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.
Barbara sucked in a final fortifying breath and stretched out to open the side door to the van. Fingers on the latch, she froze, releasing her shot of courage and saluting her own cowardice by making a satisfyingly noisy raspberry.
Recognizing full-well that it was a delaying tactic, she gave herself another once over, reconfirming her assessment that she'd chosen well: her favorite jeans, a NGHS tee, her soft denim over shirt, and her favorite ass-kicking Doc Martins. The outfit was not only perfectly casual for what was, nominally, a casual meeting to shoot some pool, but it also happened to be the very same outfit she'd selected months before for a mystery date in the infancy of her changed relationship with Helena.
That the date had turned out to be dinner and a video at Helena's old apartment above the Dark Horse was another motivator, the memory bringing with it shivers of pleasure when she recalled the dark chocolate mousse they'd shared for a very memorable dessert.
As prepared as she'd ever be, the redhead finally pried herself away from the safety of the van and circumnavigated to the ramp leading into O'Harrah's. She'd never frequented the pool hall but knew that it was a favorite hangout for students from the nearby university and for New Gothamites who lived near the docks. The inside was stereotypically dark, and after the bright late-September sunshine, it took Barbara a few seconds to adjust.
Twenty... Twenty-four tables, just over half of them already occupied despite the relative earliness in the day. Unsurprisingly, most of the inhabitants of the establishment were men, the few women she noticed primarily appearing to fall into the girlfriend category, perched on stools to admire their dates' prowess with the stick.
Not immediately spotting one specific woman, Barbara planted her hands on her armrests and pushed up, chalking up -- not for the first time -- another debt The Joker owed her: visibility from waist height. An insidious whisper -- something about being stood up -- nibbled at her until she finally spotted Helena in the back corner of the pool hall. With a less-than-delicate thump, she lowered herself into her seat and began making her way along one wall, taking her time as she observed the younger woman.
The brunette was focused on a game of nine-ball, the stack of bills resting next to several half-empty bottles of microbrew on a nearby table suggesting that the match was not merely friendly. The somewhat sour expression on her opponent's face, not to mention the way Helena was smoothly sinking one ball after another -- in sequence -- left little doubt as to the probable outcome. Of course, Barbara noted with a flare of something which felt suspiciously like jealousy, if Helena's opponent had been keeping his full attention on the game, he might have been faring a bit better.
Not, she admitted as she swallowed around the lump in her throat, that she could blame the man. The young woman's skin tight jeans left little to the imagination every time she bent to line up a shot; her sleeveless tank revealed the smooth flex of her arms with every stroke of the cue.
Helena was, Barbara instantly decided, breathtaking.
Since she had no intention of ruining the other woman's game, Barbara halted her approach two tables away, more than content to observe. While Helena's opponent was, justifiably, having very visible concentration difficulties, not so the brunette. Eye fixed on the table, she moved from shot to shot with silent grace, looking for all the world like a stalking tiger. The only sound from the back corner, somehow clearly discernable over the mutter of conversation and click of stick against resin, was the whisper of the varnished cue through elegant fingers.
Rapt, the redhead waited while the brunette lined up a showy masse. Perhaps her soft hiss of appreciation for the daring shot somehow reached the young woman's ears; given Helena's acute senses, it wouldn't have been impossible. Regardless, in the quarter-second before Helena's cue made contact with the white ball, Barbara saw the lithe figure -- stiffen. It was almost imperceptible, but it was enough to ruin the shot and send the cue ball hopping straight into the side pocket.
More than a little curious about what reaction might follow, Barbara held her breath. She heard a long hiss as the brunette straightened, then was pinned by blue eyes when Helena half-turned, somehow unerringly finding her.
Barbara thought she detected the hint of a wink as Helena turned back to the table and fished the cue ball from the pocket. She was certain she heard a chuckle.
"Ball in hand, John. Let's just call this one."
The man who'd been only moments from losing was clearly a bit pole-axed by his sudden change in fortune, but Helena gave him no time to recover his wits. Thrusting the pile of bills into his hand, she steered him away from the table.
"Take the money and run, John. I've got another soul to fleece."
A smile taking control of her face, Barbara rolled into position, opting to ignore the assumption that she'd be an easy mark.
"I hope I wasn't responsible for your scratch, Helena."
The other woman took her time, downing the remainder of her beer in one long swallow and catching a drop of amber liquid from the lip of the bottle with her tongue.
"Guess you might have been, cruising a former student like that, Red."
A host of denials and partial truth explanations came to mind. To her surprise, Barbara didn't detect the heat of the anticipated blush, and garnering courage from that, she provided a simple truth.
"I'm glad to see you again, Helena."
Helena's expression was guarded but not, Barbara hoped, unfriendly.
She nodded slowly as the brunette circled the table, retrieving balls from the pockets.
"Eight ball to start?"
Helena held up the black and white ball, cocking her head and grinning. There was no way to deny invitation or the smile.
"Sounds good, Helena."
She dug into her pocket for her money clip.
"What are the stakes?"
The brunette didn't look up from racking the balls.
"I usually don't play for less than twenty a game."
Automatically doing the math, the redhead wondered if she could dispense with the games altogether and simply drop one or two hundred dollars on the table. Somehow, she bit back the question and allowed one brow to rise playfully.
"On a teacher's salary?"
That earned her a snort -- and a mouthwatering display of muscled abdomen as her companion stretched over the table to hang the triangle from the light fixture.
"Okay, Barbara. How about an alumni discount of, say, ten dollars a game?"
Barbara nodded briskly and dropped a ten on the side table.
She turned to the racks of cues on the walls, green eyes ticking from one to the next.
Did they come from the factory pre-warped?
"You want me to use one of those pieces of crap?"
A dark maple cue -- clearly a custom piece of work -- waved in the periphery of her vision.
"Just to even the odds a little?"
Taking her time, Barbara finally retrieved a stick that was less C-shaped than the others and which, somehow, still had more than an eighth-inch tip remaining.
"No thank you, Helena."
She snagged a crumbling cube of chalk and smiled.
"I wouldn't want to handicap you with something unfamiliar in your hands."
Barbara nearly finished the job of crumbling the chalk when she saw the wolfish gleam in her companion's eyes.
"Yeah, it's hard to find your rhythm -- "
The varnished stick slid smoothly between slender fingers.
"-- when you don't know what you're handling. You thirsty?"
Barbara blinked, somehow dragging her gaze from her partner's caressing movements, and wet lips that were, in fact, very dry.
"Extremely," she managed.
The dark head cocked inquisitively toward the empty longnecks, blue eyes twinkling impishly.
Barbara swallowed with difficulty, acutely aware that her geometric skills would be hard-pressed in taking on her companion.
Caught up in chalking the uneven tip of her cue and mentally locating the nearest ATMs, she nearly jumped when Helena returned from the bar -- seemingly within seconds -- bearing two bottles of spring water and two beers. She smiled her thanks, feeling the smile widen when the younger woman neatly uncapped one of the waters before extending the bottle.
"Your break, Barbara."
The redhead downed half her water, then settled the bottle on the table and turned to the billiard table. Years of practice in her father's rec room had accustomed her to shooting from table height, but she deliberately made her first stroke awkward. The cue ball struck with a respectable, if not overly powerful, crack of resin on resin, peeling off a pitiful three balls, one of which wobbled over to the far corner pocket and rolled in.
Solids. A pity that the other two balls she'd separated from the cluster in the table were stripes.
Circling the table to the cue ball, she glanced sharply to the side. There appeared to be only sincerity in the younger woman's face.
"Not a problem," she replied airily.
Feeling her rhythm, she powered the white ball into the center of the racked balls, dropping the one and the five.
She didn't need to look to detect the appreciation in the low whistle that followed the yellow ball into the pocket.
"Don't think there was much geometry involved in that, Red."
Laughing, Barbara surveyed the scattered formation, picking out the patterns and calculating her best approach.
"Sometimes, a little brute strength works better than finesse."
Helena's responding laugh was low and throaty, and it sent shivers up Barbara's arms. She bought herself a moment to collect herself by rechalking the sorry tip of her cue.
"Wish I'd known that back in high school."
The younger woman's tone was light, but Barbara detected something more and glanced over.
The diminutive slipped out without thought, but her companion either didn't notice or chose to ignore it.
"Yeah. It's just kind of funny recognizing you after all this time, and well, I'm sorry for some of the bullshit I pulled on you back then."
Something in the words caused Barbara to blink, and the seven she banked off the far rail missed the pocket by centimeters.
"No apology necessary, Helena."
She withdrew from the table and snagged her water.
"Adolescence is pure hormone soup."
The lithe figure stretched over the table and negligently dropped the thirteen and the nine.
"Hormone something, I guess."
Something in the younger woman's strut as she circled the table caused Barbara to loose track of the conversation for a moment. By the time she caught up, Helena had dropped the ten and the fifteen.
"Hormones are very powerful forces of, er, nature."
Barbara fiddled with her water bottle as the tip of Helena cue disappeared into her cupped hand, rotating tantalizingly against what Barbara presumed to be a cube of chalk.
The brunette bent to line up a shot, and the throaty burr in her voice disappeared.
"Tell that to Miz Harkness. Is she still there?"
Barbara's laugh -- coinciding with Helena neatly sinking two more stripes -- finally returned some oxygen to her brain, and she was able to ride out the ridiculously short remainder of the game and the next embarrassingly brief game by sharing tales of the faculty with her companion. Down twenty dollars in less than ten minutes, she approached the table for her break, determined to try to provide at least some challenge for her opponent.
There would be simply no way to forgive herself if Helena cut short their competition due to boredom.
Sliding the cue through her fingers as she readied to power the cue ball into the rack, Barbara arrested her stroke and looked up. As she'd thought, Helena's eyes were fixed on her.
More accurately, on her hands.
"Guess you're not married."
Words failed, and so Barbara shook her head, fighting the urge to clasp her naked fingers to her lap.
Under the guise of chalking her cue, she looked down. Her voice sounded tight to her own ears.
"About one hundred and twenty-five each year."
The brunette laughed, and waved an invitation at the unbroken rack of balls on the table. Barbara squared her shoulders and bent again to the break. Fortunately, her opponent didn't speak again until she'd sent the balls scattering, dropping three stripes.
If Helena had spoken before her shot, Barbara suspected that she might have sent the cue ball sailing right off the table.
"Yeah. I guess I didn't see you as the maternal type."
Barbara kept her eyes fixed firmly on the table.
The nine-thirteen made a likely combo.
Her voice was steadier than she'd feared. Sighting down the warped cue, the redhead caught a glimpse of dark brows waggling across the table and held her shot.
"Uh huh. Of course, I figure most of the boys and a couple of the girls in each of your classes couldn't see you in a maternal light."
Wondering if it were physically possible for a conversation to kill a person, the redhead made the combination, then spoke briskly.
"What about you, Helena?"
The unconcerned hum echoed against the bottle next to the younger woman's lips, and Barbara went with what she hoped would be a neutral approach.
"You mentioned doing some traveling?"
She dropped the ten and backed down the table to assess the angles on the fifteen.
Tricky, but if she massed over the four she could make the side pocket.
"Yeah. Beaches. Big cities. Paris, too. I grew up there, you know."
Making the shot, Barbara allowed herself the indulgence of pumping her fist in the air before turning her attention to the eight.
"Why were you in Paris as a child?"
She managed a note of distraction, curious about how much Helena remembered... or would reveal.
"Oh, my mom was an art and antiquities broker, and she just loved it there."
The redhead nodded.
"Eight ball, far corner."
It was done as quickly as she'd spoken, and Helena's appreciative whistle brought a blush to her cheeks.
"You ran the table, Barbara. Cool."
Warmth pervading her face... and chest... and heart, Barbara began fishing her balls out of the pockets while Helena retrieved the rack.
"Finesse can work, too, Helena."
She began to rack the balls, smiling indulgently as Helena dropped a ten next to the stack on the table.
"Where else have you been traveling?"
The redhead felt one eyebrow crawling skyward at the sight of the younger woman fishing a cigarette case from her back pocket.
"Mostly hanging out here. I sort of finished school by the skin of my teeth, and then I've just kind of worked on getting my shit together."
"How did you do that, Helena?"
She handed over the rack, which Helena hung from the light again, silver case still unopened in her hand.
"Booze, drugs, and partying, I guess."
An unconcerned shrug accompanied a cheerfully unrepentant grin, and Barbara had no choice but to smile back.
"I sort of fell into tending bar and did that for way too long."
This time, dramatic eye rolling coincided with the confession, and Barbara smiled encouragingly even as Helena pulled an unfiltered from the cigarette case.
"Where -- ?"
"A dive called the Dark Horse. I actually had a place above it for years."
Barbara nodded again, and Helena lit the cigarette, taking a deep drag. In the smoke pervading the pool hall, it was difficult to be certain; however, years of surprising students in the restrooms and under the bleachers had perfected her senses. She sniffed once, detecting a hint of something in addition to the tobacco, and narrowed her eyes.
Apparently her scrutiny didn't go unnoticed. Instantly, Helena circled the table, extending her smoke in invitation.
"Sorry, Red. I didn't mean to be rude."
Despite the deluge of emotions flooding her, Barbara was calmed by the normalcy of Helena's words.
Heaven knew, with her metabolism, a joint would scarcely touch the brunette, and Barbara was hardly naive enough to believe that her first ward had never... experimented.
"Want a hit?"
Somehow, she painted on a smile to go with her demurral, and, with a shrug, her companion retrieved her cue for the break. The balls scattered, the one dropping sharply into the near corner, and within two more strokes by the brunette, Barbara knew she'd been correct about the drugs not affecting Helena's performance; she was being thoroughly trounced.
The arrival of a dark-haired man saved her from a complete rout.
"Schneider. Glad you could make it."
The younger woman casually laid her cue across the table.
"I'm sorry, Barbara."
The redhead tore herself from her inspection of the forty-something gentleman, only to find herself pinned by her partner's deep blue eyes.
"This is the interruption I mentioned."
Helena waved toward Schneider.
"Can you give me a few minutes?"
Curious beyond belief, Barbara nodded agreeably.
"Take your time."
She withdrew to the table as they disappeared toward the exit, Helena's easy laughter managing to alleviate some of the discomfort Barbara felt at the sight of the older man's hand on her shoulder. For a long twenty-two minutes, she held her vigil, sipping from her second bottle of water and absolutely refusing to speculate on the nature of the meeting.
Instead, she replayed their conversation of the last forty-five minutes. Helena hadn't shown a hint of recognition when Barbara had shared a few stories from the past years that were very much shared history; however, she'd also demonstrated no... negative reactions. Perhaps it was time to try another tact.
Decision made, the redhead dug into the side pocket of her chair and pulled out a small digital camera. She'd occupied herself the day before altering its flash mechanism to incorporate the neural strobe -- the flashing thingamajiggie, as Dinah had referred to it -- for just such an occasion. By the time Helena returned, Barbara had snapped shots of a few of the neon beer signs on the walls, leaving her perfectly posed to catch the brunette with the flash under the guise of capturing another bit of Americana.
"What the f-- "
Other than a brief flare of irritation, covered by a laugh, there was absolutely no response to the flash. Painting on a bland smile, Barbara dropped the camera into the pocket of her chair.
"My friend Alfred has a fondness for neon."
She saw one dark brow arch, but the younger woman just smiled as she retrieved her cue.
Helena chalked the tip, her attention already on the table.
"Sorry it took so long. It's still my run, right?"
Apparently, Barbara's appraising look wasn't missed, and the redhead felt a hint of color touch her cheeks when her companion straightened and settled the butt of her cue on the floor.
"Look, it's not what you think if you're thinking that."
The dark head inclined toward the roach in the ashtray.
"Schneider's gonna do some upgrades on my car."
Barbara suspected that her smile was a bit tight even as she released some of her tension at the explanation.
"I'm sorry, Helena. It's really none of my business. Probably -- "
She shrugged and reached for her own cue.
"-- just habit from school."
With a laugh, Helena bent to her shot.
"Sure, but don't sweat it. I'm on the up and up."
The brunette missed what should have been an easy bank shot and stepped back from the table with a rueful chuckle. Keeping her eyes on the table, Barbara worked for nonchalance.
She waited while Helena drained her second beer, unable to resist the impish twinkle in the younger woman's eyes.
"Just thinking that that being on the up and up is probably a close call for me."
Deciding the opportunities for follow-through were better on the other side of the table, Barbara changed her position.
"How so, Helena?"
She crisply made an easy shot, applying just enough English to bring the cue ball back to its original position. Peripherally noting the way Helena was shifting from foot to foot, she looked up and smiled encouragingly.
The brunette chuckled again.
"My mom wasn't really so much an antiquities broker."
Curious about the extent of her knowledge, Barbara smiled softy.
If she hadn't known her companion so well, Barbara might have missed the hint of shyness in Helena's demeanor. She doubted that she could have overlooked the pride and affection that always pervaded the younger woman when she spoke of her mother.
"Nah. She was a cat burglar. One of the best, too."
Barbara hoped that her fond smile would be taken as something else, perhaps pleasure at being let in on the joke. She focused on her next shot, speaking as casually as possible.
