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 second extension of the Elemental series following Veneer.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
"Nummmmerrr wunnnn fannnn."
The words rang a bell, but, try as she might, Barbara Gordon simply couldn't put her finger on them. Given her tendency to experience life through the written word, she suspected that they came from a book; however, the mystery of their origin, not to mention her mild curiosity about her inability to delve into her infallible memory, simply failed to engage her.
Prodding at the possibilities, she drifted in a grey haze before the sensation of falling jerked her to herself. Heart trip-hammering from the sleep-induced sensation, she gradually recognized that that she needed to place not just the words but herself: specifically, where, when, what, and -- most pressing -- why she couldn't seem to pry her eyelids open.
No doubt or denial: Barbara Gordon loathed losing track of herself; her surroundings; time and memory. As analytical as she was, not to mention a lifetime ingrained by precision recall, she had to allow that this particular peccadillo wasn't unsurprising. Back in the day, the few lucky shots which had knocked her for a loop or, worse yet, resulted in a loss of consciousness had always left her feeling violated and vulnerable in a way that her partners never seemed to grasp: For Bruce and Dick, the spinning circle of stars around the head or an unplanned trip to la-la land was all part of the game; they trusted a partner to catch their back, shook it off, and got on with things. For Barbara, the disorientation -- space and time -- was never easy to shake.
Catching herself meandering along that particular neural primrose path, the redhead grit her teeth at her lack of concentration, then brightened at the realization that, indeed, perhaps she had been knocked out during an altercation with some Big, Dumb, and Ugly. After all, if that were the case, she'd soon pull herself together and be back in the game...
"If you can't get the number one fan up and running soon, we'll have to close down recovery room five."
With another jarring thud, this one purely emotional, it all came back: Not merely the origin of the phrase which had first penetrated her fogged consciousness but her own particular situation.
She was not, as she'd briefly entertained with entirely false cheer, merely flattened by some do-gooder action. Bitterly, she determined that the probable outcome of that scenario -- having some mega-baddie return to pound on her further -- was nothing but a faint, fond hope.
It was the smell, of course, which clinched matters: The unmistakable and unforgettable odor of bleach-stenched sheets. Still unable, perhaps unwilling, to open her eyes, she inhaled again, confirming the prevalent peroxide and antiseptic scent which seemed indelibly branded in her olfactory memory. A further sensory exploration determined that she'd been correct: the rough texture of sheets washed threadbare was evidence which she really didn't need.
A trickle of something cold and dank crawled up her throat at the realization that matters were amiss: the sensation of sandpaper cotton disappeared somewhere above her legs.
Her brain suddenly jump-starting, Barbara permitted memories of a previous hospital visit to nibble at the edges of her consciousness. Had her throat not been tender from what she presumed had been intubation, she might have laughed. Instead, she gathered her fragmented wits and took inventory as best she could through a series of isometric stretches.
Arms, tense, with the sensation of something pulling at the skin and prickling her nerves. IV needles taped into each, probably.
Stomach, oddly stiff and rigid.
This time, despite the rawness, a snort escaped her.
Obviously, she hadn't traveled back in time to relieve that little hospitalization. So, just what....
"You're in recovery, Barbara, and doing fine."
The voice, belonging to the woman who had been leading the fan club, distracted her and calmed her marginally. With a surprising amount of effort, she pried open her eyes, immediately regretting the action when bright fluorescents temporarily blinded her.
"Wha -- "
Her voice was as rough as her throat felt, but the nurse -- as Barbara assumed her to be when she finally blinked the gaudily colored scrubs into a semblance of focus -- grasped her intent.
"Your surgery didn't take as long as Dr. Casey thought, so you're still a bit under the anesthesia."
Green eyes blinked rapidly, and the bright lights above her prismed behind the moisture suddenly rimming her eyes..
So, it was done. Small wonder that her brain had resisted bringing that little reality -- the deliberate action which had taken her child and her womb -- to the fore.
The nurse's continuing reassurances distracted her.
The somewhat incongruous observation that her nurse bore a striking similarity to Kathy Bates was a more effective distraction, providing as it did a tangential thought that it might be time to revisit her collection of Stephen King novels.
"We'll be taking you back to your room soon. Try to rest."
Barbara smiled her thanks. Rather, she thought she had, however her eyes had already drooped shut and the words she heard -- something about Helena waiting, something about news -- could have been her own dreams.
It was movement which roused her from the black filaments of unconsciousness the second time. The sound of rubber wheels on linoleum quickly refreshed her memory, allowing her to avoid her earlier recriminations about being non compos mentos, and a more practical urge to escape the somnolent lethargy followed on the heels of recognition.
Unsurprisingly, the first person she heard when her bed finally came to a stop in the cramped private room was Helena. Barbara wriggled her eyebrows, attempting to increase the blood flow to her brain, distantly aware of someone murmuring a reassurance to her partner.
Despite her resolve to pull it together -- Helena was clearly worried -- Barbara thought she'd drifted again when a lovely frisson of awareness, the sense of a cat-footed approach, finally encouraged her to open her eyes. Had she not anticipated her lover's proximity, her sheer poised expectancy beside her, the redhead thought she might have jumped.
As it was, she forced the left side of her mouth upward in a half-smile while squinting to focus at such close range.
Whatever cocktail they'd hit her with for the surgery was clearly effective: she hadn't had this much trouble focusing in ages. Of course, given the area where they'd operated, they could have saved her insurance the cost and herself the aggravation by simply making do with her own permanent anesthesia.
A tender brush of soft, full lips against her jaw forced Barbara to abandon that all-too-familiar consideration.
Barbara clenched her jaw, absolutely refusing to react to the soft words: while the endearment was bitter salt on her wounds, she knew that the younger woman meant it to be reassuring. With an effort of will, she turned into the caresses and forced a full smile to her lips. Immediately, she was glad she'd made the effort: without looking down, she could feel the tension falling away from her companion.
"Drugs really knocked you for a loop, huh?"
Barbara hoped she hid her relief when the brunette withdrew a bit, finally allowing her to bring bright blue eyes into focus.
"When you wake up a little, Dr. Casey want to talk to us."
Swallowing against the pain in her throat, Barbara mentally calculated just where on her short list of things she didn't want to do a visit with her oncologist might lie.
Close to the top.
Guilt welling through her, she jerked against the tubing attached to her and pushed roughly at the covers folded neatly at her waist. To her credit, Helena didn't even blink at the sudden movement.
Slender fingers captured her wrist, the grip gentle but intractable, and the redhead worked not to thrash against another denial.
"Let me help."
Her chest hitched once, perhaps a ticklish response to her lover's hands carefully raising the rough sheet and the laughably thin blanket. There was no sensation of course when her gown was pushed to the side, revealing the blood-dotted bandage, secured by neatly aligned steristrips, across her lower abdomen.
Aware of Helena's wordless question, Barbara nodded once, using the motion to look away from a sight which was too damned familiar. While the other woman resettled her covers, she focused on the veritable greenhouse of flowers bedecking her room, wondering why -- after eight years -- The Joker still had the power to do this to her.
"Barbara, I'm... "
Helena's voice was soft, but terribly, terribly rough.
"You're gonna be okay, Red."
Those expressive features seemed to crumble, but the lapse was so brief that Barbara could have missed, or ignored, it. In the face of her partner's pain, she managed another soft smile and a single word.
Perhaps a stiff shot of caffeine -- something she'd been limiting for the last few months -- would help her shake off the grogginess, permit her to analyze just what she was feeling. Barbara was gratified that her request also had the ancillary benefit of easing the visible tension from the younger woman's shoulders, and a patented ten thousand watt Helena Kyle smile illuminated the room.
"Guess you deserve that. Triple espresso?"
Her smile genuine, Barbara nodded briefly, aware that that size jolt of caffeine, after she'd been limiting herself so virtuously, should have her awake for the next week.
Helena straightened and took a step toward the door before turning with an impish twinkle in her eyes.
"You want that directly in your IV?"
Quirking a brow, the older woman kept it brief.
"A straw or a sippy cup will be fine, Hel."
With a wink and wave, the brunette soundlessly exited the room, and Barbra floated again, delaying as long as possible her return to rational reality. The swish of her door opening recalled her, and she turned, plastering on a smile which was only a little forced.
The thought of the coffee was, after all, an incentive of sorts.
The sight of a scrubs-clad hospital worker allowed her to drop the pretense, bringing with it a reminder of her dislike of all things "hospital". Even the nurses and occasional doctor wearing bright scrubs didn't make it any better, and in the case of this particularly garish black and white and red checkerboard combination...
That thought derailed and her heart trip-hammered when Barbara recognized how very specialized these particular scrubs were. She blinked rapidly, working ineffectually to push up against her pillows as the door clicked shut behind her visitor. The gaudily-clad woman cocked her head from the doorway before raising one hand in a fluttering wave.
"Now, now, Barbara. You need to settle down. You can't be feeling too good after what you've been through."
Trapped in her bed, Barbara suspected that the words' effectiveness was lessened by the treacle in the speaker's voice. And, the chilling addendum which followed.
"Rather, dear Barbara, what you've been through so far."
That did the trick.
After everything she had been through, Barbara simply refused to accept what was before her eyes. Willing herself to be under the influence of the morphine dripping into her left arm, she nevertheless had to be certain. Her voice sounding like an idiotic croak to her own ears, she managed one word.
No answer was required for what Barbara conceded had been a purely rhetorical question. Nevertheless, in the spirit of most of the megalomaniac super villains Barbara had encountered through the years, Quinn couldn't resist an opportunity to make an entrance.
"One and the same, Barbara."
The blonde circumnavigated the small room, pushing the bedside table to one side almost absently.
"I was afraid that I'd aged a bit during my recent enforced hiatus, so it's especially gratifying that you recognized me so quickly."
Watching her guest warily, Barbara eschewed comment. Quite frankly, between her still drug-addled state and her complete shock, she wondered if she'd ever find words again. Her visitor didn't seem to notice, offering her a saccharine smile while she poured a glass of water from the flimsy pink plastic pitcher provided by the nursing staff when Barbara had checked in the night before. Tucking a straw into the styrofoam cup, the blonde pixie approached and extended the cup.
"There, there. Take a sip of this; you must be dehydrated after the surgery. And you simply must forgive me for not bringing flower in your unfortunate time, Barbara. I've simply had so much to plan and to do."
On auto-pilot, Barbara automatically accepted the water and sipped slowly, buying herself time to think. Once the liquid had cleared her raw throat, she peevishly acknowledged that Quinn had been right about re-hydrating: already her thoughts seemed clearer, giving her the opportunity to consider how the madwoman had been able to pinpoint her location and get into the hospital without raising any alarms.
The recent spate of criminal activity engineered by the deranged harlequin had subsided a bit in the last week, after Barbara had alerted authorities to the woman's escape from Arkham. Indeed, after the attack at the clock tower, which had caused all three of the vigilante crime fighters to forswear eggs for the duration, Barbara had allowed the woman's threats to fade to the background. With the rapid preparations needed for today's surgery, she'd allowed herself to hope that the increased police patrols in the city would keep matters in check.
Clearly an error of significant proportion on her part.
Lowering the cup, she went on the offensive.
"What are you doing here, Harley?"
Over-plucked blonde brows shot skyward, and the other woman's mouth moued.
"Not too gracious are we?"
Barbara permitted herself a soft sigh at the theatrics, but Quinn rattled on.
"Of course, having your body cut open and one of your last remnants of womanhood removed could make one cranky, couldn't it? Still..."
The tiny figure dropped lightly into the visitor's chair and smoothed her scrub top.
"...you might want to be a bit nicer."
Although she'd never considered herself to be particularly lacking in imagination, the redhead simply couldn't come up with a single reason that might compel her to feign hospitality. Accordingly, she suspected that her tone might have been the tiniest bit sour when she responded.
"And what possible reason might I have for wanting to be nice -- "
The word was laced with pure acid while Barbara frantically calculated how she could contact the authorities without tipping the lunatic off.
The call button was beside her hip; if she casually juggled the water cup to her other hand, she might be able to cover a page for the nurse. Of course, assuming that someone on staff did respond before nightfall, she might very well be putting an innocent into the line of fire.
" -- to you?"
Quite possibly following her thought process -- Barbara had never denied that the woman was brilliant, not to mention a keen judge of human psychology -- Quinn rose from her perch on the edge of the chair and retrieved the call button. Unwinding the cable from the bed rail, the madwoman looked up, tsking cheerfully, and Barbara almost gagged at the bland malevolence present in her face.
"Let's just get this nasty cable out of the way, shall we?"
Blonde lashes fluttered playfully over chocolate brown eyes, and Quinn shook her head sadly toward the IV poles.
"You already have far too many things tethering you."
Coiling the cord neatly, Quinn moved the call button to the far side of the bedside table. Barbara's mixed emotions at the realization that she could still reach it -- if she stretched like hell and tore her stitches -- transformed to the pure adrenaline of fear when the other woman moved back to her side and ran one finger thoughtfully along one of the IV lines, tugging non-too-gently at the heplock.
"We want to be certain that we have access to all of these lines, don't we, Barbara?"
The sheer vulnerability of her position struck the redhead again: held together with bits of tape and thread, with her chair across the room, she was completely at the other woman's mercy until Helena returned. Swallowing her terrified fury, she added another black mark to her list of reasons to avoid hospitals and casually raised her cup to sip from the straw. With some moisture in her very dry mouth again, she inclined her head toward the chair in invitation.
"You still haven't told me why I would want to welcome your visit, Harley."
She gave herself a mental high five for the steadiness of her voice; however, her small victory vanished with a noisy pop when she heard the other woman's reply.
The blonde poured herself a cup of water from the pitcher and raised it in a toast.
"I am, quite probably, the last meta-being of legal drinking age who you'll be seeing for quite some time."
Given Quinn's long-standing fascination with Helena, not to mention her holographic rantings which Barbara had discovered the week before, the threat was clear enough. The hot rush of fury was instant.
"So help me, if you're planning to hurt Helena, I will personally see to it that you never see daylight again."
The former psychiatrist laughed gaily and stepped close to the bed, patting the redhead's hand.
"Oh, my, aren't you the brave one?"
Quinn twirled playfully and set her cup on the bedside table before smiling brightly.
"I must admit that as I've been licking my wounds about my sweet Mr. J the thought of harming our dear Helena has been a stumbling point."
The blonde raised one hand, tapping a sharp nail against her bottom lip.
"She was my favorite patient, after all. Opening up so many opportunities against you and such."
Green eyes glared, the cyber vigilante not bothering with a response. In true evil villain form, Quinn appeared not to require any encouragement as she continued her monologue.
"Still, sometimes it's simply necessary to... severe a therapeutic relationship, isn't it, Barbara?"
Once again, Quinn blinked coyly before strolling to the window. Simultaneously terrified and furious, Barbara ground out a question.
