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.


Chapter 11

Tiny silver particles floated in mid air, refracting the green and amber lights of various monitors, twinkling not unlike Christmas tinsel.

Mentally rolling her eyes at herself for making such a trite comparison, Barbara raised an electrode and stared seriously into pale blue eyes which were narrowed in concentration.

"Are you certain that you want to try this, Dinah?"

The blonde simply nodded, clearly intent on keeping the force field between them intact. They'd tested a weak charge on one of the girl's force fields earlier; however, the metal shavings from the pawn shop's display case added an X-factor to the process which the older woman wasn't entirely comfortable with. Still, she rationalized guiltily, the readings they could get from the controlled field would be more pure than those from the centrifuge and the cyber-genius was planning to start with a relatively weak bolt of current.

Inspecting her ward's features one last time for even a hint of nervousness and finding none, the redhead held the slender diode steady, allowing Dinah to move the floating mass onto -- around -- the tip. When metal particles came in contact, Barbara channeled her best Victor Frankenstein and flipped the power, awed as the current arced from shaving to shaving but never left the plum-sized invisible sphere which held the metal.

Curious emerald eyes flickered from the teen's face -- not a sign of discomfort -- to her primary CRT, confirming that the readings were being recorded. Satisfied, the older woman toggled the power off.

"Amazing," she murmured while Dinah carefully deposited the sample into its lucite tray and then relaxed.

"Did you notice any impact? Strain or a charge or...?"

The redhead left the question open-ended, not certain just what her telekinetic ward might have picked up from the little experiment. The girl simply shook her head with a grin.

"Not even a tickle, Barbara."

More relieved than she'd anticipated, the older woman released the tension in her shoulders and laughed softly. She was impressed with the girl's elan and, frankly, more than a little thankful that she herself would not be featured in the next day's news as some sort of mad guardian who'd electrocuted her charge.

Said charge waited patiently while Barbara sealed the sample and placed it on a shelf, then moved behind her to peer at the monitor. Normally, having anybody looking over her shoulder while she worked -- well, anyone except Helena who had simply become a ubiquitious part of the computing process as Barbara had mastered the Delphi -- made the older woman distinctly edgy. However, she was finding that Dinah possessed a quick eye for data analysis and pattern recognition which made her presence not at all unwelcome.

The cyber-crime fighter efficiently scanned the reams of information scrolling across the monitor and glanced back over her shoulder.

"What do the readings tell you, Dinah?"

A trifle embarrassed, she hoped that her "teaching voice" hadn't been as clear to the teen as it had been to her own ears.

The blonde leaned in and spoke slowly.

"Uhm, something cleaner than a torch was used... And, uhm, there are no filing marks from a blade...?"

The redhead nodded encouragingly and, sensing the girl's puzzled expression, offered a leading hint.

"Indeed, Dinah. Would you say that something fairly high-tech was used then to cut the metal?"

"Yeah," the teen spoke thoughtfully. "Something like a laser? But, really precise..."

Without looking back, Barbara thought she heard the light go off in her companion's eyes. Dinah's next words were spoken almost confidently.

"...like a surgical laser?"

"Well done, Dinah."

Barbara's smile of pride was genuine. If the girl did one day decide to focus her considerable powers and intellect on crime fighting, she would certainly be a force to be reckoned with.

The older woman ruefully checked herself.

Even if Dinah chose not to pursue the vigilante life, she would still be a force to be reckoned with.

She chuckled soundlessly, aware that she'd nearly fallen into the same thinking that had led her to do battle with a teenaged Helena Kyle. For years, she'd coaxed and cajoled, argued and begged, attempting to interest the young woman in turning her impressive mental and physical skills towards... well, something a bit different than bartending. Peace had finally come only after Barbara had finally grasped that her volatile young charge -- like a force of nature -- could not be shaped or bent to someone else's perceptions.

Like all young people -- or, perhaps even more so than most -- Helena had had to find, and to make, her own way.

The redhead's musings were interrupted when the blonde's shyly pleased smiled transformed into puzzlement.

"But, why? I mean, he could have just smashed the case or something."

The older woman sighed, not hiding her own frustration that the same question was nagging at her.

"For that matter, Dinah, why just take two pieces of jewelry from the case?"

Police reports described both items as having various gemstones, but neither piece was valued at more than $1000.

"And, why," she removed her glasses to gnaw absently at one earpiece, "use potentially deadly force to make an escape from such a trivial theft?"

The teen shrugged, not unsympathetically. Barbara knew that her fondness for puzzles was legendary, as was her lack of patience for puzzles with glaringly missing pieces.

Reseating her glasses, she tried to read the vaguely abashed expression that had crept across youthful features.

"If I hadn't caused Helena to get all tangled up, we'd probably know everything."

The redhead spoke quickly and firmly.

"Dinah, it was an accident. And anything -- anything -- which occurs in the process of keeping you and Helena safe is never a reason to be sorry."

She hoped that the girl's shyly appreciative smile signaled that Dinah believed her. More important, she hoped that the teen would take the message to heart.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important than the safety of her companions.

"So, uhm, have the police gotten there yet?"

The older woman blinked against the abrupt shift in topic and automatically swiveled to check the scanners. When no answer was forthcoming from that venue, she toggled on the mike of her comm set, simultaneously quirking an eyebrow at the teen's tactic.

"Huntress, do you copy?"

<"I copy, Oracle. What's up?">

The response was immediate... and uncharacteristically upbeat for the dark vigilante. The redhead silently shook her head. Even if it had been a while, she was not unfamiliar with the therapeutic properties of handing out a good ass-kicking.

Still attempting to gauge Dinah's mirthful expression, Barbara spoke distractedly.

"Any sign of the police arriving to pick up your packages?"

Her remote partner's reply -- delivered after a low snarl which immediately silenced the grumbling from the two muggers she'd intercepted -- was distinctly bored.

<"Nothing yet. I was thinking of dragging these two sacks of garbage down and delivering them myself.">

The redhead saw her own smile at that image mirrored by her youthful companion. The distant sound of approaching sirens over the transceiver removed any need for her to find a reason for Helena to be patient.

Honestly, Barbara suspected that she would have been hard-pressed -- or, at the very least, felt a tad hypocritical -- in urging forbearance. The night before, the brunette had been caught working a triple shift at the bar; apparently, Leonard's limited generosity for time off had been exhausted by the young woman's absences on Saturday and Sunday night. Thus, the two women had been forced to content themselves with a brief and oddly awkward phone conversation during Helena's 8:00pm break.

This evening, only minutes away from seeing the young woman, Barbara was -- quite frankly -- amazed by how nervous she felt. Vowing to at least try to be a bit more sympathetic to the lovelorn teenagers in her classroom, she heard a lilting voice over the comms.

<"They're heeeere...">

Somehow, the redhead managed to keep her reply cool.

"So I hear, Huntress. Are you on your way in now?"

A great deal of the older woman's nervousness evaporated at the oddly shy response.

<"I'd like to... Unless there's something else?">

Blushing -- naturally -- under observant pale blue eyes, Barbara spoke quietly.

"No, nothing else. I'll see you soon."

Thumbing the unit to standby, she looked up and affected a nonchalance that she certainly didn't feel under Dinah's knowing gaze. Just what was the... protocol for this sort of situation?

The redhead decided that a letter requesting advice from Dear Abby was out of the question. Simply contemplating how to explain the problem -- how to talk with her current ward about the fact that she was... seeing her former ward -- left her with the beginning of a headache of staggering magnitude.

The teen, who often seemed wiser than her years, helped her out enormously by leaning down and giving her a quick hug.

"I'm glad you're happy, Barbara... that you're both happy."

Speechless, the older woman gaped, just managing a whisper -- "I am" -- as the girl disappeared into the kitchen. Barbara turned back to her keyboard to save the latest revision to her encryption algorithm, faintly amused by the amount of effort she was putting into the program just so that she could use it to test her decryption routines.

A few keystrokes later, she shook her head, puzzled and vaguely alarmed to have caught herself... humming as she worked.

If she'd only spent more time dating in high school and college, might she now be spared her current adolescent behavior?

With a mental shrug, she returned to her humming as she added a few more tweaks to the program. Within minutes, an awareness, followed by the sound of a soft thump from the balcony, drew her attention from her programming.

"Captain and Tennille, Barbara?"

The cyber-genius felt her breath catch at the much anticipated sight of her younger partner.

Gliding soundlessly across the living area, shucking her leather coat with a negligent shrug, the dark woman simply... commanded the room. The young woman's lean limbs appeared to ripple with controlled power under the smooth leather of her sweeps wear; her hips swayed provocatively as she approached the platform; and the playful quirk of her full lips...

Caused an abashed chuckle to bubble from the redhead when she identified which song she'd been humming.

'Love Will Keep Us Together'?

Helena stepped onto the raised platform and leaned close with an easy grin.

"Original, Red."

This time, the older woman laughed outright and play-swatted the brunette's firm abdomen. The dark figure stepped back gracefully and then closed the distance again.

"I kind of prefer 'I Never Wanted'..."

The young woman hummed the next few bars of the song which Barbara was quite aware had been adopted as a lesbian camp classic. As expected, the redhead felt a blush crawling up her neck, and she fixed the other woman with a cool stare.

"You could shut me up if you wanted to, Babs."

Still working on fighting her embarrassment, it took the older woman a beat to comprehend her partner's meaning. The blush which she'd almost gotten under control returned and brought along friends: shortness of breath and a pounding heart.

Since Barbara knew full well that Helena could, literally, hear her... reaction, there wasn't much for her to do save reach for the younger woman's hand and tug the smaller woman closer.

"Do you think that will really work, Sweetie?"

Just before those amazingly soft lips touched hers, she heard the brunette husk her answer.

"Try me."

And so, she did.

