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.
It was more than just feet which were touching her when Barbara awoke hours later. Judging by the faint lessening of the darkness outside the heavy curtains, dawn was on the horizon and, as usual, Helena was wrapped around and on top of her like a human octopus.
The redhead wrestled back a flash of pique that on this morning, the first day of the very brief break before her accelerated summer school classes began, she was awake. With the barely audible rumble of the younger woman's purr tickling against her shoulder and upper chest, Barbara noted -- a trifle peevishly, she admitted -- that there were no such issues for her bedmate.
Helena was firmly, committedly, embraced in the arms of morpheus as she wrapped the redhead in a warm hug.
A split second later, the residual tendrils of sleep burned away from the older woman when she detected something more, and a heat which had nothing to do with her companion's energetic metabolism flared through her. While there was no doubt that Helena was sleeping, her barely audible groans and the sinuous arch of slender hips under the covers left little doubt about the nature of her dreams.
Swallowing against a sudden thickness in her throat, the redhead wondered exactly what -- or who -- the younger woman was dreaming of. Slightly awestruck, she extricated one arm from her lover's embrace, lightly resting her hand on the brunette's waist.
Much better. Now she could feel, rather than only seeing, the taut sway of tight muscles and slender hips.
Silhouetting the outline of Helena's torso, she slowly brought her hand to the younger woman's jaw. Gently, ever so gently, Barbara traced the smooth, golden skin covering the delicate planes of Helena's cheek, whispering the pad of her index finger across the younger woman's temple and skirting her perpetually raised left eyebrow. She felt a frown transform her features when she noticed the barely-there remnants of a burn next to the dark brow. In the dim, pre-dawn light, it should have been unnoticeable, however it was an all-too-visible reminder of the close call her partner had had only ten days before.
Casting a mental thanks skyward, the older woman shifted a tiny bit to bury her face in the soft hair on her shoulder. Gratefully, she took in the clean scent of the brunette's sandalwood shampoo and the ineffable fragrance which was Helena's alone.
Dear heavens. How had she ever thought she was alive without her partner in her arms?
The question was pushed aside when Barbara felt her bedmate fist her fingers against her side, groaning softly in her dream: It had sounded like the word "bar". In that instant, the analytical woman experienced an odd sense of her own body rising from the bed and instantly lowered her hand, attempting to ground herself against the younger woman's waist.
And, perhaps, somehow she had actually risen... or moved... or moaned, for her companion suddenly started, awakening with a whimper. The redhead maintained her position, face bent to dark locks, one hand on the brunette's hip, smiling softly when she saw blue eyes peering upward, clearly attempting to determine whether she'd disturbed her bedmate. The younger woman swallowed audibly, and Barbara felt the muscles under her hand lock as Helena worked to quiet the restless thrust of her hips.
"Ah... sorry. Didn't mean to wake you."
The smaller woman's apology was a bit hoarse and certainly hesitant. In return, the redhead could only smile tenderly and raise her hand to sift through dark silk
"Good dream, Sweetie?"
Perhaps it was the intimacy of their position; perhaps it was the moment. Regardless, her voice was pitched low.
A soft exhalation warmed her upper chest.
"Yeah. About you."
Neatly blunted nails scritched lightly at the base of the younger woman's skull, and Barbara felt her partner's rumbling purr... or growl.
"Never could sleep... before... with you."
The words were disjointed, and Barbara puzzled over their meaning.
Slitted eyes met hers.
"Uh, before, when we'd sometimes sleep together, I couldn't -- "
The dark head which was pillowed lightly on her shoulder ducked down.
"I, uh, didn't dare let myself sleep too hard in case something like this..."
The redhead felt her face burn at the hushed revelation. When she considered how soundly -- how safely -- she'd slept through the years when her ward, her protege, her friend had been beside her, the realization of the one-sided nature of the arrangement was... awkward to grasp.
Perhaps sensing her discomfort, the other woman continued thoughtfully.
"I didn't mind, you know. And, with my hormones going off like firecrackers..."
The older woman's throaty chuckle died in her mouth when she felt the fine hair on Helena's neck raise in response. Immediately, the brunette attempted to roll away, muttering an apology.
"Sorry -- didn't mean to. . . I'm just, y'know, itchy."
The words hesitated through breathless gasps, and Barbara realized that every last bit of desire for sleep had abandoned her.
"Is there somewhere you need me to... scratch, Sweetie?"
She punctuated her question by dragging her nails lightly across her partner's shoulder. In a heartbeat, Helena was on top of her, her movements almost wild.
The tiny portion of Barbara's analytical mind which could still function corrected herself: Helena was not so much wild as untamable.
A dip of the mattress told the older woman that Helena was grinding their lower bodies together. When Helena bent to her with a soulful groan, Barbara distantly thought the sound covered a growl: the skin of her chest certainly tickled from the reverberations and she felt her nipples harden in response.
For a brief, tantalizing, moment, the younger woman brushed her chest against hers, and Barbara gasped, arching into the contact. Then, the brunette pulled away, and slender fingers began to shape the outer contours of her breasts, gently at first, then with increasing determination.
Unable to hold the exclamation in, Barbara hissed quietly. Pinned by contrite blue eyes, she immediately wished she'd stifled the sound but knew it was no use: at this point in the month, tenderness was a bit of an understatement.
The brunette straightened above her, dragging her hands roughly across her face.
"Shit, I'm sorry. Don't want to -- "
She lowered her hand, gesturing loosely toward the older woman's lower torso.
"-- hurt you."
Something fluttered with the older woman's chest and she reached up, wending her hands through chestnut silk and pulling her lover to her.
The kiss was brief -- barely a brushing of satiny lips, a flicker of moist heat -- before the brunette twisted her head to one side and gooseflesh erupted on the older woman's skin. A growl rumbled against her ear, and she felt sharp teeth seize her earlobe.
"God, Barbara -- "
The whisper was barely decipherable, enrobed in the softest of rumbling purrs.
"I can smell you... Waking up with you... It drives me crazy."
The redhead managed a murmur of some sort, arching her throat in offering to the shockingly talented mouth which was making its torturous way down her neck. An instant later, she gasped and stiffened, her heart pounding in fear even as her body instinctively pushed into the teeth biting into the soft skin at the juncture of her neck and shoulder.
The sensation -- stabbing, suckling, heat, wetness -- bled pain into pleasure and back. Somewhat wildly, the analytical woman thought she might climax from the sensation alone. Even more frantically, she realized that she coveted the sensation on other areas of her body.
"Dear... heavens... Hel?"
The pressure didn't abate in the slightest. If anything, it seemed to grow, and the tiny portion her mind which still functioned realized that the wetness she felt trickling down her skin might very well be her own blood.
The remainder of her mind, her entire body writhing under the exquisite sensation and the slow thrusts of her lover's hips against her stomach, was remarkably indifferent.
"Fu-- I love you so much."
The dark figure's words rolled together through another thick purring growl, raising the hair on the back of the redhead's neck. Distantly, Barbara noted how disjointed her partner's words were, how rough her movements seemed -- a far cry from the always graceful woman's usual flowing motions.
Still, it had been a while, and the passionate younger woman undoubtedly had... energy to burn.
Finally, the redhead forced herself to let go of her analysis, her thoughts, and drifted under her lover's caresses. Almost dreamily, she drew her fingers across the smaller woman's back, tracing the subtle delineation of the other woman's ribs with the pads of her fingers, sketching the knobby protuberance of her spine through the soft cotton of her thin tank top.
A breath of pressure against her chest, the flutter of fingers circling her breasts... teasing... snapped Barbara vividly back to the moment. Breasts burning under the gentle touches, the older woman thrust herself upward, using her lover's shoulders for leverage.
The nonverbal request for contact was denied -- almost without thought it seemed -- and the brunette slid from her grasp, ducking down to her waist. Slowly, painfully slowly, Helena bunched the material of the older woman's tee toward her chest using only her nose and lips. Barbara steadied herself, the muscles of her abdomen clenching under the feathery kisses and brushes of warm hands, her skin so sensitized that she was certain she could feel the other woman's whorled fingerprints against her.
And then, the hem of her shirt was bunched at her neck, her torso exposed to the cool air of the slowly brightening room.
And, exposed to the eyes which glittered gold and hungry above her.
At the sight of those maddening eyes, a tendril of something wormed its way down the redhead's spine, and she reached up to cup her lover's tightly clenched jaw.
She had to stop, to wet her very dry lips with the tip of her tongue.
The dark figure's features seemed to soften for a split second before a smile rich with sin split her face.
The word was gently teasing, a purring promise, and the redhead allowed a different type of tension to creep through her again. She shifted her upper body restlessly under the barely-there touch of the brunette's cheek against her chest and felt her breasts seem to swell... to strain for something more.
Warm, slender hands were on her again, cupping and squeezing. Barbara instantly felt her nipples diamonding into the palms of hands which moved against her just... just on one side of pain.
"Hel -- Use your mouth."
