DISCLAIMER: I do not own the characters. They are the property of DC comics and the WB network. I'm just borrowing them for a short period of time.
MUSIC DISCLAIMER: Song lyrics don't belong to me either; no profit gained or infringement intended.
SERIES: Some readers were kind enough to point out that there are more than the traditional four elements which were covered in the original Elemental series (Landslide, Watershed and Windshear). This story is the third extension of the Elemental series following Veneer and Stainless.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
"I didn't know."
She couldn't be positive, but Barbara Gordon had a reasonable certainty that when her companion responded to her protest the tone was just the slightest bit arch.
"If you'd bothered to return any of the three dozen messages I've left on your voice mail in the last month, that wouldn't be an issue, Barbara."
The redhead realized that she was slouching the tiniest bit at the reprimand and forcibly straightened her shoulders.
"It's been a busy month, Gloria."
She considered tacking on apology for having deleted all of the messages without listening to them, however, she decided to allow her embarrassed shrug to speak for her. The grey-haired doctor regarded her evenly for a long moment before nodding slowly.
"So I understand."
Gloria Frine rested her elbows on the desk and steepled her fingers.
"Still, since you're not too far into your second trimester, there's probably little harm done."
Gravely, Barbara nodded, grateful for favors small and large: the fact that she'd been so early into her pregnancy when the cancer had been diagnosed and the hysterectomy scheduled; the fact that the ensuing mayhem resulting from her lover's abduction had lasted only a month; the fact that somehow her cancer had simply disappeared; and the fact that Helena was back now.
The soft sigh of relief from beside her highlighted the last point, and Barbara turned her head a few degrees to share a small smile with her partner before returning her attention to her long-time Ob-Gyn.
"I do appreciate that you worked me -- "
Catching herself, she again glanced at Helena, warmed by the sparkle of blue eyes.
"-- worked us in after your regular hours."
She waited as her doctor leaned back in her heavy leather chair, deciding that Gloria's bark of laughter was hardly undeserved.
"Pugilistic polliwogs, Barbara, I've been holding my breath for a call from you. Of course I was going to see you once you decided to get your head out of your alimentary canal."
The half-hearted effort she made to appear affronted was handily defeated by the blush she could feel licking at her cheeks. A sound from beside her that just might have been a snort didn't particularly help matters. With a mental shrug, Barbara gave up.
"The extraction occurred just this morning, Gloria," she finally allowed.
Details about the return of Helena's memory less than twelve hours earlier weren't necessary. All that was necessary was beside her.
Slightly agog by the uncharacteristically romantic thought, Barbara recovered herself in time to find her doctor again regarding her steadily.
"Good. Perhaps there's hope for you yet."
The redhead felt one eyebrow crawl toward her hairline, but, leaning forward and beginning to flip through a thick folder, Frine continued undeterred.
"Now let's see where we are. Blood and urine off to the lab -- "
The grey head nodded, and Barbara waited as Frine reviewed the results of the impromptu exam she'd had less than thirty minutes before.
"Everything seems in order."
Bright eyes finally looked up from the folder, and Barbara felt some of the tension ebb from her shoulders.
"I trust -- "
Suspecting that her relief had been a bit premature, the redhead forced herself to meet the doctor's gaze as Gloria pointedly removed her half-glasses and allowed them to drop on their chain.
"-- that it won't be another month before your next prenatal visit?"
Barbara shook her head, detecting an echoing motion from the dark head beside her.
"Good. We dodged a bullet with the cancer remission or -- "
Frine turned her attention to Helena, grey brows quirking.
"-- whatever genetic miracle your offspring performed for her mother, Helena."
Since her doctor had long been aware of some of her partner's unique meta-genetics, she and Helena had shared their hypothesis that the child Barbara carried had inherited it's other mother's meta-healing abilities and wiped out the cancer. True to form, the older woman had accepted the revelation with scarcely a blink.
Helena's soft laugh was, Barbara decided, oddly abashed. Charmed, she turned and extended her hand, lacing their fingers when Helena reciprocated the gesture. The sound of Frine clearing her throat returned her attention to matters at hand.
"Whatever happened, Gloria, rest assured that we plan to take very good care of this little being."
"And of yourself as well, Barbara."
Already nodding automatically, Barbara slowed her motion, detecting something in the older woman's tone.
The doctor fixed her with a pointed look.
"The C-section is going to take a lot out of you when the time comes, Barbara."
Helena's soft hiss underscored her own disappointment, but she refused to dwell on it. The information confirmed what she'd already known: the chances of a natural birth were slim indeed. Accordingly, she focused on the practical.
"Indeed, Gloria. What are my options?"
The doctor stretched forward a bit and fiddled with the glasses hanging from their chain.
"Well, I assumed that you'd have no problem with a local anesthetic, but if you're feeling squeamish, general is an option."
Barbara heard her own laugh and finally released her partner's hand to wave dismissively.
"Believe me, anesthesia is the least of my worries."
She dropped her hands to the brakes of her chair, tapping at them softly before meeting the older woman's puzzled gaze.
"I was referring to -- "
"Vertical versus bikini cut?"
Mustering a chuckle at her partner's helpful suggestion, Barbara shook her head but not in time to forestall the remainder of Helena's words.
"Personally, I vote for bikini."
She opted to ignore the frankly wolfish -- or leonine -- expression she could feel directed her way. Likewise quashing her urge to swat her exuberant partner, she continued primly.
"I believe they can just follow the dotted lines, Hel."
Considering that the surgical incision from her near-hysterectomy was barely healed, installing a zipper seemed as likely an option as any.
"I was referring," Barbara continued, returning her attention to her doctor, "to doing this at home."
When the tiny woman across the desk from her didn't speak for a long thirty seconds, the redhead realized that, finally, she'd caught her normally verbal doctor flat-footed.
"By any chance are you still taking the pain meds from your surgery, Barbara?"
The question was almost preternaturally calm. The fact that Frine had foregone any of her usual colorful colloquialisms was, perhaps, even more telling.
A bit peevishly, Barbara noted that Frine didn't wait for an answer, pushing back from her desk a few inching and digging into a drawer to emerge with an ashtray and a pack of gold-tipped cigarettes. Barbara waited in silence as her medical advisor tapped one from the box and raised it in question.
"Well, she is preg--"
The doctor cut short Helena's objection with a smirk.
"If this child can cure clear-cell cancer, Helena, I don't think that a few puffs of second-hand smoke will be a problem."
Warmed by the reminder, Barbara smiled through her partner's laughter. Frine raised her heavy lighter, then paused.
"Would you like one?"
The redhead grasped that the question had not been addressed to her just as she detected the happy nod of the dark head beside her. Turning a few degrees, she raised one brow.
"Er, maybe another time."
Satisfied, she returned her attention to the older woman and waited while Gloria lit her Sobraine and took a long drag.
Underscored by a plume of smoke, the word initially made no sense; however, a quick rewind of the conversation clarified matters.
She waited with what she considered considerable patience while Gloria inhaled again, then tapped her cigarette briskly against the ashtray.
Any attempt to negotiate was cut short when the doctor leaned forward and rested her forearms on the desk.
"Since we appear to be having some trouble communicating and I have little doubt that, at this very moment, you're making plans to perform your own Caesarian, let me clarify this, Barbara."
Since the option had, in fact, occurred to her, Barbara deflated a wee bit while the cigarette was abruptly crushed into the ashtray.
"Zero. Zip. Butkiss."
Again, Frine cut her short.
"This is surgery, Barbara, and, even if it weren't, a home birth is just too risky at your age."
Not certain that the addendum had been entirely necessary, Barbara took a moment to consider her response. Eventually, she drew in a long breath and squared her shoulders.
Before she could determine whether her doctor's expression was more puzzled or frustrated, Barbara heard her partner speaking up.
"Hospitals haven't been too good to us."
Nodding, Barbara waited while Gloria leaned back, clearly taking a few seconds to consider matters.
"Perhaps a birthing center could be found, but it would be risky. And you'll have to swear not to fart around when the contractions start."
Somehow, the redhead mustered a smile, hoping that the older woman would understand that she appreciated the attempt, even if she could not accept it.
"At home, Gloria."
Her genuine appreciation for the stream of creative invective that flowed forth -- invective including imprecations to all of the deities of the major religions and colorful epithets involving estrogen and progesterone -- was curtailed when Barbara noted a movement from beside her. She just had time to catch her partner mouthing something that looked suspiciously like "talk to her later" before Frine calmed.
"Er, perhaps you should take some time, Barbara and -- "
This time, Barbara cut off her doctor without a twinge of guilt.
Again, she was quite certain that meaningful glances were being exchanged between Helena and her doctor. Unwilling to be treated as if she weren't present, she pinned her lover with a hard look; then, suspecting that a display of temper would gain her little, she took a moment to count to one hundred by primes. As she completed the exercise, she detected her doctor and her lover exchanging a long look, another word being mouthed by Helena. Deliberately, she repeated her exercise, this time going to one thousand before she pinned first Helena, then Gloria, with a long look and spoke very clearly.
"And if either one of you dare breathe the word 'hormones', I'll show you the full scope of redheaded hormones."
The words seemed to have more or less the desired effect. Barbara watched with some satisfaction as Gloria re-seated her glasses, apparently finding something of interest in the file on her desk, and Helena straightened in her chair. She chose to ignore what might have been a smirk dancing across her partner's features, simply nodding her agreement when the younger woman finally responded.
"Wouldn't dream of it, Red. Let's go get some pancakes."
In the darkness before dawn, blinking grudgingly into wakefulness, Barbara briefly assumed that the rumbling that had penetrated the first truly restful slumber she'd enjoyed in a month was her stomach. A following rumble disabused her of the notion while concurrently shaking the remaining tendrils of sleep from her mind.
Helena, of course.
Specifically, her Helena, nestled beside her in their big bed, nose burrowed into her shoulder, rumbling purr tickling her skin. For a moment, she wondered how she could have ever mistaken that sound for anything else, then let the thought fade.
Heaven knew, it had been long enough since she'd enjoyed this closeness with the other woman.
The sensation of her partner's hand kneeding softly against her side recalled her initial confusion, and, again, the redhead had to wonder how she could have presumed hunger after the tall stack she'd consumed the night before after they'd departed Gloria's office.
"C'mon, you owe me pancakes from yesterday," had been Helena's attempt at persuasion, and nothing more had been required save a promise from the vivacious brunette not to bring up matters pertaining to hospitals and plans for the birth of their daughter. Accordingly, they'd decamped to her favorite diner, a place she'd visited often back in the day after coming off late night patrols. Unhesitatingly, and to the visible appreciation of her companion, she'd ordered a lumberjack sized breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and bacon.
"What, no milkshake to go with that, Red?"
Although she'd suspected that she was having her leg pulled, Barbara had paused in her decimation of her dinner and given the suggestion due consideration. The idea hadn't been without appeal, however, mercifully, good sense had prevailed.
"I believe that coffee is more traditional, Hel," she'd finally allowed, not bothering to hide the regret in her tone.
After all, she'd already had the one cup per day that she, under the cajoling from her partners, had decided to allow herself during the pregnancy.
Refusing to dwell on the missing element in her feast, she'd finally settled her fork on her plate and come up for air.
"A chocolate shake might go better with tacos."
Barbara had been grateful that she'd been touching her napkin to her lips when she'd witnessed the comically appalled expression on her normally iron-stomached companion's features. There would have been no other way to hide her smile.
She'd waited as Helena had pushed her half-eaten short stack aside and taken a sip of juice.
"...Yeah, I can swing by school with that at lunch tomorrow if you want."
The offer had elicited a laugh and a demurral. Re-attacking her buckwheat pancakes, the redhead had flirted with the idea of probing her companion to see if, by any chance, Helena might be coming from the university when she delivered the offered stomach bomb. Ultimately, she'd opted to let the subject lie: Helena was an adult and quite capable of deciding whether she would continue the classes she'd started at NGU a few weeks before while under the influence of Quinn's mental reprogramming.
"You could always get a decaf."
Although Helena's suggestion had seemingly come from left field, Barbara had suspected that the other woman hadn't -- could not have -- missed the way she'd been tracking their waitress' progress through the diner to warm up other diners' coffee.
"What's the point, Hel?"
Finally, fully, stuffed, she'd pushed her plate aside and reached for her water.
"Yeah. Kind of like near-beer, huh?"
She'd smiled then been struck by a thought.
"Do you think those drinks at the club could be a problem for her, Hel?"
Dark brows had furrowed, then Helena's expression had cleared, presumably as she'd recalled their meeting at the dance club not quite two weeks before.
"Probably not, Barbara. After all, it was only two shots of vodka, and you haven't really been belting 'em back, have you?"
Barbara had shaken her head, suddenly grateful for the overwhelming depression that had kept her from the liquor cabinet while she'd been mourning her partner's presumed death.
"And," the younger woman had continued with a cheeky grin, "if the Peapod can handle your cancer, a couple of drinks won't phase her."
She'd managed a nod and a smile, yet had been unable to accept matters quite so easily or to dismiss the fear that had plagued her since learning about the mysterious disappearance of her cancer. Swirling the ice in her glass while Helena had picked over the remaining bacon from her plate, she'd again prodded at the possibility that there had been no cancer. Quinn was a doctor, with ties to various labs, and given the madwoman's delight in tormenting them, having lab results falsified would have been almost too easy.
Somehow, Barbara had forced herself to put aside an unsolvable mental debate about the degrees of evil between false cancer versus a real one, and somehow, probably because she'd shared it with Helena, the remainder of the evening and the long night's sleep had been peaceful. The nightmares that plagued Barbara had been kept at bay, and if the volume of Helena's purring were indication her partner was likewise untroubled by dark thoughts.
With her eyes finally moderately adjusted to the darkness of the room, Barbara shifted her head a few inches to drink in the sight of her bedmate.
True to her usual M.O., Helena had transformed into a human octopus during the night and was plastered as close as physically possible without, perhaps, being on the other side of her. Smiling at the thought, Barbara gently brushed the dark bangs back from her bedmate's forehead, automatically noting that the length was a good two inches longer than Helena traditionally wore her hair.