Two nights before, after that moment of heart-stopping panic -- What had she been doing touching and tasting a woman, specifically Helena, so intimately? -- the redhead had surrendered to long, slow explorations, allowing her instinctive fear to be pushed aside by more... pressing feelings.

Neither woman had rushed the contact, and Barbara had luxuriated in learning some of the nuances of the sweet woman next to her.

After just one kiss, she suspected that there was quite a bit more to learn.

During that long, thickly coursing union of their mouths, she'd clearly detected the brunette's slight rocking next to her on the blanket. She'd also noticed the restless shifting of the young woman's legs under their shared lap robe. Her own labored breathing when they'd slowly parted had taken her by surprise, as had a sharp desire for that lush mouth to be against hers again. Nevertheless, the end of the concert, the cold, their own delicate dance of intimacy had all dictated that the one kiss suffice.

This evening, however...

Barbara lost herself in the perfect melding of their mouths, feeling the fine hairs on the back of her neck and on her arms twitch to the soft resonance of her partner's moan. Stroking deeply once more -- dear heavens but Helena tasted wonderful -- she drew back. Her breath was stolen by the intense golden eyes fixed on her, leaving her trembling from a combination of excitement and fear.

Silently, she raised her free hand and stroked gently at the satin skin of Helena's jaw. Excitement -- and something more visceral -- began to edge out fear when she witnessed the younger woman's eyes hooding and felt a tremor work through her partner's slender frame.

Panting softly, the dark figure closed her eyes fully, seeming to focus deep within herself, and green eyes hungrily watched the delicate flaring of aquiline nostrils, the soft rise and fall of the other woman's chest. Finally, dark lashes fluttered open to reveal blue eyes.

Was it literally possible to fall into someone's eyes?

She'd read some bad poetry and fiction which used the figure of speech and always dismissed it as pure romantic poppycock. However, now, confronted with the vast depths before her, she decided to research the possible physiology behind the phenomenon she was experiencing.

A hesitant smile was spreading across caramel features.

"Uh, I guess..."

A slender hand fluttered in the general vicinity of the balcony.

"...I'll leave now."

The erotic haze surrounding the redhead vanished with a noisy 'pop', and Barbara blinked slowly.

Several times.

"I'm sorry, Helena. What did you say?"

Obviously, her hearing was going. She'd read that that was one of the first faculties to fail...

"Uhm, that I should go...?"

Crimson brows furrowed.

"What...? Did I do something--"

Gentle fingers came to rest against her lips, and Barbara finally noted the twinkle in blue eyes.

"No. I just wanna come back in and be greeted all over again."

Torn between pique and relief, the redhead opted for the practical. Winding her fingers into the silky hair at the nape of the brunette's neck, she coaxed the young woman back down.

"As much as I know how you love to make an entrance, Sweetheart, I don't think that will be necessary..."

Their lips brushed, the brunette's pleased sigh coaxing a quiet moan from the older woman. Barbara reached down, grasping her partner's waist and gently tugging the other woman toward her lap.

A soft cough froze both of them.

Whipping her eyes guiltily towards the kitchen, the redhead found Dinah grinning broadly from the doorway. The girl's playful words were almost drowned out by Helena's answering laugh.

"Uh, c'mon. Impressionable minor here. Get a room, why don't ya?"

Chapter 12

<"Aww, come on. Can't you at least send Canary over with a tent and a cot or something?">

Barbara rolled her eyes indulgently at the petulant question and smoothly checked a half-dozen data feeds -- store alarms, video images, police scanners. Not surprisingly, given that her partner at the scene had just professed her utter boredom with the stakeout for the eighth time, the cyber-crime fighter detected no signs of activity.

However, this last survey gave the redhead an idea, and she busied herself linking the feeds into some highly customized monitoring and motion-detection routines. As she prepared to complete the final tie-in with the Delphi, an aggrieved huff interrupted her concentration.

<"Hellll-o. Anybody there?">


Barbara guiltily checked the time -- five and a half minutes had elapsed since her partner's last... message. Perhaps she should...

She hit the last few keys and spoke lightly.

"I'm sorry, Huntress. Are you still out there?"

<"Har-dee. Har. Har.">

The older woman heard the scuff of a boot, and then Helena spoke again, tone genuinely interested.

<"What are you working on?">

The redhead smiled fondly.

"Something which should get you off a cold rooftop recon job, Huntress."

The younger woman was utterly silent, and Barbara suspected that she was attempting to decide whether further conversation would slow the older woman's progress. The redhead couldn't fault her reticence or her eagerness to escape the typically drippy New Gotham night. Of all the activities which the young vigilante could be engaged in on a Friday night, Barbara knew that waiting -- in the off chance that their burglar would return to the jewelry store -- was low on her list.

It had been plain bad luck that a police cruiser had been in the neighborhood when the store's alarm had blipped an hour before. Barbara had immediately hacked in, confirming that the method of short circuiting the alarm was identical to that used at the bank and the pawn shop, just as she'd noted on the scanner that the police had pulled up to investigate. By the time Helena had arrived three minutes later, their culprit had disappeared. Still, the man was obviously in search of something, leading to the brunette's lonely vigil for the last hour.

"All set, Huntress. Would you mind strolling by the back door?"

<"No problem.">

The cyber-genius heard a rush of air over her transceiver -- presumably one of her partner's rapid descents from the roof -- and, in short order, one of her motion detectors triggered.

Since she was alone in the clock tower, the redhead succumbed to the urge to pump her fist in the air in victory -- it had been no mean feat to jury-rig the exterior camera -- then spoke calmly.

"Perfect. Why don't you come in and dry off while we wait to see if he returns?"

The store was close enough that Barbara was confident in her partner's ability to respond quickly if an alarm triggered.

<"Thanks, Oracle. I'm on my way.">

A bit surprised by Helena's failure to respond to the entendre that she'd left herself wide open for -- the brunette must be more miserable than she'd let on out there -- the older woman headed into the kitchen to warm some hot chocolate. After finding Helena's favorite mug and setting a saucepan of milk on the stove -- the younger woman usually prepared instant, but Barbara knew of her fondness for warm milk -- she began to dig through the refrigerator, certain that Dinah and Helena couldn't haven eaten all of the custard which Alfred had left the day before.

The soft snick of the balcony doors and deliberate footsteps heading to the bathroom distracted the redhead from her quest. She straightened and spoke in her normal tone, certain that the young woman would hear her.

"Grab a pair of my sweats if you don't have anything here, Hel."

Honestly, since moving into her own apartment three years before, the brunette continued to leave a constantly alternating array of clothing at the clock tower. Barbara had yet to decide if it was a matter of convenience or closet space for the younger woman.

While she waited for her partner to appear, the redhead tested the temperature of the milk, filled the oversized mug, and carefully placed the beverage on the table. As she retrieved a foil-wrapped packet of strawberry pop tarts from the cupboard, Helena stepped quietly into the kitchen, absolutely swimming in an oversized set of NGPD sweats which Barbara had appropriated from her father years before.

Emerald eyes drank in the sight. Mussed, still-damp hair. Over-long sleeves pushed up to her elbows, revealing the smooth, sinewy muscles of her forearms. Bare feet, complete with nails painted an eye-catching shade of red.

Barbara swallowed with some difficulty and finally found her voice.

"Hello, Sweetheart."

A shy smile met the words, and the brunette padded around the table, leaning down to brush her mouth softly against the older woman's ear.

"Hey, Red. You're a sight for sore eyes."

Shivering slightly from the gossamer contact, the redhead raised her hand to catch the younger woman's cheek, stretching up to bring their mouths together lightly. She exhaled at the sensation of a warm tongue tenderly tracing her lower lip and slowly disentangled herself.

Helena settled herself at the table, blue eyes sparkling at the redhead's culinary offering. She bent to sniff at the cocoa, and a dark brow quirked playfully in question.

Barbara laughed.

"I've been reading the cookbook you gave me--"

"Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by Julia Child had, obviously, been meant as a gag gift for Barbara's recent birthday; however, she'd found it to be surprisingly enjoyable.

"--and, as long as I stay away from the oven and confine my efforts to a single burner, I think you're safe from food poisoning."

Raising her cup in a mock toast, Helena deadpanned, "Careful, Barbara. You're shaking up every preconception I have of you. Next thing I know, you'll be ironing or something."

The redhead pushed aside the serious subtext inherent in her partner's observation for later deliberation and laughed again.

"I'll have you know that I used an iron extensively in college."

She waited the requisite beat for the disbelieving widening of blue eyes.

"Of course, that was for making cheese sandwiches."

The younger woman snorted into her cup, and Barbara reflexively raised a hand in self-protection, causing the brunette to laugh in earnest. Finally mastering her mouthful of cocoa, Helena grew serious, fiddling with her mug and peering almost timidly from under her bangs. Detecting a hint of pink in her partner's dusky features, Barbara waited curiously.

"Uh, thank you for the flowers, Barbara. They're really beautiful."

The older woman felt some warmth touching her own cheeks.

When she'd impulsively stopped at the florist's on her way home the day before, she'd not been certain how the gesture would be received. After all, not everybody was the flower "type". However, something about the arrangement of tiger lilies she'd spied in the window had... brought the younger woman to mind.

She awkwardly attempted to explain.

"I'm glad you like them, Hel. I, er, wanted to thank you for taking Dinah and me to dinner on Wednesday and..."

Barbara cautiously met curious blue eyes.

"...since I knew I'd be missing you last night, it made me feel..."

The older woman trailed off, looking -- she suspected -- a little helpless as she tried to describe how their opposing schedules the night before had left her feeling. Barbara's rotation for the Drama Club meeting early in the evening and Helena's closing shift at the bar had made it impossible even to talk with each other. Even before... things had changed, it had been rare not to touch base on a daily basis.

Helena's soft smile reassured the redhead that, somehow, her meaning had come through.

