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.
Chains of love got a hold on me
When passion's a prison, you can't break free
You're a loaded gun
There's nowhere to run
No one can save me
The damage is done
Shot through the heart
And you're to blame
You give love a bad name
I play my part and you play your game
You give love a bad name
Emerging from the vast university library with Dinah, two dozen other high school seniors and their parents, and the group's two student guides, Barbara Gordon shook her head minutely against the ridiculous lyrics still swirling through her mind. She had no idea what it would take to erase the song.
Ignoring Bon Jovi's sentiments as best she could, the redhead allowed their college guides' words to blow past her as she basked in the sunshine and fresh air of the unseasonably warm afternoon. Snow still sparkled all around, however, the clear blue skies seemed to stretch forever, an apt metaphor, she supposed, for the hopes and expectations of the crowd of eager young adults around her.
Noting that the tour appeared to be wrapping up for the day, with Mitsy and Frank providing each visitor with instructions for meeting with faculty in specific disciplines in the morning, Barbara turned her attention to contemplating what the missing member of their party might have been up to for the last half of the tour. As the brunette had promised, the older woman could spy her across the common, waiting for them at the pond and -- it appeared -- frightening the campus ducks. When Dinah approached, campus map and directions for her meetings with faculty in the biology and physics departments in hand -- the teen had yet to settle on one of the two disciplines -- the redhead decided that she simply preferred not to postulate on how her former ward had been amusing herself for the last few hours.
After all, Helena had certainly been on her best behavior all day, arriving at the clock tower in plenty of time for their sunrise departure, graciously allowing Dinah to drive the first leg of the trip, even acquiescing cheerfully when Barbara had vetoed her first two suggestions for roadside brunch stops. When Helena had finally taken the wheel, she'd managed to keep her speed down to something approaching the legal limit and even produced -- to the older woman's distinct amusement -- a mix tape of 80's "hair band" music.
To Helena's delight and Dinah's embarrassment, the older woman had found herself joining in with the brunette's singing, effortlessly grooving to her musical roots.
Even after arriving at the hotel, the younger woman had waved off the redhead's apology about the accommodations -- at this late date, during visitor's week, they hadn't had a chance of booking a second room -- and cheerfully claimed the couch in the living area of the suite, claiming that crashing on the couch and watching TV were her M.O. anyway.
Therefore, halfway through the tour of the stately campus, when Helena had whispered that she wanted to do some exploring on her own, Barbara had simply smiled and sent her on her way.
"So, whaddaya think, D?"
The brunette bounded up to meet them from a concrete bench where she had, in fact, been hissing quietly at the college's terrified waterfowl.
"Oh, wow, Helena! It's amazing, and you missed some of the neatest stuff. I mean, did you know that the library has the original manuscript from..."
Offering her younger friend a sympathetic smile -- both women were well acquainted with Dinah's spates of verbal effusiveness -- Barbara rotated her neck quickly and unobtrusively shifted in her chair. After the long drive and the lengthy tour, she was looking forward to some stretching in their room to loosen her lower back. She might even have time before dinner to dial in and check the monitoring routines on the Delphi.
On the short trip back to the Hummer and the shorter drive to the hotel, she half-listened as Helena drew Dinah out about the tour and her reactions to the school so far.
When had her frequently self-absorbed younger partner gotten so patient with the teen?
"Tell you what, D..."
Barbara sighed gratefully when the brunette slid a keycard into the lock of the room.
"...Let's table the rest until later. Right now, I think that we--"
The redhead didn't miss the pointed look being directed her way.
"--should all hit the pool downstairs."
Dinah bounced into the bedroom that she was sharing with the older woman with a suddenly very youthful squeal of delight, and Barbara opened her mouth to protest. Her words were neatly cut off.
"C'mon, Red. You know your back's in agony, and you saw that indoor oasis they've got down there. And, while it's probably not as good as I could do for you..."
The redhead felt the expected blush crawl up her neck at the waggle of dark brows.
"...it's probably the next best thing."
The older woman snapped her mouth shut, then slowly opened and closed it again before trying another tact.
"I don't have a suit."
The brunette looked up with a self-satisfied smirk as she dug through her own duffle.
"When I saw the web site for this place, I told D to throw yours in. I know it's been a while, but -- "
Barbara worked not to squirm under the frankly assessing blue eyes which traveled down her body.
"-- I'm guessing that it'll still fit just fine."
The redhead blinked rapidly. Just what sort of tidal wave was washing over her?
It had, indeed, been "a while" since she'd worn the suit and been in a pool. During the first few years of her recovery, Helena had accompanied her several times each week to the pool. The workouts had been, as her PTs had claimed, completely non-impact and had done wonders in helping restore and increase her upper body strength. However, once she'd... rejoined the world so to speak, her duties had gradually taken precedence over the time in the water. Oddly, Barbara realized, she'd missed the time in the pool.
Still, how had Helena...?
Befuddlement morphed into a different emotion -- one that the redhead opted not to identify -- at the vision of Helena triumphantly removing two ridiculously small pieces of white lycra from her bag.
Certainly, that tiny amount of material wasn't sufficient to provide decent coverage...
Swallowing with some difficulty, she allowed the younger woman to shoo her towards the bedroom where Dinah, already clad in her hot pink racing suit, had laid out her own modest black one-piece.
And so it was that, barely fifteen minutes later, the older woman found herself effortlessly floating in the almost absurdly warm, crystalline waters of the hotel's oversized indoor pool. She stretched backward, luxuriating in the ease of movement the water afforded and realized with bittersweet insight that this was an environment in which her useless lower half wasn't really noticeable or a hindrance.
Barbara firmly pushed that train of thought aside, just as she firmly forced herself not to stare at her two companions in the otherwise empty pool. She began a modified butterfly stroke which would eat up laps in the pool, quite confident that the two young women could amuse themselves -- loud splashes and giggles evidenced a cannonball contest.
Quite frankly, the cyber genius suspected that any protracted study of Helena in her swimwear might adversely affect her... rhythm. While the young woman's tankini was practically as modest as her own one-piece, the white material beautifully highlighted the younger woman's tanned skin while the cropped top clearly revealed delineated abdominals. Given the feelings that she'd been wrestling with, Barbara simply didn't care to add any potential fuel to her subconscious fires.
Therefore, the redhead did something she was quite proficient at: she focused. For long minutes, she concentrated on steady, regular strokes -- crawl, butterfly, sidestroke. Finally pleasantly stretched, muscles slightly tensed from the exercise, the redhead turned on to her back and floated, feeling deliciously weightless and... free.
A shout from the other end of the pool caught her attention, and she smoothly rotated and stroked towards her young companions.
"You've got to see this, Barbara."
Helena was crouched on the side of the pool next to Dinah, peering intently into the water, an indecent amount of long, tanned leg almost at eye level as the redhead reached the side and steadied herself with one hand on the edge. She noted the way that her toes seemed to be touching bottom and swallowed a self-depreciating snort.
For the first time in a long while, she was over five feet tall again and vertical under her own power, without the strain of parallel bars.
She managed to speak lightly.
"What am I looking at?"
The brunette looked up with a dazzling grin. There was no recourse but to smile back.
Helena turned to the teen.
"Do it again, Dinah."
In a moment, the water several feet to Barbara's left, in front of Dinah, swirled and then... parted.
Crimson brows shot all the way to the older woman's hairline, and Barbara watched as Helena slipped over the side of the pool and into the cylinder of... space which Dinah was creating in the water. The dark figure gracefully, almost negligently, turned onto her hands, head at the bottom of the pool. Her next words were muffled.
"Hit it, D."
The top end of the tube closed and sank into the water. The redhead noted that she could barely detect its edges -- a sphere around Helena -- under the water. The young woman began to move on hands and knees on the bottom of the pool, and Barbara smiled at the image.
Other than the fact that the brunette was under five feet of water in a TK "thought bubble", she appeared to be a mime, crawling in an invisible ball.
"That's remarkable, Dinah."
The redhead looked up from the vision of her scantily clad younger partner frisking in a mentally created bathysphere in time to see her teenaged ward turn toward her, a beaming smile in place.
"Yeah, it's kinda neat! I've been practicing some at home, you know, in the shower, and it's a lot easier when I'm projecting around myself inst--"
"Dinah," Barbara interrupted, "should you be concentrat---"
"Pfffft! Ack! Dammit, Kid!"
The speaker, who had just broken the surface of the pool with a noisy splash and some impressive sputtering, paused to clear a bit more chlorinated water from her lungs. Barbara observed her carefully -- mouth-to-mouth could be required, after all -- as the younger woman swam to the side with a decisive scissor kick and then effortlessly hoisted herself over the edge to pin the teen with a glower.
"I thought one of us was supposed to give a signal when you were gonna pop the balloon."
The redhead winced sympathetically as a deep blush began to cover every bit of Dinah's exposed pale skin. The blonde gulped audibly and looked up to meet her accuser's gaze.
"Uhm... I'm really sorry? It's just, uh, Barbara sort of said something and--"
A tan hand raised in the universal sign for "stop", and Dinah trailed off.
Pursing her lips against a smile, the redhead considered the younger woman's reaction. From long association, she knew that, while Helena adored long -- long -- showers and tubs and swims, she simply despised unplanned soakings. The tension vibrating through the lithe frame clearly bespoke her level of agitation, and Barbara waited for the fallout.