"Does that mean you've considered following her into the same line of work?"
She almost ripped the felt on the table when she heard Helena's airy reply.
"No way. My guardian helped me see that there were better ways to honor her memory."
She needed a drink.
With a sharp push against her wheels, Barbara cruised over to the side table and grabbed her water bottle.
Considering how closely this Helena's reality seemed to coincide with history, Barbara knew that she shouldn't have been surprised by the younger woman's next words.
"Yeah. She took me in after my mom died. Great lady. She taught me a lot and helped me through a lot of shit."
Since swallowing seemed to be beyond her at the moment, Barbara fiddled with the cap of the bottle while Helena smoothly dropped her final ball and circled the table to line up the eight.
Blue eyes rose to meet green.
"Maybe you've heard of her?"
Quirking her brows in question, Barbara experienced a sinking feeling that she just might have. That sensation immediately turned into one of plummeting naked over Niagara Falls in a barrel when Helena neatly sank the eight and looked up again.
"Yeah, she's a shrink named Quinzel."
She saw her from half a block away, the neon from the storefronts casting Helena's face into prisms of light and shadow. Enraptured by the image, Barbara missed the change of the traffic light, only alerted to the fact that she could proceed by the helpful honking of the cars behind her. Slightly baffled by her own... addled state, she released the brake lever and squeezed the accelerator, moving slowly down the street to come to a stop in an illegal double park.
It was possible that the younger woman hadn't been expecting this particular form of transportation since she performed a comic double-take before stepping from the curb and approaching the Hummer. Barbara smiled an invitation, and Helena gracefully pulled herself into the oversized vehicle.
"Holy testosterone fest, Barbara."
The redhead primly turned off her emergency flashers and pulled into traffic, fighting the urge to roll her eyes.
She'd long assumed that the tendency to tack the word "holy" on to various improbable terms had been an increasingly less humorous predilection of Dick's. However, perhaps she was some sort of carrier for the tendency. A Typhoid... No, a Holy Mary of tiring expressions.
"Good evening, Helena."
She glanced over, nearly hyperventilating at her companion's appearance: knee-length cocktail dress, tasteful pumps, and a bright red silk bolero jacket, probably in deference to the hint of autumn in the evening air. As usual, she found herself feeling hopelessly plain in the younger woman's presence.
At least some things didn't change.
"I hope I didn't keep you waiting, Helena."
From the corner of her eye, she registered a blinding smile.
"No worries, Red. I guess it can take a little extra time to find a tug boat to guide this monster through the harbor."
Her laughter was instant; the movement of her hand to play-swat her companion, instinctive. At the last second, she arrested a gesture that was undoubtedly over familiar, and waved airily.
"It isn't quite as sleek as your M-3," she allowed, "but it certainly gets me all sorts of special attention from valet parking."
Once again caught at a light, Barbara looked over just in time to see the younger woman toss her head back in laughter. The streetlight highlighted the long line of her throat, appearing to make a direct line to the perfectly modest neckline of her dress. Running the tip of her tongue around the edges of her lips, the redhead fiddled with the vent on her side, wondering if the vehicle's climate control could be malfunctioning. Perhaps Helena noticed the scrutiny because she playfully primped her hair as the light turned.
"Up to specification, Red?"
Ignoring the irritated honking from behind her, the Barbara turned in her seat, hoping that the blush she felt touching her cheeks would be hidden in the darkness.
"You look lovely, Helena. Thank you for joining me."
She turned onto the divided boulevard that would take them downtown, hearing her own chuckle at the other woman's response.
"You look pretty good yourself, Barbara, even if this is a little dressy for a pool re-match."
The afternoon before, after learning how Quinn had altered Helena's memories of growing up after Selina's murder, Barbara's game had been hopelessly off. She'd dropped thirty dollars in twelve minutes before sensing that she was losing Helena's interest. Making her apologies, she'd been struck by inspiration.
"I'm sorry for my distraction, Helena, but will you give me another chance?"
The brunette had looked up from storing her cue stick in its case, a lazy smile barely hiding the intrigued gleam in her eyes.
"What do you have in mind?"
Screwing up her courage, Barbara had blandly met her gaze.
"Are you free tomorrow evening?"
She'd seen the spark in those expressive eyes and barely resisted pumping her fist in the air.
"Sure. I was just gonna hustle some grocery money out of the frat boys. You wanna meet here again?"
Barbara had waited until her opponent had deposited their empty bottles in a nearby trashcan and plucked the remains of her cigarette from the ashtray.
"I was thinking of Luigi's."
It had taken a bit of fast-talking to persuade Helena that she'd purchased a dinner for two at a recent PAL auction and had been left dateless at the last minute. However, nobody had ever accused Barbara of not being persuasive: somewhere between extolling the virtues of New Gotham's most famous Italian restaurant and offering to reimburse the brunette for the amount she might hustle from her at pool during a two hour period, Barbara had finally secured Helena's agreement to meet her downtown the next night.
Her companion's final words on the subject, delivered over a laugh as she stuffed her winnings into her front pocket, had gone a long way in relieving Barbara's guilt over her machinations.
"And, no money needed. Dinner at Luigi's with you is a helluva lot better than I'd do here."
Three hours after picking up the younger woman, Barbara pulled into the parking garage at the clock tower, happily aware that Helena's words had proven prophetic. The evening had been, at least for her, wonderful: the dinner itself had been worthy of the restaurant's four stars; her companion had been utterly charming; and, despite a tendency to wax a bit too fondly about Quinzel, Helena had opened up further about a past which was eerily similar to reality. Best of all, the younger woman had easily accepted her invitation to return to the tower for a drink.
Practically humming, Barbara shut off the oversized SUV and reached behind her for her chair.
Any hopes that returning to her home of almost six years might penetrate Helena's fugue dissolved at the incredulous look on the brunette's face.
"You live here? It's a clock."
Barbara pushed aside her disappointment and headed to the elevator.
"There have been some renovations, and the ticking can be... soothing."
They rode upstairs in silence, silence that ended with a voluble exclamation when the elevator doors slid open.
Glancing up from turning on one of the table lamps, Barbara caught her partn-- her guest taking everything in with undisguised awe.
"Rent control," she offered mildly, shrugging out of her jacket.
A coolly assessing look was the only response, and the redhead waited as Helena prowled softly through the living area. Barbara purposely hadn't dropped the bookcases that disguised most of the scientific and computing equipment. Aside from the faint hope that it would trigger a memory for Helena, she'd decided she simply had nothing to hide from her former partner-in-crime fighting.
Additionally, having learned this evening that Quinzel was "on travel" after having taken Helena to a Michigan spa to celebrate her birthday two weeks before, she was further reassured that attacks from that quarter were unlikely.
"Okaaaay. How about all this stuff inside the place?"
Exhaling slowly, Barbara kept it short.
"I came into a stipend of sorts, a Wayne foundation grant."
There was no sign of the usual disdain that accompanied mention of Bruce, but Barbara didn't miss how blue eyes ticked to her chair. Nevertheless, the brunette's next question was not what she expected.
"How do you know you can trust me?"
She felt her eyebrows shoot toward her hairline. Undoubtedly her expression was leaning towards the "stupid" end of the "blank" spectrum.
"Trust me in here?"
Helena smiled indulgently and gestured toward the bric-a-brac lining the bookcases.
"You've got a lot of valuables, you know."
The air in the room suddenly very thin, Barbara struggled against the wild laugh bubbling in her chest.
How could she possibly explain that there was nothing material that Helena could take that would hurt her?
Completely at a loss, she finally spoke dismissively.
"If you want... or need... something, take it."
The other woman's laughter was full and genuine, and Barbara felt herself smiling even before she comprehended Helena's words.
"Like I said, I'm not my mom."
The redhead held her ground when Helena strolled over and, placing her fingertips lightly on the armrests of her chair, bent close.
"I'm doing alright, and I always pay my own way."
Caught in a gaze both intense and inscrutable, Barbara knew she didn't have a prayer of making sense of the charged moment. Accordingly, she blinked.
The other woman straightened with a lazy smile.
Swallowing with difficulty, the redhead gestured toward the barrister's bookcase.
"While you're casing the place, help yourself to a drink."
She turned toward the balcony, adding lightly, "On the house."
Helena's appreciative whistle spoke volumes, as did the awe in her tone after she shifted a few bottles.
"You mind if I try some of this port?"
Barbara pulled back the blackout curtains and opened the French doors, releasing some of the stuffiness from the room.
"Enjoy yourself, Helena."
A low hum of agreement blended with the sound of liquid meeting glass.
"What can I get you?"
Crossing the threshold onto the dark balcony, Barbara barely considered her response.
"Still tending bar, Helena?"
She didn't look back when she heard the brunette's rueful snort.
"Hell, no. I've had enough cleaning up puke and getting my ass grabbed by college boys."
She half-turned and smiled in commiseration.
"I can imagine. And, just a lemon tonic, thanks."
Even from a distance, she couldn't miss the younger woman's inquisitive look.
"I'm stuffed from dinner."
It was true enough, and Barbara didn't think she needed to add that she was already intoxicated simply from being in Helena's presence. The arrival of her companion, drinks in hand, did nothing to lessen her delighted giddiness, and moments later she found herself smiling over the lip of her glass when the brunette spun in a circle on the balcony.
"This is awesome, Barbara."
In an instant, Helena was balancing on the balustrade, toasting the night sky. Barbara raised her own glass, aware that her own toast was more of a wish. Her memories of her ward doing the exact same thing when they'd moved into the tower years before were cut short when Helena dropped soundlessly to the balcony, steady and sure despite her two-inch heels.
"So what's the deal?"
She sipped her tonic, focusing on the stars playing peek-a-boo behind the pervasive New Gotham cloud cover. The other woman's soft question forced her to face the brunette.
"Why me tonight?"
Surprising herself, Barbara spoke honestly.
"I'm lonely. I've missed you."
She felt a fond smile creeping across her face as she observed the younger woman working through her revelation.
"Aren't you seeing anyone?"
Struck anew by the loss, Barbara spoke tightly.
Only the soft sound of late night traffic drifted across the balcony for a dozen pregnant heartbeats.
Again, Barbara struggled, somehow unprepared for what she had to admit was a perfectly logical question.
Perhaps a shortened version of the truth was the best option.
"She's... pursuing other options."
The younger woman chewed at her lower lip for a second before responding.
"Sounds pretty rough."
"Like broken glass," was the instant response.
Barbara drained her drink, wishing she'd requested something a bit stronger. For a few beats, she turned the empty tumbler this way and that, the night skyscape refracting light and steel. Finally, unwilling to waste the time she did have, she squared her shoulders.
"Let's go inside."
Her companion accepted the conversational dodge, following her inside.
"Yeah, maybe you can show me that movie screen you've got."
Barbara didn't bother to deny the exaggeration; she'd been in theatres whose screens barely rivaled the big screen in the tower. Instead, while Helena refreshed their drinks, she transferred herself to the couch and retrieved the remote. The younger woman lowered herself gracefully to the center of the sofa, settling their drinks on the coffee table and crossing her legs at the knee, just as Barbara powered on the unit and punched the mute button.
"You pull in the Martian stations on that baby?"
She smiled her thanks for the tonic the brunette extended and laughed.
Barbara caught herself with a blink, rapidly deciding not to mention the Mars Rover footage since it, technically, came through an Earth-bound satellite. Helena accepted the remote and began a dizzying array of channel surfing. For once Barbara didn't find the activity irritating.
"Fu-- Shit, Barbara. How many stations do you get?"
"Seven hundred, not counting the music and por-- "
The redhead coughed over her mouthful of tonic, not missing the amused gleam in the other woman's eyes.
"Give or take," she finished as Helena finally settled on a station.
The younger woman's glee was palpable.
"Yeah, I love this reptile dude. Keep waiting for him to loose a hand."
Dear heavens, she'd laughed more this evening than in the last month.
Opting to bask rather than dissect, Barbara settled herself more comfortably against the arm of couch. For the remainder of the program, she could almost believe that everything was normal again, that it was her Helena beside her, laughing and making book on the odds of the crocodiles winning. Inevitably, the illusion fled and her elation retreated with a whimper when the credits rolled and Helena suddenly drained her glass. Setting it soundly on the coffee table, the brunette shifted forward on the sofa, arching her back in a mouth-watering stretch.
"You have to go."
Barbara was unable to keep disappointment from coloring her words. The knowing smile that met the question-cum-pronouncement momentarily pushed aside her depression.
"Not yet, Red -- "
The younger woman gracefully turned to face her, her smile easy and inviting.
"-- but maybe it's time to move on to other things."
Before Barbara could look up at the oversized clock face in the exterior wall, her companion had moved closer, and Barbara shivered as warm fingers trailed across her shoulder. And then, Helena's mouth was against her jaw, warm breath tickling her senses and the brush of silken lips driving her to distraction.
Still, somehow, she kept her wits long enough to formulate a question of sorts.
"What -- what are you...?"
The brunette's rumbling chuckle -- it might have been a growl -- raised the hair on the back of Barbara's neck.
"Kissing your neck, Barbara."
The slightest movement of the dark head made it so, and Barbara nearly moaned at the juxtaposition of soft wetness and sharp nips.
"You've got a really sexy neck, y'know."
Tantalized and aroused beyond reason by the perfect familiarity of the contact, Barbara moaned her thanks for the words.
At least she thought she had; however, she'd also been too focused on pushing herself up against the arm of the couch, on capturing the younger woman's sinewy shoulders in her hands, and reversing their positions. With Helena leaning against the back of the couch, she tried to meet her eyes but lost focus when her gaze fell on lush, full lips.
"Dear heavens, Sw-- "
She approached cautiously, perhaps giving herself time to savor a moment she'd feared she'd never experience again.
Too slowly, perhaps. Or, guessing from the way Helena gracefully extricated herself from beneath, too fast.
"Whoa. Hold on there, Hot Stuff."
Blinking through her confusion, Barbara almost sagged in relief when she realized that Helena wasn't moving away.
The brunette's smile was slow and sultry, confident and... predatory. Without conscious thought, Barbara allowed the arm of the couch to take her weight as the other woman... flowed over her again.
"I don't go that way..."
The nip of sharp teeth against her earlobe punctuated the words.
"-- at least not now. But, I am..."
With Helena's mouth against her skin, with slender knowing fingers trailing fire down her arms, it was so terribly difficult to concentrate.
"... into making you... "
No one save Helena had ever made her feel this way. Had unleashed this side of her, the side that could unashamedly beg for sweat and blood and fluids, for the grind and press, the give and take. For the less-than-gentle rake of fingernails on skin and the thrust of muscle against bone.
"... feel good."
Something about the words -- Perhaps it was the hint of detached control in the tone -- Something tickled at the edges of Barbara's conscience. However, with a warm hand stroking her side, it didn't seem terribly important.
Even if this weren't her Helena, could she be faulted if, after all of the loneliness and loss and pain, she were tempted?
God help her, so terribly tempted.
The sudden jarring lack of sensation that occurred when Helena's hands slipped lower recalled her. Willing herself not to scream, Barbara captured those roving hands and then ducked down to catch her companion's eyes.
Somehow, she smiled.
"This isn't something... I can do, Helena."
She allowed the brunette to extricate her hands, following the movement of slender fingers to her knee.
"Is it about this?"
Apparently, this was a night for honesty. Barbara heard herself answering with an openness she'd seldom known.
"Some of it."
She swallowed her own rage and frustration, watching her partner work through her admission. Finally, Helena shifted to her knees, and Barbara nearly succumbed again when the younger woman cupped her jaw and spoke with aching tenderness.
"It's not a problem, Barbara."
She couldn't have stifled her moan if she'd tried. The brush of her partner's mouth against hers was pure sensation and heat and temptation.
"Dear heavens, Hel..."
The low burr of the other woman's words almost snuck past her.
"And I always want to do this right..."
Something about the words evoked a hum of hope in tandem with the snap of a warning flag. Hoping that she wasn't flailing, Barbara raised one hand, resting it lightly against the skin above the neckline of Helena's dress.
"Do what? What are you doing, Helena?"
Again, that slow, sinful smile nearly stripped the redhead of her senses.
"Thanking you for a lovely evening, Red."
The words, velvet and silk, shadow and candlelight, snapped Barbara back to reality. She swallowed against something in her throat and forced herself to speak the question that had been haunting her.
"Did Qui -- Did your guardian teach you? Some..."
The delicious contacted ended and finally the younger woman's puzzled countenance moved into view.
Again, Barbara forced the hateful words out.
"Did you... thank her?"
The queasiness in Barbara's stomach evaporated at the amused and faintly appalled expression on the younger woman's face.
Unfortunately, it was instantly replaced by a tight knot of pain when she registered the brunette's next words.
"Just... no way. That'd be like sleeping with my mom, and there's no way Harleen would take advantage of me like that."
Fortunately or not, there was no opportunity to deal with it all. She saw Helena stiffen a split second before she registered the light above the elevator door. By the time the door slid open and Dinah stepped out, Barbara had transferred herself to her chair.
"Hello, Dinah," she cut in. "I'm sorry, Helena. I'd forgotten that Dinah might be dropping by."
