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: Fourth part of the Elemental series following Landslide, Watershed and Windshear.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.


Chapter 1

Dead was dead.

Barbara Gordon had lived long enough to know that there were very few incontrovertible truths in life.

At some point in her life, many of the ideals and beliefs she'd most cherished had somehow proven... ephemeral. For example, while the analytical woman was loathe to admit it, contrary to popular teaching and all things politically correct, "no" sometimes could mean "yes". Perhaps even more difficult to admit was the realization that the good guys didn't always win.

Of course, disputable truths weren't limited to the philosophical and moral. As her first ward had demonstrated years before -- at the cost of a few grey hairs -- it wasn't instant destruction to put metal in the microwave. Years before that, in an experiment which she herself had constructed at the tender age of eight, she'd proven to her satisfaction that the Coriolis force was simply so much bunk: Water could be made to swirl down the drain in a clockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere.

Smiling wryly at the memory, the redhead acknowledged that it had been unfortunate indeed that her jury-rigged electromagnets had cracked the aged trap in the bathroom drain and her father had, accordingly, not shared her enthusiasm for the outcome of her scientific research.

Nevertheless, and setting aside the sometimes inevitable costs of debunking so-called truths, she had to admit that sometimes the snow did come down in June, and, depending on perspective, the sun could seem to go round the moon.

Pushing back a few inches from her perusal of her monitor, Barbara resolutely willed herself not to have a certain saccharin melody running through her mind even as, with a mental roll of her eyes, she allowed the song's lyrics to complete the bitter reflection on her work: The world was, indeed, a crazy place, but sometimes, the chance really had passed.

Death was incontestable, and there was simply nothing she could do about it.

Unfortunately, it also appeared that in this particular instance, there was nothing more she could do to honor or acknowledge the particular death. Since her unsettling visit to the morgue four days before and the discovery of The Joker's last victim -- the Jane Doe he'd intended Barbara to believe had been Helena -- she'd tried everything she could to determine the young woman identity.

Dental reconstruction through complex modeling programs had gone nowhere; fingerprint and corneal matches had been impossible; and using the latest real-time facial recognition technology which was used in casinos to spot card sharks had proven similarly fruitless. Now, with the last of her fleet of 'bots trickling back in from attempting DNA matches in every accessible database around the globe, the cyber-genius realized that she might have to admit defeat.

Wearily, Barbara straightened, blinking her eyes a few times to refocus after her intense, and undoubtedly over-close, scrutiny of her monitor. She deliberately eased the tension in her jaw, acknowledging that admitting defeat never got any easier, especially when doing so meant letting down those who were important to her.

A voluble crash from the other room distracted the redhead from her morose attempts to come up with yet another line of investigation, and she pinned the closed door to the training room with acute emerald eyes just as an angry shout resonated through the room.

"Goddammit! C'mon and hit me, Kid!"

Barbara felt her right eyebrow inching toward her hairline and exhaled slowly. Giving herself a moment, she removed her glasses, speculatively tapping one bow against her lower lip, wondering just what sort of training her two charges were engaged in. She was spared the need to investigate when the door to the training room swung open and the two younger women emerged, Helena still muttering grumpily.

"...not gonna get any kind of practice with you pulling your blows like that."

The leader of the small team of vigilantes instantly decided that silence was golden in this instance and contented herself with greeting the younger women with a smile as she observed their progress across the living area.

True to her fair complexion, Dinah was red from the three hour stint in the exercise room, her Bart Simpson tee dampened with sweat. Her answering smile seemed vaguely apologetic. Helena, naturally, showed far fewer signs of exertion, possibly due to her own unique physiology or due to the fact that Dinah hadn't challenged her sufficiently. Barbara decided that the smile which the brunette offered, as she leapt gracefully onto the platform which supported the Delphi while concurrently keeping its myriad cables out of sight, was decidedly eager.

"Hey, Red."

For some reason -- perhaps it had to do with the ends of the towel dangling from around Helena's neck and waving into the periphery of her vision -- the older woman felt herself stiffen when her ebullient partner bent down to buss her cheek. She immediately regretted the response and managed an apologetic smile even as the brunette straightened with a hasty apology of her own.

"Uh, sorry about the noise; we didn't mean to bother you."

The older woman briskly shook her head, aware of Dinah joining them on the platform.

"It's alright, Hel."

She reached out, resting a hand lightly on the brunette's forearm, pleased when she felt the tension ebb from the younger woman's stance.

"You saved me from beating my head against the mouse pad again."

"What are you working on?"

The teen's question was a bit breathy, the girl still winded from her workout. While she might not have been attacking at the level Helena had wanted, she'd obviously not been slacking off either during the long Saturday afternoon workout.

"DNA match for our Jane Doe."

Barbara kept it short, not missing the puzzled blink of cornflower blue eyes before Dinah abruptly caught her lower lip in her top teeth and ducked her head. Seeing Helena's expression hardening, she managed to lighten her tone a bit.

"Why in the name of everything sensible this country hasn't set up a centralized medical database is simply beyond..."

Fighting a smile as two pairs of blue eyes -- one pale, one dark -- rolled indulgently, she allowed the remainder of her diatribe to remain unspoken.

It was, after all, nothing the younger women hadn't heard before.

Certain that her current ward was more subdued than usual, the redhead debated for a split second before turning to catch the teen's eyes.

"Perhaps if you have time later, Dinah, you'd be willing to look over the search parameters I set for the 'bots? You just might see something I'm missing."

The shy duck of a blonde head and tentative smile which greeted the request warmed the older woman. Simultaneously, she couldn't suppress a momentary flash of anger against the individuals who had so dampened the amazing young woman's confidence.

"Uh, sure, Barbara. If, uhm,"

The girl nervously tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and smiled. With some difficulty, the redhead refrained from catching her ward's hand and staying her nervous gesture.

"... if you think I can help."

Barbara's reassurance was summarily cut off by the third person at the work center.

"Duh, Dinah. Of course you can."

The smile came a bit faster, seeming to spread a bit wider, and so Barbara simply nodded her agreement with the brunette's endorsement.

"Kewl! I'll take a look tonight."

The blonde seemed to straighten, growing a tiny bit taller.

Or, perhaps, the older woman decided with no small measure of amusement, it was simply Dinah's enthusiastic bouncing which gave an illusion of greater height.

A beat later, fearing emotional whiplash, Barbara blinked when the teen sobered -- from an emotional sixty miles per hour to ten miles per hour in a split second -- and caught her lower lip in her upper teeth.

"But, uhm, right now I was kind of wondering if, uh..."

Obviously feeling less patient, Helena broke in.

"C'mon, out with it."

The blonde colored extravagantly as she rushed through her request.

"if-we-could-all-talk-about-something. Maybe?"

Pale, hopeful, blue eyes peered through blonde lashes.

"Of cours--"

Barbara was, again, cut short.

"Like a team meeting or something?"

Aware of Dinah mirroring her movement, Barbara swung her gaze to the side to watch the effusive brunette park her shapely posterior on the edge of the table. Helena swung her legs at the knees, back and forth under the table, as she smiled winsomely.

"Cool. Duh-duh-da-da, duh-duh-da-da..."

A sharp look silenced the a capella rendition of the 'Mission Impossible' theme song. Unfortunately, not before whatever Dinah had started to say was lost.

She thought she'd heard the word "family".

While she freely admitted that she'd never been the speediest car on the emotional track, even Barbara grasped the blonde's nervousness. Accordingly, she caught her partner's eyes and pursed her lips in silent request. Without missing a beat, Helena hopped from the edge of the table and stepped to the edge of the platform.

"Kinda hungry, Kid. How about you, Red?"

The older woman nodded, even as Helena leapt gracefully from the platform, speaking over her shoulder on the way to the kitchen.

"May as well get something to eat before I go on sweeps then have to close down the Dark Horse. Again."

The last word carried clearly through the kitchen door, and Barbara exchanged a sympathetic smile with Dinah as they followed their partner to the kitchen.

Apparently, Leonard's generosity about time off had reached its limits during the dark vigilante's protracted absence during The Joker's rampage. At this point, Helena's boss seemed to be scheduling her for ridiculous hours and numerous shifts.

Somewhat to the redhead's surprise, the younger woman was taking the increased demands for her time in stride. Indeed, when Barbara had asked her about a triple shift two nights before, Helena had smiled easily and gestured toward the warranties drawer, which held the packet she'd brought to the tower two weeks before: "Still gotta pay off my half of that, y'know."

Nearing the door to the kitchen, the redhead flinched minutely when she heard the clang of a pan hitting the stove.

Apparently, cooking -- rather than snacking or reheating -- was on the agenda.

She exchanged a look with her young companion, not missing the way Dinah seemed to suck in a lungful of oxygen -- and calmly entered the kitchen. She found Helena emerging from the pantry closet with a box of what Barbara had come to think of as Meat Extender Helper. For approximately three-quarters of a minute, the redhead was presented with the smiling little oven mitt face on the front on the front of the box while her protege poured over the instructions on the back with a concentration which Barbara privately thought could have been reserved for deciphering cuneiforms.

Dinah eventually broke the stand-off, tugging the box from the brunette's hands.

"You brown the meat, Julia Child."

The redhead attempted to hide her chuckle over the little gibe under the guise of clearing her throat, resultantly almost missing her partner's somewhat peevish response as she ducked into the refrigerator.

"I knew that, Einstein."

"Hey! I was jus--"

Opting for distraction, Barbara cut the exchange short.

"You could always use tofu, Hel."

Honestly, she'd just been trying to be helpful. From the incredulous look she was receiving, it seemed like she'd suggested adding ground bugs to the casserole.