Green eyes met gold, and the redhead swallowed a whimper when she witnessed the rabid curl of her lover's upper lip and then recognized the crimson rimming those full lips for what it was. The sound was lost under the soft co-mingling of the two women's groans when the brunette arched back sinuously, then lowered herself to drag her own torso roughly over Barbara's.
Something else followed, barely audible, almost lost against her neck, but the older woman clearly heard the word "need". Even if she hadn't picked out the word, the tense lines of her young lover's face, the rippling of tightly controlled muscles, the sweat beading Helena's chest above the scooped line of her tank, spoke eloquently of the younger woman's need.
Instinctively, the redhead dragged her hands down her companion's sides, struggling to push up under her, to reach...
"Let me touch you, Hel."
She'd pitched her voice low and inviting, understanding the almost wild need above her. She was wholly unprepared for the other woman's response.
In the blink of an eye, the wiry brunette lunged upward gracefully, and Barbara felt her hands captured and pinned above her head by one slender, powerful hand. Years of control allowed her to hold back her surprised cry, but nothing could help when the younger woman's words penetrated her senses.
"No. Not this time."
Burning eyes searched hers, and Barbara ached for the raw need within. Simultaneously, she feared that she should look away lest the brightness of her lover's fevered gaze blind her.
"I'm too close, but you're coming, too."
Everything changed, the ceiling spinning above and glittering eyes all that existed.
The words were an echo of something not long past, something Helena had spoken in fury... in threat... to The Joker, and the redhead blinked once, certain that -- for an instant -- she'd seen hell in her partner's eyes.
Fighting a suffocating pressure, she pushed against the hand pinning her wrists to the pillow; however, as strong as she was, as hard as she'd worked her triceps and pecs on the pull-down stationary weights, she knew that she was no match for the other woman's inhuman power.
"Hel," she ground out slowly, "I need my hands."
She couldn't have said why: heaven knew, she'd... played games in the past. Nevertheless, at this moment, she needed, and the answering shake of the dark hair above her struck her with panic.
The younger woman's movement morphed gracefully into a slow decent of crimson lips to Barbara's chest, and the redhead felt her partner's almost pained moan reverberate through her at the same instant a warm tongue laved her breast, it slow rasp thrilling... and terrifying her.
Barbara forced her voice to be calm, aware that her partner could very well be past hearing her.
"You need to listen to me."
A purr... or a growl... was the only verbal response. The other woman's nonverbal response spoke for itself, and Barbara squeezed her eyes shut in frustration.
Dammit! Why did Helena have to be so goddamned headstrong? Why wouldn't she listen?
The answer came to her instantly: Because she was Helena, and she needed this.
At that, Barbara swallowed her anger. Eyes resolutely trained on the dark ceiling, she removed the element of struggle, deliberately relaxing under the other woman, letting it go.
An abrupt cessation of the younger woman's disjointed movements drew the older woman's gaze, and she found Helena regarding her. The younger woman had never been able to hide her emotions from the redhead, and this was no exception: Barbara clearly saw horror... and shame... and something which looked like self-loathing washing across those beautiful features.
"No -- Hel..."
The words were out on a gasp, instinctive, an attempt to reassure. Barbara struggled again to reach the younger woman, but she was still pinned by one deceptively small hand, by the sinewy forearm which she peripherally saw flexing near her temple.
Perhaps Helena, too, had forgotten, for the moment her eyes flew to the union of her hand on the older woman's wrists, she yanked away as if burned. Somehow, Barbara resisted her instinct to jerk her arms down, deliberately holding her position as she sought to hold the confused eyes which were reverting to blue. She offered a tender smile, watching as the brunette shakily raised her other hand to touch --
No, not touch, the redhead realized.
Helena's hand hovered millimeters above her cheek, the heat from the near-caress searing her.
"Oh fuck -- "
The younger woman's eyes glittered in the predawn light, and Barbara heard her swallow.
"I'm so fuckin' sorry. Are you -- "
The younger woman averted her eyes and withdrew her hand from proximity. The redhead felt its loss as a cold void.
"Did I hurt you?"
Even as she chafed at her position, the redhead recognized her lover's need... and the fact that she had remained almost gentle with her.
"It's okay, Hel -- "
Recognizing that the quaver in her voice belied the words, she cleared her throat softly.
"I'm okay," she added softly.
Gradually, she felt the tension in the lithe body atop her lessen marginally. With her hands now free, the redhead raised her arms to the delicate shoulders above her and coaxed her partner down. They lay together, still, for a few heartbeats, Barbara easily detecting the younger woman's heart thudding against her and knowing that Helena could hear her own trip-hammering.
With a soft exhalation, the smaller woman brushed her cheek, then rolled away, presenting her back as she swung legs out from under the covers.
"I'm sorry, Barbara, but I've gotta... "
The redhead's jaw dropped as her companion stood and crossed to the door soundlessly.
"Don't -- "
The soft click of the door covered the next word.
With a snort of disgust, Barbara abandoned her desultory tapping at the keyboard.
As productive as she'd been in the last three hours, she might as well have been playing minesweeper.
The cyber-vigilante knew that she could attempt to justify her inability to focus on tracking the whereabouts of the members of The Joker's inner circle who still remained at large. After all, the handful who hadn't been rounded up had been quiet, perhaps had even fled the city, and there was no foreseeable threat to New Gotham.
Barbara shook her head roughly, knowing that it was exactly that sort of rationalization -- that sort of laxity -- which could lead to the near-disaster she'd allowed to develop with the green-haired madman's escape.
In this life, distraction could be deadly.
That thought circled through the redhead's mind, the final word seeming to echo in hollow counterpoint to the suddenly powerful beat of her heart, and she admitted defeat. For the moment.
Green eyes squeezed shut, and Barbara raised one hand, rubbing her forehead in an undoubtedly fruitless attempt to forestall the mammoth headache she could feel building.
As much as she hated to admit it, her head simply wasn't in the game. Of course, she did have quite a bit to be... distracted about, given Helena's abrupt departure ten hours before.
Not to mention the wildly charged interaction which had preceded said departure. And, the analytical woman forced herself to acknowledge, her own inexplicable response during their... interaction.
For long minutes, she lost herself in thought, permitting her infallible memory to replay the events of the morning and attempting to decode the subtext and nuance of the exchange. An image of burning eyes haunted her visual memory while her eidetic recall helpfully provided a perfect sensation of the fear and helplessness which had coursed through her.
As visceral as the memory was, she was unable to quite put her finger on the reason for reaction. However, pushing aside her instinctive trepidation, she forced herself to examine the feeling.
Fear of Helena?
While her younger partner had, without doubt, been a bit overwhelming, Barbara simply knew that Helena would not have hurt her. The younger woman had, in fact, noted her sensitivity and hesitated to pursue matters.
Of course, there was probably little surprise that Helena would have been aware: with three women in one household all cycling at the same time of the month, it was damned difficult not to know.
Fear of her own responses?
The redhead absently gnawed at the corner of her lower lip, prodding at that possibility. While she suspected that it was not entirely without merit, she certainly hoped that she'd progressed a bit more than that. Her reaction -- one which she admitted had approached raw terror -- had been well beyond any sort of... discomfort engendered by her physical response.
Setting aside that avenue of exploration for a later time, Barbara sighed quietly and fiddled with her folded glasses, intending to correct the position so that the left bow was over the right. A split second later, she froze with both earpieces at right angles to the lenses when another hypothesis screamed through her cortex.
Fear for Helena?
Where on earth had that come from? Certainly she couldn't have been concerned for her passionate partner's well-being this morning.
Yet, perhaps things were still a bit... raw after their recent run-in with their worst nightmare. It wasn't impossible that feelings could have become jumbled.
The cyber-genius blinked when her thirty-five inch plasma display flickered and brought up its screen saver -- an annoyingly charming loop from a Bugs Bunny cartoon which Dinah and Helena had presented to her on her birthday a year and a half before. Somewhat cravenly -- and gratefully -- setting aside her previous line of thought, she tilted her head to the side and attempted to remember how many times the program had actually been triggered by inactivity while she'd been at the computer.
Not too surprisingly, she came up blank.
The redhead started briefly before turning to the living area where Dinah was peeking cautiously over the tall back of the couch. The teen had been enjoying her first day of freedom as an ex-high school student after a morning of heavy-duty emergency shopping for her upcoming travels.
The blonde's words had been soft and hesitant, and Barbara simply couldn't guess whether it was because the teen didn't want to interrupt her or because she was worried about the repercussions of doing so. Since neither scenario was acceptable, the older woman mustered a smile that was, perhaps, a tad over bright.
"It doesn't look like you're working much, and Max Ex is just starting..."
The redhead felt her smile grow more genuine and, concurrently, a bit rueful. The show had become something of a guilty favorite for the three women residing at the tower, providing clear evidence as it did of the horrific effects of testosterone poisoning.
"That sounds perfect, Dinah."
A bit surprised to discover that she meant the words, Barbara pushed back from her terminal and paused by the couch.