To her credit, the blonde didn't miss a beat.
"Uh, yeah. Laundry night and all. Uhm...?"
Somehow, Barbara made the introductions. In desperate need of a breather, she turned toward the kitchen.
"I was just going to make some tea. Dinah, would you mind keeping Helena company for a moment?"
She thought she might have set a land speed record on her way to the kitchen, then -- cognizant that she wanted to bury her head -- deliberately went into tortoise mode once she was there. Channeling advice from Alfred, she warmed the kettle, then emptied it, refilling it with cold water and setting it to boil again. She took her time, selecting cups and saucers, laying everything out on a tray. Just before the kettle sang, she recalled her guest's sweet tooth and dug into her not-so-secret stash of Girl Scout cookies to lay out a handful of thin mints.
Finally satisfied with her preparations, she placed the tray on her lap and turned toward the living area. It wasn't until she entered the big room that she realized she might have delayed too long.
For a breathless moment, she sat locked in place, attempting to make sense of what she was seeing. Ultimately, it was only years of practice and iron control that allowed her to avoid dropping the tray -- and possibly losing her dinner as well -- at the sight of Helena locked in a passionate embrace with Dinah.
"Great bouncing icebergs, Dinah. You were kissing Helena."
Barbara suspected that, were there a device to measure components of vocal affect, her statement would have registered evenly between outraged incredulity and resigned disbelief. Not so for her companion whose squeak of protest turned heads at the tables near theirs in The Common Grounds. Dinah's response was one hundred percent affront.
One crimson brow arched eloquently. Taking her time to consider all of the effective arguments at her disposal, Barbara stirred her latte before meeting Dinah's affronted blue eyes.
"Way," she supplied dryly as she raised her mug to her lips.
At least the teen had the grace to look uncomfortable. Barbara marshaled the most effective weapon in her arsenal and sat patiently while her ward fidgeted with her oversized triple mocha.
The blonde straightened, looking simultaneously miserable and defiant.
"Technically Helena was the one who had her ton--"
Apart from a rare rescue or recon job, Barbara hadn't been in the field in years. Nevertheless, until recently she'd never cut herself any slack in the training room. Resultantly, her reflexes were almost as quick as ever; something she now gave thanks for as she whipped one hand up, palm out.
"Just... Just stop right there."
Registering Dinah's startled blink, she belatedly tacked on a single word.
In some situations, any information was really too much. For instance, the night before, seeing her current ward engaged in a vigorous round of tonsil hockey with her amnesiac former ward had been quite enough to short-circuit her synapses and fry a few neurons. This morning's breakfast meeting to assess the fallout was falling into similar territory.
Dinah appeared so abject that Barbara had no choice but to offer a sympathetic smile. It stretched into something forced almost immediately.
"I didn't mean to, but she is really a great ki--"
Again, Barbara raised her hand, wondering if sticking her fingers in her ears and making nonsense noises would save her from what she'd just heard.
As territorial and possessive as it might be, she simply chose to believe that some knowledge should not be shared within the family.
"How -- "
The redhead cleared her throat, then raised one hand to pinch the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. When that proved unsuccessful in chasing away the tension headache she felt crawling up her neck, she exhaled noisily and plunged ahead.
"How could, er, that have been an accident, Dinah?"
It was the same question that had been plaguing her during an extremely long and restless night. Seven hours before, when she'd surprised the two younger women, she'd simply had no means to deal with the situation: Helena's Cheshire smile and Dinah's guilty blush had simply left her speechless. Very carefully, she'd settled the tea tray on a side table before turning toward her bedroom.
"In the interest of my sanity, I'm going to pretend I didn't see anything."
At the last moment, she'd remembered her manners.
"Dinah, can you give Helena a ride if she needs it?"
When she'd dragged herself from bed this morning -- Her students were undoubtedly in for a rough day -- she'd found nine voice mails from Dinah. Each was spaced exactly fifty minutes apart, starting approximately ten minutes after she'd retired for the night. Clearly, some damage control would be the order of the day.
"I was just, uhm, trying to keep her company..."
Schooling her features to neutrality, Barbara mentally flicked through the most recent version of Emily Post that she'd read. Perhaps she'd missed a page somewhere in the "hospitality" section.
The teen twirled a lock of hair around her forefinger, her fair skin becoming pinker by the second.
"Uh, talking about you being my guardian because I thought maybe she'd get a clue or something?"
Slowly, Barbara nodded.
When Dinah tucked the hair behind her ear and then chewed at her lower lip, she steadied herself.
"I know you didn't want us to try anything drastic but I thought that if I could just touch her and, well, you know, uhm, pick up anything or something."
The girl trailed off, the volume of her words in inverse proportion to their speed. Barbara bit the inside of her cheek, then stretched across the table to rest her hand lightly on her young partner's denim-clad forearm.
"A little telepathic investigation sounds like a wonderful idea, Dinah."
Pale blue eyes peered cautiously from under corn silk lashes, and Barbara smiled more broadly.
Dinah's smile broke like sunshine, and the two women took a breather, Barbara stirring her latte again while the teen attacked her bagel. The older woman held her curiosity in check long enough to reassure herself that her ward had a semblance of breakfast before speaking again.
"What did you pick up?"
For some reason, Barbara suspected that the napkin Dinah was using to clean her mouth was meant to hide something more than cream cheese remnants.
"Uh, nothing really."
The teen lowered the napkin and began to pull bits of paper from the edges. Again, Barbara resorted to silence.
"Really, Barbara. I'd just touched her hand when she said something about how we had brilliant guardians in common and then, uhm..."
Barbara filed away that bit of information for later contemplation.
Much later, she suspected.
The red flaming into Dinah's cheeks told the remainder of the story, but the blonde finished.
"Then she was kissing me and the only things I could pick up were from earlier when you and -- "
"Thank you, Dinah. That will do."
Obviously, blushes were highly contagious this morning.
Breathing deeply, Barbara raised her mug, immediately almost choking on the near-tepid beverage when her companion perked to attention.
"Do you think I should try again?"
With a sputter that bordered on spewing, the redhead lowered her cup and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. Her inevitable response was circumvented when she heard a velvet voice from behind her.
"Don't know about you, Kid, but I'm sure not going to."
The wideness of Dinah's eyes in combination with the electric frisson that ran down her skin confirmed what Barbara already knew. As calmly as possible, she settled the napkin on the table and rotated her chair thirty degrees.
The brunette was less than two feet away, juggling a to-go cup of coffee and a giant muffin.
Chocolate chip, if Barbara were any judge.
"Hey, Barbara. Uh, Dinah."
To her credit, the brunette appeared less at ease than usual. Nevertheless, she mustered a smile that almost entirely succeeded in charming Barbara.
"I didn't expect to run into either of you here."
Rolling her eyes, Barbara opted to embrace the absurdity of the moment.
"Nor did we you, Helena."
Tucking her coffee between her body and her muffin-carrying hand, Helena adjusted the leather satchel hanging from her right shoulder.
"I'm really sorry about last night, Barbara."
Eyebrows creeping to her hairline, the redhead nodded slowly observing deep blue eyes meeting pale blue.
"You, too, Dinah. It got kind of awkward there."
Dinah's overly chipper response came in a rush, and the blonde pushed back from the small table.
"Uhm, sorry to run, but I've got to get to the lab."
Even as Barbara worked to decide whether she was grateful or not for her ward's decision to make herself scarce, Dinah circled the table and bussed her cheek.
"Thanks for breakfast, Barbara. I'll, uh, pick up my laundry later."
Painfully conscious of a dark brow arching skeptically, Barbara rolled her eyes and then managed a laugh and waved an invitation to the vacant seat.
"I suppose I should be glad that she's a terrible liar."
The dark figure deposited her breakfast on the table, looped the strap of her bag over the back of the chair, and then gracefully lowered herself to the seat.
"There's that. I gave Harl all sorts of hell with that for a while."
Nodding into her cup, Barbara chirped, "Did you?"
At the sight of her companion opening her mouth to share something, a wicked gleam in her eyes, Barbara perked to attention. She deflated slightly when the younger woman seemed to catch herself and snapped her mouth shut.
"Probably better not to share some of that with you."
She waited for a few beats, watching slender fingers picking the chocolate chunks from the muffin before speaking quietly.
"I'm a good listener, Helena."
The younger woman's blue eyes seemed to offer a hint of surprise, but Helena recovered easily. Sucking a bit of chocolate from her fingers, she ducked behind dark bangs and grinned.
"Nah. It's just embarrassing stuff. You know."
Barbara nodded, and the brunette shifted minutely in her chair.
"Like last night. I meant it when I said I was sorry. I just got the wrong idea."
Waving away the apology, Barbara tackled the subtext of the apology.
"What idea was that, Helena?"
Mustering her limited supply of patience, she waited while her companion swirled her coffee cup. Apparently Helena found her answer in the styrofoam container because she finally looked up, her eyes so blue and confused that Barbara's heart ached.
"Why are you being so nice to me, Barbara?"
She felt her brows knit, no doubt highlighting that attractive crater she was cultivating between her eyes, but still managed to hold the younger woman's gaze.
"I don't understand, Helena."
A light bulb clicked on when she heard her companion's response.
"Everybody wants something, Barbara."
Helena dropped her gaze and raised her cup in a mock toast.
"That's something else Harleen taught me: Quid pro quo and all."
"Quid pro quo?"
Once again, Barbara realized, she'd been reduced to parroting the words of others. Helena didn't seem to mind, shrugging casually and resettling her cup on the table.
"Yeah. Like I said, I pay my own way. I just figured that if you weren't into it, maybe you wanted something for Dinah."
The brunette broke off a healthy bite of muffin, then nudged the pastry a few inches towards her.
"Would you like some?"
Barbara shook her head once, completely dumbfounded.
Perhaps she needed to start carrying a capsule around since obviously her heart couldn't take many more of these little revelations.
Caught up in cataloging the multiple levels of absurdity inherent in the idea that she'd consider pimping out one of her charges to the other, Barbara belatedly realized that she had no idea what was being asked of her. She opted to go with the most obvious and shook her head once again, gesturing toward the muffin.
"No thank you, Helena. It's a little much for this hour."
Her companion's indulgent laugh brought her back to the moment.
"Not the muffin, Red, though it's pretty good."
Helena punctuated the assessment by popping another bite into her mouth.
"I meant, why are you being nice to me if you don't want something?"
Hundreds of answers leapt to mind. The easiest -- that, perhaps, she was simply a nice person -- she dismissed immediately; she'd long since passed the stage of self-delusion on some matters. The most visceral -- something having to do with need -- she couldn't risk.
"You've always been important to me, Helena. And,"
Deliberately, she forced herself to meet her companion's searching eyes and spoke the truth.
"...as I said last night, I've missed you. I l--"
She couldn't quite do it.
"I like spending time with you."
Barbara wasn't certain what to read into the soft utterance and mentally cursed her companion's "charming laconic" tendencies.
Some days, Dinah's loquaciousness had its advantages.
"I like it, too, Red."
Well, that answered that.
Ready to levitate out of her chair, Barbara saw the other woman glancing at her watch and realized that, her own willingness to blow off her classes, her job, and her pension notwithstanding, it appeared that her time was drawing to a close.
Helena smiled and wrapped the remnants of her muffin in a napkin.
"I've got to boogie, or I'll be late to class."
Heart leaping to her throat, Barbara heard her own rough croak.
Unable to draw a full breath, she waited until Helena finished tucking the napkin into her satchel.
"Yeah. Poetry writing; then at ten thirty, Eastern Art."
Momentarily, Barbara lost control of her functional muscles, sagging in her chair. Helena didn't seem to notice, rising and snagging her bag.
"I didn't want to tend bar forever."
The warm flush of pleasure pervading her drained away in a rush when Helena stopped on her way to the door and, looking over her shoulder, added a final bit of information.
"Somehow, Harleen finally pounded it into my thick head that this could be a good way to honor my mom."
I come home in the morning light
My mother says when you gonna live your life right
Oh mother dear we're not the fortunate ones
And girls they want to have fun
<'Doctor's office. Thank you for holding? How may I direct your call?'>
Rolling her eyes, Barbara worked to modulate her voice. And her temper.
"I need to make an appointment for a follow-u -- "
<'Transferring. Please hold.'>
"Wait, I've already -- "
An implacable click told Barbara that her protest had been too little, too late.
The phone rings in the middle of the night
My father yells what you gonna do with your life
Oh daddy dear you know you're still number one
But girls they want to have fun
It wasn't that she didn't appreciate Cyndi Lauper's infectious beat and lyrics, even for the fourth go-round in ten minutes. However, for a month, she'd been assiduously ducking calls from the office, calls that had come in with the regularity of bill collectors on speed. Now that she'd decided to do the responsible thing, she couldn't even get through voice-mail hell.
Snorting at the levels of karmic justice, the redhead thumbed down the volume on her headset and returned her attention to her monitor. No doubt, she had another few rounds of telephone roulette in front of her before finally arranging an appointment. In the meantime, she could continue her painstaking reconstruction of just how Helena had been in the city and eluded her net for two weeks.
Some one take a beautiful girl
And hides her away from the rest of the world
I want to be the one to walk in the sun
Oh girls they want to have fun
A movement in the periphery of her vision drew her attention from the city hall records she'd just hacked. Straightening, Barbara rotated her head, popping the tight vertebrae in her neck, and turned with a smile.
"Honestly, Alfred," she observed mildly, "I believe that Dinah is quite capable of doing her own laundry."
Without so much as a blink, the once-and-eternal butler settled the teen's laundry basket on one end of the sofa.
"Miss Helena always seemed to appreciate a... personal touch."
Somehow, Barbara's smile only grew.
"She was in high school at the time, Alfred. She's been handling her own laundry for years now."
Faced with the older man's utterly bland countenance, Barbara replayed the last few years, feeling one brow creeping upward.
A small smile was the only response, and the redhead shook her head. She couldn't maintain any real ire, of course, her own smile easily surpassing Alfred's. The expression faltered for a split second when she caught herself tapping in time to the music in her ear, but again that dazed smile took over.
"She's in college, Alfred."
Silent as a ghost, the distinguished gentleman approached the base of the platform.
"So you've mentioned, Miss Barbara."
The redhead felt a hint of heat touch her cheeks, but she also didn't miss the twinkle in her old friend's knowing eyes.
Of course she'd mentioned it. In actuality, she'd practically tackled Alfred with the news when she'd breezed in from work and found him concocting some sort of casserole in the kitchen. Nevertheless, she thought it was worthy of repetition.
With a laugh, she pushed back from the desk and turned to face her companion.
"Helena. Is. Taking. Classes."
She flirted with tacking on the word "voluntarily" since she'd never known anything that could have strong-armed her partner into the fields of academia; however, given the circumstances, she settled on a slightly more accurate mental addendum: Without kicking and screaming.
The older man's response was dry.
Hers equally so.
There truly wasn't much more to be said, and a soft click over the headset spared the redhead from the effort of trying.
<"Doctor's office. How may I direct your call?">
Wincing an apology for the interruption, Barbara kept it short.
She thumbed down the headset again and returned her attention to her companion.
"Have you been able to ascertain how Miss Helena's presence in the city escaped our notice?"
For some reason, Barbara found herself feeling almost absurdly grateful that there wasn't a hint of reprobation in the question. Using one hand, she toggled to her hack into the NGU Registrar's office, then waved at the terminal window.
"Apparently Helena's paperwork was -- "
She faced her companion again and made air quotes.
"'lost' in the system until yesterday."
Barbara paused, and Alfred cleared his throat softly.
"Dr. Quinn's work, perhaps?"
With a nod and a shrug, she continued, "Plus, Helena started classes a week and a half late."
She didn't bother to add that her former ward's tardiness was no doubt due to her spa retreat in Battle Creek with Quinn.
"My guess is that she's been busy catching up since then and has simply kept a low profile."
The white-haired gentleman nodded thoughtfully, then cocked his head.
"What about her living arrangements?"
"According to the registrar's office,"
She waved at her screen again and then toggled to the terminal connected to city hall.
"She's living in a townhouse on the outskirts of campus. City hall shows that it's part of a block of condos that are rented out, primarily to students."
She rotated to the desk and, with two-dozen keystrokes, was accessing the records for the corporation that owned the homes.
Returning her attention to her old friend, she held up a hand when she heard a soft click over the earpiece.
<"Scheduling. How may I help you?">
Briefly, Barbara flirted with the notion of passing herself off as an Amway salesperson.
What did the receptionist think she wanted to do after waiting for eighteen minutes to be connected?
"I need to schedule a follow-up with Dr. Casey."
<"Are you a current patient?">
The redhead fought back the urge to engage the receptionist in a discussion about the meaning of the phrase follow-up.
"Yes, I am," she supplied sweetly. "Barbara Gor--"
<"One moment, Ms. Gore. Please hold.">
Barbara snapped her mouth open and shut, then gave up with a shrug. After another verse or twelve of Cyndi's greatest hits, the receptionist would be back.
"I'm sorry, Alfred. Where were we?"
The older man returned his attention to her after his discrete inspection of the sofa.
