender hip.
The redhead had to stop, to lick terribly dry lips, before she began to turn.
"I need to know who you are."
Not even a shift in the air telegraphed her tormenter's departure, but -- suddenly -- that warm body vanished. The tall woman spun, just in time to catch a glimpse of a dark leather coat disappearing up a fire escape, just in time to hear soft, sad words.
"You already know. You just won't let yourself see."
And, then, the fiercely independent crime fighter found herself alone, feeling more frustrated and hollow than she ever remembered. She opened her mouth to call after the unknown figure but was struck mute, unable to find any words.
Almost screaming in frustration, Barbara Gordon started into wakefulness, flailing at constricting covers and struggling to sit up in her dark bedroom. Abandoning the futile effort, she flopped against her pillows, panting harshly, every firing nerve thrumming from the vividly real touch of her dream lover.
For a few beats, the redhead shifted her upper body restlessly, torn between her brain's insistent interest in dissecting the dream and her body's more visceral need to satisfy it's own urges. Recognizing the pointlessness of the former and the futility of the latter, she eventually forced her racing mind and trilling nerves to settle, then pulled herself upright with the assistance of the bars which were at the head of her bed for leverage. Roughly pushing the fall of long hair back from her face with one hand, she turned on the bedside lamp with the other, grimly acknowledging that her chances of sleep were shot for the remainder of the night.
As the muted light filled her room, emerald eyes tracked to the side of the bed and pinned the ubiquitous wheelchair with a baleful gaze. Snorting softly, Barbara firmly pushed aside her questions about the dream, and her body's urges, and reached for a book -- a recent birthday gift -- about the science of the X-Men.
There was absolutely no reason to dwell on any part of that dream, after all. Her hot-rodding days were long over.
"Geez, what a hot-rodder. You'd think you were Dale Earnhart or something."
"Oh, c'mon, Hel... I drive a lot more sensibly than you do--"
"Not on a pursuit trail, you don't, Kid. My hair's gonna go white overnight."
"Bull-- You're just jealous that I get to drive the Hummer to school each day."
Smiling fondly at the familiar bickering emanating from the opening elevator, Barbara straightened from her post at the Delphi and smoothly rotated her head from one side to the other, popping perennially tight vertebrae. Since she'd been listening to a variation of the same conversation over the comms for the last hour of sweeps, the redhead allowed the voices of her former and current ward to wash past her without much concern for the actual content.
Helena's protests to the side, it appeared that Dinah had handled the high speed pursuit of some convenience store robbers quite capably; at the very least, she hadn't tipped the Humvee even if Helena had needed to finish the chase on foot after the robbers had drawn the two young vigilantes into a narrow alley. And, honestly, how often did the young brunette and blonde teen manage to coexist without some sniping?
Something that Helena was saying recaptured the cyber-crime fighter's attention.
"...think so? Maybe not after Barbara sees the scratch you put down the passenger side. Like a frikkin' can opener..."
Green eyes blinked in dismay.
Dinah had scratched the new -- newest -- paint job? It had barely been two weeks since the girl's "supermarket incident".
Briefly, the older woman flirted with the possibility of putting the body shop on retainer before turning from the bank of monitors and raking her fellow crime fighters -- her proteges -- with a cool gaze. Simultaneously, the lithe brunette and the tall blonde stopped at the base of the raised platform which held the Delphi -- the arrangement was a must, in the fastidious redhead's opinion, for controlling the Hydra-esque coils of wiring for the supercomputer -- and looked up nervously.
Marshalling skills perfected from many years in the high school classroom, the redhead had little trouble disguising her fond smile with an expectantly raised eyebrow and a quirk of her lips. She utilized another valuable weapon in her arsenal -- silence -- and waited patiently. Not terribly surprisingly -- after all, Helena had had years of facing "The Look", both as Barbara's student and as her ward -- Dinah broke first.
"Uh, I don't think it's toooo bad, Barbara. But, I am really sorry..."
The dark-haired woman chimed in.
"Yeah. Really it's just an itty-bitty scratch from where she caught the edge of a dumpster backing out of the alley..."
Green eyes softened affectionately at Helena's alacrity in coming to Dinah's defense, and Barbara almost missed a sub vocal addition from the brunette.
"...and dragged it all the way to the street."
The tone abruptly shifted to a very vocal yelp.
"Hey! Watch it with those bony elbows!"
Deciding to pretend that she simply hadn't heard the last part of her younger partner's description of the incident, Barbara finally spoke, cutting off both young women as they turned to each other with fire in their eyes and mouths opening.
She really didn't care to hear it.
"It sounds entirely unavoidable, Dinah. Don't worry about it. Although," she added thoughtfully, with a deliberately arched eyebrow, "perhaps Helena can help you work on your backing skills a bit in the next few weeks."
The redhead smiled gently at the teen's absurdly grateful expression and determinedly ignored the pointed rolling of striking blue eyes from the other young woman.
"These things happen. Helena and I have both dinged more than a few vehicles, Dinah. The important thing," she continued smoothly, "is that you're both fine."
Dinah smiled brightly.
"Yeah. And we -- uh, Helena really, I guess, caught those jerks."
The older woman nodded her agreement, peripherally noting that the crime fighter in question was casually shrugging out of her duster. When the brunette responded to the teen's comment, emerald eyes fixed on her, unaccountably aware of the play of sinewy muscles under tight leather as Helena rotated to drape her coat over the back of the couch and then slouched down to lean against the furniture.
"Nah, K-- D. I wouldn't of had a chance if you hadn't kept up with them so well on the highway."
Again, the redhead masked her expression -- she suspected that it would have manifest as a broad smile -- at the blonde's beaming look of pride. Familiar experience with her first protege suggested that the teen might hold more than just a touch of hero worship for Helena, and Barbara was patently delighted that the older girl -- woman, she mentally corrected herself -- seemed to be moving past her occasional self-absorption to offer encouragement to Dinah.
"That's what teamwork is all about, Dinah."
The leader of the team returned her attention to the teen, ignoring any irony inherent in her words based on her own fairly solitary crime fighting activities as Batgirl so many years ago. After all, for the last four or five years, team play -- with Helena -- was, indeed, what her role in crime fighting had been composed of.
As Dinah launched into one of her typically verbose descriptions of the car chase and Helena's subsequent foot pursuit, Barbara offered a quick smile to the brunette, who rose with a saucy wink and sauntered into the kitchen, undoubtedly in search of something to appease the bottomless pit that she called a stomach.
Not, the redhead freely admitted, that the young woman couldn't handle the quantity of food -- primarily junk food -- that she tucked away: between her own overactive metahuman metabolism and the energy she burned in sweeps and workout sessions, the brunette was almost too slim, her delicate frame belying her incredible power.
Effortlessly maintaining her half of the conversation with Dinah, Barbara considered that thought -- rather, her reaction to it.
For some reason, the casual observation of her friend and protege left her feeling uneasy, even vaguely guilty; and it only took her a split-second to comprehend the source of her discomfort: the incredibly vivid and -- she forced herself to think the word -- erotic dream of the night before.