"I wasn't making much headway there, so a bit of a brain cell massacre may be just what I need."
The girl's answering grin was bright, and the older woman was immediately very, very glad that she'd chosen as she had.
"I'm hitting the kitchen first. Do you want something?", she threw over her shoulder on her way.
Fifteen minutes later, comfortably ensconced on the couch and sharing a bowl of pretzels with her ward, Barbara felt a preparatory wince seize her features as she watched Joe Bob Something-or-other readying to record his human catapult attempt on videotape.
What was he thinking? Anyone could see that the trajectory for the landing net was completely off target.
That thought, perhaps unfortunately, evoked a flash of guilt and the realization of how off-target she had been that morning with Helena. The two of them really -- really -- needed to talk. Unfortunately, between their schedules for the day, it didn't look like much of a possibility in the short term.
"The angle's wrong, isn't it?"
Although the amused query was a bit muffled by a mouthful of pretzels, Barbara had no trouble interpreting.
"It appears so, Dinah. Of course, if Joe Bob has thought to compensate by altering the torque on the -- "
Both women flinched a tiny bit at the video evidence that Joe Bob had not, in fact, considered altering the tension on his homemade catapult. One crimson brow still arched, Barbara dug into the bowl of pretzels until a jarring rise in the volume from the entertainment unit's speakers, a rise which had nothing to do with the completely predictable compound fracture of Joe Bob's femur, heralded a commercial break.
The redhead emitted a long-suffering sigh as she regarded the oversized television.
Considering the sophistication of the components in the unit, the "smart sound" should work a hell of a lot better than that. Perhaps if she cross linked the unit through the Delphi's sound analysis routines --
"Uhm, I was sort of wondering..."
Barbara turned to focus on her companion who was picking at the label of her juice bottle. She inclined her head to the left and offered an encouraging smile.
"Wondering what, Dinah?"
"If you've had time to think about Helena's apartment?"
The redhead blinked, a bit stupidly she feared, and rapidly worked to remember if she'd come in skin to skin contact with her telepathic ward since she'd been musing about the events of the morning. Some of her insights -- glaringly obvious in hindsight -- had certainly involved her lover's penchant for disappearing to her apartment at certain times of the month.
When the girl hesitantly elaborated, Barbara was able to slow her pounding heart... for a moment.
"Uhm, just before... everything."
The blonde waved a hand in the general direction of the New Gotham skyscape. The unspoken reference to their recent struggle was crystalline, and the older woman gave a measured nod.
"Helena said she'd talk with you about her place for, maybe, me?"
It all came back: Helena's lunch date with the teen at school -- had it only been two and a half weeks before? -- to discuss living arrangements when Dinah entered college in the fall. Somehow the two had come up with the idea of having the blonde move into Helena's rather bohemian digs above the Dark Horse since Helena certainly had little use for the place, having moved most of her belongings back to the tower...
The redhead's line of thought abruptly veered back to earlier musings, forcing her to correct herself.
Since the change in their relationship almost three months before, her younger partner had managed to spend a few nights each month at her apartment. When the cyber-genius's infallible memory had supplied the dates of those nights, she'd had to wonder if a comic book-style light bulb had visibly lit up over her head.
How had she not connected the dates when her partner -- her lover -- had happened to have late shifts at the bar and casually declared that she'd crash at her apartment rather than risk disturbing Barbara? Especially given the fact that, on most nights, Helena was all-too-happy to disturb her... or to be disturbed by her.
With some shame, the redhead had acknowledged that while she was still feeling her way in the nascent relationship, she'd perhaps welcomed the occasional bit of solitude and accordingly not pressed her partner.
A bit distractedly, the older woman redirected her gaze to the oversized television as the commercial break ended and a group of college boys running with the bulls in Pamplona discovered that they were not nearly as fast as the animals behind them.
"I know that Helena's apartment has quite a few, er, selling points, Dinah."
Quite honestly, 'cheap' was the only such point which immediately came to mind. If her young ward were more like... Helena perhaps, the redhead could have included the apartment's location above a bar in the rather brief list of highlights.
"But," she continued, turning to meet the inquisitive eyes fixed hopefully on her, "a big part of college life includes being in the dorm, Dinah."
The older woman tried not to feel too hypocritical as she spoke. After all, she had lived -- well, sometimes slept -- in the dorms during her first few years of college.
Observing a willingness to consider her words, if not out-and-out acceptance, she lightly touched the blonde's knee.
"Tell you what: I know you have a lot on your mind with the upcoming trip and all, Dinah, and there's absolutely no reason to make a decision now."
She barely avoided smiling at the teen's frankly incredulous expression and ticked off the facts.
"There's a spot reserved for you in the dorms."
The blonde head nodded.
"Helena's place will undoubtedly still be available."
The redhead resolutely refused to focus too hard on that particular fact.
"And," she felt a very genuine smile crease her features, "you know you're always welcome to stay here... at home."
The smile was certainly reflected ten-fold in the pale blue eyes trained on her before the teen nodded and reached for the bowl of pretzels.
"Thanks, Barbara. I guess I don't have to decided where to go right away."
With a mental nod to the "brevity as the soul of wit" school of guardianship, the redhead retrieved her Perrier. A delay would give both of them -- all of them -- time to... adjust.
For some reason, her bubbly beverage seemed to constrict her throat, and she swallowed rapidly against the sensation. The relentlessly practical woman ruthlessly quashed her sentimental response and was almost successful in pushing back the lump in her throat.
Regrettably, some damnable greeting card commercial broke into the stream of Male Macho Bullshit, as Helena had termed it, on Maximum Exposure. To Barbara's distinct mortification, the hauntingly lovely strains of IZ Kamakawiwo'ole's "Over The Rainbow/Wonderful World" somehow crawled under her skin, and she felt moisture begin to rim her eyes.
What in the name of great grandmother's garters was the matter with her?
The redhead remained absolutely still, attempting not to blink too rapidly and give away the embarrassing display of emotion. The strategy, lasting through the next commercial, seemed to fail, for, peripherally, Barbara saw her companion on the couch shift nervously and hesitantly raise a hand, hovering above her forearm.
"I guess all of our emotions are still kind of running high from, uhm, last week?"
The redhead sniffed guiltily and nodded briskly, not caring to examine just too closely what had prompted the uncharacteristic lapse. Instead, ignoring the television's display of a man strapping a turbo engine to a lawn chair, she turned and met the teen's eyes.
Her father and Bruce had always taught her that the best defense was a good offense. And, it was a perfect opening to bring an overdue topic into the light of day.
"Can you tell me about what happened at the convenience store on Tuesday?"
It was impossible to miss how the fair young woman paled at the question. When Dinah looked down at her hands, biting at her upper lip, Barbara gentled her tone.
"I'd like to understand, Dinah."
With that, she fell silent, waiting with seemingly infinite patience -- an appearance the impatient redhead had learned to adopt early in her teaching career. Eventually, the teen looked up from her inspection of her fingernails and tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear. Still, the blonde didn't answer the question directly.
"I know we're not a Star Chamber or anything, but, uhm, when you were on the street, you probably hurt people, didn't you?"
Searching soft blue eyes, Barbara was unable to do anything but answer truthfully.
"I tried not to, Dinah, but sometimes, it couldn't -- "
She cut herself off, aware that the question probably had very little to do with her past, and corrected herself.
"Sometimes it can't be helped."
The achingly open eyes flickered away for an instant as the girl nodded, seemingly to herself.
"Did you ever enjoy it? Or, I mean..."
Pale brows furrowed while Dinah sought the words.
"...or, uh, want to?"
Again, the cyber-vigilante refused to hide -- or to sugar-coat -- the truth.
"I'm not sure that 'enjoy' would be the right word, Dinah, but, yes..."
The redhead drew a long breath through flared nostrils. When she saw her hand rising to the bridge of her nose, she decisively quashed the habitual gesture before continuing.
"Yes, there were times when it seemed... deserved."
Suspecting that she had a fair idea of where the young woman was headed, she gently placed her index and second finger under the girl's chin and drew her from her renewed inspection of her hands.
"It's a fact of life in the business we're in, Dinah, and it's certainly a feeling which I'm in no position to fault you for."
Oddly, the reassurance seemed to worry the blonde even more, and her eyes shuttered. A beat later, when Barbara finally made sense of the teen's frightened whisper, she realized that she hadn't had the first clue about the conversation after all.
"Even if I killed The Joker?"
"Seven card; two up; Jokers are wild."
A somewhat leaden silence pervaded the room for a beat. Then, with the regulation cards shushing across the dining room table, the dealer looked up, bright blue eyes meeting green and crinkling apologetically.
"Sorry. Bad choice there, eh?"
Barbara shared a rueful grimace with her companion, however, seeing the Joker in her hand, she decided that a change in the rules was not to her advantage at the moment.
Expediency could be a good thing.
She contented herself with a low hum of agreement, then briskly organized the five cards in hand -- by rank, then by suite. While such an action would have been too much of a 'tell' in a professional gaming situation, in these circumstances, it too was simply expedient.