Helena inhaled deeply, then emitted a pained sigh, turning to stalk over to her towel. Distantly, Barbara could hear her muttering.
"Yeah. Yeah. Spare me. You and Barbara and the big-brain concentration thing. Sheesh."
Smiling in full now, the redhead returned her attention to the teen, who was hesitantly explaining how she created the weak force field. Even while she calculated how they could test and strengthen this new manifestation of Dinah impressive mental skills, Barbara guiltily realized that she was still half-watching the brunette as she dabbed at her face and hair.
If the intriguing outlines under Helena's tank were any indication, clearly the temperature out of the warm pool was a great deal cooler than in the water. Since she was still submerged to her shoulders, Barbara couldn't quite understand why specific areas of her own skin seemed to be contracting.
Perhaps it was a sympathetic reaction?
However, she forced herself to admit, that didn't explain why her mouth seemed to be going dry at the sight of the water trailing down the brunette's exposed abdomen.
With a rough sigh of irritation, Barbara spoke quickly as she began to push away from the edge of the pool.
"Let's try to set up some controlled tests when we get home, Dinah."
She didn't miss the puzzlement flickering across youthful features, but the teen simply smiled and rolled forward into the pool. At the same moment, she saw her other charge drop her towel and take two quick steps before launching herself into a showy midair somersault which ended with a clean dive into the deep end. Green eyes blinked at the image of the tan, slender lines of the young woman's body parting the water with nary a splash.
The redhead grimly acknowledged that there could be little doubt that the vision would be indelibly burned in her memory.
Vowing not to dwell on it, the older woman stretched onto her back again, feeling several muscles and vertebrae in her lower back pop pleasurably.
The purring voice, seemingly only inches from her face, caused the redhead to start and flail briefly before slender arms gently clasped her waist from behind. The sensation of bare -- and barely covered -- skin against her back and the pressure of tender, sure hands against her sides caused the older woman to stiffen again.
"Relax, Barbara. I didn't mean to scare you."
The instant that Barbara regained control, she felt those strong hands slide off her waist, the warm skin at her back move away. She was shocked by the feeling of emptiness that the loss of contact engendered.
Aware of the splashing approach of her teenaged ward, the older woman somehow managed to speak lightly.
"No harm done, Helena. You, yourself, were just making an observation about Dinah and my powers of concentration."
Easily floating a few feet away, the brunette threw back her head and laughed.
"I thought that I was the one with the super hearing, Babs."
The redhead winked, and Helena continued.
"Reason I damned near scared you into drowning was 'cuz I heard your back popping all the way over there."
The young woman swam in a lazy circle around Barbara and Dinah.
"Told you the pool would be good."
The redhead chuckled and moved towards the steps, and Dinah swam past her, climbing out.
"You were quite right, Hel. I'd forgotten how wonderful this feels. Sometimes,"
She paused and caught blue eyes.
"I think I should stay in the water all the time. It's so much... easier."
There was a flicker of comprehension in those amazing eyes, but the young woman kept things light.
"Heck, Red, even if you stayed in the water, you'd probably end up being Aqua-woman or something."
Dark thoughts vanishing instantly -- somehow, Helena just seemed to know how to evaporate her self-doubts -- the redhead gracefully maneuvered herself up the steps to the edge of the pool where her chair waited. The younger woman emerged right behind her, water cascading down her slender form and sheeting over her smooth skin. The brunette snagged a handful of towels from the waiting Dinah and lined the chair seat before leaning down.
"May I offer you a lift, Ms. Gordon?"
The young woman knew perfectly well that Barbara was capable of seating herself. She was also well acquainted with the redhead's dislike of being "handled". Yet, relaxed from the warm water and a trifle uncertain about the wisdom of muscling herself into the chair in her damp, tight swimsuit, Barbara felt only appreciation for the offer. Wondering just how Helena knew when to ask, she smiled and raised her arms for a lift.
In a heartbeat, an impossibly warm, bare arm was behind her back. The older woman knew that, if she looked, she'd see the other under her knees. She didn't detect even a hint of strain when the dark figure lifted her.
Barbara exhaled slowly, resolutely attempting to remain focused on anything other than the sensation of the other woman's chest against her side, something other than the smooth, damp skin of Helena's shoulder where her hand lightly rested, something other than the dizzying proximity of bright blue eyes and full lips so close to her face.
"You were certainly on target about the pool, Helena. Thank you for suggesting it."
Apparently occupied with getting her settled carefully in the chair -- Honestly, sometimes the younger woman treated her as if she were made of spun glass, Barbara noted affectionately -- Helena smiled cheekily. Only after Barbara was settled, with a robe draped over her shoulders, did the brunette reply.
Fascinated, the older woman saw those amazing eyes quickly flicker to gold, then back to blue. The smile gracing tanned features morphed into something just a little... wicked when the brunette leaned close. Warm breath purred directly into her ear, and Barbara shivered, unable to doubt the truth of the words she heard.
"Well, I may not know much, Barbara, but I do know pleasure."
At the sound of a soft thump, followed by a muted curse, Barbara Gordon slowly dragged herself from the cloying tendrils of a pleasurable dream -- something involving teasing hands, soft lips, and... blue eyes? Disoriented by the lingering images of the dream and the unfamiliar surroundings, the redhead lay still for a beat until she identified the soft rustling in the room.
It was Dinah, digging quietly through the hotel bedroom's closet, presumably in search of the right bit of couture for her interviews with various State University faculty this morning. The older woman pushed herself up in the double bed on her side of the room.
"All set, Dinah?"
A blonde head whipped out of the shallow closet, and the teen spun, appearing simultaneously frightened and apologetic.
"Oh, man. I'm sorry, Barbara. I was really trying to be quiet."
She took a step toward the bed, and Barbara reached over to switch on the bedside lamp.
"When you didn't wake up when the alarm went off, I just grabbed my clothes and got ready in there."
The girl inclined her head in the direction of the bathroom as she continued her apology-cum-explanation.
"But, when Hel came back, she said that my boots would be better with these jeans, so I thought I could just sneak in and out, but it's kind of dark and, well, I didn't mean to wake you."
Green eyes blinked slowly, clearing the lingering remnants of sleep from the older woman's system as she attempted to make sense of the dizzying deluge of words.
She stopped herself and shook her head, pushing herself fully upright.
"No problem, Dinah. Making a good impression is important."
Barbara gave herself a moment to think, glancing at the clock.
"Did you say that Helena was coming back?"
After a low-key dinner at a highly recommended steak house -- Barbara had been torn between fascination and queasiness by the size of the portion that Helena had tucked away -- the brunette had excused herself around 10:30pm to "check out the night life". She'd not yet returned by the time Barbara had retired at 1:00am, and the redhead had pointedly not allowed herself to think about just what her younger partner might have discovered in her explorations.
"Yes. I mean, not really. Oh, wait!"
With those somewhat contradictory words, the blonde bolted from the bedroom, returning before Barbara had a chance to further collect her wits, bearing two oversized cups of gourmet coffee. The redhead gratefully accepted one while Dinah picked up where she'd left off.
"She said she got back last night around 2:00am, but she went out early for these 'cuz she said she found this great twenty-four hour coffee bar."
Inhaling deeply, savoring the rich aroma, the older woman took a small sip and finally felt her brain start to kick into gear.
"You're certain that you don't want me -- or Helena -- to come with you, Dinah?" she inquired carefully, quite familiar with the competing interests of independence and terror at Dinah's age.
The blonde looked up from lacing her second boot and smiled brightly.
"Really, Barbara, it's okay. I bet you'd be bored to tears if either of these professors is a pompous windbag or something."
The redhead snorted, barely avoiding blowing hot coffee out her nose.
She sat her cup on the night stand.
"In that case, Helena and I will pack up and be ready when you get back. And, you..."
Deliberately, she waited until the girl looked up and met her eyes.
"...don't let any pompous windbags bore you either."
Swinging the covers off her legs, Barbara was warmed by the girl's shy smile. The emotion intensified when Dinah moved from her bed and gave her a quick hug.
"Okay, I'll do that. But, it's going to be just you for that packing thing for a while."
Wishing she'd had more coffee already, the redhead could only furrow her brows in question.
"Helena went down to the pool again," the teen supplied, moving toward the living area. Disappearing through the doorway, the girl hesitated and then tossed a question over her shoulder.
"Do you think we could install one of those in the training room?"
The older woman laughed and raised a hand to shoo the girl from the room, waiting until she had the suite to herself to transfer herself to her chair. Not bothering to change from her sleepwear -- boxers and a long sleeved tee -- she grabbed her coffee and headed into the living area. There, the evidence of Helena's presence was unmistakable -- from her outfit of the night before carefully folded over a chair, to a rumpled blanket at one end of the couch, to a small pastry box on the coffee table bearing the same logo as that on the coffee cup.
Barbara peeked into the box, feeling a grin split her face at the sight of a half-dozen croissants and muffins... and one lone multigrain bagel tucked in the back, undoubtedly in deference to her. For a moment, the older woman's hand hovered over the bagel; then, almost of its own volition, it veered two inches to the right, poised over a chocolate croissant. Mentally shrugging -- the redhead recalled something about vacation calories not counting -- she plucked the pastry from the box and picked up the local newspaper, which was neatly positioned next to the box.