Another influence of the good doctor, she assumed.
It was not a bad look, she had to admit. It was, in fact, reminiscent of the long hair that Helena had sported through her youth, until things had changed so drastically for her -- for them all -- that night eight years before. Perhaps in allowing it to grow again, Helena was signaling that she was somehow reaching peace with the memories of her mother.
Not entirely certain how she felt about the means used to reach that potential end, Barbara focused on the here and now: the softness of the dark hair under her fingertips; the solid strength of the arm embracing her from the side; the warmth encompassing her from within and without; the tickle of a pert nose nuzzling into her shoulder; the almost sub-vocal rumbling that she felt echoed through her own upper body.
Pierced by a bolt of something bright and almost painful, the redhead brushed her lips against her partner's brow. The volume of Helena's purring increased fractionally, and Barbara was seized by a desire to wrap the other woman in her arms.
For a moment, familiar feelings of loss and anger licked through her over the impossibility of simply turning onto her side to embrace her lover, over the fact that, forever more, such a small, unobtrusive movement was beyond her without numerous machinations and careful choreography. Still, Barbara had to admit that the situation was hardly new, and, with Helena back by her side, focusing on the small inconveniences scarcely seemed to be a good use of the limited time available before she had to get up for work.
Accordingly, she gave a mental shrug and twisted her upper body forty-five degrees, reaching down to work her leg into position. Mid-motion, she ceased her efforts, working not to laugh: seemingly unconsciously, Helena had snuggled closer and hooked her calf against her leg, seamlessly assisting in the process.
Dear heavens, how she loved this woman.
More or less facing her somnolent partner, Barbara lowered her face to bury her nose in dark hair. Opening her mouth, opening her senses, she breathed in the delicate citrus of shampoo and the deeper, more complex scent of her partner. For a few heartbeats, she held her breath, moving her head ever so slightly to allow Helena's hair to caress her face. Finally, unable to resist, she placed another ghosting kiss to her lover's forehead.
The resulting tickle of Helena's hand clenching against her stomach undid her.
Still, somehow gently, Barbara lost herself in dusting tender, open-mouthed kisses to her companion's brow, her eyelids, her cheeks, and her nose. A languorous stretch alerted her that she had disturbed Helena's slumber, and she gently raked her nails down the brunette's spine, almost whimpering at the soft hiss of pleasure her motion had engendered.
Helena's voice was rough with sleep, but when Barbara pulled away a few inches and focused, the gold of her partner's eyes suggested that she was awakening rapidly.
"Good morning, Hel."
Again, she inched close, charmed when the younger woman stretched to meet her, rubbing their noses together gently.
"Having trouble sleeping?"
Feeling the corners of her mouth curl in a smile, Barbara answered honestly.
"I didn't want to."
She felt the sweep of thick lashes against her cheeks as Helena blinked. Another mouth-watering stretch followed before the brunette answered.
"That's good. I thought that maybe the pancakes were coming back to get you."
Barbara's laugh was cut short when she felt herself rolled onto her back, Helena gracefully following to blanket her.
"So, you're awake, huh?"
Even in the darkness, she had no trouble detecting the bright glint in those amazing golden eyes.
"Mmm-hmm," was the best she could manage as warm lips brushed her ear.
"And, you're feeling alright, huh?"
This time, arching into the warm wetness tracing her ear, she could only nod.
Perhaps their position was beginning to affect Helena, if the monosyllabic murmur were an indication.
Working to gather her own wits, the redhead swallowed with difficulty.
"Why is that, Sweetie?"
The delicious contact ended, and she held her breath when the other woman pushed up on one arm. When Helena's free hand touched her jaw, she shivered, forgetting her question until she heard the response.
"Cuz I haven't gotten my turn yet."
Turning into the caress, she struggled to make out the meaning of the words, finally breathing another question around the kiss she placed in her lover's palm.
She saw the outline of the shaggy head nodding seriously.
"I haven't gotten to touch you yet."
Barbara managed a brief nod of understanding, allowing that their interlude the morning before had been cut short by the sudden return of Helena's memory. Her nod became an encouragement, and she shivered as a strong hand ghosted across her stomach.
"So fuckin' beautiful."
The words rumbled against her throat, felt more than heard, but Barbara had no trouble interpreting them. Likewise the whisper that followed.
"I need to touch you so bad."
The minute portion of her analytical self that still functioned distantly wondered how a few gentle touches and a handful of words could arouse her so. Mercifully, her less analytical side stepped to the forefront.
"I want that -- want you, Helena."
Again, Barbara arched into the sharp teeth at her throat, not at all ashamed of her moan of pleasure.
"Touch you -- "
Her murmur of approval faded when she felt her bedmate shift, warm breath whispering through her heavy tee, and she saw the dark head moving down her chest.
The words coincided with her shirt being bunched upward and Barbara squinted in the darkness to take in the hunger in bright eyes, the taut set of Helena's jaw as she drew close to her newly bared skin. A flicker of memory, or imagined memory, from the billiard hall danced behind her eyelids, and something akin to a shiver coursed through her again. Instinctively, she raised one hand, catching the side of the younger woman's jaw to guide her upward, bringing them nose to nose again.
"Use your hands, Sweetheart."
She saw a flash of something -- puzzlement, consternation -- and brushed her lips against her lover's.
"I want you right here."
This time, the sound of approval was more of a low growl, and Barbara had no trouble identifying her shiver for the pleasure it signaled. Unfortunately, mere seconds after, she snapped to reality and captured one of the hands roving lightly across her skin even as her internal chronometer automatically did the math. Witnessing the incredulity in her lover's face, she raised one hand to trace the perpetually raised left brow that echoed Helena's confusion. Genuine regret colored her tone when she spoke.
"We only have eighteen minutes before the alarm, Hel."
She waited as Helena's head sank to her chest, uncertain just what response to expect. A wet snort gusted her PAL tee shirt, and she detected one blue eye peering balefully over the swell of her chest.
"As mood setting goes, Red, you kind of suck at it."
Her own words were distinctly contrite.
"I'll try to work on that."
Helena's, cheerfully unconcerned.
"Nah. We've got more important stuff, and besides-- "
A lithe body slid against hers, briefly making her forget all things time- and mood-related.
"-- do you know home many times I can come in eighteen minutes just from touching you?"
Suddenly breathless, Barbara could only manage two words.
The whisper of soft lips against her jaw brought her hands above her head to grip the headboard. A moment later, she eased her grip and smirked when she heard her lover's next words.
"Empirical research, huh?"
The tender bite of sharp teeth against her neck wiped the smile from her lips.
Barbara traced the edges of her lips with her tongue and swallowed thickly.
"It is the best way, Hel."
Wending her fingers into dark hair, she felt the other woman's enthusiastic nod, then was struck by a happy thought.
"Don't forget the snooze alarm."
Instantly, Helena's features moved into view, and she held her breath as a predatory smile crept across her lover's face.
"Yeah. Seven more minutes, right?"
Instantly, Barbara did the math, her own smile, she suspected, mirroring Helena's.
"Time for 39% more orgasms, Sweetie."
Helena's laugh was contagious; her challenge, completely inviting.
"Hell, let's get started then."
"Are you sure you don't mind, Barbara?"
Still caught up in attempting to decipher the absurdly complicated schematic, the redhead barely glanced over her glasses.
"My using the Delphi. I mean -- "
The shy hesitance in the other woman's voice was enough of a clue. However, when Barbara peripherally noted her swiveling away from the oversized plasma monitor to face her, she settled the pages on her lap and looked up to give her full attention to the conversation.
"-- I can do my assignment at the lab on campus, you know."
A bit of advice from her Aunt Barbara whispered through her forebrain: Keep it simple. Accordingly, she shook her head once and smiled.
"I'm quite certain, Dinah."
The stubborn hesitance in her ward's face suggested that further reassurance might be needed. Fishing the stereo remote from the pocket of her chair, the redhead clicked twice to lower the volume on the CD mix that Dinah had shyly presented her with earlier. With apologies to Enya, she unlocked the brakes of her chair and followed her own road of the moment up the ramp to join her ward on the Delphi platform.
"You said yourself that there's always a huge wait for the university's computers."
She came to a stop beside her newest protege and tried not to appear too obvious in her appraisal of the code filling the screen. Instead, she focused on the blonde head bobbing beside her.
"Uh huh. And the Delphi really screams compared to those creaky old Solaris systems."
"I dare say."
Although just that morning she'd been discussing the concept of hubris and the Greek gods with her sophomores, Barbara couldn't fault herself a small puff of pride at the assessment. It was, after all, true that only the very best government systems could rival her Delphi.
She tamped down on her moment of ego when Dinah pushed a lock of hair behind her ear.
"-- I know you need to stay on top of stuff in the city."
Barbara felt her brows knit as she considered just what might be implied by the teen's words. Ultimately, she chose to go with the facts.
"Since Quinn's disappeared, crime hasn't been much of an issue."
She didn't miss the way Dinah's shoulders seemed to sag a tiny bit and made explicit another point.
"And, Dinah," she lightly rested one hand on the young woman's forearm, "I like having you here."
Smiling, she removed her hand and met cornflower blue eyes.
"I feel like I never get to see you any more."
The younger woman's blush was, Barbara noted with a fond smile, right on schedule. Dinah's duck behind blonde bangs was a bit less expected.
Barbara bent to catch her ward's eyes, returning the tentative smile she saw forming.
"I mean, I miss yo-- It. This."
Face now aflame, Dinah nevertheless stumbled on, and Barbara's pride swelled again.
"Uh, you know."
Apparently throwing caution to the wind, the teen lunged forward, and Barbara blinked under the onslaught of a fierce hug.
"I've missed everything."
Re-gathering her wits, the redhead returned the embrace with equal fervor.
"I have, too, Dinah."
They only held the position for a few seconds before awkwardly disentangling. Barbara just stopped herself from needlessly straightening her shirt even as she attempted not to observe that Dinah was likewise occupied in smoothing her jeans as she resettled herself at the Delphi.
Clearly, there was nothing for it but a smile and a laugh.
"Thank you, Dinah."
She nearly laughed again at the puzzlement washing the young woman's pale features.
"Just for being you," she managed to clarify, straight-faced.
A grin took any sting out of the sarcasm, and Barbara returned the smile.
Great Ganymede, but it was good to have things returning to some semblance of normalcy.
"Still -- "
Given the exchange they'd just shared, Barbara found herself baffled by the return of Dinah's reticence.
"-- maybe I shouldn't be fooling around on the Delphi. I could mess it up or there could be an alarm that I'd miss or -- "
Her ward's mouth shut with an almost audible pop, and blonde brows quirked.
"I trust your judgment."
Hesitating for just a moment, Barbara weighed her options before deciding to tackle the elephant in the room.
"It appears that it's better than mine in some situations."
A startled blink gave it away, and the older woman mentally gave thanks for the teen's inability to hide her thoughts and feelings. Poised for her companion's reaction -- whatever it might be -- Barbara mentally winced when she recognized the lyrics quietly filling the room.
She still lives with her mom outside the city
Down that street about a half a mile
And all her friends tell her she's so pretty
But she'd be a whole lot prettier
If she smiled once in a while
`Cause even her smile looks like a frown
She's seen her share of devils in this angel town
"But, uh, what if, uhm, she does something?"
It did not go unnoticed that the girl was unwilling to speak the name of their tormentor.
"I mean, you are still tracking for her and all, aren't you?"
Exhaling slowly, Barbara briefly pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger.
Perhaps some concrete facts would get the ball rolling.
"I've had to limit the scope of the facial recognition 'bots I deployed," she offered, working mightily not to sound too peevish about the situation.
The software she'd jury-rigged after Quinn's visit at the hospital, piggybacked onto her web crawling bots, had enabled her to have eyes in almost every internet-enabled security camera around the globe. Had Quinn put her face, even heavily disguised, in front of any ATM, airport security camera, or department store shoplifting system, Barbara would have known about it.
"But, why? I thought they were working."
Smiling her appreciation for the affront in her companion's tone, Barbara looked down to inspect her nails.
"Well, they were consuming quite a bit of bandwidth."
She looked up, registering the unspoken "So?" in Dinah's expression and smiled at her own expense.
"It, er, brought them to the attention of various system operators."
This time, Dinah's confusion was almost palpable, and the cyber-vigilante spilled the beans.
"The I.C.U. worm?"
It took one startled blink before the pieces clicked into place, and Barbara waited patiently as her ward attempted to keep a straight face. Inevitably, Dinah lost the battle.
"That -- That was you?"
"Indeed," she allowed dryly.
It had been, she thought, a lot of sound and fury over little. Granted, she'd been a bit distracted when she'd deployed her army of 'bots and hadn't taken her usual care in streamlining them; however, the two week hue and cry that had ensued when one of the little bits of code had been found and reported to Newsweek Magazine had been... well, unnecessary. Nevertheless, having rediscovered Helena, Barbara had bowed to the inevitable and, with the press of a button, the so-called worm had simply vanished from cyberspace.
"At this point, Dinah, I only have them in specific locations in New Gotham and a handful of international airports."
There was no need to make explicit the fact that catching Quinn had become exponentially more difficult, and again Barbara waited as Dinah worked through the implications. When the girl finally looked up, Barbara found herself unable to read everything in her eyes. Her words clarified things neatly.
"I'm really sorry I caused you to let her get away."
Temporarily at a loss, Barbara held her breath while Dinah chewed at her bottom lip before whispering an addendum.
There was no need for further clarification.
Barbara knew that that terrible night after Quinn's visit at the hospital, when they'd all feared Helena dead and she had planned to catch Quinn at the airport with a satchel of C-4 taped to her chest, would haunt them for a long time. They had made their apologies the day after Dinah and she had nearly come to blows during the teen's attempts to stop her suicidal venture; yet, acceptance of both their parts was slow in coming.
She forced herself to wait until pale blue eyes peered through corn silk lashes.
The young woman's jaw worked, but Barbara was having none of it. Pushing forward, she brought them knee-to-knee and ducked down to meet her ward's eyes.