Resigned, she raised her hands in surrender.

"Fine. Animal flesh it is. What would you like me to do?"

"Set the table--"


The twin responses came with such alacrity -- not to mention vehemence -- that the older woman flirted with the possibility of taking offense. With a mental shrug, she acknowledged her culinary limitations and moved to the silverware drawer while her two proteges busied themselves with the cooking.

"I believe it's 'saute', not 'flambe', Hel," she noted mildly as she gathered the flatware and observed the height of the flames surrounding the brunette's frying pan.

"Potato. Pahtahto."

The sing-song response preceded the erupting grease fire by approximately two seconds, the screech of the smoke alarm by another five seconds or so. Sll three women moved into action: Barbara heading for the cabinet under the sink where the fire extinguisher was stored; Helena grabbing a box of baking soda from the cupboards; and Dinah fixing the stove with a look of fierce concentration. By the time the older woman had the cabinet door open and Helena had lifted her hand to retrieve the box of soda, the fire was out, presumably snuffed by the blonde's TK.

Raising her brows in question, the redhead caught cornflower blue eyes with hers. She received a shy nod of acknowledgement and smiled her thanks. Helena was less reserved.

"That's waaay cool, D."

Barbara turned to retrieve the silverware she'd scattered across the countertop while the teen's face flooded with color.

"It's nothing really."


The sarcastic acknowledgement was muffled by the refrigerator, where Helena was digging for something. The brunette emerged momentarily with a block of cheddar and a handful of produce, easily continuing the thread of the conversation.

"So you don't, uh, feel the heat or anything through your TK?"

Suspecting that she knew the answer but curious nevertheless, Barbara circumspectly watched the teenager as she pushed her newly shagged hair behind her ear. Regrettably, the gesture provided an all-too-vivid reminder of the recent physical run-in with fire which both of her proteges had recently undergone; however, she pushed those thoughts aside as blonde brows furrowed.

"No, I guess not."

Starting some flashy knife-work on a handful of fresh mushrooms -- Barbara assumed the vegetables were a nod to her less carnivorous tastes -- Helena cheerfully plowed along on her line of questioning.

"Okay, then, when you do a, uhm, TK poke, how do you know how hard to make it?"

The leader of the little team pursed her lips against a smirk as she retrieved three wine glasses to the accompaniment of Dinah's laughter.

"Barbara had me practice on tomatoes for a while, then I moved on to hard boiled eggs."

The redhead turned back to the kitchen in time to see cobalt eyes light up in comprehension.

"So that was the deal with all of the egg salad we were having for a while, huh?"

This time, Barbara didn't try to restrain her laughter.

"I didn't hear you complaining about all of the sandwiches you were wolfing down, Sweetie."

The brunette made a face, pointedly touching her tongue to her gumline above her upper teeth.

"I thought there was egg shell in there."

Transporting the mushrooms and onions which Helena had just chopped to the skillet using her TK, Dinah burst into laughter again, and Barbara prepared herself for a spill. The teen's concentration held, and the produce made its way into the pan as Helena looked up from her work at the cheese grater.

"So, you know the way you used your TK to get between the bubble goo and people, and you pushed it off?"

There was a quick nod of a blonde head, and Barbara held her breath in anticipation, not missing the admiration which had been evident in the brunette's question.

"Could you do that with egg shells and hard-boiled eggs?"

"I don't know. I never really thought about it."

The redhead passed three plates to the blonde, who began ladling copious portions of the impromptu casserole onto them as she continued thoughtfully, "I might need a crack in the shell or something..."

Easily noting the eager light in her former ward's cobalt eyes, Barbara resolutely turned toward the wine rack and retrieved a bottle of red with a laugh.

"Before we're all eating egg salad again for the next few days," she settled herself at the table as the two younger women joined her, "let's enjoy this."

It was at some point during Helena's second helping, while Barbara endeavored to keep up with the mushrooms which somehow kept moving from the brunette's plate to her own, that a hesitant question came from across the table.

"Uh, do you guys think I should go to the dance tomorrow?"

The redhead sipped from her wine glass, attempting to decipher the subtext behind the question. Since Dinah's inquiry had, seemingly, come from out of the blue, she suspected that it had to do with whatever the girl had attempted to broach at the Delphi earlier. However, for the life of her, she couldn't fathom why her ward would be so nervous about the seniors' pre-graduation dance.

"I thought you already asked Gabby to go with you."

As usual, Helena managed to cut straight to the heart of the matter, and a light bulb went off for the analytical woman. She casually placed the tines of her fork on the edge of her plate.

"Indeed, Dinah," she offered an open smile, "isn't it a done deal?"

There had, after all, been myriad whispered telephone conversations between the two teens over the course of the last month, not to mention not one but three shopping trips with Helena to locate the perfect dress for the formal affair.

The teen fidgeted with her water and shifted in her chair, refusing to meet the older woman's eyes.

"It's just, well, we've never gone to a school dance..."

There was the briefest of hesitations before Dinah finished her statement, her voice almost a whisper.


Inclining her head slightly to the right, Barbara considered her ward for a moment and then plunged ahead.

"Are you concerned about the reaction you might receive as a same-sex couple, Dinah?"

The almost guilty blink of pale lashes was confirmation enough.

"Because, if that's the case, don't forget about the school's tolerance policy. I'm sure that you'd be..."

Immediately pinned by two identical looks -- one from eyes as light as the summer afternoon sky, the other from eyes as dark as the sea -- both expressing incredulous disbelief that any one person could be so clueless, the redhead decisively shut her mouth. Very calmly, she turned to her partner, doing her best to telegraph her expectation that Helena needed to come up with something better.

She wasn't disappointed.

"Don't sweat it, Kid. Anybody who's enough of a jerk to hassle you? Just remember -- "

The teen perked to attention, and even Barbara found herself leaning in a bit in anticipation.

"-- you can out think them, out fight 'em, or you just won't be seeing them after graduation anyway."

The older woman felt her eyes sparkle appreciatively when Dinah responded to the brunette's infectious grin with a tentative smile.


The young woman sitting next to Barbara popped the last bite of casserole in her mouth and dabbed at her lips with a napkin.

"Really, Kid. Take it from me. You're gonna leave those jerks in the dust."

Chapter 2

Talking away
I don't know what I'm to say
I'll say it anyway
Today's another day to find you
Shying away
I'll be coming for you love, Okay

Take on me
Take me on
I'll be gone
in a day or two

So needless to say I'm odds and ends
But that's me, stumbling away
Slowly learning that life is okay
Say after me
It's no better to be safe than sorry.

Catching herself tapping one long index finger against the arm of her chair in time to the music blaring from the speakers, Barbara abruptly stilled the movement and indulged herself by rolling her eyes at herself. Then, with a mental shrug, she resumed her motion.

The bouncy 1980's A-Ha classic was, after all, a perennial favorite for senior dances.

Having chaperoned her fair share of the events, the English teacher felt comfortably safe in classifying herself as an expert on the topic of graduation dance play lists. She didn't know why 80's music was so popular for this particular annual dance; however, since Billy Vera and The Beaters' "At This Moment" had filled the hotel ballroom earlier in the evening, if she were any judge of matters --

The redhead hid her smirk behind a faux-crystal punch cup as Spandau Ballet's "True" came over the sound system, slowing the pace of the dancing considerably. As if the melody weren't indication enough, she surreptitiously checked her watch, confirming that the dance should be winding down in another half an hour or so.

Smiling indulgently as she took in the sea of bodies filling the New Gotham Regency Hotel's main ballroom, she eased her way along the perimeter of the room, tacking in on the refreshment table. Once there, she nodded at Mrs. Giles, and the two shared a smile over the hundred and fifty or so young people before them, all looking so grown up and eager at this last official school function before graduation.

With tiny sigh, Barbara dipped the ladle deeply back into the bowl of vile punch, refilling her cup and raising it to her lips. An instant later, she nearly spewed the red liquid across her cream pantsuit. Swallowing with some difficulty and coughing so hard she feared that a lung might come up, the redhead decisively set her cup on the table and retreated, making a mental to note to suggest that someone else be tasked with supervising the refreshment table next year.

Obviously, Mrs. Giles acumen in the machine shop didn't extend to watching the punch bowl: once again, the cloyingly sweet fruit concoction had been spiked.


And, Barbara decided as she delicately ran her tongue over her teeth and detected a certain... squeakiness, possibly with Windex.

Tradition or no, it was simply too foul for words.

Balefully, she surveyed the remaining foodstuffs on the refreshment table, likening the carnage to the effects a swarm of locusts might have on a field of crops. Dismissing the warm deviled eggs and broken cookies as unlikely candidates for cleansing her palate, the redhead dug into the pocket on the side of her chair in the hopes of discovering a long-forgotten box of Tic Tacs or a pack of gum. Her search gradually stilled when she caught sight of two of the dancers on the floor.

In her ten years in the classroom -- which had included chaperoning her fair share of dances and events -- Barbara had witnessed young love in countless incarnations: The ever-popular jock-cheerleader couple; the sweetly goofy science nerds; the oddly workable punk-preppy matches; even the occasional Latin club-Goth combination. Over the years, she'd continued to smile indulgently as she watched them holding hands in the hallways, swaying -- or grinding -- together at the dances, text messaging across the classroom, and exchanging kisses -- and more -- in the hidden nooks of the hallways which each generation of students seemed to believe that the faculty were unaware of.

Whether in the throes of first love or the comfort of long association -- although the English teacher acknowledged that, in high school, "long term" did adopt a new meaning -- the couples were invariably earnest about feelings never before shared.

And, ninety-eight percent of the time, they were strictly male-female.