After awakening from the night visions, more aroused than she remembered having been since well before the shooting which had taken the use of -- and sensation in -- her lower body seven years before, Barbara had been unable to push the feelings and questions aside as easily as she'd hoped. Best efforts to focus on the pop-science of her reading to the contrary, she'd found herself watching the rising sun peek through the curtains as her relentlessly analytical mind examined the dream, the force of her physical response to it, and -- most pressingly -- the identity of the phantom woman whose dream touch had excited her so.
Given the context of the dream -- with her as a fully functional Batgirl -- Barbara had initially entertained the possibility that, for whatever reasons, Catwoman had somehow crept into her dreamscape. Seven or eight years ago, before the redhead's shooting and Selina Kyle's murder, which had left the newly paralyzed young woman responsible for Catwoman's angry, hurting daughter Helena -- the arch-criminal had been a very real part of Barbara's... Batgirl's... life. Reflecting on the dream, the redhead had acknowledged that few people had been immune to the cat burglar's raw sensuality and that this, perhaps, accounted for Selina's presence in her dream.
Yet, further consideration forced the cyber-genius to dismiss that hypothesis. While, in the dream, she'd still been fully functional -- in all of the ways she no longer was -- she'd also been sporting her current hair length, and Dick had been in his newest masked persona, Nightwing, an identity he'd adopted less than sixteen months before.
No. Her subconscious had clearly set this dream in the present.
In addition, the height and shape, even the voice, of her nocturnal seductress was not right for Catwoman. Barbara had engaged in enough hand-to-hand contests with the older woman to have Selina's shape firmly imprinted in her infallible memory. Likewise, over the years of her association with Selina's daughter -- both as her guardian until the girl turned nineteen and in their joint work in protecting New Gotham -- she'd done enough sparring and doctoring to become similarly well-acquainted with Helena's form and movements.
Just before dawn, Barbara had actually flinched at the knowledge that the dream hands and mouth and body which had so aroused her were, without doubt, Helena's. While it was easy enough -- actually, not quite that easy -- to dismiss the dream as the influence of a late night movie or an ill-advised midnight snack, the older woman found it discomfiting, to say the least, to realize that she'd been fantasizing subconsciously about the younger woman.
She -- straight-as-they-come Barbara Gordon -- had been dreaming vividly and lavishly about her former student and ward, about her protege and best friend in the world, about the closest person to a female relative that she had. She'd been, early this morning, almost horrified to admit that she'd been fantasizing about someone who was, if not exactly a daughter-figure, then something approaching a sister.
And, the redhead admitted on a silent sigh, if her current unease about observing the dark woman's body this evening were any indication, she was still discomfited.
Smoothly winding down Dinah's effusive description of dodging traffic on the interstate, Barbara laughed in acknowledgement.
"Well, Dinah, Humvees aren't exactly made for cornering."
"No shit, Red. Or..."
The smooth soprano voice, slightly muffled by a mouthful of sandwich -- peanut butter? -- caused both redhead and blonde to start slightly.
"...for taking highway access ramps at a hundred miles an hour."
The jibe seemingly spurred the teenager to recover from her brief surprise first.
"I was not doing one hun--"
"Dinah?" Barbara cut in smoothly, "I'm sure you were driving within, er, reasonable limits."
Could the heavily armored vehicle even hit one hundred? The redhead made a mental note to look into the mechanics of the equation.
"For now, I think it's time for you to turn in. Tomorrow is a school day."
The older woman silently blessed her newest ward's sunny disposition -- There was simply no way that Helena would have simply waved a cheerful goodnight and allowed herself to be dismissed during her high school days -- and sat quietly while Helena pushed the remainder of her snack into her mouth, chewing and swallowing with almost indecent relish. Temporarily sustained, the brunette bounded onto the platform and waved at the satellite receiver.
"Seriously, Babs. Didja clock us during the chase? Kid has a real lead foot. I was almost ready to bail a few times."
Barbara hid her smirk in the act of removing her glasses. Considering some of the more... hair-raising moments she'd endured when she'd tutored Helena in high speed pursuits, the older woman privately thought that a little taste of her own medicine wasn't too much for the brunette. After all, the headstrong girl had cut her teeth driving -- illegally -- in Paris when she was barely a teenager; by the time Barbara had begun to work with her, the girl had assumed that she had nothing to learn.
Turning back to the monitors, the redhead kept those thoughts to herself, simply murmuring, "I'm sure it wasn't that bad, Hel."
Already focused on the screen in front of her, Barbara heard Helena snort noisily as she planted one hip next to the mouse pad and spoke sulkily.
"Huh. I still don't know why I have to play Driver's Ed with the Kid."
Temporarily flummoxed by the fact that her mousing hand seemed to be hindered from its usual smooth actions by the distracting proximity of her younger partner's derriere, Barbara fired back a sharp retort without pausing to think first.
"Perhaps it's because I can't stomp on the imaginary brake pedal, Helena."
Helena's absolute lack of a flippant reply -- not to mention the very slow exhalation which Barbara detected -- immediately clued the older woman in to the fact that her response had come out more bitter than playful. When slender fingers came to rest lightly over her mouse hand, the redhead almost jumped at what seemed to be the unnatural warmth of the soft digits. Acutely conscious of the heat flooding her own body at the gentle touch -- how much had that damned dream affected her? -- Barbara focused on quashing the response and filed away the reaction for later analysis.
"What gives, Barbara? You okay?"
The subdued question held nothing but concern. Out of habit, the older woman attempted to ignore the sentiment.
"What do you mean, Helena? I'm fine."
Her attempts to move her hand to the keyboard and re-focus on her quantum encryption algorithm was gently denied when the younger woman clasped her hand, stroking the back lightly with her thumb.
"C'mon, Barbara. This is me. You look like... well... like shit. And..."
The redhead peripherally noted a shaggy head ducking down before cerulean eyes caught hers.
"...when you start making paraplegic jokes, something's up. Spill it."
Feeling that previously not-unpleasant, albeit curious, wash of blood inch up her chest and neck, the older woman exhaled slowly. She well knew just how relentless Helena could be... especially when the young woman thought she was looking out for her former guardian. It was, after all, that very relentlessness which had initially pulled Barbara from her deep depression after the shooting, which had encouraged her to start teaching again, which had urged her to pursue her crime fighting activities in cyberspace, which had -- frankly -- kept her alive and, eventually, allowed her to realize that life could be worth living from a wheelchair.
Unable to forget that sort of shared history, the redhead fought a small wave of shame for her words.
"I'm sorry, Hel."
Green eyes looked up to meet blue fully, and Barbara offered a slightly embarrassed smile as she turned her hand to clasp the other woman's.
"It was just a silly dream last night. I didn't get much sleep, and it still seems to be bothering me."
The concern in those expressive caramel features couldn't be missed.
"Was it about..."
Barbara clearly detected the brunette's hesitation over the words.
While nightmares about that night seven years ago were now infrequent and certainly less choking than those which had haunted her every night for years after the shooting, they did still occur. Worried that she might have inadvertently brought up some painful memories for her former ward -- those had been hard days and nights for both of them -- the older woman hastily shook her head.
