DISCLAIMER: I do not own the characters. They are the property of DC comics and the WB network. I'm just borrowing them for a short period of time.
MUSIC DISCLAIMER: Song lyrics don't belong to me either; no profit gained or infringement intended.
SERIES: Some readers were kind enough to point out that there are more than the traditional four elements which were covered in the original Elemental series (Landslide, Watershed and Windshear). Hence, this story, the first extension of the Elemental series.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
<<"Godda--- I don't believe this!>>
Since her protege was on patrol and had, in fact, recently responded to a drive-by shooting at City Hall, Barbara hadn't been ignoring her. However, with matters apparently well in hand and the younger woman engaged in a leisurely pursuit of the final member of the group of shooters, she hadn't been expecting the loud clatter, followed by sheer outrage, that interrupted her concentration.
Years of experience had taught the cyber-vigilante that Helena's volubility was usually inversely proportional to the direness of the situation. She gave herself a moment to thumb down the volume on her earpiece before responding.
"Huntress? What's the situation?"
Unsurprisingly, her partner's response added to the weight of evidence underlying her theory.
<<"This bozo -- ">>
The snap of a small fist meeting flesh, followed by a muted moan, punctuated the virtual-introduction.
<<"-- threw a garbage can lid at me and cut a big rip in my favorite pants.">>
Hard-pressed not to roll her eyes, Barbara grimaced sympathetically, privately acknowledging that her sympathies lay, in part, with the unfortunate fellow who had ruined her partner's couture.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Huntress. As soon as I finish analyzing the security tapes from City Hall, I'll find a replacement pair for you."
The other woman's response was distinctly sullen.
<<"You know how long it takes to break in leather pants, Oracle.">>
Focused again on the brief footage captured by the security cameras, the redhead barely registered her partner's petulance.
"Perhaps we can tumble them in the dryer with some rocks, Huntress," she murmured, attempting to make sense of late-night automatic weapon fire directed at the city's government center.
<<"You think that might --? Stay down, dipstick!">>
A resounding thump followed the interruption, before Helena continued more cheerfully.
<<"All wrapped up for New Gotham's finest, Oracle. What's next?">>
A bit surprised by her partner's eagerness after the nonstop barrage of vandalism, muggings, and larceny which had plagued the city for the last few days, Barbara checked the scanners.
"Seems that we have a bit of a respite for now, Huntress. Perhaps you want to return to base for a change of wardrobe?"
The frank unconcern was in sharp counterpoint to the dark vigilante's earlier pique, leaving Barbara once again baffled -- and amused -- by Helena's sudden shifts in mood.
Of course, she was the first to admit that the therapeutic benefits of handing out a good ass-kicking -- in the name of justice, naturally -- could not be underestimated.
<<"I'll just pop into the Quickie Mart for some duct tape.">>
Suspecting that some sort of sugar-laden, artificially preserved snack was also on her partner's shopping list, she just smiled fondly when Helena continued.
<<"Maybe some Twinkies, too. 'Sides, I don't want to get in the middle of the big brain thing you and The K-- uh, Canary are doing.">>
Recalling that she had, indeed, been working on lab analysis with Dinah just prior to the latest incident, Barbara guiltily glanced toward the living area. To her relief, Dinah seemed to be engaged by the X-box console.
"Copy that, Huntress. When you've finished your tailoring, you can resume your grid sweep."
Reassured by the cheerful acknowledgement, she set routed the grainy video from City Hall to her image resolution software, and softly cleared her throat. Within seconds, her teenage lab assistant was beside her.
"Are we ready to try again?"
Despite a desire to grind her teeth in frustration -- "again" was certainly correct -- Barbara put on her game face and smiled.
"Indeed we are, Dinah. And, you know what they say..."
She turned to the secondary workstation which was attached to the electron microscope and the spectrometer.
"The thirty-eighth time is the charm."
The pink-haired girl's laugh seemed genuine enough, and Barbara forced herself to shrug off her frustration with their lack of progress. After all, it had only been a few hours ago that she'd gotten a sample of the goo which had been dropped at the baseball game five days before. Somehow, between scheduling appointments for amniocentesis, sonograms, and ultrasounds and undergoing several trips to the lab to have blood drawn, she'd allowed the task to fall through the cracks.
In all honesty, Barbara had to admit that her wheel-dragging could have had something to do with the discomfort of listening to Helena charm Jesse Reese out of the evidence. Of course, neither of them were exactly without a past, and she was aware that -- appearances to the side -- it probably rankled Helena each time she mailed a care package to Dick on Barbara's behalf.
Regardless of the delay, now that she had the tiny bit of material in her possession, she found herself chafing at her lack of ability to determine its make up. Unlike the latex-epoxy-bubble gum combination favored by The Joker, this substance was a putty gray color -- not pink -- and seemed to share only one ingredient that she could identify so far: sugar.
The remainder of the crystalline structures that she and Dinah had carefully isolated remained a mystery.
"Great genuflecting gerbils, Dinah! There are twenty-five million chemical structures which have been identified to date..."
Pale blue eyes widened at the sudden exclamation, and the teen proffered a nervous smile. Caught up in her little monologue, Barbara continued ticking the points off on the fingers of her left hand.
"...not to mention over two million chemical structures. However, only three hundred thousand of these have been published for searching. And,"
She drew in a breath, gathering steam.
"...only because of issues with access rights and a lack of standards for encoding the data."
Corn silk lashes blinked slowly, and Barbara collected herself, finishing awkwardly, "It's ludicrous."
Hearing the peevish note in her words, she felt a bit of heat touch her cheeks when she recalled some of her uncharitable thoughts about Helena's tone not too many minutes earlier. Dinah's sunny smile neatly distracted her from her vows to be a bit more empathic.
"What about using CIF?"
Green eyes blinked once, then tracked slowly to the left, losing focus for a moment.
"Dinah, you're priceless. I'd forgotten all about the new effort at Cambridge."
The teen merely shrugged, and Barbara smiled her thanks for not stating the obvious: she'd had quite a bit on her mind lately. Perhaps no wonder that she'd chosen to use her old standby, eBank's repository at Southampton.
Fingers already flying across the keyboard as she hacked into the Crystallographic Data Center, she grinned broadly when she accessed the specs for the new format.
She had her hand on the mouse, ready to begin searching, when she stopped. Carefully, she released the brake of her chair and pushed back from the keyboard, turning to meet her companion's puzzled gaze.
"Since you thought of it, why don't you do the honors?"
Dinah's enormous smile was answer enough, and within minutes, the two were side by side, leaning toward the monitor in disbelief.
"Various food coloring agents, dairy products, and estrogen?"
Despite her proximity to her research partner, Barbara couldn't fault the volume or high-pitch of the question. She, too, was unable to make sense of it.
Two heads -- one pink, one crimson -- remained fixed in place inches from the monitor for another thirty seconds before, as one, they withdrew. With a snort of amused impatience, Barbara removed her glasses and turned to face her protege.
"What do you make of it, Dinah?"
She observed the girl's fixed concentration, fighting a smile at the patented "on the spot" expression she saw on many of her students' faces in the classroom.
"Relax, Dinah, it's not a test."
She smiled encouragingly.
"We're just going for a little brainstorming here."
The lanky young woman's tension evaporated, and she rested her hip against the corner of the table, nibbling on the corner of her lower lip.
"Uhm, maybe --"
She ducked her head, peering bashfully through her lashes.
"-- baby formula?"
Temporarily speechless, Barbara could only wonder if her current condition was too much on everyone's mind. Before she had a chance to collect herself, a pop-up dialog window on her primary monitor distracted her.
"Hold that thought, Honey."
Smoothly rotating to face the big screen, she settled her glasses in place and quickly accessed the details of the incident. A frown creasing her forehead, she toggled the comm set on.
"Huntress, are you available?"
If not for the severity of the alert she'd received, the cyber-vigilante might have spared a moment to tease her partner in the field about her Twinkie-muffled response. As it was, she remained all business.
"There's an alarm from the Shop Rite on Forest Street. Gunfire's been reported. I'm trying to access the security system now."
Six-dozen keystrokes accomplished her task, almost masking her partner's eager reply.
<<"On my way, Oracle.">>
Listening to the air rushing across Helena's comm set, Barbara rapidly toggled from one camera to another inside the large grocery store. Obviously, she'd missed the action but not its aftermath: a bloody swath of wounded shoppers and workers. Relatively confident that there was no further danger at the scene, she sent an alert to ambulance dispatch while updating her partner on the situation.
<<"Copy that, Oracle. I'm at the scene, and it looks messy.">>
The distant wail of approaching sirens confirmed the information that Barbara was tracking from her workstation.
"It appears that the police are almost there, Huntress. Can you scout the scene while they handle things in the store?"
A low hum of agreement tickled her ear. The squeal of rusty metal being worked immediately thereafter set her teeth on edge.
<<"Yeah. I'm heading into the ceiling.">>
A minute restless shifting to her side caught the redhead's attention, and she dragged her eyes from the scene for a moment.
"I'd guess that we'll be working this for a while, Dinah. Why don't you..."
Not entirely certain what she might recommend, the redhead simply inclined her head toward the living area. Nodding agreeably, the teen hopped from the platform and headed toward the big screen. Barbara forgot her momentary curiosity about her companion's destination -- satellite or X-box -- when a low whistle sounded in her ear.
In a heartbeat, she was immersed in the crime scene with her partner in the field.
"What's the situation, Huntress?"
<<"Lotta injuries but it doesn't look like any fatalities.">>
Given the number of shoppers who had been present in the twenty-four hour supermarket, it was a small miracle that no one had been killed. Helena's next update certainly supported that opinion.
<<"From the number of shell casings I see -- ">>
A muted rustle, followed by a whispered thump, suggested that the younger woman was lifting and then carefully replacing the acoustic ceiling tiles to glean her information.
<<"-- it had to have been a machine gun or ten.">>
Barbara felt her brows knit in perplexity.
As much as she enjoyed a good puzzle, attempting to guess the rationale for using that sort of weaponry for a supermarket robbery was clearly an exercise in futility.
"Can you determine what they were after? What they took?"
It was only their years of remote teamwork which enabled the older woman to detect the soft sounds of her partner's stealthy movements through the store's ceiling crawl space. Aware that Helena would update her as soon as she had something to report, she mustered her patience and tracked the activities of EMS workers through the security feed.
Visible quantities of blood notwithstanding, it appeared that many of the victims had, as Helena had reported, sustained fairly minor wounds. Many, in fact, were ambulatory and moving out of the store to the fleet of waiting ambulances.
<<"Registers aren't touched. And the safe in the office is still locked.">>
Barbara heard her own surprise echoed in the young vigilante's description, and she turned her attention toward determining whether she could remotely control the security cameras, giving her a different vantage point into the situation.
"Something in the store?" she prompted.
<<"Yeah, yeah -- gimme a minute...">>
Despite the words, there was no heat in the other woman's tone, and the sound of more stealthy, careful movement confirmed that Helena was searching. Giving up on her attempts to control the security cameras, Barbara concentrated on the young woman's hushed updates as she moved above each aisle.
<<"Canned fruit and veggies look normal. Cereal boxes all in a row. Spaghetti's okay...">>
Despite her instinctive impatience, the redhead didn't rush her partner.
After all, she'd traversed her fair share of the flimsy ceilings back in the day.
It wasn't until Helena reached the baking aisle that her commentary changed.
<<"Uh huh -">>
Barbara perked to attention, hands at the ready above her keyboard.
"What is it, Huntress?"
<<"Just a sec -- I wanna check over here in the dairy case...">>
The cyber-vigilante felt her eyes widen and her glasses resultantly slip down her nose as she attempted to fathom the connection between baking supplies and dairy. Not to mention just what, in either category, could evoke the carnage she was still observing over the security cameras.
<<"Yep. It's all gone here, too.">>
Raising one hand to push her glasses back into position, Barbara altered her movement, bringing her thumb and forefinger to the bridge of her nose.
Once again, she found herself revisiting the idea of rigging a miniature camera into her partner's comms necklace.
"What might that be, Huntress?"
Perhaps a tiny bit of her pique had bled through, because the succinct update she received might have been the tiniest bit amused.
The redhead instantly forgot the teasing lilt in the younger woman's tone.
"Pudding? What do you mean?"
Helena's reply was patience itself.
<<"Every box of instant mix, every package of shelf-stable pudding, and every cup of refrigerated pudding is gone, Oracle.">>
Barbara chewed on that, not focusing on the brunette's continuing commentary.
<<"How do you suppose they manage to keep pudding from spoiling on the shelf anyhow? I mean, it does have milk in it and--">>
"Ultraviolet treatment of the milk," she responded automatically, shaking her head at her own compulsivity.
"Just pudding?" she added thoughtfully. "What about, er, Jello or tapioca?"
The response was immediate.
<<"Just pudding, and as for tapioca...">>
An exaggerated retching noise filtered through the headset.
<<"Man, I hate that stuff.">>
Despite her amusement, the redhead registered the arrival of the NGPD Forensic unit, suggesting that the entire building would soon be locked down.
"I believe that you can leave now, Huntress."
Listening to her partner's swift movements, she efficiently programmed a fleet of 'bots to search for crimes with similar parameters. Just before dispatching them, she paused and, with a mental shrug, widened the search criteria to include homicidal attacks in pursuit of any grocery store desserts.
Perhaps someone was planning to create a giant trifle, and another store had been stripped of cake mix earlier.
With her 'bots at work, she decided to allow her brain's neural processors to sift through the implications of the crime in the background. In the meantime, there was a more immediately answerable question which had been raised by her partner.
"What's wrong with tapioca, Huntress?"
To her knowledge, the notorious sweet-hound had never met a dessert she didn't like.
A soft chuckle raised the fine hair on her arms.
<<"It's the texture. Too much like, uh...">>
For some reason, even before Helena completed her simile, Barbara felt a blush meandering up her cheeks.
There was simply something... wicked... coming.
<<"... well, like swallowing.">>
Barbara heard the soft clank of the ventilation grate, followed by an increase in night noises, signaling that Helena had made it to the roof. She filed away the brunette's revelation about texture for later consideration, knowing that, while her younger charge had always shown a preference for the female gender, the lusty young woman had never shied away from men.
"I understand that, er, that can be a result of what your partner's diet has been."
The rush of air through the comm set alerted her that the leather-clad crime fighter was on the move again.
<<"Huh. Who'd thought that dining on me would cause that sort of...">>
Snorting softly, Barbara worked to hold up her end of the conversation, enjoying the risque banter that they'd not really engaged in over the comms for almost a month.
"I don't believe that the effect is quite that immediate, Huntress."
Helena's devil-may-care reply forced a quick bark of laughter from the older woman.
"Who put a time limit on it, Oracle?"
She was spared the need to come up with a suitable response when her partner's voice transformed to an eager growl.
<<"I think I've got one, Oracle.">>
A sudden whoosh of air announced the younger woman's descent from the rooftops.
<<"Goon with a machine gun and -- ugh -- ">>
The sound of a ninety-eight pound force of nature impacting a larger object was followed by a masculine "Ooof" of pained surprise.
<<"... a bunch of shopping bags with...">>
Plastic ripped, and numerous small objects hit the ground.
<<"... a butt load of instant pudding mix.">>
Before Barbara could get a word in, Helena began her interrogation.
None-too-gently, if her prey's high-pitched screech were any indication.
<<"Okay, Emeril, what's the story? What the fuck are you up to?">>
Whatever cautionary words Barbara might have offered were interrupted by an open-handed slap.
The man's fear, evidenced by the quaver in his voice, was palpable.
<<<"I -- I can't. The boss'll kill me!">>>
The redhead rested her chin on her fist, wearily wondering when they would encounter crimes without some mysterious mastermind.
"Who is his boss, Hu--"
Helena, not surprisingly, was already on it.
<<"Who's your boss? Believe me, I can mess you up a lot worse than he can.">>
The rumbling snarl which accompanied the threat would have, Barbara suspected, been a strong inducement to talk. No doubt, the terrified whimper she heard meant that her partner was presenting her full feral mode.
<<<"Noooo -- I ca...">>>
Abruptly, the man's pleading terminated, and Barbara straightened in expectation when she detected the sound of a large body being deposited on the ground.
The dark vigilante's voice was still rough, but her confusion was clear enough.
<<"Sunnuva bitch. He fainted.">>
Barbara turned the possibilities over for a few seconds before it appeared that no further information would be forthcoming.
"Fainted? What did you do, Huntress?"
Her partner's reply was distracted but none-the-less deeply unsettling.
<<"Hmm? Me, nothing. It's just when I tried to get him to cough up a name -- I've never seen naked fear like that.">>
Still distracted -- transfixed, if she were to be honest with herself -- by the sight of bare skin which hadn't seen the light of day in decades, Barbara belatedly noted that she'd entirely missed her companion's last words.
"I'm sorry, Dad."
Feeling a blush tint her cheeks, she brought one hand toward her face, aborting the motion at the last moment.
"It seems that I'm a bit distracted by..."