Then, again, expediency could have its drawbacks.
Neatly depositing two cards in the discard stack, she arranged her replacements, mulling over how the nature of a situation impacted how palatable pragmatism could be. For instance, a few hours earlier, when Dinah had posed her question --
Watching her opponent take three cards, the redhead mentally rolled her eyes as she clarified her thought.
When Dinah had posed her jaw dropping question, she'd known that there had been a great deal of nuance to dance around. Accordingly, she'd schooled her featured and felt the girl out.
"What do you mean, Dinah?"
The blonde had skirted the question initially, forcing Barbara to draw on her reserves of patience when every instinct in her body had been screaming at her to ask her ward if she had, in fact, killed The Joker.
"I mean, is revenge really so bad, Barbara? Or,"
The fair face had looked away, searching.
"Or, is it always wrong?"
"I suppose that it depends, Dinah."
The older woman hadn't been happy with her answer, clear equivocation that it was, however it had been enough. Dinah had met her eyes again, her pale blue eyes earnest and confused.
"What would you have done if his plan had worked?"
The girl had twirled a lock of her newly shagged hair around her index finger, apparently misinterpreting the redhead's startled blink as a lack of comprehension.
"Uhm, if he'd convinced you that Helena was dead?"
Although she'd certainly wanted to lie or to circumvent the question, Barbara had been unable. In the business they were in, she owed her junior partner the truth.
"I would have hunted him to the ends of the earth and made him pay."
Those wide blue eyes had blinked, perhaps as startled as Barbara had been by the absolute factual certainty in her tone. Mercifully, the older woman had been able to restrain the remainder of her answer.
And pay and pay.
Unfortunately, her message had been unambiguous enough.
"So, revenge isn't always wrong?"
The redhead had felt her heart twist at the tentative whisper, and, recognizing the minefield they were crossing, she'd given herself a few seconds to choose her words.
"Yes, I personally believe that it is wrong, Dinah. However, in that case, there would have been no choice for me."
Two wrongs wouldn't make a right, but the question was one which had whispered through her mind during the dark hours of the night during the last week. She couldn't lie about the answer she'd arrived at.
The younger woman had absorbed the words quietly, seriously, then finally pushed her hair behind one ear in habitual nervous gesture.
"What about, uhm, advance revenge?"
Nerves already frayed by the conversation, Barbara had given in to instinct and stretched out, stilling the restless twirling of pale fingers in blonde locks.
"I'm not sure I understand, Dinah."
The teen had taken her time in responding, however, when she'd finally spoken, the words had poured forth in a dizzying rush.
"What if you just knew somebody was going to do something horrible, and so you maybe did something to stop them, but did it more than you needed to and ended up maybe hurting them?"
Barbara had had to work not to allow her eyes to spin as she'd followed the torturous trail of her ward's question.
"Doing what sort of thing, Dinah," she'd finally coaxed, quite certain that they were no longer speaking in the realm of abstracts.
The older woman had barely had time to blink after deciphering the words before she'd seen Dinah's jaw tremble and her eyes fill with tears. Instantly, she'd pushed herself closer and simply pulled the young woman to her. She'd held the girl close for uncounted minutes, stroking her back and allowing her to vent some of her anguish. It had only been after she'd cried herself out and her tears had dried that the blonde had pulled back and imploringly sought the older woman's eyes.
As rattled as she'd been by the exchange -- This was certainly not a conversation covered in the Guardianship for Dummies handbooks -- Barbara had had time to consider Dinah's confession. Accordingly, she'd gone with one of her strengths and firmly settled her logical cap in place.
Over the course of the next half hour, she'd eased the teen through the sequence of that night at the tenement, allowing Dinah to acknowledge that Helena had freed herself and been on the way out and that The Joker clearly hadn't planned on escaping through the front. While the sweet young woman had seemed calmer and, by the end of the painful conversation, it appeared that the blonde had accepted that no amount of telekinetic pushing on her part had led to Jack Napier's death, Barbara knew that, ultimately, it would be something which Dinah would have to come to terms with herself.
Nevertheless, the conversation had been enlightening for the older woman for unanticipated reasons: in reassuring her current protege that she couldn't assume responsibility, Barbara had realized that she would have to absolve Helena of any suspicion as well.
A week and a half before, the dark vigilante had told her -- perhaps vaguely -- that she'd not planned on The Joker's death, and now Barbara would simply have to let it go. Of course, she'd also admitted that letting go of Helena's nearly dying at The Joker's hands would be considerably more difficult to move past. He had already taken so much from her -- from both of them, and this had been too close.
Crimson brows crept skyward over emerald eyes. Perhaps the emotionality of the day had affected her hearing.
"I'm sorry. What was that?"
Blue eyes twinkled.
"I was attempting to see if you've heard a word I've said, Barbara."
Eschewing comment, the redhead merely displayed her winning hand and primly scooped the chips -- Fritos this time -- to her side of the table.
"Of course I was listening, Dad. You were telling me about visiting Captain O'Hara yesterday. Is Charlie acclimating to the retired life yet?"
"Fighting it tooth and nail, I'd have to sa-- "
Somewhat apologetically, Barbara interrupted her father with a pointed sniff, and Jim Gordon instantly pushed back from the table and bounded into the kitchen.
Earlier in the week, when Helena had informed her that she'd be working yet another double at the Dark Horse on this evening, it had seemed auspicious to arrange an overdue dinner with her father. It had been a few weeks too long between their bi-monthly Salisbury steak dinners -- the one thing Jim Gordon could cook without a problem.
However, if the scent of charring beef were any indication, perhaps the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree in terms of familial cooking skills.
Smirking at the muttered invective emanating from the kitchen, Barbara gathered the cards and slid them into their package, then turned to the sideboard to put them in their place. A flash of light from a framed photo caught her attention, and she paused, lightly brushing her fingers over the picture of her Aunt Barbara.
Dear heavens, how she missed her sometimes. Her aunt had, after all, been the first woman she'd been able to confide in -- at least, as able as a carefully guarded teen could be.
A bit of movement from the kitchen entry drew the redhead from her introspection, and she looked up, bursting into laughter at the vision of her tremendously dignified father bedecked in a frilly pink gingham apron. The older man's expression remained severe, however a crinkling at the corners of his eyes gave him away.
"If you've finished with your giggles, Barbara, I could use some help in here."
That sobered her up immediately.
Barbara felt her brows knit in irritation at the distinct squeak she'd heard in her voice, however it wasn't altogether unexpected: Helena and Dinah weren't the only ones who had threatened to ban her from the kitchen.
Despite her doubts about the wisdom of the request, she dutifully followed her father into the galley kitchen and accepted the potato masher he offered, attacking the hapless root vegetables with -- possibly -- undue vigor. Satisfied that she'd removed all trace of lumps, she added the requisite clove of garlic and a splash of milk. She contented herself with two pats of butter, unlike Helena, who seemed to prefer more milk and butter than potato in her potatoes.
Finally settled at the table, Barbara eyed the mammoth helpings on her plate a bit dubiously, but didn't bother to object: a lecture about being too thin was not on her list of things to do for the evening.
"Well this is nice."
Looking up, the redhead smiled a bit belatedly and raised her wine glass in acknowledgement as her father continued.
"Perhaps next time we can to arrange to have your --"
Jim Gordon paused, wrinkling a bushy unibrow as he ladled more gravy over his potatoes.
"...is 'girlfriend' the right word, Barbara?"
Although she felt heat touching her cheeks, she managed to reply calmly while she cut off a bite of her entree.
"I rather prefer 'partner'."
"I suppose that 'spouse' isn't an option," the older man observed blandly. "Although, with Helena, the word 'spice' might be more appropriate."
Nearly blowing a mouthful of potatoes across the table, Barbara laughed and reached for her water goblet.
Perhaps she should invite Helena to the next dinner although...
The redhead's chewing slowed as she considered whether having her father and Helena spend too much time together would be a good idea; they really did bring out the mischief in each other. Not to mention the fact that she was still a bit rankled by the fact that her partner had actually asked her father's permission to... be with her.
Opting to consider the matter further, she touched her napkin to her mouth and spoke noncommittally.
"I'll see if she's available some time, Dad."
The distinguished man pinned her with a frank look.
"You do that, Barbara. Meantime..."
He buttered a roll and smiled.
"...you'll never believe it, but Charlie's decided to take up golf."
As Jim Gordon recounted the highlights of his recent visit with his former right-hand man, Barbara felt her face light with the memories of the sweet police chief who had always had a kind word or a silly magic trick or a roll of life savers up his sleeve or in his pocket for his boss's adopted daughter. In addition, according to Bruce, Captain O'Hara had been one of the few on the force who had initially accepted the presence of a masked crime fighter with enthusiasm.
She was definitely overdue to pay the man a visit.