"I don't get flowers much, Barbara."

As the dark figure continued, the redhead struggled not to gape openly at the quiet admission.

"It... it means a lot."

The older woman rested her hand on the other woman's, making a mental note to add the flower shop to her list of regular stops.

The two sat in companionable silence while Helena scarfed down her pop tarts and Barbara simply... watched. Apparently temporarily fortified, the brunette drained her cup and licked her lips.

"So, where's the kid tonight?"


Something about observing the tip of a pink tongue cleansing the milky film from those full lips was most... distracting.

Dismayed with herself, Barbara shook her head minutely and pulled it together.

"She's at a movie with Gabby."

The redhead swallowed her chuckle at the disappointment flickering across her companion's face. Despite all of their sniping and bickering, the two younger women truly seemed to enjoy each other.

When the younger woman's pout morphed into a decidedly more adult expression, the redhead swallowed thickly. There was little doubt which direction the brunette's mind had just traveled in response to the information Barbara had imparted.

She rotated smoothly to snag something from the buffet, tossing the small item across the table to her partner. A slender hand effortlessly caught the article in mid air.

"Gin or poker?" the older woman inquired, perhaps a touch too brightly.

Dark lashes lowered while the younger woman regarded the deck of cards, then blue eyes met green, easily telegraphing how very, very unimpressed the brunette was with either suggestion. Barbara opened her mouth to remind Helena that their burglar could trigger an alarm at any moment, but was cut off by a quiet chuckle.

"I know. I know. Mind on the mission."

The brunette's apt echo of one of the two mantras which Barbara had repeatedly drilled into her during the early years of their partnership unleashed a flood of memories, bringing to mind the other sacred words she'd imparted: "Focus on the fight".

During that first year after the two had agreed to attempt their venture, it had been so difficult -- damned near impossible -- to convince her headstrong young charge of the need for focus and discipline. For months before she'd even considered permitting the brunette onto the night streets, she'd trained and drilled and sparred with her for hours each day: JuJitsu, weight training, rhythm drills, sparring sessions. However, with her innate speed and strength and heightened senses, Helena was simply too cavalier, too... casual in her regard for fighting. Combined with the girl's propensity to treat her mentor as if she were made of glass -- Helena had refused to engage fully during their sparring matches -- Barbara had begun to despair of impressing her protege with the seriousness of their endeavor.

Until one night.

Barbara deliberately chose not to recall the circumstances behind their respective moods. The end result had been a staff fight between the two, a fight in earnest. Nothing had been held back, no quarter given. Helena had unleashed all of her anger and power -- a combination which would have terrified the older woman had Barbara not been hell-bent on disproving her own limitations. While the younger woman's wild energy and instinct were nearly overwhelming, the redhead's years of discipline and skill had permitted her -- barely -- to emerge as the winner in the battle.

The victory had been pyrrhic, leaving Barbara bruised and bloody and, finally, achingly aware -- in a way that she'd not truly accepted before then -- that she was out of the game. The fight had left Helena crushed, less physically injured than her mentor but terrifying aware of, and humbled by, the effects of her own unrestrained actions. It had been, unequivocally, a turning point for both teacher and student.

As the vivid sensory images of that night faded, Barbara smiled softly. Since then, it had been rare indeed for Helena to forget the importance of focus. It had been even more rare, the redhead acknowledged wryly, that she'd allowed herself to forget the role that she had to play.

The brunette tapped the cards out of their box and began to shuffle, the deft movement of slender hands and a playful question pulling the older woman from her reverie.

"Where are the chips?"

Poker it was, then.

Barbara offered an abashed chuckle.

"At school. I was, er, trying something with my second period class."

Ignoring the younger woman's frank curiosity, she moved to a cupboard and dug through Helena's sizeable stash of sugar.


The redhead emerged with a colorful yellow bag.

"These should do nicely."

Seven rounds later -- Barbara was ahead since Helena never had been able to bluff convincingly with her -- the older woman stilled her movements mid-deal, unable to believe that her very intelligent partner was still confused about their ersatz betting chips.

"I still don't get it. Why aren't the green ones the most valuable?"

Barbara half-heartedly swatted at the hand which was lifting two of the items in question from her pile of "chips" and patiently attempted to explain. For the third time.

"ROY G BIV, Sweetie."

Honestly, using the prismatic scale -- Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet -- as the basis for the valuation of their betting tokens seemed perfectly sensible to her.

"In this case, we have red, orange, yellow..."

The redhead drew a breath and emphasized her next two words.

"...then green, and finally blue. Each color is worth twice as much as the preceding color, meaning that orange is equivalent to two reds; green to eight reds; blue--"

Helena interrupted the impromptu math lesson, popping the two green M&Ms she'd taken from her partner into her mouth.

"I got that the first time, Red. I just don't see why the green ones aren't the most valuable anyway. Everybody knows they're the best."

Contenting herself with a long-suffering sigh, the older woman dug into the bag and replaced Helena's snack with four orange and two yellow candies. She suspected that her partner would have been faring better in their competition if she'd not eaten most of her winnings.

She resumed her interrupted dealing and slid a fifth card across the table to the brunette and dropped a final card neatly onto her stack.

"Straight five card, nothing high."

Unlike the flights of fancy which seemed to emerge when Helena dealt -- sevens wild with a one-eyed jack or an even-numbered heart in hand? -- the redhead preferred to keep things pure and simple, focusing on the logic and probability of the game rather than luck.

The women anted -- a blue candy from each of them -- inspecting their cards.

Helena tossed down three cards, and Barbara smoothly dealt her replacements before mulling over her own hand. Two of clubs, four of diamonds, another four -- spades, eight of clubs, and the jack of clubs. She weighed the odds carefully.

Quite frankly, blackjack was really more her game; the probabilities were more clear-cut. However, with her eidetic memory, anyone who knew her simply refused to play.

Finally, she opted for a dash of derring-do, tossing down the two fours and dealing two replacements. Before she could pick up the cards, a slim hand covered hers. Barbara noticed that her opponent had yet to look at her cards as well.

Unable to read the young woman's expression, she smiled expectantly.

"What say we make this game more interesting, Red?"

A crimson brow arched.

"What did you have in mind, Helena? I don't think that we have any Malomars or Oreos..."

The brunette threw back her head and laughed, then recaptured emerald eyes with twinkling blue.

"I was thinking of something sweeter than that."

The redhead's playful mood faltered for a moment -- had the other woman's eyes briefly flickered gold? -- but she kept her game face in place.

"Indeed, Hel?"

"Yup. Shirts."

The other eyebrow joined the first, somewhere near Barbara's hairline.

"Shirts?", she echoed -- a trifle stupidly, she suspected.

Helena held her gaze challengingly and clarified, "Loser goes topless."

A wicked glint sparked in those arresting eyes.

"...unless you don't think you've got the cards to win...?"

Twin tendril of excitement and fear wound through the older woman's belly as she eyed the two cards face-down in front of her and contemplated the wager. As if reading her thoughts, Helena withdrew her hand.

"Go ahead and look at 'em, then make up your mind."

When the brunette scooped up her three cards, the redhead stretched out her fingers and dragged her cards across the table, lifting them only when they reached the edge. Schooling her features, she glanced down casually.

A two of diamonds and the jack of hearts. Not the flush she'd been gambling on, but two pairs wasn't bad.

Peering over her cards, she refused to be intimidated by her companion's cocky grin and, again, considered the stakes. The lure of the bet was certainly an inducement in and of itself. However, did a chance of winning outweigh the price if she lost?

Indelible images of the four starburst scars on her abdomen swam before Barbara's eyes until she looked up again. The soft, sweet desire in the younger woman's face outshone the horrible image and made the decision for her.

The redhead spoke crisply.


Before the brunette's smile completed its transformation into something entirely... wolfish, the older woman amended her acceptance.

"With a rider, Hel."

This time, it was dark eyebrows which raised expectantly as the younger woman's lips quirked.

"What's that, Babs?"

The redhead held her partner's gaze and spoke seriously.

"Win or lose, you have to answer a question for me."

A naughty smile slid across gamine features, and Helena fanned her cards rakishly.

"Oooh... Truth and dare. I like."

Barbara laughed, the sound altering to a choked cough when she heard her opponent's next words.

"So, you're not gonna fold?"

Recovering, the redhead spoke coolly.

"I. Do not. Fold."

The younger woman accepted the rebuke sanguinely, then waggled her brows.

"How about raising then?"

Barbara colored as she took into account the stakes which were already on the table, so to speak. As a limited number of more... valuable bets ran through her mind, she decided that she absolutely, positively was not going to ask what, specifically, Helena might have had in mind. Instead, she shook her head once, drew in a fortifying breath, and laid out her cards.

"I'll call. Two pairs. Read 'em and weep."

The older woman smiled affectionately as blue eyes raked over her cards suspiciously. Finally, the brunette puffed her cheeks, blew out a disgusted breath, and tossed her cards onto the discards.

Dancing eyes looked up to meet green.

"Ms. Gordon, I'm shocked. You're some kind of hustler, aren't you?"

Unrepentant, Barbara placed her cards on the table and smiled sweetly.

"Time for your question, Hel."

Slender fingers waved expansively.


Barbara didn't allow herself time to re-evaluate the wisdom of her words... or the source of her curiosity.

"Did you want to win... or to lose that hand, Hel?"

There was absolutely no hesitation as an easy grin spit the younger woman's features. Pushing her chair back, the lithe figure stood as she spoke. Her words were somehow playful and earnest at the same time.

"Didn't matter, Red. All I want to do is get naked with you."

She moved around the table slowly, deliberately.

"So, you see, it doesn't matter..."

Helena came to a stop by the redhead's side. Barbara estimated that no more than sixteen inches separated them.


The dark figure knelt, bringing her features to eye level.