NGHS was no stranger to same-sex couples, and it had, gradually, begun to acknowledge and support its gay students: The district's tolerance policy -- something Barbara had help draft two years before -- was one indicator of changing attitudes; the presence of a small, but boisterous, GLBT student club another.

Nevertheless, watching the couple on the dance floor swaying to the romantic lyrics amid the crowd of heterosexual couples, Barbara had to admit that the sight of a gay or lesbian couple at a school dance was... rare. While there had been a few brave same-sex couples at school dances in the last few years -- if she weren't mistaken, the outpouring had peaked during the end of the Clinton administration -- they usually seemed to frequent the more upbeat events: rallies, sock hops, and dance contests.

Events, her mind efficiently supplied, without the overt romanticism of slow dances.

With that thought, the redhead instantly decided that there was all the more reason to admire the courage and conviction -- or, perhaps, it was simply a youthfully optimistic belief in acceptance -- of those who chose to attend the more formal dances. She certainly had to admire the two young women moving in and out of view in the crush of bodies on the dance floor.

In all honesty, and reassurances she'd offered during dinner the night before notwithstanding, Barbara had experienced a flicker of nervousness when she'd seen Gabby and Dinah make their entrance an hour or so after the event had begun. Suspecting that she'd observed a similar emotion in her ward's pale features, she'd sternly told herself to roll on in to the 21st century and had matter-of-factly approached the young women with a warning about the quality of the punch. When Gabby had responded with a crack about having no place to carry a canteen for school dances -- the curly-haired teen sometimes reminded Barbara a bit too much of Helena -- the tension had broken.

Now, she had to admit that she was pleased that Dinah had collected her nerve and come, and she suspected that the blonde shared the sentiment.

The two girls were lovely together, their affection clear in the comfort of their movements and the soft, circumspect kisses Barbara had observed. With her head resting on the taller girl's shoulder, Gabby's curly brown hair blended with gold, a sweet metaphor for their intimacy. Both had clearly pulled out all the stops in planning their outfits: Gabby in a silver and green chiffon dress which the English teacher distantly thought might favor her own coloring; and Dinah in something blue and slinky enough to convince her that Helena had, in an uncharacteristic fit of playing well with others, dug through her closet and shared.

In the course of the dance, as she'd casually patrolled the perimeter of New Gotham's most elite hotel's ballroom, Barbara had observed only one potentially difficult moment for the two young women, about twenty-five minutes after they had arrived. Will Thorton and several of his teammates had crowded the two on the dance floor, their approach full of enough swagger to spur Barbara onto the floor to cut the interaction short. However, before she'd penetrated the first layer of discoing bodies, she'd witnessed Dinah saying something which had caused the young men promptly to turn tail and slink away.

The redhead had immediately made a mental note to find out just what her innocent young charge had come up with to such effect. Clearly, the words were worthy of a Nobel nomination.

Or, at least, a Pulitzer.

Now, with the event winding down, the redhead gave herself a few minutes to admire the two young women, struck by the odd sensation of something in her chest concurrently contracting... and seeming to expand to encompass a host of emotions.

Forcing herself not to dismiss the feelings, she admitted that it was not just the girls' courage which impressed her so. Despite her sheltered and less-than-pleasant background, Dinah had naturally and easily -- or, as easily as any teenager exploring first romance -- found someone she cared for. Without worrying unduly about gender and discrimination, the young telepath had embraced the relationship, accepting love as it came to her. In so doing, she demonstrated so much more than courage.

With a nearly soundless snort, Barbara wondered where that sort of ability came from. Heaven knew, her own stubborn blindness had forced her to take twice as long to begin to approach the self-acceptance which the willowy slip of a girl exhibited.

With a rueful shake of her head, she resumed her circuit of the room, mentally giving thanks for Helena's patience.

Not to mention her persistence.

That thought, coinciding as it did with the DJ's choice for the next track, slowed the redhead's progress. Recognizing the song's thumping under beat and immediately identifying the vocalist, she came to a stop near a fire exit, feeling a distinct hint of color touch her cheeks.

"Take Me To The River."

Annie Lennox's whiskey vocal filled the room, immediately bringing to mind her own current favorite piece by the artist: "Whiter Shade of Pale", a song which she and Helena had danced to in the training room only a few weeks before.

The two had just finished their mid-week workout -- Dinah had been at some school function -- and, at the time, Barbara had snorted in disbelief when her partner had suggested an impromptu "prom". Despite an instinctive grace on the gymnastic circuit, she'd never been able to relax on the dance floor, had simply never been a dancer.

Well, until Helena.

When the brunette had ignored her self-depreciating comments about being in possession of two left wheels, dimming the lights and programming the CD player, her embarrassed response had slowly transformed to something else. Still in her workout gear -- running pants with a red and white stripe down the outside of the legs and a tight white tank dampened from her workout -- Helena had turned from the boom box with a sultry smile.

Even now, in a very public venue, surrounded by sharp-eyed students, Barbara couldn't stop her infallible memory from supplying the way her heart had pounded as the younger woman had swayed to her, catching the arms of her chair in her strong hands and beginning a never-ending slow spin. Somehow, it had been effortless to relax into the moment and the motion.

By the middle of the song, Helena had been in her lap, allowing Barbara to lead. By the final chords of the melody, the two had tumbled to the mats on the floor, moving to an entirely different rhythm.

A whisper of movement in the periphery of her vision and the tiniest of giggles drew the redhead from her mental perambulation in time to catch the tail end of laughing words.

"... just gets lost in her own head."

Painting on a smile, she executed a sharp forty-five degree turn and pinned her observers with a fond glance.

"I'm busted."

Dinah laughed outright while Gabby, perhaps still a bit nervous around her girlfriend's guardian, who happened to have been her teacher the year before, managed a nervous smile. Barbara felt her own smile widen.

"Gabby. Dinah. Are you enjoying yourselves?"

Judging from the smiles which had been permanent fixtures on the girls' faces throughout the evening, the question was obviously otiose. Nevertheless, politeness demanded it.

"It's great--"

"-- amazing. I mean, this has been so fun and everybody, or mostly everybody's, been really cool, and I'm so glad that you and Hel convinced me, uh -- "

Having cut off Gabby's reply, Dinah abruptly halted her own effusive reply, her fair features pinking noticeably. Possibly, the older woman surmised, Dinah hadn't yet told Gabby how close she'd come to backing out of the affair.

"Yes, the blue is the perfect choice for you," she supplied.

The startled blink of pale blue eyes, followed immediately by a silent nod of thanks, suggested that Barbara wasn't the only one surprised by her uncharacteristically smooth save. The slow shake of curly brown hair signaled the third member of the group's puzzlement with the non-verbal exchange, nevertheless, Gabby easily refocused the conversation.

"We're getting ready to head out for, uh, pancakes and wanted to touch base."

The redhead nodded, then raised a hand in the universal sign for 'stop' as the two waved and turned toward the door.

"Have either of you had any punch in the last hour?"

They did not need to be driving -- especially in her Hummer -- if they'd so much as sniffed the doctored beverage.

"No, Ms. Gordon."

"No, why?"

Nodding her approval and ignoring the blonde's question, Barbara smiled and waved them on their way. Concurrently, and with not-inconsiderable relief, she recognized the opening strains of a familiar melody and knew that she, too, could soon depart. While pancakes were not on her agenda for the evening, her bed was beckoning, as was the hope that Helena might be free of her double at the bar a bit early.

Approximately two hours later, blissfully relaxed in a cocoon of covers, the redhead felt herself being drawn from slumber by a sense of... something. Grudgingly, she pried open heavy lids and nearly jumped backwards out of the bed when she found herself pinned by glittering yellow eyes.

A trifle peevishly, the analytical woman supposed that she'd been saved from a resounding crash onto the floor only by her legs' refusal to follow her upper body.

The dark head resting on the pillow ducked sheepishly towards the covers.

"I was watching you sleep."


The younger woman's apologetic tone -- presumably matched by her trademark hang-dog expression -- simply evaporated the redhead's grumpiness, and she smiled fondly.

It was, after all, high time for Helena to be home.


The exhalation warmed the older woman, and she allowed her eyes to droop shut, committed to returning to the arms of morpheus. For a minute and a half, she gave it the old college try before realizing that it was simply no use: The awareness of being watched weighed heavily on her -- a habit from early childhood -- and her eyes inexorably cracked open.

In the light of the full moon peeking through the blackout curtains, she detected an apologetic smile on perfect cupid's bow lips.

"I can, uh, pretend to sleep."

The older woman smiled sadly, knitting their fingers between them and pulling their joined hands to her chest.

"Don't ever pretend for me, Hel."

Silence reigned for a few moments.

"Did the dance go okay?"

The redhead nodded briefly, confident that her sharp-eyed companion would see the movement.

"Punch was spiked with some dreadful hooch."

She easily saw the glitter of even white teeth as the brunette smiled.

"Nothing as tasty as peach schnapps," she added with a chuckle.

Even years ago, Helena had had the heart of a mixologist.

"Yeah, well not everybody can handle a mouthful."

Contenting herself with a smirk over the bad pun, Barbara traced her index finger across the sharp delineation of her partner's knuckles.

"They ended the dance with 'Moon River'," she added, not certain quite why.

"It's a classic," was a soft confirmation.

This time, Barbara's smile was more genuine as her mind presented images from the evening for her inspection.

"Dinah and Gabby were really... "

The older woman stumbled, hunting for the right words. Her companion remained quiet, waiting patiently.

"..beautiful together."

The younger woman inched closer, sandwiching their joined hands between their chests. Barbara could feel the strong beat of her partner's heart against the tendons in the back of her hand.