Mentally reviewing her schedule for the next week, the redhead helped her father clear the table, the two moving with an easy familiarity. Dishes in the dishwasher and leftovers covered, the two exchanged a glance and wordlessly made their way to Jim Gordon's study.
The dark paneled room, redolent of sweet pipe tobacco and leather, had always been the older man's favorite location in the house. From the day Barbara had come to live with her aunt and uncle, she'd known that the room was a sanctuary for her new father, a place to escape the pressures of his job, to decompress after a long day, to think. Even now, with the entire house to himself, Barbara was aware that her dad spent most of his time in the office.
For herself, the quiet room evoked a plethora of warm memories. When she'd first joined the household, she'd spent many a long winter afternoon in the room with her uncle, both settled in the big leather chairs by the fire, immersed in their respective books. Later, after she'd departed the house for college and her own apartment, the study had become a place for deep conversations about some of the questions she'd had transitioning to adulthood. These discussions always seemed easier... and more meaningful... to the redhead when they took place in the room; perhaps because of the cloistered, almost confessional, nature of the study; perhaps because she felt it a privilege to be invited into Jim Gordon's haven.
While her father busied himself at the wet bar, Barbara slowly circumnavigated the room, unconsciously identifying which titles had been added to the built-in bookcases since her last visit. She spied the Clinton autobiography on the corner of the desk and absently picked it up, flipping through pages and noting her father's meticulous handwriting in the margins of many pages.
"Amazing man," Jim Gordon commented as he approached with a cordial glass in one hand and a heavy cut glass tumbler in the other. "Quite the scallywag, as well."
The redhead murmured her thanks for her glass while she resettled the thick book on the desk. She accepted her cordial, and her father settled himself in his desk chair, digging into the second drawer for his pipe and tobacco.
An image of another scallywag named Clinton, whom she and Helena had recently dealt with, flashed through her mind, and Barbara felt a wan smile crease her features.
Somehow, sharing stories -- even stories with the vigilante crime fighting elements carefully removed -- about their recent visits to Clint William's S&M club simply didn't seem advisable.
Accordingly, she lifted her small glass and appreciatively inhaled the complex bouquet of the ruby liquid. The sweet, oaky aroma of the port was inviting, making a lovely finish to the meal they'd shared. If she weren't mistaken -- and if Jim Gordon were true to form -- that was brandy filling her companion's glass.
Barbara was happy enough with the arrangement: She'd never cared for brandy and didn't care to enlighten her father about her predilection for other hard liquors, such as bourbon and tequila.
Unfortunately, she found that she could scarcely do justice to the twenty year old port when her father exhaled a plume of smoke and casually leaned forward, shaking out his long match and placing it in the heavy crystal ashtray.
"Care to tell me what's gnawing at you, Barbie?"
Warmed by the familiar nickname -- a name which her father alone was allowed to use -- the redhead didn't bother to brush off the question: Her father knew her too well, and she respected him far too much for that. Nevertheless, she realized that she didn't actually have an answer for the question either; despite her insights from the conversation with Dinah, she had yet to put her finger exactly on matters.
After a second, less jarring, sip of her aperitif and a few moment's reflection, she finally murmured, "I'm not really sure, Dad."
A bushy brow lowered, and Barbara was pinned by acute blue eyes.
"Something with Helena?"
The redhead carefully lowered her glass to the desk, then shifted in her chair, immediately regretting the unnecessary movement for the tell it was.
She'd responded with the first word that popped into her head. The second came out on it's own.
Miserably, she retrieved her glass and swirled the ruby liquid.
"I don't know," she finally added, entirely unhelpfully, she suspected.
Her father took the confession -- such as it was -- with equanimity, tapping the stem of his Meerschaum against his chin a few times, then puffing contentedly for a long forty-five seconds. Eventually, he nodded.
"Did I ever tell you about what turned the tide for me with Helena?"
"Turned? With Helena?"
Still coping with a bit of conversational whiplash, it was the best she could do. Jim Gordon didn't seem to notice, or to mind, continuing blandly, "Oh, not about you and her. About her after you became her guardian."
The two fell silent for a few moments, lost in their respective memories.
For Barbara, those memories involved grim weeks in the hospital, attempting to come to terms with her loss, with Helena's loss of her mother, and with a dim realization that she'd promised Selina something about her daughter. It had all clarified ten days after that momentous night.
She'd awakened from another nightmare-filled dream to find her father keeping vigil. After the usual subdued questions about how she was feeling, she'd been puzzled to hear her father working to find words, attempting to say something about Helena. The pieces had snapped into place in her drug-addled thinking when she'd realized that her father was offering to find someone to "place" the hurting teen.
Even drugged out of her mind and depressed to the soles of her unfeeling feet, Barbara had felt anger course through her at the suggestion, and had attempted to snap a response -- "She's not a puppy, Dad" -- which had undoubtedly come out as more of a petulant mumble than the crisp argument she'd intended.
It had done the trick, however, and the two had shared a meaningful look, both clearly recalling the dark teen's hangdog expression of loss and her palpable fear and emptiness, emotions barely covered by braggadocio and anger. Barbara had nearly reconsidered her denial. Fortunately, her father had spared her addled brain the effort.
"Then, perhaps it would be best if I take her in."
Obviously, he'd seen the protest in her eyes and had raised a hand placatingly.
"Just until you're... stronger, Barbara. Helena has... issues which are going to be difficult to deal with."
For a bare flicker of an instant, she had been tempted.
Lord knew, the teen had always been trouble on two feet -- and that had just been part-time, in the classroom, and while she'd had the use of her legs.
Then, the image of the first face she'd seen when she'd awakened in the hospital came to mind, and she'd merely shaken her head, knowing that she would not let Helena down.
Emerging from her reverie to find her father regarding her patiently, the redhead quirked her lips.
"And, what was it which turned the tide, Dad?"
The white-haired man leaned back in his heavily padded desk chair, turning his eyes to the ceiling before he replied.
"I really had no idea quite how bad the PT sessions were for you, Barbara."
The redhead blinked, lifting the delicate glass to her mouth to cover her surprise.
While she certainly had loathed her own helplessness -- not to mention being handled, and coddled, and treated as if she'd lost her adulthood along with the use of her legs -- she had certainly tried to be a good, dedicated, upbeat patient... at least outside her bedroom door.
Seemingly reading her mind, Jim Gordon smiled at the cherry ceiling planks.
"Oh, it wasn't you. You put up a marvelous front."
The older man completed his study of the ceiling, and the two shared a knowing smile.
"However, every so often, I'd see you after you'd been crying, and, I must confess, I assumed it had to do with Helena."
Searching clouded blue-grey eyes, she knew that her father had certainly been attempting to deal with his own emotions, his misplaced feelings of culpability in the attack, his worry about his newly paralyzed daughter taking in the orphaned teen who simply oozed pain and bad attitude. Nevertheless, she had to speak in Helena's defense.
Jim Gordon waved his pipe dismissively, then chuckled at his own expense.
"Of course I know that now. It hit me like a ton of bricks about ten seconds after I found Helena facing down your physical therapist."
A bushy brow quirked.
"What was his name? Bart?"
The older man nodded and puffed at his pipe again for a few beats.
"Well, I don't think she knew I was there, and I was just dumbfounded to see that little scrap of a girl taking on Brad..."
Barbara smiled at the mental image, recalling the juxtaposition of her ninety pound ward and her burly PT.
"...but she was in his face, giving him hell for patronizing you and --- how did she put it?"
The redhead marshaled her patience as her father tapped his pipe against his lips and searched his memory.
"Ah, yes. She was lighting into him for 'handling' you and said she'd -- "
The blue eyes behind the desk twinkled when the older man raised his free hand to make quotation marks in the air. When she heard the words her father had pulled from memory, Barbara felt her breathing hitch.
"-- 'damned well learn how to help you with your PT herself because nobody was ever going to hurt you while she was around.' "
My, but that hurt.
Wincing minutely, Barbara straightened from her over-close concentration at the plasma monitor and rotated her neck, working to relax the painful stiffness which had taken up residence there and in her shoulders. The resultant pops and cracks -- as loud as firecrackers to her own ears -- were satisfactory, not to mention an unnecessary reminder of the effects of such fixed scrutiny at the computer.
For the last two hours, the cyber-crime fighter had been absorbed in locating, and then attempting to trace back to an origin, the sites offering The Joker's bubble gum guns to the unsuspecting populace.
And, regrettably, since her discovery of the entrepreneur's original web site three nights before, the word had become a plural, with mirror sites mushrooming -- possibly in an attempt to circumvent the redirection she'd put in at the first site.
When her 'bots had first alerted her to the new sites earlier in the day, Barbara had suspected copycats; however, after a laborious process of working backward from each site, she'd discovered that they all eventually converged on New Gotham's net hub. It was at that point that the cyber-genius had lost the trail in a warren of dead ends, relays, and loop backs.
Someone was obviously determined not to be found. While that wouldn't stop her, it would slow the process a bit.