The redhead caught her lower lip with her upper teeth when Helena trailed her hands to the hem of the oversized sweatshirt.


Absolutely needing the connection, somehow Barbara managed to drag her gaze from the strong, slender hands flirting with the material at the bottom of the sweatshirt. The sight of feral eyes meeting hers, intent and burning, stole the air from her body.

The raw hunger in those eyes was unmistakable, leaving the older woman shaken to her core. She was suddenly acutely aware of the dull thudding of her heart and the dryness of her mouth.

How could she possibly answer the younger woman's need?

Barbara exhaled raggedly and ran her tongue around the edges of her lips.


"Hello...? Anybody still awake?"

Dinah's cheery question from the elevator broke the tableau, and the brunette stood gracefully before leaning down to purr in the older woman's ear.

"We can finish up in the bedroom if you want, Barbara. I don't want to welsh on a bet..."

Summoning a laugh, the redhead reached out to gather the cards.

"That's not necessary, Helena. I know that you're..."

She stumbled, recovering quickly as heat flooded her face.

"...that you're good for it."

"You betcha."

The brunette bounded from the room with a saucy wink, leaving Barbara absently sifting through the cards in her hands. As she readied to shuffle the discards back into the deck, a thought seized her, and she turned the small stack face up, effortlessly identifying Helena's cards.

Green eyes widened, and the redhead mind's blazed with questions at the hand her partner had folded after she'd revealed her own two pairs.

A full house. Aces over eights.

Chapter 13

As house fires went, this was in a class by itself.

It had started with a single dwelling, a wood frame in one of the city's older neighborhoods, but had leapt from one structure to the next. At this point, the entire block was involved. Preliminary chatter over the scanners was mentioning lightning as a cause, but Barbara was dubious, given the uncharacteristically cloudless night. Regardless of the cause, the end result was the same: a four-alarm fire involving multiple structures and almost every emergency worker in the city and one slender leather-clad vigilante.

Distractedly checking the time, the redhead calculated that her younger partner had been on the scene for over three hours. Throughout that period, Helena had been unobtrusively lending her very capable assistance anywhere it had been needed: clearing homes of their occupants ahead of the blaze; rescuing a firefighter trapped in a crumbling attic; intercepting gawkers and the inevitable looters; even dashing into one home to retrieve a terrified toddler's doll. The dark woman's phenomenal hearing allowed her to identify calls for distress much faster and more accurately than the overworked rescue workers could; her amazing reflexes, so far, had kept her from harm's way as she effected one rescue after another.

For her part, the older woman had been able to do little save monitor other signs of criminal activity in the city and route as many alarms as possible to private security firms. Much to her disgust, but hardly to her surprise, the worst elements in the city had come out in droves, seizing upon the fact that the city's emergency forces were otherwise occupied as an invitation to loot, rob, and steal.

Chafing at the limitations of the good she could actually do, the cyber-crime fighter roughly stabbed at the keyboard for an auxiliary monitor when yet another alarm sounded. When the alarm immediately blipped into silence, Barbara turned her full attention to identifying the location of the signal. A few expert keystrokes did the trick, and green eyes flashed in frustrated anger even as deft hands flew across the keyboard, seamlessly accessing the surveillance system inside the jewelry store.

As far as she had been able to determine, their finicky burglar had been quiet for almost ten days -- since the interrupted attempt on this same store two Fridays before. The redhead bitterly noted that her growing hope that the man had been frightened into giving up his search for... whatever had obviously been mistaken. A captured video feed confirmed it: a shadowy figure which largely remained out of camera range; however, a quick screen capture and rapid enhancement revealed a tell tale male balding pattern.

"Not this time you don't..."

Unaware that she'd spoken aloud, the redhead sent simultaneous alerts to every security firm in the city. Unable to overlook the man's use of force at the pawn shop, she repeatedly emphasized the "armed and dangerous" portion of the message. Within minutes, Barbara was gratified to note that one agency had already dispatched two investigators. Now, if the burglar -- who doubtless felt that the brief blip of the alarm would be overlooked in the mayhem of the evening's fire -- would just take a little time...

Keeping one sharp eye on the video feed, Barbara returned to her secondary task: cross-referencing the names and addresses of the fire victims with insurance, bank, medical, and other important records. She hoped that the results she was sending to the police, to insurance agencies, and to the Red Cross would save the recently homeless families some time in tracking down the elusive names and numbers needed to begin rebuilding their lives.

A flash of light drew her full attention back to the feed from the jewelry store. Since nothing was visible on camera, she deduced that their high-tech burglar had just engaged his laser and, presumably, would be leaving the building in short order with his ill-gotten gains. The redhead ignored her frustration and toggled to the GPS screen tracking the progress of the security firm investigators.

They were still blocks away.

Straightening, the cyber-crime fighter wrapped her hands around the arms of her chair, knuckles whitening from the pressure. If there were only some way for her to transport the batarangs she kept hidden in the chair through cyberspace and slow the man down...

Snorting at the futility of that thought, Barbara exhaled slowly and returned to her efforts on behalf of the fire victims. She'd captured as much as possible from the video feed and could analyze that. If nothing else, that brief flash she'd detected should provide more information about the frequency of the laser the man was using. Perhaps, when Dinah returned tomorrow from visiting Penn State with Gabby and her parents, the teen would enjoy helping her compare spectroscopic readings.

A hail from her distinctly exhausted sounding partner interrupted the older woman's bemusement at the idea.

Just how much technobabble would the teen actually enjoy?

"I copy, Huntress. Are you all right?"

<"Yeah, but...">

Exhaustion transformed to pique.

<"...a shower of embers at that last place burned a hole in my coat.">

Barbara's response was genuinely sympathetic. She knew how much the brunette liked that particular duster.

"I'm sorry to hear that, Huntress. I'm sending off some 'bots now to locate a replacement."

Two dozen keystrokes made it so.

When Helena spoke again, both the exhaustion and the petulance had disappeared from her voice.

<"Uhm, thanks, Oracle. I, uh...">

The older woman checked the scanners as she waited for her partner to continue, noting that a water tanker from Bludhaven had finally arrived and seemed to have turned the tide on the fire.

<"I wanted to let you know that they just dumped a butt-load of water from a plane, and it looks like this mess is under control. Do you want me to hang around or...?">

Barbara didn't have to think about it.

"No, Huntress. You've done more than enough. Why don't you come in now?"

A relieved sigh echoed through the transceiver, and crimson brows wrinkled in vexation.

Just what sort of taskmaster did her younger partner think she was?

<"Will do. On my way.">

Barbara powered the Delphi to standby -- New Gotham could just take care of itself for a while -- and headed to her room to lay out some clothes for her partner. On her way out, she detoured into her bathroom and placed an oversized bath sheet by the sink and switched on the overhead heat lamp. Moving toward the kitchen, she experienced a small frisson of awareness -- Helena had made good time -- and detoured to meet her incoming partner by the doors to the balcony.

Emerald eyes efficiently raked over the dark figure. Other than a multitude of soot stains and the previously mentioned large burn on the sleeve of her duster, the brunette didn't appear to be worse for the wear. Regardless, Barbara took no chances.


She tilted her head in greeting.

"Are you injured?"

The younger woman closed the door behind her and approached, the acrid stench of smoke causing the redhead's nose to wrinkle. Heaven only knew how strong the odor was to Helena's heightened senses.

The brunette bent, and Barbara inclined her face to accept the soft brush of a kiss. In obvious deference to the older woman's nose, the lithe figure then stepped back a few feet.

"Other than a serious case of smoker's lung? Nah, I'm good."

The redhead released the breath she hadn't realized she was holding.

"That's good."

In Barbara's admittedly imperfect vision, the young woman was more than good. Resisting her desire to wrap the woman in a hug and never let go, she attended to the practical.

"I laid out some clothes in my bedroom. Why don't you grab a shower and get changed while I rustle up something for you to eat?"

The brunette grinned and moved towards the bathroom off the hallway.

"I could eat."

Ignoring a host of obvious rejoinders, the older woman quietly addressed her partner.

"Use my shower, Sweetie. I turned on the heat in there..."

She knew how much Helena enjoyed the variety of bath gels which she pampered herself with. On the rare occasions that she traveled without the other woman, she tended to discover that her supplies of the gels were considerably depleted on her return.

The younger woman hastily detoured, an expression of almost childlike glee rewarding the redhead's suggestion. Charmed, Barbara remained fixed in place for a few moments, amazed by her younger friend's ability to delight so whole-heartedly in such small things.

She'd need to remember to stock up on bubble baths for the big claw foot tub which she never used herself. In the meantime, she needed to turn her attention to finding a suitable snack for the brunette.

Barbara entered the kitchen, mentally taking inventory. She was relatively confident in her skills with sandwiches, and, since Dinah was away, there should still be some of the lasagna which Alfred had brought by the day before...

Busily filling a tray with damned near everything that she could lay her hands on -- after her efforts during the evening, Helena should be absolutely ravenous -- it took the older woman a while before she heard, then identified, the song stylings lilting from her shower.

You've been running away
From what you don't understand:
She's slippy
You're sliding down
She'll be there when you hit the ground
It's alright, it's alright, alright
She moves in mysterious ways
It's alright, it's alright, alright
Lift my days, light up my nights

Reaching into the refrigerator for the jug of milk, the redhead felt a smile ghost her lips at the younger woman's rendition of U-2's song. Helena truly had a lovely voice.

Momentarily, her hand stopped in mid air, and her smile disappeared when her relentlessly analytical mind choose to examine the lyrics and found them just a bit too... telling for comfort.

The two women were just over two weeks into their... changed relationship, and the older woman was, frankly, a bit astonished by the complete absence of any sort of pressure from the brunette. The younger woman had never made a secret of her passionate nature or of her lustier pursuits.