An hour and a half later, breakfast and local news consumed, Barbara had dressed and finished gathering Dinah's and her bags, and was rapidly ticking through the clues of the paper's crossword puzzle. As soon as she got the last clue -- Former governor of Minnesota, ended with the letter "A" -- she planned to fire up her laptop and dial in to the Delphi.
Those plans were temporarily halted when the door to the room clicked open quietly and Barbara was confronted by her younger partner, still wet from the pool. Clothes hound that she was, naturally the brunette had on a different swimsuit -- a blue one-piece with French-cut legs and diamond cutouts at the midriff. For a good thirty seconds, the cyber genius found all of her not-inconsiderable mental faculties full engaged in weighing the pros and cons of this suit against the white tankini from the day before. The niggling awareness that she'd been spoken to finally forced the redhead to table her internal debate and raise her eyes to meet sparkling blue.
Quite aware of the extravagant blush rushing to her cheeks, the older woman opted to try to brazen her way through and smiled as innocently as she could under the circumstances.
The brunette smirked, dropping her towel on the couch and then throwing herself onto it. Barbara fully suspected that those bright blue eyes might be seeing right through her.
"Sure was," the younger woman replied easily as she opened the pastry box.
The redhead noted a dark brow rising playfully as the brunette inventoried the contents.
"Do you think we could put in a pool at the clock tower?"
Marveling at the young women in her life, Barbara laughed.
"You know, Dinah asked the same thing on her way out this morning. And, honestly," she added ruefully, "I don't think that the joists in the training room would support it."
Helena took a bite of a chocolate chocolate-chip muffin and suggested, "How 'bout the roof? Nobody goes up there."
The redhead flirted with the idea for a moment, then shook her head regretfully.
"Even if NGPL fired up an auxiliary nuclear generator, I don't think there would be enough power to make it bearable in the winter."
Blue eyes narrowed as the young woman chewed thoughtfully.
"Huh, yeah. But, this one sure is nice."
The dark head ducked apologetically.
"I didn't mean to be so long. I kind of got caught up diving and lost track of time."
Lost in a vivid mental image of that, Barbara almost missed her friend's next muttered confession.
"...and I fell asleep in the hot tub."
A crimson brow arched. Not quite "The Look", but close enough.
"Late night?" she inquired on a laugh, then added more seriously, "Or, an early morning, perhaps? Thank you for the coffee and pastries, Sweetie."
"Shit, Barbara -- "
The younger woman barked out a laugh.
"Nobody wants to face you in the morning before you've had your caffeine fix!"
The older woman's soft laugh was a tacit admission of the truth of Helena's words. Not, she suspected, that one was required.
"But, no," the brunette continued, "not too late. It was only a Monday night."
"Well," Barbara coaxed, "how is college life after dark here?"
Crumpling the wrapper from her muffin and dropping it on the coffee table, Helena leaned back and raised her arms to rest on the back of the couch.
"Not bad at all -- for a Monday," she deadpanned. "A lotta artsy-fartsy coffee houses with open mike poetry readings."
The brunette made a face which Barbara suspected she was almost mirroring.
"Some typical beer and burger places," the young woman continued, then sat forward to clasp her hands loosely between her knees.
Barbara felt her brows wrinkling slightly as she waited for her partner's next observation.
"I also ran across some gay-friendly places."
There was the shortest of hesitations before blue eyes sought hers.
"If D's still swinging that way, it'll be good to have places to go, right?"
The redhead offered the trace of a smile, a minute nod.
Heaven knew that, while matters were certainly easier now for gays and lesbians then they'd been during her college years, there was no denying the... challenges that young people who were just coming out still faced. She fervently wanted Dinah to have places -- and family -- which were safe and secure for her, regardless of who the young woman ultimately came to love.
A soft exhalation from the other side of the coffee table drew the redhead's attention back to her companion.
"It's funny in a way, isn't it?"
"What's that, Hel?"
The two women had been together so long, they knew each other so well, Barbara realized, that their conversations seemed to ebb and flow naturally, without effort.
Startled, the redhead considered retracting the latter part of that observation at Helena's next words.
"Well, you're totally okay with Dinah -- and me -- doing the Sapphic love thing,"
A quick wink accompanied the phrase.
"...but you say you can't even wrap a lobe around it yourself."
The older woman focused on breathing as she formulated what she hoped would be a neutral response.
"Why is that funny, Hel?"
The younger woman was slow to answer, and Barbara could see from her introspective gaze that Helena was giving some thought to her reply.
"Well," she finally breathed softly, "not funny-humorous. Maybe not even funny-strange. But, definitely funny-ironic. And, that's the thing, Barbara."
Terrified of the answer, the older woman nevertheless felt powerless not to ask.
"What is, Helena?"
Blue eyes looked up, open and questioning. Not for the first time, the redhead was amazed by her protege's courage.
"I don't believe that the whole... woman thing is really the issue at all, Babs."
It had been quite a while, but Barbara was suddenly reacquainted with the feeling of having been soundly punched in the solar plexus. She fought not to gasp, then worked to draw a normal breath before repeating slowly.
"The issue, Hel?"
Distantly, as she watched the brunette drop her eyes to the table top, the cyber-genius wondered when her conversational skills had been reduced to parroting back phrases in the form of a question.
"With us. You and me," the younger woman explained, finally looking up. "I see... I've seen how you look at me, Barbara."
Helena drew a breath and shifted slightly, nervous tension radiating almost visibly from the expanse of muscles on display in the nearly-dry swimsuit.
"I can hear your heart speed up. I can smell it on your skin..."
Barbara slowly shut her eyes, but she could not shut out the next hoarsely whispered words.
"You're attracted to me-- you want me, too, don't you?"
For a long fifty or sixty seconds, the older woman remained absolutely still, collecting herself in the face of the simply phrased question. She could scarcely imagine the courage it had taken for her younger partner to speak the words. Having only recently -- and grudgingly -- admitted the truth to herself, she could not -- would not -- lie to this brave soul, the person she cared most for in all the world.
She finally opened her eyes, unflinchingly meeting blue eyes.
"Yes, I suppose, er... that is, I believe that I am, er... attracted to you, Helena."
Bypassing any handy -- and true -- excuses about the brunette's beauty and intrinsic sensuality, about the fact that Helena could probably seduce a potted plant if she desired, Barbara allowed the words to stand on their own for a moment. However, when she witnessed the naked joy -- or hope? -- begin to edge into those expressive features, she knew that she had to speak the rest.
"But, it... you and I... It's simply not possible, Sw-- Helena."
She choked off the familiar endearment, not sure whether it would be too painful under the circumstances. Regardless of the potential upset, she belatedly saw the very real hurt which her awkward stumble caused.
Well, the stumble and her words themselves.
The confusion and pain in her younger partner's face were unmistakable.
The question was raw, seeming to bleed the agony in the young woman's eyes.
In a heartbeat, the brunette had moved around the coffee table, coming to a stop kneeling before the older woman, with one hand resting lightly on Barbara's denim-clad knee. For a split-second, the redhead registered a welling of bitterness within her chest over the fact that she was unable to feel the soft touch; however, as she'd practiced for over seven years, she ignored the emotion.
Helena looked up, speaking earnestly.
"I'm so fuckin' in love with you."
The dark head lowered, and Barbara's heart seemed to break at the quiet whisper.
"I've loved you forever, Barbara."
Not for the first time in her thirty-two years, the redhead urgently wished that she were better equipped to deal with the emotional nuances -- hell, craters and chasms -- in her life. Unsurprisingly, the wish wasn't granted this time either.
"Helena... I... You can't."
The words seemed to be an echo from something, a deja vu from somewhere which Barbara couldn't take the time to identify.
"It's not... right."
In response to the puzzled look burning into her, she carefully placed her hand over the brunette's and squeezed lightly.
"It's simply not appropriate to... act on those sorts of feelings, Hel."
She cut off the question which she could see forming.
"You were my student."
Dark brows lowered, and -- fascinated -- Barbara watched the wheels turning in her former student's mind.
"Yeah." A chestnut head bobbed in confirmation, "That was when I first fell for you, but that was a long time ago."
The older woman quickly squeezed her eyes shut, then looked directly into the other woman's searching gaze.
"Don't forget that I was your guardian for a number of years, too."
This time, an easy smile transformed caramel features. Barbara almost smiled herself, recognizing the hint of playful challenge gleaming in cerulean eyes. Few people could put her to the test verbally and mentally the way that her former ward could.
The brunette again conceded the truth of her words but not, the older woman suspected with a sinking feeling, the sense behind them.
"And, there's a special place in heaven waiting for you because of it."
Despite herself, the redhead joined in with the lithe figure's rueful chuckle before Helena continued and Barbara sobered again.
"I think you did a pretty damned fine job, too, Red."
The younger woman rotated her hand beneath hers, and Barbara felt slender fingers tangle loosely with hers.
"But, that job ended over five years ago."
Inhaling raggedly, the older woman searched for a way to help her partner understand.
"Helena, I've been... I'm still serving in a... mentoring role."
Green eyes sought blue and begged for comprehension, for acquiescence.