"What are you planning, Quinn?"
Voice almost gay, the blonde sprite needlessly adjusted the avocado green curtains.
"You know, I've always thought that these were simply too unsanitary for words in a hospital. Don't you agree?"
Quinn cocked her head, her movement birdlike and incongruously casual. Despite her agreement with the observation, Barbara refused to allow herself to be sucked into some sort of inane small talk with the person who was none-too-subtly threatening her partner.
With a supreme effort, she pushed at the rough sheets below her waist and pushed to a marginally more upright position. No longer feeling completely vulnerable -- amazing the difference three inches could make -- she fixed the other woman with another glare.
"Oh, my goodness," Quinn raised one hand to her chest in a display of dismay, "wouldn't that expression just break glass."
Clearly, the madwoman was determined to play things out in her own fashion. With a heavy sigh, Barbara waited out her cackling laughter, then summoned her best bored expression.
"Just get on with it, Quinn, and tell me what you're planning. I suspect that my HMO won't let me stay here forever."
This time, the blonde's laugh was more of a simper as she returned to the guest chair and settled on the edge again.
"Too true. Health care is simply deplorable these days."
Brown eyes pinned green, and Barbara shivered at the pure hate blazing within.
"The same is true for the penal system, if I do say so myself."
Her agreement genuine, the redhead nodded cautiously. Perhaps if she kept the other woman talking about her perceived wrongs and Barbara's role in them, Helena could catch her in the room. With her acute hearing, there was simply no way that the younger woman would miss the sound of Quinn's voice.
"But, I digress. We were, after all, talking about Helena."
Quinn stood again, energy almost visibly crackling off her.
"Trapped in that horrible prison after you'd arranged the untimely demise of my Sweet Puddin' -- "
For a split second, witnessing a flash of genuine sorrow in the other woman's features, Barbara almost pitied her. The emotion disappeared with alacrity as Quinn continued.
"-- well, I weighed numerous options to make you pay."
Gesturing toward the bed she was trapped in, the redhead had to interrupt.
"I believe that I have already paid more than enough."
Waving a hand dismissively, the tiny woman chuckled.
"Do you really think so, Barbara?"
"I do," the redhead ground out.
One blonde brow arched, and Quinn pursed her lips.
"Perhaps. Perhaps not."
The madwoman approached the bed slowly, forcing Barbara to think of some slinking, hypnotic animal ensnaring it's prey.
"As for our dear Helena, I realized that, at this point, I think we'd both have to agree that you're the only one who can truly hurt her, Barbara."
Aware that she was gaping at the other woman, she snapped her mouth shut.
"Yes, you, Barbara."
The blonde nodded sagely.
"You always have been too influential, too important, for the poor girl's own good."
Quinn batted her lashes and tapped her index finger against the metal of the bed rail.
"In my professional opinion, of course."
The words were dry as dust, but the other woman ignored the sarcasm.
"Nevertheless, there's simply so much more that I need you to feel."
Working for boredom again, Barbara drawled, "Some feelings are simply not an option for me any longer, Quinn."
The other woman's cackle of delight set her nerves on edge.
"Well, what you can't feel, Helena can. That's why, when I ran into her just before coming up here -- "
Quinn's finger continued to tap against the rail, creating a leaden beat to her words.
"--the last thing I told her before I ended her life..."
"Last -- ?"
Barbara's horrified gasp seemed to force the other woman to interrupt herself.
"Ah, ah. You're right, and accuracy is so important to you, isn't it, Barbara?"
Trying not to gnash her teeth in frustration, Barbara refused to accept what she was hearing.
"Do you really have anything to say, Quinn?"
"Indeed, I do," was the gaily lilting response as the blonde pixie trailed one hand along the steel rail.
"The penultimate thing I told her was how she was responsible for this little hospitalization of yours."
The blonde head tilted to the side, and Barbara nearly gagged at the saccharine sympathy being directed at her. Her own impotent rage at the possibility that Helena had learned the truth she simply pushed aside for later consideration.
"After all, hospitals have tied you two together, haven't they? It simply seemed so... appropriate to end things at one."
"I don't believe you."
And, in all honesty, Barbara didn't -- couldn't -- believe what the malevolent sprite was telling her.
"Tsk, tsk. Always the empiricist."
In a heartbeat, Quinn was leaning close, danging something from her fingers.
"I suspected you'd need some evidence."
Dismissively, the blonde straightened, and Barbara automatically extended her hand, palm up, gasping in recognition when the slender comms necklace which Helena had been wearing dropped into her hand. Her stomach performed a slow roll at the blood covering the links of the chain, but she realized that she'd have to play Quinn's game through.
"What was the last?"
"What was that, dear?"
Quinn spun gracefully, pushing the visitor's chair against the far wall.
"Oh, yes. The last thing I told your little pet was that I was on my way to visit you."
Taking her time, forcing herself to absorb the implications, Barbara finally heard her own voice, surprising in its complete lack of affect.
"Are you going to kill me now, Quinn?"
Eyes focused solely on the necklace in her hand, she didn't bother to look up. For some reason, whatever the other woman's answer might be didn't seem terribly important.
Pink and blue cotton candy. Soft and sweet and cloying.
Floating in a miasma of color and phantom sensation, Barbara had to concede that perhaps death wasn't too bad. Yet, something about the part of that thought seemed off.
Vexed by her seeming inability to take the afterlife as it was, she gave in to the need to prod at the word, deciding that, indeed, her eternal rest seemed less like sticky, soft cotton and more like scratchy steel wool, scraping against her elbows and ensnaring her in wiry tendrils.
Disorienting and dark and rough.
Perhaps the flip side of the afterlife?
Not entirely off put by the idea, she floated again. After all, she'd never claimed to be an angel, and at this point there was little she could do about cotton candy versus cotton wool.
The word, combined with the roughness against her skin, did the trick: she heard her own soft whimper as she reluctantly realized that it was threadbare hospital sheets tangled around her rather than the ethereal bonds of the afterlife. With a sharp jerk of her head, she reared into wakefulness, cold adrenaline flooding through her, wending down her spine and leaving her breathless.
Either her internal chronometer was terribly off, or she'd been out far longer than she dared contemplate.
Of course, she'd been sleeping.
Instantly, the tension evaporated, and Barbara breathed deeply again.
Leaping lizards, it had only been a dream.
More accurately, she found herself automatically correcting herself, a nightmare, undoubtedly brought on by anesthesia and guilt. Snorting softly, she disentangled her arms from the rough sheets, wryly acknowledging that nightmares born of loss and secrets were certainly no strangers.
"No way through it but to do it, Gord--"
Her little pep talk was cut short when she raised her hands to scrub at her eyes. In the face of the blood-stained comms unit still clenched in her palm, there was simply no way to hold on to the bright, shiny lie that it had all been a figment of an overactive imagination.
Choking back her horror, she noted that the blood on the unit had already dried and begun to crust. Scrabbling to push herself up against the head of the bed, she snapped her head toward the window, confirming that the shadow of the skyscape through those horrid green curtains had changed too much.
Too much time had passed. Too much time had evaporated since Helena had left for coffee, since she had tendered her hopeless question to the madwoman in her room.
She gave up on her hopeless battle with righting herself, the fist which still gripped Helena's necklace slamming against the rail of the bed. The physical jolt recalled her -- just enough -- and she clamped down on her panicked fury.
Her hand shook ever so slightly as she fumbled for the button to raise the bed. Waiting as the gears whirred and the head of the bed creaked upward, she pushed at the covers, blinking once at the bright spill of wet red blood across the front of her faded hospital gown.
Of course. The stitches she'd undoubtedly pulled in her efforts to reach the phone.
Barbara found herself completely and utterly unmoved by the sight.
Survivor's guilt, perhaps.
When she'd asked Quinn if she planned to kill her, Barbara had known that she wouldn't have fought off the attack, even if she'd been at full strength. Consequently, Quinn's dismissive laugh had been almost a disappointment.
"Kill you, Barbara? Why would I want to let you off so easily?"
The ever over-active analytical portion of her brain had forced Barbara to acknowledge that the woman had a point: As revenge scenarios went, Quinn's decision to leave her alive was a masterstroke.
Then again, for some reason, she did seem to inspire particularly sadistic planning from the villains in her life.
That completely appropriate thought had almost evoked a giggle... or a sob; it had certainly not inspired her fighting spirit. Nevertheless, weighing the odds that the lunatic's words and the bloody necklace weren't a lie, Barbara had known she couldn't take a chance. Lives other than her own were probably at stake.
"In that case, Harley,"
She'd almost sneered the woman's name as she'd pushed against the far edge of her mattress, stretching for the phone on the nightstand.
"I have a job to do which involves returning you to the tender care of Arkham."
Quinn -- and whatever she might do -- be damned. Barbara had focused on nothing but the phone, tantalizingly out of reach, and the need to call Dinah or Alfred, to warn them, to find out what the hell was happening. Thus, even when Quinn had strolled back to the side of the bed and bent to meet her eyes, the redhead hadn't stopped her struggle.
If the madwoman wanted to set something off, well, Barbara had been more than ready to pull out her own IVs and use the needles as weapons.
Almost nonchalantly, the other woman had bumped the table with her hip, scooting it another ten inches away.
Ten inches that might have been a mile.
"...but I really must leave now. Since your sweet Helena is quite dead -- "
The saccharine facade had fallen away then, revealing only malevolence and fury.
" -- I simply have so much to do."
With that, the blonde had straightened and turned toward the closer IV pole, fingers playing across the computerized morphine drip. Utterly paralyzed by Quinn's words -- no mere taunt those; the madwoman had spoken with factual certainty -- it had taken her too long to understand what her tormentor was doing.
A split second before the monitor had beeped and she'd registered the dose moving into the line, Barbara had bitterly realized that of course the other woman would be privy to the codes for the machine.
"Places to go and people -- Ah ah!"
The trilling persona had returned, Quinn turning to correct herself, one hand on the door handle.
"Other people to hurt, you know."
Fighting the haze already descending, Barbara had ignored her, lunging -- or, she thought she had -- for the phone again. Her body and her consciousness had given way just as the door had closed behind the other woman, Quinn's farewell a bitter lullaby.
"Nighty night, Barbara. Enjoy the last pleasant dreams you'll have for a loooong time."
Now, brutally alert and finally upright against the thin mattress, the redhead eyed the morphine bottle with hatred. Not only was it unnecessary for her surgical wounds, but it had also lost her valuable time in determining what Quinn had done... and might do.
Smiling grimly, Barbara dropped the comms unit next to her hip, then roughly yanked off the tape that secured the plastic tubing to her arm. Carefully, she placed each strip along the rail of her bed, automatically locating each one half-inch from the next. With that task complete, she eyed the heavy gauge needle at the crook of her elbow, following the tubing back to the small console responsible for doling out the narcotic.
Damned drug certainly couldn't touch her real agony.
Without another thought, she yanked the line from her arm and turned to repeat the process with the second IV.
Probably a cocktail of antibiotics, fluids, and -- possibly -- cancer-killing chemicals. Nothing the she couldn't do without.
Finally free of the plastic lines, she distractedly wiped her palms against her gown; her less than gentle nursing had resulted in blood trickling down her arms. Green eyes narrowed, taking in the distance and the angles. Focused solely on her goal, she began with the nearer IV pole, tugging carefully at the plastic line to reel it towards her. With a final tug, she pulled it close, the metal pole clanking once against her bedside even as she turned to the other line.
The moisture on her palms caused her to drop the slippery plastic; only her dangling line of adhesive tape saved her, catching a piece of the tubing as it slithered toward the floor.
Deliberately, Barbara forced herself to slow down.
Roughly dragging her palms across her chest, she wrapped one piece of tape around the line, affixing it to the rail. Then, she began the slow process of coaxing the pole close. When it was eighteen inches away, the redhead almost gave way to temptation, almost attempted to snatch the line free.
She resisted, waiting until she could reach the pole and remove the end of the line from the IV bag.
Eighteen inches was eighteen inches, and she'd need every bit of line to accomplish her task.
Still.... Too long. It was taking too long.
Fingers almost flying as she wove the freed line with the tubing still attached to the first IV pole, Barbara mentally sent her thanks to Alethea Harkness for the recent needlework lessons. With the cord braided and doubled, she methodically affixed every piece of tape, securing the plastic line to the pole before finally stopping to take a breath and assess her handiwork.
A bit like an odd, mummified instrument for bondage.
Quirking her lips, Barbara noted that Helena would undoubtedly appreciate the description, and her fleeting whimsy vanished.
Tamping down on her anger, she forced herself to push the pole away gently.
Just enough force to send it past the bedside table which Quinn had moved from reach.
When it had rolled far enough, Barbara snapped her makeshift line, changing the direction of travel until the pole swung into position behind the small faux-wood table.
Now, all she had to do was reel the whole mess toward her... carefully, slowly.
Ignoring the tightness in her upper belly, the pull doubtlessly working at her lower abdomen, she felt an eternity ticking by and finally, completely winded, had to stop for a breather. Resting the line against her legs in order to dry her palms, Barbara abruptly grasped her tactical error: with the tension on the line temporarily abated, the pole's higher center of gravity took over, and the thin rod recoiled, crashing to the floor.
The table was only inches from her reach; however, Barbara bitterly realized that it was, for all intents and purposes, miles away.
"Kindly get the hell away."
Pausing for emphasis, Barbara added what she thought should have been fairly obvious.
"I am not in the mood for this."
Simply put, Barbara Gordon did not intend to budge an inch. Sprawled on the worn linoleum of her hospital room, a twenty-year-old princess phone clasped to her chest, she was not about to yield to orders, pleading, or reason.
Not ten minutes earlier, she'd felt her hopes topple in tandem with the makeshift fishing reel she'd fashioned from her IV tubing and pole. She'd allowed herself a moment to come up with a particularly fitting and colorful string of expletives before yielding to the inevitable.
"No way through it but to do it."
Obviously something she'd need to have tattooed somewhere prominent when she got everything sorted out.
With a final baleful glare at the soundly latched door to the hallway and a mental note to contact the hospital administration about the frequency with which staff checked on post-operative patients, she'd flung her blood-stained covers back and worked her legs over the side of the bed.
Naturally, it had been raised to waist height, presumably for the convenience of those who -- at some point -- would appear to attend to her.
It was then that Barbara had heard a laugh, her own: a full, hearty explosion of all of the frustrations and challenges she had faced in the last few hours -- days -- years. Perhaps it had also been a dare for life to bring on the rest.
Regardless, it had gotten her moving.
Still smiling without real humor, she'd managed to snag the remaining IV rack, using it as an extremely wobbly fire pole of sorts to lower herself none-too-gently to the floor. The commando crawl to the tacky little bedside table, a journey of perhaps fourteen inches, normally would have been a moment's work, but it had taken considerably longer since the muscles in her upper body were nothing more than wet noodles.