"What about Ms. Helena's car?"
She chewed at the inside of her cheek for a moment, before responding.
"No DMV records, Alfred, but the Mazda appeared quite new."
Pointedly, she pushed aside the bitter thought that the sporty, feline vehicle might have been a birthday gift of some sort from Quinn. After all, her former ward was alive and healthy and happy in a way she'd never seen, and the sullen broodiness that Helena had long worn like a cloak of honor was nowhere in sight.
In the end, Barbara reminded herself for the thousandth time, that was all that mattered.
As if following her train of thought, Alfred spoke thoughtfully.
"Happily ever after, Miss Barbara?"
Deliberately, she met her old friend's eyes, attempting to telegraph how very, very unimpressed she was with his tactics.
"You're trying to make me confront my feelings, aren't you, Alfred?"
Grey eyebrows rose, the butler's innocence completely unconvincing.
"Heaven forbid. I simply observe that, as therapeutic techniques go, Dr. Quinn seems to have achieved dramatic results with Miss Helena."
Somehow, she managed a laugh that barely avoided gagging her. Slowly, Barbara spoke the words that had been haunting her.
"By erasing m-- "
She caught herself.
"By erasing us, you mean."
The butler coughed softly.
"At this point, the greatest risk Miss Helena seems to be facing is from a broken nail at the pool tables."
Seizing on the brief moment of levity, Barbara managed a grin.
"Or eyestrain from her homework."
She moved to the edge of the platform, sobering as she faced her oldest confidant.
"Apart from her damnable admiration for the person she thinks was her guardian, she's just so... normal and happy, Alfred."
Unable to miss the sympathy in the older man's eyes, Barbara prepared for the worse.
"Questions as to memory to the side, Miss Barbara, the current situation in dealing with Dr. Quinn is something of a..."
Since he'd uncharacteristically left his statement open-ended, Barbara took a stab at it.
The two shared a smile.
"If you insist, Miss Barbara. I was leaning toward 'conundrum'."
The redhead nodded slowly, caught up in thoughts of parental influence and the conflicting desires to please or distance from it.
"Indeed, Alfred. Taking Quinn into custody could be devastating right now."
Somehow, Alfred's perfect posture became impossibly straighter.
"I know that I don't need to remind you that Dr. Quinn is a murderer and an escaped felon. Not to mention Detective Reese's latest findings about..."
A hint of question crept into his tone.
"Mr. Triodoros, was it?"
Pursing her lips, Barbara simply nodded.
Jesse had left a message that afternoon that he was close to tracking down Carlos Triodoros, one of Quinn's favored lackeys. When that occurred, all bets were off.
The bouncy introductory riff from "She Bop" distracted Barbara from those thoughts. Nodding apologetically at Alfred, she turned back to her monitor, simultaneously reaching out to disconnect from voice-mail purgatory.
Perhaps she'd try later.
"Can't I just turn it in late?"
The thunk of sixteen pounders on varnished hardwood and the crash of pins clattering nearly obscured what Barbara chose to take as a teasing question. Taking a moment, she confirmed that the automatic scoring mechanism had correctly recorded the seven-ten spare she'd just picked up and then turned to look at her companion. Helena's hopeful pout was so endearing that she almost lost her resolve.
"I think not, Helena. After this set, we call it a night."
The brunette stepped to the line, waiting for the pins to be reset, and peered impishly over the top of the bright green ball balanced in her hands.
There was, Barbara determined, and not for the first time that evening, something distracting about the way Helena slid her fingers in and out of the finger holes.
"Aw, come on. He wants a freakin' sonnet."
Without missing a beat, the brunette stepped forward and released her ball, taking out nine pins.
"What's wrong with a sonnet, Hel?"
The diminutive slipped out again, neither woman commenting on it.
"It's just so old-fashioned."
The green ball popped up in the ball return with a clunk and a rush of air, and Helena hooked two fingers into it, handling the weight with ease. Before she could take out the remaining pin, Barbara tried another tactic.
"It's just like painting, Helena."
She held her amusement down to a fond smile at the frank disbelief in those amazing blue eyes.
"Seriously. Until you master the traditional forms, abstraction -- or, in your case, free verse -- is meaningless."
Almost negligently, the younger woman released her ball, easily picking up the spare.
"But, it's homework, and homework sucks."
This time, Barbara had to laugh.
At least some things didn't change.
"Hey -- "
Registering the impish glee in her partner's face, the redhead steadied herself.
"Maybe if we stay for another set, I'll get inspired to write something about the female slope of the pins and the balls moving down the straight -- "
Barbara arched one brow, then sipped delicately from her diet Sprite.
"Get your mind out of the gutter, Helena."
She retrieved her own sensible black ball and rolled up to the lane. Narrowing her eyes, she bent over the low arm of her sport chair and powered the ball down the alley.
A low whistle of appreciation greeted her when she turned around, and Barbara didn't try to hide her smile.
While she was no Fred "Twinkle-toes" Flintstone, she managed.
"Sweet, Red. I guess the next round of nachos are on me."
Smiling very sweetly, she blandly met her companion's eyes.
"The next round of nachos, Helena, will be after you've finished one form of verse and you're ready to craft an Ode on Lucky Strike Lanes."
"You're a genius, Barbara."
The words blew from the elevator before the doors began to crack, and the genius in question cruised down the ramp from the Delphi to greet her unexpected visitor.
The vivacious brunette bounded into the room and bent to embrace her before skipping backward.
"Okay, you and me are."
Wincing, Barbara managed to hold her tongue. She couldn't restrain her answering smile.
"And just what brilliance have we demonstrated lately, Hel?"
Suddenly aware that in her flustered state she'd left open a terminal window diagramming Quinn's criminal organization, she turned nonchalantly to the kitchen. Her guest bounced in ahead of her.
"I thought about what you said. The sonnet?"
Nodding, Barbara waved an invitation to the refrigerator, stifling her smirk when Helena emerged with a Perrier for her and a Mountain Dew -- the last one -- for herself.
"So, I was feeling all put out since I had another assignment, a descriptive write-up, due for my Eastern Art class -- "
The redhead offered a sympathetic moue and accepted the green bottle.
"-- and I realized I could multitask."
The finishing "ta-da" was unspoken, but entirely evident. Nevertheless, it took several befuddled blinks before Barbara connected the dots.
"You wrote a sonnet about...?"
The younger woman's grin was positively too self-satisfied.
"That ugly Ming horse in the department showcase."
Since some bubbles from her water were tickling her nose, Barbara gave herself a minute, sniffing delicately.
"Indeed, Helena. That was a stroke of resourcefulness."
Helena drained her soda and tossed the can into the trash, her expectancy almost causing her to vibrate. A tad belatedly, Barbara recognized that something was required from her here.
"And shall I assume by your jubilation that the sonnet was well received?"
A self-depreciating snort suggested that the question might not have been the right one.
"Nah. The sonnet sucked. It got a B."
At a loss, Barbara felt her brows furrowing, then raising when her companion continued airily.
Again, that Cheshire grin appeared.
"I didn't turn in the sonnet for Art; I did a haiku and Dr. Aether...?"
Barbara nodded her familiarity with the art history professor's name.
"He said he wants to see a few more, maybe tack them up next to the gimcracks in the department cases."
The laughter that bubbled past the older woman's lips was completely unplanned and entirely genuine. Unfortunately, it rapidly morphed into something puzzled when Helena prowled close and extended one hand, palm up.
"Help me celebrate."
Naturally, the invitation brought with it memories of some noteworthy celebrations she and her Helena had engaged in during the last year.
Vivid, vivid memories.
"What did you have in mind, Hel?"
A saucy wink was the only reply while the brunette twirled to the under-cabinet radio and turned in on.
"Dance with me, Red."
Somehow, even as her cheeks flamed, Barbara managed a laugh.
"Helena. Even -- "
She gestured loosely toward her chair, distantly noting that the DJ had cued another golden oldie.
"Even before this, I had two left feet."
Just one of those cosmic freaks, as Helena had once described it: the fact that Barbara had been a world-class gymnast and had danced across the rooftops as a superhero, but she'd not been able to hold her own on the dance floor.
For an expectant beat, Barbara chewed at her lower lip, intensely conscious of steady regard from deep blue eyes. She could only hope that UB40's "Here I Am" kept the sound of her trip-hammering heart from Helena's acute senses.
Then, somehow, in the blink of an eye or in the space between one labored breath and the next, Helena was right in front of her, both hands extended, taking her by the hands. And then she was spinning dizzily around the kitchen, Helena's smile the only thing she could focus on. And then her partner dipped under their joined hands and somehow managed to land lightly in her lap.
The sheepish duck of the dark head was, Barbara just had time to note, completely unconvincing.
"Then -- "
Barbara managed to tear her gaze away from the expressive features so close to her and observe the waggle of Nike-clad feet.
"-- I'll just have to be two right feet for both of us."
She was so close: her scent utterly familiar; the shape of her back under Barbara's hands tantalizingly well known.
Barbara thought that one of them had spoken, but the press of velvet lips against her own divorced her from all thoughts of conversation.
Not to mention, considerations of conscience or culpability.
With a whispered moan, Barbara accepted the advances. In an explosive instant, she returned them. Overcome by an aching hunger, she took control, lavishing caresses on the woman in her lap with her mouth and hands, silencing the words and voice that weren't quite right, her kisses almost punishing.
"Oh heavens, Helena -- "
She buried her hands in dark silk, losing herself in the taste of her lover, surrendering to something that was less want than need. Fully prepared to carry the younger woman to their bedroom, it was only a distant scratch of observation -- consciousness? conscience? -- that recalled her.
Still delicately sampling the sweet flesh of her partner's throat, Barbara probed at what had caught her attention, at what was... off.
There was no resistance. Indeed, Helena was arching sinuously under her touch. Yet... Yet...
Hating herself, Barbara pulled away and sought her lover's eyes.
Not blue, thank heavens. That would have been too crushing.
Yet, the violet of Helena's eyes, she knew from long association, signaled arousal but not the passion indicated by the gold Barbara had come to know so well.
Swallowing around her anger and self-loathing, Barbara accepted the bitter pill: the emotions of the moment were hers alone.
"Whoever she was,"
Barbara clenched her jaw against the allure of Helena's slow, sultry smile.
"-- she was damned lucky."
Utterly sickened by her own actions, Barbara blinked. She suspected that, had it only been an option, scrambling would have ensued. Since it wasn't, she had to face her companion and her own actions. There was no way to keep the bitterness from her words.
"No. I was the lucky one."
<"I'm sorry, Barbara, but I can't this afternoon.">
The weight of her transgression crashed over her, and Barbara allowed her lashes to flutter down.
A moment of weakness and temptation, and Helena was -- quite rightly -- backpedaling handily. She hadn't allowed things to progress any further the day before, ushering her companion out to write haiku; however, clearly, the die had been cast.
Barbara colored her voice with a smile.
"Yes, Helena. Just... woolgathering. I understand."
The weight of the pause that followed was much greater than should have been possible, given her cell phone's stated weight of three ounces.
<"You're not beating yourself up about yesterday, are you, Barbara?">
Red lashes flew open.
How could the younger woman do that?
<"Because it's not that. Really.">
Barbara worked her jaw for a few seconds.
The sensitive electronics in her handset picked up the soft sound of movement, and Barbara could almost see her caller leaning back in an overstuffed chair and crossing her legs.
<"I've got a class this afternoon.">
Rapidly ticking through what she'd learned about the younger woman's course load, Barbara spoke absently.
"I thought all of your classes were in the morning."
It was, she'd decided, one of the surest signs of Quinn's malevolent influence: her Helena had never voluntarily gotten out of bed before ten in the morning.
The other woman's laugh was soft.
<"Well, my astronomy lab's at night, but yeah. But, this isn't university stuff.">
Feeling her brows knit, Barbara lobbed a weak guess.
"Tutoring someone in nine-ball, Helena?"
<"Right. Like I wouldn't blow that off for you any time, Red.">
The word evoked such a rush of pleasure that the redhead almost missed the hint of shyness that crept into Helena's voice.
<"It's, uh, a class I'm teaching.">
Visions of lesson plans fluttering nearby, Barbara somehow modulated her tone to mere curiosity.
<"Yeah. Once a week, I do a self-defense class at the Women's Shelter.">
She gave herself eight seconds to enjoy the warm flood of pride the words created, then she neatly tucked the emotion away for later consideration.
"What about afterward? Perhaps you'll have worked up an appetite."
Too late, Barbara recognized that she'd left herself wide open. The sudden velvet purr in Helena's voice removed any doubt that the younger woman had missed the slip.
<"You think you can help with that?">
Attempting to telegraph her headshake through the voice connection, Barbara spoke primly.
"I could cook something."
A fit of very vocal coughing brought her back to her senses, bringing a flare of heat to her cheeks in the process.
"Oops. Sorry, Hel."
The laughter they shared was warm, recalling the dinner Barbara had arranged two nights before and the question that had been hesitantly tendered from behind over-innocent blue eyes.
"Have you ever cooked anything, Barbara?"
Since her culinary limitations were legendary, Barbara hadn't made any secret of her handling of the dinner. Accordingly, she'd managed a puzzled blink and a self-depreciating laugh as she'd waved her chopsticks toward their plates.
"It's take-out, Helena."
Her confusion had been washed away by heated embarrassment when she'd witnessed her companion fishing a bit of wilted Chinese take-out container from her entree.
"No kidding, Red."
Heading to the trash with their plates, she'd managed a laugh.
"Pizza's number five on speed dial, Helena."
Belatedly aware that Helena was speaking, Barbara focused on the conversation at hand.
<"Sorry, but I can't. After class I've got -- ">
<"-- ate wit -- ">>
<"-- Condoleez -- ">
A bit of static, perhaps a sunspot bouncing off the DOD satellite, garbled the next few words, and the redhead jerked the phone from her ear and fixed it with a glare.
Certainly she couldn't have heard Helena correctly.
Quite needlessly, she gave the handset a shake and returned it to her ear.
"I'm sorry, Swe-- Hel. Did you just say that you're meeting with The Secretary of State?"
A bit impatiently, she waited out Helena's laughter. The volume and duration seemed a trifle unnecessary; after all, it wasn't a common name, and Ms. Rice was as likely a guess as anyone.
The snert accompanying the apology made it less than convincing.
<"I said: Condo. Lease.">
Barbara's smile and nod of comprehension abruptly ended at the frank admiration that crept into her caller's tone.
<"Harleen knows some pretty influential people, but she steers clear of Republicans.">
Sour musings about the irony of sharing political ideologies with The Joker's girlfriend mercifully vanished into the ether when Helena shifted gears.
<"But, maybe you can come to my place tomorrow and we can hit the pool tables again?">
White and black and chrome filled the downstairs of the townhouse. Bright reds and yellow and oranges -- candles and accent pillows and throw rugs -- were splashed throughout the living room, tickling Barbara's mind, reminding her of something.
Schooling her features to polite neutrality, she took in the visible areas of Helena's home while she worked the puzzle. It wasn't until she ticked through the tasteful prints on the walls and registered the large empty spot across from the leather sofa that it hit her: The Gauguin print she'd given to Helena years before, the print that was currently over the head of her... their bed at the clock tower.
"It's lovely, Helena."
Her admiration was entirely genuine. Helena's home was quite a change from the impoverished student look she'd had in her apartment above the Dark Horse.
"Thanks. Most of the furniture came with, but the other stuff is mine."
The brunette performed a mock-curtsey, instantly distracting Barbara from any and all thoughts related to interior design.
Indeed, with Helena clad in little more than a tube top that covered her from chest to thigh -- very upper thigh -- fashion and physiology seemed much more relevant.
Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to disguise her frank appreciation, Barbara traced the edges of her lips with the tip of her tongue and fought the urge to fan herself.
"You look -- "
She felt her brows corkscrew as she hunted for a suitably neutral term to describe the breathtaking spectacle before her. Eventually, she gave up.
The brunette smiled cockily, the familiar easy confidence pulling at Barbara's soul.
"Yeah, well, it may be a little much for barbeque and billiards, but -- "
Briefly, Barbara forgot to breath when Helena spun showily, somehow winding up with her fingers resting lightly on the arms of her chair.
"--gotta put on the dog for a date, eh?"
The redhead felt her heart thud once, hard, against her chest. The instinct to cross her arms was nearly overwhelming; however, somehow she managed to keep her hands on the arms of the chair, bare millimeters separating her skin from Helena's.
Why did she feel like the most visible thing in the tastefully decorated room?
"Is that what this is, Helena? A date?"
Mentally, she winced as she parroted the words she'd spoken so long before at a seemingly innocent dinner with her friend, her former ward, at a French restaurant. The cool assessment in deep blue eyes was in juxtaposition to the playful lilt in Helena's voice.
"Could be, Red."
Slowly, she lowered her hands to the rims, waiting until the younger woman straightened and took a step backward before rocking her chair.
"I don't... date lightly, Helena."
Her voice was tight; somehow, the brunette's inscrutable smile did little to lessen the pressure in her chest.
"Me neither, Barbara, and I'm really not into being somebody's rebound."