Jim Gordon toggled the alarm system by the front door -- his $25,000 alarm clock, he still insisted on terming it -- to standby and then raised his own hand, ruefully stroking his index finger across his naked upper lip.
"Believe me, Barbara, I understand. I'm still saying 'Excuse me' to the stranger in the mirror each morning."
The redhead chuckled sympathetically and led the way into the living area.
For months after the shooting, she'd constantly caught herself wondering why she could only see the top of her head in the bathroom mirror.
"You really think it will grow back to its full glory?"
She had to admit that her father didn't look bad without his trademark handlebars; however, his nearly constant attempts to fidget with the absent mustache suggested that he missed it quite a bit.
"Assuming that whatever that gunk which got me at the baseball game wasn't permanent," he allowed cheerfully, settling easily into his leather recliner.
In a case of what Barbara dearly hoped was the bad fortune of being at the right place at the wrong time, the ex-police commissioner had been in attendance at the minor league game which, ten days before, had been the sight of the first pudding attack. Since she'd analyzed the sample and knew that extremely high doses of estrogen were responsible for her father's sudden clean-shaven appearance, Barbara was reasonably confident that there was no permanent damage.
Unable to provide all of the reasons for her belief, she just smiled confidently.
"I'm sure it wasn't, Dad."
The two shared a long look which suggested that the older man was willing to take his daughter at her word. Suddenly discomfited by inferences of hidden knowledge, Barbara worked to gather the threads of their earlier conversation.
"And, so before I was so distracted again, what were you saying about Chief O'Hara?"
Steel blue eyes twinkled, but her father accepted the shift in topic easily.
"I asked whether you think there's any hope for Charlie."
The two shared a smile at their old friend's expense.
They'd spent the afternoon with the newly retired police captain at the driving range, and, despite the less than satisfactory accommodations made on her behalf, Barbara had quickly realized that she'd need to hold herself in check lest she completely out drive their longtime family friend.
"Well, Dad," she smiled fondly, "if filling his retirement hours was a goal, Charlie's clearly chosen the right hobby."
Their laughter was easy, but it was interrupted by the doorbell. Jim Gordon rose and turned to the foyer.
"That will be Helena, I expect."
Two sets of eyes -- one blue and one green -- turned, as if on cue, to the clock on the mantle. Neither commented on their guest's punctuality, and as Jim disappeared down the hallway, Barbara allowed that her partner couldn't be faulted for being eight minutes late for their first... family dinner with her father.
"-- and I was actually gonna be early until: Blat!"
Crimson brows inched upward when her father returned, preceded by her younger partner.
"That's a shame, Helena," Jim continued their conversation. "I'd hoped that the incident at the game was a one-shot copy cat, but whoever it is seems to be coming on strong now."
Although her private access to official scanners and crime reports certainly corroborated her father's analysis, the sight of Helena vividly reinforced how daring the pudding-spraying vandals were becoming.
"Helena! You got... hit."
The brunette flashed an unconcerned grin and crossed the living room in two exuberant bounds.
"Yep, just dollop some Cool Whip on me, and call me a parfait."
Barbara rolled her eyes as the younger woman bent to buss her cheek. Feeling disturbingly adolescent under the acute scrutiny of her father, she reached up, dabbing at a smudge of pudding on her partner's neck. When she detected a rumbling purr -- perhaps a growl -- she almost flinched.
A deep laugh interrupted her rather sour musings about just what the absurd levels of estrogen in the pudding might do to her partner's already lusty metabolism.
"Oh, come now, girls. You touched more than that before you, er..."
Some vigorous throat clearing completed the non-sentence, and, over Helena's delighted guffaw, Barbara had to admit the truth of her father's observation. A smile which she suspected was a trifle on the doting side -- or perhaps just dopey -- faltered when it struck the redhead that she had been responsible for instigating most of the touches between them.
How had she missed that all of these years?
Once again, her father saved her from her own analysis.
"I'll get a towel for you while I check on the potatoes."
"Thanks, Mr. G -- "
The white-haired man's formidable glower cut short Helena's thanks. Barbara had to admit that, if she hadn't been familiar with the barely detectible twinkle in her father's eyes, she might have been caught short as well.
"... uh, Jim."
Dark lashes batted winsomely.
"That's better, Helena."
The older man disappeared into the kitchen to ascertain the progress of their dinner, although Barbara had to admit that the savory aromas emanating from the other room suggested that the automatic timer on the new oven had functioned just as they'd hoped.
When the clank of the oven door indicated that her father was suitably occupied, Barbara gently rested one hand on her partner's forearm.
"What happened, Sweetie?"
The brunette squatted beside her, her eyes pained.
"Drive-by near the Dark Horse."
The dark head ducked, and Barbara detected a touch of color in the other woman's dusky features.
"I saw 'em, Barbara, but I couldn't catch them."
Pushing back some hair which had fallen when she'd inclined her head, Barbara considered the rough admission.
"You didn't have to worry that much about punctuality, Hel. We would have understo--"
Her companion laughed dismissively.
"It wasn't that -- Well," she grinned, "not just that."
Crimson brows furrowed.
"Then, what -- "
Helena's admission forced a laugh from the older woman.
"I slipped in this stuff and fell on my ass."
Barbara smiled, her infallible memory automatically supplying a running list of some of her own less-than-shining moments when she'd been on the streets.
She reached out and dabbed another dot of the mess from her partner's chin.
"What did you see?"
The redhead suspected that the news wasn't good when she saw the younger woman's hesitation.
"Three guys. Dressed up like..."
Dark brows furrowed, and Barbara caught her breath.
One of them had to say it.
She exhaled raggedly when Helena shook her head, unprepared for the extent of her relief. A moment later, she realized how premature it had been.
"No, more like those people in Cirque du Soleil."
Green eyes widened, and Barbara spoke very slowly.
"Perhaps, like harlequins?"
The brunette became absolutely still for a moment then visibly sagged.
The word was almost inaudible, but Barbara understood.
Immediately after the ultra-violent pudding theft the week before, she'd run a scan at Arkham. This one, unlike her usual weekly checks, focused on one particular prisoner: Harley Quinn. Barbara had been immeasurably reassured to find that their old nemesis -- and Helena's personal tormentor -- was still safely under wraps. Nevertheless, with this new information, further investigation was clearly in order.
Painfully aware of the guilt that her companion was attempting to hide, she pushed those thoughts aside and smiled cheerfully.
"Probably a coincidence, Sweetheart, but we'll do some checking."
"Checking on what?"
Stepping from the kitchen, resplendent in his checked gingham apron, Jim Gordon cocked his head jovially.
"I assure you that the potatoes are just fine," he added, tossing a dish towel to Helena, "although I could use a little help with chopping onions and mushrooms."
Barbara blandly met his curious gaze.
"Helena ripped her favorite pants the other night, and we can't find replacements locally."
Technically, it wasn't a lie at all.
Her father nodded sagely.
"Careful, Helena. She'll have you as addicted to the 'net as she's gotten me if you're not careful."
Scrubbing behind her ears, the brunette laughed.
"No way, Jim. I just download music and p-"
A discrete poke curtailed the younger woman's confession.
"--uh, pants catalogs."
Gunmetal blue eyes twinkled.
"Is that so?"
Barbara looked up in time to catch what might have been the tail end of a wink and rolled her eyes.
"Tell you what, Helena," their host continued, "why don't you help me in the kitchen while Barbara uses my computer."
The redhead attempted to register a protest -- "I can help" -- but was cut short by two simultaneous responses.
"No, no, Barbara. Helena needs those pants."
"Hell no, Red. I want eat tonight."
Collecting her tattered dignity, she sniffed.
"In that case, I'll be in the study."
She turned down the hall, smiling at their laughter and at the concern in her father's voice as he led Helena toward the kitchen.
"For a woman who's just back from a vacation in paradise, Helena, you look awfully tired..."
The redhead wondered how her resourceful partner would explain that she'd been pulling doubles at the Dark Horse while spending almost every other free moment trying to catch the criminals who had been spraying the city with bullets and... pudding.
With a shrug, she approached the door to the study, however it was the room across the hall that caught her attention: her old room, which was now, nominally, a guest room.
Not quite certain what drove her, Barbara turned into the unused room and snapped on the light. It appeared much as it had when she'd departed the house for college fourteen years before, including the smattering of gymnastics trophies arrayed on high shelves over the closet door.
Her father had simply refused to take them down and pack them away.
Almost able to detect the odor of talc and sweat-stained gymnastic uniforms which had permeated her space during high school, the redhead circled the room, lightly trailing her fingers across the desk where she'd poured through countless books, smoothing the rosebud comforter on the bed, and straightening a picture of her in Japan with the team. Inevitably, her attention fell on a square on the wall near the desk where the paint was a bit darker than the surrounding color, and she ended her random inspection.
For years, a picture of her parents -- her birth parents -- had hung there.
Not too many weeks after her sudden arrival at her aunt and uncle's home, the picture had appeared on the foot of her bed, a surprise which was... unexpected if not completely unwelcome. When she'd cautiously asked her aunt about it, the woman she'd been named after had spoken briskly.
"You can't pick your children or your parents, Barbara. Help me choose a spot to hang this because some days you'll want to remember them."
And, Aunt Barbara had been right.
Many a night, the young woman had found herself staring over the pages of schoolbooks, attempting to decipher the enigma of her origins. When she'd finally cleared out her room upon moving into her own apartment, she hadn't even had to think about taking the photo with her. From that time on, it had occupied an unobtrusive corner of a bookshelf wherever she'd lived.
Barbara shut the door of her old room behind her and finally entered the study. Waiting for her father's modem to connect -- she'd have to work on persuading him to install a cable modem -- she allowed her aunt's words to play through her mind.
She'd not fully understood at the time, but Aunt Barbara had been right on many counts: suddenly, her aunt and uncle had become parents who knew exactly the type of genetics and background their ersatz daughter arose from. And, still they'd never faltered in their open welcome.
Pushing that thought aside for later consideration, she immersed herself in simple web searches for online leather retailers. One hundred and fourteen mouse clicks later, a slight frisson of awareness immediately preceded the appearance of her partner.
"Any luck, Barbara?"
The redhead pointedly maintained a neutral facade at the vision of her partner removing a lace-ruffled apron.
"Not yet, Sweethe--"
For some reason, a frog landed in her throat when her father made an appearance. The younger woman appeared not to notice.
"You'll get it, Barbara. But, for now..."
The younger woman tossed her apron to Jim Gordon and turned to the hallway.
"I'm just gonna run next door to see Mrs. Parker while dinner finishes."
Blue eyes twinkled under thick dark lashes.
"She likes to tell me how dangerous New York City was. Now I can counter her since I've been there."
"Say hello for me, Hel."
The brunette's airy acknowledgement was cut short by the back door closing, and Barbara's father chuckled.
"Better watch out, Barbara."
Nonchalantly, he strolled over to his desk and rustled in the drawer where he stored his pipe and tobacco.
"Why's that, Dad?"
She closed her browser and disconnected from the ISP, readying to surrender her place behind his desk.
"Hmm? Oh, I believe her nephew is visiting."
The senior Gordon pushed the drawer shut and straightened, shaking his head in response to her attempt to back away from his "side" of the desk.
"I understand that he's some kind of -- "
Barbara held her breath when her father narrowed his eyes in mock concentration.
"--science nerd like you."
Completely unperturbed, the redhead laughed.
"My students inform me that the term is 'wonk' now, Dad."
The white-haired man moved to the wet bar.
"Can I tempt you?"
Barbara caught herself an instant before she nodded.
"Thanks, Dad, but just water, please."
She waited, fiddling with her glasses and fighting the urge to rock her chair until her father approached. She accepted the glass with a smile and took a small sip while her father settled himself with a gin and tonic. Absently swirling her own clear fluid, Barbara idly wished that she had accepted something stronger as she searched for a way to broach a topic which was complicated at best.
"Better spit it out before Helena gets back and starts showing me your vacation photos, Barbara."
The redhead almost spit her mouthful of Pellegrino.
She felt heat creep up her neck as her father regarded her steadily.
"What's on your mind, Barbara?"
Realizing that opportunity had not just knocked but actually stormed through the door, the redhead didn't mince words.
"Dad, have you ever thought about grandkids?"
She hadn't acknowledged how much she was dreading her father's reaction until it arrived. When Jim Gordon barely batted an eye at a question that, Barbara had to admit, came from left field, she was hard-pressed not to sag in relief.
"Of course I have. What father doesn't?"
More grateful than she could express for his easy acceptance of the topic, the redhead smiled tightly as he continued.
"I just never thought about it too seriously."
Barbara sipped her water, then gave a mental shrug.
She always had been a slave to her curiosity.
"Why is that?"
Her father dug in his pocket, undoubtedly hunting his pipe.
"I know that you've never really wanted children."
He located his pipe on the table where he'd placed it next to his drink and set about filling the capacious bowl with a cherry-vanilla mixture that Barbara had always loved.
"Even though you would be a great parent, Barbara."
She raised her brows, feeling a bit like a deer caught in the headlights, when he regarded her calmly.
"You've already proven that twice over with Hel and Dinah, not to mention every troublemaker in your classes."
Despite herself, she felt a corner of her mouth quirk. Her efforts to ignore the possible assumption that any child she had would be a troublemaker were interrupted when he leaned toward the desk.
"And, I know Helena would be a wonderful parent."
A brushy unibrow lowered, and Barbara discovered that she was having a hard time deciphering his expression in the absence of his familiar mustache.
"What is it, Dad?"
Jim Gordon tapped his lower lip with the stem of his Meerschaum.
"Hmm? Just wondering which of you would -- "
Sheepishly, he smiled. It was an expression that Barbara couldn't help but mirror.
"Well, it's really not important."
He struck a match, filling the room with the odor of sulphur and smoke.
"Yes, indeed, Barbie..."
Observing her father's self-satisfied smile as he touched a match to the bowl of his pipe and hearing his next words, Barbara felt herself warm and her heart -- like the Grinch's -- swell to three times its usual size.
"You and Helena as mothers? The thought is very appealing, indeed."
"Can you peel that last bit off?"
Barbara craned her neck and peered nearsightedly at the bit in question.
"I'm afraid that I'll create a scar if I try."
She gestured loosely with the straight edge, and her companion wrinkled her brow.
"What about sandpaper?"
Barbara considered the suggestion, then retrieved a sheet of extra-fine grit that she handed over.
"This should do the trick, Dinah."
The teen grinned as she attacked the recalcitrant smidge of paint.
"And, then we get to the fun part, right?"
Scraping her side of the bureau, the redhead merely nodded. Having been treated liberally with paint stripper, the twenty-year-old finish was blistered and ready to be shed like old skin, and Barbara was happy to lose herself in the mindless activity.
Once again, Barbara found herself in wonder at the age of the paint they were removing, even more in wonder at the furniture itself, easily the most senior member of the group on the balcony. The chest of drawers had been hers when she'd moved in with her aunt and uncle, and, until this morning, had held moth-eaten sweaters and linens in her father's guest room since she'd moved out.
At her request, Jim Gordon had brought the bureau by earlier in the day, and, as she and Dinah worked on it, Barbara couldn't help but marvel at her spur-of-the-moment decision to make the request. She'd not quite had the courage to reveal the reasons behind it; however, talking with her father the night before, it had struck her how appropriate the item would be.
When she'd been dropped into her relatives' laps, so to speak, twenty years before, Barbara had most definitely not been interested in bringing any remnants of her former life with her. Fully cognizant of her interloper status, she'd also not expected much in the way of amenities and accommodation either.
Resultantly, not more than two weeks after her arrival, the pre-teen had been surprised upon investigating some banging from the attic to find her aunt dangling through the access hatch and calling for help in dragging down an old bureau.
"Something old, something new for a new life with old family, Barbara," she'd offered, explaining that the pine chest had been hers before she'd gotten married.
Not certain just how to take things, Barbara had silently helped move the chest into the garage, then accompanied her aunt to the hardware store. There, the older woman had helped her pick out paint -- a sensible eggshell with delicate lilac undertones -- and over the next few days, they'd worked together to transform the battered item. Somehow, in the course of the project, hours of awkward silence had transformed to companionable discussions about the merits of decals versus stencils, wooden knobs versus brass.
The click of the stereo changing disks -- she and Dinah had agreed to trade off as they worked -- recalled the redhead from her woolgathering, and she reattacked a particularly recalcitrant bit of stenciling, humming quietly to the familiar music.
Well, if you want to sing out, sing out
And if you want to be free, be free
'Cause there's a million things to be
You know that there are
And if you want to live high, live high
And if you want to live low, live low
'Cause there's a million ways to go
You know that there are
She narrowed her eyes, attempting to determine whether there were any lingering traces of the rainbow: Aunt Barbara had been right about regretting that particular choice. The sensation of being stared at distracted her from her refinishing.
"What's this song?"
Barbara smiled around the edge of the chest at her pink-haired companion, pleased to note that most of the garish color had faded.
Speaking of poor decisions.
"Cat Stevens, Dinah."
The girl's utterly blank look did nothing for Barbara's suspicion that she had already passed the retro-trendy stage and was rolling right into obsolescence.