Her mood had, almost impossibly, soured even further when that thought had struck her, bringing with it as it had images of a limp piece of linguini -- or, perhaps it had been fettuccini -- slithering down her monitor not too long after she and Helena had become lovers and had been finding their way through unfamiliar landscapes.
Clearly, it hadn't been the best time for a stroll... or roll... or crawl down memory lane.
When she'd finally reached the table, she'd had to rest, cursing a blue streak over her weakness and the way the minutes seemed to be evaporating, before finally yanking the phone down to the floor. It had been then, in her moment of miniscule victory that she'd heard it: a soft step outside the door, followed by the click of the handle turning. Had she been able, she would have scrambled back -- as far as she could go in the small room, to the corner by the bathroom or even under the bed -- so certain had she been that it was Quinn, returning to torment her further.
The nature of the torment was not something she'd allowed herself to contemplate in the interminable heartbeat that had elapsed as the door had swung open.
Whimpering as a slight shadow banded the threshold, she'd readied for the worst, then almost sobbed when she'd recognized one of the duty nurses. Naturally, and in the spirit of the entire day, her relief had been premature. Her nurse -- L. Fletcher if she were reading the badge accurately -- had swooped down on her like Florence Nightingale on crack.
"What on earth are you doing down there?!"
The woman had knelt beside her, then almost fallen backward.
"And you've torn your stitches..."
In all fairness, Barbara had supposed that she was quite a sight; however she simply hadn't had time for her caregiver's sensibilities -- shocked, concerned, downright offended, or otherwise.
"We need to get you back in bed and cleaned up -- "
L. Fletcher had straightened, reaching for the hard-won phone.
"And you need to be resting, not making calls. For Pete's sake, Ms. Gordon, you just had major surgery."
Quite aware of that little fact and equally aware that it might be a good long time before she had time to process everything that her hysterectomy meant, Barbara had snapped. While her words had been polite enough -- at least for a post-op patient who was bleeding on the floor -- they'd been banded with iron.
Thus, after three frantic phone calls, two heated exchanges with the floor's chief RN, and one interminable ride home, the redhead finally found herself waiting impatiently for the elevator doors to slide open into the clock tower. Ever attentive, Alfred stood beside her, easily holding the small overnight bag she'd packed for her stay less than twenty-four hours before.
Dinah, Barbara's first call, was still scouting the area around the hospital. The teen had been almost at the door to the hospital after her double shift at the mall when Barbara had reached her cell; with laudably few questions, her newest protege had somehow made sense of Barbara's words and warnings and had reversed course to hunt for Helena. Detective Jesse Reese, the last call, had issued an upgraded APB for Quinn before joining Dinah in her search of the area.
When the elevator doors whispered open, Barbara moved purposefully across the living area, making a beeline to the Delphi. Peripherally, she noted Alfred disappearing into the master bedroom, presumably to leave her bag, then focused on the task of pushing herself up the ramp that she'd cruised up easily thousands of times.
Panting slightly, she came to a stop in front of her keyboard and toggled the unit, the most powerful remaining weapon in her arsenal, to life. Distractedly, she pushed at a strand of hair which clung to the cold sweat covering her neck and then lost herself in her work. Still typing with one hand, she dug into the side pocket of her chair, fishing for her glasses.
She'd used the time while she'd waited for Alfred's arrival at the hospital to make her plans. Now, she simply had no more time to lose.
Fragrant farting fairies, but how she loathed hospitals. If only she'd held her ground with Helena about the surgery, none of this would be happening.
Steadying herself -- she suspected there would be time enough later for self-recriminations -- she effortlessly hacked into her goal, the Luxor Hotel, and unleashed her long-dormant encryption routines against the Las Vegas hotel's security system. As the programs plowed through the terabytes of possible switches, she toggled to a second screen, rapidly readying a fleet of web 'bots and cross-linking them with every likely destination.
A soft beep from the encryption terminal window coincided with an entirely discrete cough, and she glanced up to find Alfred beside her. Green eyes darted back to the plasma screen even as she clicked into the Luxor's innermost security system.
"Excuse me for interrupting, Miss Barbara... "
Already absorbed in unraveling the warren of code and objects utilized for the casino's sophisticated facial pattern recognition algorithms, the cyber-vigilante didn't even look up.
A steaming cup of tea appeared next to her mouse pad, precisely settled over the moisture ring that had developed in her favored spot through the years. The emergency med kit followed.
"When you have a moment, I thought you might find these... helpful."
She had no choice but to cease her frantic typing long enough to meet her old friend's concerned gaze. With effort, she managed to summon a smile that she knew didn't reach her eyes.
"Thank you, Alfred. Right after I finish here."
Already absorbed in the process of downloading the facial pattern matching code into her 'bots before dispatching them to every security camera in New Gotham, Barbara promptly forgot the medical kit. After all, as she'd been signing herself out of the hospital against very vocal medical advice, she'd allowed the staff to clean her up and put a few staples into her incision.
She'd live. Somehow she always did. However...
She shook her head roughly and pressed the <Enter> key to send forth her cyber scouts, concentrating the bulk on the airport, the train station, and the toll roads: anywhere she might be able to identify Quinn if she attempted to flee the city.
Task complete, Barbara lowered her lashes and inhaled slowly, reaching for the teacup.
She simply refused to think about locating Helena, leaving that to Dinah and Jesse on the streets. Either her vibrant younger partner was alive and would make her way back to the tower -- much like that terrifying night after the explosion in the parking garage which had killed The Joker -- or...
At that, Barbara shakily lowered the delicate cup, oblivious to the spill of hot liquid across her knuckles, and tried to calculate how many of her nine lives Helena might have used. Her hand, skin already pinkening from the scald, rose to cover her mouth, and Barbara struggled not to gag when she realized how many her partner had already used.
And Quinn had...
Hearing her own hitching gasp, she forced herself to finish the thought: The bitch had been too certain in her words.
Slowly, she allowed her eyes to close and gave herself a minute to pull it together, to come to terms. There was nothing she could do about what might have occurred; it was up to her to do what she did best: focus, and plan, and keep things under control.
Thus, when Dinah called in not too many minutes later, her voice shaking, Barbara found herself surprisingly calm. Their discovery of blood, lots of it, all matching Helena's DNA, was... not surprising.
"Tell Jesse that he can return to the hunt for Quinn, Canary. We'll focus on her for now."
<"Uh, copy that, Oracle.">
The girl's acknowledgement resonated her confusion, but Barbara merely toggled the microphone off and turned away from the workstation. Wireless screen in her lap, she calmly cruised down the ramp to make her preparations.
They would find Quinn, and she was damned well going to be ready.
Her first stop was the gear closet, as always, packed to overflowing with the detritus of their lives both nocturnal and... normal. She pushed past the frisbee on the floor, ignored the circular saw neatly stored on a shelf, and stretched into the back of the closet. Her fingertips brushed the well-oiled softness of braided leather, and Barbara felt her lips twist at a memory. Then, she found her objective, a small cotton backpack, and dropped in into her lap before backing out of the cluttered space.
A quick detour to her room and the gun safe in the recently remodeled closet was next.
She spun the combination without hesitation, not blinking at the blue steel which greeted her when she opened the box. Snapping her father's old service pistol against her palm, she aimed at her reflection in the mirror above the dresser, checking the sight. The full clip clicked into place with a soft chink of metal against metal, and she dropped the unit into the side pocket of her chair where it would be handy.
Right next to her glasses.
That task complete, she returned to the living room and, ignoring the cold sweat dotting her face and chest, muscled up the ramp to her work area. By the time the elevator doors parted and Dinah cautiously approached the platform, the redhead had filled her army surplus rucksack and was in the process of affixing it to her midsection with most of a roll of duct tape.
Otherwise engaged in attempting to gnaw a tear mark in the tape with her teeth, Barbara's reply was muted, her lie coming easily.
A sudden alarm from the Delphi spared her the need to explain further.
"Wha -- ?"
They spoke as one, Barbara dropping the tape and pivoting sharply to the screen while the teen bounded onto the platform.
"Got a match at the airport...."
Without conscious direction, Barbara's fingers flew across the keyboard, allowing her to identify the departure gate that her nemesis was headed to.
In other circumstances, she knew she might have pumped her fist in victory or exchanged a knowing wink with the Princess Fiona bobbin' head atop her monitor: stealing, hacking, and programming the facial pattern matching software so quickly had not been an insignificant feat; and considering the weight of latex covering Quinn's features, the success of the venture was almost a miracle.
Still, the battle had not been won.
Running through her plans, the redhead pushed back sharply and wheeled toward the ramp. Her almost-forgotten companion's yelp reminded her that she was not alone.
She allowed herself ten seconds for the necessities.
"I'm so sorry, Dinah, but I only have 20 minutes before her plane departs. I..."
Giving in to temptation, she took in her ward's sweet features.
"... I have to go now."
The lanky girl was beside her in an instant.
Fighting panic at the offer, Barbara calmly met earnest blue eyes.
"No, Dinah. I need you to handle things on this end. This is..."
The truth was easy enough.
"This is something I need to do myself."
Even as she lowered her palms to the wheels of her chair again, she realized her tactical error: Of course Dinah would need to... offer some sort of comfort.
"Oh. Well, I'll just -- "
The hand that lightly touched her shoulder was, she knew, meant to reassure. Unfortunately, with her own thoughts too raw and unguarded, there was no way her telepathic ward could miss her intent. Dinah's gasp was eloquence itself, and the blonde staggered backward as if burned, her index finger aimed accusingly at the canvas bag securely taped to Barbara's waist.
"Sit down, Dinah."
The girl's normally pale skin was the color of milk, and Barbara feared that she'd pass out on the edge of the platform.
Quite deliberately, the older woman chose to take the word in the context of their conversation.
"I don't want you to pass -- "
Dinah, naturally, didn't allow the avoidance. One hand, the one that had touched her shoulder, slashed through the air, negating the attempt.
A tiny bit of color returned to the teen's cheeks as the blonde head jerked toward the pack.
"That! You can't do this!"
"It's just for back up."
Under other circumstances, Barbara suspected that she would have hated herself for the ease of the lie. However, these were circumstances unlike any other. Unsurprisingly, especially given how events had played out for her so far, Dinah didn't buy it.
"The hell you say, Barbara. That's C-4 in there -- enough to take out the entire airport. Every... fucking... body."
Knowing her ward as she did, the older woman recognized how telling her language was.
"I can't believe you'd do this."
Barbara thought her heart might have broken a tiny bit more when she witnessed Dinah's shoulders sagging.
"That you would do this."
At that point, she knew that words were inadequate. Nevertheless, she had to try.
"I'm sorry if it comes down to this, Dinah."
Helpless, she shrugged, ignoring the inner voice that questioned how sorry she really might be. In all honesty, Barbara suspected that she might not be sorry at all. After all, what was she -- or could she be -- without Helena?
Another inner voice, this one a tinny, bitter, echo supplied her answer: Less than the hollow men taunted at in The Joker's message months before.
Decision made, Barbara pushed down the ramp, heading for the elevator.
"I'm sorry, Dinah."
With no time for argument and no room for doubt, she realized that she did have the capacity for surprise when Dinah, her young face steeled, moved to stand in front of the entrance to the elevator.
"If you want to do this, Barbara, you'll have to go through me first."
No way through it...
Exhaling roughly, Barbara Gordon jerked her glasses off and tossed them onto the table.
Sweet suffering sin but she was coming to hate that little truism.
With a mental shrug at her own pettiness, she briskly pivoted her head from side to side, wincing at the pop and snap of tight muscles and vertebrae. Tension momentarily alleviated -- although a long massage sounded like a good idea -- she snagged her glasses and returned to her task: hunting for a needle in a haystack.
Or, as she'd lately come to think of it, searching for one very bent barb in a stack of six billion bits of shiny tinsel and steel.
Still, she smiled grimly at the thought: Perseverance had long been one of her watchwords. Back in the day, she'd outlasted Dick during stakeouts many times. His excuses about hot dates or previous engagements to the contrary, she'd known that her sometimes-partner simply refused to put up with the extended drudgery of a hunt.
Not so for her.
Like the proverbial Canadian Mounties, she'd been determined always to get her prey, even if the actual pursuit had been tedium in the extreme. Since a Gameboy or Walkman would have been too distracting, she'd often passed the time contemplating how the hours spent in kneeling in window ledges or clinging to fire escapes in the long, cold, wet Gotham nights might impact her lower back in later life.
Which was, she now had to admit, irony that even her struggling tenth graders shouldn't fail to grasp.
On this particular night, however, she was warm and dry and as comfortable as she could be after six hours of fixed concentration in front of an oversized plasma monitor. As reconnaissance went, this beat hanging out in the sewers, gloves down.
Speaking of sewers and alleys...
Abandoning her latest electronic break-in for the moment, she briefly checked the GPS locator. The small green LED had progressed a bit since her last check, and so she thumbed up the volume on her headpiece, maintaining silence at the sound of voices.
<"...uh huh. She's a real bad-ass. If you hear anything, can you leave word at No Man's Land?">
A masculine murmur of assent reassured Barbara that matters were well in hand and so, straightening her shoulders, she turned back to her own electronic search. Since she scarcely needed her full concentration to slip through the firewalls at CitiBank, the redhead allowed her thoughts to wander to Gibson, the barkeep at No Man's, and his unique meta-talent with dates and numbers.
Perhaps not an unexpected mental segue, given her own recent fixation on such things.
It had been, Barbara knew without the need for calculation, sixteen days and eight hours since...
A quick glance at the onscreen clock allowed her to refine the accuracy of her count.
Sixteen days, eight hours, and thirty-four minutes since she'd been visited at the hospital by Harley Quinn. It had been sixteen days, eight hours, and twenty-two minutes since the madwoman had taunted her about killing Helena, pumped her full of narcotics, and left her to her terror. And, it had been sixteen days, four hours, and a handful of minutes since Quinn's actions had goaded Barbara into a course that had led her into battle with the one soul with whom she'd never thought possible to be at odds.
Years before, still coming to terms with life at waist height and her sudden guardianship of an extremely angry young ward, she'd had any number of altercations with Helena. Most had been battles of words and will; a few notable run-ins had been under the guise of practice in the training room. However, she'd been a different person then, and there could be no doubt that her first ward was night to her current ward's day. Therefore, when she'd found Dinah facing her down at the elevator two weeks before, both comprehension and belief had been slow in arriving.
Her first reaction had been frank incredulity.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Acutely aware of the seconds ticking by and the need to be moving -- to reach Quinn before she'd slipped through her grasp -- Barbara had been hard-pressed not to shout. Fortunately, years in the classroom had schooled her in the semblance of patience. The sight of the girl's trembling had further tempered her ire.
"Stopping you from doing something that's just wrong!"