The smile eased, and Barbara finally drew in a breath when Helena snagged a leather jacket from the back of the couch and turned to the door.
"But, I was kind of hoping that we could work something out."
"How will Quinzel feel about this, Helena?"
The brunette chalked her cue, her confusion almost comic.
"As long as it doesn't mess up my classes, why should she care?"
Barbara swallowed her own catalog of reasons with a long gulp of spring water.
"Well," she ventured the most innocuous from the list, "I am quite a bit older than you are."
Helena snorted over the top of her beer bottle.
"Never bothered her before."
The younger woman settled her bottle and approached the table for the break. Watching her bend low to the table, Barbara had to admit that the mini-dress truly gave her an unfair advantage.
The racked balls exploded across the table, the four and five balls disappearing into opposite corners as if being chased by the devil.
"She's even introduced me to some of her friends."
Since she couldn't have spoken if she'd tried, Barbara waited until her companion lazily dropped the six before clearing her throat.
"What do you mean, Helena?"
Her stomach clenched sourly while the brunette chalked her cue again.
Perhaps the onions and jalapenos on her smoked pork sandwich hadn't been such a good idea.
"Uhm, you know,"
Helena's tone was casual, almost absent, as she circled the table, eyes focused on the likely shots.
"Like the guy who leases me the condo?"
Barbara nodded cautiously when blue eyes rose in question, then caught her lips in her teeth when Helena bent to line up a one-three combination.
"And my car payment?"
"Don't forget me."
Instantly placing the voice, Barbara felt her hackles raise in reflex. Judging by Helena's miss, the brunette hadn't been anticipating the interruption either.
Fascinated, she watched her companion's expression transform to something guarded and careful.
"I thought we had that all worked out."
The older man nodded in Barbara's direction, and the redhead had to force herself to loosen her death grip from her cue stick.
"Those chrome exhausts cost more than we thought, Kitten."
Somehow, Barbara managed not to wince when she saw faintly apologetic and embarrassed expression in Helena's eyes.
"Not now, Schneider."
"Perhaps I can -- "
The avaricious twist of the greasy man's mouth told Barbara that she was right on target in digging for her money clip. The implacable coldness of her companion's blue eyes arrested the movement.
"I pay my own way, Red."
Barbara bit back her protest, choked over her instinct to beg or plead or demand, and Helena carefully laid her cue on the table and nodded at their unexpected visitor.
"Would you hold the table for a few minutes, Red, while I work this out?"
And then, she was alone at the table, nothing -- save the blare from the jukebox -- to distract her from thoughts of chrome tips and having a knob spit-shined.
I'm coming out of my cage
And I've been doing just fine
Gotta gotta be down
Because I want it all
It started out with a kiss
How did it end up like this
The neon signs seemed to blink, reflecting from the mirrors behind the bar. Half-imagining the shadow of a lithe woman falling to her knees in the hallway to the restroom, Barbara swallowed frantically. With the room spinning sickeningly, she turned to the closest exit and bumped outside.
And I just can't look, it's killing me
And taking control
Jealousy, turning saints into the sea
Swimming through sick lullabies
Choking on your alibis
But it's just the price I pay
Destiny is calling me
Open up my eager eyes
'Cause I'm Mr Brightside
The air in the alley wasn't much cleaner than that in the pool hall, but it was cooler. For a merciful moment, Barbara thought it would be enough; then, her stomach lurched and she leaned over the side of her chair. It wasn't until she'd emptied her stomach and finally mastered her dry heaving that she saw the tasteful size six ankle boots a few feet away from her chair.
Wordlessly, she accepted the water bottle that swam into view and rinsed her mouth. Finally she looked up and met liquid blue eyes.
"Barbara. Please, let me -- "
She managed a rough shake of her head before turning to the mouth of the alley. Helena trailed behind her until they reached the street. At that point, Barbara fished the keys to the van from her pocket and tossed them over; then, she directed her chair toward the clock tower.
Forty blocks, give or take.
"Drive yourself home, Helena. I'll talk with you later."
"What in hell am I doing here?"
Poised with her index finger extended, ready to press the door bell, Barbara didn't realize she'd spoken aloud until the heavy red door swung in.
"Well, I invited you, Red, and I know you're too polite to stand me up."
Barbara snapped her mouth shut with an audible pop. When Helena stepped out, still talking, she belatedly lowered her hand.
"Mostly though, I think it's that whole redheaded curiosity thing you've got going on."
Attempting to gather her wits, Barbara inhaled slowly and then met her host's eyes.
The younger woman's somewhat strained smile vanished, replaced by something wistful.
"Hi Barbara. Thanks for coming."
With a nod, she entered the townhouse, immediately struck by the lack of color, the absence of personal items in the living room a sharp contrast to the night before. Terror seizing her, Barbara spun violently, barely noting that she'd almost caught her cat-footed host's bare feet.
"What's going on, Helena?"
Dear heavens, she couldn't be leaving.
During the long sleepless night and the even-longer emotion-clouded day, Barbara had dissected matters a thousand times, her fury building and her outrage total. Yet, while she'd perfected a thousands schemes for eviscerating Quinn and dozens of increasingly desperate plans for bringing Helena to her senses, she'd never even considered that Helena could disappear from her life again.
Helena's response was less than enlightening.
After checking the deadbolt on the door, the lithe figure circled the perimeter of the room. Wearing frayed cut-offs and an oversized white oxford, she was utterly soundless as she brushed her fingertips across the bare walls. Barbara held her tongue, damned near swallowed it, when Helena finally approached and squatted in front of her.
"I don't trick in my own place, Red."
While she was quite cognizant of the fact that befuddled wasn't her best look, there was simply no hope for it.
"You don't," was the best she could manage.
Again, she held her breath as the brunette caught her upper lip in her teeth.
"No, I don't. I just wanted you to know that."
The dark head dipped, and blue eyes peered from beneath shaggy bangs.
"And, it would never be about that with you."
Nodding slowly, Barbara wet her lips.
Helena's head shake was emphatic. When she looked up, Barbara was hard-pressed to fathom the pained confusion in the younger woman's sweet eyes.
"I-- I didn't think..."
Helena exhaled noisily and abruptly stood, and Barbara felt her shoulders jerk in reflex. Fascinated, she watched the muscles in Helena's jaw tic before the brunette faced her again.
"I didn't know that it -- "
A slender hand slashed roughly at the living area.
"-- was a problem. I mean, Harleen's okay with it?"
Bile rising in her throat, Barbara somehow managed to speak evenly.
"Har-- Your guardian encouraged this, Helena."
The brunette's shrug spoke volumes, and Barbara mentally chalked up another debt owed by the madwoman.
"She said she wanted better things for me. Quid pro quo, right?"
A hundred denials and a thousand counter-arguments flew to mind, but somehow Barbara could only lift her brows helplessly. Impossibly, her host's next words left her even more at a loss.
"I talked to Leroy at the Dark Horse. He's giving me my old job back and my apartment."
The redhead cleared her throat, then swallowed before trying again.
"What are you saying, Helena?"
Again, Helena moved close, kneeling by the side of the chair. The younger woman's hand moved as if to touch her arm and withdrew at the last instant, the near-touch as real as any phantom sensation Barbara had experienced in the last eight years. When she finally spoke, Helena's voice was as hesitant as Barbara could ever recall.
"I don't want you to think I'm seeing you... like those others."
A hint of a familiar insouciant grin ghosted caramel features.
"No big deal, Red. I drop the astronomy lab, go back to shopping at Megalo Mart. You know."
In that instant, Barbara thought that, like the Grinch, her heart might have just grown three sizes. Still, she knew that a decision like this was not without repercussions.
"What about Quinzel?"
Again, the younger woman's jaw muscles jumped before Helena scrubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.
"Harl's probably gonna pitch a shit fit when she finds out, but..."
Exhaling noisily, the brunette stood and squared her shoulders. Uncharacteristically, the direct young woman suddenly couldn't seem to meet Barbara's eyes.
"I don't need this stuff, but I do..."
The weight of expectant need and hope and denial hung heavy.
"I need you."
For some reason, the air in the room seemed very thin. Grasping for words, for sanity and reason, Barbara heard her voice.
"Helena, you don't know..."
In an instant, Helena was leaning close. Mesmerized by the violet of her eyes, Barbara distantly noted how every muscle in Helena's body seemed to be humming with tension.
"I do. I don't understand it, but I do know."
They held the position for a score of heartbeats: Helena perhaps unwilling to look away; Barbara unable. Finally, Helena pulled back and straightened, shaking her hands loosely at her sides.
"I returned the house keys today. I'm going to drop off the car tomorrow. But -- "
The brunette's conspiratorial grin was infectious and a welcome relief. Entirely without meaning to, Barbara felt herself joining in.
"...I've got the place for tonight. So, how about checking out this fab couch and my plasma before I'm back to cheap chic?"
Already on her way to the white leather sofa, Barbara paused when a slender DVD case appeared in her companion's hands. Squinting, she finally made out the title.
" 'Sylvia Scarlett'? How on earth did you...?"
Helena's grin as she turned to slide the disc into the player was pure sunshine.
"I've got many skills, Red. And ... "
In an instant, Helena bounded over the glass coffee table and joined her on the couch.
"... the hand is quicker than the eye, right?"
Seventy minutes and two bowls of popcorn later, Barbara began to suspect that her host's earlier words were indeed prophetic. Torn between bemusement and complete, wanton arousal, Barbara watched tan, slender fingers disappearing into the placket of her shirt, somewhere near the level of her diaphragm. The practiced gesture that followed, resulting in all of the buttons from her breasts down simply falling open, pushed her firmly to the arousal side of the line.
Not what she'd been expecting when she'd approached the younger woman's door ninety minutes before.
Waterloo, yes. Paris, no.
Holding her breath, oblivious to Katherine and Cary's latest subterfuge, Barbara wondered if she might weep as warm fingers brushed her belly.
How quickly she'd forgotten this... this sensation, this pleasure, this anticipatory desire.
Helena's fingers tracked upward until Barbara swore she felt the brush of knuckles against the bottom of her breasts. There was no doubt a moment later when her companion confidently reached for the front clasp of her bra and snapped it loose.
"Mmm -- "
She thought the soft murmur of pleasure or approval might have been Helena's but really didn't care because, as if by magic, the material of her bra had been pushed aside and heat coursed through her entire upper half.
Peripherally, she saw the brunette's head by her shoulder and turned, hoping to catch her mouth. The movement had the happy side effect of thrusting her chest forward and marginally increasing her contact with the whispering fingers that danced over the sides of her aching breasts. Behind her, Helena denied the nonverbal attempt, ducking in; and then, those soft warm lips were at her ear, nibbling so lightly that she almost missed it when her lover's left hand circled from behind to cup her.
"Heavens, yes, Helena."
Unable to deny herself, she thrust into the touch, into the warmth, into the sensation that was so perfectly right.
The words did not so much vibrate against her ear as resonate within her soul. Wending her fingers through dark silk, Barbara tugged lightly, just managing to brush the younger woman's cheek with her lips.
"Whatcha want, Red?"
The purr was playful, but there was no give, no indication that Helena was readying herself to move from where she'd been cuddling her from behind on the couch. Nearly delirious from the hour of cuddling, the revelations and offerings, Barbara couldn't stop her own plea.
"Your mouth, Hel."
Her head fell back when a demanding mouth came to the side of her throat. The rasp of sharp teeth against her pulse point straddled the line between pleasure and pain, and the redhead instinctively arched her neck, offering more contact.
"What about my mouth?"
Distantly, Barbara thought something was being negotiated but knew she had no bargaining position.
"Mmm -- mouth?"
Clearly neurons were misfiring or, more likely, otherwise occupied, since she couldn't remember what Helena might have been referring to. A focused squeeze refreshed her memory with startling alacrity.
"Oh, God. On me, Helena."
She hadn't been this turned on -- like the proverbial Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center -- for a long, long time. Just the thought of her lover's face against her was nearly driving her wild.
The teasing purr in her ear threatened to unplug a bit of her wattage.
"Ask me nicely, Barbara."
Green eyes flew open; for a split second, Barbara focused on the oversized flat screen and Katherine Hepburn hiding from Cary Grant.
Somehow, in the midst of her arousal, the word choked her, carrying with it as it did connotations of other meanings. Yet, with the soft firmness of her partner behind her, the distraction of her own independence was fleeting. One hand still cradling the side of Helena's jaw, she brought her right into play, covering the back of one slender hand and increasing the pressure against flesh that was impossibly heavy and hot.
Somehow, it didn't even concern her that she was close to begging.
"Use your mouth on me."
The brunette's rumbling growl raised the hair on the redhead's forearms. The silken movement that finally brought them face to face left Barbara aching at the loss of the soft body which had been behind her.
"Verrrrry nice, Barbara."
The redhead held her breath as Helena ducked down, somehow nosing the remaining buttons of her shirt open. When Helena finally leaned close, her nose softly brushing her cleavage, Barbara thought she might hyperventilate.
"You smell amazing."
She didn't recall having applied any lotion or perfume, but couldn't be bothered to concentrate on the question.
"Thank -- y -- Yes."
Feeling the barest flicker of wetness rasping against the upper swell of her breasts, she forgot herself. The absence of sensation recalled her.
"Yes what, Red?"
Somehow, Barbara pried open her eyes at the loss of contact, discovering that Helena had pulled away a few inches and that violet eyes were fixed on her.
What had they been talking about?
"What do you want me to do with my mouth?"
Fighting for clarity, Barbara replayed the last few minutes. When it hit her, she caught her lower lip in her teeth, struggling between her own ingrained independence and the overwhelming press of her need. Ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, the battle was brief.
Pressing her palms against the back of the younger woman's head, she pulled her close.
She considered her words and had to amend them.
"Lick me. Bite me"
The heavenly heat and wetness overcame her, and Barbara curled in, working to increase the contact and the pressure.
"Whatever you want, Helena."
She thought she might have heard a soft keening wail when wet warmth enveloped her. She forgot the lapse when strong fingers stroked and inflamed the other nipple. And then, Barbara Gordon ceased to think, surrendering herself to pure sensation and heat: the pull of a warm mouth, the rasp of a strong tongue, the fire of sharp teeth against what was now her most sensitive skin.
Throughout, she held her lover close, unable to risk losing her again. The fingers of her right hand scritched lightly at the younger woman's scalp; her left splayed across Helena's back, vibrating in sympathy to the rumbling purr that resonated from within her partner.
The syllable was lazy, but Barbara detected the hint of an indulgent question. Arching forward, she buried her mouth in dark hair, gasping her answer.
"I'm ... I'm close."
Somehow, she pried her hand from her lover's back, working it between them. The skin of Helena's thighs was impossible soft and hot; the sensation of wet cotton when her fingertips cautiously insinuated under the cutoff, electrifying.
"Helena, I need to touch you."
With Helena it had always been thus: her lover's pleasure the surest guarantee of Barbara's own satisfaction.
Gradually, that shockingly talented mouth ceased its work, and she felt a smile against her chest.
"Tell me what you need for me to make you come."
Barbara didn't hesitate.
"I need to touch you."
She thought that Helena's smile had only grown.
"Touch me how, Red?"
Attempting to answer, Barbara moved her hand again. Immediately, the boyishly slender hips resting against her twisted away, and Helena reared back. Barbara's whimper of protest instantly transformed into a different sound when her hands were gently -- but very firmly -- caught and moved upward, pinned against the arm of the couch on each side of her head.
"Tell me, Barbara."
To her surprise, Barbara didn't feel a need to struggle against her confinement. Wetting her lips, she grappled with her lover's request, attempting to come to terms.
For all of her literary and linguistics skills, she'd never been fluent in this sort of language. Yet, she couldn't deny Helena.
"I need to taste you, Helena."
Her voice was barely recognizable, a sandpapery rasp. The sight of Helena's eyes slitting to gold gave her courage.
"I need to feel your nipples growing hard in my mouth."
Barbara shivered, then moaned, when her partner gave action to her own words.
"Don't think that's gonna be enough though."
The rumbling words tickled her skin, and Barbara had to smile. No one had ever been able to combine humor and raw sensuality like Helena.
"No -- "
Her hands still firmly locked against the arm of the couch, she managed to twist her head enough to brush her lips against her partner's hair.
"No, it wouldn't be," she murmured.
Helena's face swam into view again, her features tense and beautiful.
"So what else, Red?"
Barbara felt herself flexing her wrists, her fingers instinctively twitching as she spoke.
"I'd be inside you. So deeply."
"Yeah -- I'd like that."
When she felt her body shift, Barbara pried her eyes open, realizing that Helena had thrust against her pelvis.
"How deep, Red?"
Again, her entire body was moved on the slick leather of the sofa, and Barbara dropped her head to the armrest.
"My entire hand. Thrus-- "
Her hands were freed, Helena bringing her arms down to support her weight, hands fisted into the cushions on each side of Barbara's body. Somehow, it didn't even occur to the redhead to remove her hands from where they rested above her head.
"Inside you, Helena. Feeling you hot and tight and -- "
The brunette arched sinuously, and Barbara panted softly when soft lips brushed against the shell of her ear.