"No, no -- not that, Sweetheart."
In the hope that she could relieve some of the tension from the young woman, she summoned a small laugh and addressed the question obvious in a raised dark brow.
"It was... I was on patrol, as Batgirl, hot-dogging on the bike."
The redhead was warmed by the other woman's tender smile and a gentle squeeze to her hand. Of all people, Barbara knew that Helena understood the bittersweet melancholy that such a dream would create. Nightly, the dark woman flew across the rooftops, without the wires and cables that Barbara had needed, exulting in the freedom and flight just as her mentor had so many years before.
Eager to ease any further concerns, the redhead ignored her blush -- up to her eyebrows now -- and laughed at her own expense, attempting to lighten the mood with a whitewashed version of the truth.
"Then, er, in the dream, I was keyed up...?"
She raised a brow in question, certain that her rather wild younger partner would understand the reference. A beat later, she quirked her lips in response to a knowing nod, and continued.
"And, while I was, er, well... The dream ended rather abruptly."
Mercifully, the strategy seemed to work, and Helena withdrew her hand with a chuckle.
"I can see how that could leave you on edge, Red."
The younger woman's tone and features seamlessly shifted, becoming something purring like velvet, playful like fingers whispering over skin. Barbara belatedly realized that she might have made a tactical error in revealing the back half of her dream.
"If you need any help with that, Barbara, I'm always ready to lend a hand."
Dark eyebrows waggled lasciviously, and the older woman play-swatted at her companion's stomach, sighing in exasperation.
Honestly, she should have seen that coming. Helena was a born flirt and had certainly perfected her art over the years, largely at the redhead's expense. Barbara wasn't sure if Helena delighted more in the rapid banter that the two sometimes exchanged or in seeing what depth and duration of blush she could raise on her former guardian.
Regardless, sometimes, her timing could be most inconvenient. Still reeling from her own guilt about the unrevealed portions of her dream, the older woman struggled for a teasing rejoinder.
"Honestly, Helena, what would happen to your flirting if I took you up on one of your suave and subtle offers one day and forced you to get it out of your system?"
Having expected some sort of reply in kind -- probably one involving thinly veiled allusions to specific bedroom activities -- Barbara was unprepared for her younger friend's response.
For a beat, the dark figure remained absolutely still. Then, fascinated, the redhead observed a rapid transformation in the other woman.
Helena stiffened, her eyes augmenting to yellow slits, a soft growl bubbling from her throat. Shocked by the response -- to her knowledge, the young woman's feral mode signified either anger or... arousal -- Barbara managed to gasp out a single syllable.
She was left terribly confused, nerves thrumming from some sort of tension, when the younger woman suddenly stood and leaned over her, bringing their faces within inches of each other.
Pinned by a molten gaze, Barbara remained frozen in place when Helena finally spoke.
"That's not what this is about, Red."
Much ado about nothing, indeed.
At least, that was very much what Barbara suspected she'd find when she worked up the courage to tackle her fourth period's essays on The Bard's play.
Balefully eyeing the seven inch stack of papers on her desk, she reached up to seat her glasses and sighed. Each year, it seemed that her students' submissions got longer and, inversely, less original. When Cliff's Notes had been the primary mechanism for glossing assignments, it had been a piece of cake to catch students who took shortcuts. But now, with the wealth of information available online, it raised the bar for her.
Often, it was easy enough to spot the same passages -- verbatim -- in more than one essay; and she certainly wasn't going to be the one to clue her students in to the wisdom of not automatically selecting the first hit which Google brought back. However, in other cases, it was often a niggling sixth sense -- the redhead had yet to decide whether it was a sense honed from teaching or from crime fighting -- an awareness that the prose and content were "off". In those situations, she was always willing to scan an essay and unleash one of her custom-programmed lexical 'bots to see if an original work turned up online. If nothing else, the expression on teenage faces when she returned their essays -- with the original stapled to them and an invitation to repeat the exercise, after school, in the classroom -- was reward enough for any extra effort on her part.
Flipping up the cover page of the first offering, Barbara lost herself in her reading. When she reached the third page of -- good grief -- nine, she found herself gnawing at her purple felt tip and bent slightly to fish in her bottom drawer for her sack lunch. She gave the can of Slim Fast a quick shake and popped the top -- not too tasty but terribly convenient -- before setting it precisely to one side of her blotter. She positioned her multigrain crackers next to the can and picked up her oversized Granny Smith, absently buffing it against her sweater-clad shoulder as she refocused on the next page of terribly unoriginal prose.
Half a paragraph later, the apple flew from her grasp -- snagged with deceptive ease in mid-air by a tan hand -- when the door to the classroom burst open and Barbara jerked upright with a startled gasp. The hand which had been holding her lunch flew to the older woman's pounding heart, and she fixed her visitor with a stern look.
"Good god, Helena, you scared the shit out of me."
Bumping the door shut with a slim hip, the brunette offered an apologetic smile and inspected the fruit in her hand. Apparently finding it of interest, she raised it to her face and sniffed delicately before taking a bite. She chewed with evident pleasure before speaking leisurely.
"Ms. Gordon. What would your students say about your language?"
The teacher steadfastly ignored the odd twisting in her stomach at the sight of her young friend's flaring nostrils, at the expression of enjoyment gracing gamine features as Helena chewed. Barbara decided that she must have been more hungry than she'd realized and replied archly.
"They'd probably offer to teach me some more impressive expletives that even you haven't heard."
After a beat, she added dryly, "I'll have you know that's a significant portion of my lunch that you're eating, Hel."
The redhead couldn't even pretend to display any real ire. She'd never been able to stay angry with the brunette. She, also, was simply pleased to see Helena.
Two nights before, after the brunette had made her passionate -- if cryptic -- statement, she'd grabbed her duster and departed before Barbara could collect her wits to apologize or ask what the hell was going on or... something. The night before, Helena had left a brief message that she had a double shift at the Dark Horse and that Barbara should call if she was needed on sweeps. Since nothing of significance had been occurring and since the older woman was still uncertain about the exchange, Barbara hadn't called, offering the younger woman whatever space and time she might need to collect herself after her odd declaration.
Apparently, if the brunette's impromptu lunchtime visit to the school could be used as a gauge, the strategy had worked. The redhead found herself, as always when she had to go more than a day without seeing or talking with the younger woman, happy -- simply happy -- to be with her.
Sauntering towards Barbara's desk, the lithe figure raised the hand which was not in possession of the teacher's lunch and waved a large and somewhat greasy paper bag cheerfully.
"I think I can make it up to you, Red."
The older woman followed blue eyes as they regarded the other two lunch items on her desk disdainfully.
"And that is not lunch, Barbara. Ya gotta keep your strength up to go head-to-head in your next three classes, don't you?"
Laughing, the older woman recapped her felt tip and rotated ninety degrees to face the conference chair by her desk as her visitor planted herself in it. Still, she didn't give ground completely.
"Perhaps, Hel. What exactly did you bring that can possibly compete with my lo-cal but nutritionally balanced lunch?"