Dinah hadn't had the benefit of years and experience to hide her anger. With a start, Barbara had realized that the young woman's trembling rose not from fear but from rage. Her own fury had risen then, a howling, maddening hate for the woman who had put her in this position. Without any hope of pushing it aside, she'd simply dropped her hands to the wheels of her chair and pushed with all of her might, determined to go past -- or, perhaps, through -- her companion.
She hadn't budged so much as a millimeter.
For one yawning instant, she'd been blindsided by the depths of her own helplessness. Instantly, her rage had turned in on her, leaving her sick at her own ineffectiveness, at being held hostage by her protege's TK, at her own inability to have somehow stopped all of this. Bleakly, she'd met the teen's eyes, her own self-loathing redoubling at the tears tracking down Dinah's cheeks.
"Don't do this, Dinah."
Some small part of herself that had somehow remained aloof from the scene took pride in the fact that, despite her tears, Dinah's voice had remained steady.
"This isn't who you are, Barbara, and I won't let her turn you into something you're not."
Pure ice had run through Barbara's veins at that. Her response had been clipped.
"Perhaps you don't know me as well as you think, Dinah."
The girl's face had crumbled, and Barbara had almost broken at the image of her ward scrubbing at her eyes with fisted hands.
"H-- Helena wouldn't want this."
The words had struck her with more power than ten telekinetic blows. Curling her fingers like claws around the rims of her wheels, she'd squeezed her eyes shut, fighting to sort through the maddening collage of voices and memories: the conflicting wants and duties and needs which had always guided her.
And tormented her.
She hadn't been aware of making a decision until she'd felt the traction on her chair disappear. Seized by a renewed clarity, she'd calmly moved forward, speaking not altogether unsympathetically.
"It's something I need to do, Dinah."
Barbara had seen the blonde's thoughtful nod, but her relief that the standoff had ended had been brief. Circling to the elevator, she'd been shocked beyond reason -- so shocked, in fact, that she'd literally run into the wall -- when Dinah had simply dropped into her lap.
"Then I'm going, too."
Dinah was too close to her, her voice too steady, for Barbara not to have heard the words.
Comprehending them had been another matter.
She'd turned her head, squinting to focus as such close range, the knowledge of what lay next to her glasses in the pocket of her chair weighing heavily on her. Cornflower blue eyes, offering complete trust, had met hers.
"If this is what's right to avenge Helena, then I'm going with you."
There had been, of course, no way to fight that.
A long searching look had disclosed the certainty and resolve in the girl's face, forcing Barbara to raise the white flag. Torn by too much to comprehend, she'd silently retrieved her phone and rapidly filled Jesse in on the situation.
Scant minutes later the airport had been locked down.
Regrettably, other than ruining a host of business travelers' hopes of making their connections, the attempt had been for naught: an extensive sweep of the facility had turned up nothing but a security tape showing Quinn disappearing into an access for the subway.
More regrettably, Quinn's legacy had remained in the clock tower.
As soon as she'd learned of the escape, Barbara had -- to her eternal shame -- simply turned on Dinah.
"If you'd let me go, I could have had her..."
That accusation hadn't been enough; she'd heard her voice rising in volume.
"Goddamnit, Dinah, if the police hadn't stormed in like gangbusters, I could have..."
With every bit of willpower she possessed, Barbara had cut off her tirade, hearing her final words drop from her lips as a ragged whisper.
"We could have made her tell us."
Clearly shaken, possibly wounded, Dinah had backed to the far wall, sliding down to the floor.
"I couldn't let you do that..."
There had been nothing else that she could say. Nothing else for either of them to say.
Leaving the young woman huddled against the wall hugging her knees to her chest, Barbara had silently returned to the Delphi, intent on dispatching more web crawlers and 'bots. She'd been aware that Dinah had remained in the room, curled in on herself, frightened eyes fixed on her throughout the night. The teen's pain and confusion and aching desire to fix things had been palpable, but Barbara had simply had nothing to offer.
It had been dawn, with Alfred's return from his vigil at Helena's old apartment, when the tableau had finally broken. The elderly gentleman had taken in the scene, then quietly ushered Dinah off to the kitchen. He'd returned to the Delphi within moments, settling a cup of tea on the table and silently extending a pair of scissors, which Barbara had accepted with almost absurd gratitude.
She'd been peeling yards of duct tape off for hours.
"Alfred -- "
Her companion had seemed to waver in front of her, and she'd roughly swiped the back of her hand across her eyes to clear her vision. There was little she could do for her voice, raspy from the shouts and screams she'd swallowed during the night.
"I've done something horrible with Dinah."
She'd allowed to remain unspoken the fact that she would have done far worse if her protege hadn't stopped her.
The distinguished man had moved a half step closer, and Barbara had swallowed her surprise when she'd felt one hand rest gently on her shoulder.
"Miss Dinah understands."
She'd nodded dumbly, wondering how Dinah could understand something that eluded her so completely. Something dark had welled within her at that, at the realization of just what she'd exposed the young woman to.
"You need to rest, Miss Barbara."
The words had been so kind, so terribly inviting. Meeting those inscrutable grey eyes, Barbara had shaken her head.
"I can't, Alfred. Not... yet."
He'd nodded his understanding and silently withdrawn, allowing the redhead to return to her search and her vigil. The wait that morning for her... prodigal had been excruciating; however somehow, not too long before the hush of expectancy enveloping the tower had ended, Barbara had forced herself to approach Dinah's room, cautiously offering her apologies.
With Dinah's departure for the dorms five days later, Barbara had to admit that circumnavigating the strain between them had been... awkward. Both were feeling their way through a cautious truce, a rebuilding of trust in a relationship that had... changed that night.
However, with Quinn on the loose and a search underway, there simply hadn't been time to lick their wounds. To Barbara's somewhat dazed gratification, the little team of vigilantes had come together to redouble their efforts.
It was after all, as Helena had declared, "what frikkin' heroes do."
Completing her work deep within the processing and payment programs in the central computers for CitiBank, Barbara felt her lips quirk when those words echoed through her mind.
Shoulder to the grindstone, indeed.
Regardless of the tension which might develop in said shoulder from hunching over her keyboard, regardless of how blurry her vision grew from leaning too close to her screen, there was simply no way she was going to abandon her search for Harley Quinn after everything the madwoman had put them through. While the blonde lunatic had seemingly vanished into thin air, Barbara Gordon was certain of three things that put victory in her reach: 1) In this day and age, there was simply no way to remain anonymous in the wired world; 2) Her nemesis was not a shrinking violet who would take well to remaining hidden; and, 3) Of all the people on the planet, she was the one who would take down Harley Quinn.
Already, her web 'bots had been dispatched to every security camera in every airport that was network accessible. If Quinn planned on hopping a flight anywhere, the facial recognition routines would catch her.
In addition, several long nights and a few bits of neat coding had enabled Barbara to modify her web crawlers, instilling them with the rudimentary intelligence to begin propagating themselves into any other web enabled security camera in the world. Soon, Quinn would not be able to stroll by an ATM without triggering an alarm.
Most recently, the cyber-genius been working through the tedium of hacking into every major credit card processing center to install handwriting recognition Trojans. If her quarry so much as initialed for a tip somewhere, the cyber-vigilante intended to know about it before the electronic ink had dried.
The softest click in her earpiece alerted Barbara a split-second before the well-known voice came through the comms.
<"You copy, Oracle?">
Exhaling slowly at the steadiness and solidity of the words, the redhead straightened and automatically took in the GPS locator.
"I copy. Is everything okay?"
During the last forty minutes, her partner had progressed from the club district to the neighborhood near the Dark Horse. She couldn't help but wonder how deliberate the movement had been.
<"Yeah -- ">
The word was almost breezy, and Barbara allowed a bit of tension to leave her shoulders.
<"-- I've pretty much made a complete nuisance of myself here --">
Oblivious to the voice-only nature of the exchange, the leader of the little team grimaced sympathetically.
Accosting club-goers with flyers and questions and requests for tidbits of information wasn't likely to win anyone points on the popularity meter.
<"-- so I wondered if there's anything going on. Uh, ass-kicking-wise.">
Barbara frowned at the words, a completely unnecessary clarification in her opinion, but automatically toggled to the screens with security alarm and police dispatch highlights. They confirmed what she'd already known.
"Nothing on the scanners. It's quiet tonight."
As it had been since Quinn's disappearance.
"Why don't you call it a night?"
While they were all loathe to abandon their searching, Barbara knew that her partner's physical search had gone on long enough.
<"Are you sure? I can hit the docks aga-- ">
Inhaling slowly, Barbara nodded her head. She'd been right; the younger woman did sound tired.
"I'm quite certain. You put out quite a few feelers there last night."
She held her breath, uncertain how much resistance to expect.
<"Crap. I keep hoping...">
Didn't they all.
With a very real suspicion that her smile at that thought held not a trace of humor, Barbara spoke briskly.
"I know, Canary, but pack it in."
Barely waiting for the acknowledgement, she toggled off her comm set and turned to face her screen. The GPS showed Dinah on her way back to the dorm; her own pattern recognition software was in every camera in New Gotham; and there was nothing more to be done for it.
Perhaps tomorrow they'd get some sort of lead on Helena.
You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain't no good
You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain't it hard when you discover that
He really wasn't where it's at
After he took from you everything he could steal.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
Well, that was cheery.
Snorting softly at the thought -- after all, she had very deliberately dug out her Dylan collection when she'd burned the damned CD this evening -- Barbara shut off her alarm clock, satisfied that the volume wouldn't be unduly jarring when the alarm triggered in a few hours.
Panic and heart attacks? Not an issue.
Depression and unwillingness to get out of bed? All bets were off on that count.
As she settled back against the pillows stacked against the headboard, a sparkling flash caught her attention. Although she knew quite well what it was, the redhead took a moment to eye the lovely lead crystal highball glass which rested on a thick oblong of woven yarn.
The three by five inch blot of yarn was her second attempt at crocheting a pot holder, rapidly relegated to coaster status after some decidedly snarky commentary from Helena. The glass on it contained two generous fingers of single malt.
It held absolutely no appeal for her whatsoever.
Truthfully, she'd never cared for Scotch. Her own heritage aside, she simply found it too peaty; however, when she'd dutifully shut down the Delphi and made her way to the bedroom half an hour earlier, she'd known exactly why she'd chosen the liquor from the sizeable stash Helena kept --
Feeling the muscles in her jaw tighten, Barbara forced herself to correct her verb tense.
It was time to start facing facts.
In the last five days, the redhead had created a structure for herself: When she returned to the clock tower after school each day, she dealt with lesson plans and grading first. Only after that did she allow herself to take her position at the Delphi and resume her search. Regrettably, after twenty-one days of exhaustive efforts, Barbara knew that the chances of her 'bots recognizing either Quinn or Helena had become slim indeed.
Nevertheless, each evening she filled the hours after schoolwork in tracing any leads, tweaking the algorithms of her handwriting and facial recognition programs, and searching for any unturned stones. On the nights she remembered, she wandered into the kitchen at some point and heated up a frozen dinner to prod at back at her workstation. Then, in the early hours of the morning, she shut down her work and turned to the bedroom for four and a half restless hours.
This night, on her way, she'd detoured to the barrister's bookcase where Helena had kept a diverse array of alcoholic offerings. Ticking her fingernail speculatively against one bottle after another, Barbara had felt herself smiling at her partner's thoroughness: The contents of the bookcase ranged from complete rotgut to sickly sweet concoctions with cream or schnapps bases to two bottles of a very fine eighty year old port.
Intrigued by a glimpse of a square-cut bottle, she'd dug deeper into the cabinet. When she'd pulled the bottle out, she'd squinted to make out the faded label -- an unknown tequila -- then inhaled sharply when she'd seen the two-dozen pickled worms in the liquor. A moment later, she'd smiled when she'd recalled purchasing the elixir herself years before during a college trip to Mexico City.
A triple agave, delicately gold in the elegant bottle: Barbara had been saving it for the right time. Over the last eleven years, there had been plenty of don't-give-a-damn celebrations: a narrow escape here or an unexpected victory there. There had even been a few devil-may-care occasions: most recently allowing herself to leap into the arms of the woman she'd loved for years. However, the type of actual devil-be-damned moments worthy of such a potent brew had yet escaped her.
And, half an hour ago, she'd acknowledged that the time was not right yet. Resettling the bottle in the depths of the bookcase, she'd looked over the more familiar offerings at the front and then deliberately chosen the Scotch. Her own taste not withstanding, she suspected that she could rely on the quick oblivion that Scotch had always provided. Even as she'd poured a healthy portion, Barbara had also acknowledged that her own puritan ethic might have been at work, anticipating the nasty hangover that inevitably followed drinking Scotch.
Yet, after settling herself under the covers and dutifully opening her latest hardback, she'd not found the energy or desire to indulge.
It wasn't that she didn't want to sleep. Heaven knew, she'd been trying every night.
With a soft sigh, Barbara picked up the heavy tumbler, holding it to the light, turning it from side to side. The refracted light created a kaleidoscope of colors, but it took her only eight seconds to identify the repeating pattern.
Rolling her eyes, she brought the glass to her mouth, then lowered it, still untouched, to its coaster.
It seemed that she simply had little interest in drink.
Much like her decidedly limited interest in the potboiler she was currently reading.
When Dinah had presented her with a bootlegged early printing of the latest Stephen King -- something having to do with cell phones -- on her way to the hospital, she'd been eager to delve into the book. Three weeks later, she was still staring at page thirty-two.
Barbara snorted at herself, at her damnable need to keep picking at some bloody scab and her inability to accept oblivion or distraction while she was, nominally, attempting to come to terms.
Coming to terms.
At that, she slowly removed her glasses, musing over what terms she might actually be happening upon.
Certainly not acceptance; it seemed too, too far away.
The flyers that Dinah and Alfred had spread through the city had already been swept away or had curled up and blown into the gutters and alleys. Barbara continued her cyber hunts with Princess Fiona agreeably encouraging her on, but in these lonely hours she had to admit that it was increasingly likely that certain Quinn had fled the city and that Helena...
Well, there was the rub.
Barbara simply knew that if her partner were alive anywhere on the planet she would have found a way to send a signal. Helena had never let Barbara worry, at least not after some rocky periods in those first few years when worry and anger had been a constant for both of them.
Calling it for the night, she snapped her novel closed, her eyes automatically tracking from the book in her lap to her lap. Her abdomen was still distended and the incision beneath her sleep shorts still livid from the damage she'd done in her pathetic attempts to get to a phone.
To be of use.
Gingerly, she prodded at her stomach, flinching from the disconnect -- still so visceral after eight years -- between touching and not feeling. Blinking rapidly, she very carefully settled her book and her glasses on the nightstand, refusing to hear the insidious whispers that, cancer be damned, she could have held on...