"I'm still influencing you... teaching..."
Helplessly, she trailed off.
Helena focused her gaze on their joined hands, rubbing her thumb lightly against the back of Barbara's hand. The redhead shivered at the gossamer contact.
"...Yeah, you're still teaching me."
The younger woman looked up with a half-smile.
"You know what you're mostly teaching me every day, Barbara?"
Impossibly, completely against her will, the older woman felt herself shaking her head. She didn't want to know, to hear what Helena would say next; apparently, she had to know.
The smile which the younger woman bestowed on her was so sweet and filled with love that it seemed to pull the air from Barbara's lungs. The incredibly tender words she spoke flayed at the armor the older woman had worked so long and hard to build around herself.
"Every day, Barbara. Every time I see you or talk to you or think about you, I learn a little more about how much love my heart can hold for you."
"Oh, Sweetheart -- "
It was out before she could censor herself, and Barbara scarcely recognized the strangled voice as her own. For a difficult moment, she lost herself in blue eyes, raising her free hand to stroke the soft skin of the other woman's cheek. Succumbing to the silky sensation under her fingers and the manner in which Helena closed her eyes and sleekly turned her face into her touch, it took the redhead a moment to notice, then comprehend, the rumbling sound emanating from the younger woman's chest.
Dark lashes raised, and Barbara inhaled in wonder at the golden feral eyes she found herself drowning in.
Floundering, feeling as if she were flailing futilely in quicksand, she spoke raggedly.
"Helena... The age difference... I'm too old."
The younger woman bowed her head, and those stunning eyes shuttered. The redhead felt her own eyes drooping at the barest press of soft lips against her palm and was staggered by the emptiness and loss she felt when then brunette straightened and rocked back on her haunches.
Somehow, she managed to collect herself as Helena began to speak -- quietly, thoughtfully, at first. However, as she spoke and Barbara watched her protege performing the mental calculations, the low soprano became stronger, almost factual.
"Well, Red, the way I see it, right now I'm 75% as old as you are. Right?"
The redhead simply nodded, and Helena continued.
"In another eight years, I'll be 80% of your age. Then, in another eight years..."
Barbara almost laughed when the younger woman scrunched her forehead in mock concentration.
"...I'll be about 85% as old as you are. So, by the time we're drawing our superhero pensions and bickering over butterscotch candies, I'll almost be caught up to you."
Rather stupefied after that little speech, it took the older woman a few seconds to identify just what she was feeling. A little flabbergasted, a little overwhelmed, and totally, completely, charmed.
Helena -- her Helena -- was attempting to out-rationalize her.
Unable to deal with all of the emotion rushing in on her, the redhead managed a rather shaky smile and did some math of her own.
"The catch-up process slows dramatically, you know. I'd have to be one hundred and sixty before you're 95% as old as I am, Helena."
She followed the brunette's movements as she stood and gathered some clothing, turning toward the bathroom. Helena's parting words, delivered over her shoulder with an insouciant smile, left the older woman completely at a loss.
"I'm willing to do the time if you are, Red."
<"Someone's going to be doing time for this one -- after we're through with 'em, that is.">
To Barbara's trained ear, the husky voice whispering through her transceiver carried a distinct note of relish. Frankly, she couldn't blame her younger partner. After the last few nights of nothing more challenging than a purse snatching and some kids stealing candy from a bodega, she knew that the dark woman had been anticipating an opportunity to cut loose during her typically busy Friday night sweeps of the city.
Unfortunately, the NGPD had not been on her side this evening. Quite atypically, the notoriously understaffed department had managed to arrive at almost every crime scene before -- or shortly after -- the young vigilante, effectively thwarting her chances to work off some energy.
In the name of justice, Barbara mentally amended, just as a softer voice piped over the comm set.
<"Assuming we catch him... or them, Huntress.">
The only reply to Dinah's observation was a sub vocal rumble -- something between a snort and a growl, the older woman decided. Rechecking the video feed from inside the pawn shop -- a shadowy figure could still be seen moving around -- the redhead nodded her head in appreciation of Helena's forbearance. She was quite cognizant of the fact that, if the teen were not accompanying the brunette, Helena certainly would have out-paced the police to most of the crime scenes.
"I still only see one person in the store, Huntress, Canary. The video is pretty bad, but it doesn't appear that he's taken anything yet."
The grainy movements which she could see were puzzling. The burglar almost appeared to be browsing -- leaning against each display case in the pawn shop for long minutes and peering inside. It was not the behavior of a typical smash-grab-and-go thief.
<"Can you tell what he's looking for?">
The cyber-crime fighter's response was clipped as she examined the preliminary output of the Delphi's digital cleanup routines.
When the alarm had blipped at the store -- like the bank the week before, it had almost been too quick to notice -- the redhead had immediately hacked into the shop's cheap surveillance system while she directed her partners to the scene. Splitting the feed, she had it processing through a batch of resolution enhancing subroutines within seconds; however, even at the most basic level -- which improved the images to something approaching "night vision" level -- the programs required several minutes to improve each frame of input.
Meaning that her marginally clearer view of the action lagged several minutes behind what was happening in real time for her partners.
Green eyes widened when Barbara noticed -- over the live feed -- movement as the burglar finally opened a display case and removed several items. Chafing at the delay in determining what the man had grabbed, she nevertheless spoke calmly.
"He's taken something and seems to be headed out. Be careful."
<"Don't worry, Oracle.">
Helena's response was serious and all-the-more reassuring because of it. Mercifully, the days of her younger partner's devil-may-care, derring-do approach to plunging into dangerous situations largely seemed to be a thing of the past.
<"I'll just send Canary in first.">
The brunette's subsequent words, delivered after an exactly timed comedic beat, elicited a soft snort from the redhead and an aggrieved squeak from Helena's partner for the evening.
<"Ha ha. I wish you'd stop teasing me all the time, Huntress.">
<"Rub a lamp, Kid.">
The older woman ignored her two charges' sniping; after all, she wasn't entirely unfamiliar with the nervous edginess which often preceded a possibly dangerous encounter. Instead, she focused on the images slowly being processed, hoping that she'd be able to offer her partners some sort of advance warning if the burglar had taken a weapon instead of jewelry or electronics.
<"Back door's opening. I'm going to the other roof.">
Helena's sub vocal description of events in process confirmed the obvious for Barbara: she was still playing catch-up and the Delphi was due for another CPU upgrade.
<"On three, Canary?">
As the dark vigilante softly counted down, the redhead held her breath, wishing she could be there... or at least know what was transpiring.
The sound of rushing air -- one of Helena's showy jumps from her rooftop perch, no doubt -- and a quiet thump sounded clearly through the sensitive transceiver. Still, as always when one of her charges entered a dangerous situation, Barbara fought the urge to fidget, chafing at her feelings of being cut off and unable to help.
The younger woman's voice was a rumbling purr, and the redhead felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise in reflex. An auditory sensation -- something to do with hearing that voice in her ear in the darkness of her bedroom, in the mussed burrow of pillows and covers -- raced through Barbara's mind and down the nerves of her chest and arms. Dismayed, she shook her head briskly to clear the distraction.
<"We all know how hard it is to fit the day-to-day errands in, but, Dude, this place is closed. And, since I don't think you left any cash on the counter in there, that makes you guilty of B&E and theft.">
The redhead smiled softly at her partner's sing-song reprimand just as Dinah chimed in.
<"Yeah. Breaking and entering carries a sentence of five to twenty, in case you didn't know.">
<"N--no! Get back! I need these!">
The burglar sounded as terrified as Barbara imagined that she might have in his position. Well aware that frightened amateurs were often more dangerous than seasoned professional crooks, she spoke quietly.
"Careful. You don't want to spook h--"
The older woman's warning was cut off by a louder shout from the man -- <"Get back! I warned you..."> -- and she guessed that one, or both, of her partners must have moved towards the burglar. The shout was followed by three sounds echoing almost simultaneously -- and horrifyingly loudly -- through the comm set.
Gunfire. Automatically, the cyber-crime fighter counted the shots -- four -- and identified them as large caliber, probably a .45.
Helena's warning cry. <"Get down, Canary!">
And, Dinah's pained shriek.
It was over in the space of a second. Even as she felt the blood draining from her extremities in shock -- oddly, Barbara thought she could feel warm wetness seeping across her abdomen -- the older woman automatically entered a dispatch for the police and EMTs.
Hand hovering over the Send key, she distantly heard heavy footsteps fading away from the comms. More clearly, she heard Dinah's ragged breathing. And... and, an almost inaudible groan of pain.
"What's the situation?"
The redhead's years of experience and self-control kicked in. Instead of screaming like she needed to, she spoke calmly, not wanting to upset the obviously rattled teen. However, when there was no immediate response, she deliberately sharpened her tone.
"Canary! I need to know what's happened."
<"He had a gun, Oracle.">
Grimly, the older woman noted that she needed to work with the youngest member of the team on her grasp of the obvious. The teen's next words, while more informative, did little to relieve the cyber-crime fighter's anxiety.
<"Uh, Hel-- Huntress is hurt...">
<"I-- I don't know yet. She was trying to get me out of the way and, uh -- ">
The redhead held her breath, hearing movement and another low groan from her younger partner.