The younger woman deposited the bag on her desk with a thump and began to rummage through it, pulling out paper-wrapped items, small bags of chips, and various containers.
Green eyes widened appreciatively, and Barbara felt a blush touch her cheeks when her stomach rumbled its approval. Somehow, she managed to pretend she didn't notice the dancing blue eyes and smirking features trained on her.
"Uh huh. Thought so."
The brunette mercifully let it go and pushed a sandwich towards her. The older woman hiked an eyebrow in question.
"Pastrami on rye, brown mustard on the side, right? With a jumbo German potato salad -- "
Slender fingers scootched a styrofoam container towards her.
"-- and extra pickles."
Grinning happily, the redhead attacked the paper on her sandwich, murmuring, "I thought that I was the one with the infallible memory, Sweetie."
The word was muffled by a mouthful of Helena's Reuben.
"How could I forget after all of the deli we ate back in the day?"
This lightly spoken reference forced another laugh to bubble past the older woman's lips.
She snagged a plastic knife and placed a neat layer of mustard on half of her sandwich.
"Although, I really didn't think I'd ever want to touch the stuff again after eating it almost every day for a year."
The brunette's snort of acknowledgement, coinciding with a fizzy hiss as she lifted the tab on her soda can, brought another blush to the redhead's face.
During their first early years together, after she'd decided to emerge from her darkened bedroom and embrace her new role as Helena' guardian, Barbara had repeatedly attempted to prove her nonexistent domestic skills by concocting one manifestly awful meal after another. To Helena's very great credit, the redhead had later realized, the hurting and angry teen had tried valiantly to choke down her new guardian's offerings each evening... for two months. After that, the girl had simply taken to stopping by the deli most nights on her way home from school, and, wisely, Barbara had quickly seen the wisdom of having something edible for one meal each day. Until the ever-faithful Alfred had managed to insinuate his twice-weekly cooking into their lives, the two women had largely survived on processed meats and salads... and the occasional fresh fruit that Barbara picked up from the corner vendor when she summoned her courage to test her wheels and venture from the apartment.
Neatly forestalling any of a number of possible digs from the brunette, given the opening she'd left, Barbara forked some potato salad towards her mouth and spoke again.
"So, what's the occasion, Helena? It usually takes a cadre of supervillains to get you near this place."
While academic discipline had never been the younger woman's greatest love, after the murder of her mother during her sophomore year, Helena had developed an active loathing for scholastic pursuits. Between her intrinsic intelligence, her angry sarcastic wit, and her meta-enhanced fighting abilities, it had been a small miracle to Barbara that she'd managed to cajole, plead, and challenge her ward through to graduation.
"No occasion, Babs."
The young woman expertly opened two bags of chips with an intriguing motion of thumb and forefinger.
"I was out looking for some new boots and passed this place. Since it actually smelled good -- "
Wide blue eyes emphasized the young woman's description, and Barbara had to admit that if Helena's enhanced sense of smell found a restaurant favorable, it usually was.
"...well, I just tripped right down memory lane and ended up here."
The redhead chuckled, but any reply was cut short when the classroom door cracked open and a blonde head peeked in -- preceded by a sunny voice.
"Hey, Barbara! I wondered if it'd be alright to... Oh!"
Dinah's pale blue eyes widened as the tall girl eased into the room.
"Hey, Helena. What are you do-- Oooooh!"
Barbara raised a paper napkin to her lips to hide her smile when the girl's eyes grew saucer-sized.
"Cool! Non-cafeteria food! Can I have some?"
Ruefully eying the decimated remains of her sandwich, the redhead wondered how she'd torn through it so quickly. Mentally shrugging, she admitted that she had been hungry -- her nerves hadn't allowed her to eat much in the last two days -- and gestured to her half-full container of potato salad.
"You're welcome to whatever I haven't managed to... inhale yet."
The blonde's happy grin was accompanied by a gleeful snicker from her luncheon companion. Turning, the older woman steeled herself and regarded the dark woman evenly.
" 'Hoovered' is more like it, Barbara."
The redhead rolled her eyes indulgently before the expression transformed to an affectionate smile at the sight of her always-hungry partner tearing her own sandwich in half and extending the larger piece.
"Here, Kid. You can have half of mine."
Barbara felt her features shift for a third time in the space of a minute, and she raised her soda can to hide a knowing smirk, when she observed the brunette surreptitiously sliding the two jumbo oatmeal chocolate chip cookies under the stack of essays and out of Dinah's range of vision.
Apparently, her former ward's willingness to share had its limits.
Green eyes refocused on her current charge, who was doing some "hoovering" of her own with Helena's sandwich.
"...I believe you were asking something?"
"Wha--? Oh, yeah."
The teen lowered her sandwich, swallowing hastily.
"I wanted to make sure that it would be okay to hang out at Gabby's tonight? We're going to drill each other for Saturday's SATs."
Clamping down on her nearly overwhelming need to explain -- not for the first time -- that it was essentially impossible to cram for the college aptitude tests, the older woman merely smiled and nodded. After all, given her observation of the two girls' developing relationship during their senior year, she suspected that not much studying would be occurring.
"As long as you're home--"
"For curfew. Sure thing, Barbara."
The teen enthusiastically cut her off, barreling along.
"And, thanks. We found a great web site with old exams on it and figured that getting extra-familiar with the way the questions are done wouldn't hurt."
The redhead nodded her understanding, then slowly rotated her head toward her other luncheon companion when she peripherally noted dark brows beginning to lower in a ferocious scowl.
"Dammit, D! Cut it out."
Green eyes followed the direction of vexed blue, and Barbara barely bit back a guffaw. The stack of essays which had been camouflaging the decadent cookies was levitating about six inches above her desk, clearly reveling their hidden treasure.
No doubt about it. The teen's abilities with her TK were becoming quite impressive.
"Aww, c'mon, Helena. Those are big enough to share."
Slender tan fingers snagged the desserts just as they began to move across the desk. Simultaneously, Barbara lunged forward and rescued the stack of papers which had begun to topple as the blonde focused on what seemed to be a mental tug-of-war for one of the cookies.
"Share-schmare. I gave you most of my sand -- uh -- wich. 'Sides..."
The brunette relaxed her death grip on the cookie marginally.
"...aren't you supposed to be watching your calories and other teenager shit?"
The look of concentration on the teen's features eased, and Barbara approvingly decided that, apparently, both of her proteges had recognized that the structural integrity of their prize was at risk.
"I mean, you're the one always telling me how skinny I am, aren't you?"
Noting the time -- only ten minutes before her next class -- the older woman smoothly interceded.
"You may have mine, Dinah. Of the three of us, I'm afraid that I'm the only one who needs to watch my figure."
Despite any... limitations, Barbara still worked out and trained hard regularly, but that by no means made up for her enforced sedentary state. Nevertheless, eyeing the gooey treat that the blonde claimed from Helena with an effusive smile, she reconsidered her offer.
"Well, perhaps, I could have a bite...?"
She automatically accepted the remaining cookie which Helena extended, only pausing to consider the notorious sweet-hound's gesture after taking a modest bite and returning the treat. At that moment, Dinah apparently noticed the time herself and edged towards the door.