"Don't apologize for something I'll be forever grateful to you for."
She registered the hesitant lift of her companion's hand and stretched out her own in invitation. As her palm met Dinah's, she allowed some of her walls to come down, waiting as blue eyes widened in surprise.
Inhaling, Barbara forced herself to speak words long overdue.
"You showed great courage and more morality than I can ever hope to claim. You stopped me from doing something inconceivable."
"I... I didn't know if -- "
With a brief shake of her head, the older woman cut her off.
"No, Dinah. Just... Thank you."
And with that, Barbara finally saw something lift from the teen's shoulders. She gratefully returned the squeeze of her hand, finding herself blinking rapidly when she heard Dinah's reply.
Since she certainly didn't have a clue about the proper way to wrap up this sort of interaction, the redhead barely suppressed a smirk when she spied a small green light blinking in the top corner of the plasma display. Toning down her relief, she smiled and inclined her head toward the monitor even as she reached for the comm set next to the mouse pad.
"I copy, Huntress. Is everything okay?"
Trust Helena to show up, even remotely, when she was needed.
<"Sure is, Oracle. I'm free now -- ">
Barbara felt herself nodding as she automatically checked the on-screen clock, confirming that her partner's shift at The Dark Horse had just ended.
<"-- and wondered if you've got any asses for me to kick tonight.">
Hearing a poorly muffled snicker from beside her, she turned to fix Dinah with a stern look, a look that she had no hope of holding. Quite cognizant of the smile bleeding through to her tone, she cleared her throat and spoke primly.
"Things are pretty quiet tonight, Huntress. Why don't you come in?"
<"Are you sure? I could run a sweep or -- ">
Rolling her eyes, she interrupted cheerfully.
"Quite certain. You were up early this morning."
The second the words crossed her lips and she heard her kick-ass partner's snicker, Barbara was grateful that she was no longer in physical contact with her telepathic ward. She suspected that her blush alone was telling enough.
<"Copy that, Oracle, even if I was hoping for a late night, too.">
Doing her utmost to ignore the almost visible leer in her earpiece, she toggled off the comm set and turned toward the ramp, speaking over her shoulder.
"As for you, Dinah, why don't you get back to your program?"
By the time she heard a soft thump from the balcony heralding Helena's arrival, she'd managed to re-engross herself in her schematic, and the steady sound of keys clicking from the platform suggested that Dinah had likewise put her giggling aside. Accordingly, the redhead's smile was quite full and entirely welcoming when the French doors swung open and her cat-footed partner strode into the living area; however, when she witnessed the barrage of emotions flashing across Helena's features, she knew that her smile became just a trifle smug.
"Hey, Red. Uh,"
The brunette gracefully shrugged out of her duster and raised a hand in laconic greeting.
Barbara wasn't fooled for a moment. It was the first meeting between the two since the return of Helena's memory less than two days before; it was also the first meeting, barring a brief run-in at the coffee shop, since misperceptions and Quinn's influence had led to an...
Well, frankly, an intimate moment between Helena and Dinah.
At that point, Barbara felt heat touching her own cheeks: Nothing as violent as the red flooding Dinah's face, however, awkward nonetheless.
"Missed you today, Red."
The words were barely a whisper, ghosting her ear as Helena bent to buss her cheek. Barbara was having none of it.
Before her partner had a chance to straighten, she slid one hand to the back of her neck and drew her down, allowing their mouths to meet. Long, wonderful moments later, she realized that her own equilibrium had been considerably improved, even if it were at the expense of Dinah's ever-deepening blush.
"I missed you, too, Sweetie."
Reluctantly, she released the other woman, then quirked her lips.
"Although I'm not upset that you didn't bring tacos by school today."
Helena's bark of laughter, shyly echoed from the platform by the youngest member of the party, released much of the lingering tension from the room, and Barbara happily resettled her glasses and prepared to delve back into her current project. A pronounced silence once again drew her gaze from the printout.
Craning upward, she followed her partner's eyes to the mess on her lap.
"What gives, Barbara?"
Ignoring the hint of concern in the question, the redhead shrugged and gestured to the pile of yarn and knitting pattern she was attempting to decipher.
"I suppose I'm nesting."
She blandly met the faintly appalled gaze, holding her breath expectantly as deep blue eyes narrowed speculatively.
Draping her coat over the back of the couch, the brunette oozed disbelief.
"Right. I think you're just psyching yourself up for tomorrow night."
Barbara felt her brow furrow until she remembered the dinner she'd arranged for them to have with her father; by then, Helena was barreling along full-steam.
"You think he's gonna go great ape on me for knocking you up?"
The question evoked a quick snort of laughter, and Barbara instinctively opened her mouth to reassure the other woman. However, considering her father, she could only snap her jaw shut with a noisy click.
"Er, perhaps," she finally allowed.
One dark brow rose eloquently before, with an easy grin, her lover turned toward the Delphi platform.
"Che sara, right, Red?"
Barbara nodded whole-heartedly, feeling her heart leap into her throat when Helena turned her attention to Dinah.
"Hey, D. You wanna help me make some cocoa?"
Maybe, Barbara realized with a blink, it could be as simple as that: a seemingly casual question, the bob of a blonde head, the sight of her proteges playfully bumping shoulders on the way to the kitchen. Almost laughing, she raised the stereo remote again and rewound, then picked up her knitting needles again.
Everything's gonna be all right
Everything's gonna be all right
Rockabye, rockabye,rockabye, bye, bye, bye, bye
"I've got it."
Not waiting for an acknowledgment, Barbara made her way down the oak-paneled front hallway to the door. Purely out of habit, since she was quite certain who was waiting, she checked the monitor, and then, flirting with a smile, she punched in the codes for the alarm and opened the door.
She noted that when her partner returned the greeting, she didn't quite make eye contact, clearly too occupied with peering past her toward the living room. Not altogether unsympathetic, she pushed the door shut and captured the younger woman's hand.
"Relax. Dad's in the kitchen."
The brunette's nervous tension eased.
Smiling in spite of herself, Barbara gave a mental shrug and tugged her down to her lap.
"I missed you today."
Although the words, and the brush of her mouth across full lips, were quite sincere, they also seemed to serve as an effective distraction for her partner's nerves. Point of fact, when Helena leaned into the caress, then returned it ten-fold, the redhead had to admit that she'd quite forgotten her own mild case of nerves.
Not quite certain what Helena had been affirming, she nevertheless had to agree.
A moment later, the question that whispered across her ear returned her to her senses.
"What's your dad gonna think if he finds us making out like teenagers?"
Wryly, Barbara had to acknowledge that such a discovery would be a first for her father given the limited amount of dating she'd done. Yet, captivated by the softness of the skin she was tracing with the pads of her fingers, the issue simply didn't seem that pressing.
"You'll hear him before he gets here."
Sensing the laughter bubbling up, she opened to drink it in, not surprised when the sound morphed into a rumbling purr.
"Dunno 'bout that, Red."
Somehow, Barbara retained enough of her wits to be puzzled by the admission, and she pulled back a few inches.
"Why not, Hel?"
The other woman hadn't mentioned any changes in her meta-enhanced senses since her run-in with Quinn, however, perhaps she'd been hesitant to do so.
"My heart's beating so loud I can't hear anything else."
Breathless, Barbara captured her lover's face between her hands and focused on the deep violet of her eyes.
"From this? Or are you still nervous?"
The brunette turned to press a kiss to her palm before gracefully rising from the chair and tugging down her shirt.
"Little of both, I guess."
Barbara turned toward the living room with a chuckle.
"I suppose that's an improvement anyway."
Helena's answering laugh seemed just a bit forced.
"Yeah, but I'd still take last night's talk with Dinah over this any day."
Hands poised above the wheels of the chair, Barbara blinked, supposing that the words were true enough. After a protracted period of milk warming the night before, the two young women had emerged from the kitchen -- sans cocoa -- with Dinah squealing her indignation to her companion's ribbing.
"-- Even with my memory gone, I knew you needed any pointers you could get."
"No way, Helena! I was sacrificing myself to try to jog your memory."
And, to Barbara's delight and slight amazement, the relationship between the two had been returned to familiar footing. While she could only hope for such an easy outcome from this evening's meeting, she attempted to marshal her best confident tone.
"Don't worry so much, Hel."
She looked over her shoulder and smiled.
"I've already checked, and the ammo's all locked away."
Ignoring the offended huff from behind her, she wheeled in to the living room, raising her voice cheerfully.
"Dad? Helena's here."
Given how quickly her father appeared from the kitchen, the redhead suspected that he'd been waiting for an all clear. Not surprising, considering his level of delight when she'd called two days before to let him know that Helena was back.
Barbara winced just a bit when her partner was wrapped in an enthusiastic bear hug.
"I can't tell you how glad I am to have you back."
The two held the hug for a few more beats, and Barbara felt herself warm at their genuine affection. When they finally disentangled, she was hard-pressed to hide a grin at the crimson blush painting her partner's cheeks.
"-- really good to have my memories back, Mr. G-- "
A raised finger cut short the acknowledgment; however, Barbara suspected that the severity of the gesture was handicapped by the frilly gingham apron her father was sporting.
"-- uh, Jim."
"I dare say, Helena. I dare say."
The ex-police commissioner pinned them both with a long look.
"We were all just worried sick."
Seeing the helpless lift of dark brows, Barbara finally jumped in.
"I don't think it was any picnic for Helena either, Dad."
Steel blue eyes met green before the elder Gordon stroked his handlebar mustache. For some reason, Barbara was inordinately pleased that it was finally returning to its full glory after being denuded during Quinn's estrogen attacks on the city during the summer.
Waving a hand in invitation toward the wet bar, he continued, "Barbara said that Quinn dragged you off to Michigan?"
Not missing a covert question from the younger woman, Barbara winked and nodded toward the bar, then settled back as Helena poured two scotches and launched into the parts of the story they'd decided to share.
Stepping lightly around the bar, she offered one glass to her host.
"She brainwashed me, then dropped me naked in the woods of the Upper Peninsula."
Barbara pursed lips when her father's drink apparently went down wrong, then smiled when Helena thumped him on the back.
"You okay, Mr., er, Jim?"
Wiping his watering eyes, the white-haired man settled his drink on an end table and coughed again.
"Yes, thank you, Helena. Did you say naked?"
Following the exchange like a tennis match, Barbara casually raised one hand to her lips while Helena swallowed her drink with relish.
"That's right. Butt naked."
The combined laughter of the two Gordons covered the sound of Helena thumping her glass onto the bar, and Barbara couldn't help but admire the way her partner paused for maximum effect.
"Mosquitoes the size of birds, and me with nothing but a fig leaf."
A bushy unibrow rose over twinkling eyes.
"A fig leaf, eh? Didn't know they were native to that area."
Helena's shrug was nonchalant as she trailed behind him to the kitchen.
"Well, maybe it was poison ivy."
Rolling her eyes, Barbara unlocked the brake of her chair and followed slowly, attempting to remember when they'd added that little detail to the story. When she arrived, Helena was continuing cheerfully as she easily moved from the hutch to the table with placemats and napkins.
"-- thought it was some kind of hazing, but I finally managed to hitch a ride on a cattle truck."
Barbara headed to the silverware drawer, grateful that her father's response saved her the need to say anything about her exuberant partner's tale.
"I can imagine that any trucker would be hard pressed not to stop for you standing naked by the road."
Hoping that her snort of amusement would be mistaken for the rumble of her stomach -- her father's trademark Salisbury steak was quite aromatic -- she primly began laying out place settings. Given the volume of Helena's laughter, she suspected that she needn't have worried.
"Well, I don't know about that, Jim,"
Barbara settled herself at her place while her partner gracefully ported two heaping plates to the table.
"--but I'd sure rather be eating cows than riding with them."
Laughing, their host joined them at the table with his own plate and a bowl of mashed potatoes.
"I wish you'd tell her that, Helena."
The redhead felt her eyes nearly cross in vexation when she sensed two pairs of blue eyes trained on her. Somehow she managed to smile and looked across the table to her father.
"You need to eat more, Barbara. You lost some weight during all this."
Surreptitiously eying the growing bulge that was, as yet, hidden under her overshirt, the redhead merely nodded and accepted another heaping spoonful of potatoes with a smile.
She tucked into her meal on autopilot, wondering just how she had managed to ignore or rationalize the sign of the growing life within her. To her relief, another question directed to Helena drew her from rather dark musing on the power of grief and denial.
"Barbara tells me that you're taking classes at NGU?"
Immediately, Barbara perked to attention, belatedly hoping that she'd not been too obvious.
"Yeah. Quinn got me thinking I was a coed or something and now, well,"
The brunette smiled and offered a half-shrug as she reached for a dinner roll.
"-- I figure it's paid for so I may as well keep going."
Nearly ready to pump her fist in the air in delight, Barbara almost missed it.
Her father's sage nod suggested that the vague reference had been taken as she was certain Helena intended: that somehow Helena was attending on Harley's money. However, the younger woman's artful nonchalance was not, she decided, entirely convincing: given how the psycho therapist had programmed Helena to deal with other bills, Barbara wasn't so certain.
Spearing a brussel sprout, she pushed the thought aside.
The source of Helena's financing for the semester was something she'd quite deliberately opted not to investigate. It was, in fact, something she continued to work assiduously not to contemplate.
In the spirit of willful denial, she focused again on the moment at hand and Helena's humorous description of a run-in with a herd of disgruntled cows in a dark field during her astronomy lab one evening. Their shared laughter was full, but Barbara sensed a shift in the air just before her father spoke.
"As odd as it is that she chose to send you to college, Helena, I still don't understand Quinn's fascination with you after all this time."
A white brow furrowed, and Jim Gordon raised his fork in emphasis. There was no way that Barbara could miss the way that her partner seemed to be sinking low in her chair.
"After all, you were only one patient among many. Why on earth," he paused to pop the final bite of his entree into his mouth, "do you suppose she targeted you two?"
"We're pregnant," Barbara heard herself blurting out.
Long having prided herself on her ability to act rapidly in a crisis, she was, nevertheless, a bit startled by her own choice in this case. However, as diversionary tactics went, she had to concede that it was quite successful.