"That's good."

The acknowledgement came on a wistful sigh.


The older woman felt as much as heard a slow shake of chestnut hair on the pillow beside her.

"It's just a shame that Gabby's going to State, you know?"

The older woman hummed a soft agreement.

"It does have the best photo-journalism program in the five state area."

"I guess -- "

The smaller woman accompanied the admission by shifting forward, and Barbara felt a gentle kiss brush her fingers.

"-- but I'd sure hate to be that far from you."

Even as she warmed at the sentiment, the redhead felt herself stiffen a bit, then stiffen further in reaction to her response.

She knew that she -- they -- had been... reticent in the last week or so, however it simply seemed that her body and emotions had crashed after the fallout from the week before. Helena had been more than understanding, to a point that Barbara was beginning to feel shamed about the situation. In the last few days, she'd noticed the sensual young woman watching her from under hooded eyes, yet, Helena never seemed to meet her eyes in need or want.

Exhaling soundlessly, she disentangled her hand and roughly pushed her hair back from her face.

It was time, if not at this exact moment, then very soon, to act. Things had been entirely too tentative, too tired, too... tremulous.


The word blazed across the analytical woman's forebrain in three foot neon letters, and she squeezed her eyes in dismay.

Where on earth had that come from?

A soft touch against her cheek guided her back to the moment, to the safe haven of the bed and her lover's arms.

"You okay?"

She blinked at the soft burr, feeling the fine hair on her arms rising a bit in reflex.

"You just got kind of, uh, tense there."

The older woman drew a deep breath, debating whether to dismiss the other woman's concerns. Ultimately, she couldn't do so, shakily admitting some of the truth.

"It's hard to put it behind me."

It was true: Seven plus years of jumping at clown shaped shadows wouldn't dissolve overnight.

The smaller woman exhaled quietly, then stretched forward to rest her cheek against the redhead's shoulder.

"Yeah. Gonna take some time."

Relieved, comforted by the easy acceptance, the redhead mustered a small, sleepy smile then felt the expression become decidedly forced as she recognized the truth of the matter.

Like nothing else, The Joker's attempted ploy had certainly shown that time couldn't be taken for granted.

Chapter 3

<"Do we have time for another one?">

Emerald eyes automatically flicked from the police dispatch screen, then to the scrolling updates from the city's private security agencies, and then to the EMS scanner, weighing the relatively minor amount of crime on the streets this night against her partner's request.

"Go ahead, Huntress. It's still quiet."

Since the end of The Joker's madcap crime spree a week before, the normally crime-ridden city had been almost eerily quiet. While the cyber-vigilante -- and her partner on the street -- had yet to complain about the situation, Barbara was still anxiously poised for a rebound in criminal activity.

<"Copy that. We're going to hit the Washington Street overpass.">

With a murmur of acknowledgement, the redhead tuned out the desultory conversation coming over the comms, wondering -- again -- if having Dinah out on sweeps at this time was such a good idea: The girl had been... raw since her last outing.

Granted, the last outing -- eight nights before -- had included scouting The Joker's hideout and watching Helena seemingly caught in an exploding building. There were reasons galore for the teen to be wary of hitting the streets again and, as far as the leader of the small team could discern, no real reason for her to be out.

Dinah and Helena, of course, had had a different perspective when they'd approached her earlier in the evening about having the teen accompany the dark vigilante on her routine grid sweep. Mercifully, between the healing burns on the young telepath's hands and the brunette's work schedule, the issue hadn't come up in the last week, and, quite frankly, Barbara hadn't seen the need for the question to arise on this particular quiet Tuesday evening.

When she'd suggested as much, Helena had had a ready reply.

"C'mon, Red, it'll be her last time to be a High School superhero."

For some reason, the insouciantly cajoling words had caught the older woman off guard as she'd placed her dinner dishes in the dishwasher.

Perhaps a bit of dish soap had gotten in her eyes, for something had caused a burning sensation, and while she waited for it to abate, she realized that perhaps her two young charges wanted -- or needed -- this bit of bonding time on the night before Dinah's graduation.

While she hadn't immediately capitulated to the request, she suspected all three of them had known the outcome was never in doubt. Nevertheless, the older woman hoped that, marking the end of her phase as a "high school superhero" aside, Dinah would soon relax her vigilance, her seeming eagerness to join the life.

If nothing else, perhaps the girl would give herself the chance to enjoy her first year -- or four -- at college as a relatively average student, someone consumed with normal activities rather than, as Barbara had been, constantly juggling the demands of academics, socialization, and crime fighting.

The redhead could testify that, in that particular attempt to keep the balls in the air, socialization was usually the first to fall, and she didn't want Dinah to lose the valuable opportunities simply to be which she, herself, had dismissed as unimportant in the face of justice.

As she ruthlessly dragged an entire subdirectory from her K drive to the Delphi's garbage directory, the cyber-crime fighter smirked in satisfaction before noting the time on her on-screen display. Temporarily stilling her electronic housekeeping, she toggled her comms microphone on.

"Huntress? Canary? Do you copy?"


<"I copy, Oracle.">

The redhead blinked as her partners in the field answered in stereo, then collected herself.

"Any luck at the overpass?"

The disgusted rush of breath which whistled through the headset, while a bit less vehement than a raspberry, provided all the information that the redhead needed. Still, Helena tacked on a verbal update.

<"Oh yeah. It's just a regular ol' clutopia here with the winos.">

Straightening her shoulders, the older woman inhaled slowly, opting to ignore the frustrated bitterness in the young crime fighter's words. She certainly understood her partner's disillusionment: for the last week, during every sweep she'd run, Helena had carried a digitally enhanced likeness of the Jane Doe from the morgue. Between foiling muggings and robberies, she'd trolled underpasses and church steps, video arcades and bars, questioning the homeless and the young as she tried to put a name, an identity, to the girl who had died so horribly in The Joker's last cruel prank.

After her second night of futile searching, the brunette had approached Barbara, her eyes steely, her expression determined, quietly insisting that she was going to pay for her doppelganger's funeral even as they continued to try to identify her. Stunned by her partner's proclamation -- although later the redhead had wondered why she would be surprised by Helena's reaction -- Barbara had simply nodded her understanding, asking if she could contribute to the costs as well.

"Why don't you try the youth center off Lincoln Park?" she suggested quietly.

During her too-infrequent volunteer work there, she'd seen a constantly fluctuating crowd of runaways and homeless teens... and pre-teens. It was certainly possible that they'd recognize the girl in the computer enhanced image.

A marginally less aggrieved acknowledgement through the comms coincided with a flutter of something... unpleasant in the redhead's chest. Once again toggling her mic to standby, she sat upright, brows knitting as she worked to identify what had sparked the flicker of discomfort. Moments later, when her relentlessly practical mind provided the answer, she felt her brows crawl toward her hairline.

The youth center certainly seemed like a decent possibility for a lead, given how young the poor girl whom The Joker had murdered had seemed. And, therein lay the crux of the matter: The doppelganger which they'd laid to rest had resembled Helena.

Despite her desire to let the matter rest, Barbara felt her brain relentlessly ticking off the points of the theorem... or proof.

a) The girl who was supposed to be Helena was young.
b) The girl had resembled her partner... her lover.

QED: Helena -- the woman she had been guardian and mentor to -- was... young.

Resettling her glasses with a grimace, Barbara allowed irritation to displace her discomfort.

Honestly, how long would she be plagued by her --

The redhead's hand, on its way to the mouse, froze in midair as she searched for the word.

Guilt? The word seemed a bit strong.

Discomfort? Well, the age difference was noticeable.

Awareness? Exactly. Her awareness of the years separating her younger lover and herself had yet to abate.

Still, having at least identified the correct term to describe the issue, the analytical woman felt herself ease marginally. Since she obviously wouldn't be resolving the issue immediately, she allowed her hand to complete its journey to the mouse and returned to her work tidying the Delphi's hard drives. During the course of her frenzied, nearly nonstop, vigil during The Joker's rampage, the system had gotten more disorganized than she preferred, and with the current dearth of crime, it was the perfect time to do some tidying.

Not to mention the fact that it was the traditional time of year for spring cleaning.

Backtracking through the P drive, where she quite logically stored puzzles and programs-in-progress, she slowed the bat wing pointing icon above one subdirectory, then clicked to open it.

Her encryption-decryption routines.

For a few beats, she ticked through the neatly organized modules and mini-bases she'd been working on to use carbohydrate structures to seed a random number generator. When she absently noted the system date stamps for each file, the cyber-genius felt her jaw drop a tiny bit.

Had it only been a little over two weeks since she'd been engaged by this puzzle?

With that thought came the realization that it had also only been two weeks since rock climbing and rope play and semi-regular dates and relaxed ease. The cyber-vigilante felt her brows crease as she straightened, rotating the stiffness from her neck and attempting to reconcile everything from the last few months: changing perceptions, burgeoning trust, and... death.

Dear heavens. She needed a vacation.

The redhead bit her lips, resisting what she suspected would have been a slightly wild giggle, and contented herself with a wan smile.

When was the last time she'd actually had a vacation? Not a work-related convention or a trip to visit universities or some such practical reason for travel, but an actual vacation?

If memory served, it had been over five years before, a late summer trip to tour Boston with her pointedly indifferent ward. The recent high school graduate has dismissed the city as "too educational", and it had taken trips to the Salem Witch museum and three cemeteries to persuade her otherwise. Thus, even if it had been incidentally educational and Barbara had also rolled a visit with Carolyn into the trip, it still had been essentially a pleasure excursion.

Too damned long.