Briskly, she pushed herself down in the bed, twisting to readjust the pillows.
It was thoughts like those that were, well, setting her back. Honestly, she thought she'd been making admirable progress, checking off the standard stages of grief. In the first eighteen hours alone, she'd efficiently progressed through four of the five stages.
Stretching out, Barbara snapped off the light, then stared into the darkness, mentally cataloging the process.
Well, that one had been easy. It had simply been too tempting not to believe Quinn. The madwoman had done so much over the years to hurt her... hurt them. However, in the face of the blonde's certainty, denial had rapidly given way to...
Anger, of course.
That one had also been easy and very, very necessary. It had been rage over Quinn's threats, over the fact that it might not be just another cruel prank, which had gotten Barbara out of her bed and into the hunt. However, even Barbara had to acknowledge that the emotion was a dangerous state for a vigilante with a well-stocked gear closet.
Again, that gear cabinet had come in, somehow allowing her to believe that if she could take out Quinn, it might somehow atone for Helena. Thank heavens Dinah had forced her to recognize the error -- and the futility -- of her ways.
Which brought her squarely to depression.
And there she was, stuck like a bug on the windshield of the semi which had blindsided her.
Midway through that first morning, after that awful night of waiting, after her horrifying confrontation with Dinah, she'd realized that the chances of Helena's waltzing through the elevator door or landing soundlessly on the balcony were growing exponentially more slim by the minute. With that understanding had come... this.
Resting her hand lightly on the oversized stuffed panther that occupied Helena's side of the bed, Barbara heard a soft hiccupping gasp.
Ruthlessly, she stifled the noise and resigned herself to another night like the last.
And the night before that and the almost two-dozen nights before that. Another night of lying in bed unable to sleep because she was keyed and ready, poised in expectation, and constantly hearing phantom thumps from the balcony that would herald Helena's return.
A very real tap at the bedroom door distracted her, almost eliciting a squeak of surprise. One pounding heartbeat later, she saw Dinah poking her head into to the room.
"Are you asleep, Barbara?"
Even as she wryly noted that the volume of the teen's whisper would have penetrated the deepest of slumbers, the redhead simply pushed herself upright.
"I'm awake, Dinah."
She stretched for the lamp, the bulb still warm against her fingers, and attempted not to guess what had led her ward from her room on campus to her bedroom at this hour.
"Come on in, Honey."
Barbara could only hope that the endearment hadn't sounded as awkward as it had felt crossing her lips. Instead of focusing on her discomfort, she tucked a pillow behind her back and settled against the headboard, deliberately ignoring the peripheral view of the Gauguin at the head of the bed. She carefully arranged the covers around her waist, then patted the mattress beside her.
When the blonde unhesitatingly dropped onto the edge of the bed, Barbara felt the glimmer of a smile touch the corners of her mouth.
Perhaps some things could be... repaired.
She pushed the fall of hair from her forehead and worked for a light tone. Since she'd decreed that there would be no more sweeps five days before -- Barbara was damned if she would turn Dinah's college years into a mirror of her own -- she hadn't seen Dinah in the evenings.
"Is everything okay, Dinah?"
In the dim light filtering through the doorway from hall, she could just make out pale blue eyes peering through cornsilk lashes.
"Uhm, yeah. I mean -- "
A shrug completed the less-than-enlightening response, and the redhead opted for a different tact.
"Kegger at the dorm tonight?"
That, finally, elicited a lessening of her companion's tension, and Barbara smiled, recalling her ward's outraged affront over her first exposure to the true nature of dorm life.
"No. I was just..."
There was another shrug, the normally effusive young woman's lack of words speaking volumes. Cautiously, Barbara rested one hand on the girl's corduroy-covered thigh.
"I know, Honey."
She saw the instant Dinah's control shattered.
"I -- I mi... miss her."
There was nothing she could do except pull her companion to her and wrap her in her arms. Wondering how her heart could be torn from her over and over, Barbara buried her face in blonde hair and whispered the truth.
"I know, Honey."
"Prometheus was the son of Iapetos and Clymene, and his name means Forthought. He gave humans lots of gifts, like the heeling drugs; profacy; and art. His worst crime was stealing fire from Zeus to give to mortals in their caves and the punishment of this demi-god serves as a cautionary tail."
Frankly disbelieving, almost incredulous, Barbara slowly removed her glasses and carefully settled them on her desk, the bows crossed at a neat ninety-degree angle. Equally slowly, she pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger, attempting to alleviate the pounding tension headache she felt building in her neck.
With a noisy sigh, she retrieved her purple ballpoint and set to work, first crossing out "demi-god" and writing in the word "titan", then tackling other minor problems: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and basic composition. As she worked, she mentally sidetracked, attempting to guess just what word processor her student had used which had allowed so many errors.
Clearly, if Prometheus had depended on a written rescue from Franklin Liebowz, he'd still be chained to his rock.
Mercifully, her own torture of grading the essay ended two lines down on the fourth page. At least Franklin had fulfilled the letter, if not the spirit, of the length requirement for the assigned essay on some aspect of Bullfinch's tales. If she'd been a bit more on her game, Barbara suspected that she might have checked him for the overly generous margins, but, frankly relieved by the relative brevity, she opted to let it slide.
Flipping back to the cover page, she penned a bold "C-" in the upper right corner -- a gift, at that -- and, then neatly printed a suggestion that her student consult a dictionary for the meaning of "homonym". After a moment's thought, she added a few words of encouragement and a pointer to Norse mythology.
Thor and Loki might be just up Franklin's alley, but heaven help him if he tried to gloss from the comic books.
She moved the graded essay to her completed stack, however midway to the small stack still awaiting review, her hand faltered.
Dear heavens, but she was tired.
Indeed, if she hadn't been so bone weary, the redhead admitted that she might have found some sort of humor in the fact that it was after her first bit of sleep in three weeks that exhaustion was striking. She also had a sneaking suspicion that it was no coincidence that said slumber had somehow overtaken her after Dinah had cried herself out early in the morning and dropped into her own sound sleep beside her on the bed.
Shaking her head from side to side in bemusement, Barbara opted not to follow that particular train of thought. Suffice to say that being wrested from the arms of Morpheus by The Cure's "Love Cats" blasting from the alarm was enough to start anyone's day on a sour note.
With a mental note to verify the volume controls of her CD burning software, she retrieved another essay and soon found herself engaged by Amy Brenner's thoughtful analysis of Ganymede and the culture of homosexuality on Mount Olympus. She took pleasure in recording the grade, an "A", in her spreadsheet, then penned a brief hint about looking into Egyptian mythology and deposited the paper in the completed stack.
A mental lightbulb clicked on just as she retrieved the final essay, and Barbara quickly logged into the school's system, retrieving Amy's schedule for the semester.
The shy, and extremely unathletic, sophomore was taking not one, but two, physical education electives, both with the decidedly butch Ms. Stowe.
She made a mental note to keep an eye on the girl -- a gentle referral to Jessica in the Guidance Office might be in order if Amy showed any signs of confusion -- and drew a deep breath, readying herself for the final paper. Since it was Jo Hemmler's -- Barbara had gotten into the practice of saving Jo's work for last -- she couldn't be certain just what to expect; however, eight minutes later, the redhead realized that she was smiling as she finished the paper.
True to form, Jo had written a fanciful and reasonably well-documented comparison of the Greek gods with the characters from the X-Men universe. While her student could have been a bit more original with her analogies -- Barbara had her own doubts about Professor X as Zeus -- she couldn't deny the creativity.
Perhaps she could somehow induce Jo to spend some time tutoring Franklin.
That thought, and the suggestion she was penning to extend the comparison to the DC comics universe, were interrupted by a buzz against her lower back. In a heartbeat, all thoughts of improving young minds simply vanished as she dropped her pen and fumbled shakily for her cell phone.
Since it was her lunch period, there was certainly nothing improper, or even inopportune, about receiving a call in her classroom. However, since leaving the hospital, Barbara had forwarded every line to her cell: the tower, Helena's cell, even Helena's old apartment. After doing so, she'd ruthlessly programmed almost every known incoming number to voice mail, with calls from her doctors shuttled directly to the recycle bin.
In a nutshell, if her phone actually rang, it had to be a call from a select group of individuals or from a completely unknown number. A quick glance at the display stripped away her brief flirtation with the hope that the call was coming from some secret lair in which Helena had been held captive before overcoming her guards and taking command of the facility.
Absolutely refusing to speculate over the unusual occurrence of receiving a call from her father in the middle of a workday, Barbara snagged one of the wheat crackers that made up her lunch, idly chasing it around the lip of her desk. The accompanying Gala apple had already been dutifully nibbled at and then discarded.
<"Hello, Barbara. I hope I'm not interrupting.">
Despite her nearly overwhelming curiosity -- she hoped she knew why her father was calling -- she managed to corral her impatience and muster a civil response.
"Not at all, Dad. You got me right in the middle of my lunch break."
<"Good, good. Glad I remembered your schedule correctly.">
The jovial tone shifted almost imperceptibly, and the redhead prepared herself.
<"You're not sitting alone in your classroom grading papers again, are you, Barbara?">
Pursing her lips, she hummed something noncommittal, relieved when her father let matters rest.
<"Any pearls of wisdom from the adolescent acne set?">
Despite the fact that the description was painfully close to what had always been Helena's preferred catchphrase for Barbara's students -- "The Clearasil Set" -- she managed a laugh.
"Actually, Dad, I just read some creative insights about the Greek gods and the X-Men."
The redhead interpreted the quiet harrumph that followed as her father's thinking noise, neatly flicking the cracker into her trashcan as she awaited a less cryptic response.
<"It sounds like you're inspiring them, Barbara.">
Rolling her eyes, she nevertheless had to guess that the heat she was feeling in her cheeks was the hint of a blush.
<"But, speaking of crime fighters and bad guys...">
The rather rough segue perked the cyber-vigilante to attention with much greater effectiveness than a triple espresso.
"Did you find someone, Dad?"
A bit uncharacteristically, her father didn't take her to task for the interruption.
<"We did, Barbara. Amazing how vast and how poorly organized our criminal justice system truly is.">
"I dare say."
The response might have been a bit... dry; however, when Barbara had tendered her request two weeks before, she'd not expected results this quickly. The efficiency, or lack thereof, of the justice system was old hat to her; however, knowing that she could ill afford to divide her time and resources, she'd hoped that her father's contacts in the system might yield... something.
<"An old friend of mine located Tiny Ludwig up in Sing Sing.">
She felt an almost dopey grin of exultation split her features even as she exhaled the tension that had been holding her stiff.
Bruno "Tiny" Ludwig had been Harley Quinn's right-hand man on many, many capers. Finding not just "an" associate of Quinn's but one of her trusted associates was a real stroke of luck.
"That wonderful news, Dad. Can you arrange an interview, something to see if he'll name her safe locations or -- "
The tension settled itself firmly in her shoulders again at the interruption.
<"I'm afraid Tiny took a shank in the yard last night. Probably someone tipped off...">
The word seemed to echo through her very, very sophisticated phone. It knelled off the painted cinderblock walls of the classroom. It invaded her chest and organs.
<"I'm sorry, Barbara, but you know we'll keep looking for someone who can help us bring Quinn to justice.">
Inhaling slowly, Barbara worked to steady her voice.
"I know, Dad, and I do appreciate it. It's... "
A thousand words suggested themselves. Ultimately, she chose one of the most accurate.
The snort was a bit stifled, possibly by a pipe stem.
<"Unbelievable is more like it, Barbie. That Quinn would target Helena again after all this time...">
The redhead sensed her father's headshake and fought her own grim smile.
Sometimes it was more difficult than others having to keep pieces of the puzzle under wraps.
"I agree, Dad. Listen -- "
Green eyes ticked to the oversized standard issue school clock above the door, confirming Barbara's internal chronometer.
"I appreciate your call, but I need to prepare for fifth period."
Not a lie at all.
Approximately four seconds after disconnecting with insincere promises to visit soon and tucking her phone back into its holster, she brought both hands down on her desk with enough force to send the stack of graded essays fluttering to the floor.
Vividly aware that the scarred metal desk was simply too noisy for her purposes, she placed both palms flat against the edge, pushing with all her might against the brakes of her chair. When she'd muscled herself backward twelve inches or so, she turned on herself, bringing her fists to her knees with bruising force.
"Barbara? My gracious!"
Starting just a bit at the unexpected interruption, the redhead guiltily turned to the door of the classroom. She discovered, of all people, Alethea Harkness standing uncertainly by her Shakespearian England bulletin board.
Barbara flexed her hands against the ache of flesh meeting kneecaps and waited guardedly as the superannuated history teacher stepped closer.
"...something happen? Did something turn up about Helena?"
Of course, there'd been no way that she'd been able to keep her partner's disappearance under wraps. Reaction from her coworkers had ranged from indifference to offers of shoulders to cry on. Alethea, after offering somewhat stilted words of sympathy, had left her in peace.
Barbara unlocked her chair and moved to the side of the desk, twisting awkwardly to retrieve the papers that had cascaded to the floor during her little tantrum. With a mental shrug, she laid it out.
"No, nothing, Alethea. And, "
She looked over to the other teacher who was kneeling next to her to assist in the paper retrieval.
"...and that's the fucking problem."
Barbara nodded her thanks for the papers being extended and turned to place them on the desk as the other woman rose. Glancing circumspectly to the side, she noted Alethea's pursed lips and attempted to prepare herself for anything.
"You're looking too thin, Barbara. I believe you should come to my house for dinner tonight."
Anything but that apparently.
Blinking, she managed to parrot, "Dinner?"
"Yes, Barbara, dinner."
The redhead instinctively moved back a few inches when her visitor briskly approached her desk and scratched something onto a Post-It. The note seemed to float into view, and Barbara automatically accepted it, distantly noting the spidery laciness and perfect slant to the older woman's handwriting.
"Here's my address. Is 5:30 acceptable? "
"Alethea, I can't -- "
The protest was automatic, bound in force of habit. The other woman was having none of it.
"Of course you can, Barbara. I'd enjoy the company."
The bell signaling her next class seemed to jump-start her brain. Looking over to the other woman who waited expectantly in the doorway, casually blocking students from entering, Barbara cast her protests to the wind. The invitation was simply so... normal and sweet that she simply couldn't refuse.
And so it was that a scant four and a half hours later found her seated at Alethea Harkness' dining room table, prepared to break bread -- hot buttered rolls, to be precise -- with another soul for the first time in weeks. Inhaling the complex scent of the savory stew that had been simmering in a crock-pot all day, she felt her stomach twist and, with a start, realized that she was, honestly, hungry.
"This is wonderful, Alethea. Thank you for inviting me."
Touching her napkin to her lips, she reattacked the stew.