Ever-so-carefully, her father lowered his fork to the accompaniment of Helena discretely coughing into her napkin. Eventually, the senior Gordon rested his fork against his plate and, equally deliberately, turned to face her.
"I'm sorry, Barbara, but what was that?"
The snicker from the other edge of the table was almost inaudible.
Resisting the urge to punt the whole conversation back to her partner, Barbara took a deep breath and spoke with great cheer.
"You remember what we talked about when Helena was over for dinner a few months ago?"
Clearly growing more bewildered by the moment, her father pursed his lips, absently patting at his the pocket of his shirt, possibly hunting for his pipe.
"May Parker, wasn't it? And her nephew?"
Why was nothing ever simple?
"Uhm, no. It was while Helena was visiting her," Barbara hedged, her voice sounding strangled to her own ears. "About, er, your becoming a grandfather...?"
A bushy unibrow rose with alarming speed, and the white-haired man began patting at his other pockets as if to put out a fire.
"Well, you are," she tacked on, then corrected herself. "Will be."
The pronouncement finally stilled the futile hunt for the Meerschaum, and Barbara gnawed at her lower lip until her father began to smile broadly.
"Well, this is dandy news. Just wonderful."
Her sense of relief fled when he turned to beam at her partner.
"I hope it's not incorrect to offer special congratulations to you, Helena. I hadn't thought you'd be quite ready to become pregnant, but I'm delighted. Just delighted."
Caught between her father's chortling and the helpless lift of dark brows, Barbara deliberately throttled the napkin in her lap and piped up.
"Er, no, Dad. What I mean to say is that I'm pregnant."
Her father's brow lowered slowly.
"I don't understand, Barbie."
For perhaps the first time that she could remember, her dad sounded plaintive. Lost.
"I thought that the surgery last month..."
The redhead sighed silently, regretting at the moment that she'd woven such a carefully circumspect veil of partial truths.
"I did, too, Dad."
Somehow she mustered a laugh at her own expense.
"Apparently, when they opened me up, they discovered a spontaneous remission that I didn't have time to learn about until, well, a few days ago."
She struggled not to squirm under a long, appraising look, inordinately relieved when her father nodded once and turned his attention on Helena. The glare that he fixed on the brunette, Barbara suspected, would have made the most hardened of criminals confess.
Perhaps, Barbara suddenly realized as a host of memories of being on the receiving end of that look came to mind, it was the genesis of her own patented classroom look.
"You do plan to do right by my daughter?"
Barbara barely suppressed a smile when her normally brash partner swallowed audibly, clearly having missed the hint of a twinkle in her father's eyes.
She thought she detected Helena's shoulders straightening fractionally and wondered what might be coming next. Her partner's next syllable answered the question, and caused both Gordons to burst into laughter.
Those awkward years have hurried by - why do they fly away?
Why is it, sir, that children grow up to be people one day?
What takes the place of climbing trees and dirty knees in the world outside?
What is there for you I can buy?
If you wanted the world I'd surround it with a wall
I'd scrawl in words with letters ten feet tall --
A frisson of awareness raised the fine hair on Barbara's neck, and instinctively she turned, just in time to see the shadow crossing the threshold of the open door to the balcony. Briefly, her eyes ticked up to the clock, confirming that Helena was much earlier than she'd anticipated. Not at all offput by that, she paused 10,000 Maniacs, quite aware of why she'd had that particular song on the brain since the previous week's dinner with her father.
"I didn't expect you quite so early, Helena."
She allowed a hint of a question to color her greeting, having anticipated that her partner's lab exercise at the art department would take much longer. The brunette's answering smile was nonchalant.
"I got itchy feet."
Returning the smile, Barbara quirked a brow.
"Itchy feet, Hel?"
The younger woman nodded sagely while she dropped her book bag and duster onto the sofa.
"Kind of like you should be itchy all over from sitting in front of the Delphi all day."
A second crimson brow joined the first, and Barbara pursed her lips as her companion sauntered up the ramp to join her on the platform.
"What makes you think I've been here all day?"
True, she hadn't actually left her station since Helena had departed hours before, however she wasn't certain she cared for her partner's assumption. However, apart from some dramatic eye-rolling, Helena didn't bother to answer her question directly.
"C'mon, Red, it's Fall. Let's celebrate."
She glanced again at the two dozen open terminal windows on her monitor and the tweaks she was making to automate many of the monitoring and routing tasks that she normally performed. With crime on the downswing, there was simply no need to baby-sit the Delphi.
"Technically, Hel," she looked back up with a smile, "autumn began over three weeks ago."
Somehow, the redhead sensed that her partner was completely unimpressed with her accuracy.
A shapely rear end settled next to the mouse pad, effectively preventing Barbara from accessing it.
"The air is crisp; the only clouds in the sky are pretty ones; and the leaves are the color of your hair. And -- "
A slender index finger raised in emphasis.
"-- whatever you're working on can't be that important. Hell, we haven't even been running sweeps lately."
Opting to ignore the subtext in the statement, the redhead smiled.
"What is it you're suggesting, Hel?"
When her partner cranked up the wattage of her smile, Barbara readied herself for whatever might follow.
"Let's play hooky."
Briefly, Barbara flirted with the possibility that her companion was searching for ways to get out of another poetry writing assignment. Nevertheless, she took the invitation at face value.
" 'Play hooky'?" She encapsulated the phrase in air quotes. "It's Saturday, Helena."
Her breath caught in her throat when the younger woman slid from the table, gracefully insinuating herself between her chair and the desk. When she knelt before her and rested her fingertips on her thighs, Barbara suspected that their little debate had just entered new territory.
"Okay, Red. Let's just play."
Helena's smile was, Barbara had to concede, extremely inviting. Sifting dark hair between her fingers, she gave her own indulgent smile free reign.
"Play, eh? Is this indoor or outdoor play, Sweetheart?"
She shivered, very close to giving in, when a kiss ghosted her palm. A leaden heartbeat later, when her lover captured her hand and began nibbling at her thumb, she recalled herself enough to make out the reply.
"Depends on whether you want to try something different."
Working for a smile, she gently removed her hand from that talented mouth and brushed overlong bangs from deep blue eyes.
"Getting leaves all over your back."
The waggle of dark brows evoked a laugh and a moment of genuine regret; however, glancing at her monitor, she shook her head slowly.
"I wish I could, but I really need to finish here. With the baby and planning for the birthing center and such, there's just not much time."
The younger woman nodded, and Barbara mentally gave thanks that Helena was not gloating over the fact that she was gradually giving ground on the issue of a non-do-it-yourself birth. Still, she saw something in those expressive eyes, something shuttered so quickly she realized that she could have imagined it... or pretended that she had.
"Helena? What is it?"
She marshaled her patience, waiting while Helena inhaled, then stood and paced to the side of the desk.
"At the hospital, just before she finished throttling me?"
Dark brows rose, and Barbara simply nodded.
"Well, Quinn told me that I caused your cancer."
She'd been hoping that the madwoman had been lying when she'd revealed that she'd shared that bit of information with Helena.
Somehow, Barbara held her partner's gaze, feeling the muscles in her jaw tic as she clenched her teeth. She forced herself to release her own tension and chose her words carefully.
"It's possible that some of the goo that The Joker hit you with carried certain toxins that your metabolism... shrugged off."
The younger woman's countenance visibly darkened.
"And I passed it on to you, right?"
A host of equivocations and scientific rationalizations and demurrals flew through her mind. Ultimately, the redhead dismissed them and nodded once.
"Along with the cure, Helena."
Stretching out, she snagged her lover's hand and drew it to her abdomen.
"Your genetics saved us both."
Barbara had to force herself to keep breathing steadily, to radiate absolute certainty. Eventually, she saw some of the tension leave the brunette.
Not quite certain, she tilted her head and searched her lover's eyes.
Full lips quirked ruefully.
"I guess it has to be. Uh, I'm just -- "
No stranger to rough segues from awkward topics, Barbara nodded her understanding when Helena jerked a thumb toward the couch and hopped from the platform.
"-- gonna be over here."
Allowing her partner time to regroup, Barbara lost herself in her programming again until something penetrated her concentration.
Rather, the absence of sound from the big screen.
Puzzled, she looked over to the living area, needlessly confirming that Helena hadn't even turned the unit on. Instead, the cant of the dark head that was barely visible over the tall back of the sofa and the distinct sound of a page in a book being turned suggested that the younger woman was engaged in other pursuits. Since Helena had always claimed that she studied better with the television on -- and remote control in hand -- Barbara's curiosity got the best of her.
"What are you working on, Hel?"
She smiled when a shaggy head popped up, then squinted when Helena raised a book for her inspection. The cover was a familiar black and yellow, but she couldn't make out which entry in the series it was.
"Oh, wait -- "
Laughing, the brunette vaulted the couch and bounded onto the platform to offer the book for closer inspection.
"Here you go, Mr. Magoo."
A sharp retort having to do with Jim Bacchus and bald cartoon figures died on her tongue when Barbara made out the title.
Unix For Dummies.
Feeling her eyebrows creeping toward her hairline, she read it again.
"Hardly that, Hel."
The redhead succumbed to the temptation to roll her eyes when Helena's patented hang-dog expression made an appearance.
"Hey. I've gotta start somewhere."
After prodding at that statement for a moment, she bit the bullet.
"But why? Have you picked up a computer class?"
Heaven knew where the younger woman would find the time.
"Well, for starters -- "
The brunette shifted her weight from side to side.
"I think I found out that learning's not so terrible."
Pushing aside some decidedly mixed feelings about the fact that Quinn's chicanery had led Helena to that insight, Barbara reached out to grasp the younger woman's hand.
"And," she prompted lightly.
She thought she detected a hint of embarrassed sulkiness in the word and pursed her lips against a smile.
" -- if you're all nesting, I've gotta hold my own on Delphi duty now."
Once again allowing her smile free reign, Barbara plucked the book from the other woman and tossed it onto the desk. With a gentle tug, she coaxed her lover into her lap.
"Hmmm, I see."
She punctuated the pronouncement by burying her hands in her partner's hair and pulling her close, not missing the spark that flared in violet eyes.
"And, just what -- "
Interrupting herself, the redhead leaned in and traced the shell of her partner's ear with her tongue.
"-- have you learned so far?"
Helena's answer was instantaneous, albeit just a bit breathless.
Nuzzling closer, she swept her hands across slender shoulders.
"Uh huh. About finding hidden stuff buried -- Oh, shit -- Deep."
Torn between laughter and nearly overwhelming desire, Barbara pulled back a few inches and looked her partner in the eye.
"Keep talking, Hel. You're turning me on."
The brunette's rueful snort tipped her toward the laughter side for a moment.
"Damn, Red. I thought I was kidding about reading the manuals for you."
Again, Barbara felt herself smiling, both at the memory of the offer and at the offer itself. Not to mention how far they'd come.
Bemused, she watched Helena struggle to focus, a bit surprised when she heard the younger woman's next words.
"Uhm, what's the difference between grep and egrep?"
For some reason, it took Barbara more effort than she might have anticipated to come up with the answer.
"Egrep is grep with the 'E' switch enabled."
A rumbling moan nearly obscured Helena's next question.
"What's the E-switch for?"
With a chuckle, Barbara disengaged herself enough to form an answer.
She tilted her head to one side in mock concentration and amended her statement.
"Or, perhaps, erogenous."
For some reason the words brought to mind her partner's earlier not-quite-dare, and she patted the top of her work table. The alacrity with which Helena disentangled herself and hopped up was gratifying.
"Come to think of it," she murmured into the denim-clad thigh before her, vaguely aware that her partner's squirming had restarted her audio play, "there is something different I've been meaning to try."
The time has come for closing books and long last looks must end
And as I leave, I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong
That's a lot to learn - what can I give you in return?
If you wanted the moon I would try to make a start
But I would rather you let me give my heart
Where on earth were all of her windows? Or screens? Or whatever the devil this toy operating system called it?
Barbara blew a puff of air through her lips, pushing back a strand of hair from her forehead, and glared at the attractive white notebook sitting in her lap. The ease of setting up the unit had been, frankly, amazing, and the convenience of a wireless hookup to the Delphi was long overdue. Granted, a seventeen inch screen hardly rivaled her forty-two inch plasma, but she'd assumed she could come to terms with the slight inconvenience.
That was, until the multiple screens she'd opened just seemed to have disappeared.
Still fixing the screen with her fiercest expression, the redhead worked on calming herself by coming up with up with suitable curses to rain down on the makers of certain fruit-flavored computers. Somewhere between parallels between forbidden fruits and Pandora's box, a bobbing icon in the taskbar, er, tray caught her eye.
Now she could see it: one application; multiple views.
She allowed the grin to overtake her and happily dove into the new paradigm. So engrossed was she that she completely missed the ding of the elevator from the parking garage and was alerted to the arrival of someone only when the elevator doors began to open. Since she could clearly make out Helena's voice through the opening, she barely looked up.
"-- need a freaking furniture dolly for this sunnuvabitch."
Intrigued, the redhead paused in her typing.
"Hel? What in the land of cotton...?"
Her partner's voice sang out from the elevator without missing a beat.
"Look awa-- ?"
Catching herself in the nick of time, Barbara rolled her eyes, not missing Helena's dramatic entrance: Carrying a huge cardboard box, the brunette shuffled across the room and dropped it on the couch with an affected huff of effort. Barbara refused to be swayed by the dramatics: heaven knew the younger woman could easily manage her growing weight; however, when she glanced over the top of her glasses at the large box and made out the distinctive logo on the side, she abandoned all pretense of disinterest.
"It's here," she heard herself commenting a bit needlessly.
In the act of shrugging out of her jacket, Helena froze.
"Fine, fine. Thanks for asking. I'm sure the hernia will clear right up-- Offf."
"Would you hold this, Sweetie?"
Barely waiting for what was probably an automatic nod, the redhead deposited the laptop into waiting hands and spun to the couch. She didn't bother to set the brake of her chair before digging under the armrest for a batarang and efficiently slicing through the packing tape.