<"And, ugh -- Oww!">
Hearing the petulant and pained voice of her partner, the older woman experienced a rush of relief so great that she felt lightheaded.
<"And the Ki-- Canary hit me in the nose with her damned bony elbow.">
A tentative -- and very moist -- snuffle sounded.
<"I think she broke it.">
The redhead permitted herself a half-second to sag in relief, then immediately straightened, brow furrowing.
Broken nose or no, there was no way an ordinary burglar should have simply run away from Helena. There had to be other factors...
"What about the gunshots?"
There was the sound of slow movements, a soft grunt and a thump, then a peevish utterance -- <"Get the fu-- off of me, Canary.">. Barbara finally allowed herself a full breath and withdrew her hand from the keyboard.
A somewhat nasal chuckle filtered over her earpiece.
<"No worries, Oracle. This guy couldn't have hit the broad side of a barn with a fire hose from three feet away.">
Catching a signal from the police scanner, the redhead spoke firmly.
"If you've sorted yourselves out, you need to move. Police are on the way."
Probably one of New Gotham's few good samaritans, phoning in the gunfire.
"Let's call it a night and get you back here so that I can see you, Huntress."
<"That-- that'd be good.">
Helena's reply had sounded oddly... shy, and even as she bustled to the medical area of the training room and began gathering supplies, Barbara replayed her own words, puzzling over why her subconscious had chosen those words -- see you -- instead of something less... charged.
In the days since their return from the visit to State, it seemed that nothing had changed: Helena was still her usual sweet, attentive, flirtatious self. She hadn't brought up the subject, even indirectly, once. Probably, the older woman acknowledged, the brunette was aware of her mentor's need to analyze and to ponder, and so she was simply giving her the space and time to do so.
Barbara herself had tried to keep things... normal, despite the acute and terrifying whisper, from somewhere in her lower cortex, that things had changed and, for better or worse, could never be the same again.
Her friend -- her partner and former ward -- had professed, so sweetly, not just to an attraction to her. Oh no, a mutual attraction -- something that Barbara had only grudgingly allowed herself to acknowledge -- could be... handled.
Rationalized. Or ignored. Or sublimated.
But this -- Helena in love with her? -- was staggering in its implications, carrying with it as it did the emotions and openness and sharing which Barbara had never had the time or interest to explore... before and which she had convinced herself she would certainly never need to wrestle with since.
Shaking her head in dismay and moving to wait by the elevator with a lap full of bandages and towels, she wryly admitted that, at the very least, Helena had always had the ability to... keep her on her toes.
Before the elevator doors finished gliding open, the redhead had appraised both of her young charges. Dinah appeared to have a few scrapes on her palms and a rip in the knee of her jeans; all, presumably, sustained when Helena had pushed her out of harm's way. Nothing that the teen couldn't treat herself with soap and water.
Green eyes teared in sympathy at the blood which had spilled from the dark figure's nose, staining her chin and chest, at the puffiness of her nose and the visible bruises beginning to form around her eyes.
Barbara spoke briskly.
"Dinah, are there any injuries I should know about?"
Shaking her head, the blonde managed to keep things to the point.
"No, just some scrapes that I can rinse out."
Nodding, the older woman turned her eyes to her partner and inclined her head toward the training room.
"After you, Helena?"
The brunette sighed, shucking her coat and heading obediently to the low table at the back of the room. As she approached, Barbara felt herself melt a bit at the younger woman's faintly hangdog expression.
She stretched up, beginning to sponge at the dried blood on her partner's face as gently as possible, and inquired, "What is it, Hel?"
Without looking away from her ministrations, she detected a minute shrug.
"It's just... I'm sorry I lost the guy. It was just -- dumb."
Withdrawing a few inches, the redhead waited until inquisitive blue eyes met hers.
"No apologies, Sweetie. You were looking out for Dinah. The only thing that's important..."
She lowered her tone but maintained eye contact, allowing the other woman to see the naked emotion that the sound of gunfire and those first few seconds afterward had evoked.
"...The only thing that is important is that you're both safe. That you came back."
For a long moment, blue eyes regarded her searchingly. Then, the younger woman reached out and drew Barbara's hand to her mouth, dusting the barest of kisses to her fingertips.
The brunette's next words whispered across the suddenly oversensitive skin of the older woman's fingers.
"I'll always come back to you, Barbara."
Freeing her hand, the redhead cupped the younger woman's face tenderly and spoke her truth.
"I need you to, Helena."
"Helena, we -- or, at least you -- don't need to do this. Especially tonight."
Twinkling blue eyes, surrounded by a raccoon's mask of fading bruises, locked with emerald.
"What's wrong with tonight, Red? I know it's not supposed to be a masked ball, but maybe I'll start a trend or breathe some life into this shindig or something."
The young woman paused for a beat, seeming to consider, before teasing the redhead.
" 'Sides, who else would be willing to be your designated driver so you can get soaked enough tonight to endure all the same old dry speeches that you heard last year?"
Laughing, the older woman threw up her hands and snagged her wrap.
If Helena was determined to see this through, Barbara knew that she couldn't stop her. True, when the brunette had initially agreed to accompany her to the PAL banquet a month before, their relationship had been... the redhead searched for a term or phrase, finally settling on 'less fluid'. In addition, neither had known that the younger woman would be sporting the rapidly healing remnants of her run-in with Dinah's elbow from the night before.
Mercifully, the brunette's nose had not been broken; however, as Barbara had examined her the night before, dramatic bruises were already forming around her eyes. Settling the dark vigilante on the couch with an ice pack and the remote, the redhead had reminded her about the banquet, delicately suggesting that Helena could back out. The very idea had earned her a soft laugh from her partner.
"Shit, Barbara. Most of my wardrobe's black. I can harmonize with anything... even some bruises."
As the elevator descended to the parking garage, Barbara casually observed her companion and had to agree with her cocky assurances from the night before. The outfit which Helena had chosen -- matador-style pants and jacket, with a low-cut ruffled white shirt -- was showy, but the young woman carried it off with panache. In comparison, the redhead found herself -- as usual -- feeling a little dowdy next to her companion. She suspected that her own sleeveless jade full length dress simply couldn't hold a candle to Helena, regardless of what the younger woman was wearing.
The two exited the elevator, and the younger woman led the way to the Humvee. Her deadpan response to a question about the choice of transportation was sufficient to satisfy the redhead's curiosity.
"When two women are attending a testosterone-fest like this, Barbara, it pays to start out with some muscle."
It wasn't until she'd settled herself in the passenger side of the boxy SUV that the older woman noticed that Helena had yet to buckle herself in or start the vehicle. She twisted a bit to her left.
The brunette extended her right hand with a shy smile, and Barbara automatically reached out to accept a tiny box from her.
"What's this, Helena?"
The younger woman quirked her lips and tilted her head to one side. Needing no further invitation, the redhead opened the box. Inside, she found a miniscule golden bell affixed to a small broach.
Crimson brows furrowed, and she shook the delicate item -- barely able to hear it's high, clear tone -- smiling at the tiny gift.
"It's lovely, Helena, but why...?"
The young woman showed even white teeth in a Cheshire grin.
"You've heard of a dog whistle?"
Barbara could do little else but nod.
"Well, this is a cat bell. If you get buttonholed, or bored, or want a drink, or need me..."
The brunette trailed off, raising dark brows leadingly. Unable to resist, Barbara supplied the logical follow-through.
"I just ring my bell?"
Helena's smile morphed into something just a little naughty as she turned the key in the ignition.
"I understand that sisters are doing it for themselves now, Red."
The two women's laughter followed them out of the parking garage and down the block. Fastening the tiny pin over her heart, Barbara thought of something.
"But, Hel, what happens if I ring it by accident?"
Blue eyes darted from the road to catch green, and a dark brow raised.
"You mean, a sneeze or... some other sudden bodily contraction?"
The redhead rolled her eyes.
Helena waited to reply until she drew up at a stop sign. This time, it was the younger woman who twisted in her seat, and Barbara found herself pinned by a fond gaze. While the brunette's tone was light, the older woman felt an odd frisson of energy at the seriousness of her words.
"I'll still come, Barbara. But..."
Barbara detected the hint of a wicked gleam sneaking into blue eyes as the younger woman turned her eyes back to the road and accelerated through the intersection. Helena's voice was sing-song.
"...you'll owe me a kiss, Red."
Four hours later, Barbara had yet to ring her bell, either deliberately or in a false alarm. Between some timely comments from her father and Helena's own whispered input, she'd made it through the dry chicken dinner and the even drier speeches without a problem.
However, at this moment, having been cornered by Mrs. Doomes-Patterson for a lengthy discussion about the latest advances in treatments for Barbara's "unfortunate condition", the situation was looking decidedly shaky. The fact that, after three years of these banquets and the same annual conversation, the woman persisted in her misapprehension that poor Barbara was heroically suffering from the same affliction as "that funny physics man" -- it had only been the year before that the redhead had determined that the woman was thinking of Stephen Hawking -- truly lent another dimension of unreality to the entire exchange.
Nodding seriously, Barbara fingered the small broach. Perhaps it was time to see if Helena's acute hearing really would pick up the delicate tones in the din of the banquet hall. Feeling just a bit desperate, she pondered simply whipping off her entire outfit and waving it over her head in a semaphore SOS; certainly, even if that didn't increase the volume of the small bell, it would garner some sort of attention and a possible rescue.