"It was the title song from a movie which I like a lot when I was your age," she added. "Harold and Maude?"
The redhead waffled between laughter and an exasperated snort when Dinah scrunched her face in dramatic concentration. The sound of the elevator opening saved her the need to make the call.
"On the balcony," she called, absurdly grateful for the interruption.
A beat later, when her partner joined them, she was forced to reconsider her response.
Obviously, the younger women in her life were joined in a conspiracy to convince her that she was going completely dotty. It was simply the only explanation for what she was seeing: Helena was buoyantly -- nay, triumphantly -- dragging in a clear, oversized bag holding...
Well, "butt load" seemed as good a term as any to describe the quantity of styrofoam plates in the bulky package.
The brunette play-punched the teen, and Barbara accepted her partner's quick kiss, all the while struggling against her curiosity.
"What are you two working..."
The senior member of the team rolled her eyes when Helena dropped her bag of plastic plates with a lack of concern which bordered on maddening.
"Hey, isn't that the chest from your Dad's guest ro--"
Perhaps her response had been a bit... crisp, but enough was enough.
"But, enough of that, Helena. Care to enlighten us about just what you have there?"
She inclined her head toward the bounty resting on an Adirondack chair, not missing the knowing twinkle in those deep blue eyes.
"Fifteen thousand styrofoam plates, Red."
Since her estimate had been five thousand shy, Barbara widened her eyes, hearing Dinah's murmur of question.
"And, you wouldn't believe the deal I got."
Helena bounced over and thumped the mountain of what would undoubtedly be their dinnerware for the next decade.
"Did you know that there are these warehouse shopping clubs where you can buy everything in bulk?"
Unable to miss the almost star-struck enthusiasm in the younger woman's tone, Barbara blanched. She bypassed the obvious question about what else might await them in the Hummer and focused on the most pressing mystery.
"I'm familiar with them, Hel," she allowed, "but what in the name of little green apples possessed you to go to a warehouse store?"
Throughout the years of their association, Barbara had never known her partner to be interested in mundane shopping. True to form, however, Helena was ready with an explanation that made sense and, the older woman realized, more than made up for the fact that they'd be eating off styrofoam for a long time to come.
"Oh, Janey and I were talking about babies at work -- "
Dark brows rose in question, and Barbara nodded, recalling that Helena's coworker had recently become an aunt.
"-- and do you know how many diapers the average baby uses?"
Having recently researched that little fact, Barbara did, in fact, know. Curious, however, she merely shook her head, aware of Dinah perking to attention next to her.
"Seven thousand five-hundred," the brunette declared. "And do you know how much they charge for those in the supermarket?"
The redhead hadn't gotten that far in her research, however Helena's wounded tone suggested that the cost would put a serious dent into her partner's own clothing budget.
"So," Helena continued with a shrug implying that matters should be self-evident, "Janey told me about this place, and I went to check out the diapers."
Barbara struggled more or less successfully to hide her intense amusement. She suspected that she would be hard-pressed to tamp down the warm welling of affection that rose in her at her partner's activity. Instantly determining that there was no reason to do so, she extended her hand, palm up, waiting for the other woman to join hands with her.
"And what did you discover about nappies in bulk, Sweetheart?"
Although she wasn't positive, Barbara thought she detected a bit of uncertainty in the reply.
"Uh, they had boxes of three hundred at really good prices. Not like I'm, uh -- "
Before she had time to reassure the other woman, the third member of the group piped up, voice vibrating with the righteous indignation of youth.
"You are not seriously thinking about further messing up the planet with disposable diapers, are you?"
Helena's instant retort, while a bit blunt, neatly encapsulated Barbara's thoughts on the subject.
"Not if you wanna come by and clean the cloth ones each day, Kid."
Instantly, Barbara found herself facing the girl whose indignation seemed to have escalated a few degrees.
"You don't feel that way, do you, Barbara?"
It took the older woman all of a half-second to come up with her own answer. Dropping Helena's hand, she unlocked the brake on her chair and turned toward the living room, laughing, despite herself.
"I'm sorry, Dinah, but all questions must be submitted in writing."
When she heard an affronted squeak, she pointedly chose not to look back. There was little doubt in her mind that she'd see Helena sticking out her tongue in victory or painting a big "one" in the air.
The brunette circled her and dropped gracefully onto the big wing chair.
"What's the deal with the chest out there? I already have enough room for my unmentionables in yo-- our bureau."
Barbara opted for maturity and refrained from any number of likely entendres. She merely raised one brow and met her partner's gaze, waiting. It took about six seconds before she registered the dawning awareness, followed by cautious joy, in those expressive features.
"Does this... Is this...?"
Barbara managed to maintain a poker face.
"I assume that our child will need a place for its sensible cloth diapers."
Blandly, she met her lover's blue eyes.
"And tee shirts."
Helena's brief embarrassed blink coincided with another burst of affection rushing through the redhead as she recalled unpacking Helena's bags from Jamaica and discovering a teensy "No problem, Mon" tee shirt.
She had little doubt that, under Helena's direction, the child would be the fashion envy of the entire New Gotham diaper crowd.
That thought was interrupted when the brunette half-rose from the chair, the dropped back with entirely transparent nonchalance. Instead of bounding across the room in her excitement, Helena wrinkled her nose and inclined her head toward the balcony, blue eyes twinkling.
"Dunno if you should be around those paint fume then, Red."
Barbara arched a brow just as Dinah chimed in.
"Yeah, Barbara! What is she comes out with a third eye or something?"
Just managing not to roll her own two eyes, the older woman laughed and worked not to think about what else the child might come out with.
"If it's in the back of her head, I suppose that will give her --"
Barbara caught herself.
While, at this point, she was less inclined to keep trying, the first two attempts at amniocentesis had proven troublesome. Resultantly, nothing was certain, including the future Gordon-Kyle's gender.
"-- or him," she emphasized the word slightly, "an edge in the business."
Sobering slightly at her assumption that the child would be in the business, the redhead chewed at the inside of her cheek, her introspection mercifully pushed aside by her partner's bouncing approach.
"Still, Red, you probably need to give up the NutraSweet for the duration."
In an instant, all worries about their child's future career, much less which side of the business she might be on, evaporated. Aghast, Barbara met her partner's completely unsympathetic gaze.
"You must be joking, Hel. No Diet Pepsi?"
The dark head shook with exaggerated sorrow.
"Nuh uh. Just saccharine for you, I guess."
Uncertain how she had, once again, had her conversational skills reduced to parroting her companions' words, Barbara furrowed her brows.
"Sacchar--? I don't understand."
Helena knelt beside her, smiling mischievously and hooking a thumb toward Barbara's abdomen.
"Hey! If it was good enough for our moms and we came out alright, it oughta be okay for the Peapod in there."
The redhead rolled her eyes, then glanced upward and to the left, briefly losing focus.
"I suppose I should give up all caffeine, too, just to--"
The simultaneous exclamations cut short her resolution, and she slowly swiveled her head, taking in twin looks of horror.
"Moderation can be good," Dinah piped up cautiously.
"Yeah, just a cup of coffee to get you going in the morning," Helena elaborated hopefully.
Barbara knit her brows in thought.
"I don't know, Hel. Dinah."
She innocently faced them down.
"In for a penny..."
Perhaps the lilt in her voice gave her away; perhaps the younger women simply knew better than to accept that she could make that big a sacrifice. Regardless, Helena snorted and straightened up.
"Yeah, right. When pigs fly, Babs."
Smirking at their laughter, she checked the time and caught Dinah's eye.
"Shouldn't you be heading out, Dinah? I can clean up on the balcony."
Pale blue eyes widened, and Dinah's fair features pinkened.
"Thanks, Barbara. I'll do it next -- "
Barbara waved off the offer, smiling fondly as her ward grabbed her bag. With Gabby heading off to State in only a few weeks, Barbara certainly didn't want to curtail their time or have Dinah foregoing time with the other girl out of some sense of obligation...
The teen affected a look of concentration, and the slow closure of the elevator doors reversed, seemingly by itself.
"If you're interested, and if you think Gabby might be, why don't you see if she wants to help us paint?"
Almost snickering herself at the comical drop of the girl's jaw, Barbara sent a mental thanks to Helena for her restraint.
"How on earth would I explain..."
The normally verbally effusive girl completed the question with a wave in the general vicinity of Barbara's midsection.
It only took the older woman a moment to come up with an answer, and she smiled, aware of the levels of meaning and misinterpretation her words held.
Not to mention, the truth.
"Just tell her we did it the old fashioned way, Honey."
With the elevator doors sliding shut, Barbara noticed her remaining companion stepping close, then gracefully kneeling beside her. She caught her breath at the utter earnestness and the sweet hope that threatened to overwhelm her. Silently, she waited, watching her partner's hand come to rest on her lower abdomen, tenderly cupping the almost indiscernible tumescence.
"You mean it, Barbara? You really want to do this? Even if...?"
With some surprise, the redhead realized that she had very few qualms remaining, that, in fact, she felt peaceful for the first time in weeks. Her response was accordingly unconcerned.
Perhaps a bit playful.
"Looks like it, Hel."
The younger woman's grin was almost blinding, and Barbara had no recourse but to smile in return. They held the pose for a few breaths before Helena leaned toward her and raised her brows in question. Barbara nodded, shivering when she felt her partner's arms wrap around her waist and the younger woman buried her head in her lap.
Lightly resting her palm on her lover's sinewy shoulders, the redhead hummed in sympathy to the rumbling she felt vibrating Helena's slender frame. The click of the stereo signaled another change of CD, and Dave Matthews Band's "Crash Into Me" filled the room. Lost in the lyrics, Barbara ran her fingers softly across the brunette's back.
Initially, she moved without purpose, stroking to sooth and lightly sketching her fingernails across the bony protuberances of Helena's spine. By the third verse, she realized that she was tracing patterns: specifically, she was fashioning the Chinese characters for soul and karma, then, the characters for love and desire.
Perhaps, somehow, Helena knew what the symbols meant; Barbara had long ago ceased to be surprised by the breadth of the younger woman's knowledge.
Regardless, at some point, the energy in the room seemed to transform, to become a living entity. Helena's soft purring escalated in volume as the dark head slowly rose, and Barbara was pinned by a gaze that was both peeved and playful.
And decidedly, determinedly aroused.
"What the hell are you playing at, Red?"
The oxygen drained from the room, and Barbara thought that the tower might have tilted on its axis. Completely unable -- and unwilling -- to deny her lover's call, she roughly stroked her thumb across the angular line of the other woman's jaw.
"I'm not playing, Helena."
Deliberately, Barbara gentled her touch, stroking the pads of her fingers along the satin skin of the kneeling woman's face and following the curve of the delicate shell of her ear before wending into dark hair. She allowed the short strands to play across her skin, her nerves so electrified that she was certain that she could detect each individual silken thread. All the while, she held her partner's gaze, somehow forgetting to breathe as blue eyes regarded her quizzically before they morphed to gold.
Apparently Helena was willing to accept her at her word.
A smile that the redhead suspected almost matched the hunger in her own expression split gamine features.
"You want my clothes on or off?"
She didn't even have to think about her answer.
Voice gravel rough, she husked, "Off."
The word was almost lost under her partner's moan, and every functioning nerve in Barbara's body sparked.
Unable to tear her gaze from the sight of her lover efficiently stripping off her clothes, she bit at the inside of her cheek. The momentary burst of pain allowed her enough control to force her hands to the wheels of her chair, and she slowly approached, the soft squeak of rubber on the hardwood floors in counterpoint to her own harsh breathing.
Somehow, Barbara managed a smile that was gentle -- certainly affectionate -- when the other woman performed a final mouthwatering shimmy to divest herself of her skintight jeans. At that point, she realized with complete clarity, the time for levity was past.
Confronted with the sight of a gloriously nude Helena Kyle, she gave a firm push, forcing the other woman to step back or have her shins barked by the footrests of the chair. Barbara's unconscious geometric calculations were right on target, with the movement pushing the brunette back against the seat of the wing chair, and she inhaled sharply through her nose when Helena fell, graceful as ever.
Offering no quarter, she brought her knees to the front of the chair, again wordlessly forcing the response she needed. The instant that Helena opened to her, Barbara swooped forward, her hunger acute, her hands -- their paleness a sharp contrast to the younger woman's recently augmented tan -- insistent and everywhere.
For several long, lovely minutes, only the sounds of heavy breathing and an occasional gasp filled the room. Gradually, having assuaged her immediate desire, Barbara was able to recollect herself, seized as she was by a weeks old desire.
Or, she mused as she reluctantly disengaged, perhaps it was a years-old need.
Ignoring Helena's softly gasped protest, she unset the brake of her chair, backing away a few inches. Satisfied that she was positioned neither too far from her lover nor too close to any impediments, she reset the brake and looked up again to find feral eyes tracking every move she made.
While it wasn't much of a stretch to put herself into the position of prey, Barbara had other plans.
"Patience, Hel," she murmured before leaning forward to place her palms on the younger woman's muscular thighs.
Using the other woman for balance, then leverage, she carefully lowered herself to the floor and then worked forward a few inches. When she was satisfied with her arrangement, she looked up, discovering the younger woman's eyes narrowed in unmistakable arousal... and something that Barbara thought might have been amusement and satisfaction.
"You hittin' your knees for me, Baby?"
The redhead resolutely swallowed the flare of frustrated loss that the question engendered even as she adjusted the placement of her feet. The tiniest movement of the shapely hips that were now at eye level reinforced just where she was.
And how close.
Barbara raised her left hand, twining her fingers with her lover's before leaning in, her reply nearly lost as she delved deep.
"Indeed, I am."
She heard the other woman gasp once, twice.
"You want me... like this?"
There was nothing for it but the truth.
She withdrew a few inches to rest her cheek on the softest skin of Helena's inner thigh and looked up. Observing the way glittering eyes had hooded, Barbara was flooded by a surge of adrenaline at the sheer... predatory appearance of her partner.
"I like it."
It took a moment for the redhead to decipher the words through the rumbling growl. When she did, she decided that it was well past time to remove the look of a hunter. With her hands resting lightly on her lover's knees, she unflinchingly met the sharp gaze. She held Helena's eyes until the younger woman's expression slowly transformed to uncertainty. Only when she was assured that she had the brunette's full attention did she finally respond.
"You will, Helena."
Her promise was met by a moan that might have been pain, given that Barbara accompanied her pronouncement by leaning in to bite, then lick, a strong quadricep. The buck of slender hips gave rise to a flicker of doubt, a brief pas a deux with self-consciousness and embarrassment, and she pressed her lips to soft skin again, considering.
Back in the day, she'd certainly faced far more... dire situations than this, battled worse demons, and overcome steeper challenges. Yet, somehow, the risk had never seemed as great, hidden as she'd been behind a neoprene cowl and a cloak of righteousness. In this situation, there was nothing to hide behind, no rationalizations to ease the way and disguise herself.
"God, you're amazing, Barbara."
The hoarse words were enough. Soundly anchored by the love and trust in Helena's face, Barbara made her decision.
Gently, she freed their joined hands, then leisurely made her way down her partner's thighs before dancing the back of her neatly blunted nails up to the other woman's hips. She clasped the firm flesh, digging her nails in the slightest bit.
"Touch yourself, Hel."
The brunette's dazed confusion was almost a physical presence.
Barbara deliberately traced the tip of her tongue around the edge of her lips, acutely aware of how dry her mouth had become.
"Your breas-- Your nipples, Helena."
She waited patiently, unmoving, until she saw the recognition dawning in bright eyes. At the vision of slender hands feathering across firm abdominals, then cupping softer flesh, heat flooded through her chest, and her own nipples tightened and burned in sympathy.
Despite herself, Barbara's grasp on the other woman's hips loosened. Her hands moved, seemingly of their own volition, to hover tantalizingly close to where she wanted to be. Her partner's breathy whisper recalled her.
"I want it to be you touching me."
She looked up, mouth suddenly watering at the visible effects that Helena's own touch had had on the younger woman. Her response was to the point.
The younger woman licked her lips and extended a hand that appeared to tremble.
"I want to touch you."
Barbara pointedly directed her gaze and waited until slender fingers brushed dark curls, and her stomach clenched in sympathy with the shiver that coursed through her lover.
"You are, Helena."
The brunette gasped, her back arching slightly against the back of the chair.
"F-- Jesus, Barbara."
Voice so low she barely recognized it, the older woman breathed a command. Goose flesh raised on her lover's skin where her words had whispered.
Helena's puzzlement was brief, followed by a smile that was more of a half-snarl. Her instinctive grace evident, the lithe figure slid down in the chair, spreading herself open.
"See what you do to me, Red?"
Slender fingers danced near, actually brushing, Barbara realized with a hitch in her breathing, the dampness that had been revealed. The dark head momentarily fell forward.
"See how wet you get me without even touching me?"
Transfixed by slitted golden eyes, the redhead peripherally noticed glistening fingers moving toward her lover's mouth. Without conscious thought, she saw her own hand snap out, and she grasped her partner's wrist.
Not completely gently.