A low growl tickled her ear through the comms and she came to attention, eyes flickering from one monitor to another. As usual, according to official sources, NG was its usual law-abiding self.

"Do you have something, Huntress? Canary?"

The whispered reply carried a clear note of relish.

<"Mugger. Time for some ass kicking.">

The older woman felt a smile ghost her lips at her partner's enthusiasm for... justice.

<"Have fun, Huntress.">

The brunette's enthusiastic response, almost lost under the rush of air signaling one of her showy leaps from a rooftop, suggested that it wouldn't take the brunette long to wrap up the encounter. Accordingly, Barbara checked the GPS, preparing to transmit the coordinates for NGPD to dispatch a black and white to pick up the unfortunate mugger.

An indignant male shout, cutting through the sound of blows, stayed her actions.

<<"I know you! You got my boss killed, you fucking bitch!">>

A crimson brow shot skyward, even as the woman at the computer recognized that it would take a while to collect all of the lackeys who had been working for The Joker.

<"Wrong, asshole! He almost got everybody -- including you -- killed!">

Helena's angry retort almost -- almost -- covered the softer sound of Dinah's whimper. Barbara clenched her jaw in frustration as a rivulet of cold sweat trickled down her chest.

It had been too near a miss the week before.

Collecting herself, willing herself to focus on the fact that it had been a miss, the analytical woman hit the <Send> key for police dispatch, then spoke briskly.

"Let's wrap it up. Police are on their way."

Within thirty seconds, Helena had cuffed the man -- albeit, judging from his pained grunts, none-too-gently -- and returned to the rooftops.

<"All tied up in a bow, Oracle. Want us to wait for the boys in blue?">

A blinking notification of high priority mail temporarily distracted the cyber-crime fighter, however she controlled her curiosity long enough to confirm the whereabouts of New Gotham's finest.

"That shouldn't be necessary, Huntress. They're only two blocks away."

<"Copy that. We're back on track to the youth center.">

Acknowledging the update, Barbara toggled open her in-box and opened the latest message. It was an automatic dispatch from one of the sniffers she'd planted throughout New Gotham's net hubs two weeks before to monitor for suspicious traffic relating to The Joker.

Apparently, the madman was dead but not forgotten.

The redhead spared a moment to check the location of her partners in the field, confirming that they had reached the youth center. Satisfied that all should be quiet on that end for a bit, she allowed her mouse pointer to hover over the link provided by her 'bot for a few seconds. Eventually, and with a distinct sense of trepidation, she clicked and waited the nanoseconds required to access the site through her T-10 connection.

"Great gumballs!"

Barbara really hadn't intended to shout.. or even to speak aloud... just as she hadn't anticipated the shudder which ran through her when the image of their deceased green-haired nemesis appeared on-screen. Nevertheless, she clearly got her partners' attention.

<"Oracle? What's up?">

<"Are you okay, Ba-- Oracle?">

Long fingers already flying over the keyboard, the leader of the small team pursed her lips, noticing both that, despite any concerns over her exclamation, Helena had not broken protocol while Dinah nearly had.

But, only "nearly". The teen was certainly becoming quite facile with the demands of the life.

"I'm fine, Huntress. Canary. And, I didn't mean to interrupt -- "

Barbara trailed off for a moment as she finished hacking into the site.

"I ran across a site on the net selling bubble gum guns," she continued a bit distractedly as she embedded a redirect at the site which would divert web-browsers to a site with the recipe which Dinah had perfected for repelling the goo.

<"Freakin' unbelievable. Don't people know how sick that stuff--">

A silent alarm drew the cyber-vigilante's attention, although she suspected that she had the gist of Helena's reaction, and she smoothly cut in.

"Are you two free? We have a silent at the 24-7 Mart on West Boulevard."

Not surprisingly, the brunette didn't seem at all off put about being interrupted.

<"Oh, yeah. We're on it.">

Barbara spared a smile for her partner's zeal before directing her attention back to the web site offering those with more money than sense access to the vile substance which The Joker had tormented New Gotham with. For almost ninety seconds, she stared at the screen with its flashy multimedia graphics and slick credit card security features. At almost the exact moment she heard Helena and Dinah arrive at the convenience store, she pushed aside her qualms and programmed tracking software to notify her about every purchase.

Musings on the Fourth Amendment and privacy issues were temporarily pushed aside when she realized that Helena and Dinah were still at the store. From the sounds over the comms, the brunette was dispatching justice in a leisurely fashion to the would-be robber while Dinah observed from outside the store.

"Huntress? Canary? What's the situation?"

The first part of the teen's update was remarkably sunny.

<"Oh, Huntress is just, uh, talking with the -- Oh no!">

Before she had time to blink, Barbara heard the teen running, her shout of warning too loud over the comm unit.

<"Huntress, watch out! Second perp behind you!">

A startled grunt was the only response from the dark vigilante; however, the redhead had to admit that the sound of a gunshot had probably obscured whatever Helena had to add. Not so for the youngest member of the crime fighting team.

<"Hey you! Back off. Nobody messes with -- ">

<"It's okay, Canary; I've got--">

A sickening, wet thud, coinciding with a high-pitched male scream cut short the brunette's reassurances. Unsettlingly, the screaming abruptly ended, the silence afterward almost deafening.

<"Oh, shit...">

Helena's words were a mere whisper, and Barbara spoke roughly.

"Huntress, I need an update."

She heard Dinah's soft whimpers -- something about not meaning to -- in stereo as the brunette presumably neared her partner in the field.

<"S'okay, Kid. He'll be okay.">

Trusting Helena's judgment about what was most important, the redhead bit down on her impatience, listening to the more experience woman in the field as she comforted the teen. A flicker on the GPS and the softest scuff of boots suggested that the two were moving -- slowly -- from the store, and Barbara absently noted that the police were, finally, responding to the silent alarm.

<"Oracle? You there?">

The cyber-crime fighter exhaled slowly before speaking.

"I copy, Huntress. Are you and Canary clear? NGPD are on their way."

<"We're clear and, uh, okay.">

Scarcely realizing that she was doing so, Barbara caught the hair at the side of her neck and pushed it back as she straightened, waiting for the rest of it.

<"You'd better dispatch EMS, too.">

The redhead did so, and heard the younger woman deliberately lighten her tone.

<"Canary here really walloped that guy saving my butt back there.">

Reassured somewhat and distinctly warmed by the pride in the brunette's words, Barbara slowly removed her glasses, positioning them carefully on the mouse pad.

"Good save, Canary, but why don't you both head in for the night?"

While the teen seemed to be calming, Barbara guiltily reminded herself that her ward still had school the next day. Even if it was the last day of the semester and activities would be limited to turning in textbooks and exchanging addresses with friends, there was absolutely no reason for Dinah to fall asleep at her own graduation the next evening.

Chapter 4

Considering that this particular ceremony should be a joyous occasion, Barbara had never fully understood the choice of the dirge-like "Pomp & Circumstance" as the inevitable background music. Watching another proud senior crossing the dais, the redhead idly wondered if Sir Edward Elgar had really understood the import that his six-minute March Number One would have on the world.

While it did, indeed, exhibit both the pride and the melancholy appropriate for the transition of graduation, there was only so much of it which should be allowed. Honestly, it was akin to repeating "Here Comes The Bride" throughout a lengthy wedding.

With her perfect memory automatically supplying the number of graduates being honored in this year's ceremony, Barbara found herself calculating the number of beats per minute in the march, each graduate's walking speed averaged against distance covered, and the mean number of words spoken to honor each student. She effortlessly ran the math, arriving at a total with a mental groan. A split second later, when she realized that she'd forgotten to carry a one in her mental calculations, she emitted a whimper which was, she realized with a blush, almost sub vocal.

Two seats away, Maggie Moore apparently heard the inopportune protest, and Barbara's fellow English teacher leaned out and shot her a sympathetic smile. Between them, Mr. Smithers from the Biology department seemed to have missed her vocalization.

Perhaps his quiet snoring had masked the sound for him.

The march cycled to the beginning, and Barbara concentrated on tuning it out, quite certain that -- regardless of her willpower -- she would find herself humming it for the rest of the week and into the beginning of summer school on Monday.

At least it was a better choice than a few years ago when, in a fit of experimentation, the band director had alternated Pachibel's Canon with the school fight song for the entire procession.

Now, that had truly been a headache-inducing ceremony. Unlike, she noted, this evening's which had been well-orchestrated and well-behaved so far.

Barbara estimated that about ten percent of the graduates sported the requisite stylized bats on their mortar boards: for some reason, they were always more popular than the school's actual Dark Knight mascot. A quick sweep of the graduates suggested that probably another fifteen percent were displaying the usual "Hi Mom" messages in tape, and the redhead smirked, recalling the distinctly more inspired message which Helena had taped to her headgear so many years before.

Barely in her mid-twenties herself, Barbara had certainly appreciated the wit and irony in her relatively new ward's communique. She'd also strongly suspected that few, if any, in the audience would grasp the nuances of the cleverly phrased French euphemism. Nevertheless, she'd been quite adamant that her ward remove the tape before the ceremony.

To this day, the older woman had yet to determine if her stance about the tape had tipped the scales for Helena's decision to instigate a mass-mooning at the end of the ceremony. On the two occasions when she'd mustered the tequila-inspired courage to ask, the brunette had only responded with an inscrutable smile and topped off her glass.

The shadow of movement in the periphery of her vision caught Barbara's attention, and she minutely narrowed her eyes, watching Helena slink into position with her camcorder. For some reason, she found herself not a little surprised that the young woman wasn't dangling from the rafters to get the best shot. Instead, her younger partner was surprisingly unobtrusive in her camera duties, blending into the crowd of friends and family in her heavy black silk slacks and a deep gold shirt, belted outside the waist.