"Ooops, I've gotta run. Thanks for the lunch, Helena. See you tonight, Barbara."
After the door swung closed, the redhead turned back to her companion, not surprised to find her pushing the final huge bite of cookie into her mouth and gathering up the debris from their lunch.
"Thank you, indeed, Hel. This was a lovely surprise. Your nose was right on target."
Concentrating on wiping up a dollop of mustard, the redhead initially didn't notice when her partner stilled her own movements. When the brunette's lack of motion finally registered, she looked up inquisitively.
"Uh, well, speaking of good meals and all..."
Emerald eyes narrowed speculatively.
Was that a hint of pink suffusing normally blush-proof caramel features?
"There's this new French restaurant that's just opened, and I wanted to give it a try. And, well..."
The brunette smiled winningly, and Barbara suspected that -- whatever the request -- she didn't stand a chance of refusing.
"...Well, you're the only person I know who can either really appreciate it or really riff on it with me."
The redhead smiled tenderly.
"I'd love to go, Helena. When...?"
The younger woman smoothly interrupted as she moved toward the door.
"Is Sunday okay for you? We've either got the usual high crime nights or I'm scheduled at the bar until then. And, well, Sunday is usually pretty dead, crime-wise."
Warmed by her partner's visible concern for the responsibility of their after-hours avocation, the older woman smiled her agreement.
Opening the door, the brunette paused, and Barbara found herself disoriented when teasing blue eyes raked slowly over her from head to toe.
"Don't know what you want to wear, but I think there's a dress code."
Just as the door clicked shut, she heard Helena's final laughing words.
"I guess I'll have to press my jeans or something..."
"I'm... impressed, Helena."
"Impressed" barely began to describe her reaction, the redhead ruefully admitted, but it seemed to be the best that she could manage at the moment. Multiple degrees, voracious reading, and eidetic memory notwithstanding, it appeared that her brain had simply stuttered to a halt at the sight of her young friend.
"So, you don't think they'll kick us out or anything, huh?"
Still speechless, the older woman simply shook her head while Helena pirouetted showily. The movement revealed a breathtaking amount of smooth, tanned flesh on the other woman's back while causing the usually hidden muscles of the younger woman's calves and lower thighs to flex in a manner that -- for some reason -- caught Barbara's eye. Slowly raising her gaze, the redhead observed how the slender lines of the cocktail dress highlighted her partner's slight curves wonderfully while the deep blue of the material drew unnecessary attention to Helena's always startling eyes.
Hoping that she was finally beginning to recover her oddly shell-shocked wits, the older woman rocked her chair minutely, feeling woefully plain and underdressed in heavy black silk slacks and a muted orange cashmere sweater. Briefly wondering what material made up the brunette's dress, she absently rubbed her fingers against the wheels of her chair, distantly noting an almost itching desire to reach out and touch the fabric.
The redhead guiltily returned her eyes to the younger woman's face.
"...You look awesome."
Barbara detected only sincerity -- perhaps something a bit flirtatious as well -- in the lithe woman's utterance, and she exhaled and relaxed marginally.
Honestly, she didn't know what had... raised her blood pressure so. This was just dinner with Helena, for heaven's sake.
Belatedly, she noted that said dinner companion was still speaking.
"...didn't think that you'd ever start wearing reds and oranges and pinks, but I'm sure glad I was wrong. You just look so damned..."
Nervously, Barbara waited out the brief pause as her younger friend searched for the word.
" hot in those colors."
Feeling distinctly warm at the young woman's purring choice of words -- not to mention the frankly appraising gaze fixed on her -- the older woman smiled shortly and briskly turned to retrieve her coat.
In the last four days, the cyber-crime fighter, truthfully, hadn't given her younger partner's dinner invitation much thought. Amid the usual demands of her students, routine work with Helena during sweeps, continued debugging of her encryption algorithm, nursing Dinah through pre- and post-SAT jitters, and other prosaic elements of daily life -- including getting the Humvee in for some needed body work -- the outing had simply faded to the back of her mind. Barbara had, by no means, forgotten about it; in fact, when faced with the frustration of attempting to decipher the motive behind a puzzling break in at a sporting goods store or of attempting to reassure Dinah -- for the twentieth time on Saturday evening -- that she would be able to get into a good college, the idea of a bit of carefree recreation had been a welcoming beacon of rest and relaxation.
Still, at this moment, faced with a patently stunning Helena Kyle -- not to mention her own oddly incoherent reaction to her, Barbara wondered if she, perhaps, should have spent a few minutes during the last few days mentally preparing for the evening. Pragmatically bowing to the knowledge that she couldn't rewind and restructure the last few days, the redhead chuckled soundlessly and placed her coat on her lap.
"Well, if the color doesn't keep me warm, Helena, this will."
Oddly, the older woman thought she detected a flicker of irritation in her companion's features in response to her lightly spoken words. However, when the brunette smoothly snagged the keys to the van and trailed behind her to the elevator, launching into a story about attempting to head up to the rooftops before realizing that her usual mode of travel wouldn't work in her current ensemble, Barbara decided that she'd been mistaken.
Helena was, she determined, probably just as ready for a carefree evening as she was.
Three and a half hours later, appreciatively savoring the rich aroma emanating from her snifter of cognac and picking delicately at a slice of cheesecake -- Helena had insisted on ordering a serving for her with a short, typically pragmatic, explanation: "You know you're going to want some, and I don't think I'll want to share. Besides, if you don't finish it, I can have it." -- the redhead gratefully acknowledged that "relaxed and fun" described the evening perfectly.
Helena had been on her best behavior, displaying all of her not-inconsiderable charm and humor with one amusing tale after another. The food had been superb with out being ostentatious. The wait staff had been attentive but not intrusive. Even in the course of the dining arrangements, the brunette had removed all need for Barbara to assume her usual responsibilities: the young woman had picked the perfect wine to complement both of their dinners, had casually shared bites of her entree, and had even managed all of their interactions with their server.
Smirking behind the rim of her glass as Helena considered her description of Friday's trip to the body shop with the dented -- torn -- SUV, Barbara cheerfully noted that she didn't even know their server's name this evening. The realization was surprisingly welcome; after all, it spared her one more bit of clutter in her memory.
"...gotta say, even if all that body work is needed, I'm kind of glad that the Hummer's in the garage until next week."
Barbara resettled her snifter and casually pushed her dessert plate towards the brunette, not missing how her dinner companion's eyes lit up in anticipation.
Helena did enjoy her sweets.
"Indeed, Helena. Why might that be?"
The younger woman stilled the movement of a healthy forkful of cheesecake midway to her mouth and looked up.
"Well, Red, as much as you love that ugly old thing, you probably would have wanted to bring it tonight."
The redhead nodded at the truth of Helena's words, and, unable to resist the twinkle in impish blue eyes, she smiled. That smile became decidedly stiff when she heard -- nay, comprehended -- the other woman's next utterance.
"But, no matter how practical it is for sweeps, the Hummer is soooo not right for a date."