In the meantime, the crimson haired vigilante had already installed her own keystroke loggers -- a polite term for spyware, she admitted -- within each of the sites' secure transaction processing scripts. Her little add-ons would intercept and capture every bit of ordering and credit card information before the data reached the bubble goo gun vendor's server.
As she'd deployed her trojans earlier, it had only taken a split second of internal debate before Barbara had decided to divert the money from potential purchases to the city's fund for the victims of The Joker's rampage. If anyone attempting to purchase the weapons objected, they could, of course, take matters up with their credit card company or the police.
It was only a hunch, but, somehow, Barbara suspected that there would be very few reports about the involuntary contributions.
Sighing soundlessly, the redhead allowed her chin to drop to her chest for a final stretch before refocusing on her monitor. She was satisfied with the status of the spyware; she was also confident that her sniffers would flag any new mirror sites, notifying her and automatically attempting to install the keystroke interceptors. All that remained was to return to the tangled maze which would allow her to track down the enterprising individual -- or individuals -- who were offering such a diabolical weapon to the masses.
Quite frankly, she knew that she could simply unleash some bots to do the laborious grunt work of following the electronic trails. That particular sensible course of action, however, would free her attention to look...
Well, at the couch.
At the bare foot -- toenails neatly manicured and displaying an arrestingly bright shade of pink polish -- which rested on the back of the couch.
At the person who was, presumably, comfortably ensconced on the other side of the tall sofa, occupying herself with rapid-fire channel surfing since she'd returned from sweeps.
Having looked, the redhead knew that she was sunk. There was simply no way to pretend any longer that she was immersed in her search.
Moving on auto-pilot, Barbara set the Delphi on standby, then dropped her hands, unlocking the brake on her chair and rotating sixty-degrees from her keyboard. Despite her intentions to complete the half circle and descend to the living area, she found herself looking into the open room and rocking the wheels of the chair.
It wasn't that she didn't want to spend time with Helena or, the analytical woman supposed, that her partner didn't want to spend time with her -- her somewhat stilted entrance after sweeps notwithstanding. It was simply -- awkward at the moment.
The night before, Barbara had returned from dinner at her father's to find that Dinah had turned in and the tower was otherwise silent. Helena had finally crept silently into the bedroom well after two in the morning, her nervousness almost palpable. Grateful that the younger woman had chosen not to disappear to her apartment, Barbara had wordlessly stretched over and snugged her tight.
Despite her relief, the older woman certainly hadn't been able to sleep, and she was almost positive, especially given her partner's admission that morning about having been afraid to sleep deeply, that Helena hadn't slept either. Lying quietly through the night, aching at Helena's calculated stillness, Barbara had found herself becoming increasingly frustrated that she'd not known what to say... or to do... to make this go away.
Helena had disappeared early in the day for a planned shopping excursion with Dinah and Gabby, then insisted on running a sweep after her shift at work. And now, here they finally were, still not talking, the silence overwhelming.
Although she moved quietly, the redhead knew that her partner's acute senses would detect her approach, and so she spoke normally -- as normally as possible --- when she reached the end of the couch.
"What are you watching?"
The younger woman gracefully sat up, tucking her feet beneath her camp style and pointing the remote in the direction of the big screen.
Taking the newly vacated section of couch as an invitation, Barbara efficiently transferred herself from her chair.
For several minutes, the two concentrated on the action in front of them, with Barbara finding herself engaged, in spite of herself, by Jackie Chan's perfectly timed physical comedy as his character was controlled by his suit. As amusing as the antics on the big screen were, the redhead couldn't help but feel a pang of sympathy for circumstances which seemed to drag one along by the heels.
With that thought, Barbara mustered her nerve and reached over to lace her fingers with her partner's. She was unpleasantly surprised by the depth of pain she experienced when she observed the younger woman's tiny flinch at the contact.
Without further ado, she snagged the remote and muted the movie.
"Can we talk, Sweetheart?"
The brunette nodded, peering cautiously through thick lashes.
The word filled the space between them on a soft whisper before Helena continued hesitantly.
"It's just -- I don't know what to say or how--"
Fearing the direction that things could head, Barbara twisted a bit to face her companion and tenderly stroked the satin skin of the younger woman's cheek with the first two fingers of her free hand.
"I know what I need to say, Hel."
The redhead inclined her head, catching her partner's eyes and verifying that she had her attention.
"I need to apologize for what happened. For, in any way, allowing you to believe that..."
Although Barbara had had ample time to consider her words, her meaning, she still felt warmth color her face when she forced the remainder past her lips.
"...that I couldn't trust you."
Save for a sudden twitch of her upper lip, the brunette was still, seemingly considering the apology. Finally, even white teeth caught a lush lower lip, and Helena looked down to their joined hands.
"I know I get kind of out of control..."
The lithe woman trailed off, her face as red as Barbara had ever seen it, leaving the older woman struggling for words of her own.
During the course of the day on Thursday, the relentlessly practical woman had -- seven plus years into her association with the very physical and emotional younger woman -- experienced a jaw-dropping insight: for the last five years, at a very specific time each month, Helena had disappeared... made herself scarce... hidden.
Usually, the brunette claimed that she had extra shifts, and Barbara had thought little about it, other than acknowledging that not having a PMS-ing Huntress on the streets or in the clock tower was undoubtedly a good thing. Heaven knew, there had always been more fights when the brunette was in high school, and the younger woman certainly displayed more... gusto in subduing criminals on the streets.
The day before, Barbara had suddenly understood that her partner hadn't been protecting the criminal ilk of New Gotham from her hormones: she'd been ashamed to show Barbara a side of herself which was all about physiology and genetics, not control.
The redhead heard herself speak before she knew she'd found the words.
"No, Hel. You didn't. You weren't. It w--"
Apparently hell-bent on eviscerating herself, Helena cut off the protest.
"I'd never hurt you, Barbara."
Although she'd -- needlessly -- been reminded of that very thing the evening before, the older woman felt her control threaten to shatter at the words. She held herself together, grasping at the flash of clarity she'd had when talking with her dad, an insight which had permitted her to put another piece of the puzzle in place.
"I know that, Helena."
Barbara put as much emphasis as she could on the word without actually shouting. Then, uncertain somehow but needing to touch the other woman, she raised her free hand, somewhat helplessly. Her hand was gently captured in by her partner's, a strong thumb stroking her knuckles.
"It wasn't you, Sweetie."
Thank goodness. The younger woman's frankly disbelieving expression was so comically over the top that Barbara finally felt her breathing ease.
"Really, Hel. It was several things which... converged at the wrong moment."
She nodded gravely, seeing a willingness to listen... to hear.
"There was something you said which made me think of... him."
Despite herself, the older woman shivered. Seeing her companion start to question, she shook her head once.
"It doesn't really matter, Helena. It was just the situation."
She waited for the grudging nod before adding softly, "Then with my hands immobilized, it took me back to the hospital."
The brief, factual, statement scarcely did justice to grim memories of being absolutely immobilized as doctors hoped against hope that some of the damage might knit. For weeks, the fiercely independent woman had been locked into place with faint hopes teasing her and bitter nightmares taunting her.
Purposefully, Barbara didn't think about the other factor which had compounded the immediacy of the flashback: the hellish vision of her lover's eyes and how -- for a terrifying instant -- they had recalled the madman's eyes which had danced through her morphine-induced haze as she'd been restrained in the hospital.
"Oh, fuck -- "
In a heartbeat, the brunette was on her knees, leaning in to bring their foreheads together.
"I didn't... I'm so so--"
The older woman, quite effectively, silenced the apology with a gentle kiss. When she withdrew enough to focus on the bright blue eyes to close to her own, she smiled tenderly at the concern in the expressive features only inches away.
"Don't apologize. It was an odd combination of things which..."
Looking up and to the left, she searched for the right words.
"...obscured where I wanted to be."
For a moment, Helena searched her eyes, and Barbara forced herself not to shy away from the close scrutiny. Finally, the brunette allowed a wicked grin to paint her features and leaned close, her words purring against the older woman's neck.
"Wanna do something to clear that up, Red?"
As much as she appreciated her lover's ready forgiveness, as desperately as she craved the lessened tension which Helena's humor brought, as delicious as the warm breath against her skin felt, something still forced the redhead to stiffen.
"Hel -- not, not now."
The brunette withdrew slowly, brows furrowing darkly, but her voice remained soft.
"What did I do? Why don't you want--"
Choking on her own emotions, unwilling to hear how her lover might finish the question, Barbara interrupted roughly.
"I don't not want you."
She suspected that neither of them missed the circuitous nature of the words.
"Is it him? I thought you believed me -- that I didn't kill him."
The words, the reference -- still, nobody wanted to speak his name -- seemed to pervade the room. Turning to take in the jumbled action transpiring in silence on the television, Barbara lowered her lashes against seeing.
"I did... I do."
Of course, she'd known that the reassurance alone wouldn't be enough.
"Then what? There's more; I know it."
She heard her partner draw a deep breath before a plea caressed her.
"Please, Barbara, don't shut me out."