Barbara quirked her lips at that little understatement, recalling her concerns during the first year of her guardianship that she would awaken one morning to find that her hair had turned white overnight. 'Overwhelmed' did not begin to describe her response to the teen's wild ways.

Helena was, and always had been, an extremely... sensual being. For the redhead, this was a characteristic which had been a bit foreign before the shooting and, since then, had become completely alien to her. Therefore, the fact that the brunette had been as good as she'd said during their moonlight picnic -- no demands, no apparent expectations -- was a source of both relief and concern for the older woman.

While the two had by no means been... chaste, heaven only knew how long the languid kisses and tender cuddling they had been sharing would continue to be... enough. And, quite frankly, Barbara didn't know what would happen when they reached that point.

The older woman shook her head against her own pointless fretting and briskly pulled the milk from the shelf.

Perhaps she was simply incapable, at some sort of molecular level, of taking things one day at a time?

Dimpling her cheeks ruefully at that idea, Barbara started to shut the refrigerator door before spying something near the back. She leaned in to grab two bottles of Black Butte Porter and then decisively swung the door closed. The redhead returned to the living room, balancing the overloaded tray carefully, and laid out the snack she'd put together on the coffee table.

Barbara had just situated herself on the couch and begun to click through the late-night offerings -- largely infomercials and episodes of 'Cops', it appeared -- when the younger woman padded into the room. Hair still damp from the shower, the dark woman looked a great deal cleaner and more comfortable clad in navy running pants and a white tank top. She also, the older woman noted with a cautious sniff as the brunette settled beside her, smelled much better.

Was that her favorite orange blossom body wash that Barbara detected?

A radiant smile distracted the redhead from her sensory inventory, and Helena laughed, waving a graceful hand toward the spread on the coffee table.

"This is great, Red. Where's the football team that's gonna help me eat it all?"

The older woman didn't bat an eye.

"After learning what you did tonight, Hel, I'm sure they'd agree that you can handle it all yourself."

The brunette rolled her eyes dramatically but elected not to respond. Instead, she downed a big glass of milk in three long swallows, and Barbara licked her lips slowly at the vision of her companion's Adam's apple rising and falling against the slim column of her throat. The thump of the empty glass against the coffee table restored the redhead's faculties, allowing her to respond in a timely fashion when Helena quirked her lips and fixed the big screen with a disapproving look.

Apparently, the latest sales pitch from Time-Life wasn't enough to sustain the younger woman's interest.

Barbara silently extended the remote, then averted her gaze as the brunette began wolfing down her Dagwood sandwich with one hand and started her usual dizzying channel surfing with the other. The redhead hazarded a suggestion in the form of a question.

"Any chance that you can find something half as entertaining as the movie we saw last week?"

Truthfully, Barbara suspected that the novelty of an outing to the theatre on a Thursday evening, not to mention holding hands and sharing kisses in the dark, had unreasonably biased her opinion in favor of a mediocre work of cinematography. Regardless, she had decided that, for the time being, The Rock was her newest favorite action hero.

The other woman mumbled something incomprehensible around her mouthful of sandwich and finally settled on something on The Animal Channel involving a host who was, seemingly, determined to feed himself to crocodiles. Barbara watched the man's antics with puzzled fascination until her partner opened the two beers, passing one over, and settled back against the couch with a long, contented sigh. At that point, the older woman broke their companionable silence.

"Our burglar struck again tonight."

A dark brow crept up in question.


"The same jewelry store, during the fire. Apparently he -- and every other lowlife in the city," the redhead added sourly, "decided to take advantage of the authorities' preoccupation."

Helena snorted derisively.


"Indeed," the older woman concurred mildly.

"Don't sweat it too much, Barbara. He'll fuck up soon and w--"

A jaw-popping yawn disrupted the brunette's reassurance. The young woman offered an apologetic smile as she finished.

"-- and we'll get him."

Setting her beer on the side table, Barbara silently patted her lap. Her companion's dark head tilted in question.

"Lie down and digest for a while, Sweetheart," the redhead coaxed.

Relieved that no further cajoling would be required, she watched Helena take a final pull of her beer before carefully placing the empty bottle by the meager remnants of her snack. With a tired smile, the young woman stretched out on her left side, head on the older woman's right thigh, hands loosely clasped under her chin.

She looked unbelievably young, achingly vulnerable.

Barbara breathed slowly against the powerful emotions welling in her chest, then almost laughed aloud at the incongruous thought that perhaps, like the Grinch in the Christmas tale, her own heart was growing to three times its former size. It seemed to be the only explanation for the tremendous groundswell of love rushing through her.

Lifting her right hand, she scratched gently at the younger woman's scalp. Silky wisps of chestnut hair glided between her fingers, and the redhead idly noted that Helena's hair was almost dry. Given the time Barbara spent daily in communion with her blow dryer, short hair certainly had its advantages.

Helena shifted her legs minutely, then eased her head back a hairsbreadth, releasing a happy sigh.

"Feels good..."

The words were a whispered sigh, coinciding with the slow droop of dark lashes. The younger woman's sleepy disinterest beckoned the redhead to bend and press a lingering kiss to the brunette's temple.


Helena stirred again -- curling her left hand under her cheek, resting the right on Barbara's knee -- and the older woman continued gently stroking her fingers through silken hair. Gradually, she allowed her hand to trail down the younger woman's slender back, rubbing soothingly. Her fingers made small circles, and the redhead absorbed the warmth and the wiry strength evident in the muscle and bone which were separated from her by the fabric of the white tank top.

Amazing that someone so delicate could be so vital and strong.

The brunette's breathing evened out in sleep, and the older woman returned her gaze to the television. It appeared that the man taunting the large reptiles had survived to return another night; now, she was treated to vignettes detailing the consequences of encounters with varied and sundry venomous creatures. Oddly fascinated in spite of herself, the cyber-genius reached for her beer and took a small sip while researchers onscreen showed how to milk the venom from a cobra.

If there were only some way that she could select which bits of information remained in her memory, Barbara felt certain that she'd have fewer concerns about watching this sort of drivel.

A soft rumbling from the vicinity of her lap drew the older woman's attention from the big screen, and she looked down at her sleeping partner. The younger woman was utterly relaxed, purring softly in response to the redhead's soft stroking. Green eyes widened in surprise that the brunette's right hand -- the one resting on Barbara's knee -- was rhythmically, gently, clenching against her jeans-clad thigh.


Just like a content housecat, the redhead recognized with a rush of fond warmth. A beat later, that soft emotion was crowded out by a familiar dull anger over the fact that she'd had to look in order to appreciate the tender touch. Drawing on her long years of practice, Barbara pushed those dark thoughts aside, concentrating instead on how fortunate she was to have seen this... and everything else that her partner offered.

Without conscious decision, the redhead slid the younger woman's tank up to expose the smooth, tan skin of her lower back and the firm muscles of her abdomen. Barbara skimmed her hand down the visible delineations of the exposed vertebrae, thrilling at the whisper of downy hair against her calloused fingertips, then sketched blunted nails over the knobby outline of each bone.

When the brunette murmured something, the older woman almost gasped in surprise; however, the exhausted woman didn't awaken. If anything, she seemed to ease more deeply against her human pillow, and Barbara relaxed from her sudden start.

The unfamiliar slope of a distinctly feminine waist lured her hand to her companion's side. For a moment, she hovered above the lean lines, eyes narrowing at the contrast between Helena's naturally dark skin and her own pale coloring, before she rested her fingers lightly just above the waistband of the overlarge track pants. Drawing upward along the young woman's side, she absently pushed the bottom of the shirt up another inch or two to map out the demarcation of the ribs which were expanding and contracting in slow rhythm.

A quick glance upward confirmed that the delicate woman was still sleeping soundly. The sight of the brunette still kneading softly at her leg evoked a tender smile and then, surprisingly, the scratch of a memory long forgotten. The redhead's hand moved of its own accord to Helena's abdomen, but, in the instant before she allowed herself the liberty, Barbara stilled.

Catching her lower lip with her teeth, the older woman attempted to identify exactly what she was experiencing. Her pounding heartbeat and shallow breathing evidenced an upsurge of adrenaline, and, logically, she knew that her physiological response could be the result of a number of emotions -- fear, guilt, even arousal.

The cyber-genius efficiently reviewed and evaluated the possibilities that she'd come up with. Almost immediately, she discounted the second; after all, Helena's relaxed contentment suggested little to feel guilty about. The third -- arousal -- seemed like a bit of a stretch; not only had she barely been touching the other woman but she also simply didn't...

Well, that left the first possibility, which was clearly not acceptable.

Images of the teen coming to her in the dark of night, tortured by her own acid nightmares before relaxing into sleep under the touch which had tickled the redhead's memory, swam before sharp emerald eyes.

The decision was made.

Crossing the boundary of those remaining few millimeters of airspace, the older woman cautiously scratched at the satin skin of the brunette's belly. She smiled tenderly at the ticklish play of muscles under her fingers, and the volume of her companion's sleepy rumbling rose a notch. When the young woman arched back languorously under the soft caresses, Barbara had no choice but to answer the nonverbal appeal.

Exhaling, she lengthened her strokes, sweeping her fingertips from the young woman's waist up to the barrier of the tee which was bunched just below Helena's breasts. She then reversed directions, gently scritching her nails down the striated muscles of the brunette's belly. All the while, she noted -- and filed away for later reflection -- the myriad sensations assaulting her: the downy softness of tan skin, the playful ripple of strong muscles beneath, Helena's low purring, even the evocative weight of the heavier flesh under soft cotton which she occasionally brushed during the upsweep of her fingers.

Eventually, something -- a change in the brunette's breathing, a hint of slow movement -- broke through the older woman's reverie. Stilling her hand against Helena's ribcage, Barbara looked up, unsurprised to find that the young woman was awake and had turned her head just enough to meet her gaze.