There was, she suspected, a hint of challenge: playful; and defiance: half-hearted; and hunger: very genuine; in those expressive features. Despite her years of training and conditioning, Barbara knew that her own upper body strength was no match for the younger woman's meta-enhanced genetics. Nevertheless, she managed to arrest the movement of her prize.
They remained locked in the erotic tableau for a score of heartbeats until Barbara ground out a single word.
She saw -- felt -- her lover's shudder before Helena reversed her movement, and it became an offering.
Unblinking, taking care never to lose contact with those incredible eyes, Barbara inclined her head and drew the tips of the younger woman's first two fingers between her lips. Her own pounding heartbeat and the rush of blood in her ears nearly cloaked Helena's purring reply.
Having always preferred victory, the redhead felt a self-satisfied smile crease her cheeks. Gently, she released her prize and returned her hands to taut thighs.
For some reason, she was seized by a tactile memory of butter soft leather, a thin lead sliding through her fingers.
"Would you like me to move my hand, Sweetheart?"
To her credit and despite the myriad distractions, the brunette didn't miss the deliberate phrasing. Barbara pursed her lips sympathetically when Helena licked her lips, her dilemma clear in her face.
"Just one of them?"
Amused despite herself, Barbara remained still.
"And what would you have me do with the other?"
Helena's response was sincerity itself.
"Touch -- Fuck -- Be inside me."
As urgent as the plea was, as much as she longed to meet her passionate lover's needs, Barbara forced herself to hold back. Resting her palms flat against tightly torqued thighs, she waited until feverishly glinting eyes met hers. Again, she held the gaze for long seconds until, finally, she saw it: comprehension; acceptance; submission.
The tendril of discomfort that wormed against her stomach vanished at the younger woman's next words, surrounded as they were by a hungry, joy filled smile.
"Anything you want, Barbara."
Smiling softly, grateful beyond measure, the redhead pressed a tender, open-mouthed kiss to the inside of her lover's knee.
She suspected that elaboration wasn't really necessary and gave her partner time to weigh her words. Once again, she saw comprehension wash expressive features, followed by something that could have been regret.
Yellow eyes fluttered to blue, and dark brows rose beseechingly.
"I'll come, Barbara."
Confident now, the older woman pushed back a few inches and used her chin to gesture to the empty stretch of floor between her and the big chair.
"No. You won't."
For some reason, the utter factuality of her words seemed completely appropriate.
"Not until we're both ready, Helena."
Immediately, her partner's eyes were no longer blue, and Helena slid to the floor, turning at the same time to face the chair. Observing the way slender fingers wrapped around the front legs of the chair so tightly that the knuckles turned white, Barbara heard a whisper -- "Dear heavens" -- and realized that it might have been hers.
Almost reverently, she allowed herself to drink in the sight before her: her lover's shallow breathing, the rise and fall of delineated ribs and spine, the fine sheen of sweat beading on her lower back. Awestruck, she pushed aside thoughts of deservedness and focused on gratitude.
A tiny mewling whimper reminded Barbara that, at the moment, thinking was not her top priority.
Refusing to indulge herself any longer, she renewed her tender assault, working to inflame but always avoiding the most sensitive areas. Eventually, partially in response to her partner's profane pleading and partially to appease her own needs, she focused her touch more specifically.
Still, and even in the presence of her lover's obvious need, she remained relentless in her determination. It was only when Helena's utterances had been reduced to one word -- "Please" -- and she looked up to see a drop of saline moisture fall to the carpet that she relented.
"Yes, Sweetheart. Now."
The strength and duration of her lover's climax almost carried her along in a sympathetic collapse of her own.
Fortunately or not, the redhead found herself too occupied in pulling herself along the floor to hold her still-shuddering partner to consider her own physical response. A beat later, surprise bordering on terror eclipsed her arousal when the younger woman reared up in her arms, her movement rough and stilted.
"Sweetheart? Are you--?"
Her fear bled away almost as quickly as it had arrived at the sight of aquiline nostrils flaring just as the brunette purposely closed the distance between them. An entirely undignified giggle almost escaped her, followed by an inexplicable urge to weep, when she felt her lover tenderly licking the wetness from around her mouth.
Ultimately, she neither laughed nor cried, simply absorbing the impromptu grooming before, with a rumbling purr, Helena collapsed against her legs.
The brunette's voice was as weak as Barbara could remember, perhaps even more than after her battle with Clayface or The Crimson Claw.
"Where'd you learn to do that?"
The older woman smiled tenderly and brushed damp dark bangs back as flickering images of dark leather and sharp nails and snapping whips came to mind.
Really, there was no need to resurrect those memories.
To her relief, the younger woman didn't press matters. A picture of boneless contentment, the brunette nodded agreeably and snuggled closer. When Helena spoke again, her voice was speculative.
"Sometime we gotta see which one of us can hold on longer."
Although a superior smirk was clearly the order of the day, Barbara contented herself with an innocent dip of her lashes, and her vibrant young partner clearly got the message. Cupid's bow lips pursed in a playful moue, and the older woman thought she detected a hint of pink in normally blush proof caramel features.
"Okay, okay, probably not me. Still, with your scientific thing, maybe we should, uh, do some controlled research."
Barbara allowed a hint of a smile to perform an end-run around her barriers and arched one brow.
"And how would you suggest setting up such experiments, Hel?"
As casual as the suggestion had been, Barbara found herself entirely unprepared -- and acutely aroused -- when the brunette rolled to her hands and knees and purred into her ear.
"You. Me. In the training room. And a pair of handcuffs."
Transfixed by what she heard, Barbara resignedly acknowledged that she was completely captivated by the events unfolding. Moving -- hell, even concentrating on other things -- was simply not an option.
Obviously, she'd need to put in some late nights in order to have her lesson plans completed for the in-service day at school in ten days.
With a mental shrug, she surrendered to the conversation unfolding over the comms.
Dinah's tone was dismissive, and the senior member of the team of crime fighters smirked at the hint of confusion in Helena's reply.
<<"Huh? Whatever. What about something sexy and feline -- ">>
It was obvious to Barbara that the words "like me" simply went without saying.
<<"-- like Jaguar?">>
<<"Maybe for a code name, Huntress.">>
Coinciding as it did with the vivid image of Baby Gordon-Kyle, decked out in cape, cowl, and environmentally friendly cloth diapers that ran through Barbara's mind, Dinah's completely unimpressed assessment evoked an approving nod from the silent member of the trio.
<<"Well, okay then, Canary...">>
It was difficult to determine how much of Helena's tone was amusement and how much was genuine frustration.
<<"...what's so frikkin' wrong with 'Peapod'?">>
"Too Popeye and Olive Oyl," Barbara finally contributed, almost covering Dinah's affronted "Eww".
<<"Oh, hey Oracle.">>
Helena, naturally, didn't miss a beat.
<<"Didn't know you were hanging with us.">>
Dinah sounded a bit more flustered.
<<"...we thought you were working on that, uhm, other project until something turns up out here.">>
Balefully regarding the weekly spreadsheets she'd begun for her upcoming six classes, Barbara smiled indulgently.
Perhaps Helena was correct that Dinah was too responsible for her age.
"I believe I shouldn't have a problem meeting that deadline, Canary," she commented mildly. "Speaking of projects, the scanners are still. I presume that things are quiet out there?"
Helena's snort of disgust was answer enough, and the older woman automatically checked the clock in the corner of her screen. The evening was still early, meaning that the chances were still good. After all, for the last two weeks, some sort of mess or gunfire had been dumped on New Gotham every night, and there was no reason for this evening to be an exception.
"Patience, Huntress. You and Canary should still have a chance for your project."
She pushed aside another twinge of guilt that she'd asked Dinah to join Helena on this particular task. The teen should have been spending time with Gabby, or smiling behind the counter of the Corny Dog at the mall, rather than helping Helena hunt for a harlequin-garbed miscreant to interview. Nevertheless, with the violence showing no signs of abating, it appeared to be as good an option as any.
For the last three nights, the brunette had coursed from crime scene to crime scene, facing bullets and goo in order to apprehend and, more to the point, interrogate the perpetrators. Unfortunately, all of the dark vigilante's considerable powers of persuasion had failed to yield a name for, or even a clue about, the mastermind behind the attacks which were causing New Gotham's male citizens to consider purchasing bras and the female citizens to find that -- and everything else -- appealing.
Aside from the nuisance factor, the relatively benign albeit messy attacks continued to be interspersed with bloody attacks at various supermarkets to procure the raw materials for the attacks. When the thefts had expanded the night before to include Jell-o mix and eggs, Barbara couldn't even begin to guess at the intended use.
Hence, the team's decision to employ a bit of telepathic interrogation this evening.
"In the meantime, continue your grid sweep."
Simply because there was organized mayhem afoot didn't mean that the city's usual nuisance crimes had disappeared.
<<"Copy that, Oracle.">>
For several minutes after the chipper responses, Barbara detected only the barely audible sounds indicating that her partners in the field were skulking across the rooftops. Inevitably, just as she turned back to her lesson plans, their own boredom apparently got the best of them.
<<"How about Buffy?">>
One crimson brow crept upward, coinciding with the rising pitch of Dinah's voice.
<<"He-- Huntress! Geez. That's just dumb.">>
The universal singsong of teen taunting registered in Helena's response.
<<"Well, if you're so smart, Canary, what do you suggest?">>
When there was no immediate answer, Barbara realized that she was holding her breath. The suggestion she finally heard was distinctly shy.
<<"I've always liked the name Lisa...">>
It was, of course, Helena who easily surpassed the suggestion, her voice entirely serious.
<<"Yeah, it's nice, Kid, but I've always liked the name Bar-- Well, you know.">>
Immediately, Barbara became intimately acquainted with the sensation of turning to mush. Her sensible side held strong however, and she readied herself with the observation that having two people with the same name in one home could become confusing.
Dinah anticipated her protest.
<<"Yeah, but how would we know who was who? What about Red? That works for a girl or a boy.">>
The leader of the team rolled her eyes at the assumption that the child would be the beneficiary of that part of her genes. Helena's next comment distracted her, eliciting a less-than-delicate snort in the process.
<<"Hell, Canary, if it's a boy and he gets her genes, we might as well just call him Poindexter or something.">>
Opting not to give herself time to determine whether she was offended, Barbara checked the GPS as she tendered a suggestion of her own.
"Chris is unisex."
The brunette had sounded distinctly unimpressed, but Dinah's enthusiasm again distracted the redhead.
<<"What about Gabriel? That's nice. And, a girl could be Gabrielle.">>
Barbara fumbled for the headset, thumbing down the volume in reaction to Helena's whoop of glee.
<<"Forget that, Canary. Let's just call her Xena.">>
Thoughts of many skills evaporated when Barbara registered Dinah's giggling rejoinder.
<<"And Joxer if he's a boy?">>
As much as she appreciated her partners' efforts and high spirits, she couldn't allow that suggestion to stay on the table.
"I think not, Canary."
It was simply too close to the possible truth.
The sudden, deafening silence of the comms indicated that her message had been received loud and clear. Embarrassed by her sensitivity, Barbara cast frantically about for a suggestion of her own that might restore the playful tone that she'd quashed. Regrettably, as much as she managed capably in bestowing code names, she was -- in this arena -- stumped.
So far, in fact, only one name had come to her. Unfortunately, its appeal was such that she couldn't come up with anything else even if it would require some delicate discussions with her partner.
Still there was time, not to mention the fact that she suspected she'd want to meet the little Gordon-Kyle before finalizing a name.
A low whistle interrupted her attempts to cut through the awkwardness, and she returned to a role she was comfortable with.
"What's the situation, Huntress?"
<<"Nothing definite, but I just caught sight of a late model sedan cruising by. We're gonna tail it.">>
She didn't bother with needless cautions about being careful. After over five years of their particular partnership, she trusted the brunette's instincts and abilities.
<<"Can't forget a baby shower either -- ">>
After five years, Barbara also wasn't surprised by the brunette's penchant for small talk while she was on the prowl. This particular topic, nevertheless, took her aback and her brows knit while she attempted to visualize that particular scenario: doubtless, her part of the party would be composed of fellow faculty from school while Helena's guests would include... everybody else, from patrons at the Dark Horse to friends from No Man's Land to silver-haired citizens from the Senior Center.
Gifts, no doubt, would fall into three categories: educational, fashionable, and unmentionable.
<<"Oooh -- ">>
Dinah's excitement was palpable.
<<"Can we have party hats?">>
Eyebrows shooting toward her hairline, Barbara decided to get things back on track.
"What's the situation with the vehicle, Huntress? Canary?"
<<"Huh? Oh, it's heading north on Lincoln toward the park.">>
An image of lime and strawberry Jell-o filling the duck pond niggled at the redhead.
"Stay close, Huntress. Canary."
Uncertain which reply was the more grating, Barbara resolutely turned back to her monitor, efficiently pinpointing the number and location of the few NGPD patrol cars that were in the area.
<<"--and we can probably get a really good deal on party hats at the warehouse club, too...">>
Instantly riveted again on the conversation whispering over the headset, the older woman sighed soundlessly. With a mental nod to the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" school of thought, she broke in on the planning.
"Have you determined which chain is better, Huntress?"
She'd already done a bit of research to compare MegaLoMart's warehouse club to CostCut; however, she was interested in her partner's assessment.
The brunette's voice was absolutely... sunny. For some reason, hearing the tone as her partner discussed bulk shopping was a distinctly unsettling experience.
<<"...both are about the same on diapers and wipes--">>
<<"What about formula?">>
Dead silence met the teen's question, and Barbara decided to allow Helena to field the inquiry. After all, the younger woman had made her preference about breast-feeding abundantly clear the night before.
<<"Not an issue, Canary.">>
The brunette breezed on with her secret shopper review.
<<"On the whole though, Oracle, I've gotta lean toward MegaLo.">>
Marshalling her patience, Barbara blinked, awaiting further elaboration. She offered a silent thanks when Dinah saved her from asking.
<<"Why's that, Huntress?">>
The sound of a car trunk opening briefly delayed the brunette's reply.
<<"He's out of the car by the duck pond, Oracle.">>
The leader of the team nodded wearily, not surprised to find that her suspicion seemed to have been on target.
Of course, what else did one do with two thousand boxes of gelatin?
"Excuse me, Huntress?"
The brunette was very, very quiet, presumably as she approached the clown at the pond; however, her words were very clear.
<<"Poptarts. They're cheaper at MegaLo, Asshole!">>
The change in pitch and volume, not to mention the terrified male shriek, assured Barbara that the epithet hadn't been directed at Dinah or her. The sound of slow, certain blows further supported her belief that her partner was busily engaged in keeping the pond safe for the city's waterfowl.
<<"Think that's funny, huh? I'll show you colorful when your bruises start showing...">>
<<"I'm here, Oracle.">>
Aware that Helena would hear her question, Barbara chose her phrasing carefully.
"Is everything under control? We won't be able to get anything from him if he's unconscious."
<<"I think so. Huntress is, uhm, dunking him in the pond now and getting ready---">>
The dark vigilante interrupted her younger partner's progress report.
<<"Just loosening him up a little, Oracle. Maybe we won't need Canary's help tonight.">>
Barbara fervently hoped that it might be so. Apart from some minor qualms about the Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues at stake -- not to mention privacy issues -- in a telepathic interrogation, in more practical terms she hated to have Dinah exposed to whatever nastiness lurked in the minds of New Gotham's criminals.
Unfortunately, like the others before him, this lackey's very voluble terror of Helena didn't compare to his terror of the mysterious person who was orchestrating the messy and maniacal attacks in New Gotham. Resultantly, in short order, Barbara heard herself whispering the words she'd hoped to avoid.
"If you're certain, Canary, go ahead and try."
She thought she heard the girl swallow, but her voice was steady.
<<"I'm on it, Oracle. Just give me a min -- ">>
The petty criminal's terrified shriek coincided with Dinah's horrified gasp. Breathless, Barbara waited for an update, certain that her partners wouldn't keep her in the dark for long. In short order, Helena's voice -- puzzled but reassuringly matter-of-fact -- soothed her frazzled nerves.
<<"Bizarre. The minute Canary touched him, he freaked, pissed all over himself, and passed out.">>
Exhaling noisily, Barbara snatched off her glasses.
Another night wasted, it seemed.
"Could you get anything before he fainted, Canary?"
When she heard the teen's shaky response, Barbara realized that a wasted night was now the very least of their problems.
<<"I did, B -- Oracle. It's her.">>
Some of my best friends are whores.
For a full four minutes, with nothing but the muted ticking of the rather garish cuckoo clock to interrupt her reverie, Barbara considered the words. Perhaps inevitably, she gave up on her attempts to make sense of them, shaking her head ruefully at her attempts.
It was simply beyond her what might have led to the addition of the new artwork -- at least that's what she presumed it to be -- or what the significance of the words on the oak plaque might be. However, she certainly appreciated the opportunity to weigh the various possibilities and options since it distracted her from her guilt about not concentrating on the lesson plans in the binder in her lap.
Or, on other things.