Green eyes widened fractionally, and Barbara smoothly raised her water goblet, both to cover her reaction and to wash down the strange lump which had formed in her throat. After a few sips, she resettled the glass and spoke lightly.
"Is that what this is, Helena? A date?"
Hmmm. The older woman thought she'd spoken lightly, but -- judging from her companion's sharp glance up from the dessert plate, perhaps the question had come out a bit too seriously. The redhead waited with seeming calm as Helena gracefully placed her fork on the edge of her plate and then raised the heavy linen napkin to touch her lips.
How could the act of resettling a napkin on one's lap take so long?
The older woman continued to wait, forcing herself to keep her gaze open and steady.
Finally, the brunette spoke. Her voice was quiet; her tone, serious.
"Yeah, Babs. It is. At least..."
Emerald eyes were pierced by earnest blue, and Barbara noted that that damnable lump had reformed in her throat.
"...I'd like it to be."
The redhead was able to halt her reflexive flinch but couldn't suppress her quick inhalation.
Why would Helena...?
What was she supposed to say to...?
The older woman struggled to organize the questions and thoughts racing through her mind. Her emotions she simply pushed aside for later examination. For some reason, a song which had been playing during the drive over ran through her mind, distracting her.
You can look at the menu but you just can't eat
You can feel the cushions but you can't have a seat
You can dip your foot in the pool but you can't have a swim
You can feel the punishment but you can't commit the sin
Some break the rules and live to count the cost
The insecurity is the thing that won't get lost
Ridiculously, the redhead felt unable to bring her thoughts into focus until she could name the singer. Howie...? Howard...?
You can see the summit but you can't reach it
It's the last piece of the puzzle but you just can't make it fit
Doctor says you're cured but you still feel the pain
Aspirations in the clouds but your hopes go down the drain
And you want her and she wants you
No one, no one, no one ever is to blame
Howard Jones. Barbara's relief was profound enough to evoke a soft sigh until she realized that, now, she had no further excuse to keep her from breaking the long, awkward silence.
Acutely aware of her friend's cautious scrutiny, she readily recognized the courage that the young woman had displayed -- was displaying -- and vowed to do her best not to hurt the younger woman with her response. Regrettably, at that moment, she discovered that she simply lacked the facility to say anything in reply and that her very silence had the power to wound.
Barbara Gordon was, therefore, inordinately relieved when the brunette spoke again.
Somewhat amazed, she watched the woman across the table shift minutely before flashing a gentle smile and speaking playfully.
"Relax, Barbara. Breathe."
The redhead felt her eyebrows lift when she noted that she had, indeed, somehow forgotten to breathe. She managed one, then a second, respiration before her body picked up the rhythm and then offered a small, embarrassed, smile of her own. The brunette's smile morphed into a tiny, hesitant, grin.
"So, uh, yeah. Relax. I'm not after your virtue tonight. Contrary to rumor, I don't expect everyone to put out on the first date."
Relieved beyond measure by the familiar banter, Barbara released some of her tension and snorted softly.
"Indeed, Helena. Not on the first date for you or -- "
She hesitated, then held the younger woman's gaze as she finished her statement.
"-- nor for any other member of the fair sex."
Working to keep her expression gentle, she carefully observed the startled blinking of blue eyes, the puzzled comprehension waxing across expressive features.
"Uhm, so you're saying..."
She continued to watch closely as Helena darted out a pink tongue to moisten her lips. Barbara absolutely refused to notice the odd clenching in her abdomen.
"...that you're, uhm, strictly dickly, huh?"
The redhead blinked herself as she deciphered her former ward's meaning, then raised a hand to hold back her quick squeak of laughter. Lowering her hand, Barbara toyed with the stem of her brandy snifter.
"I believe that could be one way to describe it, Sweetie. Although, that hasn't been much of a factor since..."
Pursing her lips, the older woman straightened her shoulders and ruefully recalled herself to the topic at hand.
"I've simply always..."
The older woman trailed off, blushing furiously.
She'd always been unashamedly delighted that she'd assumed responsibility for both of her wards at a point when "The Talk" was no longer necessary. Oh, she'd certainly engaged in some long -- and heated -- discussion with Helena about birth control and other precautions. She'd even had several circumspect conversations in the last few months with Dinah about the beauty of all love -- straight or gay. However, none of her talks with her wards had necessitated this level of... personal disclosure.
Not surprisingly, it appeared that Helena was not going to let the topic die a well-deserved natural death. At the younger woman spoke, Barbara idly wondered if she could use her dessert fork to stab the topic into an unnatural death.
"You've never kissed another woman...? Or touched a woman in passion? Or--"
Barbara raised a hand for mercy, and Helena snapped her mouth shut, looking absolutely incredulous. Her helplessly raised brows and tentative grimace suggested that she believed that her mentor was attempting to pull her leg.
The older woman sighed, raised her snifter, and neatly downed half the contents. Placing her glass carefully on the table, she absently noted the admiration in cerulean eyes.
Helena always had appreciated her older partner's ability to keep up with her -- well, almost keep up with her; the brunette did have some amazing physiology on her side -- during late night movie and tequila binges.
The older woman chose her words carefully.
"I've never had the... interest or the desire, Hel."
Barbara mentally flinched, conscience scratching at her over her chosen words. After all, she suspected that Freud would have quite a bit to say about her rather vivid dream from a week before. Nevertheless, she let her statement stand, waiting patiently as her friend seemed to digest the words.
"Maybe you just haven't... seen the right woman yet."
The words, eerily reminiscent of those spoken by her unseen dream lover, brought a rush of heat to the older woman's torso. A slow anger -- at this conversation, at this impossible situation, at her own body's seeming denial of her own words -- trailed behind that heat. Somehow, the redhead managed to speak calmly.
"True, Helena. Perhaps I haven't yet."
The ire she felt instantly evaporated at the younger woman's next words. So gentle, so achingly hopeful, the brunette's utterance left the older woman filled with emptiness, then bitterness, at the hopelessness of it all.
"Then, look at me, Barbara."
"Keep your eyes open, Huntress. The alarm didn't go off for no reason."
Barbara steadfastly ignored the irony inherent in the advice she'd just offered to her remote partner, focusing instead on trying to hack into the bank's security cameras and, hopefully, establishing a viewpoint inside the building where an alarm had blipped four minutes earlier. An easy hack into the security system three minutes before had confirmed that the blip had not been a fluke; the system wires had been short-circuited.
<"My eyes are open, Oracle, but I sure don't see any sign of anyone... or anything... outside the building. I'd bet that whoever triggered the alarm is long gone.">
Having just captured one of the bank cameras, the cyber-crime fighter agreed with Helena's guess.
"It appears that you're right, Huntress. Perhaps they triggered the alarm on the way out."
Toggling to another view, she added, "It appears that they got into the vault. Can you take a look, get some photos? But, be quick. Eventually the police may decide to check out the alarm blip."
<"In other words...">
The brunette's voice was wry.
<"...I have time to do my nails and order a pizza, huh?">
Barbara chuckled before her partner spoke again.