A slight shift in the air, a prickling awareness of a well-known presence, alerted the redhead to the fact that she wouldn't need to signal for help after all. Looking over her shoulder, with an expression of gratitude that she suspected bordered on the pathetic, Barbara made an introduction -- rather, a re-introduction, since the haughty society matron never seemed to remember the brunette.
For her part, the redhead simply couldn't fathom how anyone could forget the young woman.
"You remember my friend, Helena Kyle?"
The brunette smiled sweetly, but Barbara wasn't fooled for a minute.
"Mrs. Doomes-Patterson," Helena purred, "you're looking positively grandiloquent this evening."
The redhead raised her wineglass to hide a smirk as the overbearing woman's brief expression of pleasure faltered, changing to confusion.
The young woman continued smoothly.
"You'll excuse us, of course. I really must get Barbara back to her iron lung. You know the poor dear can't go too long without treacle detoxification."
With that, the brunette gaily whisked the older woman in the direction of the open bar while Barbara struggled not to choke on her mouthful of wine.
She should have known better than to take a sip with Helena squaring off against that puffed-up so-and-so.
When the redhead recovered from her fit of giggles, she accepted another wine spritzer with a smile of thanks, then arched a brow, attempting -- rather poorly, she feared -- a stern expression.
"Must you be so terrible?"
The younger woman grinned unrepentantly.
"Oh, c'mon, Barbara. She gives all of us ambulatory folks a bad name."
The redhead couldn't deny the truth of that.
"Besides," Helena continued, cheerfully popping an olive into her mouth, "I'm so good at being terrible."
Barbara couldn't deny the truth of that either.
"True, Hel, but still..."
A warm baritone interrupted her last-ditch effort to reign in her irrepressible friend.
"Don't tell me that something amusing occurred at this damned thing and I missed it?"
The two women spoke as one, and Helena smoothly exchanged the distinguished-looking ex-police commissioner's nearly empty drink for a fresh one. Grinning like an idiot, Barbara explained.
"Helena was just rescuing me from this year's Be Kind To Cripples speech from --"
"Mrs. Doomes-Patterson," Jim Gordon finished for her, raising a bushy white eyebrow. "Someone needs to deflate her periodically..."
He tilted his highball towards Helena.
"...and I suspect that you're just the woman for the job, Helena."
The brunette grinned impishly.
"Project that size, I could use some help. You in?"
"Hmmm, what did you have in mi--"
Alarmed by the intrigued expression in her father's twinkling eyes, Barbara swatted her partner lightly and spoke sternly.
"Dad. Helena. Behave."
Honestly, the two of them just seemed to bring out the mischief in each other. The redhead was still mending some social bridges after last year's faculty Christmas party at school and Helena and her father's impromptu "Winter Wonderland" decorations. She still didn't know how they'd coordinated so quickly to cart all of that snow into the rafters of the gym...
Two sets of contrite blue eyes -- one a sharp blue-grey, the other the stunning cerulean she knew so well -- pinned the redhead. Not for the first time, she marveled at the rapport the two shared. After her father's initial -- and quite justifiable -- concerns about Barbara's assuming responsibility for the angry young orphan so many years before and after Helena's initial reactionary dislike for a figure imbued with as much authority as Jim Gordon, the two had gradually gotten to know each other, somehow becoming each other's strongest supporter.
Bemusedly, Barbara listened to the two discussing options for livening up the banquet. Fortunately, before they got too far in their planning, the DJ returned from her break and began to spin some records. At that point, Helena leaned down with a conspiratorial wink.
"Since you're in good hands now, I guess I'll get my groove on, Red."
The older woman smiled, reaching out to squeeze her friend's hand.
"Thanks for the rescue. Have fun, Sweetheart."
The brunette responded with a lascivious waggle of her left eyebrow -- the one that was slightly higher than the right, giving her a perpetually disbelieving or amused air -- and sauntered toward the dance floor. Barbara absently followed her progress, lost in an unexpected memory that her habitual use of the endearment evoked.
The older woman had first bestowed the term over six years earlier. She'd awakened in the darkness of her bedroom with a start, heart pounding and her own cold sweat making her tee shirt cling to her chest uncomfortably. It had been another nightmare of course, the same one which had haunted her two and three times each and every night since she'd awakened in the hospital after the shooting. However, as she'd attempted to steady herself, an insistent awareness that she was being watched had sent an icy bolt of fear down her upper spine.
Drawing on ingrained training and habits from her crime fighting days -- less than a year in the past -- she'd remained still, extending her other senses as she'd waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Finally, she'd discerned a slender shadow by the door.
The teen had slowly edged away from her dark vigil, allowing a sliver a moonlight which was peeking through the drapes to illuminate her.
"Sounded like you were having a rough night."
The girl's words had been uncertain, shy. Not altogether surprising, given that she'd been caught hovering in her guardian's room in the dark of night. However, Barbara had also detected a thickness to her voice and the silvery trail of drying tears on dusky cheeks. Aware of the almost inaudible whimpers which emanated from down the hall many nights, the redhead had suspected that her ward had been having a difficult night of her own.
Uncharacteristically acting on instinct, the older woman had folded back the covers and patted the bed next to her. The profound thankfulness, the aching loneliness, that she'd glimpsed before the girl slowly approached and slid under the covers had humbled and shamed the redhead. She knew that she'd always tended to ignore... or sublimate... the emotional areas of her life. Obviously, she'd gotten too damned proficient at ignoring the needs of others.
Wordlessly, she'd reached out and insinuated her arm under slender shoulders, coaxing the delicate girl to her. Helena had cautiously inched across the bed, with Barbara marveling at the play of sinewy muscle under her hand, before spooning tightly to her guardian's side and resting her head lightly on the redhead's shoulder.
The two had lain together quietly, their breathing evening out and synchronizing. Barbara had found herself caught up in deliberations of how she could do more to help her young charge; nevertheless, despite the faintly self-castigating nature of her ruminations, she'd realized that she felt... relaxed and peaceful in a manner that had escaped her for many, many months. For some reason, her thoughts -- the first truly non-grim ideas she'd had about her future in almost a year -- had left her body coursing with excitement.
A sleepy voice had interrupted the redhead's thoughts.
"Why's your heart beating so fast, Barbara?"
The older woman had needed to think about the answer to the seemingly simple question for so long that she'd suspected that her bedmate had dozed off by the time she whispered a reply. A gentle squeeze from the arm wrapped lightly across her waist and the feather light brush of soft lips against her shoulder had suggested otherwise.
"I think... I'm happy, Sweetheart."
Caught up in the unexpectedly vivid recollection -- an eidetic memory could be a blessing -- the redhead blushed, realizing that her father was speaking to her, and dragged her gaze from the dance floor.
"I'm sorry, Dad. I missed that."
Blue-grey eyes twinkled.
"I was saying that Helena really is a sweetheart, Barbara. I'm glad you invited her."
The redhead's smile and nod of agreement faltered when Jim Gordon continued.
"In my opinion, she's a much better date than that drippy fellow you brought last year."
Green eyes blinked in puzzled consternation.
Why on earth would her dad even...?
Before Barbara could gather her wits, the older man straightened, ruefully surveying the room.
"I hate to leave you, but I fear that I must mingle. Still, I believe that if there are any other Doomes-Patterson attacks..."
Barbara followed her father's knowing nod to find Helena regarding her from across the banquet hall. The young woman threw her a wink before re-immersing herself on the dance floor.
The ex-commissioner continued, "You'll be well taken care of."
Absently lifting a hand in farewell, the redhead raised her glass to her lips and paused, barely noticing as the DJ fired up a retro ballad.
Every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears
Every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by
Every now and then I get a little bit terrified and then I see the look in your eyes
Barbara watched her partner gracefully exit the dance floor as something scratched inside her chest, desperate to escape and be known. Something about her father's words... something about the intense blue eyes which always seemed to be fixed on her... something about the trip down memory lane... Her skin felt sensitized to the air around her; her heart was trip-hammering; her thoughts were spinning.
Every now and then I get a little bit restless and I dream of something wild
Every now and then I get a little bit angry and I know I've got to get out and cry
Every now and then I get a little bit terrified but then I see the look in your eyes
The redhead lowered her glass without tasting its contents, suddenly feeling almost... intoxicated, euphoric. It wasn't an altogether familiar phenomenon for the relentlessly analytical woman and, despite herself, she found herself automatically contemplating the likely causes.
Immediately, she discounted food poisoning since two hundred other individuals had dined on the same insipid buffet offering that she had. The three weak drinks that she'd consumed over the course of the evening wouldn't have given even Dinah a buzz. Even the electrical transference from the disco ball was less than she regularly soaked in from the monitors at the Delphi.
Having discounted the most likely causes, Barbara Gordon turned, green eyes searching for the obvious cause of her odd emotional state. Unerringly, she found her partner across the room, appearing distinctly uncomfortable under the attentions of Detective Jesse Reese. The handsome young officer seemed to be doing his utmost to charm the brunette onto the dance floor while Helena, conversely, seemed to be exercising tremendous self-discipline in repeatedly refusing gracefully.