Of course, she had to admit that after she'd received a call from Gloria -- from the doctor herself, not Pat -- instructing her to come in immediately, her interest in her lesson plans for the upcoming semester, in the current bumper crop of pudding-spraying thugs, and even Harley Quinn herself had waned considerably.
Having acknowledged as much, the redhead sighed quietly and shifted in her chair, wondering just how long it would be before her gynecologist joined her in her private office. Immediately, she snorted at her own impatience, uncertain how much she could attribute to her own incessant curiosity and how much to assign to the hormones at work within her.
Perhaps all women in her condition were as... edgy as this.
That thought, finally, evoked a genuine -- if somewhat dismayed --- laugh: She simply couldn't begin to imagine how many women were, or had been, in her exact condition.
Barbara's first relatively light thought since discovering the night before that Harley Quinn was masterminding the attack on her city was cut short when the door to the office flew open and her doctor scurried in, almost catching the tail of her lab coat in the door behind her. The redhead just stopped herself from raising one hand to her mouth and smiled a greeting with as much composure as she could muster.
"Laughing out loud for no particular reason, eh?"
She was pinned by acute eyes which glimmered with humor.
"That's good. Very good."
Frine plopped a thick folder on her desk and settled herself in the overlarge chair.
"Fabulous, Gloria. I've been practicing," Barbara managed to deadpan.
For a few beats, the older woman simply regarded her evenly before speaking very seriously.
"I dare say that you would if that's what was required."
Mildly unsettled by the response, the redhead directed her attention to the recent addition to the office's decor.
"I was actually rather taken by your new artwork."
The smile which touched the other woman's lips hinted at distant memories.
"Long story there, Barbara."
The redhead inclined her head and blinked once, but her companion didn't accept the invitation. Leaning back in her chair, Gloria chuckled ruefully.
"Suffice to say it has to do with looking at more than the surface. Otherwise, it's much too long a tale to go into when I have a waiting room backed up."
The reference reminded Barbara that her visit had purposes other than aesthetic.
She dropped her hands to the wheels of her chair, flirting with the idea of unlocking the brakes.
"Is this about the problem we've had getting a sample for the amnio?"
For obvious reasons, neither attempt had been physically uncomfortable. However, with the risk to the child that arose from each attempt, not to mention her own more settled state, Barbara was uncertain that the procedure bore repeating; nevertheless, scientific curiosity was still scientific curiosity.
The doctor peered at her blankly for a moment, appearing for all the world as if she'd completely forgotten about the original reason for her patient's visit less than two weeks before. Barbara managed to squelch her exasperation when the other woman waved one hand and laughed.
"I'd almost forgotten, Barbara."
She rifled through the stack of papers before her.
"The sample they got on the second try was enough."
A wave of vertigo washed across the redhead, and she bit back a snappish inquiry about just when her doctor had received that bit of news.
No doubt, handling paternity tests was a routine occurrence at the office; it wasn't unexpected that her own particular need to know might have been forgotten.
"Let's see," Frine continued absently, her eyes fixed on one of the papers, "I don't remember if you wanted to know the sex -- "
A moment later, the doctor tore her gaze from the page and smirked.
"However, I suppose that will be evident when you learn the paternity."
As sharp as she usually was, it took Barbara a beat to grasp the implication. She blinked once, then again, ready to levitate from her chair as a two-hundred pound green-hair weight dissolved from her shoulders.
Feeling one of her partner's patented ten thousand watt smiles beginning to take possession of her face, she corrected herself.
The older woman's nod confirmed what she'd already realized: it was the only genetic possibility which fit Gloria's hinted revelation. Nearly giddy, Barbara simply ... sat there for a full thirty seconds, grinning like an idiot. Gradually, however, it dawned on her that her doctor didn't seem to share her joy.
"Is there something else, Gloria?"
When the other woman consulted her chart, flipping a few pages seemingly at random, Barbara suspected that it was a delaying tactic.
"Well, you do have a higher than normal estrogen level."
The redhead bit at the inside of her cheek, considering that the amount of extraneous estrogen which she'd been in contact with via her partner's pudding splattered wardrobe could very well account for that.
The need to find a way to explain matters was delayed when Frine continued absently.
"As I'm sure you know, raised estrogen levels can simulate pregnancy. Delayed periods and such."
"But," crimson brows furrowed, "what about the HCG levels?"
The older woman retrieved a pen, a rather drab retractable with a pharmaceutical logo on it, and walked it through her fingers.
"It can even raise HCG, Barbara. However -- "
She raised her free hand, forestalling the question on Barbara's lips.
"-- clearly that's not the case, or the cause, here."
Beginning to feel deeply, deeply at sea and wishing that she'd called Helena at work to accompany her, Barbara worked for a handle on the conversation.
"Then what's going on, Gloria?"
Instead of answering directly, the gynecologist tapped her pen against the stack of papers in the file and tendered a question of her own.
It was not, Barbara realized, a good sign from the normally straight-shooting doctor.
"Do you happen to know if your mother had any infertility problems?"
The greying head tilted to one side.
Although she knew that she wasn't quite firing on all cylinders, Barbara simply couldn't make any sense of the seeming non-sequiter.
"Er, I'm not -- "
She caught up to the conversation and changed her response.
"Why do you ask?"
The doctor nodded, seemingly sympathetic to her patient's confusion.
"Specifically, Barbara, I'm curious about whether she took any fertility drugs or had problems with carrying to term."
The furrows which were undoubtedly etching deep, permanent lines in her brows by the second only increased, and the redhead bit back a bark of mirthless laughter as she shook her head.
Somehow, she couldn't imagine her mother actively trying to become pregnant.
"No, I'm fairly certain that she didn't."
Increasingly impatient, she repeated her earlier question.
"Why are you asking, Gloria?"
Dr. Frine closed the chart and slid it to one side. When she saw the older woman's eyes track to the little plaque on the wall, Barbara rather frantically wondered how quickly Helena could get there from work if she paged her.
Unfortunately, not quickly enough to outpace her companion's reply.
"You're a bit young to be a DES baby, but it's the only thing which I can think of which correlates to what I'm seeing."
Green eyes briefly lost focus, tracking to the wall of the office, as Barbara's infallible memory searched for the abbreviation.
"Diethylstilbestrol?", she managed evenly enough.
At the other woman's quick nod, she instantly began clicking through what she had ever read or heard about the drug prescribed to pregnant women from the 1940s to the early 1970s to help prevent miscarriage: specifically, the long-term effects which had been discovered in the female offspring of the women who had used the drug, effects which prominently included increased susceptibility to certain conditions such as T-shaped uteri.
Barely realizing that she was doing so, Barbara nodded her head.
A uterine malformation might explain the difficulty with the amniocentesis.
Her relief about the explanation fluttered away, and she clenched her teeth grimly when she realized what else such a malformation could explain: To wit, why The Joker's fourth shot all those years ago had missed the mark.
While she appreciated irony as much as the next vigilante crime-fighter-cum-high school teacher, Barbara resolutely pushed that thought aside for later. For a moment, she focused on her companion, noting how Gloria shifted under her scrutiny.
"What, exactly, is it you're seeing?"
Once again, the straightforward woman hedged uncharacteristically.
"I'd really rather get another opinion before I jump to conclusions, Barbara. In fact --"
The older woman brightened fractionally for the first time since sharing the news about the child's paternity.
"I've already scheduled you with a friend of mine who's absolutely the best in the five-state area. He cleared an opening for you this afternoon."
Still perplexed, the redhead absently nodded her gratitude.
"What sort of doctor, Gloria? An Ob-Gyn?"
The gray-haired woman finally met Barbara's gaze, her eyes soft and compassionate.
"No, I'm afraid not. Ben practices a different specialty."
Perhaps it wasn't unexpected that this particular specialized bit of work would need some refinement. After all, she'd only pursued it on a lark; nevertheless, now that she was involved in the project, Barbara knew that she wouldn't simply be able to let it rest.
A crimson brow arched as the redhead removed her glasses and tapped one plastic earpiece against her lower lip.
Pairing "Medea" with "The Scarlet Letter" was simply a combination she'd never considered. While she could grasp the logic behind the combination -- she had been the one who'd created the lesson-planning software and its algorithms -- it would still be damnably difficult to help her tenth graders grasp the sense of the pairing.
Shaking her head in bemusement, she stretched to the printer and retrieved the final pages of the lesson plans that she'd just finished -- the old-fashioned way, with brainpower, web crawlers, and spreadsheets -- and added them to the neat stack next to her mouse pad. Her eyes automatically registered the time, and she slowly inhaled, then exhaled, before raising her hands once again to the keyboard.
For a half minute, she remained fixed, preparing to shut down the programs of public life in anticipation for her role in another life this evening. Then, with carefully precise movements, she struck the sequences of control-key combinations, bringing one aspect herself to a close for the day. With her task completed and her virtual workspace ready for whatever she might next require, she retrieved her glasses from atop the stack of papers and slipped them into the pocket of her chair. She checked the desktop one more time, the lowered her hands to the rims of her wheels and gave a sharp push away from the desk.
Rather, she intended to back away from the Delphi, however, intent did not materialize into action.
When she remained firmly in place, the redhead blinked in befuddlement over the unexpected friction burn in her palms and over her lack of motion. Gradually, it dawned on her that, for possibly the first time in almost seven years, she'd not released the brake of her chair before attempting to move.
She, Barbara Gordon of infallible memory and carefully ingrained habits, had somehow neglected a motion which was to her as instinctive as was standing up before walking to a mobile person.
Blinking again, this time against something blurring her vision, she grit her teeth and blew a noisy rush of air through her nose.
Since the shooting almost eight years before, she'd not been in the field apart from an occasional unplanned rescue or a bit of reconnaissance. That fact, however, had never been an excuse to spare herself the same rigorous training which she requested -- demanded -- from her partners. Resultantly, her reflexes were still as quick as ever, and her functioning muscles possibly stronger than before.
Thus, when her neatly organized pages of lesson plans flew across the platform and exploded against the wall next to the Richard M. Nixon presidential plate, the action was both blindingly swift and terrifyingly powerful.
Watching the papers flutter this way and that across the platform, she distantly acknowledged the hell that would be involved in retrieving them from under the table and from the corners.
It was that thought that, finally, breached the slender control she'd held over what was rising within, and Barbara heard a cry just as she witnessed both of her fists descend on her thighs with bruising force.
That was all it took: explaining the bruises, not to mention the mess, was not something she cared to consider. With her partners due back at the Clock Tower from their respective jobs in less than an hour, she simply would not allow herself further infantile indulgence.
By the time a frisson of awareness, which coincided with a thump from the balcony, alerted her to the arrival of one of her first protege, Barbara had retrieved and reorganized all of her paperwork and had, in fact, been occupied with other matters for forty minutes. She sensed, as much as heard, when Helena bounced into the kitchen just as the CD player in the other room transitioned from an old favorite by The Romantics to something slower.
Daddy breezes in
So good on paper
Helena's voice was a jaunty as her step.
"I picked up the mail, and it's bad news."
Mentally daring the news to compete with her own, Barbara looked over her shoulder, silently raising a brow in challenge.
"Yep," the brunette nodded with exaggerated solemnity, "looks like my Survivor audition tape didn't make the cut."
Barbara blinked before a distant memory surfaced.
Had it only been a few months since Dinah had videotaped the vivacious brunette's attempt to join the popular reality show?
"I'm sorry, Sweetie. I'm sure that most of America would have enjoyed seeing you."
The issue of whether mainstream America could have handled Helena Kyle in their living rooms every week remained in doubt.
The brunette didn't seem overly disturbed by her failure to wow Hollywood.
Barbara waited as her companion prodded dubiously at a pear perched in the "questionable" pile that she'd created during her cleansing of the fridge. Apparently deciding that her enhanced system could handle the overripe fruit, Helena snagged it and hopped onto the counter. She chewed slowly on her first enormous bite, and Barbara awaited the inevitable when bright blue eyes pointedly took in the neatly organized trash bags littering the kitchen floor.
"You've been cleaning?"
Pay the grocer
You fix the toaster
You kiss the host goodbye
Then you break a window
Burn the souffle
Scream a lullaby
Determined not to hear the incredulity in the rising tone, Barbara leaned back over the open oven door and renewed her assault on a bit of recalcitrant baked on lasagna.
"Just... clearing out the detritus," she allowed.
The duration of the ensuing silence finally forced her to acknowledge her partner's presence. Marshalling her patience, she looked over her shoulder to find Helena absently bumping her heels against the lower cupboard -- she'd need to tackle those scuff marks next -- and, well, waiting.
The younger woman casually tossed the half-eaten pear into an open trash bag.
"No. You've been cleaning."
Alarm clearly punctuated the word as Helena gracefully slipped from her perch and approached. Barbara held her tongue when the brunette sniffed, her acute senses probably detecting each individual cleaning product that had been in use, and then bent to peer into the oven.
"You even got that plastic up which's been welded in there."
Helena straightened, and the redhead felt a blush paint her features.
Barbara ruthlessly quashed her embarrassment.
It had been almost five years since one of her inopportune attempts at cooking had caused a skillet handle to melt and bond, seemingly permanently, to the bottom of the oven. Indeed, this afternoon she'd taken great satisfaction in chipping at the remnant with the tip of a batarang until, finally, it had peeled away.
"I believe it was time, Helena," she managed evenly enough.
I know nothin' stays the same
But if you're willin' to play the game
It's comin' around again
So don't mind if I fall apart
There's more room in a broken heart
The other woman took two steps back and leaned against the counter by the sink, one dark brow rising eloquently. With a sigh, Barbara gave up on her cleaning, crisply closing the oven door and switching on the kettle.
"I'll get that, Babs."
Nodding her thanks, Barbara moved to her spot at the kitchen table, appreciating the graceful economy of the lithe figure's movements as she retrieved her favorite mug, tea bags -- decaf, of course -- and honey. Helena settled the items on the table and swung open the refrigerator, and the older woman winced slightly as an appreciative whistle escaped the brunette.
So help her, if Helena winced or flinched at the sparkling interior, she'd probably have to heave her empty cup at her.
The other woman restrained herself, simply snagging the cream and a can of Red Bull, which she placed on the table before turning to the puffing kettle on the stove. Barbara smoothed the tab on one of the tea bags while Helena remained poised by the stove, presumably awaiting the kettle's whistle before she pounced.
"Uhm -- "
For some reason, the deceptively casual tone raised a knot of tension in the redhead's shoulders.
"-- how did your appointment with Dr. Frine go?"
The brunette switched off the stove and picked up the kettle, turning to the table. Aware that her partner had to be as curious as she'd been, Barbara didn't mince words.
"The second amnio worked."
She nodded her thanks as Helena filled her mug and then dunked her tea bag before forcing her eyes up briefly to meet her partner's.
"It's yours. Rather..."
She felt a soft smile painting her lips as she corrected herself.
The brunette's response, Barbara decided with a mixture of alarm and amusement, exemplified the phrase "shell shocked".
For a moment, the younger woman simply froze, the still-hissing kettle suspended in mid air. Then, wordless, she sagged and dropped into a chair.
The patent wonder evident in expressive blue eyes was heartbreaking.
"I'm gonna be a... a daddy?"
The beginning of that amazing smile appeared, and Barbara couldn't bear to allow her lover the same thoughts she'd embraced only five hours before.
"It's... it's complicated, Hel."
"Well, hell yeah." the other woman nodded agreeably, thumping the tea kettle onto the table.
Without really thinking, Barbara stretched forward and lifted the hot cookware, sliding a placemat under it before resettling it.
"Well, yes, that part is a bit confusing, Helena."
Mentally acknowledging that understatement didn't begin to encompass that little statement, she snorted softly.
Belatedly noticing her partner leaning expectantly toward her, she worked for the rest.
"Well, there's more."
Rather futilely, she waved a hand.
"Barbara? What's going on?"
The almost imperceptible tension that vibrated through sinewy muscles clearly indicated the younger woman's rising alarm, and Barbara plastered on what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
"Calm down, Helena."
She claimed a slender hand in hers and squeezed softly. When the worry in her lover's eyes morphed into cautious confusion, she softly stroked her thumb across the other woman's knuckles, ignoring her own feelings of hypocrisy.
Calming down had simply not been an option for her since Gloria had revealed why she was referring her to a specialist.
Carefully, Barbara caught a drop of condensation as it trickled down the outside of her mug.
"Gloria, er, wanted to check on a few things."
Dark brows wrinkled.
"Like what? She's not still hung up on the false preg-- "
Blue eyes widened, then sparkled.
Despite herself, Barbara heard a strangled laugh escape.
Two little Helenas at once would, indeed, be a handful.
"No, Helena, not that."
Sobering, she cast about for a way to broach matters.
"Er, she discovered that my estrogen levels are -- "
Watching her partner's gaze clear, she realized that she was going about matters all wrong. Unfortunately, she simply couldn't begin to guess what the right way might be and suspected that no amount of Googling the in world would help.
"Yeah, you and half of New Gotham."
The dark head inclined to one side.
"Is that a problem for the Peapod?"
"No -- it's... No."
Barbara looked down to discover that, somehow, the reassuring touch of their hands had changed, and now it was Helena who was softly stroking her palm.