<"But, yeah, I'll head in and see what I can find.">
The redhead detected only curiosity and a trace of disappointment in her colleague's voice over the comms and spared a second to offer her mental appreciation that Helena had, apparently, accepted the outcome of Sunday's dinner with equanimity.
When Helena had made her soft plea, her request that Barbara look at her as a possible romantic partner, the older woman had suddenly become intimately acquainted with the feeling of heart break. Practical soul that she was, emotion had seldom deeply touched her relationships with the few Toms, Wades, and Dicks whom she'd allowed into her life... and her bed. For the first time in her life, Barbara Gordon had truly experienced a crushing vise around her heart which robbed her of breath and any feeling but emptiness.
Of all of the people she knew -- had known -- the older woman could not deny that Helena was the dearest, the closest. The young woman was so much a part of her life... and soul... that she simply could not imagine any meaningful life without her. However, what the brunette was suggesting... It was impossible... and wrong... and... and a dream that the older woman wouldn't even allow herself to entertain.
Barbara had carefully lifted her napkin from her lap, sparing a moment's irritation that she'd needed to look down to confirm the presence of the heavy linen on her unfeeling legs, and folded it neatly while she weighed her response. Placing the cloth by her water goblet, she'd reached across the table, painfully aware of the shakiness of her hand, to gently clasp the other woman's warm, slender fingers.
The expression in those open blue eyes -- Helena had never been able, or willing, to hide her feelings -- had left the older woman terrified.
Fear, expectation, trepidation, a tiny glimmer of something Barbara suspected was hope... All had been present.
The redhead couldn't stand the thought of hurting her younger friend with the truth, but she knew that to offer false hope would ultimately be worse. Thus, she'd reached into her sizeable stores of courage, looked directly into the brunette's sweet gaze, and spoken gently.
"That... That's not something I can do, Helena."
She'd watched dark brows lower -- puzzlement? hurt? anger? -- before the young woman had ducked her head. She'd easily recognized her companion's old habit of hiding behind her artfully disheveled bangs and, again, waited. Without looking up, the deceptively delicate woman had placed her napkin on the table and signaled for the check before visibly exhaling and looking up with an expression that Barbara had been unable to read.
"Well, live and learn, right, Red?"
Although Helena had quickly managed to steer their conversation to less charged topics -- the drive home had actually been a great deal less awkward than the redhead had feared -- the young woman's enigmatic question had left the redhead uneasy. She was, in fact, four nights later, still vaguely unsettled.
Helena herself had certainly done -- or said -- nothing in the intervening days to revive a conversation which the older woman fervently hoped was truly dead and buried. True, the brunette had perhaps been a bit less boisterous, or playful, than usual -- even foregoing her usual flirtatious remarks about getting hot and sweaty together during their Wednesday afternoon workout; however, in general, she'd been her usual sweet, attentive self -- even ducking out of work to pick up the Hummer from the garage when Barbara had been unexpectedly delayed by an impromptu faculty meeting.
No, the older woman was forced to admit, the problem wasn't Helena. Rather, it was her own ruthless need to analyze, to understand. Not just what had transpired at the restaurant but her own responses.
Considering the exchange -- and, she'd done little else through the long sleepless nights since that dinner -- the older woman found that she couldn't honestly claim to be surprised by Helena's words... by the young woman's feelings. Given their shared history, given her role in Helena's life, even given the younger woman's decidedly physical nature, she decided that the adolescent crush she'd noticed in her student so many years before, enhanced by what might have been a touch of hero worship during the early years of their crime fighting partnership, and coupled with the very closeness of their current relationship could -- fairly easily -- lead her young protege to believe that she wanted...
That seemed to be the point where Barbara's brain came to a screeching halt, leaving the redhead almost gasping in terror over the swirling dark chasm of her own emotions. The reaction was not, to say the least, one that the older woman fully understood.
She certainly didn't appreciate it.
Having calmly dealt with countless crushes with detached humor throughout her teaching career, having coped capably with Dick's attentions without ruffling a hair during her days as Batgirl, having easily sidestepped -- or rolled around -- the unwanted advances of numerous lotharios over the years without any sort of emotional vacillation, the older woman was baffled and dismayed by her inability to handle this situation.
It had been Tuesday night -- technically, early Wednesday morning -- when she'd figuratively climbed into the frightening chasm of her heart to discover what the problem was. The answer had completely stripped the darkness -- the blinders -- from her, leaving her genuinely dumbfounded.
Barbara had never denied that emotional introspection was not her strong suite.
Quite simply, and to the older woman's total dismay, she'd realized that she shared Helena's feelings.
Still, while the insight itself was discomfiting, the act of discovery -- as usual for the analytical woman -- brought with it some measure of relief. Having identified the source of her... problem, Barbara now felt free to search for a solution. Said introspective searching had consumed all of her bedtime hours the night before, drawing the redhead to the inevitable conclusion that she had no choice but to put her completely unusual and inappropriate feelings behind her. Yet, as eminently sensible and rational as the decision was, the older woman was discovering that it somehow continued to leave her... uneasy.
Pushing her unease aside, Barbara smoothly multitasked between monitoring the police band for signs that New Gotham's finest might surprise Helena and attempting to rewind and replay the bank's fuzzy analog security tapes. The quality of the recording was so bad that she doubted that she'd be able to find anything useful even if the burglars had been foolish enough to be caught on camera.
To her surprise, the cyber-genius detected a flicker of movement for a few seconds from one camera. Cutting the images, she transferred them to the Delphi's res-enhancement programs and lost herself in sensitive adjustments of the four most viable frames. Agile fingers flew across the keyboard, using combination keystrokes to highlight specific sections of the images rather than taking the time to lift her hand to the mouse. Programs which Barbara had originally tweaked before re-writing from scratch when she couldn't achieve the level of functionality which she demanded processed the selected portions at blinding speed and, with an almost eerily human level of intelligence, blended and enhanced the resulting image until...
The redhead straightened, guiltily pulling herself back from her over-close inspection of one monitor -- Helena was continually chiding her about being too close -- and removed her glasses with a rueful chuckle. After all of the tweaking and redesign she'd performed over the years, the cyber-crime fighter knew that the Delphi could easily outperform everything that NASA and the IRS combined could throw at a problem. But, for all of the processing power she'd just unleashed on the images, she was left with one remote image of the back of someone's head.
Oh, well, perhaps the rather distinct male balding pattern would prove useful in convicting the burglar when he was caught.
"What's so funny? Don't tell me you're downloading more Latin palindromes or something..."
The older woman's exclamation came out about two octaves higher than usual as she turned to pin her younger partner with a hard look. Blue eyes widened before an abashed smile crept across dark features.
The younger woman approached the computer platform diffidently.
"I, uh, did the thumping and rustling thing..."
Barbara exhaled and deliberately gentled her features. It wasn't Helena's fault that she'd been -- as usual -- completely absorbed in her work and oblivious to her cat-footed partner's arrival on the balcony. Chuckling at her own expense, she rotated forty-five degrees.
"No. I'm sorry. No harm done, Sweetie."