Every now and then I know you'll always be the only one who wanted me the way that I am
Every now and then I know there's no one in the universe as magical and wondrous as you
Every now and then I know there's nothing any better and there's nothing I just wouldn't do
Without another thought, the redhead navigated through the crowd and came to a stop next to the detective. She was aware that the young man turned toward her with what was no-doubt a charming smile; however, Barbara had eyes only for her partner.
"Barbara, hello! I was just trying to persuade Helena to join me for a dance."
Without looking away from the blue eyes fixed so intently on her, the older woman spoke deliberately.
"I'm sorry, Detective, but I believe that Helena is... taken."
"I can't believe you're taking me here, Helena."
Actually, as she waited for the younger woman to bring her chair to her side of the van, Barbara reconsidered her statement. After all, while her forays into the field were by necessity limited, she still suspected that nothing that her free spirited partner suggested should really surprise her at this point. The fact that the brunette was taking them to the pawn shop which had been the scene of the gunplay two nights before should scarcely have raised an eyebrow.
The passenger door opened, with Helena seamlessly resuming their discussion.
"Aww, come on, Red. It's only a little out of the way..."
Since she still wasn't privy to their mystery destination, having -- perhaps foolishly -- acceded to Helena's request for "a fun outing after that dry as dust affair last night", Barbara wasn't in a position to dispute the assertion.
"...and," the young woman continued with the hangdog expression which never failed to melt the redhead, "I still feel bad about Friday night. Not only did the guy get away, but I didn't even have time to get inside and check out the crime scene."
Barbara settled herself with a brief shiver as the late afternoon sun dipped behind the grimy skyscape and evening fell in earnest. In an instant, Helena's duster was being tucked gently around her shoulders, the warm weight of the garment and the soft scent of its owner imbuing her with a heat that had little to do with the heavy material.
Smiling her thanks, she admitted, "Well, we do know what he took--"
The police report had described in detail the two items of jewelry which had been taken from a locked display case.
"--but it would be nice to get a look at the case to see if it was opened like the bank vault."
The chances seemed remote, however, given the similarities in how the alarms at the two crimes scenes had been short-circuited, the cyber-crime fighter didn't want to discount any possibilities. She was also toying with the idea of chatting with the owner of the store about upgrading his video surveillance system; despite hours of tweaking -- both by her and by Dinah, who had a remarkably deft touch with computer imaging -- she'd still gotten nothing useable. The fact that the man had been wearing a ski mask had effectively frustrated any description which Helena and Dinah could provide from their brief encounter as well.
Ignoring the faintly triumphant smirk being directed her way, the older woman headed briskly into the store, not bothering to question how Helena had known that it would be open on a Sunday evening. When she entered the shop, the tinkle of the bell over the door instantly transported the redhead back to the evening before and her impulsive declaration in the very public banquet hall.
Although the words she'd spoken to Detective Reese had been confidently phrased, Barbara had felt anything but, raising her brows to request confirmation from Helena. The smile which had crept across the younger woman's face had been sufficient, and she'd answered with her own smile, reaching up to touch her small bell pin. The delicate tone had been barely audible to the redhead, especially in the din of the dance floor, but Helena had taken two quick steps forward and bent to purr softly into her ear.
"You need me, Red?"
Peripherally noting the distinctly uncomfortable departure of Jesse Reese, Barbara had kept her reply to the point. She'd doubted that the lump in her throat would have allowed her to do otherwise.
In deference to her father's scheduled closing speech, the two women had remained at the banquet until the bitter end -- attempting to hide themselves by a potted fern in a far corner, but stymied in their efforts by a stream of her father's colleagues intent on catching up. By the time they'd returned to the clock tower at 1:30am, the redhead's speechlessness seemed to have infected her normally loquacious partner, and Helena had silently helped her off with her wrap, then bent to buss her shyly on the cheek, murmuring that she'd see her the next day before departing from the balcony.
After a surprisingly sound sleep, Barbara had awakened early, barely able to concentrate on the Sunday crossword between the host of butterflies in her stomach and her incessant need to check the time every three minutes. Apparently, her edginess had been more visible than she'd realized because, eventually, even the normally even-tempered Dinah had had enough.
"Good golly, Barbara! What are you waiting for? We do live in a clock tower, you know, so there's absolutely no missing it when the hour rolls around..."
The older woman had looked up guiltily at her ward's little tirade, just in time to witness comprehension flooding the teen's features. The girl had flown across the living area and almost toppled them both with the force of her enthusiastic hug.
"Something finally...! I can't believe it... I'm so happy for you both!"
While the English teacher in Barbara had found the final utterance a bit redundant, given the blonde's obvious delight, she'd nevertheless been terribly, terribly touched and pleased by Dinah's... approval. And, perhaps, she forced herself to admit, a trifle... vexed by the fact that everyone around her seemed to have been clued in to the vagaries of her love life well before she had been.
Helena had arrived at her usual Sunday time -- that was, just as Alfred poured the first cup of batter into the waffle iron. She'd smiled cheerfully at Barbara and greeted Dinah with a play-punch, but otherwise gone through their usual routine -- a late brunch, a long workout -- without reference to the night before. It was only her request at the end of training for this outing which gave the slightest indication...
Well, Barbara noted with a soft smile, Helena's request and the sweet smile which had been present just for her every time she'd turned to look at the brunette. During waffles, during the workout, during -- in fact -- the last many years they'd been together.
As the door shut behind them, the redhead managed to wipe off most of her goofy grin and put her game face in place, perusing the pawn shop with seeming nonchalance. A slightly different and rather pained smile appeared when green eyes tracked to the location where the video camera should have been and grasped the reason behind the poor quality of the images she'd been dealing with.
Hanging high on the wall, presumably with the camera inside, was a giant moth-eaten moose head. The cyber-crime fighter immediately canceled the lecture she'd had planned for the shop owner.
The man had obviously already put quite a bit of thought into his security system and, very probably, wouldn't welcome other suggestions.
"Check this out, Red."
The older woman approached her partner who was hovering next to an empty display case. A neat line of melted metal transected the steel clasp which had served to secure the unit. Looking up, she cocked an eyebrow in question, and the brunette nodded. Aware of the proprietor's arrival, she slipped the brunette a plastic evidence bag and a curette and then turned to intercept the man, leaving Helena to scrape some filings from the metal.
"May I help you ladies with something?"
The portly man's interest in his two visitors was palpable, and he attempted to peer past Barbara, obviously curious about what might be holding the brunette's interest in an empty case. The older woman lightly bumped into a display of presidential plates and managed to recapture his undivided attention.
"Oopsy daisy! I'm sorry... So clumsy!"
She laughed lightly.
"My friend recalled seeing some jewelry here last week...?"
Stabilizing the display, the man smiled unctuously and gestured to another glass case.
"Over here. We had a break in the other night and had to move things. Are you looking for something in particular?"
The redhead smiled brightly -- she could do the "ditzy redhead" as well as anyone when required -- and a touch of mischief tickled her soul when she noted Helena's approach.
"In fact, we are."
She reached up to capture the surprised young woman's hand and then continued gushingly.
"We just had our second date last night and while we were on the way to rent a U-haul, Helena mentioned the lovely jewelry she'd seen here. Something to commemorate...?"
The redhead felt, rather than heard, her partner's suppressed snicker and fought not to blush as the young woman chimed in with her own extemporaneous addition.
"Yeah, maybe something..."
The brunette gestured toward the general vicinity of Barbara's chest and the older woman had to quash the urge to swat at her hand.
Fifteen minutes later, the two women -- barely holding in their laughter -- exited the pawn shop without any jewelry but with a genuine commemorative presidential plate in hand. Helena started the vehicle, then stopped to catch her breath.
"That was perfect, Barbara. Though, I didn't know you were up on the entire lesbian initiation code."
The older woman spoke primly.
"I've been doing some reading."
The two drove quietly for a few minutes, Barbara idly wondering how Helena had managed to convince her that the Richard M. Nixon plate would be an addition to the decor of the clock tower. Perhaps Alfred could suggest a suitable spot for it... or just haul it off and hang it in the Batcave...
The brunette finally broke the easy silence.
"I got a couple of pictures of the display case. Figured the Kid could enhance them and see whether it matched the bank job."
When Helena flipped on her turn signal and entered the city park, Barbara abruptly shifted conversational gears.
"What is our destination, Hel? It's a bit dark for terrorizing the ducks at the pond, isn't it?"
The brunette snorted as she pulled into a parking spot.
"Never too late for that, Babs, but, yeah, we're here."
The young woman offered an enigmatic smile but no further information as she hopped out and moved to the back of the van. When Helena reappeared at the passenger door, the redhead unbuckled her seat belt and transferred herself to her chair, brow furrowed.
"Just what do you have in mind?"
Instead of a direct answer, the dark figure flung a backpack over one shoulder, picked up a bundle of blankets, and started down a path leading to the commons.
"C'mon or we'll miss the beginning."
Bemused, the older woman obediently followed, pleased that the city had managed to clean most of the snow from the path... and still baffled about their plans. When they reached the snow-covered open field at the center of the park, the sight of a few dozen other people and the muted tuning of musical instruments sparked the redhead's memory.
So caught up was she in weighing the merits of late winter concerts under the stars that the redhead nearly plowed into her partner, who had abruptly stopped, raising a hand dramatically to her forehead, clearly scouting for the perfect location.