"What the hell?"
Registering her companion's indignant tone, she simply smiled.
After all, when Helena saw the contents, she'd probably be as excited as she was.
"I'm sorry, Hel," she explained as she attacked the far side of the box, "I didn't expect it until tomorrow."
Amazon's shipping department was nothing if not efficient.
A protracted silence finally caught her attention, and she turned to arch a brow in question. Blue eyes caught green, a dark head bobbing toward the box.
"Something good from the electronics section?"
The waggle of dark brows clearly suggested that she was missing something.
"From the electronics section?" Barbara heard herself parroting blankly.
A Cheshire grin accompanied her companion's reply.
"Yeah. I mean, I really liked what you did with the mouse and your spare USB dock last week, so..."
Again, dark brows waggled, and Barbara felt heat rushing to her cheeks. Nevertheless, she managed to reply calmly.
"Hardly, Hel. This is much more educational."
The brunette's snort suggested how very unimpressed she was with that information, and Barbara shook her head in amusement when Helena shrugged and fell backward over the arm of the sofa, the notebook resting in her lap and a rapid clicking indicating that the settings Barbara had spent the last hour refining were in jeopardy.
"Hey, cool, a marble game..."
With a shrug of her own, Barbara cracked the box, tossed the bubble wrap onto the coffee table, and began to extract its contents.
Dr. Spock Revisited.
The First Twelve Months.
A none-too-discrete cough interrupted her catalog.
"Geez, Barbara. Read much?"
This time, the redhead spared a moment to look over the top of her glasses, pointedly raising her right eyebrow.
"This from the woman who, just yesterday, carted in an economy pack with enough diapers for triplets?"
She allowed to remain unspoken a fervent "Heaven forbid" on that final bit.
It was faint, but the hint of a blush in the younger woman's features couldn't be missed. In all honesty, Barbara was a bit surprised by the reaction, given Helena's crowing pride when she'd returned from her latest exploration of the warehouse club the day before.
"Hey, that was a good deal."
The tone grew just a trifle self-righteous.
"And, the Peapod's gonna need diapers."
The remainder of the accusation remained unspoken, and Barbara casually thumbed through "Parenting For Dummies" as she considered whether to respond. A section heading on gas pains caught her eye and made her decision for her.
"These are a necessity, Hel."
As much as their daughter would need diapers and furniture and little outfits, the redhead was quite certain that a capable mother was equally necessary.
Dark brows corkscrewed as the brunette leaned in to inspect the growing library of infant care manuals.
"Uh, all of them? I mean -- "
Dog-earring the corner of the burping page, Barbara nevertheless caught her lover's tentative smile.
"-- what about maternal instinct and all?"
She thought that the laugh that trickled past her lips contained very little amusement, and a host of responses came to mind.
The fact that she didn't do instinct.
The fact that she couldn't remember that last time she'd seen an infant, much less held one.
The fact that having an infant had never been something she'd considered.
And, again the fact that "Feeling the Force" had never been her metier.
Ultimately, the redhead simply elected to look over the frames of her glasses again and pin her partner with a frank look. When she raised her brows in challenge, Helena apparently got the message. Swinging her feet to the floor, the younger woman carefully settled the notebook on the coffee table and began rolling up her shirt sleeves.
"Ooookay. Which ones do you want me to start with?"
Awash with too many emotions to categorize, Barbara regarded the other woman for a long moment, detecting nothing but sincerity. With a nod and a laugh, she pointed to the box and they set to work, eventually getting the mini-library organized: The Doctor Spocks in the dining room for morning coffee; The Dummy's Guide by the tub; The First Twelve Months on the coffee table; The Hip Mama Survival Guide by Helena's side of the bed; and the other dozen in a teetering stack on Barbara's bedside table, one of her spare fuzzy bed socks -- Helena's suggestion, of course -- at the ready as a bookmark.
And so the pile remained when Barbara awakened some time in the dark of the night, her eyes automatically tracking to the towering stack looming over her. Despite her best efforts, she couldn't push back a twinge of guilt that she hadn't made further headway when she'd turned in earlier: She'd begun with one title, then become distracted, thumbing though each book in succession. Mercifully, Helena's appearance, herbal tea and gingersnaps in hand, had distracted her from what was apparently a futile hunt for a phone number for tech support.
Since they had turned in so early, the redhead supposed that her wakefulness shouldn't be surprising, yet... yet... There was something off. A moment later, her eyes almost adjusted to the darkness, Barbara realized what it was: Helena.
Rather, the absence of her partner in her customary position curled up beside her.
A startled blink later, Barbara realized that Helena was present, simply completely obscured under their covers. The barest of rustling and the position of Helena's body suggested what she could be up to, and the redhead fought a flare of irritation. Seconds later, she grasped her error and, completely charmed, lifted the comforter and peered underneath, squinting in the darkness.
"What are you up to under there, Hel?"
With a completely graceful movement, a shaggy head emerged and Barbara saw moonlight reflected in her lover's blinding smile.
"Listening to your hearts beat."
At a loss, she murmured something -- perhaps an "Oh" of acknowledgment -- wondering how her partner managed to hide her poetic side so well in the light of day. Gradually recovering, she considered the statement for a moment.
"What do you hear?"
She sensed, as much as saw, the dark head canting to one side in thought. The brief wait was well worth it.
"Yours is strong, but hers is faster."
Feeling her smiling growing wider, Barbara prompted for a bit more detail.
"What about yours, Sweetie?"
Somehow, her partner's answer managed to steal the breath from her and, very probably, caused her strong heartbeat to stutter just a bit.
"I think it stops when I hear yours and hers."
Dumbstruck, she fumbled for her lover's hand.
She thought she detected a flicker of puzzlement before the younger woman smiled and ducked under the covers again. Barbara felt one warm hand come to rest lightly on her upper abdomen, the other near her breast bone. Then... Then, there was a soft fluttering beat against her stomach, in a moment counter-pointed by steady, soft thumps against her chest.
Blinking frantically in the darkness, the redhead spared a moment to wonder how Helena kept the two rhythms.
Perhaps it was like the baffling ability of some people to rub their stomachs while patting their heads.
She pushed the thought aside and shifted her upper body restlessly. Considering anew what that rapid thumping really meant, she carefully captured her partner's hands and dusted a kiss to the knuckles. Instantly, the brunette squirmed up beside her, and she struggled to meet the dark eyes fixed on her.
"It'll be okay, Red."
Somehow, Barbara swallowed, then wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. When she finally spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper, but her lover's solid embrace assured her that she'd been heard.
"I'm frightened anyway, Helena."
Given that it was traditionally a night for fear and mischief, Halloweens past had always found Barbara soundly entrenched behind the monitors of the Delphi. For the last half-dozen years, instead of handing out candy to children or attending more mature costume parties, she'd always been on duty, monitoring pranks and crime, dispatching police, fire, and rescue workers, and judiciously ordering the intervention of her own particular weapon as warranted.
So accustomed had she become to that life, Barbara was a bit surprised to discover that, on this particular Halloween, alternate activities were not entirely without appeal: even one so mundane as chaperoning the school's costume dance. The music was the standard school dance mix; the students who were in attendance didn't seem predisposed to causing trouble; and seeing her fellow teachers in costume was reward enough in itself.
Circumspectly checking on Amy Brenner again, whose choice of a Xena costume was garnering a certain amount of teasing from her fitter classmates, Barbara spared a moment to consider whether the current bouncy hit -- a rather risque melody by The Black Eyed Peas -- had been on the list submitted for approval prior to the dance. With a mental shrug, she turned to the refreshment area, fighting a grin at the sight of Mrs. Giles from the machine shop who was manning her usual station by the punch bowl, outfitted in what Barbara had decided was the costume of Fairy Godmother from Shrek II.
Given the concoctions undoubtedly brewing in the punch at this point, the choice seemed natural enough.
Since she had no desire to determine what noxious mixture of grain alcohol, schnapps, and windex had been poured into the pumpkin-shaped faux-crystal bowl, the redhead nodded a brief acknowledgment before heading down the west side of the gym. On her way, she passed Mr. Smithers from Biology who was dressed as... well, a frog was as good a guess as any.
The observation renewed her gratitude for the fact that she'd quickly abandoned her first instinct to dress as The Bard or some other hackney'ed English teacher cliche. Despite the seemingly infinite debate -- and dubious witticisms -- her request for suggestions had created at home, at least she was, nominally, out of character.
Coming to a halt under a basketball backboard, she raked the adolescent set with another long glance, smiling as she replayed some of the livelier conversations her costume options had created.
Barbara had dismissed Helena's first suggestion out of hand.
Notwithstanding the chill of the late October air, did she look like she wanted to parade in front of her students as a belly dancer?
Out of increasing desperation, she'd given her younger partner's other publicly acceptable suggestion some consideration, but had eventually dismissed the idea. A sweatshirt with the word "Virgin" stenciled over her belly simply wasn't appropriate for the crowd she'd be with.
The costume she'd settled on -- or allowed herself to be talked into -- had been Dinah's shy suggestion. Although she'd initially been quite uncomfortable with the idea, Barbara had had to grant that they did have most of the materials on hand and, as Dinah had pressed, it was the unofficial mascot of the school. The glint that had appeared in Alfred's eyes when she'd broached the idea with him had clinched matters.
And so, here she was: dressed in semi-form fitting blue neoprene, with a black bat cowl and cape. A bit of padding from a Hulk Hogan costume that Dinah had found at a second-hand shop bulked out the deliberately bad imitation of her former mentor's costume, while some custom latex and paint -- red, green, yellow -- on her abdomen allowed Baby Gordon-Kyle to sport her own version of Dick's first costume.
Again pushing aside her trepidation about exposing her child to The Life so early, Barbara focused on the irony of the fact that for the first time in eight years, she was out at night in a bat costume, with some version of her old running partner at her side.
Or, to be accurate, in her lap.
She gently rested one hand on the six month old bulge, allowing her lashes to flutter closed when she felt an answering jab from a tiny foot.
"Don't worry, Peapod, I know Helena will find better colors for you later."
She detected more vigorous activity under her palm; however, brief considerations that it might have been in response to her words disappeared when she heard the sudden hush fall through the gymnasium. Green eyes flew open and the hand that had been resting on her stomach moved smoothly to the arm of her chair, prepared to release the hidden batarang. When the oddly quiet teens on the dance floor began to ebb toward the sidelines and she saw the cause, Barbara was glad that she was prepared.
Rather, a sultry figure in a Catwoman costume.
In the split-second that adrenaline flooded through her, another instinct kicked in, triggering the electric frisson of recognition that always accompanied Helena's entrance. Blinking frantically against the cognitive dissonance, Barbara exhaled slowly and released her death grip from the arm of the chair.
The crowd of students, apparently recognizing that the sultry figure wasn't a threat, was slowly returning to the dance floor, and the redhead picked up snatches of words from the buzz of adolescent voices.
"Hey, are you supposed to be Halle Berry?"
Even as she rolled her eyes at that question, she heard another voice responding.
"No, dummy, she's Catwoman, right?"
In the act of swallowing her instinctive distaste for the choice of costume, Barbara noticed several subtle differences in the costume and realized that, mercifully, it was unlike any that she'd seen Selina in. Or out of.
Not to mention some profound differences in the wearer.
The teasing purr of her partner's voice finally cleared matters up.
With a casual wave, Helena came to a stop in front of her then, with a wink, half-turned to address the young man who had tendered the last question.
"Nah, I'm from the Bond movies, Buddy. I'm Pu--"
Suddenly realizing where things were heading, Barbara snapped a hand out, neatly swatting her lover on the side of her leg.
"-- Uh, Kitty Galore," the brunette finished.
Behind her cowl, Barbara allowed her eyebrows to creep upward. The students surrounding them were less concerned with politeness.
"Who cares, man. Look at her."
"Hey, better watch out. She's Ms. Gordon's girlfriend."
To her surprise, Barbara realized that she wasn't embarrassed in the least by the fact that her love life was, apparently, common knowledge. She thought she was just a bit surprised by the fact that Helena seemed to stand a little taller at the description. However, when she heard a shy voice from the edge of the group, surprise barely encompassed her response.
"I wish she was my girlfriend."
As casually as possible, the redhead turned toward the feminine voice, nearly laughing aloud when she spied a chunky Xena slinking off toward the refreshment area.
"Come on, Hel."
Giving her chair a sharp push, she waved the remaining admirers to the dance floor and moved toward the back wall.
"You're making the natives restless."
An unimpressed snort was the only verbal acknowledgment, however the younger woman obligingly trailed beside her. When they reached the edge of the bleachers, Barbara stopped and slowly turned to face the dance floor.
"Cool. Are we gonna neck under the bleachers, Red?"
Ignoring the question, the redhead quickly glanced under the aluminum seats to insure that they had a modicum of privacy, then looked up to meet sparkling blue eyes.
"Pussy Galore, Helena?"
Barbara sighed quietly at the sight of enthusiastic nodding and attempted to steel herself for whatever was to follow.
"You wanna be Goldfinger?"
Resisting the urge to swat her partner again, the redhead pursed her lips.
She paused briefly, suddenly aware of the irony of her next words, but managed to continue.
"I prefer to be the good guy."
Helena's comically eager response removed her lingering concern.
"Oooookay. I can work with that."
"Indeed?", she fought a smirk, "Are you a bad Pussy?"
She seemed to recall that the original Bond character had worked with the hero, however, when her partner leaned close and her words purred into her ear, Barbara decided that some artistic license wasn't all bad.
"I think I might need catching."
Something fluttered in her chest, and Barbara turned to whisper her thoughts on that suggestion. The sight of a dot of blood by her partner's bottom lip caused the words to change abruptly.
"Is that blood?"
The other woman straightened and touched an index finger to the spot.
For some reason, Helena's unconcerned tone did little to calm the keening panic rising within the older woman, but she managed merely to arch a brow in question. When she realized that her cowl effectively hid the visual clue, she canted her head to the side.
Again, she found her partner's nonchalant smile almost maddening. Her explanation did little to clarify matters.