Helena's response to that -- a sweet, happy smile -- coincided with what Barbara thought might be the overdue heart attack from all of the scares that her partner had inflicted on her through the years. Conversely, she also felt a renewed twinge of guilt for her ogre-like overreaction.
Well, Helena -- and her reactions to her -- always had been contradictory and confusing.
"Did you manage to discover anything inside the bank?"
The young vigilante had carefully managed to keep herself out of camera range, so Barbara had not been able to track her movements in the building.
The brunette dug into the pocket of her leather duster and stepped onto the platform, extending the digital camera.
"You were right about the vault being cracked. Looked like the twelve inch steel was cut through with a hot knife or something."
Crimson brows shot upward as the older woman accepted the camera with a nod of thanks and began to dump the stills. The power required to cut through the vault's lock as Helena had described would be tremendous. She hoped that some of her partner's photos would provide some clues in identifying exactly what sort of instrument had been used.
"And, yes," the younger woman apparently read her mentor's mind, "I took about two hundred pictures of the vault door."
The redhead looked up with an unashamedly affectionate smile.
When she'd first begun flirting with the idea of this partnership five years earlier, Barbara had entertained no illusions about the discipline that her headstrong ward would need to embrace for her role on the streets. While she'd had few doubts about the young woman's physical abilities for crime fighting, she simply hadn't been certain that the girl -- who had spent her last two years of high school actively rebelling at any sort of structure -- would be wiling or able to handle the more prosaic aspects of vigilante crime fighting.
Although there had been some... rocky moments during the first year of their partnership, now Barbara had to admit that her protege had settled in to -- actually seemed to have embraced -- all of the aspects of her role with her usual grace and ability.
Was that a tiny dusting of pink in the brunette's cheeks?
"...It was cheaper than candy and flowers, and I knew you'd like it more."
This time, Barbara had no doubts about the presence of the blush. Unfortunately, it was on her own cheeks.
"Could you identify what had been taken from the vault, Helena?"
"Well, that was pretty bizarre, Barbara."
The older woman waited expectantly.
"There they were... all of these bags and stacks and bundles of cash, still sitting there. Untouched."
"What did they--"
"I don't know what they wanted, Barbara, but they were looking for it in the safety deposit boxes," the younger woman supplied before Barbara could complete her question.
The young woman added, "Every one had been sliced open just like the door."
The redhead rolled her eyes and exhaled in frustration.
"It's going to take weeks -- at best -- for the bank to contact all of the box holders and put together an inventory of what was taken."
She didn't bother to add the obvious -- that the accuracy of such an inventory, supplied by the box-holders themselves, would be dubious, at best.
Observing her partner's slightly sympathetic shrug, the cyber-crime fighter released her tension. After all, unusual break-in method aside, a bank job in New Gotham was hardly out of the ordinary.
As if following her train of thought, the brunette flashed a grin and stepped gracefully from the platform.
"Don't sweat it too much, Red. It could just be a welder hunting for the family coin collection or something."
Laughing lightly, Barbara followed her partner to the kitchen, curious about what sort of snack Helena would scrounge up this evening. On her way to the table, she turned towards the kettle but was waved back.
"Earl Grey or some of that herbal decaf crap you like at night?"
The older woman set the brake on her chair and watched her younger friend expertly retrieve her favorite cup and saucer and then rummage through the refrigerator, emerging with cream for her and a pie plate of chocolate silk pie.
" 'Crap' would be lovely, Helena. Thank you for asking."
The dark woman ducked her head as she set various items on the table, but the redhead didn't miss the twinkle in blue eyes which were partially hidden by shaggy bangs. The brunette moved to the stove, waiting for the water to heat, and snagged a package of instant cocoa and two tea bags. Barbara hid her smirk, still not understanding, after seven years, why the other woman insisted that the strength of the tea should be doubled if it didn't contain caffeine.
"So, uhm, anything new on that weird break in at the sporting goods store?"
Extending her cup as Helena approached with the whistling kettle, the redhead chuckled quietly.
"Still nothing. Why someone would bother to break into the place and take every rifle barrel -- but nothing else -- is beyond me."
She dunked her tea bags, absently adding, "At this point, I'd guess it might be a fraternity prank."
The brunette flopped into a chair and dug a fork into the pie. Barbara noted that a second fork had magically appeared on her side of the table.
"Oh, speaking of college idiocy..."
The younger woman chewed and swallowed, stirring her cocoa absently with one slender finger.
"...On sweeps last night, D. was talking about your trip up to State on Monday."
The redhead blew across her teacup and nodded, unconsciously retrieving her fork and spearing a bit of pie. She was quite aware of her newest ward's excitement over the upcoming overnight trip to visit the university. Honestly, Barbara herself was looking forward to the short trip, suspecting that time at a campus awash with visiting high school seniors would bring back happy memories from her own college years. Granted, those years had been consumed as much with fighting crime as with academic pursuits; however, they still had been rife with unlimited possibilities.
She washed down her bite of dessert with a sip of tea, grimacing at the combination of strong herbs and cloying sweetness. She ignored the knowing smirk from across the table.
"Uh huh," the brunette confirmed around a mouthful of pie.
Honestly, the way that Helena attacked her food with something approaching complete abandon was almost indecent. Barbara ruthlessly quashed her first descriptive phrase, deciding that the words "orgasmic delight" were not conducive to keeping track of the conversation.
"And, the Ki-- Dinah was going on about fitting in and looking cool and, naturally,"
The brunette looked over the rim of her mug, irony clear in her gaze.
"...that got her to thinking she needed to borrow my bolero jacket."
Surprised that she hadn't heard the fallout from that conversation over the comms, the older woman pursed her lips and blew on her tea again, still not clear where the conversation was going.
"Then, when I told her that there's no way she's leaving my sight in that jacket -- "
Helena interrupted herself, aggrievement almost palpable.
"I mean, shit, Barbara, I've only had it three months!"
The older woman opted for an understanding nod. Helena, clothes-horse that she was, did not share well with others.
Apparently appeased, the younger woman lowered her mug and fiddled with her fork.
"Well, uh, that's when Dinah got it in her mind that I should come."
Green eyes blinked slowly, but the redhead took pains to mask her disappointment.
Of course the teen would find the prospect of a short road trip and exploration of the campus more fun with the brunette. Not only was Helena a great deal more likely to find -- or create, she admitted wryly -- opportunities for illicit fun but she was also, of course, decidedly more mobile.
While the older woman cast about for an appropriate response, Helena spoke again.
"She, uh, thinks it'd be more fun with all of us there, but I know you were kind of looking forward to the, uh, special time and everything, and I don't want to be some sort of third wheel or anything..."
The brunette trailed off, staring fixedly at the plate of pie between them on the table, while the older woman considered the subtext inherent in the fact that Helena had even relayed the conversation. The younger woman had never shown any interest in higher education for herself -- Barbara mentally rolled her eyes at that little understatement, infallible memory instantly supplying words and images from some of the heated discussions she'd had with her ward about that topic -- but, clearly, something about Dinah's suggestion appealed to her.
Without another thought, Barbara spoke firmly.
"Nonsense, Hel. If you'd like to join us, I'd be delighted."
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