"I'm pleased that you came, Barbara. Sometimes it gets -- Do try the jello. It's quite tasty -- "
Caught flat-footed with a mouth full of stew, Barbara could think of no way to decline the offered jello mold: slivered cabbage in green jello. Casting herself to the fates, she smiled and spooned out a healthy portion.
If it were half as good as her host's other offerings, it couldn't be too bad.
"-- a bit old dining by myself."
Barbara carefully settled her fork on the edge of her plate, weighing her question.
"How long have you...?"
The tight smile which Barbara previously might have taken as supercilious only seemed brittle this evening.
"It's been six years since Hank passed away."
Blinking, Barbara could only manage an awkward, "I'm sorry."
Her host waved one hand in dismissal.
"One copes as one must, Barbara."
Somehow, and to her complete surprise, the redhead discovered that the painful moment didn't totally vanquish conversation. Haltingly, the two made small talk about students in their classes, their shared appreciation of the local theatre, and current knitting projects until -- two healthy helpings later -- Barbara followed the other woman into her sitting room to inspect her latest creation.
In short order, and feeling distinctly like she'd fallen down a rabbit hole, the redhead had been set up with a soft cashmere yarn and a tiny crochet hook and was being tutored in the diamond pattern she'd selected for a scarf for Alfred.
Or, perhaps for her father if it turned out less than perfect.
With a surprisingly affable and chatty Alethea sharing stories of her early married years, Barbara maintained a fixed concentration on the task at hand, determined not to botch the pattern.
Naturally, it wasn't that easy.
She could feel the blush moving relentlessly across her cheeks.
"How do you fix things?"
Inquisitively raised grey brows suggested that a bit of elaboration was in order, and Barbara confessed.
"I seem to have dropped a stitch. Two rows back."
It only took a bit of effort to interpret her host's headshaking and tsk-ing as amused rather than judgmental, and Barbara instantly decided that she preferred an amused Alethea to a judgmental one.
"Well, since it is two rows back, you could pretend that you didn't notice."
Pretense had really never been a problem for her, but Barbara suspected that there was something more.
The white-haired woman smiled sympathetically.
"Usually that results in something that's not well shaped in the long run."
The redhead merely blinked -- once -- waiting for the shoe to fall.
"Sometimes, Barbara, you simply must unravel a bit and reshape the work."
Green eyes glumly surveyed the three-foot by one half-inch strip of scarf.
And, she'd been making such good progress on it...
Sucking it up, she set her crochet hook aside and grasped the free end of the yarn.
"Will unraveling and starting from the dropped stitch really cover the hole?"
Given her own relative... naivete with such project, Barbara couldn't help but think that her tutor's laughter was just a bit unkind.
"I'm sorry, Barbara, but it will never be the same. After all your yarn has been used and may be a little frayed or kinked."
With a sigh that probably just missed being a huff by a few decibels, the redhead begin to yank out her work. She unraveled and rewound in silence until she reached her original error. Only then, taking in how her strip had narrowed, did she venture an observation.
"Best not to make a mistake at all, eh?"
She couldn't help but smile in return when the older woman's eyes sparkled over her half-glasses.
"It can't be helped, Barbara. It's all a part of the process."
A surprisingly companionable hour and a half later, Barbara exited the elevator and moved silently into the darkened living area. When she reached the oversized wing chair, she fished in her bag of school work and carefully extracted her three foot by one inch ribbon, draping it over one arm and deliberately not thinking about some recent history in the chair.
Since it was still early, she automatically turned to the Delphi, then slowed to a halt at the base of the ramp. She knew that she would have received a page had there been hits on the recognition bots, and cyber-patrols for the sake of habit held no appeal.
To her distinct surprise, Barbara realized that she was considering how good two fingers of the triple agave, followed by curling up with the stuffed panther for a long sleep, might be. Opting to put that thought on the back burner -- it might be wise, after all, to wait and see how that jello mold sat -- she turned to the balcony.
It was still early enough in the fall that the veranda wasn't too frigid. The redhead consciously forced herself to slow down, to take in the stars from the place that had long been Helena's refuge. With the perpetual clouds that covered her city scudding overhead, gradually, her tension from visiting this hallowed spot for only the second time since that day began to ebb.
Perhaps inevitably, it was replaced by a different sort of tension when Barbara peripherally noted a shape slipping through the shadows beside her, and for several wild, heart-stopping moments, her irrational side spasmed almost painfully at a possibility.
At a hope.
"Hel -- ?"
She couldn't help herself.
Catching sight of the shifting shadow behind her on the balcony, Barbara couldn't have held back the name had she tried. However, the instant it crossed her lips, she realized her error.
"-- fire and damnation."
And, judging the crushing despondency that seized her chest, she understood again the penalties of hope. It only took split second to recognize her error; however, the redhead suspected that it would take a wee bit longer to recover her equilibrium.
"My goodness, Dinah, you scared -- "
Working to regulate her breathing and her pounding heart, Barbara finally noted the girl's appearance: Dinah looked as pale as a ghost.
"Sit down, Dinah."
She spun toward the French doors, gesturing to one of the Adirondack chairs. She watched carefully as the blonde lowered herself gingerly to one arm and realized that she needed to correct her initial assessment.
Dinah looked as pale as if she'd seen a ghost.
When Barbara comprehended the teen's hushed whisper, she suspected that the look was contagious.
"Barbara, I think I saw Helena."
Distantly, the small portion of Barbara's analytical mind that remained functional noted that her reaction wasn't what she might have anticipated.
Excitement. Hope. Elation.
None of those stepped to the front of the line to take the first emotional volley. Rather, the first reaction was pained disbelief, the words "No fair" painting themselves across her forebrain in three-foot neon letters.
Her mind continued to prod at her response even as Barbara remained stock-still, attempting to determine if she'd heard correctly.
It wasn't, her left brain supplied helpfully, that she was unaccustomed to rapid paradigm shifts or having to think on her feet or change courses in a hurry. It was more likely that the machine-gun fire of hope and despair and then... this... all within the space of forty-five seconds would be enough to discombobulate anyone.
The question, its very lack of substance, certainly seemed to give credence to the emotional whiplash theory that her mind was currently engaged in bandying about.
"At least, I think I did."
Her unexpected guest's tremulous response gave Barbara the energy to push aside her own reaction for the moment, and she closed the distance between them.
"You -- "
Viscerally aware of the significance of the word to come, the redhead waited until pale blue eyes rose to meet hers.
"-- think you saw Helena?"
Shaggy blonde hair bobbed vigorously in the muted starlight.
"Uh huh. I mean, Helena doesn't have a twin or a double or something, does she?"
Ignoring too-recent memories of The Joker's attempt to... simulate the brunette, Barbara shook her head from side to side once.
"Well, that's the thing,"
The teen tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, then focused on her hands.
"--because she sure looked like Helena."
Crimson brows knit, and Barbara inspected her own fingernails for a moment. Weighing all of the questions clamoring for voice, she allowed one to spill from her lips at random.
Barbara could easily make out the blush spreading across her ward's fair features, providing her with a reasonable suspicion that the sighting hadn't occurred at the NGU Library.
"Uhm, we weren't really doing anything, and Bethany...?"
Since the younger woman clearly expected some sort of response, Barbara nodded briefly to signify that she remembered hearing about one of Dinah's floor mates at the dorm. If Barbara recalled correctly, the freshman had traveled from sunny California to experience a New Gotham higher education.
Apparently satisfied, Dinah resumed her tale.
"Well, she just wanted to see more of New Gotham, so Sam and I decided that, uh, maybe -- "
Her patience a bit thinner than usual, Barbara raised her right hand, palm out. When her companion's mouth shut with an audible click, she smiled encouragingly.
"You're an adult, Dinah. And I trust your judgment."
The reassurance seemed to do the trick.
"We were in the club district."
The redhead nodded thoughtfully.
No surprise in that; after all, she'd spent a fair number of her nights during college prowling the streets of the party district. Granted, she'd been clad in latex, cape, and cowl and on the hunt for crime, but the principle was the same.
Suddenly aware that her thoughts were decidedly less focused than she needed them to be, she abruptly dropped her hands to the rims of her chair and nodded toward the interior of the house.
"Let's go inside, Dinah."
Waiting only until she saw the teen rise to her feet, she moved briskly to the kitchen, tossing over her shoulder, "I think I need a drink."
Dinah snapped on the kitchen light and settled into her chair at the table just as Barbara emerged from the refrigerator. Bumping the door shut with her left wheel, she tossed over one of the last two Red Bulls from Helena's stash and popped the other. She raised the slender can to her lips and chugged it, then exacted a neat three-pointer into the trashcan.
Any more such tete-a-tetes, and the Mountain Dew would be next.
Contemplating her next question, she moved slowly to the table and then rocked her chair a few inches.
"Did you speak to her or --- "
A vigorous headshake cut her short.
"I was too far away, and I don't think she could have heard me over the noise. There were a lot of people around, and she was grabbing a cab and -- "
Barbara knew that her thoughtful skepticism must have shown when Dinah interrupted herself.
"But it was her, Barbara. I know it..."
When the girl trailed off a bit miserably, Barbara worked to fit together what might have kept her ward from using her TK to capture Helena's attention.
"Was she alone?"
The teen pushed a lock of hair behind one ear, the gesture, as well as the hint of a blush, telling Barbara everything she needed to know.
"Uhm, she was with a group of people."
The redhead pointedly decided not to speculate on the number of people that composed a group. Or, more to the point, why Helena would be out clubbing unless she was completing some sort of undercover...
Irritated with her own leapfrogging thoughts, she shook her head roughly and concentrated on questions that might have answers.
"Do you know which club she was coming from?"
Somehow, she managed another gentle smile and quashed her impatience while her protege narrowed her eyes in thought. When she saw those blue eyes widen hopefully, she couldn't help but echo her companion's growing smile.
"I think so."
And, those three words were all that were needed. They spurred both members of the little team out to the club district the following evening to circulate through the club Dinah had named. When cautious inquiries and showing of a recent photo yielded nothing but a maddening litany of no's, I'm not sure's, and maybe's, they split up.
Choosing not to think about how her underage ward was gaining access to the various establishments she'd been assigned -- after all, a bit of stealth and subterfuge was part of the life -- Barbara moved from leather bars to dance clubs to topless shows. She hit pay dirt at the third dance club -- a disco, of all things -- when not one but two people remembered seeing the woman in the photo at another nearby club twice in the last few days.
And those two confirmations were all that were needed.
The pointers were all that were needed for Barbara, once-again cognizant of her responsibilities, to shoo Dinah back to the dorms and the semblance of a normal college life. A bit of reconnaissance in a dance club was certainly nothing she couldn't handle alone, after all.
The affirmations were all that were needed for New Gotham's four-time Teacher-of-the-Year to cut the number of written essays she assigned by seventy-five percent and, citing the influence of Cicero, shift to oral reports. Speaking in class, augmented by Scantron tests, could be valuable training for all of her students, and she certainly didn't have time after work for her usual meticulous review of student papers.
The hope was all that was needed for Barbara to find herself, for the third night since the confirmations, cruising through a club aptly named The Beat and wondering how many more decibels would be required before she underwent permanent hearing loss. Settling near the bar to nurse her cranberry spritzer, she -- for the second night in a row -- tried to avoid considering how many days to give this little project before pushing her hope back into the messy box that contained her emotions.
Obviously, she'd been overdoing the Bullfinch with her tenth graders.
Snorting softly as her eyes automatically tracked from the entrance to the dance floor and back, the redhead finally allowed the insidious thought that her time might be better spent in other pursuits to worm its way to the forefront. It was more than likely that she was grasping at straws, that the drunken revelers who had identified the woman in the photo had been... confused. More to the point, there was no reason -- save her own determined need to be here, the place Helena might have been most recently -- to keep her from planting a few miniature cameras and returning to her... routine.
Heaven knew, she'd begun receiving a few comments in the teachers' lounge about the smell of cigarettes and alcohol that clung to her despite Lady MacBeth-like showers. She also owed her students a teacher who did little more than punch in and show up each day.
Last, but not least, of course was Quinn. Every moment spent away from the Delphi allowed the blonde madwoman to put more distance between them.
Chewing at the inside of her cheek, Barbara swirled her drink, glancing down to take in the dance lights refracting against the ice and the blush liquid. Slowly, she puffed out her cheeks, exhaling heavily.
Two more nights.
The weekend began tomorrow, increasing the chances that the woman Dinah had seen might return, and she herself would return to work on Monday.
Q.E.D., she'd give it two more nights.
The dimming of the already subterranean house lights and an especially boisterous bass beat thumping from the speaker to her left yanked her from dour considerations about her nearly slavish dedication to the duties she'd assumed. With a start, she recognized the opening strains of the song that threatened not just to deafen her but also to blind her with the strobes illuminating the floor.
Oh, the night is my world
City light painted girl
In the day nothing matters
It's the night time that flatters
In the night, no control
Through the wall something's breaking
Laura Branigan, of all things. Barbara hadn't heard this song since her own wild nights back in the d--
Vague concerns about just how badly she'd be dating herself were anyone at the club to discover that she'd learned all the lyrics when the song had originally hit number two on the charts suddenly vanished under the sensation of prickling electricity. It was, Barbara knew without doubt, the tingling frisson of awareness she'd long experienced in the presence of one -- and only one -- person.
Without conscious decision on her part, she felt one hand fly to her mouth, attempting to stifle her gasp. As casually as possible, she straightened, craning her neck to take in every nook and cranny of the open floor, from the entrance, to the far wall, to the short hallway leading to the restrooms, to ....
And there she was, on the dance floor, not more than twenty feet away.
Struck by a veritable tsunami of emotions, Barbara sagged in her chair before managing, her hand shaking hard enough to rattle the ice in the glass, to settle her drink on a nearby table. Unable to breath, she felt that her blood had turned to mercury, sluggish and semi-solid in her veins, her heart having to pump three times as hard to move it.
She could only suppose that anyone who saw her would know in an instant that she was a woman on the verge of stroking out. Or, having a serious case of cognitive dissonance.
Dear god, how she'd hoped; but she'd never let herself believe.
Somehow, the thought came to her that she was, nominally at least and in Helena's own words, a frikkin' superhero and it was time to pull it together. Yet, for another twenty seconds, she couldn't move, her eyes riveted on the dance floor and the coveted sight of Helena, alive and healthy.
The younger woman's hair was a bit longer; her skin a tad less bronzed. Yet, she was moving with her usual grace, gyrating against a muscle-bound fellow whose chiseled features and curly blonde locks clearly made him a shoo-in for the role of Cupid on the next Xena reunion.
Perhaps it was thoughts of Eros that did it, but Barbara finally felt the air return to her lungs and strength returning to her muscles. Somehow, instead of giving in to her urge to hot rod onto the dance floor and get her partner's attention and find out what the hell was going on, she waited.