The word had torn from her without thought. Immediately, green eyes blinked open as Barbara attempted to clear the erotic haze.
"No. Not just... that."
Soft laughter caressed her face, raising the fine hairs on the back of her neck.
"S'alright. But, not this time."
The words cleared her haze with remarkable effectiveness.
She sought the other woman's eyes.
Her panic receded when she saw gold rather than blue. One slender hand traced her shoulder, then tickled upward to clasp her wrists again.
"This time, it's all about you."
She struggled for all of two seconds before surrendering to the inevitable. With her capitulation, she was freed.
"Whatever you want, Helena."
The thick pleasure that coursed through her at the press of her lover's chest against her made it difficult to keep her eyes open, however, within seconds, Barbara was grateful she'd made the effort. Dazed, she watched Helena slide down her body, the lack of sensation not erasing the shivers of pleasure the movement engendered.
"Take your clothes off, Barbara. I want to see all of you."
Already pushing out of her shirt, Barbara inevitably realized just what that would mean and stiffened. Clearly not missing the sudden change, Helena pushed up on her fists and brushed her jaw.
"All of you, Barbara."
The rush of heat she felt had little to do with passion; somehow, Barbara forced herself to speak the words.
"I-- There's nothing."
The younger woman's response was nonverbal. Dropping lightly to the floor, Helena knelt by the couch. Green eyes ticked from her lover's violet eyes to the hands that feathered lightly over her torso and arms and legs.
Finally, Helena spoke, her voice low and earnest.
"This is for me, Barbara."
The redhead shivered when fingers dragged slowly between her breasts.
Then, warm lips traced muscles of her abdomen, above the waist of her jeans where the sensation was almost normal.
Barbara clenched her jaw, fighting not to beg when Helena trailed her hand down the placket of her zipper, touching lightly at the juncture of her thighs. Nostrils flaring, the younger woman met her gaze.
Barbara swallowed with difficulty, then wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. She forced herself to watch as strong fingers returned to her lower body, pressing firmly through the thick denim.
"And I want it all."
Already nodding her acquiescence, Barbara registered the change: the flash of confusion and puzzlement when Helena touched the area Barbara knew was just above her most recent scar. Obviously, her partner had found the hard mass that had been making a home for itself despite the extreme measures the doctors had taken against the carcinoma.
Snapped harshly to reality, she threaded her fingers through the younger woman's and tugged upward to ghost a kiss to her knuckles.
"Souvenir from The Joker."
The reaction was not what she'd anticipated; however, in retrospect she had to admit that it was what she should have expected. Lush lips twisted into a snarl and gold eyes sparked to flat blue.
"I wish that bastard was still alive so I could make him pay."
In one leaden heartbeat, it all bled away. Her entire body suddenly cold, Barbara lowered her hands to the seat and pushed herself upright.
Dear heavens, what was she doing?
She registered the growing confusion in the younger woman's face, the dark brows rising in disbelief, but forced herself to focus on the buttons of her shirt.
"Barbara? What's wrong? What did I-- "
In the process of stuffing her bra into the side pocket of her chair, Barbara managed to soften her expression. Impossibly, she met Helena's eyes and permitted herself the indulgence of cupping her cheek. When the brunette leaned into the caress, she almost forgot her resolve.
With a smile, Barbara transferred herself to her chair and backed toward the door.
"Nothing, Helena. You were -- you are wonderful. This is just something I can't do again."
If you need a friend,
don't look to a stranger,
You know in the end,
I'll always be there.
Sleep had not come easily the night before. After Barbara had returned to the tower, she'd spent several hours on the balcony in solitary communion with her city.
Almost impossible to believe that it had only been a week since she'd rediscovered Helena at that club. Practically inconceivable the changes Quinn had wrought. Completely unbearable to consider that she was luring Helena back to her old way of life.
Alone in the darkness, not a solitary star in sight, Barbara had kept her eyes fixed on the top of the city that she'd offered so much to.
It had been easy, instinctive, to pick out the lights from the harbor; a nearby warehouse had been where she -- newly cowled and accompanying Bruce and Dick -- had first come face to face with The Joker. With a blink, she'd brought the silhouette of the Federal Bank building into focus: the location she'd first encountered Quinn for a one-on-one fight.
She'd been too young, too naive in the ways of dirty fighting, to win that battle, but she'd managed to foil the madwoman's robbery.
The blink of red and white flashers moving through the sky had drawn her gaze downtown: a care flight helicopter approaching New Gotham General. Barbara had inhaled raggedly, forcing herself to follow its progress.
Dear god, that hospital had been the scene of too many endings and changes.
With a rough shake of her head, she'd moved her eyes to the office park that was a block away from the hospital: For almost a year, Helena had visited Quinzel weekly in that building, fulfilling a court mandate that had resulted from her actions on Barbara's behalf. There had been no need to look to hear the implacable tick of the massive clock behind her, and her mind eye had vividly painted Quinn's attack on the tower two years before.
Inevitably, she'd turned a few degrees west, taking a few moments to focus on the negative image the hole in the horizon made: the site of The Joker's last hide-out, the tenement that had collapsed on him only a few months before. During the panicked hours when she thought she'd lost Helena in the explosion, Barbara had been prepared to rend and scream and fight to cope.
The clock behind her had struck the hour, and she'd narrowed her focus to her hands clasped against her belly.
Cause and effect. Circles and spirals. Light and dark.
When Quinn had enacted her latest plan, she'd certainly brought it all to the fore. With the scent and feel of her lover's skin still fresh in her mind, with Helena's determined vows to change, to protect and make right, there had been simply no way that Barbara could deny her role -- her culpability -- in fashioning her Helena.
Hours before, it had been so easy to embrace Helena's plans to change the life Quinn had lured her into. It had been so tempting to fall into her partner's capable hands and give herself to the moment.
Yet, the price.
And when you're in doubt,
and when you're in danger,
Take a look all around,
and I'll be there.
Eventually, she'd ceased her endless contemplation of what-ifs and might-have-beens.
Making donuts, Helena had always called it.
Somehow, Barbara had forced herself to the empty bedroom, her younger partner's final plea still haunting her.
"Just... stay. Just to be close. Let me hold you tonight."
It had been so terribly tempting. Helena had been confused, hastening to apologize for rushing her. There had simply been no way for Barbara to explain that it was she who needed to apologize.
In the darkness of the bedroom, Barbara had allowed herself to replay the evening, the closeness and heat and want. She'd brought her hands to her own breasts, panting softly against the bloom of heat that had flowered. It hadn't been anything like earlier, and so she'd trailed her hands lower, not oblivious to the irony that in some ways, having no sensation below the waist made the fantasy easier: unable to react to what her fingers felt, she could pretend that the flesh she touched belonged to someone else.
Yet, somewhere between tentatively stroking heated skin and envisioning gold eyes beneath her, Barbara had recognized the frustrating futility of the illusion.
Without further ado, she'd pushed onto her side and wrapped her arms around the stuffed panther she'd purchased for Helena not too many months before. She hadn't entertained thoughts of sleeping, and she'd not been surprised when dawn's rosy glow found her still awake.
When your day is through,
and so is your temper,
You know what to do,
I'm gonna always be there.
Small mercies, it was a Saturday.
Even before brewing coffee, Barbara snagged her cell and made two brief calls, leaving messages for Dinah and Alfred that she required privacy this weekend.
She'd let them draw their own conclusions.
Now, she had two days before her. With the 80's retro mix she'd burned earlier in the week on loop-play, Barbara settled herself at the Delphi and stared at the blank monitor.
When In Rome. OMD. Simple Minds. A-Ha.
Not a terribly original grouping, but given the music that had been playing when she'd found Helena, it had seemed appropriate enough. Perhaps in a bit, she'd drag out her 70's vinyl and burn something from the Bee Gees.
After all, she had two days. Two days to regroup and plan and face facts.
First things first, of course.
Squaring her shoulders, Barbara seated her glasses and brought up the diagram she'd started detailing Quinn's criminal network. Given what she'd learned from Helena in the last few days, there were clearly a few names to add.
First came a bit of research into the corporation that owned the block of condos near NGU: the company itself appeared to be legit, however the local manager, Phil Roth, was more than a corporate lawyer. Barbara clenched her jaw when the pieces dropped into place: there was no direct link between Quinn and Roth, however, the lawyer had represented more than a dozen of Quinn's cohorts.
She added his name to the criminal family tree and then began searching for the other name she had: Schneider. The search was ridiculously short, leading the cyber-vigilante to a series of mug shots for the man. Primarily booked for work at various chop shops, the foul man had also been picked up twice during capers with Quinn.
Red lashes fluttered down, and Barbara gave herself thirty seconds for self-castigation.
Why had she assumed that the extent of Quinn's torture would be limited to highlighting her failures in rearing Helena?
Briskly, she saved her latest updates, then turned to a task that was possibly more important: Helena's future.
A few keystrokes logged her in to the NGU Registrar's system; a few more allowed her access to her account with the Wayne Foundation. She didn't give herself time to reconsider, rapidly entering a recommendation for a scholarship for one Helena Kyle. Flagging it highest priority, she sent it to other members of the board, and linked it to the young woman's record at the university.
Perhaps that would give Helena enough breathing room to stay in school and away from Quinn's so-called friends.
While she was delirious about Helena's plans to change, Barbara knew that she couldn't be foolish enough to expect that the brunette would do anything half-way. Dropping a night class to return to work at the Dark Horse could soon mean dropping the early morning classes as well. The beautiful young woman's instincts to protect her could soon enough return her to the circle she'd escaped.
Logging out of both systems, she saw the terminal windows waver, the neat Times New Roman script blurring into an image that could have been a blonde clown. A noise -- it might have been a laugh -- escaped her, and she pushed back in her chair, a cry spilling from her lips.
"That fucking bitch!"
Sometimes if I shout,
it's not what's intended.
These words just come out,
with no gripe to bear.
Barbara swiped the back of one wrist across her eyes, then carefully lowered her hands, latching onto the arms of her chair. Blinking rapidly, she worked to focus, to modulate her breathing and her heart rate.
The Joker might have taken her legs -- and a piece of her identity, too -- eight years before. Just months before, he'd nearly managed to complete the task of stripping most of her womanhood from her. Yet, what Quinn had done engendered a pained fury and a bleak hopelessness that was so much worse: in a few clean strokes, she'd neatly excised Barbara's heart and soul, laying bare the extent of her influence on Helena.
Deliberately, she pushed aside thoughts of the competing forces of good and evil, selfish want and open giving, right and wrong. Powering down the Delphi, she picked up her cell and dialed a number from memory.
Three rings left her thinking she'd end up with voice mail, and Barbara tucked the phone between her cheek and shoulder as she turned her chair to the ramp.
<"This is Reese.">
She arrested her movement and caught the tiny handset.
"Detective, this is Barbara Gordon."
She managed the pleasantries well enough, she supposed, but still kept things short.
"Have you had any luck tracking down Triodoros?"
The apologetic sigh that preceded the detective's reply told her what she needed to know.
<"Not yet, but he's too dumb to have left the city. We'll track him down and make him turn over Quinn.">
Not if I get to him first.
The thought was instantaneous, striking Barbara with the force of a blow. Somehow, she worked out something more acceptable.
"Thank you, Jesse. I very much appreciate your keeping me informed."
She knew that she should turn her attention to the streets, to calling in favors from old informants and reprogramming her facial recognition 'bots. After all, Triodoros seemed like the closest attainable link to Quinn.
Yet, a bit of a breather perhaps.
For some reason, she had a certain film on the brain, and it didn't take long to find the DVD in their well-stocked library.
A smile ghosted Barbara's lips when she recalled how Helena had whined through the years about her cataloging schema; somehow, the brunette never complained about not being able to find a movie when she wanted it.
Smile faltering, she flirted with the idea of packing up the entire video library and shipping it across town to the Dark Horse.
Later. For now, perhaps she could lose herself in one film.
Not too many minutes later, the redhead realized that it was not to be. The first scene of 'Stage Door' was barely underway when her phone rang. Since she'd programmed that ringtone -- a classic by Annie Lennox -- for one number only, Barbara didn't have to check the caller ID.
Waffling a bit, she fiddled with the remote control before giving up with a sigh. With her left hand, she paused the movie, and with her right, she picked up the phone.
<"Uh -- ">
Her caller's surprise was almost visible, and Barbara felt a smile crease her cheeks. Naturally, the younger woman recovered easily.
<"Hi, Barbara. Am I interrupting?">
Catching herself shaking her head, Barbara murmured a demurral, then waited out the pained silence. When Helena finally spoke, she was torn between discomfort and pride.
<"Are you still mad at me?">
Of course, Helena never had been one to beat around the bush.
"Sw-- Helena, I'm not -- "
She pushed the hair back from her face and regrouped.
"I wasn't mad at you."
She attempted to place a great deal of emphasis on the final word, then sucked in a deep breath.
I'm sorry, but I'm just thinking of the right words to say. (I promise)
I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be. (I promise)
I gotta tell ya, I need to tell ya, I gotta tell ya, I gotta tell yaaaa ...
I'm sorry, but I'm just thinking of the right words to say. (I promise)
I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be. (I promise)
"I just can't -- "
Again, she stumbled, hunting for the right words.
'Go through this again'?
'Hurt you again'?
'Risk you to a life of crime-fighting again'?
'Shape you in my image again'?
'Have you live my dreams rather than your own life'?
She picked up the sound of movement through the sensitive headset. Briefly, she wondered if Helena were pacing.
"I can't ask this of you."
The younger woman's protest was instant.
<"You're not asking, Barbara. I'm giving.">
The word had barely been a whisper, but she knew that, with her sensitive hearing, Helena couldn't have missed it. The brunette's reply gave weight to her supposition.
<"I can't not, Barbara.">
Raising her left hand, Barbara pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger.
Perhaps a different tact was in order.
"Have you spoken with... your guardian about this?"
She simply couldn't bring herself to say the other woman's name.
It took a few blinks before she comprehended Helena's correction. Raising one brow, she prompted, "Have you?"
<"She thinks you're bad news.">
Barbara nodded her head, then spoke carefully.
"She's probably right, Helena."
A derisive snort eloquently expressed her caller's opinion of that argument, and so she plunged ahead.
"I don't want to influence you to be someone else -- someone other than what makes you happy."
Distantly, Barbara knew she was in a bad way that her egregious phrasing barely set off a warning bell. Helena's soft plea distracted her from an odd fixation on rephrasing her statement.
<"What are you talking about? This is who I am or can be or --">
She thought she heard tears in the strong young woman's voice.
<"But whatever it is, it's not right without you.">
Barbara shut her eyes against the images that threatened to overwhelm her. Squaring her shoulders, she placed her thumb by the 'Off' button of the phone and spoke very gently before powering the unit off.
"Helena, you've barely had time to know that."
When that unmistakable prickling frisson of awareness struck, Barbara's first response was to question how Helena had found her here. Her second, and perhaps less-than-courageous, instinct involved thoughts of escape. Regrettably, since she was in the middle of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, her options in that regard were limited.
Although drowning didn't sound too bad.
As nonchalantly as possible, she altered her rhythm, alternating which arm she peeked through when she came up for air. It wasn't until she reached the end of the pool and performed her own patented upper-body-only turn that she finally saw the other woman.
Naturally, Helena wasn't in the bleachers at the side of the school pool or even lazily dipping her toes in from the edge. She was ten meters above her, lounging casually on her side on the high board, one fisted hand supporting her head. The surprise of finding herself being regarded thus was enough to interfere with Barbara rhythm.
Or, she supposed as she emerged in the deep end hacking and flailing, more than enough to put a hitch in her gitalong.
"You need a rescue, Red?"
Still working on the process of replacing the water in her lungs with air, Barbara shook her head and began a slow crawl to the side. While the prospect of watching her athletic partner dive -- fully clothed -- into the pool was not without appeal, the offer itself simply touched too close to matters that had sent her fleeing two nights before.
By the time she'd reached the side of the pool, the redhead had returned to something resembling normal respiration. Accordingly, she was able to muster suitable volume for her first words.
"Dammit, Helena. You scared the hell out of me!"
The other woman's leisurely descent from the high dive faltered for just a moment before Helena dropped the last few feet to land lightly on the concrete.
Automatically accepting the towel being extended toward her, Barbara froze, then blinked.
Out of all of her traits good and bad, how had Helena hung on to that damnable hangdog look that never failed to melt her?
"I didn't mean to scare you, but you've been ducking my calls."
Easily holding herself with one hand on the edge of the pool, Barbara delicately dabbed at her eyes before tossing the towel onto the side. Slowly, she arched one brow and met her companion's faintly accusatory gaze.
"And, would you mind telling me exactly what part of my not answering your calls could be construed as an invitation to stalk me?"
At least that had gotten a blink from the younger woman. If she'd not known her as she did, Barbara thought she might have missed the hint of embarrassment that flitted across Helena's face. There was no way to miss the defiance, and Barbara prepared herself for whatever might come.
When Helena finally spoke, her words and tone were surprisingly gentle.
"I guess I thought I deserved an explanation."
Great flaming sausages of shit.