"I was doing some trick or treating on my way over. Scared the bejeezus out of some kids who were all set to T.P. your dad's lawn."
Narrowing her eyes, Barbara nodded her thanks for the action but refused to be distracted.
"Are you suggesting that's from a 'paper' cut?"
She allowed her tone to encapsulate the word in quote marks, making no effort to hide her growing exasperation. Mercifully, Helena seemed to catch on.
"Oh, I was just having some fun with some creeps hanging around the school before I came in."
Slowly, Barbara inhaled, raising one hand to pinch the neoprene beak of her cowl between thumb and forefinger.
For some reason, the habitual gesture seemed to have little effect in staving off the headache she could feel building.
"You know that it's not wise to be patrolling off comms."
Proud of herself for what she considered to be a fairly mild rebuke, Barbara was taken aback when her companion abruptly bent down, bringing them eye to eye.
"We're never on comms anymore, Barbara."
True. They hadn't been running sweeps in the last month, however she hadn't guessed that Helena had missed the routine. Before she could marshal her wits to follow up on that thought, Helena's display of temper disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Fighting whiplash, Barbara watched her partner straighten and smile evenly.
"Besides, I didn't think you'd want me to be a bad Samaritan."
Perhaps mercifully, the minimum wage DJ managed to scratch his next album, the screech that echoed through the sound system effectively shocking Barbara back to her senses.
Clearly, this was neither the time nor the place to get into this particular discussion.
Accordingly, she took a cleansing breath and offered a smile of apology as The Pet Shop Boys' "What Have I Done To Deserve This" began to thump through the gym.
"You're right, Helena. I'm glad you were there to help out."
The brunette accepted the apology with a quick nod, turning to walk with her as Barbara began another never-ending circuit of the floor. They patrolled in silence for a few minutes, interrupting a romantic tryst near the equipment lockers and circumventing another addition to the punch bowl. She thought to offer a warning when Helena ladled some punch into a cup but decided that her partner's acute senses would certainly pick out the vile additions.
Or, perhaps not.
She smiled her sympathy when her partner took a sip and then crossed her eyes dramatically.
Coughing in affront, the brunette dropped her paper cup into the trash.
"Was it that bad back when I doctored it?"
Barbara discretely chose not to point out that her former ward had finally confirmed a long-standing suspicion and, instead, wrinkled her forehead in concentration.
"Your taste in mixed drinks has always been much more refined than average, Sweetie," she eventually allowed.
Suspecting that it was as good an opening as any, she looked up and caught her partner's eyes.
"I wasn't certain that you'd be able to make it tonight."
Not even the small mask around her eyes could hide Helena's confusion; however, her answer was casual.
"Hey, Halloween's my favorite night. Why wouldn't I want to share it with my girl?"
Utterly charmed, Barbara reached out to squeeze her lover's hand. Nevertheless, she didn't forget her purpose.
"Still, you must be tired with your schedule."
As casually as possible, she released her partner's hand and turned for another sweep of the perimeter.
"Between work and school."
When she detected the other woman's leer, she realized that her clarification might have come too late.
"Yeah. And a lot of nocturnal attention from somebody."
The redhead resolutely kept her eyes on the dance floor, hoping that her cowl would hide the worst of her blush.
Could she help it that any time she was alone with the other woman she was seized by a desire -- no, a need -- to cover her from head to toe with melting kisses and gentle touches?
Pausing by the scoreboard, she glanced up, allowing her smirk to show.
"Hmmm. Do we need to curtail your busy load in some way?"
The panic that briefly flashed across expressive caramel features was almost comical, but Barbara kept her poker face in place. To her credit, the younger woman recovered quickly.
"Guess I could drop a class or two."
Grateful for the opening, Barbara pretended to weigh the suggestion as they resumed their circuit.
"Well, that is a possibility. In fact,"
She grew serious and stopped their progress to face her partner.
"I had thought that you were planning to."
Barbara allowed the brunette to search her eyes, silently sighing her relief when she saw a minute nod.
When blue eyes darted away to inspect the toe of a high heeled boot, she ducked down and smiled as encouraging as possible from the confines of her cowl. Eventually the younger woman looked up.
"I just want her -- "
A slender hand waved toward the growing bump in Barbara's lap that was, week by week, slowly obscuring the redhead's view of her knees.
"-- to know that both of her moms have some education. And,"
The pride that had welled within her temporarily receded when Barbara saw her partner's hesitation return. For the second time in fifteen minutes, she took her partner's hand.
"And what, Hel?"
Barbara thought she detected a hint of something in the other woman's eyes, her face. When Helena spoke, she almost gasped.
"And I want her to be proud of me like you were when you found out I was in school."
Without releasing the other woman's hand, she reached up, roughly jerking the cowl back from her face, then down around her neck.
She shook her head, exasperated with herself, with her partner, with the entire situation.
"You can't think that-- "
She snapped her mouth shut when her companion squatted beside her and shook her head.
"Well, not just that."
Easily sensing the younger woman's discomfort with the unplanned revelation, Barbara simply nodded.
"I do want you both to be proud of me, but the classes are kind of fun, so maybe--"
Helena's cocky grin clearly signaled a segue from what was an uncomfortable topic, and the older woman allowed her own smile to answer.
"-- I stay in school but just cut back on homework?"
Laughing, Barbara finally released the brunette's hand and slowly turned to survey the hallway to the restrooms.
"I think not, Hel."
The other woman's laughter was surprisingly unconcerned as they resumed their stroll around the gym.
"Well, I guess there's nothing else for it then, Red."
Entirely certain that she was being set up, Barbara cheerfully accepted her role as the straight man in this conversation.
"And, what's that, Hel?"
Her lover's response neatly clarified why Helena had been unfazed by continuing her homework. Delivered as it was during the quiet lull between songs, it also reduced Barbara to red-faced laughter.
"In the interest of my rest, you're just gonna have to have your way with me during the daytime."
"You are so fuckin' sexy."
Since, according to her most recent awareness, her partner had been entrenched in their shared bathroom, steam creeping from under the door during an hour long shower, Barbara was not expecting to hear anything from her, much less those particular words. Accordingly, with a barely supressed squeak, Barbara started violently, one hand flying to her chest. Allowing her heart rate to settle, she dubiously surveyed the seven month old bump that her current parenting manual was resting on and laughed ruefully.
"Hel, I can barely get my socks on by myself."
Apparently unimpressed by the protest, the brunette tossed her towel toward the hamper and crawled slowly up from the foot of the bed. Wearing boy brief underwear and a see-through tank, she was -- Barbara decided instantly -- very sexy indeed.
"Even sexier, Red. I like putting your socks on."
Barbara traced the edges of her lips with the tip of her tongue, watching her partner's hand trail somewhere in the vicinity of where she'd positioned her legs after hoisting herself into bed an hour before.
"I like taking them off even more."
Unable to miss the light in her lover's eyes, the redhead retrieved her Commander Data bookmark from the bedside table.
"Someone's in a mood tonight," she ventured, carefully placing her bookmark before closing the cover.
The response was playful, and green eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
"You're tanked up on tryptophan, aren't you?"
The younger woman's smile was supremely self-satisfied as she settled onto her knees halfway up the big bed.
"I'm not sleepy, if that's what you mean."
Arching one brow, Barbara returned her book to the shrinking stack on the table.
"Apparently. Although that's difficult to believe considering how much you ate this afternoon."
The bright smile only seemed to broaden.
"Don't forget that turkey sandwich and third piece of punkin' pie tonight during the game."
The redhead heard herself laughing even as she worked to push aside the tiniest hint of resentment that she'd not had room for seconds herself.
Great galloping gourmets. Even Alfred had returned for a second piece of mince pie.
However, this year it was not to be. Although Dinah and Helena had truly outdone themselves in the kitchen, she'd barely had room to sample a bit of everything from their Thanksgiving feast. With Baby Gordon-Kyle occupying more and more room, she felt fortunate that she'd managed as much as she had.
"So why aren't you passed out in a stupor yet, Helena?"
The other woman's shrug suggested a distinct lack of interest in the reasons for her mood.
"Maybe I'm tanked up on pregnancy pheromones."
Barbara pursed her lips for a moment, then stretched to turn off the bedside light.
Her invitation was met with a quick shake of a dark head, and she arrested her movement toward the light.
She placed her hands on the mattress and began to push herself forward, once again having her motion halted by the sight of her partner stretching toward the other side of the bed. Giving up, she waited as the younger woman dug in the drawer of her bedside table and then returned to her kneeling position near her hip, a small bottle of Vitamin E oil raised in question.
"Want me to lotion your stomach?"
Sensing as much as seeing something in her partner's deep blue eyes, Barbara nodded and reached for the hem of her tee shirt. In a movement so fluid and graceful that it took her breath away, Helena was by her shoulder, one arm reaching behind her to help support her during a movement that had become increasing awkward during the last few months.
"Here. Let me help you."
The redhead had abandoned her dogged determination to do everything herself weeks before, during a particularly frustrating attempt to lean over the arm of her chair to retrieve a pen she'd dropped on the floor. Accordingly, she nodded her thanks and raised her arms, allowing her partner to strip the shirt over her head.
With Helena's help, she settled herself again, noticing the gooseflesh rising on her newly bared skin. Acutely aware of the seeming miles of flesh she'd just exposed, she worked to identify her response, ultimately deciding that the cause was a toss-up: it was either the low setting on the thermostat she'd programmed in deference to her bedmate's body heat, or it was the rumbling growl she'd felt from her partner's chest as the brunette had leaned in to position a second pillow under her head.
With a presence of mind that surprised her, Barbara opted to set analysis aside for the time being. She forced herself to relax into the pillows, a small murmur of pleasure escaping her when warm hands began to work unhurriedly across her upper abdomen. As her partner worked, Barbara was torn between watching her hands, so careful and deliberate in their movements, and her face, which seemed raptly fixed on her task. With her companion's soft breathing seeming to synchronize with her own, she gradually gave in to the pampering and drifted.
Long, luxurious minutes later she noticed that her partner's aim seemed to have strayed.
"I didn't think I was getting any stretch marks there, Hel," she observed mildly.
After all, it wasn't as if she'd checked.
Granted, the lighting was a bit dim in the bedroom, however Barbara was unable to detect even a hint of embarrassment in the younger woman's features. To her annoyance, she actually experienced a flare of something approaching embarrassment when she saw her partner duck down to brush a kiss to the area in question.
"Can't be too thorough, Red."
The redhead felt a smirk creeping across her face and cast her gaze toward the headboard.
"Is that so --"
A barely audible growl interrupted her attempt at banter and raised the fine hair on her forearms. The next words she heard struck her like a blow.
"Jesus, Barbara, the way you taste..."
Although she could barely see her lover's dark hair over her stomach, Barbara clearly detected soft movement against the mattress and knew that Helena was moving against her.
In addition, her imagination was fully capable of filling in any blanks.
Struggling not to squirm, unable to deny her lover's evident desire, she focused on her breathing.
One shallow breath in.
One long exhalation.
Another slow inhalation.
A steady breath out.
"So fuckin' amazing -- "
The rumble broke her concentration, and Barbara shut her eyes, regrouping.
One long... hitching breath in...
The situation got the best of her, and, as gently as possible, she reached down to find her partner's face, cupping the velvet skin of her cheek in her palm.
She kept her tone mild even as she cautiously guided her partner's head up until puzzled golden eyes came into view.
Those phenomenal eyes flickered to blue, and Barbara ached for the visible concern in the other woman's expressive features.
"Did I do something--"
Unable to hear any more, she shook her head. She even managed a rueful smile, kept her tone light.
"You do realize that I can't .. see anything that's going on down there?"
Dark brows dipped, the inquisitive bob of her lover's head almost evoking a laugh. The apologetic look that immediately followed made the redhead glad that she'd resisted the impulse.
"Shit, I'm sorry. I just -- "
Barbara nodded carefully when her partner gestured loosely toward her lower half and waited when Helena's eyes hooded for a few beats.
"We'll just -- "
Barbara attempted to ready herself for whatever might follow as the younger woman sat up between her legs and broke into a grin.
"-- have to rig something up."
She felt one brow rising skeptically, but nevertheless gave herself time to consider the pronouncement and just what permutations her lover's imagination might take with the idea. Finally, she pinned the younger woman with a hard look and spoke primly.
"We are not suspending a mirror from the ceiling, Helena."
Barbara realized that she'd been off base when the dark head started to shake. A moment later, when she saw Helena abruptly halt the movement -- clearly running the possibility through her mind -- she realized that she might have opened a can of worms.
"Earth to Helena."
She snapped her fingers and blue eyes that had gone violet refocused on her.
"No. Ceiling. Mirror."
The redhead exhaled as the other woman nodded grudgingly. She decided that her relief might have been premature when Helena brightened.
"S'okay. I was thinking something more like a miner's helmet."
Completely at a loss, Barbara cultivated the furrow that was growing between her eyebrows.
Barbara smirked when her partner pouted and bounced once on the bed.
"Instead of a light on the front, we could put a big mirror -- right on my forehead so you can see what I'm--"
With the image of Helena in such a get-up taking over her imagination, the redhead allowed her laughter to cut short the inevitable outcome of the description.
"I'm sorry, Hel, but that might not be very conducive to setting a mood."
Again, Barbara mustered a smile when her lover's face fell comically.
"And, hopefully, this --"
She waved in the general vicinity of her abdomen, trusting that Helena would make the proper assumption.
"-- won't last much longer."
Nodding, the brunette crawled up the bed and slid under the covers. Not sure just what to expect given the rather abrupt kibosh she'd put on her passionate partner's activities, Barbara lay still until she felt the smaller woman mold tight to her side, dark head nestling under her chin.
Gingerly, she allowed her fingers to brush through shaggy bangs, charmed when her bedmate ducked her head and snuggled impossibly closer.
"Are you alright tonight, Sweetheart?"
Although she wasn't certain just what response she'd been expecting, Barbara knew that nothing could have prepared her for what she heard.
"Yeah. I just want to breathe your air."
Pierced, she closed her eyes, suddenly terribly close to tears. Feeling impossibly unworthy, she knew that she'd stiffened; naturally, Helena didn't miss the change.