Ticking off every second on her internal chronometer and mentally cursing a blue streak over extended remixes for dancing, she continued to watch, attempting to determine if she'd ever seen the outfit -- although it was little enough that she could have missed it -- the brunette was wearing. Eventually, the song ended, and Barbara waited as Helena separated from Adonis.
The process had been, the redhead decided a bit peevishly, analogous to peeling Velcro.
She tracked the younger woman to a solitary table in a dark corner, then scanned the room, attempting to discern whether Helena were being monitored. As certain as she could be that the only looks directed toward the brunette had little to do with surveillance, Barbara approached slowly, green eyes fixed, nearly rapt, at the sight of her friend -- her partner -- her lover.
She forced herself to halt her approach six feet from the table, simply waiting and watching as Helena lounged with her usual boneless grace. The redhead didn't have to wait long, almost certain that she witnessed the younger woman's hackles rising before the dark head swung her way and deep blue eyes pierced her.
Not ten seconds later, her overwhelming relief that her partner was alive and, apparently, quite well vanished with an almost audible pop. In its place roared an aberrant and nearly overwhelming desire to throttle the younger woman for putting her through hell for almost four weeks.
There was, after all, simply no other suitable response that she could imagine when Helena looked up, blue eyes dancing insouciantly as she spoke with maddening nonchalance.
"Hey, Red. How's it going?"
It had been twenty-five days, nine hours, and a long handful of minutes since they'd seen each other, since Helena had simply vanished from her life behind the threats and taunts of Harley Quinn. While Barbara was beyond relieved to find her lover alive and well, and while she simply couldn't begin to speculate about what the younger woman had been -- was -- up to, she didn't think it unreasonable to expect a bit less... casualness to their reunion.
Thus, when she heard the words that spilled over her lips, she wasn't entirely able to fault herself for the sharpness of her tone.
"What in the name of the Hoary Hosts of Hogarth do you think you're doing?"
She gave her wheels a sharp push, coming to a stop inches from the table. The other woman's sarcastic drawl did little to help curb her temper.
"Uhm, drinking. Dancing. "
A shrug and an unconcerned smile accompanied the words, and Barbara felt her brows furrow.
Aside from the obvious, something was definitely off.
Her pique shoved aside by concern and no small measure of curiosity, the redhead arched a brow and took a moment.
Helena certainly seemed healthy, more than full of life, to be precise. The brunette's movements were easy, relaxed and natural. Her voice and mannerisms were similarly familiar and too-long missed. Drugs, or some form of external control, didn't seem to be likely, yet something was missing.
The purring of that lovely contralto drew Barbara from musings about Helena's use of her nickname and sent shivers coursing down her spine.
The brunette straightened fractionally in her chair and smiled slowly.
"Looking's free, but buying me a drink'll get you more."
The blatantly sultry tone simply oozed invitation, although Barbara wasn't certain she care to contemplate the nature of the offer too closely. Nevertheless, she had always been a slave to her curiosity.
She tilted her head to one side, working to meter her voice against the pounding blood in her ears.
"-- and what might that be?"
The brunette's smile did little to alleviate her concern or to calm her pulse. When the younger woman tugged her fringed top down, somehow exposing a swath of firmly muscled abdomen in the process, she suspected that the gesture was not unpracticed.
"A drink's worth of my time."
Since she was capable of thinking on her feet, it took Barbara all of three seconds to consider that before she raised her hand to flag down a waitress. In this particular field of engagement, some conversation was her best weapon in determining just what was going on.
"A bottle of ..."
Crimson brows rose fractionally in question.
"... Grey Goose?"
The dark figure nodded her agreement.
"I was drinking Level, but Goose'll do."
A slender hand gestured at the table in invitation, and Barbara set the brake of her chair.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, both, Barbara suspected, attempting to mask their mutual evaluation. The return of their server with a bottle and two glasses broke the impasse.
"You're not gonna get me drunk, you know," the younger woman offered.
"I wouldn't want to," Barbara admitted truthfully as her companion poured two healthy drinks and raised her glass in salute.
The redhead returned the gesture and took a minute sip, then decided to make her first volley. Clearly, this Helena didn't seem to know who she was; it was time to start finding out just how much she knew about herself.
"But, why is that?"
The brunette neatly downed the contents of her glass and shrugged.
"Dunno. My metabolism just burns it off."
The reply seemed close enough to what her Helena might have disclosed in similar circumstances. Yet, the very openness was quite different from the guardedness Barbara knew her partner usually exhibited.
Nodding, she worked for a thoughtful expression, taking another moment to study her companion as she nursed her drink.
Apart from the superficial changes she'd observed from the edges of the dance floor, Barbara was struck by the realization that Helena looked --
The redhead felt her brows knit, no doubt enhancing the attractive worry lines she'd been cultivating of late, as she worked for the right words.
Yes, but she decided that it wasn't in a chronological sense. The brunette was composed, exhibiting a maturity at least equivalent to her twenty-five years.
The difference was, Barbara suddenly grasped, that Helena looked softer and more relaxed than she could ever recall seeing. Even in high school, even before things had changed so dramatically, the younger woman had carried an edginess and distrust like a cloak.
A long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, Helena had once supplied when her guardian had cautiously teased her about her stealthy wariness.
The sight of the vodka bottle, now only three-quarters full, swimming into view drew the redhead from her musings. She smiled her thanks as the brunette topped off her drink and then poured herself another healthy belt.
"So how'd you know?"
Blinking her befuddlement, Barbara managed to parrot one word.
The throaty chuckle from the other side of the table did little to improve Barbara's concentration.
Not surprising, she supposed; after four weeks of absence -- and terror -- she wanted nothing more than to wrap her partner in her arms and never let go.
"Not much with words, are you, Red?"
Quirking her lips, Barbara allowed, "You'd be surprised."
Blue eyes twinkled.
"Huh. So did you let the devil take your head tonight?"
Barbara barely had time to note her surprise at Helena's reference to Poe's poem before it hit her.
Quinn had hypnotized Helena.
"--can see why you needed a whole bottle for a conversation."
Somehow, the redhead managed an expression she hoped would pass for a smile and raised her glass, pleased that her hand wasn't visibly shaking.
"But, yeah, how'd you know I like Gray Goose?"
Setting her empty glass neatly on the cardboard Heineken coaster, Barbara met her companion's gaze.
"I noticed your drink -- "
She inclined her head toward the remnants of the brunette's dirty martini.
"-- and a... a friend told me that Gray Goose is one of the better vodkas."
Her search for a flicker of recognition or understanding failed, and Barbara gratefully accepted a refill from the other woman.
"Well, here's to your friend."
Automatically raising her glass in response, Barbara managed -- barely -- to sip rather than gulp her refill.
"But, I'll let you in on a secret, Red."
The easy smile was so familiar and her own hope so strong that Barbara felt herself holding her breath in anticipation.
"You could have had me with Smirnoff."
"Ha -- ? Smirnoff?"
Not entirely pleased that her conversational abilities had been once again reduced to single words, Barbara decided that an arched brow could do the talking for her.
"Yeah, for the money it's good. Peppery and all."
"You sound like you have some knowledge of the subject."
She knew she was fishing, but there was little else she could do. Fortunately, Helena either didn't notice or, perhaps in the context of the club, didn't care.
"Well, one of those men's mags, Maxim or Cargo or something...?"
Barbara nodded, and the brunette continued.
"It just had a comparison, and Smirnoff came out on top. Other than a hundred dollar a bottle brand."
Acutely conscious of the fact that their own thirty-dollar bottle was more than half-empty, Barbara pressed a bit harder.
"So, your appreciation and knowledge comes from a literary bent, er ... ?"
Blue eyes seemed to assess her before the brunette smiled and extended her hand.
"Helena. And, no, I've tended some bar, too. And hustled pool in bars."
Helena's soft laughter was rain to the desert her soul had become in the last weeks. The touch of her hand, electric.
Although Barbara wanted to extend the handshake well past the boundaries of reasonable etiquette, somehow she released the slender fingers and choked out her own introduction.
She swirled the clear liquid in her glass and cast again.
"Is that what you're doing now, Helena?"
She thought that they'd canvassed every bar in New Gotham; however, perhaps there was some hole in the wall she'd missed. The shake of a dark head removed that doubt.
"Nuh uh. That's just a little too dead end, you know? But -- "
There was simply no recourse but to respond to the younger woman's sly grin.
"I might still do a little hustling."
Still smiling, Barbara filed that bit of information away. Soft laughter from across the table distracted her from consideration about how hustling pool certainly provided a perfect opportunity for Helena to have flown beneath the radar.
"Care to let me in on the joke, Helena?"
Nodding, the younger woman leaned forward conspiratorially, her eyes twinkling.
"I just figured out why you look so familiar."
There was no way to avoid it. Despite any intent to the contrary, the redhead felt the wings of eager hope flutter against her chest. Somehow, however, she managed to limit her response to a curious quirk of her lips.
The brunette helped herself to the final drops from the bottle and leaned back loosely in her chair.
"You probably don't remember, but I was in your English class about eight years ago."
The redhead managed a soft smile.
"I remember you, Helena."
With her partner sitting across from her, even if Helena didn't remember everything yet, Barbara realized that the words hadn't hurt as much as she'd anticipated. Accordingly, she summoned a laugh of her own.
"You always made an impression, you know."
For the first time since sighting her friend less than half an hour before, Barbara took her eyes from her, glancing upward and to the left as a phrase came to mind: The student in question is performing minimally for her peer group and is an emerging underachiever. Words she'd been sorely tempted to put to paper during the first reporting period after Helena had sauntered into her Junior English class.
Shaking her head minutely to clear the cobwebs, she returned her attention to the brunette, curious about just when their versions of the last eight years diverged.
"What have you been up to since then, Helena?"
"Well, you know, kicking around, traveling, getting my shit together."
Rather than rolling her eyes at the incredible lack of detail she'd just managed to elicit, Barbara simply nodded and offered her best "Do go one" expression. Mercifully, it didn't fail.
"After my mom got killed,"
Aching at the pain still present in the younger woman's eyes -- that much hadn't changed -- Barbara nodded.
"I had a lot to work through, I guess. But,"
One crimson brow rose fractionally as Helena visibly let go of the melancholy that had always lingered when thoughts of Selina arose.
"What happened to you, Barbara?"
The slender hand gesturing toward her chair left no question as to the brunette's meaning, and suddenly the redhead felt herself very close to tears. That the one person who had kept her afloat during that bleak period had no memory of it was... inconceivable.
Hunting for words, she toyed with a plastic swizzle stick as the frenetic intro of another classic from her big-haired youth blared over the speakers.
We're talking away
I don't know what
I'm to say I'll say it anyway
Today's another day to find you
I'll be coming for your love, OK?
Finally, she cleared her throat and offered a smile that might have been just the tiniest bit forced.
"Long story, Helena. Perhaps we can talk about it some other time."
The brunette's voice was dismissive, and Barbara almost started when Helena thumped her empty glass to the table and eyed the empty bottle. In a mouthwatering display, she stretched, the stood and circled the table.
"Sorry to drink and run, but I've got.. you know --"
The younger woman waved in the vicinity of the exit, and Barbara felt a shiver course over her in memory of the sensation of those strong hands on her body.
"... places to go, people to do."
A bright smile, obviously meant to charm any ire resulting from the abrupt departure, accompanied the words and, in the face of that patented ten-thousand watt grin, Barbara almost forgot her purpose. At the last minute, she stretched up, casually resting her hand against the younger woman's elbow.
So needless to say
I'm odds and ends
But that's me stumbling away
Slowly learning that life is OK.
Say after me
It's no better to be safe than sorry
"Are you here often, Helena?"
She hoped that she didn't sound as desperate and needy as she felt. A dark brow raised in scrutiny didn't reassure her much.
"I'd like to continue catching up."
Sensing how very unimpressed the brunette was by the explanation, she added a note of disdain to her tone.
"And perhaps beat you at pool?"
Had she not known the younger woman so well, she might have missed the quick flare of competition in those deep blue eyes. Helena's voice gave none of that away.
"I'm around here sometimes, but"
As if by magic, a felt tip appeared in the lithe figure's hand.
"Let me give you my number."
Barely fighting off the urge to pump her fist in victory, Barbara smiled brightly.
"You don't need to write it down. I'll remem--"
Helena had extended her free hand, a sultry smile painting her lips, and the redhead suddenly grasped her intent. Unable to deny herself another bit of contact, she laid her hand palm up in the other woman's, squirming the tiniest bit at the tickle of the marker against her skin.
Too soon, it was over, the brunette capping the pen and stepping back.
"Call me. Maybe we can have a few laughs."
With that, she was gone, leaving Barbara staring at the seven numbers neatly filling her hand.
Oh the things that you say
Is it live or
Just to play my worries away
You're all the things I've got to remember
You're shying away
I'll be coming for you anyway
Take on me, take me on
I'll be gone
In a day or two
It wasn't an honest-to-goodness Calgon moment: She hadn't actually been transported from all her worries, and, since she still couldn't bring herself to use the recently installed whirlpool tub, it couldn't fairly be compared with a luxurious soak. Nevertheless, the steaming water from the showerhead was close enough to bliss.
The hot drops felt like rain in a desert, bringing long-dormant hope to bloom. The pounding pressure felt like fingers drumming against her skin in anticipation. It felt --
Turning her face into the spray, Barbara smiled into the water and corrected herself.
The night before, when she'd watched her errant partner slip out of the club, Barbara had felt lost all over again, adrift in the sea of humanity surrounding her. For a long ten minutes, she'd stared at the empty glasses on the small table, attempting to put the pieces together. Inevitably, a crushing weight of anger and bitterness and despair had nibbled at her, their teeth and claws seeming all the more painful after the elation of finding Helena.
If she'd thought she'd hit rock bottom during the weeks of Helena's absence, Barbara had considered during the solitary period at the club, when she'd grasped exactly how Quinn had taken her friend, that she'd just begun to dig. Yet, after returning to the clock tower, a bit of reflection on the balcony and a surprisingly refreshing two hours sleep had... erased her intrinsic pessimism.
In the process of performing the gymnastics required to towel off her lower body, Barbara froze for a moment, marveling at the idea of anything erasing her more skeptical side. With a shrug, she transferred herself from the shower bench to her chair and moved to the vanity.
If her pessimism hadn't been erased, at the very least the knowledge that Helena was alive had drawn a thick, dark line through it.
Helena was alive.
That was all that mattered. Helena was alive.
With that happy thought bouncing through her, she pulled on sweats and a tee shirt, then attacked her hair with a brush, opting to forego the usual time in communion with her blow dryer since it was Saturday. With that little efficiency, she found herself in the kitchen in short order, cheerfully humming as she buttered a freshly toasted English muffin. Her peaceful contemplation into the possibility that a dry rice cracker might be tastier than the bland pastry was abruptly cut short by a cheerful question.