Barbara quashed the heat of her anger before it had a chance to grow. Carefully, she released her hold on the pool and, fanning her arms slowly, floated a few feet back from the side.
A few feet further from Helena.
"You deserve an explanation."
It wasn't a question. She'd heard her unexpected visitor quite clearly.
It wasn't an acknowledgement. She could have found other ways to fill a conversational vacuum.
God knew, it wasn't an offer, even if the sight of a dark head bobbing emphatically suggested that Helena had chosen to take it as such.
When the younger woman's movement changed from certain to hesitant and when Helena gingerly lowered herself to sit camp-style next to the towel, Barbara knew that she didn't have a choice. Sucking in a breath, she dove under the water, driving herself forward with her arms until she reached the side of the pool again. Breaking the surface, she allowed momentum to help carry her as she lifted herself to the side.
As casually as possible, she checked that her legs were reasonably positioned, then stretched for the towel, unable to miss the flare of aquiline nostrils and the frankly assessing rake of blue eyes over her modest black one-piece.
"An explanation, eh?"
She tilted her head enough to catch most of her hair with the towel and began to wring some of the chlorine out.
"Yeah. I want to know why you're acting like you owe me money."
Barbara couldn't help herself. Given the recent revelations of a pecuniary nature, she had to flinch when she heard the words. Immediately, her companion's belligerent stance softened.
"Sorry. But -- "
Although she tried to focus on the act of settling the towel over her legs, Barbara couldn't avoid the pain in the younger woman's face.
"-- what did I do so wrong?"
Suddenly infinitely weary, Barbara exhaled noisily through her nose, attempting to gather the strength for another it's-not-you-it's-me speech. Helena saved her the effort.
"Or, I guess I'm asking what you think you're doing so wrong?"
She thought her shoulders had visibly sagged. She certainly knew that the question had taken some of the wind out of her sails.
"Helena -- "
Somewhat helplessly, she met her companion's blue eyes, wordlessly asking for assistance from her dearest friend. Dark brows knitting, the younger woman eased closer, tentatively stretching out to touch her wrist.
"Is there something you think you screwed up with Dinah or..."
In the process of shaking her head, Barbara arrested the motion, unwilling to take such an easy way out. Apparently at the limits of her patience, Helena blew out a noisy breath and rubbed her hands across her face.
"What are you so afraid of, Barbara?"
The words echoed dully through her cortex, but she couldn't speak them.
Once again, Barbara blinked, prodding at the question. She caught one corner of the towel in her lap and folded it back on itself, working to articulate just why she had to force Helena to live her own life.
"I've long held myself to a st--"
Pursing her lips, Barbara exhaled slowly and ran her index finger along the crease she'd made in the towel.
"I've attempted," she finally continued, "to adhere to certain codes and morals."
She looked up, seeking understanding and reassured by Helena's cautious nod. As she hunted for a way to continue, Barbara felt warm skin brush her hand, and she looked down to find Helena extending her hand. Without thinking, she accepted the gesture, placing her hand in her partner's.
"It simply that, well, recently, it's been brought to my attention..."
Cheeks flaming, she trailed off.
Dear god, could she be any stiffer?
The satin caress of Helena's thumb across the back her hand gave her the will to soldier on.
"In a nutshell, Hel, I think my influence may be too great."
Her partner's teasing response was not what she'd expected.
Barbara straightened the corner of the towel and met the other woman's gaze.
A grin that might best be described as goofy was the only response, and Barbara raised one brow.
The brunette's smile became a trifle sheepish.
"My mom always used to say that I was a force of nature."
Barbara nodded slowly, having heard Selina say as much on more than one occasion. For a moment, her infallible memory returned her to one such instance -- in the gym, with a young Helena refusing to give up on the rings -- and she clearly saw Selina's face, a perfect mix of maternal pride and consternation.
The younger woman rose, then seemed to hesitate, shaking her hands by her sides.
"...maybe you've gotta be a stronger force."
Again, she allowed a cautious nod and then found herself smiling against her will when Helena laughed softly.
"Something's got to explain why Harleen's ditched her phone, and I'm hitting the straight and narrow."
Filing away that bit of information for later consideration, Barbara allowed her other eyebrow to join first when, apparently having reached a decision, Helena shyly extended one hand, palm up.
"Let's go get some pancakes."
Finally, she lowered her brows and worked on the crease between them.
"You've got to eat, right? And the way you've been tearing up the pool this afternoon, you've gotta need some carbs before you can tell me to get lost."
Barbara inhaled deeply when dark blue eyes widened innocently.
She couldn't help herself. Having caught enough grief over the years for her tendency towards Latinisms, Barbara pursed her lips.
" 'Ergo', Helena? Who says 'ergo'?"
The brunette's smile was pure sunshine.
"Looks like we do, Red."
Barbara knew she should fight it, but somehow she just couldn't.
Perhaps it was the rumble from somewhere in the vicinity of her abdomen that turned the tables. Perhaps it was the way Helena skipped backward in mock-horror gasping something about aliens.
Regardless, with a sound that was something between a laugh and a whine, Barbara threw her towel into the hamper and turned toward the locker room. In the fifteen minutes it took her to shower and change, she debated ducking out a side door three-dozen times.
Ultimately, she wouldn't do that to her partner.
Resultantly, she found herself meandering down the street with Helena in the early twilight of a Sunday afternoon, engaged in an absurd conversation.
"Ilia jacta est, Red."
Shaking her head fondly, Barbara squinted at the distant neon sign, attempting to estimate how many blocks lay between them, a carbohydrate binge, and then a farewell.
"Which die is that, Helena?"
When her partner's bouncy steps slowed, she metered her own pace, suspecting that matters were about to become more inscrutable.
"Like I said, Barbara,"
She saw the younger woman glance over and nodded her encouragement.
"I don't understand it, but it's there."
"What's there, Helena?"
Perhaps that had come out a bit huffily, but puzzles were losing their allure. Her companion's sudden gleeful smile did little to relieve her pique.
"It's like those Star Trek episodes where there's a temporal shift."
Forgetting their destination, Barbara slowed to a stop near a side street. She looked up, finding dark brows inching upward, clearly seeking a common ground. Fortuitously, she'd always been a geek; not to mention that she spent most of her daylight hours in the company of sci-fi addicted adolescents.
"Or time travel?" she prompted with a small smile, suspecting that she'd gotten Helena's drift.
Blue eyes sparkled, and the redhead's sense of shared victory fled when she grasped where Helena was going with her analogy.
"You already went back to the dinosaur age and smooshed the butterfly, and now, well, here we are."
Somehow, she had to smile: Helena had always been the only person who could engage her so. Nevertheless, she couldn't allow a hypothesis of predestination to stand.
"No fate but what we make, Helena."
Although Helena had clearly been prepared to argue the point, the words had not been hers. Delivered in a masculine baritone, they came from the side street they'd stopped by, and Barbara whipped her head to the side.
Two men, one small and slight, the other stereotypically large and hulking, were less than twenty feet away. She sensed as much as saw her companion tensing into readiness, and then peripherally saw the brunette take a step back.
Without taking her eyes from the approaching men, she placed her left hand on the other woman's forearm.
"Don't worry, Helena."
The words were barely a whisper, but she knew that the brunette would hear them. With her right hand, she reached for the ten thousand watt mini-taser she'd recently purchased from Overstock.com for $16.99.
Helena's response curtailed her field test of the unit.
"Carlos. Vince. How's it going?"
Although Helena's voice was deceptively low-key, Barbara could feel the tension almost humming from her companion. When the two men stepped into the light of the street and she confirmed the identity of the smaller man, Barbara suspected that her own tension level increased as well. Nevertheless, she waited until the two came to a stop, bracketing Helena, before speaking.
"You're Carlos Triodoros, aren't you?"
Two sets of eyes widened in surprise: Helena's deep blue and Carlos' watery brown. The two spoke as one.
"Yeah, what of it?"
"How do you know him?"
Ignoring the Carlos' question, she looked up at her companion.
"How do you know him, Helena?"
When Helena replied, Barbara was certain she detected a hint of color creeping into her cheeks.
"He's a friend of Harleen's. He's been... He was..."
Carlos finished it for her.
"Covering her car payment."
The small man took a half step, deliberately positioning his back to Barbara as he crowded into Helena.
"You're late this month, Kitten."
Feeling her blood begin to boil, the redhead casually reached for the taser again. Her companion's unconcerned reply forestalled the movement.
"Sorry, Carlos, but I told you to sell it."
The brunette's shrug was vaguely apologetic; perhaps, Barbara thought, a little sad.
"I can't afford it any more."
"Yeah, you said that, but --"
In concert, the two men edged closer to Helena, and Barbara's blood pressure edged a little higher.
"--you don't know the earful I got from Harley. Nobody just stops."
And that was when, Barbara determined in retrospect, the entire scene blew wide open.
A string of expletives from Helena. The big man -- Vince -- backing the diminutive woman toward a storefront. Triodoros somehow deliberately catching Barbara's eye.
As if from a distance, the redhead wondered why the man was taking such care to focus on her when cowing Helena was, nominally, his intent. When she saw his hand move to his pants and then heard the words he directed toward her, she understood.
"She's got a real mouth on her, doesn't she, Barbara?"
Obviously a message from Quinn. Unfortunately for Quinn's men, the madwoman wasn't present.
Without blinking, Barbara felt a batarang in her hand, secured from its hiding place under the armrest of her chair. Without conscious thought, she loosed it, striking the foul little man squarely in the chest.
Triodoros dropped like a bag of rocks.
At the sound of greasy hair hitting the sidewalk, the other two members of the little party interrupted their tete-a-tete, whirling in unison.
As usual, Barbara thought that Helena expressed her question best.
"What the fuck was that?"
So much for the hope that evidence of their former nocturnal partnership might trigger a memory.
Wheeling over to retrieve the batarang, Barbara flirted with the possibility of reconsidering Dinah's idea about clouting Helena in the head. As if reading her thoughts, Carlos' friend saved her the trouble.
The sound of gunfire temporarily paralyzed the redhead. The sight of Helena dropping to the sidewalk, blood pouring from her head, restored her motor skills with remarkable alacrity.
Instantly, the batarang was in the air, and Vince's thirty-two caliber flew through the air, skittering across the sidewalk into a sewer drain. The big man himself remained locked in place, staring dumbly at his empty hand, and so Barbara gave her chair a sharp push, digging for the taser at the same time.
The first shock dropped Helena's assailant to his knees, and Barbara watched with satisfaction as he twitched, a wet spot forming on the front of his trousers. Opting to give the little taser a few seconds to recharge, she slowly moved it to the fluttering pulse point at the base of his throat.
"Don't -- don do it again!"
Thumb already on the button, Barbara simply arched one eyebrow. Practically salivating, Vince tried again.
"Just let me go, and I'll tell you where Quinn is!"
For a hairsbreadth, she was tempted. Terribly, terribly tempted. However, the vision of blood slowly spreading outward on the pavement neatly clarified her position.
"Not interested, Vince."
She moved the taser to his temple and showed her teeth.
"Maybe another time."
He tried to scrabble away, but the building behind him blocked his retreat. Then, he tried bravado.
"You can't. Aren't you some kind of freaking superhero?"
Barbara allowed her other brow to join the first and kept her voice low.
Carefully, she thumbed the unit to its highest setting and then emptied the charge against his temple.
"I'm a goddamned vigilante."
The sight of that dark head, nestled in covers and pillows, turning restlessly was encouraging. A moment later, the blink of blue eyes was enough to evoke hosannas. Nevertheless, Barbara remained quiet from her position beside her injured companion, simply drinking in the image of Helena squinting in the dawn light of the bedroom, her nose crinkling adorably.
Immediately irritated with herself for the thought, Barbara mustered a half-smile.
"You're back. How's your head?"
There was simply no way to keep all of her relief from her voice, but she hoped that her companion would overlook it. Obligingly, the brunette didn't comment, raising a hand to probe experimentally at the bandage on her head. Then, she waggled her eyebrows vigorously, moving her scalp in the process.
"Huh," was the final pronouncement.
Allowing one arched brow to convey her question, Barbara waited as the younger woman shifted onto her side.
"Not bad at all, Red."
Finally, Barbara released the tension she'd been holding like a scourge. Exhaling shakily, she reached out, brushing the bandage at the young woman's temple. Helena submitted to the brief exam placidly before a sly smile split her features.
"Good thing I'm hard-headed, huh?"
There was nothing to do but smile her agreement.
"A veritable force of nature, Sweetie."
The endearment simply slipped out, and she didn't miss the light that sparked in blue eyes. Acutely aware that her fingers still lingered in the dark hair near where the bullet had creased Helena's temple, she withdrew as casually as possible.
Helena remained still beside her, and Barbara silently breathed her relief. A moment later, when the younger woman pushed up on her elbow and fixed her with wide eyes, she realized that she might have been premature.
"How'd you do that?"
Opting to take nothing for granted, she demurred.
"Do what, Helena?"
The expression in Helena's eyes was oddly reminiscent of something she'd witnessed years before. When Helena clarified her question, the memory clicked into place.
"Take out Carlos like that? With that chakram thing?"
Almost seven years earlier and a bit over a year since she'd assumed guardianship of Helena, there had been a cock-up of a robbery at the restaurant she and her ward had been at. Despite her own efforts to keep a low profile, matters had reached a point that she'd had to act; and when she and her charge had returned to their apartment afterward, the same light had shown in Helena's eyes.
Words having to do with being doomed to repeat past mistakes hissed through her mind, and Barbara sighed softly. Since there wasn't much point in dissembling, she went with the truth.
Parts of it, at least.
"I was quite athletic... before. And, well, since then, I've wanted to be able to take care of myself."
She thought Helena's nod was a bit grudging, but her companion didn't press matters. After a few moments' thought, the brunette muttered something, her voice distinctly sulky.
"I could have taken care of him."
Somehow, Barbara maintained a serious expression.
In the dim light of the bedroom, it was difficult to be certain; however, Barbara thought she detected a change in the other woman's features. Helena's next words left no doubt.
"You were amazing. Teach me how to do that."
Red lashes slowly descended, and Barbara caught her lower lip in her teeth: The request was nearly identical to the words spoken by her new ward seven years before.
This time, she knew there wasn't a hint of possibility in her answer.
The question was reasonable and without the rancor she'd heard years before. Clenching her hands against her abdomen, Barbara inhaled slowly and opened her eyes to face her companion.
"I don't want this life for you."
This time, it was dark lashes that descended, and Barbara mentally cursed a reflex that was apparently too ingrained for the younger woman to forget. She waited out her nervousness, attempting to appear unconcerned in her observance of one slender hand smoothing the covers. Finally, her bedmate rolled over and pushed up to lean against the headboard.
"You changed me."
As casually as possible, hoping that her blush wasn't too apparent in the glow of the morning sun through the burgundy curtains, Barbara again tried the truth.
"You had quite a bit of blood on your shirt."
She lightly touched the sleeve of the oversized oxford shirt she'd managed to get the other woman into a the night before, then guiltily withdrew her hand. She didn't feel the need to consider her own response when she'd undressed her injured companion.
"Yeah," the dark head nodded slowly. "After you fixed my head. You... "
Crimson lashes lowered as Barbara fought her own wave of shame and longing.
Hours before when she'd led the barely conscious woman into the bedroom, she'd been unable to remain as distant and businesslike as she'd planned.
In all honesty, she'd probably never had a chance.
"You don't want me."
She thought she heard wonder in Helena's voice but couldn't bring herself to consider it. It was difficult, but Barbara kept her eyes fixed firmly on her hands as they plucked at the covers in her lap.
It wasn't a denial, nor an affirmation, nor really a question. Simply, Barbara thought, a conversational placeholder of sorts; something to fill the deafening silence.
"No, it's more."
The wonder was still there, but now Barbara suspected that it was dancing with certainty. She was fairly confident that she didn't want to witness that particular tango.
"I ... I can't Helena."
The other woman exhaled noisily. From the corner of her eye, Barbara saw her brushing her fingertips lightly against the placket of the shirt.
Painfully aware that Helena wasn't responding to her denial, Barbara felt herself tense. Her companion's next words confirmed her suspicion that her injured partner hadn't been completely unconscious the night before.
"Last night. When you were putting this on me."
Dropping her fists to the mattress, Barbara muscled herself a bit higher against the headboard. Carefully, she redraped the covers across her lap, taking her time in folding the top of the sheet over the blanket as she worked for an explanation.
The night before, when she'd removed her companion's bloodstained shirt and tee, she'd simply been unable to resist. The vision of the familiar planes and curves, the delineated musculature that her fingers itched to follow, had simply undone her.
Not to mention overwhelming relief.
Clean up had been first, of course. However, her focus had faltered when she'd slid the clean shirt around Helena's shoulders, then lowered the younger woman to the bed and worked shakily to button the shirt. Her companion's soft murmur, a rumbling purr, had lulled her and she'd given in. Cautiously, she'd allowed her right hand to slip under the placket and had lightly rested her palm on the warm soft skin above Helena's left breast. For two-dozen beats, she'd absorbed the divine warmth, the familiar texture, the reassuring steadiness of her heartbeat.