"Barbara? I didn't mean to..."
Mute, the redhead could only shake her head. With all her might, she wished she could blame hormones, but ultimately she was unwilling to take the easy way out.
"Even before... "
Almost choking on the admission, she took a second to swallow and gather the threads of her courage. Throughout, Helena remained still in her arms, her breathing steady and more reassuring than Barbara could have imagined.
"Even before, Hel..."
She resolutely trained her eyes on the ceiling, wishing she'd turned off the light, wishing for the confessional darkness.
"Even before, climax was never easy."
She felt the dark head resting against her shoulder nod once and stumbled on.
"And when it... when I did, it was physical."
When there was no reaction, she sought a different way to explain.
"It was about what I was experiencing."
Barbara felt her partner's sly grin against her bare skin and couldn't hold back her snort. Giving in to the need for release, she lightly swatted the younger woman's shoulder, then sobered and forced herself to keep working through what she needed to express.
"And now, when it's damned near impossible..."
Green eyes blinked rapidly in the darkness. Seized by an embarrassed inarticulateness, Barbara was wracked by the ache to be: The need to feel the clenching torsion; The ability to surrender herself in offering, head thrashing, body twisting, fingers in hair; The chance to...
"I want to feel it -- "
Her voice broke, and she paused, finally ducking her head to meet the open blue eyes so close to her.
Again, Helena nodded.
"To share m--"
Barbara couldn't quite give voice to the pronoun she'd intended, but she managed to continue.
"To share that with you."
She felt their hearts beat in rhythm for a silent moment. Then, Helena shifted, and she was wrapped in wiry arms, warm breath pluming against her neck as Helena snuggled close and whispered her absolution.
"Every minute I'm with you, you do."
We gather together
to ask the Lord's blessing;
he chastens and hastens
his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing
now cease from distressing.
"You do realize this is going to take forever, don't you?"
Barbara experienced a moment's guilt for her hyperbole and a briefer moment of embarrassment at the hint of a whine inflecting her question; however, she easily pushed both aside.
If nothing else, her question had -- briefly -- silenced the ceaseless loop of lyrics that Helena's absent humming had planted in her mind.
And, the redhead observed from below, her question didn't seem to have fazed her partner at all.
"It's a long weekend, Red. Where do you have to be?"
Without waiting for an answer, the brunette resumed her painstaking work, once again whistling the same melody through her teeth.
Clearly, yesterday's Pilgrim-inspired festivities had stuck with Helena as well.
In an attempt to derail the soundtrack in her head, Barbara pondered the question that her partner had apparently meant to be rhetorical.
Although it was Black Friday, Dinah's invitation to join her at the malls was beginning to sound almost appealing.
Realizing that, at this point, she was well and truly committed to their little project, she exhaled noisily. When that garnered no response, other than hands gently smoothing across her belly, she huffed again, satisfied when blue eyes looked up to meet hers.
"I can't believe you talked me into this, Helena."
An infectious grin and the waggle of dark brows accompanied her companion's response.
"I can be very persuasive."
Watching as another handful of cold goo landed on her torso, Barbara suspected that her reply was just a tad on the dry side.
Although she wanted to be irritated by the smug smile and cheerfully unconcerned shrug she received, the redhead simply couldn't find it within: Helena was entirely correct about her persuasive qualities.
Such as the night before.
After her halting confession and her partner's easy acceptance, they'd remained still for minutes. The realization that Helena's breathing was slowing and deepening had finally roused Barbara from her own near-sleep, and she'd stretched to turn out the light.
The barest nudge from beside her had signaled her bedmate's request, and she'd obligingly worked to turn onto her side. The warmth that had immediately blanketed her back when Helena had spooned close had been both welcome and reassuring, and Barbara had reached behind her to find her lover's hand, tugging it over her side to hold her even closer.
Again, they'd lain in silence, Barbara realizing that -- for whatever reasons -- she'd been nowhere near as sleepy as she'd been only minutes before. The sensation of slender fingers gently ghosting her upper abdomen had suggested that her wakefulness was shared: the movement hadn't been Helena's sleepy kneading that continued to so charm her; neither had it been anything overtly seductive... or demanding.
Rather, as Barbara had concentrated on the sensation of skin brushing skin, the touches had been tender, almost tentative, possibly meant to relax her. Undoubtedly serving to connect them, the soft strokes had gradually sensitized her skin to the point that she'd been positive that she'd been able to detect the whorls of her partner's fingertips against her torso.
Whatever the intent of the motion, when Helena's hand had brushed the underside of her breast, Barbara hadn't been able to silence a hiss. Instantly, all movement had stopped, and she'd held her breath until she'd heard a soft mutter through her hair.
"Shit. I'm sorry."
The words had been contrite, almost comically so.
"Still tender, huh?"
Barbara had given due consideration to the question in light of the extraordinary sensitivity that had plagued the second trimester of her pregnancy. Responding to hormonal changes presumably, her breasts had barely been able to tolerate the whisper of a tee shirt; forcing herself into a bra for her daily work had been an exercise in torture, one which had very possibly resulted in a few extra pop essays for her students as she'd chafed her way through some particularly bad days.
"Not in a bad way," she'd finally decided.
The response had been immediate, without inflection, and Barbara had suspected that it had been automatic. Moments later, she'd practically heard the wheels turning in her partner's mind and smiled against her pillow when a follow-up had purred against her shoulder.
It was then, Barbara decided as she replayed events, that things had ceased to be quite so... linear. There had been electric touches. She'd heard her own softly whispered encouragement and risen to her partner's panted imprecations. And throughout, there had been Helena wrapping her securely from behind.
Yet, at some point, she'd needed more.
"Would you take your shirt off, Hel?"
The sound of fabric being ripped asunder had been immediate and enthusiastic.
And then... then...
There had been no sequence, only silken softness and amazing sensations covering her skin. There had been Helena -- the solidness and warmth and full softness and diamond roughness of her lover against her back.
There had been very few words until she'd needed -- honestly needed -- more.
"Hel -- "
Even in the darkness, even after everything, Barbara had felt her blush rise. Still, she'd soldiered on.
"Can you -- would you --"
More or less.
Fortunately, the response panting against her shoulder blade had been instant.
Swallowing had become difficult, but Barbara had been having none of her own fears.
"Will you use the purple --?"
In the darkness, she'd seen her hips suddenly thrust forward and had been flooded with heat that merely the request could affect her partner so. Helena's sudden hoarse exhalation had, likewise, conveyed more than enough information about her reaction.
Yet, the fingers she'd felt feathering her upper abdomen had remained gentle, the touch impossibly careful.
"Uh, access could be a little tricky, Red."
In a heartbeat, Barbara had been truly, viscerally, grateful for every physics and geometry class she'd ever taken.
Not to mention a few heated encounters with Dick during nights on patrol when adrenaline had run high: access through neoprene and latex was a carefully choreographed maneuver.
Stretching for the edge of the mattress to help in the process, she'd shaken her head.
"Help me roll further onto my side."
Helena's growl had been almost nerve-wracking in its volume, and then conversation had seemed to fail them both. Their sweat mingling, her hand jammed against the headboard to brace her, and tendons in her forearm flexing in rhythm to the strain, the only sounds had been Helena's panting and her own pleas.
"Harder -- "
"And a little more here..."
The sing-song words drew Barbara from what had been, she had to admit, a very pleasurable way to wile away the time as her partner worked. Not at all pleased to have her little trip down memory lane cut short, she nevertheless managed to remain civil.
"Just how much more of that do you really need to plaster onto me, Helena?"
Well, relatively speaking.
The question did cause the brunette to stop her interminable stroking and smoothing and adjusting -- Who would have imagined that Helena was such a perfectionist? -- if only for a moment.
"Aw, c'mon, Barbara. We've got a good movie on, the Kid's out shopping with Gabby, and -- hey -- "
Slender shoulders shrugged dramatically.
"-- when's your belly button ever gonna be this much of an outie again?"
Sighing, Barbara allowed Helena free reign for a few minutes, lulled once again by the movement of capable hands flowing over her body. Turning her head a few degrees to the side, she focused on the big screen and the movie that Helena had found for her.
In honesty, "A Night To Remember" was one of her favorites, and it was at the most gripping part. Unfortunately, she realized as she felt her teeth begin to clench, her partner's low humming of the Thanksgiving hymn was not entirely in sync with the Titanic orchestra's rendition of "Nearer My God To Thee".
Since aural dissonance was more than she chose to deal with, Barbara returned her attention to her partner. Helena was, she realized with relief, actually cleaning her hands of the plaster of Paris she'd been molding to her belly for almost an hour.
"You do realize that this is not going on display," she offered, mentally shuddering at the vision of the results of Helena's project hanging on the wall next to the Richard M. Nixon presidential plate and the photo of Dinah's "thought bubble" fish tank.
Dropping a wad of plaster-covered paper towels into a waiting trash bag, the brunette leaned down to inspect her work.
"Nah, I've got other ideas."
Barbara chewed on that thought for a few minutes, finally giving up on her attempts to guess what her partner could have in mind.
"It's cold," she finally responded, distantly appalled to realize that her tone had bordered on a whine.
Apparently, her partner didn't notice, or graciously pretended not to, simply leaning close to purr into her ear, "I'll warm you up later."
Unable to hold in her smile, Barbara still managed a touch of petulance as she lobbed another complaint.
"It's probably drying my skin terribly."
Again, Helena was untroubled.
"I'll lotion you up later."
Finally, Barbara grinned fully, certain that she'd found the right tact.
Helena's smile as she tapped a nail lightly against the drying cast was, Barbara decided, quite wicked.
"Tell you what, Red: I'll do any part of me that you want while you dry."
It took less than a second for the redhead to decide.
Beside us to guide us,
our God with us joining,
his kingdom divine;
so from the beginning
the fight we were winning;
Whistling softly, the younger woman busied herself cleaning up while Barbara fanned at her abdomen to hasten the drying process and contemplated her options in terms of a cast of some portion of her lover's lovely anatomy.
She didn't realize that she would speak aloud until she heard her own voice. A dark head swiveled in her direction, a sly grin creeping across gamine features.
"Okay, Red, what did you come up with?"
"I believe, Helena," the older woman took her time, making certain to speak very clearly, "that I'd like a cast of -- "
The shrill buzz of the bell from the downstairs delivery entrance interrupted her, practically scaring her into shedding the plaster cast covering her lower torso. She rolled her eyes at her partner's apologetic shrug, suspecting that it had been less than entirely sincere, and waved the other woman off to sign for the delivery.
Sometimes the younger woman's timing -- or luck -- was simply too good to believe.
Setting aside her pique, Barbara began to peel the reasonably dry cast up. Her consideration about just when they might revisit the casting offer was cut short by her partner's return.
"Were you really going to make a cast of any part of yourself that I asked?"
She was careful to emphasize the word "any", and Helena gave the question a few moments' thought.
"Well, you know me."
A bright grin accompanied the pronouncement.
"Not smart enough to do everything but dumb enough to try anything."
Snorting, Barbara nodded her thanks when her partner lifted what appeared to be the absurdly huge plaster cone from her and placed it carefully on the coffee table. She managed to push herself upright, grimacing at the bits of plaster flecking from her skin, and grabbed her robe.
"What did we get?"
Jamming one arm into her sleeve, she nodded at the open cardboard box that Helena had dropped on the wing chair.
"Dunno. It's addressed to both of us, but it's wrapped up in weird paper."
The redhead cinched her robe as the younger woman retrieved the contents of the box and displayed the gift with a dramatically affronted expression.
"I mean, what the hell?"
Barbara caught the small package and squinted at the wrapping, then burst into laughter.
Pink paper with a pattern of little yellow ducks.
Little yellow ducks wearing red rubber rain boots and splashing through blue puddles under bright white umbrellas.
"It's a shower gift, Helena."
She gave it a cautious shake and cocked her head.
A dark head shook once.
"No, but I ran it though the scanners, and it didn't set off any alarms."
Nodding, Barbara stared at the overly cheerful paper again, then slid her index finger into the seam.
"Looks like something the Pep Squad might choose," she hazarded.
Her partner's bark of laughter coincided with the crinkle of the paper falling open, and instantly Barbara realized how very off base she'd been in her guess.
Resting on the bright paper in her lap was an item that left no doubt about the sender: a tiny little cap, just the right size for a newborn, decorated in a diamond pattern of blacks and whites and reds, with tiny little bells on each of the pointed peaks.
A harlequin's hat.
We all do extol thee,
thou leader triumphant,
and pray that thou still
our defender wilt be.
"Are you surprised?"
"Yeah, whaddaya think?"
Two pairs of blue eyes were fixed on her: one deep blue, framed by thick dark lashes and filled with impish delight; the other, pale and enrobed by corn silk lashes, radiating shy excitement.
This was clearly the not the moment to, as Helena might put it, "go all left brain."
Resultantly, Barbara cocked her head to the side and again surveyed the oversized item she'd just divested of green and gold paper. She stroked the tail of the huge red bow that had adorned the package, searching for just the right way to express how she was feeling. Fortuitously, an apt quote from a favorite seasonal movie came to mind.
She met their eyes, allowing a hint of a grin to skirt her lips.
"If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewed to the carpet, I couldn't be any more surprised."
That earned her two startled blinks before both younger women burst into laughter. Naturally, Helena succinctly came to the point.
"But, do you like it, Barbara?"
The redhead reached for her mug of eggnog, working not to shudder at the idea of imbibing the sweet beverage in lieu of her morning coffee.
As an addition to her coffee, perhaps; as the sole way to greet Christmas morning, no. However, as she had for the last seven years, Helena had been adamant that this was a must-maintain tradition. Barbara had never coaxed the origin of the tradition from the younger woman but she'd long had a suspicion that a creamy beverage -- especially such a hyper-sweetened one -- might have been to Selina's holiday taste.
Completely unfortified, she leaned in to peer at the gift that was clearly meant to be her centerpiece for the year.
Large and pink and flexible, with several carefully affixed webbing straps.