"Okaaay -- "
Feeling more horrible by the second as she watched her partner struggle for footing, Barbara almost burst into tears at her partner's teasing smile.
"-- guess I'll start working on those rocker sleds for your chair."
The redhead squeezed her eyes closed in memory of her protege's inventiveness: a proposal to bind skis for rocking to her chair.
She clasped the other woman's fingers lightly before dropping her hands to her lap, looking down quickly to verify that they were fisted against her thighs.
"I'm afraid that may be premature, Sweetheart. I saw another doctor this afternoon."
Sensing the host of questions rising in the younger woman, she raised one hand, palm outward.
"Gloria insisted that time was of the essence, and after speaking with Dr. Casey, I believe she was right."
She refused to look up but sensed the silent movement a split-second before Helena ducked down, forcing her to meet her eyes.
"What kind of specialist?"
The question was a bare whisper of air between them, and Barbara had no recourse but to look into those sweet blue eyes, so filled with love. Finally hearing the words of the old Carly Simon classic she'd always loved, she swallowed convulsively.
Daddy breezes in
I know nothin' stays the same
But if you're willin' to play the game
It will be comin' around again
The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout
Down come the rain and washed the spider out
Out come the sun and dried up all the rain
And the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again
I believe in love
Now who knows where or when
But it's comin' around again
It took Barbara three tries to form the words.
The cancer in the city of New Gotham was growing unchecked.
To the not inconsiderable dismay of one specific individual pledged to fighting such stain and disease, it seemed that cutting off The Joker had slowed its progress only temporarily.
Green eyes unconsciously flickering to the GPS locator, Barbara confirmed what she already knew: her partners in the field were on-site, presumably engaged in their stealthy approach to the source of the city's current malignancy.
With that thought, she allowed herself to continue an analogy which was too much with her: specifically, that the current criminal wave wasn't simply a pustulant boil, like her own, localized in one spot -- such as attacks on city hall -- which could be isolated and aggressively defended or... treated. Rather, it was spreading its dendrites throughout the city, leaving carnage and mayhem in its wake.
On the other hand, when she took a moment to reconsider the analogy, perhaps she was a bit off-target. Given what the oncologist had told her, her own cancer was behaving very much like the current crime wave, with the very real possibility that nothing would remain untouched.
In other terms, she allowed wryly as her eyes flickered to the Princess Fiona figure atop her monitor, with the rapid metastasis already evident , she might soon be nothing more than a head in a chair.
<<"Oracle, do you copy?">>
Despite the fact that her response would reach only the ears of her partners, Barbara unconsciously muted her reply in deference to Helena's whisper.
"I copy, Huntress. Where are you?"
<<"Still in the access tunnel.">>
A soft squeak of protest from Dinah barely registered over the comms.
Barbara grimaced sympathetically. Even with her own rodent-like masked persona back in the day, she'd never particularly cared for the creatures either.
<<"Canary's making with a TK broom but she doesn't want to hurt any of them.">>
The leader of the team nodded her acknowledgement, pleased that Helena's tone had remained neutral for the second part of her update. She chose not to concentrate on the fact that she was even more pleased that her protege was remaining focused on their plans, despite the bombshell she'd dropped on her earlier in the kitchen.
"How long before you make contact?"
<<"Probably another five minutes, Oracle. We'll let you know when we hit the access hatch.">>
Checking the security cameras she'd hacked into an hour before, Barbara confirmed that the facility's guards were still unaware of the visitors moving quietly through the utilities conduit.
"I'll trigger the alarm at the south end when you're in position," she confirmed.
With silence descending on the comms again, she toggled her screen back to the search results she'd brought up a few minutes earlier. While it wasn't unusual for the cyber-genius to multitask while her partners were in the field, she suspected that in any other circumstances she would have remained more focused on the events unfolding distant from her workstation.
Breaking into Arkham, the most super-security facility in the country for the criminally insane, was not a normal bit of fieldwork, after all. The reason behind the break in -- locating and, possibly, interviewing Harley Quinn -- only raised the stakes of the task.
Nevertheless, after her appointment with Dr. Casey earlier in the day, Barbara knew that she had little time to research options for her own particular... project, and the results she'd found about dendrimer research at University of Michigan were too tantalizing to ignore. Accordingly, she allotted herself two and a half minutes, and not a second more, to program and dispatch a fleet of bots to scour cyberspace for further information.
One hundred and thirty-two seconds later, she minimized her bot deployment screen and closed her browser window.
She could not afford any distractions at this point. With the discovery the night before that the mysterious and terror-inspiring boss was indeed Harley Quinn, none of them could risk a misstep. After Dinah's discovery, the team had agreed that a face-to-face visit was their best option; however, simply because they were inside a facility where the prisoners were under tight control didn't make the operation any less dangerous.
Given that closed-circuit television from inside Arkham showed the madwoman safely straight jacketed and sedated in her cell, Barbara could only conclude -- and not for the first time -- that security at the maximum super security prison was like something out of a comic book: implausible at best; outright laughable at worst.
Of course, she had to admit that Quinn had always been resourceful, and it was very possible that she was masterminding the whole mess from inside bars.
<<"We're in position, Oracle.">>
Exhaling softly, Barbara seized on the calm normalcy in her partner's voice.
"Stand ready, Huntress, Canary," she murmured as her fingers tapped briskly across the keyboard, "I'm triggering the alarm."
Without raising her hands, she toggled to the security camera feeds, confirming the efficacy of her distraction in drawing the guards away from the wing of the facility where Dinah and Helena were waiting.
"Hallways are clear now, but be quick."
She guestimated that the younger women had, at most, four minutes to make their way through the hallways and past the security enclosing the madwoman's outer cell, attempt to question Quinn, and make it back to the access hatch before the guards returned. Anxiously monitoring the security feeds, she tracked her proteges' progress down the empty hallway, confident that the loop feed she'd added to the cameras in the wing would record only vacant halls in case someone later thought to check the tapes.
The pervasive whir and hum of the gears of the tower clock synchronized with her own internal chronometer, and she mentally counted the seconds ticking by. Finally, she spied the tail of Helena's dark coat from the periphery of the camera that was fixed permanently on the cell of the woman who was, since The Joker's escape, Arkham's most dangerous prisoner.
Oblivious to the voice-only nature of their interface, the cyber-vigilante nodded.
"You have two and a half minutes, Huntress."
She didn't bother to add the obvious assumptions: that Dinah and Helena could get Quinn to talk; that the dangerously hypnotic woman would not somehow entrap them with her wiles; that they would be able to garner something of use from the brief interaction.
Two shadows -- one slight and graceful, the other lanky and more stilted -- flickered at the edges of the grainy black and white feed. A soft tap of knuckles against the lucite surrounding the prisoner rang out like a canon shot.
Still, there was no reaction from the cell's inmate.
"Can you try your TK, Canary?"
Barbara felt herself frown when she heard the nervousness of the youngest member of the team.
Somehow, she simply would find a way to stop asking Dinah to go on the streets. It simply wasn't right to allow the girl's eagerness and her own desire for results to put the young woman at risk.
An update from Dinah cut short her self-castigation.
<<"I'm not getting any response, Oracle. Do you want, uh...?">>
The teen trailed off as Barbara felt her frown deepen. Suggesting that Dinah do more than telekinetically prod their nemesis was not something she cared to consider, however, with the seconds ticking by, their options for rousing the madwoman from her drugged state were limited.
Helena, naturally, put things in perspective.
<<"Forget it, Canary. She's too gorked to lead a pudding run to the refrigerator. No way she's masterminding -- ">>
The words did the trick, and without second thought, Barbara interrupted the brunette's assessment.
"Is that a... pudding cup under her bunk?"
The dark vigilante didn't seem perturbed by the treatment.
<<What? I don't see...">>
Terrifyingly certain of what she'd hear, Barbara kept it short.
"Canary, use your TK again. This time, push hard."
<<"Ha--? Uh, copy that, Oracle.">>
A soft grunt signaled the teen's compliance, followed by a quiet gasp.
<<"She didn't budge, Oracle, and I was really -- ">>
"I know, Canary."
Registering the slow return of guards from the south end of the prison, she drew the operation to a close.
"Clear out now. Our time is up."
She waited for the quiet acknowledgements, then rapidly captured the video feed of Quinn in her cell and saved it to disk. Refusing to give in to her curiosity, and her dread, she remained focused on the events playing out thirty miles distant until Helena's voice rang through the headset again.
<<"We're clear, Oracle.">>
The sound of a well-tuned Hummer roaring to life pinpointed the younger women's location.
Barbara swallowed and cleared her throat.
"That will do for tonight, Huntress. Why don't you come in?"
More than certain of what she was facing, Barbara thought of something else and deliberately lightened her tone.
"Would you mind stopping by our favorite ice cream shop for some triple chocolate on the way?"
<<"Uh, would you repeat that, Oracle?">>
To her relief, she was spared the effort when the youngest member of the team piped up.
<<"Ice cream, Huntress. No problem, Oracle. Do you want us to get some pickles, too?">>
Ignoring the choking sensation enveloping her, Barbara managed to keep her voice relatively light, pleased that Dinah had made the assumption that she'd presented.
"No, thank you, Canary. The ice cream will be sufficient."
Having bought herself a few extra minutes, she focused once again on the prison. First, she carefully checked the video feeds from each camera in Quinn's wing, insuring that no traces of her partners' visit had been recorded. Then, she released the loopbacks before quickly hacking into the prison's central computer. Once there, she navigated rapidly to the security software and, within seconds, found what she'd suspected: a bit of embedded code projecting a holographic image of a drugged and unresponsive Quinn into her cell.
Absolutely furious, she downloaded the bit of malware to a secure area of the Delphi and then exited the system.
After she'd finished her investigation, she'd determine just who to notify about the madwoman's absence. Clearly, guards and caretakers were either in on the escape or, more likely, had been caught by the woman's powers of suggestion and honestly believed her to be present.
At the moment, however, she had one more task to perform.
Acutely aware of her heart trip-hammering against her ribs, of the beads of cold moisture dotting her forehead, of her shallow breathing, Barbara focused on calming herself. She removed her glasses and concentrated on wiping the lenses with the tail of her tee shirt: fifteen circular motions on the left lens, followed by an equal number of swipes to the right. She resettled her eyewear and rested her right hand lightly over the mouse, guiding the stylized bat cursor to the digitized video feed she'd downloaded from the camera trained on Quinn's cell. With a final long cleansing breath, she clicked on the file.
With it overcharged cpu's and teraflops of memory, the Delphi brought up the movie player instantly, and within a half-second, Barbara was less-than-pleased to realize that her suspicion had been correct: Within the live feed from the camera which had been capturing the image of a holograph, there was a superimposed bit of film.
A self-contained, repeating image of a pudding cup casually resting against one leg of Quinn's bunk.
Completely unaware that she was doing so, the cyber-vigilante leaned in, bringing her nose within inches of the oversized monitor. At the same time, she moved the cursor to the image of the half-eaten dessert and clicked twice.
Again, the response from her computer was instantaneous -- too damned fast, perhaps -- and Barbara abruptly found herself viewing the recorded image of Harley Quinn herself. Although the image was a bit grainy, possibly recorded with a low-end digital camera, the sight of that sharp, pixie-like face and eyes shining with cunning malevolence was entirely too clear.
"We meet again, Ba -- "
The recorded figure interrupted herself with a grating cackle.
"Ah, ah, ah. Mustn't break confidentiality, must we?"
Ice blue eyes widened in innocence, and the petite blonde continued brightly.
"So, I must presume that I'm finally addressing you again, Oracle, since there's nobody else who I'd trust to find my little clue. Still,"
Tsking sadly, the blonde raised her left arm and looked down, pantomiming looking at a watch.
"It took you long enough to discover my little deception. For someone who is purportedly so very, very intelligent, Oracle --"
Barbara clenched her teeth when the image of their nemesis frowned sadly.
"-- sometimes you're just like the rest of them, believing exactly what you see. Of course,"
The tiny woman brightened, the light of madness sparkling in her eyes.
"--by now, I know that you've seen far more than this image."
Quinn cocked her head, the movement strangely birdlike.
"Do you think the pudding was too obvious, Oracle? It did seem trite to me, I'll grant."
Sensing that the recorded message was moving into the stereotypical 'Gloating Criminal Reveals The Master Plot' stage, Barbara puffed out her cheeks and rolled her eyes.
"But, my intent was two-fold. Not just to mourn the passing of my dear Mr. J, but to give you a teensy weensy clue about the state that your little fetch-n-go girl might be in by now."
Green eyes nearly crossed in vexation over the blonde's characterization of Helena. At Quinn's next words, her anger morphed into a different emotion.
"However, while it would be improper to reveal doctor-patient conversations, perhaps our dear Huntress' dreams have finally come to fruition, and the little surprise which my Puddin' and I planned for the first bubble attack reached you instead."
Barbara felt her brows lower in puzzlement, then, as Quinn giggled and continued, begin a slow rise toward her hairline.
"Yes, yes, I'm certain how relieved the two of you were when Huntress narrowly escaped her first run-in with the very special substance which my Puddin' had waiting just for her."
The blonde leaned toward the camera, the malevolence of her feature filling the entire screen.
"By the time you started analyzing it, our little Trojan would have passed right through into Huntress or... you, Oracle."
Now clenching her teeth so tightly that stress fractures were a real possibility, the redhead held her breath in anticipation of what she might hear next. Almost conversationally, the blonde withdrew from the camera and blinked innocently.
"How is our sweet Huntress feeling lately? Or, perhaps, how are you feeling? Any -- "
Blue eyes widened in a mockery of solicitous concern.
"-- female problems?"
Something akin to vertigo washed across her as Barbara listened to Quinn peeling away the layers of the plan that she and The Joker had hatched from within Arkham over the years of their incarceration. Something very much like nausea consumed her at the realization that they -- that he -- had done this to her again. Something which was very definitely terror wound through her chest when she comprehended Quinn's cackling summation of the plot.
"So, dear Oracle, while you may have taken away my sweet Mr. J, we've taken away so much more from you. And soon -- "
Those mad blue eyes snapped with such fury that Barbara had no choice but to flinch.
"Soon, I'll take everything else away from you."
A split-second later, the beating of a helicopter hovering ridiculously close to the tower drew her from her terror. Belatedly, Barbara recognized that she should have anticipated that Quinn would have a feedback mechanism to alert her where someone -- when she -- found and played her message.
Unfortunately, she realized a split second too late, she'd been too involved in the message.
One hand flew to the brake of her chair while she jerked for the comms mic with the other; however, she had no opportunity to complete either action.
The rapid rat-a-tat of missiles striking the balcony, followed by an unmistakable odor, confirmed that the tower was under attack.
Breathing heavily through her mouth, Barbara raised her right hand from the rubber wheel of her chair, gracefully catching the thick staff she angled across her body with the left. Immediately, she dropped her now-free left hand to the rim of the other wheel and circled to the side, warily timing the slow approach of the hulking form. Calculating that she had just enough time, she raked her right wrist across her forehead.
The movement didn't really catch the sweat rivuleting down her face, but it temporarily diverted the saline flow from her eyes.
The minute respite over, she tightened her grip on the staff, feeling an answering ache in her knuckles and the tightening of the skin across them. Once more, as she had countless times in the last hour, she readied herself, gauging the best moment to place her blow.
One New Gotham.
Two New Gotham.
She'd not even recognized that she'd been whispering her count through her gritted teeth until the final word exploded in time with the inch-thick bar landing solidly against the leather-covered form which loomed over her. The rough 'Woof' of air that blew through her hair signaled that she'd bought another few seconds, and she warily held her position as the behemoth rotated slowly to the side.
Accepting the knowledge that this was far from over, the redhead smoothly backed a few inches and circled, one hand always on the staff, the other her sole means of mobility. Thoughts of unstoppable objects flitted through her mind while she waited for another approach, and she chuckled grimly.
If that were the case, then she would damned well be the unmovable post.
Even in the midst of her fixed concentration, Barbara couldn't miss the irony of her characterization, and she blinked rapidly against a wetness in her eyes which had little to do with the sweat which filtered through her eyebrows.
Her word was quiet, almost emotionless. Nevertheless, the split-second's indulgence was enough to allow her foe to get too close. Forcing herself not to rush, she twisted in her chair, flipping the staff across her body and managing to use momentum to push the heavy weight away. Despite the awkward angle, she followed up by sweeping the heavy staff underneath her much larger opponent, resulting in some rather wild swinging.
"Atta girl, Red."
The distraction was enough.
After more than an hour of holding her own, Barbara realized that it was all over. Perhaps she'd been at it too long; perhaps her concentration was simply too fragmented by what she'd discovered earlier. Regardless, the unexpected encouragement from her cat-footed partner was too much.
Already off-balance from her defensive reach across her body, she jerked her gaze to the side to confirm the arrival of her partner and was caught by a glancing blow from the side. In a series of freeze-frame instants, like something captured in the strobe of a disco ball, she felt momentum and gravity take over, pushing her to one side. For a hair-raising instant, she balanced on two wheels, frantically jerking her body in the opposite direction to avoid the inevitable; however, she had no leverage with her opponent's heavy weight still in control of her chair. Blinking, she registered the top of the wall where it intersected the ceiling, then the ceiling swam into focus.