The brunette's features were serene; however, the vertical slits of her pupils and the bright golden hue of her eyes gave lie to her apparent detachment. Barbara felt her own eyes widen helplessly under the young woman's compassionate smile. An eternity of possibilities spun before the older woman until Helena finally shifted onto her back with a soft sigh.

Barbara trembled when she felt a slender hand come to rest lightly over hers, the one still resting on her partner's torso. She gasped, and then her breathing shallowed, when the younger woman lifted her other hand and roughly pushed the fabric of the tank higher on her chest. She felt her heart rate skyrocket when the softest pressure guided her fingers toward the exposed flesh.

And then...

Then, she thought her heart simply stopped beating altogether when she heard Helena's soft whisper.

"Touch me, Barbara."

Chapter 14

Something sharp and needful and darkly alluring reared up inside the older woman at the whisper.

Helena's words, she dimly recognized, were not a tease or a demand. They were even more than a request.

They were a plea.

In three short words, the younger woman had opened herself utterly, laying bare her desire and need as completely as she'd revealed herself to hungry green eyes by raising her shirt.

Panic fluttered through the older woman. There were so many pitfalls, so many ways to fail her partner, in this new and unfamiliar territory.

Barbara was, by no means, a stranger to the female form itself; her experiences on various gymnastic teams, her occasional substitutions for the high school volleyball coach, regular visits to the health club had insured that. She wasn't even exactly unfamiliar with the one very specific female form before her; having shared living quarters and performed a fair amount of doctoring over the years, it was impossible for her not to know this woman's body.

So, no, the redhead was no stranger to the sight before her.

However, the brunette's naked desire for her touch? That was... something else; something utterly different. The intimacy was overwhelming, leaving Barbara with nowhere to hide herself or her own insecurities.

Reluctantly, the redhead disengaged from those staggeringly open eyes fixed on hers and lowered her gaze. Emerald eyes traced a long scar just below her partner's right breast, its origin flooding to mind at the sight.

Although the brunette had yet to celebrate her twenty-first year, she had begun to settle into her role as a guardian of New Gotham. She had largely ceded to her mentor's wisdom and begun to accept guidance from Barbara as she patrolled the streets, thus returning to their shared living quarters each night with fewer and fewer injuries as a result. That night, since the two women had ended their regular sweeps an hour before, Barbara had been not just horrified but also surprised when her volatile partner had limped into the clock tower with the bleeding gash. It had only been after she'd carefully cleaned and stitched the wound that the other woman had revealed its origin.

On her way back after signing off, the young woman had heard the cries of a small animal in distress. A quick detour had led her to a group of young men -- overgrown boys in search of easy thrills -- teasing and torturing a puppy. The brunette's interruption of their sport had not been well received, and the young thugs had turned on her.

The fight normally would have been a moment's work for Helena; however, throughout, she'd refused to put down the animal she'd rescued, lest one of the boys harm it again. Holding and shielding the terrified and injured creature, she'd been at a disadvantage, and one of the boys had scored a lucky blow.

The older woman had clearly grasped the situation after she'd gradually coaxed the tale from her young partner. Nevertheless, she'd still been at a loss in understanding Helena's protracted delay in returning to the clock tower after finally sending the gang of boys running. Until... until she'd received a bill a few days later from the emergency veterinary clinic that the brunette had stopped at before returning to have her own injury looked at.

To this day, Barbara suspected that her partner's delay accounted for the prominence of the scar.

Slowly, she raised her hand from the warm skin of Helena's abdomen, barely aware of the other woman's hand falling away from hers, and traced her index finger along the four inch line. An almost inaudible whimper seemed to reverberate from the brunette's chest to her fingertip, and the older woman squeezed her eyes shut in reflex.

The living room was far from quiet; the inane chatter on the television, Helena's soft panting, even Barbara's own shallow breathing echoed through the large space. Yet, when the redhead opened her eyes and spoke her heart, the hushed words overrode everything else.

"I love you, Helena."

Awed, and humbled, the older woman witnessed lush, cupid's bow lips parting in a surprised "O"; she observed the transformation of heated, feral eyes to their normal intense blue. Simultaneously, her hand was gently raised from its exploration, and Helena drew it to her mouth. The softest press of velvet lips brushed Barbara's fingertips, and the brunette very deliberately held her gaze as she released her tender grip.

"I know, Red."

For a heartbeat, Barbara hovered on the brink, near tears in recognition of the grace the younger woman was offering. Ultimately, she would not accept it. Helena's -- and her own -- need was before her, demanding that she...

Heat suffused the older woman's upper body, trailing tiny sparks of energy in its wake, as she lowered her hand to float just above the impossible warmth and softness bared to her. Tentatively, she grazed the smooth, tumescent flesh on the underside of Helena's right breast, and something coiled tightly behind her breastbone at her partner's ragged exhalation.

Somehow, Barbara kept her touch light, whispering her index and second fingers around the circumference of the soft globe. Confounded by the enigma of the tissue which was both heavy and evanescent, she returned to the underside, pressing upward delicately with the flat of her fingers.


The redhead whipped her eyes up, unsurprised by her partner's augmented eyes. Unhesitatingly, she cradled Helena's restlessly shifting head with her free hand, lovingly brushing long bangs from the young woman's eyes.

"You're so beautiful, Hel."

One corner of the brunette's upper lip curled in a snarl, but her words were surprisingly mild.

"Show me."

The spiraling pressure in Barbara's chest snapped, unleashing a flood of heat and leaving her shaken by the unmistakable awareness of her own ardor. She inched her fingers toward Helena's sternum and fully cupped the rounded flesh she'd been pressed against. Clenching her jaw, she closed her hand lightly and lifted, gauging the fullness and weight resting against her palm. The firm tip just above the vee formed by her thumb and fingers -- the blood rose color a sharp contrast to her own pale tone -- visibly contracted, and Helena undulated her hips once, slowly, against the sofa cushion.

To her distinct surprise, the redhead felt her mouth water hungrily.

The sensation of the fidgeting head in her lap turning, followed by the warm, wet wash of the younger woman's mouth against her other hand distracted Barbara. She lowered her lashes, seeking to understand the... the feelings which had her gasping softly.

"Dear heavens... Sweetheart?"

The redhead's hands were on fire, the need to touch and to know searing in its intensity. Nevertheless, long schooled in patience and denial, she again mastered her urgency and opened her eyes. She raised her right hand, delicately touching just her index finger to the diamond peak. A thrill ran through her at the incredible firmness, a counterpoint to the soft swell of flesh only millimeters away from it.

How could it be so overwhelming?

Barbara forced herself to steady her breathing and tenderly stroked the pad of her thumb against the full lips moving against her palm. The soft caress was met with an almost sub vocal growl and the quick nip of sharp teeth. Skin already impossibly over sensitized, the brief rake of teeth against the whorled flesh of her finger seemed to travel like lightning up her arm and across her chest. When Helena danced her tongue out to lave the spot, the older woman instinctively bowed at the waist as her breasts tingled, then ached.

It was impossible. She simply didn't respond... like that.


Carefully, so carefully, she rolled the firm peak between her thumb and first two fingers. With Helena's harsh panting teasing her other hand, she struggled to make sense of it all, to understand how this spare touch and Helena's response could... unravel her so.

In the past, her lovers' touches -- whether lightly teasing or urgently hard or wetly suctioning -- had done little to impress, much less arouse, the redhead. Under her own hand, Barbara's own breasts had never held much interest either. And at night, in the darkness of her room as she'd patiently worked to find something in the early years after the shooting, even those attempts had done little... save convince her of the futility of wanting.

This, however... This touch -- her fingers pinching lightly as a heated flush blossomed across caramel features -- was something else. This sensation was immediate and urgent.

"Oh god, Helena..."

The older woman hadn't been aware of speaking until she heard a hoarse voice which she, distantly, recognized as her own. Helplessly, uncertain in this new and unfamilar terrain, emerald eyes rose, searching. Awestruck, she witnessed her partner somehow... come back to herself: the brunette's agitated motions settled, and blazing eyes gentled.

Helena released her death grip on the couch cushion and gently covered the back of the redhead's hand. Barbara forgot to breathe -- she thought she lost the need for oxygen altogether -- as the younger woman guided her hand fully onto her breast, centering her palm directly above the pebbled peak. Blue eyes held hers, and the younger woman pressed down gently before withdrawing, fisting her hand against the fluttering muscles of her abdomen.

"Please, Barbara -- "

Something inescapable sparked inside her, and Barbara finally fully claimed the flesh under her palm. Somehow a soft moan spilled from her lips -- a mixture of heat and want and... fear -- and the older woman was grateful that her partner's own soulful groan masked the sound.

On the heels of her cry, the brunette arched her back -- from neck to hips -- urgently thrusting upward. The press of contrasting sensations against the sensitive skin of her palm -- fullness and firmness, softness and tightness -- threatened to break every last bit of control that Barbara possessed. Wildly, she raked her other hand down to capture the previously unattended breast. Shutting her eyes, she lost herself in sensation -- not just the warmth and softness under her hands, but also her partner's soft whimpers and the urgent shifting of her legs.

Even, somehow, her own body's... response.

Eventually -- minutes? hours? Obviously her internal clock had slipped a cog somewhere along the line -- Barbara felt the brunette twist onto her side to face her. The younger woman reared up, and the redhead slid her distant arm around to cradle slim shoulders. Ravenous golden eyes pinned her, and the redhead caught her breath.

What could she...? How would she...?

Barbara exhaled slowly when her partner stroked her cheek softly, sleekly, against her own. The limited measure of calm that the tender gesture engendered promptly evaporated into a riot of gooseflesh as sharp, even teeth began to trail down one of the tendons in the redhead's neck.

"Oh fuck... Barbara..."