Barbara chewed at her lower lip, then espying a distinguishing feature on the contraption, felt herself break into a smile and looked up.
"It's an abdomen?"
Helena's nod was nothing if not enthusiastic.
"Uh huh. Or,"
The young woman squatted beside her and ran one hand over the outside of the... object.
"-- specifically, it's your belly."
Since the presence of a distinctive protruding navel on the bottom -- or, what Barbara presumed to be the bottom -- of the item had suggested as much, the redhead merely nodded and cocked her head to the side. Finally, she went with her best guess.
"Helena, when I said that we were not hanging the cast of my abdomen on the wall, I was in no way suggesting that you should use it to mold something to hang from any other -- "
An emphatic shake of her partner's head cut short the lecture she'd been preparing on the difference between the meaning and the spirit of a statement.
"Then -- "
Hearing the hint of exasperation creeping into her tone, Barbara reached for her mug, aborting the gesture when she remembered what was in it.
"-- what on earth is it for?"
Helena smile was, she thought, entirely too smug for words. However, when she looked beseechingly toward the other member of the early morning present-opening crew, there was no reprieve: Dinah's grin was infectiously happy as well.
"It's a bassinet."
"A bass-- "
Suspecting that her mouth was flapping open like a fish out of water, Barbara cut herself short and surveyed the item again. Clearly, it had been created from the mold Helena had made the month before and was lined with --
"-- shearling inside with a middle layer of gel packs to simulate that nice squishy environment the Peapod has now."
"Uh huh. And -- "
Wondering if this was what being tag-teamed by used car salesmen was like, Barbara snapped her attention to Dinah, who was enthusiastically tugging at the webbing straps.
"-- since it hangs from the ceiling, she should have the same kind of weightless, floating feeling that she does now."
"And, don't worry, Red."
Green eyes ticked back to the brunette.
"We checked out the design with the pediatrician and with a couple of baby stores. It's A-okay."
Barbara bit at the inside of her cheek for a moment, then squared her shoulders and smiled with as much perkiness as she could manage.
"I'm sure you've covered all the bases. It's -- "
Despite her best intentions, she felt her brows crease the tiniest bit as she hunted for the proper words.
"-- absolutely amazing."
The moment the words passed her lips, Barbara recognized the truth in them, and her smile grew.
"Thank you so much, Hel. Dinah."
Dinah's pleased blush was unmistakable, however Barbara thought she detected a hint of pink in Helena's cheeks as well.
"I honestly had no idea," she added, running her index finger along the smooth top edge of the very novel baby bed.
Which was, she had to admit, true enough.
For the last two weekends, Helena and Dinah had secreted themselves in Dinah's room for hours. While the ensuing racket and trips to the gear closet and poorly suppressed giggles had certainly piqued her curiosity, Barbara had remained true to her promise not to peek.
"It's exquisite," she murmured absently, brushing the supple outside of the unit, pleased that she was unable to find the hint of a seam or crease.
Inevitably, a thought struck her, and she tapped the rubbery outer shell and then fixed her partner with a long look.
"Is this made from..."
Vigorous nods confirmed her suspicions even has Helena piped up.
"Uh huh. Latex to simulate your tummy."
Pursing her lips, Barbara made a mental note to check the supply cabinet later to see if any of their high grade forensic latex remained. But, for the moment, she simply smiled more broadly and nodded toward the stereo.
"Dinah, why don't you pick out some different music?"
One more go-round of Alvin and The Chipmunks on the all-Christmas radio station was more than she could bear, and her ward had been eyeing the stack of CDs that had been under the tree for her.
When the blonde nodded happily and bounded over to load the CD racks, Barbara finally redirected her attention from her final gift and took in the clutter filling the living area: boxes, bows, and wrapping paper -- some torn and haphazardly crumpled, some neatly removed and folded -- littered the floor and couch; small stacks of gifts were piled on the coffee table and end tables; and tinsel strands twinkled from the arm of the couch.
It appeared that Santa -- and all nine reindeer -- had blown through the clock tower with a vengeance.
As if reading her mind, Helena circled the coffee table and began gathering bits of wadded wrapping paper.
"Just think, Red -- "
Unable to miss the hint of glee in her partner's voice, Barbara glanced over.
"What's that, Hel?"
"Next year, I can dress up as Santa and come in from the roof for the Peapod."
Although she was a bit distracted by attempting to determine whether the bassinet wrapping paper could be reused, the redhead remembered the one productive activity she'd managed between being hustled out of bed at dawn and joining the two younger women by the tree not too many minutes later.
"Your beard and red jacket are in the back of the gear closet."
The shiny paper was probably worthy of recycling; after all, almost an entire roll had been used to wrap the stomach-cum-bassinet.
A pointed silence from the other side of the coffee table finally drew her attention, and Barbara worked not to snicker at her partner's dramatic display of dismay.
"You mean that you knew that was me last night?"
One crimson brow arched eloquently.
"Considering what Santa and I did to ring in Christmas, it have better have been."
With the beginning of Chumbawamba's "Tub Thumping" booming through the room, Barbara allowed herself to mirror her lover's sly grin, then unlocked the brake of her chair and turned toward the hallway.
"And, if you'll excuse me, since you two dragged me out of bed without a proper shower or cup of coffee, I'll be in the shower."
Frankly, she would have much preferred a long soak in their relatively new whirlpool tub; however, since there was no way to have the water suitably scalding without endangering her precious cargo, Barbara contented herself with a wistful sigh as she stripped out of her sweats and transferred herself to the shower bench. She adjusted the temperature and turned her face into the spray, acknowledging that she couldn't really fault the shower: it had, after all, become a refuge of sorts.
The shower was where she'd retired to clean up the month before after Quinn's package had arrived. It was where she'd turned the water on full force and allowed it to pelt her face as she silently screamed. It was where she'd clenched her jaw against her impotent fury and begun to sort out her options. It was where Helena had found her almost an hour later, slipping silently in to join her.
And, on that day, it had also become a confessional of sorts for Helena.
The brunette had positioned herself behind her, poured a dollop of shampoo into her palm, and begun working it through Barbara's hair. Barbara had closed her eyes and leaned back into the gentle touches, unsurprised by her companion's hoarse whisper.
"Why does she keep hurting us?"
She'd heard a hissing intake of breath before Helena had continued.
She'd opened her mouth to respond, but Helena hadn't been done.
"The fuckin' bitch used me to hurt you, and now..."
Suspecting that some of the warm wetness on her shoulder was not from the showerhead, Barbara had leaned back into her lover's torso.
"And we came through it, Hel."
It hadn't been that simple, of course.
In the last month, Helena had spent a lot of time in the training room pummeling the heavy bag. Barbara had worked to channel her own fury in other directions: the planning and safeguards that she could put in place. There had been other halting discussions in which Helena had railed against her role as Quinn's pawn.
And there had been those long showers each day; Barbara's time for privacy and contemplation, assured that, were Helena to surprise her, there would be no way to identify the wetness on her face.
On this day, however, she allowed her thoughts to drift to more pleasant matters: her personal visit the night before from "Santa". When she'd recovered from her surprise, and then her laughter, she'd taken great delight in slowly stripping Helena of her garb and then covering her with hands and mouth, whispering her delight and love into the supple thighs pressed to her cheeks.
By the time Barbara replayed the night before -- the twelve orgasms of Christmas, as Helena had mumbled before giving way to her exhaustion -- she felt a great deal more refreshed and awake. The aroma of coffee drifting from the kitchen lured her down the hallway, and she discovered her two younger partners entrenched in front of the Delphi.
"See, Hel? There's a script here on the S-partition to re-initialize all of the facial recognition bots."
Barbara shook her head in amazement when she saw Helena nod slowly.
"Okay. I get that we want to change the signatures on them, but how does -- "
Almost bouncing in her chair, the blonde tapped rapidly at the keyboard.
"It's easy, Hel. We just use this config file of locations here and send it through a pipe to the scr--"
"Pipe? Who comes up with this stuff and what was in their pipe?"
Barbara could no longer restrain her laughter.
"Not that kind of pipe, Sweetie. And,"
She resumed her progress toward the kitchen.
"Since it is Christmas, shouldn't you be playing with your gifts instead of working?"
By the time she returned from the kitchen, a mug of fortification balanced on a small tray in her lap, the two had abandoned the Delphi. Noting that the handset for the cordless was missing from its base, she assumed that Dinah was making plans with Gabby. Given the limited visits the two had shared during the fall, Barbara suspected that she'd see very little of her charge while Gabby was back in town during the holiday break.
Reasonably assured that at least one of her proteges was taking her advice to enjoy the day, she turned her focus to the other. There was no sign of Helena in the great room, and the silence from the training room suggested that the brunette wasn't in there either. Barbara chewed at her lower lip for a moment, then set her mug on the end table and moved toward the balcony.
When she cracked the French doors, her suspicions were confirmed: Helena was there, balancing on the edge of the balustrade. The dark figure was facing outward, motionless save for the slow clenching of her fists, and Barbara sat in silence, loath to disturb her solitude.
Naturally, however, her approach had not gone unnoticed.
Gracefully stretching, Helena seemed to rouse herself from her vigil and turned to hop lightly to the balcony. Her smile was easy, but Barbara noted an edginess to the younger woman, an energy almost crackling off her.
"You look amazing in that sweater, Red."
Barbara reflexively glanced down at her sweater as her partner drew close and bounced restlessly on the balls of her feet.
When she'd opened Helena's gift earlier, her first instinct had been to protest: the cashmere was a ridiculous indulgence considering that in another two months it would be absurdly huge on her. Yet, thoughts of it caressing her skin -- and the look in her partner's eyes when she'd held the burnt orange turtleneck up -- had won her over.
"It feels wonderful, Hel. I'm glad you chose it for me."
The brunette stilled for a moment and leaned in, slender fingers tenderly brushing the soft wool covering Barbara's forearm. Warmed, the redhead nevertheless felt a small shiver race down her spine at the gesture and found herself wondering if Helena had touched her this often -- or had wanted to -- before their relationship had changed.
Clearly, as Barbara had come to realize in the last months, Helena's desire to be close was as instinctive as breathing to the younger woman.
"You seem edgy," she finally offered.
The younger woman's gaze seemed speculative, perhaps even guarded, and Barbara grudgingly seized upon an option. Inclining her head toward the Delphi, she caught her partner's chin with her index finger and smiled.
"Would you like me to find some criminals for you to pound the Christmas spirit from?"
That at least earned her a smile, and her partner dropped to one knee beside her.
Barbara worked on the lines between her eyebrows for a few seconds before giving up.
"Then, what's going on, Hel?"
Dark blue eyes remained steadfastly focused on her arm, and so she worked for a bit of levity.
"I thought I was supposed to be the broody, hormonal o---mmmff."
Perhaps, the redhead just had time to consider, she hadn't been amusing at all, for she'd certainly been effectively silenced. However, with full lips covering hers, she wasn't inclined to dwell on matters.
Falling into the kiss, she bent into the contact, teasing at her partner's mouth and murmuring an invitation. Her desire for more from her lover was denied, and she moaned a soft protest at the stud that danced against her, almost seeming to draw her forward until...
Helena's harsh gasp coincided with Barbara's surrender. Shuddering from the force of Helena's kiss and the almost ravenous pull, she allowed herself to be consumed until, as suddenly as it had begun, the contact ended.
Well aware that she was once again sporting her soon-to-be-patented befuddled look, Barbara worked to focus, to uncross her eyes and recover the power of speech.
The dancing mischief in her partner's eyes told her all that she needed to know.
"If I counted right last night before you wore me out, we only got up to the five golden rings."
Barbara briefly lost focus again as she replayed events, then nodded.
"Indeed, Helena. What do you think we should do about that?"
Instantly, the younger woman was standing, gesturing toward the interior of the tower.
"Well, I told D. that she and Gabby can stay at my old apartment this week, so whaddaya say I try to get some pipers piping for you?"
With her hands automatically dropping to the wheels of her chair, Barbara looked down at herself then grinned ruefully.
"Maids a milking is more likely, Hel."
Barbara was halfway through the door when she heard her lover's response.
"Milking, swimming, dancing, or drumming, I don't care as long as you let me taste you."
She allowed momentum to carry her to the living area, then turned and very carefully set the brake on her chair.
"Excuse me, Hel?"
Helena, always graceful, appeared to stumble the tiniest bit, but Barbara forced herself to hold her tongue as the younger woman -- looking for all the world as if she were facing a firing squad -- slowly approached her. Time seemed to stretch until Helena finally squatted beside her.
Barbara couldn't miss that her companion was not touching her.
"I'm sorry, Barbara."
Blue eyes peered through dark bangs, and the redhead fought the instinct to push the hair back, to coax, to push.
"It's just... I-- I need..."
Certain that nothing more would be forthcoming, Barbara exhaled slowly.
"What do you need, Sweetheart."
It wasn't a question.
After all, Helena had already answered.
Nevertheless, her partner's reply -- the rawness of it, at least -- surprised her.
"Fuck my mouth."
For a moment, Barbara experienced a whirling vertigo that brought to mind some of her less-planned descents from rooftops back in the day. Since she no longer had grappling hooks and cables handy, she had to rely on her wits.
She placed the pads of her first two fingers under the younger woman's chin and forced her partner to look up.
"I don't want to fuck any part of you."
Heaven knew, she'd been trying hard enough to show her partner just that, to demonstrate through word and deed how much --
"Yeah. I get that."
Almost casually, Helena turned her head, slipping from her fingers and ducking behind her bangs again.
"You've made love to me and ... and you've let me touch you in ways I couldn't even imagine."
There was no way to miss the unspoken syllable.
Finally, the dark head rose, and Barbara fought not to look away under the force of her lover's honesty.
"I know it's still raw, but I need to..."
She wouldn't look away, but she didn't think she could hear the rest.
"Sweetie, it's not that I don't..."
Somehow, Helena's nod was resigned and accepting at the same time.
The brunette straightened slowly.
"It's just that you keep seeing it, don't you?"
The instinct to deny was strong, but Barbara couldn't do it. Unable to give voice to the truth either, she could only nod.
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