With that thought, the redhead turned enough to look behind her, hunting for another impeccably appointed member of the audience. Three rows behind the faculty section, she easily picked out one Alfred Pennyworth, his posture perfect, his morning coat fastidious, his pride unmistakable.

The two shared a smile before Barbara turned back to take in the stage. As Superintendent Chalmers, finally, reached the last names beginning with "L", the redhead felt herself holding her breath.

"Dinah Carolyn Lance"

A black-robed figure, golden hair visible under her graffiti-free mortar board, moved gracefully from her position and ascended to the stage while the superintendent continued the litany of her awards and achievements.

"...Honor Role, Dean's List, National Merit Scholar, Quiz Bowl team MVP, Drama Club stage crew, founding member of the Good Samaritan club."

The teen came to a stop by the podium, casting a quick glance to the crowd. Barbara smiled broadly, noticing the flash of a wave from Helena. The blonde fixed her eyes on the superintendent, who was still reading through her list of achievements, and her guardian blinked against something hot in her eyes.

"...and the recipient of a National Merit Scholarship, an NGU Biology Department Scholarship, and a Wayne Foundation Scholarship."

Dinah smiled brightly, then gravely accepted her diploma with a handshake. Clearing the odd moisture from her eyes, Barbara thought she detected a glimmer of something else in her ward's features, perhaps a hint of soberness which seemed out of place.

Although the blonde's verbal effusiveness camouflaged it well, Barbara was quite aware that the teen was actually rather guarded and quiet. Still, Dinah had always radiated a certain, somewhat amazing, sunniness. Missing that under these circumstances was unsettling, to say the least.

Frankly, the redhead suspected that her ward's reserve had a great deal to do with the events of the night before at the convenience store. Apparently, in reacting to the threat to Helena, Dinah had -- in the brunette's later description -- "flattened" the second robber against a wall. Still visibly awed by the younger woman's power as she recounted the event, Helena had described what sounded like an overload or surge in the girl's TK, resulting in a man-sized dent in the store's wall and numerous broken bones for the robber.

Not to mention, a distinct case of nerves for the leader of the little team, who continued to second-guess her judgment in allowing the teen to accompany Helena on sweeps.

However, the cyber-vigilante reminded herself, this was neither the time nor the place: there were still the M-Z students to honor, and, while she might feel that the ceremony had peaked with Dinah's presence on the stage, she recognized that the remaining students' parents might think otherwise.

During the remainder of the ceremony, Barbara carefully noted each graduate who had been in one of her class while, simultaneously, keeping one eye on her younger partner. Having dispatched her videographer's duties with decorum, the brunette apparently felt free to relax a bit which was, the older woman knew, not always a good thing.

Strange events -- like fire sprinklers triggering and ketchup bottle lids loosening in the cafeteria -- seemed to occur whenever her younger partner was at loose ends on school grounds.

The ceremony and, mercifully, Elgar's march, finally wound down without incident, leaving Barbara surrounded by a swarm of her graduating seniors. While she honestly wished to hot-rod across the auditorium and envelope Dinah in a big hug, she instead took her time extending well wishes, meeting parents, and making notes to write the occasional last-minute letter of recommendation. Resultantly, the English teacher was unable to extricate herself for a good half an hour; when she did, she discovered Dinah and Gabby patiently posing for photos for Helena, with a beaming Alfred two respectful steps to the side.

"Ready to celebrate?"

She caught their attention, nearly blinded by the bright smiles of her current and former wards. Sparing a moment for that hug she'd planned, she found herself pinned by playfully incredulous cerulean eyes when she released the blonde.

"I don't remember you getting all misty eyed at my graduation," the brunette groused cheerfully.

Turning to lead the way to the van, the older woman smirked and spoke dryly.

"My relief and disbelief were too profound for tears, Hel."

Amid Helena's disdainful sniff, Alfred's bland amusement, and Gabby's surprised giggled, Barbara didn't miss Dinah's wide eyes when Gabby matter-of-factly climbed into the back of the van with the blonde so that Helena could chauffeur the odd little group to their celebratory dinner.

Rather predictably, she had to admit, Barbara had suggested French for the celebration. It was after all where she'd taken her first ward for her in-doubt-until-the-last-minute graduation. Six years later, Helena had soundly nixed the suggestion, reminding her that not only did Dinah not particularly care for French but that her own suggestion was decidedly more in theme with the celebration.

The redhead had remained silent about her suspicions that the Cajun restaurant spared the brunette the need to put on a dress for the evening.

Fanning her face with her napkin after one-bite-too-many of her spicy gumbo, Barbara nodded her gratitude when Helena noted her distress and flagged their server for beverage refills. Casually reaching under the table to squeeze the younger woman's hand, she smiled broadly as the teens engaged Alfred about his time in England's public schools.

"Which means private, right?", Dinah inquired politely.

The older gentleman nodded and, typically, deflected attention from himself.

"It is Miss Helena who could give you some insights into continental schools."

Two heads -- one blonde, one curly brown -- swiveled toward the brunette.

"Is it true you really went to school in Paris?"

The brunette rolled her eyes but answered Gabby's question easily.

"Uh huh. Other places, too."

Barbara sipped her replenished water, waiting for Helena to acknowledge the question in Gabby's face.

"Uhm, Genoa and Milan and Bruge -- "


Before Helena could respond to Gabby's query, the resident Quiz Bowl champ spoke up.

"That's in Belgium."

Pale blue eyes sought the brunette's.

"Right, Helena?"

The dark head nodded.

"Uh huh. Oh, and London and Lake Kissammee..."

Two teenaged squeals of protest cut off whatever Helena may have planned to add, and the redhead snickered watching the younger woman throw her hands up in surrender.

"Yeah, I made up the last one, but my mom did travel a lot."

Observing a flicker of pain in expressive caramel features, Barbara exchanged a look with Alfred. The unflappable older man suavely interjected a comment about Oxford's Bodleian Library, and the teens were off on a new tack.

The redhead rested one hand on her partner's knee under the table, wondering if there were any way to take away the pain Helena obviously would always feel for her mother. The older woman had seen that look -- albeit, much more acute -- at Helena's own graduation dinner. She suspected that, at this moment, the brunette's discomfort might have more to do with some of the reasons for the younger woman's frequent moves as a child: Not only had Selina been on the move in search of... procurements, but Barbara had also received intimations from Selina and, later, from Helena that they'd had to move often to hide unexpected manifestations of Helena's meta-uniqueness.

A spoon containing an absolutely indecent number of calories came into Barbara's field of vision, and she cast a baleful gaze at her temptress. Pitching her voice low, certain that the brunette would hear under the excited chatter from the other side of the table, she arched one brow.

"Keep tempting me, and we'll have to run an extra circuit in the training room, Hel."

The other woman grinned unrepentantly.

"Trust me, Red. It's worth it."

Able to resist almost anything but temptation, the redhead laughed, then leaned in, delicately sampling the offered spoonful of Helena's bread pudding. When the warm gooey sweet, packed with cinnamon and raisins, exploded in her mouth, she nearly moaned her pleasure before darting her tongue out to catch a remaining drop of the hard sauce.

The eyes which were regarding her playfully seemed to flicker in the candle light, and Barbara took her time touching her tongue to her lips to capture every drop of the sweet bourbon sauce.

A beat later, she rued her rather woeful attempt at flirtation when she belatedly realized that the sauce was, perhaps, a touch too hard for the evening. With as much dignity as possible as she coughed against the alcohol, she reached for her water and smiled her thanks for the bite, then smiled more broadly at her partner's expectant look.

"Yes, Hel?"

She carefully resettled the water glass on the table and touched her napkin to her lips. In turn, the younger woman neatly deposited the final bite of pudding in her mouth and swallowed with obvious relish before meeting her eyes.

"C'mon, Red. Dinner's over, and you know you have a speech tucked away for the Kid."

The redhead felt warmth rush to her face -- was she really so easily read? -- and then laughed at her own predictability. She took a moment to fold her napkin and set it precisely next to her plate as she organized her thoughts.

Her emotions.

When she looked up, as accustomed as she was to commanding attention in the classroom and in her other life at the Delphi, she was still taken aback by the four sets of eyes trained on her. She opened her mouth, then, mirroring Helena's earlier gesture, raised her hands in surrender.

"No speeches, Dinah. Just know how proud I -- "

She caught the sparkling cobalt eyes to her left and amended her words.

"-- we are of you. You have really enriched our lives, and I can't imagine not having you in our family. Not to mention --"

Without looking away from the sweet young face trained on her, she unerringly swatted her partner when she heard a playful "Here it comes".

"-- I can't wait to see the great things you accomplish next."

The blonde's pale eyes sparkled even as her face pinkened. True to form, Helena neatly ended the emotional moment.

"Ditto, Kid. Now let's do presents!"

Amid the laughter and the brief interlude of Helena ducking into the coat check to retrieve a beautifully wrapped box, Barbara remained still, wrestling with an odd constriction in her throat. During the somewhat bated anticipation as Dinah carefully, neatly, removed the paper from the cpu-sized box, she feared that the lump in her throat might win the battle until the blonde finally lifted the box lid and, with a squeal of delight, rounded the table to envelope Alfred in an enthusiastic hug.

For a split second, the redhead could have sworn that the distinguished older man became a trifle more... flappable than usual. His pleasure was certainly evident.

"It's beautiful, Alfred."

The new graduate stroked a finger gently over the gold leaf initials embossing the exquisite over-the-shoulder attache.