A restless shifting from her side told Barbara she'd taken too much time. She forced herself to look over, meeting quizzical blue eyes. Her own near-panicked efforts to hide, to backtrack, to escape ended abruptly when Helena soundlessly rolled to her knees and faced her.
Before she could gather her wits, impossibly soft lips brushing her cheek distracted her further. Still, Barbara Gordon was not easily circumvented.
"What are you -"
Hearing her voice as an idiotic croak, she wet her lips.
Helena's reply was little more than a brief rumble against her skin.
The soft sweep of the words raised gooseflesh all over her body, and Barbara struggled to hold on to the threads of the conversation.
She felt the other woman's nod, the fine down of Helena's cheek softly stroking hers.
"That I feel it, too."
She clenched her jaw against the tender kisses ghosting her skin. She realized she had no defense against the soft whisper of air she'd come to recognize as Helena scenting her.
"I saw you. Felt you."
Blood rushed through her torso, up her neck, to her face, powered by the thundering of her heartbeat. And still the younger woman continued her barest of touches, her softest of whispers.
"You want me."
It was a statement, not a question. However, before the Barbara could gather her wits to refute or deny or run, Helena pulled back, the void she left almost a physical presence.
She wasn't certain what she'd been planning to ask, and when her companion brushed her fingertips lightly over the ridge of Barbara's knuckles, she forgot that she'd been speaking at all.
"Let me rephrase that, Red."
Helena's words were almost playful, and Barbara pursed her lips against a smile and managed a helpless quirk of her brows.
"I meant to say that you want me, too."
Once again, she fell back on one of her strengths, deliberately remaining fixedly literal.
"I want you to be happy, Helena."
Barbara's internal chronometer counted off a full thirty-four seconds after that, over half a minute in which her companion remained on her knees beside her, regarding her steadily. She'd just allowed another ten seconds before she'd have to squirm or speak when she saw the tender smile overtaking the other woman's expressive features.
"Then make me happy, Barbara."
With five words, she thought she might truly have met her Waterloo.
With a startled blink, she caught herself.
The dark head nodded seriously.
"Yes. And, -- "
Barbara didn't resist as she felt her hand raised and a kiss dancing over her fingertips.
The younger woman allowed their joined hands to descend to the bed and nodded sagely.
"You've already got me, Barbara, so you can make me all miserable and angry and depressed with wanting, or --"
Dark brows waggled hopefully, however Barbara easily detected the desperate earnestness behind the gesture.
"-- we can cut right to the happily ever aftering."
The air in the room was suddenly very, very thin, perhaps accounting for the weakness of her voice when Barbara finally spoke.
"Helena, it's just not something..."
She didn't know how she intended to complete her statement, and Helena didn't bother to find out. Shaking her head from side to side, the younger woman held out her hand, lightly resting her index finger over Barbara's lips. Rather than responding with irritation, Barbara felt her heart rate skyrocket when she witnessed Helena's other hand rising to begin unbuttoning the shirt she'd slipped on her the night before.
"Then I'll have to do it, Red..."
The redhead straightened marginally as Helena's finger left her lips and moved to trail down the skin hinted at by the loosened shirt
"...and wish it was you."
Pinned by violet eyes, Barbara worked her jaw helplessly, silenced by Helena's next word.
Rapt, she watched her partner's hand descend, biting her lip in an effort not to whimper.
The room must have been brightening because Barbara realized that she was having no trouble making out the flex of Helena's corded thighs as the other woman pushed against herself. Almost afraid to look, she traced the muscles upward, fixing on the slow rhythmic movement evident beneath the cotton of Helena's underwear.
A soft rumble broke the silence, and Barbara dragged her eyes up, only to be pierced by her partner's gold.
"Yeah, Barbara, you."
With that, Helena rose to her knees, gracefully turning to land in her arms. Transfixed, Barbara distantly saw that Helena's hand was rising, moving toward her lover's lips, and she gave in.
And then she knew nothing but the taste of Helena's fingers in her mouth, the musky sweetness and heat she'd missed like water and the sun, and with that her world narrowed to the woman she pinned under her hands. Turning them both, she held herself on one hand, sweeping the other along the expanse of skin beneath her and pressing deep, open-mouthed kisses to heated flesh.
Helena bucked beneath her, and Barbara caught her mouth again, thrusting in rhythm to her partner's undulations. Feeling Helena tense, her panting cries drawing out -- longer and softer -- she reigned herself in.
Not... Not like that.
This time, she came to her love slowly. She tugged the remains of Helena's clothing from her, then began her explorations. Painstaking and thorough, she left nothing untouched, unsampled. When she eased the other woman over and began anew, she heard a rumbling chuckle that coincided with the other woman's shivering stretch under her hands.
Thrilling to the sensation of goose flesh rising on her lover's skin, she didn't raise her mouth from the back of a tensed knee.
"-- thought you'd be... faster."
Regretfully, Barbara dragged herself upward, entranced by another untouched expanse of skin.
"I will be."
She lowered her mouth, blowing softly at the tender flesh she'd just wet.
She suspected that Helena's moan might have signaled agreement, however an instant later, when her partner writhed violently and then went rigid beneath her, she ceased to care.
"What -- what are you doing?"
Pressing an open-mouthed kiss to slick skin, Barbara kept it to the point.
Again, Helena arched sinuously under her but somehow managed to elicit a smile.
" 'Bout ti- time."
For a pained moment, the significance of the words struck her, and Barbara gasped softly against the memories and the wishes that it were all real... as it had been. Then damning herself for not accepting a rare second chance, she worked for an answer for the woman she was with.
Helena's plea spared her.
"Use your hands. Your fingers."
Time and sequence ended then replaced by touches and gasps. When Helena rose beneath her, muscles locked in a rictus of pleasure and sweat beading her back, her final collapse nearly carried Barbara with her.
Ravenous, Barbara inched her way upward again, spooning her lover tight and working one hand between them again. A somnolent murmur slowed her progress.
"Jus-- gimme a min't, Tiger."
She considered the request.
For an entire half-second, Barbara toyed with the idea before pushing up on her elbow. Glazed blue eyes met hers and sparked to gold again, and she husked her reply.
It didn't take long. It couldn't have, and, not too many minutes later, Barbara regrouped with a boneless mass of brunette sprawled on top of her. She permitted her hands to wander at will, soothing strokes across Helena's shoulders, gentle scratching at the base of her neck, the other woman's voluble purr providing all the reinforcement she needed.
Drifting, she lost track of time and purpose, her only reality, this. Careful movements as Helena unentangled herself gradually drew her back to the reality of what had transpired, and she looked away from the ceiling, unflinchingly meeting blue eyes.
The other woman ducked her head, hiding under her bangs. The gesture, so familiar and telling, drew Barbara's hand to cup the sharp line of her lover's jaw.
The brunette held her own weight on one hand, using the other to brush Barbara's tee.
Once again, breathing became difficult, but Barbara kept her voice even.
"It's not very pretty."
Fascinated, she watched her partner's eyes grow heavy lidded.
It didn't take someone with an imagination as active as hers to guess what the libidinous younger woman was visualizing. However, when Helena spoke again, Barbara realized that she'd again underestimated the depths of the other woman.
"My hands on your skin? I can't think of anything more beautiful, Barbara."
She had to clear her throat before she could speak, then gestured to the covers still tangled around her lower half.
Helena's nostrils flared once, her visage seeming to sharpen, and she began to work the sheet free, every movement tender and calculated. The soft click of the clock radio coming to life caused her to falter for a hairsbreadth, then Barbara saw her shrug, and the redhead echoed the sentiment with a mental shrug of her own.
She'd already left at message at school that she wouldn't be in.
"Where were we, m'cherie?"
She smiled at Helena's dreadful French accent, but her undoubtedly witty reply died in her mouth when Helena finally tugged the covers free, then simply... froze.
Granted, she hadn't been working out for the last month, but she didn't think her legs were...
Pushing that thought aside, Barbara craned her neck from the pillows, finally grasping just what had arrested her partner's progress.
A second look forced her to correct the guess: her fuzzy bed socks.
Memories of conversations about the socks -- languorous interludes of kisses and discussions of intimacy -- flittered through Barbara's brain even as Helena remained stock-still at the end of the bed, dark brows knit. Forcing herself to keep still, Barbara had to wonder if something so prosaic as this would be the proverbial kiss to awaken Helena from her living dream.
A soft whimper suggested that it might be so.
Pushing aside her own onslaught of emotions, Barbara carefully observed the confusion... then recognition... then pain that ebbed through deep blue eyes. She managed to hold back her words -- inadequate as they'd be -- when Helena buried her face in her hands. A moment later, deep blue eyes met green, and Barbara held her breath.
"This isn't my life, is it?"
The soft exhalation was barely a question, and the older woman shook her head from side to side once, slowly. Then, she forced herself to admit the truth.
"But, there's no reason that it couldn't be, Helena."
Oh, this is the start of something good
Don't you agree?
I haven't felt like this in so many moons
You know what I mean?
And we can build through this destruction
As we are standing on our feet
"Is that what you want, Barbara?"
It felt like days, hours at least, had passed, and Barbara refused to assume that she was following her partner's train of thought.
The lithe figure twisted from the side of the bed, revealing the turmoil in her eyes.
"That other person?"
Without thought, she stretched out, needing the connection of touch. Registering Helena's stiffness, she jerkily aborted the movement.
"Helena? What other person?"
This time, the brunette turned, folding one leg under her, the other swinging from the edge of the bed.
"The other Helena."
Full lips twisted bitterly.
"The one Quinn made."
She heard a hitching gasp before Helena continued.
"The one who did almost everything right."
So, since you want to be with me
You'll have to follow through
With every word you say
And I, all I really want is you
For you to stick around
I'll see you everyday
But you'll have to follow through
You have to follow through
Stunned, Barbara twisted her fists to her lap, seeking a way to explain it all. In the last ten days, she'd been so caught up in the relief of having any Helena, she simply couldn't separate the two.
Eventually, she heard her father, dispensing one of his pearls of wisdom just before she'd gone off to debate camp in junior high: Keep it simple, Barbie.
She allowed the smile to touch her lips and stretched out her hand in invitation.
"I want you, Helena."
Hesitantly, Helena accepted the gesture, loosely tangling their fingers. They shared the quiet of the room, the hum from the clock radio barely penetrating the thick silence.
"How much do you remember, Helena?"
The younger woman's reaction suggested a great deal, but she didn't want to assume. The abruptness of Helena's movement when she suddenly stood almost drew a gasp from the redhead, but she managed to remain still. Shoulders rigid, the brunette stepped to the dressing bench and snagged Barbara's favorite lounging tee, jerking it over her head. Then she returned to the bed, tugging at the hem of the oversized shirt.
Barbara lifted her brows, and her companion dropped onto the edge of the bed with a noisy sigh.
A slender hand waved toward the living area of the tower.
Again, Barbara saw her partner tense, and Helena turned away, her words dropping to a low mutter.
"What I did."
Unable to stand it, she reached out, touching her lover's shoulder. Almost grudgingly, Helena turned, and Barbara's heart broke when she saw her facade crumble. Instantly, she scrabbled forward and enfolded her partner in her arms.
These reeling emotions they just keep me alive
They keep me in tune
Oh, look what I'm holding here in my fire
This is for you
So,since you want to be with me
You'll have to follow through
With every word you say
Barbara loosened her hold a tiny bit and pulled back just far enough to see her partner's face.
"What was that, Sweetie?"
Uncharacteristically, Helena wouldn't meet her eyes.
"I didn't mean to hurt you."
Instantly Barbara released her partner from her arms, raising her hands to cup her face.
"She used you, Helena."
The petulant stubbornness in her companion's face was so utterly Helena, that Barbara almost laughed. Instead, she remained grave.
"She had you do things you'd never normally do."
That finally drew a grudging nod, and blue eyes peeked from under thick lashes, a pert nose wrinkling in a sniffle.
"Yeah, she had me wearing white after Labor Day."
The words were sulky, and Barbara nodded seriously, relieved to feel the hint of a smile against her palms.
She'd play this out however Helena needed to, saving her own reactions and emotions for later.
"Had me doing homework again, too."
Finally lowering her hands, Barbara murmured a condolence.
"Pure evil, Hel."
Her partner's vigorous nod transformed into an expression of utter horror.
"I kissed Dinah!"
Her footing not quite so certain, the redhead spoke evenly.
"I think she'll survive."
The brunette grew serious then, and Barbara knew they'd reached the crux of matters.
Blue eyes filled with misery and shame sought hers.
"I cheated on you."
Her instinct was to deny or dismiss the claim, but she couldn't miss the obstinate set of her partner's jaw, and she knew that this was not the time to focus on what Quinn had perpetrated on Helena.
She allowed her eyes to track to the left while she replayed matters.
"I was unfaithful to you, too, Hel."
The brunette nodded slowly, cocking her head to one side.
Arching a brow, Barbara just waited, and Helena allowed her the out, quirking a grin.
"What was up with that, anyway?"
The truth -- that she apparently couldn't resist any incarnation of her friend -- was too much, so Barbara returned the grin.
"Temporal conundrum, I suppose."
The words you say to me are unlike anything
That's ever been said
And what you do to me is unlike anything
That's ever been
Am I too obvious to preach it?
You're so hypnotic on my heart
"I'm going to drop out of university, you know."
Reaching for her shirt, Barbara didn't even look over.
"Probably start wearing a helluva lot more leather."
She sensed that there was more and waited.
Barbara smiled as she pulled her hair from the collar.
"Seems sensible, Sweetie. Winter's on its way."
There might have been the barest hint of a huff from the younger woman as she transferred herself to her chair.
"I may start doing some jumping from tall buildings again."
She turned toward the door of the bedroom.
"It's the only way to fly, Hel."
This time the snort was unmistakable. It was followed by a long ribbon of red yarn waving in front of her.
"And, I'm not wearing this."
Barbara halted her progress toward the hallway long enough to retrieve the nascent scarf she'd started two weeks before.
"It might be for Dinah," she supplied airily.
Her partner's vocal yelp was everything she'd been missing.
"Hey! I want one, too."
So since you want to be with me
You'll have to follow through
With every word you say
And I, all I really want is you
For you to stick around
I'll see you everyday
Barbara had barely made it to the kitchen and popped open the airtight seal on the coffee container when the brunette skidded in.
"You still overdoing the caffeine, Red?"
Measuring out an extra scoop, she didn't pay much attention to what was clearly insanity.
The brunette was beside her in an instant, bending close to rest one hand on her abdomen.
"Is she okay? After all this?"
The pain engendered by the question was more than she'd expected. Still, it was understandable that there might be some... gaps.
"Helena -- "
The blue eyes so close to her widened, and Helena took a step back, raising her index finger.
"You've been all hardheaded, haven't you?"
The brunette's voice had resonated with what Barbara thought could have been self-righteous indignation.
That, or poorly suppressed laughter.
Baffled, damned near dizzy, Barbara pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger.
The younger woman carefully pried her hand loose and squatted beside her, bringing them to eye level. When she spoke, her voice was very gentle.
"Have you even talked to a doctor since the hospital?"
Clearly neither of them was quite ready to refer directly to Quinn's arrival.
"Things happened a little quickly after the hysterec-- "
Opting to ignore the fact that she'd been interrupted, Barbara arched one brow.
" 'Nuh uh'?"
Helena's growing smile -- dear heavens, was the young woman actually doting over her? -- did little to dispel Barbara's confusion. The slow shake of a dark head didn't help her exasperation.
Honestly, puzzles had quite lost their allure.
"I ran into Dr. Frine when I was going for your coffee. They didn't do the hysterectomy."
For one of a handful of times since the shooting, Barbara was grateful that she was permanently seated. Otherwise, her legs surely would have gone out from under her.
"They didn't -- ?"
And then Helena moved very close, bringing them eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose.
"No. When they opened you up, all sign of the cancer was gone."
Blinking furiously to focus at such close range, Barbara thought she might have detected a hint of preening in her partner's body language.
"Personally, I was thinking that the Peapod has some meta-human healing genes that she used on you."
So since you want to be with me
You'll have to follow through
With every word you say
And I, all I really want is you
For you to stick around
I'll see you everyday
Eventually, Barbara found her voice.
Blue eyes twinkled.
"We're still preg--"
She heard her voice rising in pitch and volume but couldn't have modulated it if she'd tried.
White teeth flashed.
Soundlessly, Barbara waved at the coffee maker.
Over a month before, it had been very vocally decided for her by the two younger women in the family that one cup a day would be allowable, and she certainly thought she needed it today.
Helena rose gracefully from her crouch and retrieved a filter, whistling the tune from the radio softly through her teeth. Still shell-shocked, Barbara didn't budge, watching the graceful economy of the other woman's movements as she finished measuring the coffee and poured water into the unit.
Dazed, confused, and not at all unhappy with the situation, Barbara realized that the words she heard just before Helena turned on the coffee maker didn't surprise her in the least.
"You know, maybe I won't drop my Eastern Art class after all."
So since you want to be with me
You'll have to follow through
With every word you say
And I, all I really want is you
Oh, this is the start of something good
Don't you agree?
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