Not entirely certain that she was confident in her own understanding of her feelings, the redhead met her partner's piercing gaze.
"I-- it's complicated, Hel."
To her credit, the younger woman mustered a winning smile.
"Help me understand it, then."
With no avenue open to her but the truth, the redhead straightened her spine fractionally, then blew a long slow breath through her pursed lips.
"I'm... I know it may seem silly, Hel," she began, fretting even as she apologized in advance.
This time, the answering smile was more puzzled than charming, however it gave Barbara the courage to continue.
"I'm upset about Tuesday," she admitted.
Obviously, she'd need to take time to see if somehow, unbeknownst to her, a stick had been wedged into her lower alimentary tract. It was simply the only way to explain the utter stiffness of her words.
The brunette's left brow raised a bit, the wheels visibly turning in her mind.
"What about it?"
Suddenly realizing how very, very angry she was, the older woman took pains to speak very, very calmly.
"The near-miss at the convenience store, Helena. It was reckless and irresponsible."
In that instant, when the clipped words burned past her lips, Barbara realized that her partner truly had done a great deal of growing in the last years. Rather than responding with the anger and shouting she might have displayed not too long ago, Helena sat quietly for a few seconds. Finally, her eyes narrowed as her jaw dropped in an almost comical mixture of frustration and disbelief.
"Excuse me? When did my meta powers start including clairvoyance? How the fuck was I supposed to know he'd have a buddy with a gun?"
Completely nonplused by the utter logic of response, the redhead fired back with both barrels.
"You have to be aware of these sorts of things, Helena! How in the hell else can you expect to go out and do what you do every night and not wind up dead?"
The dark vigilante bristled, opening and shutting her mouth once... twice... before exhaling noisily.
"Yeah," she admitted, her tone just the tiniest bit sulky, "it was a dumb mistake, but that's why Dinah backed me up. And--"
Barbara was having none of it.
"And, what if she hadn't been there, Helena? What then?"
Oddly, the angry interruption seemed to relax the younger woman, and she moved close as she spoke.
"If the Kid hadn't been there, Red, you would have been hacked into the video camera to get my back, right?"
At this point, the brunette had brought them eye to eye, their noses almost touching.
"It was okay 'cuz Dinah caught it, and I jumped fast enough."
Against her instincts, the redhead surrendered, embracing her partner even as two words arced through her mind.
But, at that moment, there was no more time -- or inclination -- for recriminations. Helena shifted onto her lap, rubbing her cheek softly -- so softly -- against the older woman's face. Barbara inhaled slowly, giving in to the reassurance of the touch, the reality of warm breath in her hair, the flare of heat which followed the gentle lips tracing her ear.
Feeling a shiver course through the smaller figure, she pulled away, searching blue eyes which were slitting to gold.
"How can you be so---"
In a dizzying blink, Helena's eyes reverted to blue, fixing her with a gaze so open and honest that Barbara felt her heart clench.
"I've been waiting... practicing all my life to be ready for you."
How could she possibly be worthy of that sort of emotion?
The exclamation was hoarse, and the redhead blinked.
"You need to stop that, Hel," she managed with a quirk of her brow. "You make me go all weak in the elbows."
With that, she reached up, threading her fingers through shaggy hair and pulling her lover in for a long, gentle kiss which was all about love. When she eventually became aware of the low rumbling emanating from her partner's chest, the redhead slowly disentangled herself and coaxed the younger woman to stretch out on the couch, her dark head cushioned in her lap.
"I spoke with Dinah yesterday... about -- well --"
Barbara laughed without humor.
"I'd thought it was about how tense she's been."
The inexorable rise of the remote, clearly aimed at the big screen with a slender index finger poised above the Mute button, halted, and the dark head in her lap turned, allowing one blue eye to peer upward.
"So what was it really about?"
Having worked her way around entirely too many issues for one night, the redhead didn't mince words.
"She thinks -- was under the impression that she's responsible for his death."
The remote returned to the couch cushion next to the younger woman's hip.
"Why? I was the..."
Those expressive blue eyes shuttered when Helena finished quietly.
"I was in there with him."
Barbara quite deliberately pushed aside the sourness in the back of her throat for the moment and focused on what she'd gleaned from the teen the day before.
"It seems that when she saw him trying to hinder your escape, she attempted to trip him or push him back with her TK."
As factual and calm has the older woman's recounting had been, her companion's response was equally soft and serious. After a half-dozen heart beats -- and Barbara counted every painfully expectant thump in her chest -- the brunette rose on one arm and looked over her shoulder to meet the redhead's eyes.
"Is that why she went postal on that poor slob at the convenience store?"
The redhead nodded slowly, murmuring her answer.
Without further comment, Helena resettled herself and raised the volume for the ending of the movie. Barbara heard snatches of dialog and occasionally glanced at the screen; however, she found herself focusing on the young woman in her lap: running her hand lightly over a sinewy shoulder, feathering her fingertips across the golden skin of her face, finally resting a palm on her chest to absorb the strong, steady beat of her heart.
A sweet brushing of soft lips against the inside of her wrist drew Barbara's attention from her inspection of the healed burns on her lover's jaw.
The word was wrapped in a yawn, bringing a fond smile to the older woman's lips.
"... didn't get much sleep last night."
Bending at the waist, Barbara brushed a lingering kiss to shaggy bangs.
"Then sleep, Sweetheart. I'll tell you how the movie ends."
The brunette wriggled minusculely closer, a chuckle escaping her as dark lashes blinked heavily.
"Huh. Can't believe D was trying to take care of me."
Barbara waited until her partner succumbed to sleep, her breathing evening out and her hand kneading gently against the cushion, before she whispered her reply to the dark room.
"It's what we do, Hel."
Lights go out and I can't be saved
Tides that I tried to swim against
You've put me down upon my knees
Oh I beg, I beg and plead
Come out of things unsaid,
Shoot an apple off my head and a
Trouble that can't be named,
Tigers waiting to be tamed
Confusion never stops,
Closing walls and ticking clocks gonna
Come back and take you home,
I could not stop, that you now know
An unobtrusive cough, perfectly pitched to penetrate the state-of-the-art sound-masking headphones, caught Barbara's attention. Immediately, she paused the CD spinning in one of the Delphi's trays and pushed the headphones down to wrap around her neck.
An instant after that, she regretted the loss of the headphones and Coldplay's music, which had managed to cover the majority of the din pervading the clock tower.
Mustering a rather forced smile, she swept her hair over the thin band of the headset with a practiced motion and turned to regard her companion.
"Pardon me for interrupting, Miss Barbara," Alfred began.
The redhead laughed, slightly surprised to note that the sound was genuine.
"Never an interruption, Alfred. I was trying to drown out... this."
She waved a hand vaguely toward the interior of the tower, and one greying brow rose eloquently.
The butler turned to survey the disarray. Barbara was aware that the gesture was completely otiose since the mayhem surrounded them, however she appreciated his ability to maintain a neutral facade in the face of the mess.
"It does seem inconvenient that Miss Helena left in the midst of all of this."
The redhead tended to agree, however she heard herself instinctively speaking in her partner's defense.
"I'm sure that if she'd known, she'd -- "
Her words caught up with her, and, quirking her lips, she finished truthfully.
"... have run even faster."
The two shared a smile until a crash from the hallway caused the cyber-genius to start. Even the unflappable Alfred deigned to widen his eyes at the noise.
When the dust -- literal dust, the redhead noted irritably as she calculated the impact on the Delphi's optical drives -- settled, the older gentleman leaned in, placing a warm hand on her shoulder.
"If you'll permit me the observation, she would be here if you asked her..."
The redhead again plastered on a smile.
"I know that she would, Alfred."
Hesitantly, the reserved woman raised her hand, touching the equally reserved butler's hand in a brief connection.
"But," she continued as he removed himself a respectful step, "this is something I can handle on my own."
"I'm sure that you can, Miss Barbara."
As formal as the reassurance seemed, the redhead detected only sincerity in her long time advisor's words, and her smile became more genuine.
"Well, if there's nothing else," he began.
Barbara thought she felt a flicker of panic when she heard the prompt. She was certain that her smile faltered.
"Yes, that's fine. You are overdue to begin your holiday, aren't you?"
She mentally castigated herself, aware that her cheer sounded just a bit forced and equally aware that her companion would notice.
The impeccably dressed butler took a moment, straightening the blindingly white cuffs which extended exactly three quarters of an inch below his jacket sleeves.
"I would be happy to delay my absence for a bit."
As grateful as she was for the offer, the relentlessly practical woman knew her insecurities were unwarranted.
Not to mention, utterly ridiculous for a thirty-two year old.
"Thank you for offering, Alfred, but I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."
His expression, as carefully neutral as ever, spoke volumes.
"Be that as it may, I've taken the liberty of restocking the pantry."
She opened her mouth to ask, but the older man beat her to the punch handily.
"I froze several casseroles and bought two dozen Lean Cuisines."
Her own laughter eased the tight band of tension which had been constricting the redhead's chest.