Even as she fell, Barbara broke her own first rule of defense: she dropped her weapon.
Finally unencumbered, her hands flew to her lower abdomen, and her arms formed a protective cradle. With no means to guard herself, she hit the ground hard enough to rattle her teeth and evoke a very vocal 'Woof" of her own. Oddly indifferent to the lumbering form above her, she blinked rapidly, automatically counting the little cartoon bats which circled the periphery of her vision.
Slow, deliberate applause gradually penetrated her awareness around the eighteenth flying mammal, and she looked through the still-spinning spokes of her wheels to watch Helena's approach.
"If this was a WW Smackdown, I'd tag you and take 'em, Barbara."
No telling how long the younger woman had been watching.
"Holy flatulent fairies, Helena."
She regarded the brunette sourly.
"You nearly scared the wits out of me."
The abashed dip of a dark head quelled some of her ire, and Barbara pushed upright, working to unentangle her legs from the chair. Deliberately, she modulated her tone.
"I thought you were in the shower."
She registered her partner's shrug as the younger woman pushed the heavy bag away from the chair.
"That was almost two hours ago, Red."
The perpetually raised left brow quirked as the brunette gracefully knelt beside her.
"Even I draw the line when we run out of hot water."
Righting her chair, Barbara suspected that her answering smile was a bit forced, however she was too caught up attempting to grasp how her internal chronometer had failed her to do any more.
She'd honestly thought she'd have another ten or fifteen minutes of privacy, with Dinah off to her job and Helena in the shower.
Almost indifferent, she prodded at the possibility that the rapid metastasis of the clear cell cancer could be affecting her always-accurate sense of time before Helena's movement drew her attention. Almost in slow motion, the dark figure was leaning in, extending her hand.
Without conscious decision -- although, in hindsight, she had to acknowledge that there were a hell of a lot of feelings of filth and desirability and violation at play -- Barbara felt herself flinch from the offered assistance. And, as was so often the case when she acted without thinking, the results were unfortunate.
Deep blue eyes widened, then shuttered, as Helena scrambled backward gracelessly.
"Hel -- "
Barbara worked to pull herself into the chair, refusing to look away from her lover.
"I'm so sorry, Sweetie. I'm still -- "
Not entirely certain what she was but quite positive that she'd be in that state for some time, the redhead waved toward the heavy bag she'd been pummeling. She held her breath as blue eyes regarded her guardedly.
The dark head inclined toward the bag, and Barbara kept is short.
It was technically the truth; however, there was no reason for the other woman to know all of the reasons and emotions which lay behind the single word.
Helena seemed to accept the answer at face value, hooking her thumb toward the balcony.
"Guess we're lucky she's sticking with the food theme, huh? Though I don't think I'll be having any omelets for a while."
Smiling tightly, Barbara snapped down the second footrest and looked down to verify that neither leg was akimbo.
"Indeed," she allowed.
The attack twelve hours before had, finally, revealed the insane Harlequin's use for the eggs that her lackeys had stolen the week before. For a solid ten minutes after Barbara had found the embedded message, the helicopter had hovered near the balcony, pelting the landing and the French doors with rotten eggs.
Obviously, the choice of missiles was Quinn's idea of humor.
Helena and Dinah had arrived at the tower not too many minutes later to find Barbara engaged in the first stages of clean-up. When she'd provided a highly edited summary of the holograph and the embedded message, the two younger women had shooed her back inside and completed the unpleasant task in the darkness of the early morning.
While normally Barbara might have chaffed under such solicitousness, this time she'd accepted the gesture gratefully: she'd had more pressing matters to attend to.
For almost eight hours, she'd remained fixed at her workstation, alternately focused on the lab equipment and on the output scrolling across her monitors in amber and green. Although the cyber-vigilante hadn't expected to catch Quinn in a lie, there had been the tiniest tendril of hope. Regrettably, the hurried analysis she'd just completed on various samples of The Joker's bubble goo -- a tiny bit of the sample from his first attack on Helena and several samples from later attacks -- had, indeed, shown that there were subtle differences.
The first sample that had been used on Helena -- and on Helena alone, apparently -- contained minute traces of magnesium, estrogen, DES, and folic acid.
The slow sway of the heavy bag recalled Barbara, and she looked up to find her partner spinning the bag lackadaisically.
"Thought you might have been working off some anger about -- "
The older woman worked very hard not to blink, or flinch, when a slender hand gestured toward her midsection.
"There's no use being angry about the cancer, Hel. What's don--"
She stopped herself in time, realizing that the words she'd originally chosen would reveal too much.
"What will be, will be."
For an instant, when the brunette appeared to sag, Barbara thought she might fall, and she gave her chair a sharp push, bringing her knees into contact with the other woman's thighs.
When the other woman ducked beneath her shaggy bangs, she knew how serious matters were.
"How can you-- ?"
Even white teeth bit at a lush lower lip, stopping just shy of drawing blood, before Helena continued roughly.
"She's ours, Barbara. And, now we can't..."
Before the redhead could fully grasp the meaning of her partner's words, blows were raining on the heavy bag, the staccato beat of fists meeting heavy leather filling the room. With a quick pop-wheelie, Barbara rotated her chair and gave the wheels a firm push that distanced her by a few meters.
For a few moments, she puzzled over Helena's words and her assumption that they would make such a sacrifice. Then, she simply watched her lover pound the bag, entirely sympathetic to the frustrated rage that must be consuming the younger woman. It was only when one of the three chains that supported the bag snapped that Barbara intervened.
Ignoring the creak and sway of the two remaining chains and the very real risk of the bag collapsing -- it wouldn't be the first time -- she slowly approached her companion and stretched out to rest her palm on the young woman's lower back. When Helena stiffened and then skipped away from her touch, it was Barbara's turn to feel the pain of rejection.
"Don't -- "
Helena's voice was thick with anger and tears.
"How can you even come near me after everything?"
Utterly flabbergasted, Barbara felt her mouth drop open. While she certainly understood feeling less than... approachable -- desirable wouldn't be a part of her vocabulary for a good long time -- she couldn't begin to imagine what possessed the other woman.
"Hel? What do you--?"
Those deceptively slender shoulders shook once before straightening, and Helena finally looked back at her.
"I poisoned you, Barbara."
Immediately, Barbara became intimately reacquainted with the sensation of having been sucker-punched.
Surely her partner hadn't discovered the full extent of The Joker's machinations so quickly.
The brunette circled the bag, her rough reply almost lost in the hollow emptiness between them.
"Don't deny it, Barbara. All that estrogen I've been bathing in?"
Barbara had no idea what her face might have given away, but it couldn't have been good. The brunette's visage hardened, and she turned to the heavy bag.
"Yeah, thought so."
The redhead flinched when Helena struck the bag once, her blow tightly controlled, elbow at her abdomen and all of her power coming from her powerful legs. The bag rocked and only her own quick reflexes permitted Barbara to raise her arm in time to deflect the heavy object. Helena didn't back away, although she altered the direction of her blows: this time a series of lightning-fast roundhouse swings which set the bag swaying.
Witnessing the smear of bright red on the surface of the awkwardly twirling object, Barbara couldn't restrain her whimper, and the sound ended Helena's hail of blows. When the brunette turned and Barbara registered the anguish in her eyes, she whimpered again and stretched up, grasping her lover's hand and drawing her down. To her relief, Helena didn't resist, immediately burying her face in her lap, her shoulders shuddering.
"It doesn't work that way, Hel. The estrogen wasn't responsible."
As she stroked the brunette's back and soothed her, it was all that Barbara could think to say: somehow, she had to make Helena realize that she wasn't responsible. Suspecting that it would take time, she forced herself to silence her reassurances, distantly aware of how the younger woman's amazing metabolism was knitting the skin over her knuckles.
A slight motion drew her attention.
"I wish I could take it away from you."
Barbara allowed her fingers to sift through dark silk.
"I know, Hel."
It was all that she needed to say; both knew that, with her enhanced metabolism, Helena might very well reject any cancer cells before they took root.
Barbara bit at the inside of her lower lip, glad that her partner's face was averted. There was simply no way that the other woman wouldn't see that there was more, and that was something she simply couldn't say. Specifically, details which Quinn had revealed in her message -- a message which was buried deep in the darkest levels of encrypted storage on the Delphi's M drive -- which Barbara had scarcely been able to grasp, yet which made such sense.
Apparently, the researchers in Michigan were behind the curve when it came to nanoprobe technology. Of course, unlimited amounts of ill-gotten cash combined with completely twisted minds could tend to accelerate the research cycle. The Joker and Quinn's directed research had involved the creation of nanobots carrying copious amounts of estrogen as bait, with a DES laced cocktail within which had jumpstarted the cancer creation once the probes were welcomed.
During her earlier research, Barbara had realized with profound relief that while those probes had been meant to target Helena, very likely the young woman's system had simply... expelled them. In the process, the 'bots had efficiently enacted an unexpected side effect: they had carried with them minute amounts of Helena's DNA which had created a miracle within her at the same time they'd poisoned her.
"I'd rather you could take her," was all she eventually managed, meaning it entirely.
At that, the dark head shifted from her lap, and pained blue eyes reached deep inside.
Unable to help, Barbara waited as sharp white teeth caught a full lower lip.
"You can't have her. The way it's spreading."
The older woman had debated this ad nauseam since her meeting with the oncologist the day before, and she chose to take the words as a question.
"Nothing's certain, Hel."
Carefully, she tucked an errant lock of hair behind the other woman's ear.
"In a few months, she could be via--"
The hair she'd just tidied flew from side to side, and Barbara sighed, needing no interpretation for the willful obstinacy in those painfully expressive features.
"You said it's already spread."
Nodding slowly, Barbara added, "But some treatments may be available to slow the progress without harming -- "
The brunette's dogged unwillingness to accept a reassurance that even Barbara found weak was transparent, and the redhead nearly chuckled at the familiar expression. She'd first seen that look in her classroom so many years before when she'd tried to coax her recalcitrant student into enjoying Moby Dick. When she'd finally sparked her interest, by reading aloud excerpts from the chapter on flensing and the use of the skin covering the male whale's organ, Helena had seized on the thick book, engaging her in lengthy conversations about the nature of good and evil.
Pushing the sweet memory aside, Barbara worked to focus on the conversation at hand. After all, if Dr. Casey were right about the risk of rapid metastasis to her...
Barbara couldn't even think the word.
Losing her breasts in addition to her uterus and ovaries was simply too much to contemplate.
She just managed to suppress a wild urge to giggle at the image of the crimson haired bobbin head doll that sat atop her primary monitor when bright blue eyes, rimmed with moisture, searched her face. Reaching deep within, she slowly traced her partner's fingers.
"Remember, Hel?" she prompted softly.
The younger woman sniffed, sulkily meeting her eyes.
Pursing her lips and drawing her shoulders, Barbara channeled her best Anne Bancroft from 'Point of No Return.'
"I've never minded about the little things."
Some of the tightness in her chest eased at her partner's quirk of the lips. Quite deliberately, she ignored the irony of channeling Mrs. Robinson, refusing to believe that any of this was some sort of karma. The slender figure draped over her legs buried her head against her lap again, and Barbara allowed her fingers to scritch lightly at the base of the younger woman's skull.
Eventually, she detected the softest rumbling, perhaps the motion of her lover's jaw. With a thrill of recognition, she squeezed her eyes shut when she realized that Helena was talking to their child. Pointedly, she didn't attempt to make out the words, allowing Helena as much privacy as she could. It was only when silence descended that she could no longer restrain herself.
Bending at the waist, she cupped her lover's jaw with her hands and dusted a light kiss to the dark brow. She thought that the younger woman might have tried to pull away, but she would have none of it.
"Please, Hel. I need you."
In an instant, the tables turned: Helena reared up, lunging forward almost wildly, and the soft emotions which had filled Barbara washed away under freezing terror.
"No -- I ca -- I'm not --"
The redhead didn't know what she wanted to say: That she was not able? Not a woman? Not worthy of the adoration and want in her lover's eyes?
In a heartbeat, she realized that it didn't matter, since Helena wouldn't believe her anyway.
"Yes. You are. You're perfect. You're everything."
The utter certainty of the response was humbling. Feeling the tender smile paint her lips, Barbara cupped the younger woman's face and laid it out.
"Please, Hel. I need... I need to touch you."
She swallowed against the thickness in her throat and added the rest.
"I need you."
Her heart twisted when Helena abruptly stood and she heard the brunette's anguished whisper.
"But, what if I did do this? Hurt you?"
Furious... hurt... lost... she saw her hand shoot out before she could think, grabbing the other woman's delicate wrist and yanking her smaller partner down into her lap. For years, she'd worked and trained to increase her upper body strength, and at this moment she put it all to the test, holding her struggling partner to her tightly.
"No -- I can't ... won't."
"Won't what, Helena?" she ground out, offering no quarter and nowhere to hide.
The younger woman stilled, somehow still shrinking away within the confines of her arms.
"I never wanted to hurt you. I don't ever want to hurt you, and I did."
"You did not hurt me, Helena."
Barbara deliberately gentled her tone again but kept her words factual.
"The only way you can hurt me is if you take yourself... us... away. If you let him win."
She easily detected her lover's flinch, couldn't miss the way the brunette paled under her dark skin. Her heart twisted when she observed the pain in those deep blue eyes, and she cautiously released her tight grasp, raising one hand to stroke the younger woman's cheek. Helena couldn't -- or wouldn't -- meet her eyes, her frame vibrating with the tension of needing to run, and finally Barbara felt on firmer footing.
This role she knew; it was a part she had played hundreds of times: Caretaker; tamer of wild hearts; soother of broken souls.
Gradually, she felt her partner's trembling subside, and Barbara sighed soundlessly when Helena allowed herself to be drawn down to rest her head on her shoulder. Slowly, Barbara inclined her head, resting her cheek against the satin softness of her lover's face, releasing another inaudible sigh when she felt Helena stir, when her skin prickled from the soft brush of her partner's cheek against hers.
"Please Helena. I need you."
The younger woman tensed again, but Barbara would not allow it. She turned, bringing her mouth softly to her lover's, brushing their lips in a gossamer caress. Again and again, she brushed her mouth against satin lips until, finally, she heard the soft whimper.
The air in the room seemed to charge, and Barbara opened, accepting the sigh of resignation as she might a sacrament before drinking her lover like a fine wine.
Gradually, she pulled away and searched the eyes which were no longer blue. When she spoke, her voice was so hoarse and thick with need that she scarcely recognized it.
"Do you know what I want to do to you right now, Helena?"
Amazingly, Helena's panted response managed simultaneously both to arouse and to amuse her.
"No, but I hope it involves lube."
Some forty-five nearly frantic minutes later, barely breathing under her partner's inert form, Barbara somewhat wryly acknowledged that lube hadn't really been required. By the time they'd made it to the bedroom, their clothes creating a trail behind them, Helena's state of readiness had eliminated the need for artificial lubricants.
Idly tracing astrological symbols across sweat beaded skin, the redhead wondered what act of nature would be required for her to extricate herself and retrieve their none-too-subtle trail of garments: after a near miss six days before, when Gabby had unexpectedly accompanied Dinah back to the tower to help paint the chest of drawers, she'd become a trifle self-conscious about some of her bohemian partner's more exhibitionistic tendencies.
Opting to give matters a bit more thought -- perhaps the grab bars at the head of the bed in combination with the bedsheets could be utilized as a hoist for her somnolent lover -- Barbara drifted for a few minutes. The sensation of warm fingers circling her navel drew her from all thoughts related to physics and leverage.
One look at the smirk painting her lover's ruby lips forced her to amend that idea: it appeared that physics and leverage might very well come up again for non-utilitarian purposes.
"Now that's what I call a workout."
Having heard similar comments in similar situations in the past, Barbara felt her lips quirk.
Something between a smirk and a fond smile, she supposed.
"Hardly," she murmured. "I understand that there's less workout involved than throwing a frisbee."
Immediately, she considered smacking herself: apparently bantering pillow talk was simply not her forte. Guardedly observing Helena's response to the rather factual words, she dismissed her self-flagellating notions as a wicked grin painted gamine features.
"You were definitely working harder than that, Red."
A slender finger tapped against her wrist in punctuation.
"And, hell, the isotonic stuff has to count for something for me."
Snorting softly, the redhead finally allowed, "Perhaps a bit of Tae Kwon Do, Sweetheart?"
She felt her partner's indifferent shrug as the brunette snuggled impossibly closer.
When the wiry frame beside her tensed minutely, Barbara inhaled and readied herself for whatever could have popped into her lover's fertile imagination.
"But, you're waaaay easier on the eyes than Jackie Chan."
She knew -- simply knew -- that a trademark waggle of dark brows had accompanied the words, but managed to speak primly.
Surprisingly, the non sequitur elicited far less curiosity -- or pique -- than Barbara might have anticipated.