"What's that song?"
Barbara managed, barely, to keep the muffin and the butter knife in her hands, even though she did jump a bit.
Belatedly, the redhead recognized that having maintained her grip on the knife might not have been ideal when she had to arrest the instinctive movement of her hand to her heart.
The blonde's tone suggested very little remorse, but Barbara really couldn't fault her.
"I just thought I recognized the tune or something?"
Crimson brows furrowed, then Barbara had a sudden suspicion that her cheeks were flaming.
"ELO, Honey. It's -- "
Undoubtedly the blush was only growing.
"-- er, something from a soundtrack."
Although she didn't appear entirely satisfied with the reply, Dinah mercifully didn't push matters as she plopped onto a kitchen chair. For her part, Barbara didn't feel the need to add that the song she'd been absently humming, "I'm Alive", had been the introductory song from an ill-fated movie starring Olivia Newton John.
With, if she recalled correctly, Bebe Neuwirth as a backup dancer on roller-skates.
Shaking her head, Barbara grabbed the jug of juice from the fridge and made her way to the table.
Clearly, retro-night at The Beat must have gotten to her.
"Soooo -- "
Equally clearly, her ward's patience had reached its limits; Dinah was visibly bouncing in her seat. Of course, she couldn't really fault the girl her excitement, given the message she'd left on her voice mail in the early hours of the morning.
A broad smile taking control of her features, Barbara set the juice on the table.
"Indeed, Dinah. I fo-- "
The soft ding of the elevator signaled the arrival of the other member of the little party, and Barbara raised one hand, wordlessly requesting a moment's forbearance.
"Good morning, Alfred."
The dapper gentleman removed his bowler, settling it on its customary hook by the linen hutch before crossing to the table.
"The content of your message would indicate that it's a very good morning, indeed, Miss Barbara."
Nodding vigorously, she pushed her untouched breakfast aside and waited until Alfred settled himself at the table before launching into the story. By the time she summarized her meeting, only the tiniest twitch of the butler's fingers against the tabletop indicated his reaction. Dinah was less reserved.
"That evil witch brainwashed her!"
"That, or something very much like it," Barbara allowed.
She noted a slow nod from the other end of the table but didn't have time to question Alfred when Dinah smiled hopefully, once again nearly bouncing in her chair as she leaned forward, her excitement palpable.
"Then, maybe you can use that flashing thingamajiggie you used before to dehypnotize Helena."
The redhead nodded slowly, mulling it over, unwilling to give voice to her own doubts so early in the game. Before she had to come up with some sort of response, Alfred spoke up.
"If you'll permit an observation from one who has witnessed a great deal of criminal chicanery through the years?"
"We'd welcome your insights, Alfred."
Barbara smiled an invitation, aware of a blonde head bobbing from the other side of the table.
"In that case," the older gentleman continued, "it seems that it would be most unlikely for a criminal as devious as Dr. Quinn not to take a previous rout into consideration when plotting something of this nature."
Barbara smiled, suspecting the expression didn't reach her eyes, and nodded once, waiting for her protege to put the pieces together.
It only took a few seconds before the blonde slumped against her chair.
"Yeah, she did mix things up with the guards at Arkham so it didn't work to deprogram them."
Hating the hint of a quaver in Dinah's voice and watching the teen's face fall, Barbara stretched across the table and gently squeezed her hand.
Although the staff Quinn had caught in her wiles for her recent escape were under the impression that the blonde lunatic was still in their charge, there was no need to admit defeat without trying.
"Nevertheless, Dinah, it can't hurt to try."
She allowed her concerns that the sentiment was completely off base -- that somehow Quinn had planted some sort of hypnotic suggestion which would be triggered by the device -- to remain unspoken. Other concerns about deprogramming in general, she refused to give voice either.
"But, Alfred's right. This doesn't... "
Hesitating, she searched for the right language.
"This doesn't feel like the last time. Helena isn't acting against her instincts."
Sensing scrutiny from Alfred, she met his gaze, blinking at the unspoken communication that passed between them.
Since that cheery thought would serve no purpose, Barbara opted for something a bit more practical: determining just where their histories diverged. Straightening her shoulders, she spoke briskly.
"From the little I was able to determine last night, it appears that Helena's memories are intact through most of high school, possibly..."
She felt her brows knit as she rewound their brief conversation of the night before.
"...until the night of Selina's murder, in fact."
Two heads, one grey and one blonde, nodded.
"Yeah, and it sounds like she has a lot of memories of what she has done since then, right?"
Barbara smiled at her younger partner.
"True, Dinah. In many respects her history, her memory, is largely the truth."
She heard her words slowing as she forced herself to speak the remainder.
"It's simply as if I --"
She managed to correct herself, hoping that her stumble hadn't been too obvious.
"As if we aren't in them."
Fortunately, Alfred spoke up, allowing her a moment to recollect herself.
"It possible that the verisimilitude may be no small factor in the effectiveness of Dr. Quinn's ploy."
When she saw Dinah's face scrunched in an over-dramatic display of confusion, Barbara finally released her tension on a soft laugh, knowing quite well that it was the effect her ward had hoped for.
"Indeed, Alfred. Since Helena's new memories are so close to reality, it may be difficult to bypass the hypnotic suggestion."
Perhaps to break the sober moment, Dinah piped up with over bright enthusiasm.
"What if we hit her on the head or something?"
The question elicited a short bark of laughter from Barbara, and even Alfred smiled. The blonde ducked her head, hiding a broad grin as a hint of pink crept into her cheeks.
"Or, maybe just, uh, we could confront her or something and snap her memories back."
Barbara felt her brows receding into her hairline but managed to speak with mild unconcern.
"I believe that only works in soap operas, Dinah."
Briskly she pushed back from the table and turned toward the living area.
"We'll need more... data before trying anything."
Since there was no time like the present to start her research, she headed toward the Delphi, aware of Dinah trailing behind her and Alfred discretely remaining in the kitchen. While she had to admit that her next step could have been accomplished from anywhere in the house, for some reason she felt on more solid ground settled in front of her primary plasma display.
Perhaps the whir and hum from the CPUs created a white noise which she'd grown to find soothing.
Thirty seconds later, with her cell phone open in her hand, the redhead ruefully admitted that her workstation seemed to provide a great deal more courage for routine situations. Safeguarding New Gotham; foiling laser attacks on Arkham and rescuing her partner; doing battle with The Joker: all were a roll in the park compared to her current task.
Of course, she realized with sudden clarity, never before had the stakes been so high, the price of failure so absolute.
Caught up in self-doubt which bordered on terror, Barbara eventually became aware of three words, Helena's words, echoing through her memory. They'd been uttered in a variety of circumstances -- from struggles for the remote to control to battles with super villains -- and with a host of inflections -- ranging from aggrieved to exasperated to playful. And they were just the reminder she needed.
"We're frikkin' superheroes."
Not allowing herself further delay, she dialed seven digits from memory and placed the handset to her ear. Because her phone was, naturally, state of the art and connected to the wireless network through Wayne Industries and Department of Defense satellites, she was clearly able to hear the soft click of connection that preceded the first ring.
Instantly, she lowered the phone and jammed her thumb against the Off button.
Acutely aware of cornflower blue eyes fixed on her, Barbara experienced a sudden visceral sympathy the various Toms, Dicks, and Wades in her life who had sucked up their courage to call her. Not to mention Helena's courage not too many months before in speaking her heart.
"It's hard, isn't it? Especially when it's... important."
She shared a rueful smile with the young woman who was so often wiser than her years before straightening her shoulders and toggling on the phone.
It was time to return Helena's confidence in her, confidence that whatever happened her heart wouldn't be broken.
"Indeed it is, Dinah."
Without further ado, she toggled the phone on and hit the redial button. It wasn't until the fourth ring, when she heard the click signaling that the call was being answered, that Barbara realized she was holding her breath. When she heard the prerecorded message of Helena's voice mail, she didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
<"This is Helena. I'm probably off saving the world. Leave a message that's gonna make me want to call you back.">
Laughter. Undoubtedly laughter to hear Helena's voice, to take in words that were so totally Helena's.
"This is Barbara Gordon."
She hesitated for a beat, debating whether to identify herself further before deciding to let it go.
"I enjoyed seeing you last night--"
Even as she stumbled ahead, Barbara cast her eyes heavenward at the enormity of that little understatement.
"I, er, -- I seem to have a dearth of papers to grade this weekend, and -- "
God, she'd never been good at this. Could she seem less interested? Or, for that matter, more stiff?
The sight of Dinah's dramatic eye rolling suggested a clear answer in the negative, spurring the redhead to the realization that she needed something to pique Helena's instincts and interest.
"I was hoping to see if your pool skills measure up to what I learned in an advanced geometry course a few years ago. Please give me a call."
She left her number, sagging a bit in relief at her Dinah's encouraging nod. Snapping the phone shut, she forced herself not to consider the irony of accepting... pointers from her current ward in the process of reconnecting with her former ward.
Dear heavens, but life could be strange.
Her smile just a trifle forced, she caught Dinah's gaze, feeling her brows quirk in question. Dinah's answering smile was, possibly, a tad over-enthusiastic.
"Well, that went pretty well, Barbara."
Relief coursing through her, she whipped her head to the side.
"Do you think so?"
The blonde's indulgent smile spoke volumes.
Barbara finally managed a laugh at her own expense then sobered when her companion shifted, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.
"Did it go okay yesterday?"
Considering everything that had transpired in the last fourteen hours, the best the older woman could manage was a blank look.
"Uhm, with the doctor? I know you haven't wanted to talk about it much, but is everything okay still?"
The quick spark of anger at the younger woman's concern was rapidly pushed aside by guilt that her ward clearly felt so nervous broaching the topic. Still, Barbara felt that there was no reason to mention that she'd simply ignored all things medical in the last month.
"It's fine, Dinah."
She managed a reassuring smile.
"Thank you for asking."
Nodding and smiling, smiling and lying. Obviously she hadn't lost her skill in the art of masks.
"Your first long weekend is coming up, Dinah."
Quite cognizant of the younger woman's startled blink, Barbara plunged ahead.
"Have you considered driving up to State to visit Gabby?"
To her relief, the tactic was successful; Dinah allowed the abrupt conversation shift.
"Do you think it's okay? I mean -- "
Barely quashing her urge to still the teen's gesture, Barbara waited while Dinah fiddled with the hair she'd just tucked behind her ear.
"With everything that's going on?"
This time, the older woman's smile felt very genuine.
"I'm sure, Honey. I believe I can manage."
She left unsaid that her ward deserved time for her own life. Nevertheless, the reassurance seemed to do the trick, and Dinah visibly brightened before launching into a lengthy and somewhat convoluted description of plans for connecting with her girlfriend during homecoming weekend. Eventually, after providing multiple promises to call when she heard from Helena, Barbara coaxed the younger woman off to the dorms and, hopefully, something resembling a normal collegiate life.
For a full five minutes after Dinah's departure, the redhead remained fixed and still in front of her workstation. Eventually it dawned on her that her phone wouldn't ring any sooner if she stared at it, and, with a shrug, she turned to other matters.
First, of course, was a handwriting analysis of the phone number she'd scanned from her palm the night before. To her moderately trained eye, and based on an admittedly meager sample, Helena's handwriting didn't seem to differ from what she'd become familiar with. However, a full trace would only be prudent.
While those routines set about their work, she turned to an equally important bit of research: programming and dispatching a fleet of bots to search out everything they could find online concerning hypnotic suggestion and Quinn's complete background in the area.
Finally, with a happy sigh, she clicked open her lesson planning spreadsheets.
It was well past time to reacquaint her students with written communication, and a pop-essay for her fourth period class seemed the perfect place to start.
Barbara opened a new document, saving it and then hyperlinking it to the spreadsheet. For a few moments, she stared at the blank page, tapping her thumbs against the keyboard wrist-rest before beginning to type.
"Choose one: Shakespearean play; Nineteenth Century American novel; comic book; online fan fiction. In essay form, compare and contrast with one myth from Bullfinch."
After a second's thought, she moved her cursor to the word "form" and amended her instructions.
After all, since comic books were an option, there was no reason not to permit other graphic forms of communication.
Her musings about which, if any, of her students might choose to model a storyboard were cut short by the Looney Tunes theme song trilling from beside her mouse pad.
The ring tone Helena had downloaded into her cell phone six weeks before.
Willing herself not to hope, she checked the caller-ID and felt herself breaking into a broad smile.
"This is Barbara."
<"U - Oh.">
The redhead experienced a split-second of anxiety, wondering if answering halfway through the first ring had been a bit... overanxious. Judging from her caller's soft chuckle and rapid recovery, it hadn't been too off-putting.
<"Hi Barbara. This is Helena.">
Not quite able to grasp how completely giddy she was feeling, Barbara removed her glasses and tossed them onto the desk. At the last moment, she stopped herself from primping her hair.
She suspected that no amount of iron will could mask the genuine pleasure in her tone.
"Thank you for returning my call."
<"My pleasure, Barbara.">
Perhaps her tone was contagious since Barbara clearly detected a purring silkiness creeping into the other woman's words.
<"You think you can take me, huh?">
One mercifully brief befuddled blink later, the redhead collected herself with a laugh.
"I'd certainly like to try, Helena. That geometry class must be good for som-- "
A soft click signaling another incoming call interrupted her. Since Barbara knew exactly which numbers she'd programmed to ring through, she quickly checked the caller ID.
Damn. Jesse Reese. Not a call she wanted to miss considering what he'd been working on on her behalf.
"I'm sorry, Helena," she resumed, "but can you hold for a minute? I need to -- "
The other woman cut short the apology.
<"Go ahead and take your call.">
As she'd hoped, the detective had managed to interview a former cellmate of Tiny Ludwig's, garnering the names of a few of Quinn's favorite lackeys who were still on the streets. As briskly as possible without being hopelessly rude, Barbara jotted down the names and ended the call with her thanks.
"Helena? Are you still there?"
The laconic response was so typically Helena that Barbara couldn't help but smile. The expression faltered just a bit when the younger woman continued, her voice all business.
<"I'll be at O'Harrah's tomorrow afternoon.">
Ignoring the voice-only nature of the conversation, Barbara nodded when she placed the reference to a pool hall near NGU.
<"I've got to meet a guy, but if you don't mind being interrupted, we could shoot a few games.">
Grasping that this conversation was rapidly drawing to a close, Barbara kept it short.
"I'd be delighted, Helena. An interruption shouldn't be a problem. Is there a specific ti--?"
A soft laugh cut short her question.
<"I'll be there all afternoon. Just drop by tomorrow.">
A soft click followed the words, however even the abrupt end of the call could do nothing to deflate Barbara's mood. Absently snapping shut her phone, she focused on the word that bounded giddily through her mind, a word rife with possibilities.
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