"Oh! I'm sorry, Sweetie," she apologized hurriedly as the younger woman skipped to one side.
Barbara continued as the brunette led them to an isolated spot that was still right off the cleared walkway.
"But, Helena, I didn't think that you cared for..."
She dug through her mental filing cabinet, infallible memory effortlessly supplying the concert schedule she'd perused in the paper two months before.
The younger woman gracefully knelt to smooth out a patch of snow-covered ground, then began spreading a heat-blanket over it.
"I don't, but you do. And, I like the laser show."
The redhead smiled affectionately.
Of course Helena, with her childlike enthusiasm, would enjoy the choreographed light show.
Watching her partner spread three more layers of blankets, she spoke wryly.
"You do realize that I won't feel the cold...?"
The brunette finished her preparations, then approached, arms extended in invitation. The older woman raised her arms for a lift.
"Just 'cuz you can't feel the cold doesn't mean you should be cold."
Pausing in her progress from the path to the blankets, the young woman added with a wink, "Besides, if I hauled the damned things out here, I'm sure as heck gonna use them."
Barbara's laugh was full and genuine, followed by a smile of thanks as the brunette helped her get settled, then snugged a fleecy blanket around the two of them. While her companion dug into the previously ignored backpack, the redhead regarded their arrangements. Given the amount of heat radiating from the small woman next to her, not to mention how warm she herself was feeling for some reason, she suspected that the remaining blanket might not be needed.
The orchestra under the distant bandstand finally launched into its opening just as Helena unscrewed the top of a steel thermos and poured something into the cap. Steam wafted into the chill night air, and Barbara murmured a quiet thanks, accepting the makeshift cup. Having already detected the sweet, milky odor of hot chocolate, the redhead was prepared for the rich sweetness -- Helena never stinted when it came to chocolate. She wasn't expecting a creamy sharp under taste.
"Is that Bailey's, Helena?"
The flash of even white teeth was clear in the darkness.
"I do live above a bar, Barbara."
Colorful arcs of light cut through the night sky, exactly timed to highlight the mathematically complex nocturne. Transfixed, the older woman leaned in to the strong shoulder next to her, glancing down when she felt something soft and warm being eased into her hand.
Barbara's pleasure was genuine.
She traded the thermos lid and happily took a bite, unsurprised that somehow her partner had kept the tender pastries warm during the course of their sleuthing earlier.
"Yeah," the younger woman breathed as she nibbled at her own treat. "I figured we could grab some real food later."
Struck anew by her companion's sweetness, the redhead spoke impulsively.
"Thank you... for this, Hel. It is much nicer than last night's affair."
A nearly inaudible hum of agreement and the sensation of a dark head moving to rest lightly against hers was the only response. For long, harmonious minutes, the women cuddled companionably, passing the cocoa between them.
Sharing the snow-filled park common with several dozen other hearty souls, surrounded by complex melody, illuminated by ethereal light, and -- most important -- snugly embracing the woman she now understood that she had no choice but to love, Barbara Gordon felt as secure and peaceful as she could ever remember. At that moment, she couldn't -- infallible memory notwithstanding -- recall why it had been so difficult to find this place.
A tentative question finally interrupted her reverie.
"Can we talk about last night, Barbara?"
The older woman twisted just enough to catch earnest blue eyes with green.
"Whatever you want, Sweetheart."
Unflinching, she held the gaze which searched her face.
"Did you mean it?"
The air left Barbara's body in a rush, and she almost lost the precarious balance she'd been maintaining with one hand against the blankets. Oddly, the feeling of nearly falling wasn't frightening. For one of the first times in her life, when confronted with her own emotions, she felt no fear... only peace.
The redhead spoke seriously.
"Yes, Hel, I did. I love you very much."
The younger woman's smile, Barbara instantly decided, outshone the lasers above them.
"I love you, too, Red."
For a lovely moment, the older woman simply... basked in the emotions that their shared words engendered. However, eventually, the scratch of her conscience robbed the sweetness from the experience.
Settling the empty thermos lid carefully next to the backpack, she tangled the fingers of her free hand with Helena's. Noting the concern which flickered across expressive caramel features, she refused to allow herself to drag the moment out.
"I do love you, Helena."
The words sounded rough to her own ears. Heaven only knew what Helena's sensitive hearing would make of them.
"And, I want... hope you'll give me a chance to..."
The redhead stumbled, uncertain how to say what she needed to. Her next words were an unhappy whisper.
"I... I just don't know..."
The younger woman's voice was reassuring. The tender squeeze of her hand, steadying.
"Tell me, Barbara."
Even in the darkness, the older woman couldn't maintain eye contact and so cast green eyes towards the heavens.
"I do love you, Hel, but I don't know if I can--"
Unable to stop herself, the redhead stumbled again before she forced herself to grind out the bitter words.
"...if I can be your lover."
Until that moment, Barbara hadn't fully known what the admission would cost her. The sensation of something cold and wet trailing down her cheeks surprised her, and the redhead exhaled harshly, clenching her jaw. She was utterly frustrated by the inadequacy of the words and by her own inability... both to express her questions about unknown territories and to describe the hard truths about well-known limitations.
Not even a heartbeat elapsed before the older woman's companion silently shifted on the blankets and raised her free hand to swipe delicately at the two tears which had somehow escaped Barbara's iron-clad control. The tenderness of the gesture threatened to undo the tenuous grip that the redhead was maintaining on her emotions.
She heard the other woman's soft exhalation, then felt their joined hands lifted, her hand gently turned in the younger woman's as Helena lowered her head and pressed a lingering kiss to her palm. When the brunette finally spoke, her voice contained no doubt or hesitation.
"It doesn't matter, Barbara. I love you."
The redhead gasped and started, stunned by the complete sincerity in her partner's words.
"But, Helena, surely you need... want...?"
She detected the quick shake of tousled hair.
"No expectations, Red."
A quick grin and the waggle of dark brows punctuated the next utterance and, miraculously, lightened the moment, somehow freeing Barbara's breathing marginally.
"Hopes, yeah. A lotta hopes. But,"
The young woman's tone grew serious again.
"There's no time limit or anything, Barbara. Let's just... take things one day at a time, huh?"
How...? When had her younger friend become so wise?
Wordless, amazed anew by her fortune in finally opening her eyes to what had been in front of her for so long, Barbara settled against the other woman's slim torso. Helena's suggestion, she decided, contained a great deal of merit.
Determined not to spend the remainder of the concert trying to figure out how she could not plan how she would take things one day at a time, the redhead focused on the beauty of the light show's mathematical precision in enhancing the music. Gradually however, the awareness of the strong, pliant form behind her, which so effortlessly was helping to support her, eased into her consciousness. The hint of warm breath against her cheek and the teasing whisper of slender fingers absently sifting through her hair and tracing the shell of her ear left her oddly lightheaded.
The older woman pushed herself upright, immediately missing the warmth which had been against her back, and then twisted to face her companion.
"Helena? Have you..."
Barbara felt a warm rush of blood flooding her face and knew that her partner's enhanced vision couldn't miss it. Resolute, she cleared her throat against an odd hoarseness and plunged ahead.
"Er, that is... I'd... like to kiss you and wondered if you'd like..."
She trailed off, hopelessly tongue-tied and vigorously reconsidering the wisdom of having spoken. The young woman allayed her fears by scootching forward a hairs-breadth and leaning in. Warm, sweet breath, faintly redolent of chocolate, tickled the redhead's lips.
"For a long time, Red."
Barbara's brief quirk of consternation over the confusing phrasing faded rapidly at the touch of incredibly soft lips against hers. As the tender contact drew on -- Helena didn't increase the pressure or the contact, allowing the older woman to set the pace -- the redhead realized that a bit of ambiguity could be a good thing.
Leisurely, she brushed her mouth against the brunette's, tracing the cupid's bow shape, savoring the other woman's warm breath, discovering a satiny softness previously undreamed of. Awed, she pulled back a few millimeters and, pierced by questioning golden eyes, barely realized that she was speaking aloud.
A quiet exhalation was the only reply, and the brunette leaned in, moving closer but, again, not quite making contact. Allowing, the older woman recognized, her to choose.
Barbara closed the distance, curiously reaching out to taste, thrilling at the dark woman's rumbled moan. She took the opportunity to tease between those velvet lips. The answering touch of a tongue which danced lightly -- and undemandingly -- against hers was electric.
This time, the moan was the older woman's, surprising her with its intensity as she eased in to meet Helena, to taste Helena, to map Helena...
Startled to the point of dizzied panic, the redhead jerked back with a whimper, then blushed furiously. She opened her mouth to explain, then chewed lightly at her lower lip, struggling for some way to express what she was experiencing.
Emotional areas were simply not her forte.
The younger woman raised a hand, her touch against Barbara's cheek almost reverent, her voice awed.
"I can't believe it's finally you..."
Green eyes widened and blurred before the older woman blinked the distracting moisture away.
How could Helena so easily speak exactly what most thrilled... and terrified... and filled her with indescribable joy?
The lights in the sky reflected in the other woman's beautiful blue eyes as Barbara brought their mouths together again, attempting to put everything she felt into words of her own.
"I'm so glad it's you..."
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