"What was that, Sweetie?"
The dark head that was nestled against her shoulder shifted, and the older woman smiled instinctively in response to Helena's gentle smile.
"I said -- "
Blue eyes widened purposely.
"I like your nose."
Barbara chewed at the inside of her cheek for a few beats, mentally rewinding the last hour of their lives and attempting to determine where her nose had played a significant role. Stumped, she finally shrugged beneath her partner's boneless mass.
"You like my nose?"
Having anticipated a smirk or a knowing, or perhaps lecherous, smile, she was unprepared for the hint of color she saw creeping into her lover's cheeks.
"Yeah -- "
Slender fingers walked up her abdomen, and Barbara captured the errant hand, attempting not to squirm ticklishly.
"I was thinking about the way your nose wrinkles up when you lean too close to the Delphi."
Barbara cocked her head to the side, giving herself a bit more of a vantage point just in time to see the younger woman's nose crinkle adorably as she considered what she'd just said.
"Which is pretty much all the time, I guess."
Feeling the brunette's half-shrug against her arm, Barbara arched one brow doubtfully.
"You like my squint?"
Her companion ignored the jibe, and Barbara shivered when she felt satin lips press a soft kiss to the tips of her fingers.
"I love the way your fingers stroke the spine of whatever book you're reading."
Green eyes blinked before losing focus and tracking slightly to the left. Rapidly reviewing her reading from the last few months, she acknowledged that perhaps she did... fondle her reading material.
Honestly, how could she have missed that little habit for 32 years?
Seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was exposing a host of behaviors which Barbara suspected that she would now become self-conscious about, Helena shifted again, leaning in to purr against her throat.
"The way your voice comes over the comms sometimes -- all deep and rough and smooth at the same time."
Shuddering at the sensation of a delicate tongue sampling her skin, Barbara consequently nearly missed her companion's next words.
Laughing at the simile -- and acutely conscious of how low and throaty the sound had been -- the redhead rolled them over and then lost all ability to vocalize when she saw the heat in her lover's eyes.
"Sometimes when I was on patrol, listening to you, I'd have to go off comms and touch myself."
An impish smile returned some oxygen to the room, and Helena's lilting follow-up allowed Barbara to breath again.
"That... or find someone to pulp."
With no possible recourse, Barbara smiled, pushing a lock of dark hair behind her companion's ear.
"As long as you had some safe, healthy outlets for your energy, Sweetie."
When she saw the pain which immediately shuttered those amazing blue eyes, she immediately wished for the use of her legs -- if only for thirty seconds or so, to allow her to kick herself for the ill-chosen words.
Beside her on the pillow, Helena ducked her chin, hiding her eyes under thick lashes.
"I guess maybe the estrogen did something, huh?"
Caught off-guard, Barbara didn't even think before stammering out the truth.
"No, Helena. I already told you that it doesn't work that -- "
Belatedly, she collected herself and gentled her tone.
"Why do you ask again, Hel?"
She struggled not to squirm or blink under the sorrowful, searching gaze.
"What you said earlier?"
Furrowing her brow, Barbara opted to let her confusion speak for itself. A moment later, when she felt Helena thread their fingers together, she exhaled softly, knowing that her partner would reveal her fears in due time.
"In the training room, when I was..."
She squeezed the younger woman's hand lightly and drew their joined hands to her chest.
"What you said about not letting him ... them win."
Rewinding and then replaying the heated moments, Barbara slowly lowered her lashes, appalled to have slipped so terribly.
No wonder Helena might still believe that she was somehow responsible.
Unable to lie, the redhead went with the facts.
"Hel, in high doses -- extremely high doses -- estrogen has been linked..."
Belatedly, she recognized that the tactic might not be the strongest argument in her arsenal. With a long sigh, she rolled onto her back and roughly pushed the hair from her face.
"From what Dr. Casey sees, Hel, we didn't come in contact with Quinn's estrogen mix until the tumor was already established."
Focused resolutely on the ceiling, she peripherally noted a slow nod of grudging acceptance. Naturally, however, Helena didn't miss the fact that the other part of her question remained unaddressed.
"They, why'd you say that he...?"
Perhaps it was time to heed Helena's recent suggestions and paint the ceiling something a little bolder than antique white. Although the younger woman's hints about lilac or orange were a bit alarming, she had to admit that Helena did have a knack for color.
Regretfully, Barbara pushed that welcome distraction aside and finally offered a portion of the truth.
"Instinct, I suppose."
The brunette rose on one elbow, one dark brow rising eloquently.
"For so long, Hel, he... they have taken so much and tried so hard to destroy us."
A soft murmur of acknowledgement gave her the courage to continue her line of thought.
"If you were to believe that they had used you to cause... "
Words escaped her, and she simply dipped her chin toward her pelvis.
"... to cause this, then the end result would be the same."
She felt as much as saw some of the tightness depart the other woman's slender frame and gave herself a moment to release her own tension.
"We simply can't allow a phantom to do the job for them, Sweetheart."
She nearly wept at her lover's emphatic nod, refusing to allow herself to voice the remainder of the truth: she would not allow the reality of Helena's unknowing part in her cancer to come between them either. She would go to her grave with the genesis of her disease locked inside her.
"Your hands, too."
Momentarily nonplused, it took the redhead a few seconds to recognize that, apparently, her irrepressible partner had returned to their earlier topic. Arching a brow, she blandly met melting blue eyes.
"My hands again, Hel?"
Barbara found herself fighting a smirk at the sage nod, then -- less successfully -- fighting a shiver when she felt Helena's fingers beginning to trace random patterns across her chest.
"Watching you touch the keyboard at the Delphi... "
When the brunette's voice grew husky, she fought for breath.
"...well, I knew how you could touch me. And, when you work out, I'd see..."
A hint of pink seemed to dust caramel features, momentarily distracting the older woman from her discomfort at being the subject of such scrutiny.
"Well, you get this circle of sweat right here."
Barbara's abdomen clenched ticklishly when slender fingers drew a light circle just above her navel.
"And, I'd just die, wanting to lick it off."
"Cleanliness is import--"
Her rather woeful attempt at keeping things light was summarily denied when, once again her partner's head dipped, blue eyes peering through thick dark lashes.
"Mostly -- "
Helena's words had dropped a register, and Barbara instinctively caught her breath.
"Mostly, I always know that I can do everything with you beside me."
Unable to deny her own soft smile, the redhead brought her fingers to her lover's chin, coaxing her face up to meet her gaze.
"Ten feet tall and bullet-proof, eh?"
A brief, blinding grin met the words, but Helena again refused to allow her to joke her way out of it.
As Helena caught her hand and pressed a soft kiss to her fingers, Barbara realized how very serious the younger woman was: Too serious, too filled with care and responsibility.
"But only with you, Barbara."
Dumbstruck, the redhead struggled for words, for meaning in a conversation which had somehow gotten away from her.
"Hel -- How..."
She was silenced by the urgency of her lover's eyes.
"We've gotta call it, Red."
There was no question about Helena's meaning, and Barbara had to look away. For some reason, the phrasing tickled at her memory, recalling something: a dream, perhaps, with happier endings. Carefully, she weighed her partner's words again realities and risks: despite the rate of the cancer's spread, she still knew that she was strong enough -- determined enough -- to hold on through the ravages long enough to shelter their child until she was viable.
After that... Well, matters would take care of themselves when Baby Gordon-Kyle was in the safe haven of Helena's care.
There was clearly no way to persuade the younger woman with those arguments, and so Barbara resorted to another equally urgent line of reason.
"Hel -- "
Deliberately, she gently squeezed her lover's hand and unflinchingly met her gaze.
"This is our only chance."
Given the spread of the cancer, even harvesting her eggs for a later try was out of the question at this point. Not to mention the once in a lifetime opportunity presented by the odd cloning created by The Joker's nanoprobes.
She was not surprised at all by the stubborn shake of the dark head only inches away; however, the crooked smile which graced gamine features did take her aback.
"Nah, Red. I'll still have all the equipment, and, hell, there's gotta be leather out there in maternity sizes, right?"
Somehow, her quick snort of amusement freed up her breathing, and Barbara found herself marveling, not for the first time, at her partner's ability to make her laugh regardless of the circumstances.
"But," the brunette sobered, "I've gotta have you around to help find leather pants with elastic insets."
Clenching her jaw against the unfairness of the plea, Barbara shook her head, ready to protest that they didn't know that she wouldn't survive, that they didn't know anything. Instead, she found herself tackling the argument which Helena had laid out.
"Not necessarily, Hel. We both know that Dinah's meta-shopping powers have barely been tapped."
The attempt didn't elicit as much as a smirk, and the redhead recognized the enormity of her tactical error when Helena's next words reached her.
"Dinah needs you, too, Red."
Before she could respond -- or even protest the tactic -- Helena plowed ahead.
"And your dad. And the kids at school. And Alfred. And, hell -- "
Those deep blue eyes widened helplessly.
"--if you don't do the hysterectomy, you're gonna be too weak to deal with Quinn on the loose."
Barbara inhaled sharply at the low blow: an appeal to her sense of duty was effective in ways that she simply hated, and for a wild, don't-give-a-damn moment, she wondered what it might be like not to have to respond to that responsibility. A minute movement -- a half-shrug -- drew her from mental pathways best left unexplored.
"Shit, Red. I figure that my dad's gonna show up again some day, and you know how pissed he's gonna be if he finds out that I haven't been taking care of you."
Slowly, very deliberately, Barbara lowered her lashes and breathed deeply. She pushed aside the thoughts of secret promises and arrangements for later consideration, recognizing that there was a more pressing aspect to her partner and former ward's words. With a soft sigh, she squared her shoulders against the pillow and searched the other woman's face.
She tugged their joined hands to her chest and waited until she saw that the younger woman was truly listening. With that, she was once again free to wheel into an accustomed role and focus on what was most important.
"You. Are. Not. Responsible."
Expecting further argument or rebuttals or... something, Barbara was not prepared for her bedmate's response: Instead of speaking, the brunette scootched close and buried her face against her shoulder. For a score of heartbeats, Helena was utterly still. Cautiously, the older woman insinuated her arm beneath the smaller woman, bringing her hand to her back to stroke softly, anchoring her partner to her.
For a brief moment, she allowed bitterness to wash through her, acknowledging that a time which should have been their honeymoon had been taken from them. Between her own relentless dedication to her city and the fallout from that pursuit, she'd simply... cheated them both.
That thought was lost when her fingertips picked up an unmistakable, sub vocal rumble from Helena's chest. One shuddering breath later, Barbara stiffened when she felt the other woman nose at the side of her chest.
The brunette pushed up on her elbow, her other hand bookending Barbara's waist on the mattress.
"Please -- "
Blue eyes, beseeching, met green before the dark head ducked down.
Struggling not to squirm under the attention, Barbara worked for some way to explain.
"Helena... Sweetheart, I don't know if I..."
The dark head shook from side to side, warm breath flowing across the suddenly sensitized skin of her chest.
"No. Relax. Just... For me. Is --"
Barbara caught her lower lip in her teeth at the naked hunger in her partner's face.
"Is it okay?"
Dumbstruck, she nodded, slowly wending her fingers through dark silk and gently lowering her lover's face. Helena's sigh of bliss, before she even made contact, was humbling. Her evident delight as she slowly savored, was beyond erotic.
Gradually, realizing that her partner had meant it -- Helena was seeking her own pleasure -- Barbara relaxed into the deep pulling heat, the gentle suckling and soft murmurs which echoed through her torso. Almost drifting, she laid down her shields, absently scritching her nails across her lover's scalp and smiling dreamily at the gentle lassitude taking possession of her body. Helena's soft hum tickled across tight flesh, and even as her nipples contracted, Barbara felt herself open for the first time in... weeks. The comfort and ease and trust were such that she barely reacted -- barely noticed -- when her hand was carefully lifted; however, she was surprised -- anticipating Helena's destination as she was -- to find her fingers placed lightly against her lover's lower abdomen.
And she could. She did.
"Sweetheart -- "
It was difficult to form that much of a coherent response. Thinking became impossible when the brunette finally pushed up on her fists and Barbara fell into deep blue eyes.
"You're wet. Can I...?"
She wasn't the only one. Her lover's still blue eyes were rimmed with moisture.
"Please, Barbara. I need you."
With a soft smile, the redhead drew her hand up her lover's torso, absorbing the shiver which trailed in her fingers' wake. She lightly rested her palm against a wiry trapezius and allowed her gentle push to answer for her.
To her puzzlement, the brunette resisted.
Wordlessly, her lover came to her knees, scooping three pillows from the foot of the bed and neatly stacking them under her shoulders.
"I want you to see. To know... how much..."
Then, Helena bent, graceful and deliberate, her mouth coming to Barbara's neck, reverence and desire inherent in every brush of her lips against her pulse.
Arching her neck into the sweet dusting of kisses, shivering at the tiny nips and soft pull against her skin, the redhead was only distantly aware of the murmured words.
When they penetrated her fogged consciousness, she raised her right arm, resting her fingertips lightly against the smooth plane of her lover's cheek.
"What is it, Hel?"
She pulled back against the pillow, just enough to find the other woman's eyes, blinking once when she realized that they were still blue.
"What do you want, Sweetheart?"
The younger woman didn't answer immediately, instead turning into her touch to nibble lightly at her fingertips. Barbara nearly moaned at the wash of a rough tongue against the calluses she'd developed from years at the keyboard.
"I need you."
The word was out without the need for thought. It was only when wet blue eyes met hers that Barbara realized she might have misunderstood.
The dark head ducked as the lithe figure flowed across her torso to rain soft kisses to her inner arm, to lave the pulse of her wrist.
"I need you, Barbara. Stay."
At the same moment that she spoke, Helena moved to her palm, her tongue washing the flesh and her warm breath evoking a riot of shivers.
"Stay with me."
Barbara heard a gasp -- her own -- but was unable to focus on the reason or her partner's plea when she felt Helena writh against her. A rough tongue insinuated between her fingers before her thumb was drawn into the moist heat of her lover's mouth, sharp teeth rasping delicately at her flesh in time with the deep pull. Still, she somehow managed a response of sorts.
"Hel -- I -- we have to give her a chance."
Wordlessly, the brunette again flowed across her body, burying her face in her neck. The expected sensation of lips or teeth or tongue didn't materialize, and Barbara closed her eyes to focus more clearly. A beat later, her heart triphammered when she felt it: the delicate puff of her partner's soft inhalations and the warm flow of her breath.
Helena was scenting her.
The denial was soft, but absolute.
"We have to give us a chance, Barbara. Don't you -- "
Helena stumbled, and Barbara caught her lower lip in her teeth when the young woman burrowed her face against her shoulder.
"Don't you need me?"
"Dear h-- Helena."
It was all that she could manage as emotions covered her too quickly to understand: want; selfish pain; fear; terror; guilt.
How could she answer the plea? How could she serve all of the competing demands? How could she continue to ignore her own heart?
"The greater good?"
It was weak, no doubt of that. When earnest blue eyes met hers and Barbara comprehended the depth of her partner's emotion, the words were exposed for the paper tiger they were.
"You're my greater good, Barbara. Always have been."
Her mouth worked soundlessly, and Helena leaned close, brushing satin lips against her mouth. She gasped at the reverent touch, and then worked for sanity when her lover abruptly pulled back, arching back to thrust once against her waist.
"I need you, Barbara."
Wordless, the redhead nodded, her breath catching at the vision of deep blue eyes hooding and aquiline nostrils flaring once. Shakily, she pushed the covers down, then opened herself.
A soft moan was the only verbal response as her lover descended. Breathless, she watched Helena's approach; the slow, deliberate sweep of her tongue; the broad, tender strokes of slender fingers; the complete reverence of her lover's sybaritic feasting.
And, for one of the first times in eight years, seeing was almost as much as feeling. Definitely almost more than she could stand.
Awestruck, the analytical woman suddenly viscerally understood the nuances between sex and making love, and she fervently hoped never to forget.
Unable to tear her eyes away from the overt movements, awash in soft murmurs of pleasure, she almost missed the words breathed against her.
"Please Barbara. Stay with me."
Again, she could mistake neither the meaning nor the genuine pain and overarching love in her partner's eyes.
Her attempt dissolved into a hitching gasp, and Barbara knew that she could deny the other woman nothing. Regret consumed her as she cast one desire aside and embraced the only reality which mattered.
Clenching her jaw against the burning wetness flooding her cheeks, she heard a whimper, and felt her own nod. She flailed gracelessly for her lover's hand, and she saw Helena's dark brows rise in question.
"Up here, Helena. Please."
A moment later, she was there, enrobing her in the warmth of her skin, the passion of her touch, the depth of her commitment. Threading her fingers with Helena's, Barbara guided their hands to herself and then felt herself moved by a touch so deep that there was no way to deny the communion. So softly, so tenderly, they moved together, their touches casting memories... and hopes... and promises.
When Barbara felt warm wetness on her cheeks, she realized that the tears were not just her own, and she spoke the only words she knew.
"Take care of me, Helena."
Her partner's response was, she realized, everything that she needed.
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