The older woman seized the sharp jaw near her shoulder with a strong hand and roughly tugged until their mouths crashed together. Their lips mated, and their tongues danced against each other in liquid heat. Winding her fingers through dark hair, the redhead drank voraciously from the younger woman's lush mouth.

How she needed... Something inside ached to be touched...

A growl echoed against Barbara's lips -- through her mouth and all the way to her abdomen -- and she jerked back, heart trip-hammering. The heated desire in the brunette's expressive features was a Sirens' song, calling her back.

A moment later, she felt Helena shift again, and slender fingers teased up the redhead's side. Anticipating the other woman's intent, Barbara instinctively stiffened and then almost cursed in her frustration.

At herself. At the situation. At the years and years ingrained within her.

She knew, goddamnit. She knew that her fear was reflex, born of her history and of her frustrated past failures and of her current uncertainty. Nevertheless, the thick, molten heat coursing through her veins cooled, and Barbara averted her face.

If she just had a moment to collect herself... to focus on this moment and the reality of what she had been feeling. But, of course, it was too late. There was no way that Helena could have missed her reaction.

The younger woman's soft sigh blew through her hair, then a tender kiss ghosted her cheek. Schooling her features as best she could, Barbara looked up to meet the brunette's eyes. Expecting puzzlement or frustration or anger, she was unprepared for blue eyes which held nothing but wonder... and love.

The warm, slim fingers which had been teasing -- and terrifying -- her so moved again, rising from her side to hover above her chest. One heartbeat later, Barbara discovered that there was remarkably little room inside her for fear when that beautiful hand came to rest lightly over her suddenly peaceful heart.

Chapter 15

Barbara Gordon was not entirely positive that her heart could take much more.

At the very least, a strict policy against taking in any future teenaged wards seemed advisable.

The discussions and battles she'd engaged in with her former ward years before in the attempt to persuade the headstrong teen to consider college had been heartrending. Or, so the redhead had thought. Now, as she attempted to support her newest ward's tremulous steps towards the halls of academia, she realized that she hadn't grasped the first part of what heartrending meant.

Barbara added a dollop more cream to her hot tea and circumspectly regarded the blonde across the table from her. The young woman, she decided, looked depressed.

Unlike Helena, Dinah was eager to embrace higher education. Said eagerness, apparently, went hand in hand with hope and self-doubt and excitement and terror and a host of other emotions which flip-flopped so rapidly that the older woman was left dizzy and exhausted.

The redhead was arriving at the conclusion that she'd take a knock down, drag out fight with the Joker's henchmen any day over this.

"It's just so... confusing, Barbara."

The teen toyed with her oversized cappuccino.

"There are just so many great places and opportunities and..."

The older woman nodded with genuine sympathy. After all, the girl had been accepted at every school she'd applied to.

"Confusion is very normal right now, Dinah."

Barbara pointedly ignored the gaping irony in her own words and reached across the table to rest her hand on the blonde's.

"Try to remember that, with all of these opportunities, it is very unlikely that you'll make a completely wrong choice."

The older woman released her charge's hand and quickly raised her cup to mask a smile at the teen's frankly dubious expression. The girl's features morphed into something serious and worried, and Barbara's heart ached for her earnestness and uncertainty.

"But, what if I do? Pick the wrong school?"

The redhead spoke crisply.

"Then you'll transfer to the right school, Dinah."

Rather than pursuing the topic, she opted for something a bit more concrete.

"How do you feel that NGU compares now that you've visited?"

The teen had been visiting all of her top choices methodically and efficiently. Just a week after her return from visiting Penn State with Gabby and her parents, the teen had scheduled a visit at New Gotham University. At the girl's request, Barbara had accompanied Dinah directly from school this afternoon for what she, privately, thought was an overdue inspection of the college.

Although the institution bore the unfortunate distinction of being local -- literally within walking distance of the clock tower -- it had a well-deserved reputation for excellence in the sciences. And, unlike many of Barbara's seniors who dismissed the university simply because it was too close to home, Dinah didn't seem to be opposed to the school on principle.

"Uhm, Dr. Melford was..."

The teen wrinkled her forehead, apparently seeking a suitably diplomatic term to describe the overbearing physics instructor they'd met with. As she waited for her companion to continue, Barbara began to run through an alphabetical list of her own -- beginning with arrogant and proceeding through bombastic, clueless, dull...

The blonde interrupted the mental exercise while the redhead was searching for a suitable term beginning with "S".

"...kind of self-important, but the department seems okay. And," Dinah added with more genuine enthusiasm, "I really liked Dr. Connors."

Barbara concurred. The biology professor had displayed a genuine interest in her youthful visitor, drawing Dinah out at length about her possible interest in veterinary science. She'd even provided an impromptu tour of the live animal facilities which had extended their visit well past nightfall.

Sensing that the teen had something more on her mind, the older woman called upon one of the more potent weapons in her arsenal -- silence -- and sipped at her tea. The strategy worked as pale, worried blue eyes hesitantly met green.

"But, that sort of scares me, too, you know?"

Barbara dimpled her cheeks, feeling a little lost.

"I'm not sure I know what you're referring to."

Instead of answering immediately, Dinah stuck her index finger into her cup and swirled the foam. The fact that she'd been watching Helena perform that same action -- usually with her cocoa -- for seven-plus years brought a fond smile to the older woman. The blonde wiped her finger on a napkin, and Barbara caught the difference. Helena would have simply stuck her finger in her mouth, claiming that she didn't want to waste any of the chocolate.

That thought, naturally, brought to mind certain recent images -- and vivid sensory memories -- involving the brunette's hands and mouth. Bemused by her overactive imagination -- and, apparently, hormones -- the redhead blinked to clear the visions just as Dinah slowly began to articulate her concerns about the two professors.

"Well, I think it could be kind of easy to get... I don't know..."

The teen offered a half-shrug, visibly searching for words.

"... to get confused or caught up admiring someone and end up choosing to do something because of that."

Barbara nodded her comprehension, and Dinah continued, voice rising with adolescent angst.

"I mean, what if I choose biology for my major but later figure out that it's wrong?"

The redhead decided to address the practical aspect of the question first.

"Then you'll change majors, Dinah. Take an extra year to graduate or, perhaps, get a second degree later."

The older woman was hardly unfamiliar with that course of action.

"No choice is final at this point, Dinah."

Observing a slight lessening of the miserable set of her companion's shoulders, Barbara added, "And, it's not always a bad thing -- finding someone you admire, someone who can help guide you or mentor..."

The redhead cut herself off as she recalled some of the people who had helped shape the person she was: her father, of course; her junior high gymnastics instructor, who'd assured her over-serious pupil that it was acceptable not to be completely cerebrally-oriented; then, there was Bruce... Batman. Her wistful smile faltered when her thoughts segued to the most important mentoring role that she had played. Even now, having made her choice and accepted the fact that she could do nothing but love Helena, she still couldn't help but wonder how much she'd shaped... or guided... the younger woman's feelings for her.

As if reading her expression -- or thoughts -- the blonde spoke gently.

"Yeah. You've sure done a great job."

The girl chewed at her bottom lip for a moment, then added softly, "And, you didn't make Helena feel the way she does, Barbara."

The older woman lowered her lashes, collecting herself. Aside from her squeamishness over the appropriateness of her current ward offering her reassurance about her relationship with her former ward, she also -- rationally -- recognized the truth of the teen's words. Accordingly, when she looked up apologetically, she lightened her tone.

"You're right. And, thank you, Dinah. Just a touch of twenty-five day nerves, I suppose."

Had it really been three and a half weeks since she'd spoken at the police banquet? It seemed as if only an instant had gone by; conversely, it also seemed like she and Helena had been... together for so much longer.

The blonde took the hint and grinned.

"That long, huh? So, uh..."

The teenager waffled, pale features pinking a bit. Barbara made a wager with herself about whether the girl would have the courage to complete her question.

"... How are things going?"

The redhead won her internal bet and made a note to collect from herself -- a king-sized Hershey bar. She also mentally rolled her eyes, wishing that one of the younger women in her life wasn't always so damned... insouciant. Still, Dinah had been remarkably circumspect about the relationship unfolding around her, clearly taking pains to make herself scarce much of the time that Helena was around. It was only natural that she'd be curious.

Smiling affectionately, the older woman felt a blush creep up her cheeks as she reconsidered that thought. Given that Dinah was a telepath, there was no telling how much -- or what -- she'd picked up, even inadvertently.

"They're good, Dinah. Really... good."

Giving herself a symbolic high-five in recognition that her blush was not nearly as intense as it would have been even a month ago, Barbara laughed softly at the truth of her answer.

"She's picking me up in a bit for..."

The teen perked up, her interest becoming distinctly more... acute. For some reason, the redhead's next two words sounded a bit strangled to her own ears.

"...a date."

Somehow, in the last few weeks, the two women had managed at least two outings each week. They'd been trading responsibility for planning the dates, and it was dawning on Barbara that her younger partner was teaching her something she'd never bothered to do with her previous paramours: how to take... or give time to someone she cared about. In the process, the older woman was discovering something else: it was something that, with -- or for -- Helena, she wanted to do.

She was also, admittedly, enjoying the playful mystery each put into their planning. When she and Dinah had detoured for coffee after their delay at the university, Barbara had called Helena at work to let her know where she was and offered to meet her... where ever the younger woman had planned for the evening. She'd been pleasantly intrigued by the brunette's enigmatic response that she would meet her at the Common Grounds, since it was close to the location that Helena had selected.

Deciding that she had shared enough about her romantic life with the teen, the redhead redirected their conversation to earlier topics.

"Professors aside, Dinah, what do you think of NGU?"

Dinah smirked at the obvious conversational shift, but wrinkled her forehead in consideration.

"Well, it really does have good science programs. And, the lab was awesome. Did you see that spectrometer?"

Barbara grinned conspiratorially. The unit had caught her eye as well.