"What would I do without you, Alfred?"
The brightly polished leather of the butler's shoes flashed when he turned crisply to depart, and Barbara detected the ghost of a smile.
"I'm sure I don't know, Miss Barbara."
Raising a hand in farewell, Barbara realized that she was about to find out. Nevertheless, years of practice kicked in, and she calmly reseated her headphones and turned back to her work, quickly loosing herself in her planning for the summer session which was beginning in the morning.
While she'd completed her lesson plans weeks before, the redhead always experienced a few butterflies at the beginning of a term. With Alfred officially on holiday and the clock tower empty of both wards and former wards, it was the perfect opportunity to turn up the volume on the CD, tune out the noise from the other room, and insure that she had her ducks in a row for the morning.
The strategy was successful, and Barbara lost herself in her work, emerging from her abstraction only twice: to usher the workmen from the tower at the end of the day and to microwave a low calorie spaghetti dinner when she noticed that the sun had set. With her nutritional requirements met, the cyber-genius returned to fine-tuning her syllabus and plotting how to engage her students from the outset of the class.
With the hectic pace of summer school -- not to mention the additional constraints on this particular class -- she didn't have a minute to waste.
With the pervasive whirring and clicking of the big clocks gears as the only sound to fill the silence, Barbara finally -- reluctantly -- pushed back from the workstation and glanced up.
While it was a bit earlier than she'd normally turn it, she had done all she could with her lesson plans. With no sweeps to monitor, the redhead knew that she could pace through the empty living quarters or pretend to watch some sort of inane late night television or attempt to engage herself in unraveling the cyber trail for the bubble goo gun web site; however, none of those options held any appeal.
Sleep it was, then.
After needlessly rechecking the tower's security and performing a perfunctory toilette, Barbara headed resolutely to the big bed. She clapped on the bedside lamp, toggled the overhead light off, and then, without thinking, moved to one side to transfer herself from the chair.
Her side of the bed.
The thought blazed through her brain in three foot neon letters, and her hand froze in the process of flipping back the covers from "her" side.
For a moment, she remained still, locked in position, until she released the covers with a soft snort of bemusement. Green eyes sought the colorful print over the head of the bed, and the fiercely independent woman realized that she had, indeed, undergone some significant changes in just over three months.
Where once she had efficiently slept on alternate sides of the bed each month in order to reduce mattress sags, she now had a "side". She'd gone from having her wardrobe neatly arranged in her closet by season, then function, then color, to having it all crammed wherever it would fit in half -- less than half -- of the closet.
Or, more accurately, she amended as she took in the disarray in the room, her clothes seemed to be scattered across every available surface.
In the change of a season, she'd gone from sleeping under covers neatly arranged when she turned in and which had barely shifted when she rose to resting within a tangle of limbs, sheets and blankets flung to the floor. She'd gone from rising briskly after the minimum sleep she'd learned she needed to a world of languorous awakenings after a great deal more time in bed -- not always sleeping -- than she'd ever indulged in.
And, it was wonderful.
Fighting an uncharacteristic, and entirely maudlin desire to sniffle, the redhead firmly pushed those thoughts aside and regarded the far side of the bed.
Unaware that she did so, Barbara nodded once then circled the bed. Without allowing herself further thought, she arranged herself under the covers, unable to miss her partner's sweet scent rising from the pillow beneath her head.
As she'd expected, she didn't sleep well. However, in the assumption that the rest itself would be beneficial, she forced herself to stay in bed, her right arm resting on her forehead, unmoving for exactly six hours.
By midweek, the redhead had abandoned her attempts to turn in early, since lying alone in the big bed seemed to offer no readily identifiable benefits. Indeed, it merely provided an opportunity for unstructured thoughts.
No more of that. Reading, monitoring the scanners, cyber-tracking, even the vapid offerings of late night satellite were definitely preferable.
Neatly spearing a bite of egg and a blue cheese crumble from her Cobb salad, Barbara hunted for the perfect bit of crisp lettuce to accompany them as she tried to suppress a yawn.
"How is the empty nest treating you?"
The redhead smiled at her luncheon companion over the rim of her iced tea glass and instinctively started to offer a polite evasion. The reserved woman stayed the impulse, seeing nothing but sincere interest in warm brown eyes, and gave the question its due.
"Surprisingly empty, Jess," she finally heard herself answer, with an honesty which might have been downright alarming had she been speaking to almost anyone else from work.
New Gotham High's guidance counselor nodded her understanding and chased some tuna salad across her plate with a breadstick.
"You're welcome to borrow one of mine if it's getting too quiet at home, Barbara."
The redhead snorted wryly.
"Nice try, but no more teenagers for me."
The other woman's response was instant. And, the English teacher observed dryly, suspiciously enthusiastic.
"Who said anything about teens? I have them in all sizes and ages."
This time, Barbara allowed a full laugh past her lips.
"Honestly, I don't see how you do it, Jess, with five at home and the weight of six hundred adolescents' angst at work."
The other woman's brown eyes sparkled under her page boy while she thoughtfully tapped the breadstick against the edge of her plate.
"I think the two serve as a system of checks and balances."
The redhead raised her brows encouragingly.
"When it gets too awful at work, I can just remind myself that it's bound to be worse when I get home and vice versa."
Jessica managed to hold her serious look for a beat before her eyes crinkled, and both women laughed, only controlling their mirth when the waitress appeared to display a tempting array of desserts.
With her hectic life, the school guidance counselor could easily indulge in the wedge of rich carrot cake she ordered. Barbara, however, contented herself with an espresso: she'd skipped solitary time in the training room so far this week, and while she had had a salad for lunch, it had hardly been a low-cal affair.
The hint of a smile around the honey-blonde's generous mouth suggested that she was anything but.
"I thought you'd sort of gotten accustomed to teenagers around your place."
Tilting her tiny cup slightly in acknowledgement, the redhead wryly allowed, "Resigned, perhaps, Jess."
They shared another smile, and Barbara resettled her cup in its saucer, debating.
"Actually, the slot is pretty well taken already."
The other woman dabbed at some cream cheese frosting on her chin.
"Oh? I thought Dinah was going into the dorms in the fall."
Rotating her cup in its tiny saucer, the redhead didn't quite make eye contact.
"She is. It's, er, Helena's moved back in."
She deliberately tried not to think about just when the vibrant younger woman would actually return... when Helena would actually be living at the tower again.
Looking cautiously through her lashes, Barbara thought that the brown eyes across the table widened the tiniest bit, and she steadied herself. Nevertheless, she wasn't quite prepared for the other woman's delighted laughter.
"Well, I can see how that would fulfill the perpetual teenager slot, Barbara."
A wave of tension which she hadn't realized she'd been carrying rushed from the redhead, and she found herself blinking rapidly when Jessica leaned over and lightly rested one hand on hers.
"Seriously, I'm glad to hear it, Barbara. You do seem... happy for a change."
The redhead instantly decided not to dwell on the subtext in the message and simply nodded as the blonde continued.
"Even with all of the mess with The Joker..."
She gestured vaguely with her fork.
"...you're more... open."
Barbara attempted to hide her blush behind her tiny cup, nearly choking on the hot beverage when her fellow faculty member continued.
"How have the other teachers been taking things?"
Deliberately, the redhead reseated her cup then arched a brow.
"Other than a certain History Teacher, I presume you mean?"
They shared a knowing smile.
"You've got that right. You wouldn't believe some of the things Alethea managed to intimate when I got pregnant with Jimmy."
Barbara rolled her eyes.
"I can well imagine."
Metering her tone, she finally responded to her luncheon companion's question.
"All in all, Jessica, I'd say that most are either unconcerned or supportive."
Green eyes held brown for an extra moment, attempting to convey her appreciation for this particular co-worker's support. Then, she called upon one of her many skills and deflected the conversation to less charged topics.
"However, in terms of the solitude, it's actually a real boon in terms of focusing on inspiring a class full of pre-seniors about -- "
Squaring her shoulders, Barbara added a stentorian ring to her voice as she ticked off the names.
"Norris, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemingway."
The other woman's eyes twinkled.
"That has to be a challenge."
Nodding ruefully, the redhead nevertheless confessed, "Actually, the students who signed up are remarkably motivated."
It was understood, if unspoken, that this class was a wonderful change of pace from the typical resentful students who populated the usual make-up classes of summer session.
Jessica nodded and scraped the remaining crumbs onto her fork while the English teacher snagged the check from their server.
"I really didn't know if you'd be able to sell the class to the administration, Barbara."
Granted, a four-week intensive immersion study of the four authors' works was a bit unusual, however it was something the redhead had really wanted to try.
"I can be very persuasive, Jessica."
Since she'd been hunting for another ten dollar bill, the redhead's reply had been a bit distracted. However, she instantly forgot her search and snapped to attention when Jessica pushed back from the table and issued a challenge with a wide grin.
"Alright then, Barbara. It's time to persuade yourself to pamper yourself and dip your feet into bachelorhood."
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