"But it's almost too nice for carrying books at college."

The ever-faithful butler briefly rested a hand over the teen's.

"My hope is that it will prove satisfactory for whatever journeys you take, Miss Dinah."

Despite her evident puzzlement, the blonde smiled and pressed a kiss to her benefactor's cheek, just as a different voice sang out impatiently.

"So, look inside, already, Kid!"

Barbara heard herself chuckle at her younger partner's impatience -- Helena certainly didn't take the time to remove wrapping paper so carefully -- and then laughed again when she witnessed the guarded skepticism which flickered across her current ward's features. When the girl touched the case's clasp as if preparing to dismantle a bomb, the older women realized that it was time to act.

"It won't bite, Dinah. Helena and I put our gift -- "

With a quick sideways look, she corrected herself.

"-- well, Helena's largely responsible for it -- inside."

Was that a bit of pink creeping up her partner's normally blush-proof caramel features?

The analytical woman forgot her question when the blonde opened the valise and peered inside, extracting the thick bundle of documents which had been tucked in the back of Barbara's warranties drawer for the last three weeks or so. The girl's puzzlement was transparent as she began to leaf through the papers; a quick glance to the other side confirmed that Gabby was barely controlling her own excitement.

"Tickets? To..."

Slim, pale fingers rifled more rapidly through the stack, the girl's eyes becoming almost comically large. Holding her breath in anticipation, Barbara felt her left hand being softly squeezed and gratefully returned the gesture.

"...to everywhere?!"

The pile of tickets and travel documents and reservations hit the table with an impressive thud, barely missing the remnants of Dinah's tiramisu.

For the life of her, Barbara hadn't been able to determine why that selection was available at a Cajun restaurant.

"Oh wow!"

The exclamation -- directly in her ear -- might have been deafening had Dinah's enthusiastic hug not been cutting off blood flow to Barbara's senses. The redhead ignored the near-miss to her hearing and hugged back twice as hard.

"It's too much, Barbara..."

The quietly abashed whisper was clearly meant for her ears alone, and the older woman pulled back to catch pale blue eyes with green.

"No, it's not. You're worth it."

And, she meant it.

While four weeks of travel throughout the US with Gabby, followed by ten days in the Caribbean -- with Gabby, Helena, and herself -- might seem a bit much, Barbara was unwilling to second-guess the decision. Dinah had been so sheltered and seen so little and, in almost no time, she'd be cloistered in university work; the adventure was something she deserved.

"And I meant it," the redhead murmured. "Helena really did most of it."

She loosened her grip and placed the tiniest bit of pressure against the teen's lower back. Dinah took the hint, stepping to the side and easily capturing the very embarrassed-looking brunette in a hug.

A bit to the older woman's surprise, Helena held the embrace for a good thirty seconds, then pulled away with a wicked smile, shaking her head in response to whatever Dinah had whispered to her.

"Yeah, Kid, you should be. She -- "

A slender thumb jerked in the redhead's direction.

"-- was gonna send you on a tour of historic Civil War Battlefields or something."

"Carnagie Libraries," the cyber-genius corrected blandly, reaching for her water.

She was grateful that she had yet to take a mouthful when she caught the completely shocked dismay in Dinah's eyes. Somehow she schooled her features to calm unconcern until a snicker -- more of a snort, perhaps -- from her left unfroze the tableau, and everyone at the table dissolved into laughter.

Five minutes later, she continued to hold her water glass absently before her, shielding her expression while she watched the two teens across the table, golden and curly brown hair touching as they laid out the myriad documents before them. Each delighted exclamation -- "Amtrak passes?!", "New York City?!!", "Jamaica!" -- seemed louder than the last.

Without doubt, Barbara had to admit, Helena had been right about the actual documents and brochures and tickets making the gift so much better. The redhead felt a touch of heat in her cheeks, recalling that her plan had simply been to print out the electronic itinerary from the online booking.

She really was hopelessly linear about things like that. Or, perhaps, just hopeless.

Of course, it wasn't as if she hadn't already freely admitted that she was, generally, just terrible at the whole "gifting" thing. A few years before, she'd finally thrown her hands in the air, decreeing that the loved ones in her life should present her with a prioritized list of items for each gift-giving occasion or risk the consequences.

While serial numbers were optional, they were highly recommended.

However, the redhead did think that she'd gotten it right at least one time. One very important time: first birthday for Helena which they'd celebrated together after things had changed for them both so many years ago.

Barely out of the hospital and struggling with the bitter realities of daily living, the redhead had slipped in her new role of guardian and missed her ward's seventeenth birthday. The following year, she'd been determined to make it up to the girl with something more meaningful than the obvious choices of game players, videos, and CDs. It had taken a fair number of sleepless nights before the relentlessly practical woman had hit upon a wildly impractical gift: a reproduction of a Gauguin which, three years earlier, she'd stopped Selina from poaching from a museum.

The hostile young high school senior had obviously been puzzled by the narrow, oversized gift, but had ripped into it with gusto. The moment she'd cleared the wrapping, Barbara had known she'd done okay: Helena's verbal thanks had been brief -- almost gruff -- but her expressive features hid nothing.

The print had been hanging in the living room of the brunette's small apartment for the last three years. Twenty-three days before, however, Helena had almost shyly brought it to the clock tower where it now was displayed over the head of the bed which the two shared.

Firmly settling her water glass on the table, Barbara didn't attempt to hide the smile which she suspected was completely silly and doting: the memory of that birthday from so long ago, juxtaposed with the current vision of her exuberant partner hovering above Dinah and Gabby to provide details about their trip were too much to resist. With a sudden blink, she realized that she was very, very eager to get home and see that Gauguin print this evening.

Chapter 5

Barbara twisted a bit awkwardly, plumping a pillow against the headboard and glancing upward to take in the colorful "Day of God" print above the head of the bed.

When Helena had asked about hanging the scene, the older woman's first suggestion had been the far wall of the bedroom to permit easy viewing from the bed. The brunette had soundly nixed the idea -- Barbara pointedly refused to remember the other woman's disbelieving expression -- claiming that the head of the bed offered better opportunities for viewing from different angles. Three weeks later, having had the opportunity to explore some of those angles, the redhead had to admit that her partner had been quite right.

Not terribly inclined to pursue artistic study this night, Barbara finished straightening the covers over her legs, adjusted the shade on the bedside lamp, seated her glasses midway down her nose, and finally reached to the bedside table to retrieve the thick book waiting there. The familiar thrill which accompanied cracking open a new book -- combined as it was with the tactile enjoyment of crisp pages, the scent of fresh ink, the subtle resistance of a spine as-yet unbroken by use -- ran through her

She smiled at her own response but refused to fault herself. Bill Bryson's humor and intelligence made him one of her favorite non-fiction writers, and she had been putting off reading his "Short History of Everything" for almost two years. This night, she'd decided, was as auspicious as any for a bit of self-indulgence, and the cyber-genius intended to enjoy herself to the hilt.

Forty minutes later, utterly absorbed in and charmed by Bryson's attempts to explain not just the "how" of science but the "how" of how scientists know, the redhead was distracted by a tiny frission of awareness coursing through her which coincided with the softest click of the bedroom door. Without re-adjusting her angle of vision for the thick tomb she finally had perfectly positioned on her lap, Barbara peered over the top of her glasses to watch her partner creep almost cautiously into the room and hid a smirk behind the act of book marking her page.

Given the younger woman's usual cat-footed stealth, it certainly made any concerns about waking her -- as if she would be sleeping yet -- almost ludicrous.

After the family celebration at the restaurant had finally wound down, they had dropped the teens off by Gabby's vintage 1989 Volkswagen Rabbit, then driven Alfred to the manor. On the return to the tower, Helena had chosen to circle the city, avoiding its lights and noise and affording a lovely opportunity to stargaze.

Mercifully, Barbara wasn't aware of any double-tailed green comets which might have destroyed her astronomical wonder.

"Did you manage to tame the beast, Sweetie?"

The lithe figure looked up from an entirely distracting display involving shimmying out of her shirt and grinned.

"Yeah, some of Alfred's leftover pot roast really hit the spot."

The older woman felt her brow furrow -- and her stomach clench a tiny bit in protest -- as the insistently analytical portion of her brain questioned how her partner could cap off a spicy Cajun feast with English pot roast.

"Est no disputandum de gustibus," she murmured as she carefully positioned her book on the far edge of her side table.

Crawling up the foot of the bed, the other woman smirked, then flowed forward to brush their lips lightly together.

"Yeah? Well, taste this."

Barbara deliberately held the position for a beat, struggling to focus at close range on the sparkling blue eyes so close to her own. Finally, she raised one hand to the nape of her lover's neck.

"With a suave invitation like that, how can I refuse?"

How indeed, she had to question a long, breathless minute and a half later. Redolent of the clean mint of their toothpaste, the kiss left her oddly relaxed and simultaneously aroused beyond all good sense, her heart thumping with such force that she half-expected to see it pounding through her tee shirt.

My, but Helena knew how to kiss.

A beat later, she found herself blinking rapidly, damned well aware that she was sporting her unflattering befuddled look, when the younger woman pulled away, coming to rest lightly on her knees at her side.

"H-- "

The redhead coughed delicately, ignoring the knowing hitch of a dark brow, and tried again.


Helena smiled broadly and spread her hands, palms up, in an inviting gesture.

"How about I rub your back, Babs?"

Even as a flicker of nervousness ghosted behind the wash of pleasure which the offer created, the older woman couldn't hide her tender smile.

"You're too good to me, Helena. Always offering."