When the blonde shifted nervously, the older woman held her smile even as her eyes narrowed speculatively.

What else could be bothering the young adult?

"And, well, NGU is sure a lot cheaper than the other schools."

The words were barely audible, but they sounded with the volume of a klaxon. Simultaneously relieved and concerned finally to have a sense of what -- or, what else -- was bothering her ward, she spoke immediately.

"That's true, Dinah, but, fortunately, that's a factor you don't need to worry about."

Even if it had been an issue, Barbara knew that she would not allow cost to influence the girl's decision. Dinah had too much going for her to... settle or compromise.

"But, I don't want to impose any more than..."

Barbara opened her mouth to cut her off only to find herself beaten to the punch by a purring soprano.

"You can't impose, Kid. You're family."

Two heads -- one crimson, one gold -- swiveled to stare at the speaker. Helena nonchalantly approached their small table and bent to buss the older woman on the cheek. Dragging an extra chair from an empty table, the brunette plopped down and smiled evilly.

" 'Sides, that way when Red and I are old and grey and need someone to empty our bedpans, you'll have to help us out."

Dinah's jaw dropped, and Barbara laughed brightly. Although the phrasing wasn't quite what she might have chosen, the sentiment -- family -- was right on target.

"Indeed, Dinah."

Amused, she observed the concurrent shifts in the two younger women's expressions: Helena's to an entirely too self-satisfied smirk; Dinah's to profound happiness. The girl stood and took a quick step around the small table to catch the redhead in a quick hug.

"I, uh, guess I'll head out and let you guys, uh..."

The blonde allowed a tiny shrug to complete her thought then turned to fix Helena with a sharp glare.

"But, family or not, Helena, even when you're old and grey...? Two words..."

The brunette grinned easily.

"Yeah? What?"

"Tidy Cat."

The teenager flounced triumphantly from the coffee shop with a wave, accompanied by the sound of Barbara's chuckle and Helena's indignant sputtering. After the door shut behind the girl, the brunette leaned across the table conspiratorially.

"Better watch out, Barbara. The Kid's getting feisty."

Gathering her coat, the redhead remained non-committal; however, she suspected that her primly arched brow destroyed the effect.

"Hmm. I wonder where she could be getting that, Sweetie."

Blue eyes narrowing suspiciously, the younger woman followed her to the door. Her reply seemed a tad sulky.

"Probably too many regular meals and coffee after dark, Red."

The redhead laughed again, reaching over to touch her partner's sleeve.

"Thank you for meeting me here. And for what you said. Sometimes," she added thoughtfully, "I wonder if Dinah will ever allow herself to believe in... this. In us."

The younger woman squatted to bring herself to eye level and brushed the back of her fingers lightly to Barbara's cheek. Her words were certain.

"She'll get it, Red."

Dark brows waggled playfully.

"You know how persuasive I can be."

The older woman smiled softly even as she shivered at the feathery touch. She reached up to capture the slim hand, bringing it to her mouth to press a soft kiss to the dark woman's fingers.

"Don't forget 'persistent', Hel."

Charmed by the embarrassed dip of the younger woman's shaggy head, she lightly shifted gears.

"So, what do you have planned for tonight?"

The lithe figure straightened gracefully and inclined her head in the direction of the university.

"Well, I can tell you it'll be a helluva lot better than what you picked last time, Babs."

Moving briskly down the sidewalk with her partner, the redhead shook her head in bewilderment. She'd thought that the outing she'd planned on Saturday afternoon had been... fun. Novel, even.

"What was wrong with bowling?" she finally inquired mildly.

After all, Helena had almost beaten her -- three games to Barbara's four.

The brunette came to a full stop and pinned her with a deeply aggrieved look. Oozing wounded dignity, she solemnly intoned, "You didn't have to wear those skeevy shoes, Barbara."

The older woman nodded her head sagely as they resumed their journey, and Helena finally relented.

"Astronomy center."

Emerald eyes widened in pleasure. It was another unusually clear night and, if she recalled the schedule, the center was going to try to track a recently discovered comet.

"...figured it'd be cool if we can see that green comet. I heard that some amateur in his backyard found it not too long ago."

The younger woman continued her knowledgeable discourse about Comet Machholz as they entered the building and settled themselves in the reclining seats. Barbara wasn't surprised at all by her partner's knowledge; given the amount of time that Helena spent under the night sky, the older woman supposed that her interest was only natural.

Half an hour later, after a short introduction which imparted little additional information, the redhead was peacefully lost under the dazzling display above them, Helena's fingers loosely tangled with hers. The selection of music playing softly over the speakers -- light pop, rather than the classical or jazz that she would have expected -- led the older woman to suspect that work-study students were in charge of the program; however, even Abba's "Knowing Me, Knowing You" couldn't detract from the endless vista above her and the sheer giddy pleasure of sharing this time with her companion.

When the brunette stretched over, pressing a soft, unhurried kiss to her lips, Barbara untangled their hands and raised the armrest separating their seats. Instantly, the younger woman scootched over, leaning bonelessly against her and wrapping the redhead's arm around her shoulders.

Much better.

Honestly, sometimes it escaped Barbara how she could, purportedly, be so very, very bright yet be so slow...

Resting her cheek lightly against silken chestnut hair, the older woman breathed in the clean scent of her companion's shampoo, a faint whiff of cigarette smoke from the bar, and the ineffable scent that was Helena's alone. Distantly, she recognized the opening lyrics from an old Stevie Nicks classic; however, this seemed to be a remake, and she attempted to identify the vocalists.

I took my love, I took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills
'Til the landslide brought me down
Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?

Caught in the transcendental moment, unable to resist, she traced the shell of the younger woman's ear with her tongue, thrilling at the tiny tremor her action engendered. Wanting more, she nipped and sucked gently at the velvet skin behind Helena's ear, then darted teasingly inside.

After her fear and uncertainty the night of the block fire, Barbara had been tentative, not wanting a repeat of that evening's frustration. After all, while she knew that she loved the younger woman and wanted to share her life with her, she honestly didn't know how she could share... herself with her. Helena deserved so much more than the older woman felt that she'd ever given before; and, now, how could she possibly offer what she no longer even possessed?

However, at this moment, the reticence dictated by Barbara's self-doubt was spiraling away. Part of the force behind the pull was, undoubtedly, Helena's hiss of pleasure. Another part, the relentlessly analytical woman forced herself to acknowledge, was the very nature of their public location; while they were safe in the privacy of the darkened theatre, there were also very necessary limits to how far things could go.

Mentally shaking her head against her tendency to overthink, the redhead delicately tasted the sweet skin of her companion's neck, allowing her partner's soft gasp to wash through her. Struck by a sharp flare of desire, Barbara abandoned her caution of the last week.

She returned to the other woman's ear and deepened the teasing strokes of her tongue, exposing her desire. Simultaneously, she lowered her hand from the younger woman's wiry shoulder and palmed the heavy flesh on her chest. As she squeezed firmly in time with the questing strokes of her tongue, the brunette arched into her with a barely suppressed groan.

"Oh, fuck -- yeah. God, Barbara... I need..."

Startled by how close she felt to losing control and embarrassed that she might, again, fail this beautiful, passionate soul, the redhead jerked and tried to pull away. The attempt was gently denied when Helena stayed her hand's flight, guiding Barbara gently -- but determinedly -- back to her breast.

The low soprano voice was almost lost in the soft music around them, yet the older woman had no trouble hearing the ragged words.

"Don't stop, Barbara. I like it when you touch me."

Clearly, the younger woman had a gift for understatement.

Helena's next utterance stripped the defense of irony completely from the analytical woman.

"I like it... that you like touching me."

Scarcely able to breathe, Barbara pursed her lips, allowing the music to sweep through her while she attempted to sort through her emotions and her feelings.

Well, I've been afraid of changing
'Cause I've built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I'm getting older, too
Oh, I'm getting older, too
Oh, take my love, take it down
Oh, climb a mountain and turn around
And if you see my reflection in the snow-covered hills
Well, the landslide will bring it down

Change, indeed. In the end, that seemed to be what her life was made of. How many ways and times would she... or could she... manage? Optimistic student, world-class gymnast, neophyte teacher, athletic vigilante, paralyzed guardian, cerebral cyber-crime fighter, cautious mentor and partner. She'd managed each role and each transition capably, without undue fuss and commotion. But here and now, where the stakes were so much higher, the emotional terrain so much more uncertain, the exposure so total...?

The redhead's whispered reply was choked.

"Helena? Even if I can't...?"

The younger woman twisted just enough to speak quietly, seriously, into the redhead's ear.

"It's not... quid pro quo or anything. 'Side, I told you, Red -- no expectations. But, if there's something you want... or need, I'll do it. Anything."

There was the tiniest of hesitations before warm breath tickled Barbara's skin again.

"I want to. I want to do everything."

A chill crept through the older woman's upper body, gnawing at her soul. Fighting tears -- would it ever get any easier? -- Barbara drew upon her reserves of strength and forced herself to be as honest and open as she was able.

Or, at least, as open as she could be in a sparsely populated public theater.

"I was never exactly... easy to please -- "

Unable to avoid it, she stumbled in finding the words.

"-- before."

Indeed. Dick had once laughingly described her as "One Way Gordon".

Somehow, awkwardly, Barbara continued.

"And now, it's just... not... I don't... can't... "

At her limits, the redhead stuttered to a halt. She didn't have time for self-castigation when she felt her companion stretch to place a tender kiss to her jaw before resettling against her. The young woman's final whisper -- for a long time -- blanketed the chill inside her.

"When -- and only when -- you're ready, Barbara."

Allowing herself to release the stiffness which had seized her, with Helena's slender form reassuringly solid against her, Barbara leaned back, eyes once again open to the lights twinkling in the heavens above them.

Part 16

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