It was true: the number of relaxing -- or stimulating -- massages which she'd enjoyed under her partner's talented hands far outweighed the number she'd been able to provide in turn. Of course, there were other areas and activities which Barbara had claimed as her own, so perhaps it evened out.

"This time, you should let me do you --"

The younger woman cut her off easily

"Maybe tomorrow. For now, let me turn you into a wet dishrag."

While she had to agree -- enthusiastically -- with the sentiment, the older woman was uncertain that she cared for the choice of words. Accordingly, she arched one crimson brow and was promptly met by a winning smile.

"C'mon, Babs. It can't be healthy sitting for hours at graduation, all prim and proper and paying attention through two hundred go-rounds of 'Prance and Crapenstance'."

Slender, tan fingers encapsulated the mocking march title in quotation marks, and, despite herself, Barbara heard herself snort in amusement. With a mental shrug, she pushed up and grabbed a pillow to position beneath her chest.

"Twenty-three," she clarified.

A low whistle of appreciation breezed the hair at the side of her cheek as the redhead maneuvered onto her stomach.

"I never knew that you teachers had it so hard. You really deserve a massage."

The English teacher considered that, hearing laughter in her voice when she finally responded.

"Indeed. Lay on, MacDuff."

Fifteen minutes later, Barbara realized that she was feeling suspiciously like she imagined a damp kitchen cleaning cloth might.

"That's divine, Hel."

She heard the smile in her masseuse's voice.

"Hey, you need it. I didn't know graduation was so tense for you."

Red lashes fluttered against the desire to sink into oblivious bliss, and the redhead turned her head to rest her cheek on one forearm.

"Not all graduations, Helena. This one was special."


The sound purred across Barbara's upper back, and this time she surrendered to the instinct to shut her eyes.

"Were you that tense after I graduated?"

"More," was the short answer.

The older woman opted not to elaborate about the tension which had possessed her for the entire month before her ward's graduation. Through might and main, she'd managed to coax, cajole, and cow her rebellious young ward through her last year and a half of school. 'Terrified' hadn't begin to express her feelings when she'd realized, six weeks before Helena's graduation, that the girl had been acting out more than ever and still could lose her chance at a diploma for the year.

Probably well-aware of where the older woman's thoughts had taken her, Helena remained silent, her touch focused on a particularly recalcitrant knot in tight lat muscles.

"Did you notice that Dinah seemed... tense this evening?"

The confessional nature of having her eyes shut and the other woman behind her somehow made it easier for Barbara to give voice to the question.

The brunette's immediate response -- "I don't know, Baby." -- was thoughtful. It was rapidly followed by a more hesitant reply as Helena shifted above the older woman to push on her tee.

"Do you want to talk to her or me?"

Ignoring her partner's question -- and its questionable grammar -- for the moment, Barbara deliberately mustered a heaping helping of silence and pried open her lids, dramatically rolling the orb which was in her partner's view.

The younger woman seemingly noticed, the delicious pressure of strong fingers briefly ceasing as she raised both hands defensively.


Satisfied that she had the younger woman's attention, Barbara arched a brow.

" 'Baby' ?"

Helena returned her hands to the older woman's back, and despite the awkward visual angle, Barbara was certain that she detected a hint of color in caramel features.

"Hey, what can I say?"

Absolutely, positively, refusing to be charmed by the lopsided grin behind her, the redhead sniffed and returned to their earlier topic.

"Do you think she seems a bit... subdued?"

The pressure against her tight trapezoids and deltoids didn't stop, but it did slow, indicating Helena's consideration of the question.

"Yeah. She's been pretty quiet since... well..."


The pace of the strokes resumed, and Helena's voice became more certain.

"It's a lot to wrap a lobe around: that he'd go so far to fuck with us."

The older woman hoped that she managed to mask her reaction to the chilling truth of the words under a shiver of pleasure.

"Then, there's that whole end-of-school thing... changes and all."

The chill which had seized her dissipated a bit when Barbara heard her partner playfully humming the chorus from David Bowie's "Changes".

The younger woman truly had a lovely voice.

Segueing effortlessly from thoughts about the changes her young ward was undergoing, the redhead lost herself in considering all of the changes in her own life during just the last three-plus months. Without quite realizing that she was doing so, she began to tick the points off in her mind.

She'd thought that she could never be attracted to a woman, much less that anyone could truly be attracted to her. The first kiss she's shared with Helena under the fireworks at a concert in the snowy park had neatly deconstructed both of those little misconceptions.

Then, there had been the erroneous assumption -- based on seven years of cautious and depressing data collection, so to speak -- that she wouldn't be able to respond. In the face of her lover's obvious desire, not to mention her own, that little myth had evaporated in the searing heat of passion.

Of course, she couldn't forget the wildly foolish misperception -- wrapped in rationalizations based on roles and age differences -- that she shouldn't react to Helena. With a stab of discomfort, she realized that she was still battling with that one.

"Hey, you're undoing my untensing."

The gentle chiding coincided with a minute increase in the pressure sweeping up and down the redhead's spine, and Barbara groaned under the pleasure of her muscles surrendering their tension. Then, distantly, she heard herself release a different type of exhalation. She thought she felt a responding growl echo against her skin but was too caught in the bliss to be certain.

It was only when she realized that her partner's hands had moved lower and, more telling, her own hands were pressed firmly into the mattress beneath her preparatory to rising to her hands and knees, when she felt her hips wanting to rock and thrust upward that she knew she had to call a halt.

Although it might have been one of her favorite positions back in the day -- deliciously open and full -- it simply wasn't a possibility now. At least, she acknowledged bitterly, not without a host of gear and awkward positioning which simply wasn't warranted given her complete lack of sensation.

There were simply some things she couldn't do, and she would not allow herself to pretend otherwise.

With a soundless sigh, Barbara tensed her arms, ready as they were beneath her, to push up. Again, she thought she detected a sub vocal rumble from behind her and stayed her movement.

It had, indeed, been too long. Even if -- for whatever reasons -- she herself wasn't quite prepared, it didn't mean that her extremely physical partner should be left... wanting.

"That was wonderful, Hel," she murmured, pushing onto her side and meeting the other woman's bright gaze. "Can I..."

The redhead blinked once, unconsciously running the tip of her tongue around the edges of her lips.

Some days, having spent her formative years running around in a form-fitting latex costume and fighting crime -- while other young men and women were honing their flirting skills --seemed to place her at a distinct disadvantage.

" -- do something to thank you properly?"

Those stunning eyes appeared to blaze gold for a split second before the younger woman easily dismounted the redhead's hips and flipped back the covers on her own side of the big bed.

"Nah, Red."

A brilliant smile accompanied the refusal.

"I'm kinda beat."

The older woman felt her brow furrow. It was true that the brunette had spent the day in the storerooms at the Dark Horse doing inventory in order to have the night off; and it had been an emotional sort of day. Yet, when they'd returned to the clock tower an hour or so earlier, the elevator door had barely opened before the younger woman had asked about running a sweep -- an idea the redhead had casually rejected after a quick glance at the Delphi monitors.

Possibly sensing -- or seeing -- the redhead's puzzlement, Helena stopped fluffing her pillow and leaned close.

"I just wanted you to feel good tonight."

The purring words eased Barbara's discomfort, and, digging into the drawer of her bedside table for her bed socks, she laughed quietly.

"Mission accomplished, then, Hel."

Stretching down to cover her always-cold feet, the redhead felt her partner's smug grin. Just as she finished settling her legs under the covers, the vigorous pillow-pounding beside her ended with the brunette gracefully flopping onto her side.

"I really like your fuzzy socks."

Occupied with straightening the recently and thoroughly mussed cover, Barbara smiled a bit absently.

"With my cold feet, I'd imagine so."

A soft laugh greeted her admission.

"It's not like that, Barbara. I have heat to burn."

The redhead smirked, unable to deny the truth of that. On more than one occasion in the last few months, she'd awakened covered in sweat and frantically divesting herself of covers due to the heat her bedmate radiated.

"Sooo..." she finally prompted while she created a crisp crease at the top of the blanket.

After a moment of silence, she looked over to find the younger woman's brows creased adorably in thought.

'Adorably?' Dear heavens, she did have it bad.

"They're sexy." the brunette finally pronounced.

Barbara stared at her blankly. Considering some of the pages from 'The Joy Of Lesbian Sex' which they'd already worked through, she couldn't really imagine how her footsie socks would be on the same continent as 'sexy'.

When her doubtlessly clueless expression failed to garner an explanation, she mentally threw her hands in the air, hoping that she wouldn't regret asking.

" 'Sexy', Hel?"

Curled on her side, hands between her cheek and pillow prayer-style, the younger woman peered from under dark lashes, the gesture a familiar one meant to hide her eyes... and her emotions.

"Yeah," she breathed softly as she scootched closer.

"You know, intimate."

As she stretched over to shut of the bedside lamp, Barbara prodded at that, attempting to decipher the meaning of the shy admission. Mercifully, Helena spared her what appeared to be a fruitless attempt, spooning to her and speaking thoughtfully.

"All of the times before when we slept -- uh, shared a bed, you never wore 'em."

The redhead worked an arm under her lover's shoulders, softly stroking her back with her fingertips, and considered the multitude of nights they'd shared a bed over the years -- whether for comfort, for protection from their respective nightmares, or to nurse Helena through some injury. Recognizing the accuracy of her companion's observation, she nodded in the darkness, confident that her lover would see or feel the movement.

Drifting toward sleep, she heard Helena whisper a further elaboration, and when her slumberous mind deciphered the words, Barbara chuckled softly, grateful once again for the younger woman's easy ability to inject humor into intimacy.

"When you put 'em on, I know you plan to put your feet on me."

Part 6

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