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.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SEQUEL: To Landslide.


Chapter 11

"Where do we keep the power tools?"

Absorbed in determining how she could adapt the Warner-Hecht algorithm to work with her encryption program, Barbara didn't look away from the screen.

"Hmm? I believe they should be in the gear closet, Hel. What do you need?"

She distantly registered that her partner was already moving toward the closet.

"Circular saw."

Pi might work as one way to add an x-factor to the algorithm, however there was more than the circumference of cir...

Helena's answer had been muffled, and so the redhead turned to address the shapely posterior visible in the closet doorway.

"The circular saw?"

"Uh huh."

The brunette's voice carried a note of victory as she backed out of the closet, item in question in hand.

"D's doing a magic thing for the Senior Follies next month, and I'm gonna help her with the Sawing the Lady in Half routine."

The younger woman shut the closet door and smiled cheerfully, turning toward the training room. Given the information her partner had just imparted and the fact that the medical supplies were in the training room, Barbara supposed that it was as good a location as any for her younger charges' project.

The redhead ventured a mild observation.

"I believe that a hand saw is more traditional for that act, Helena."

The brunette spun around, blue eyes narrowing briefly. The cyber-genius tilted her head to one side at her partner's wicked laugh.

"Yeah, but this is just for building the box, Babs."

The brunette's lips quirked, eyes sparkling, and the older woman steeled herself.

" 'Sides, Barbara, hand saws are so 1980s. Some kid's dad has a chainsaw that they're gonna use."

The redhead blinked, managing a 'Gee that's swell' expression as Helena bounded into the other room. She turned back to her monitor and made a mental note to check on the school's liability insurance: after the fire during the previous year's production of 'South Pacific', she didn't know how much coverage the school still had.

With a mental shrug, she again lost herself in her programming zone to the accompaniment of vigorous sawing and hammering -- not to mention giggling -- from the training room. At some point, as she thumbed through one of the texts she'd picked up earlier in the week, the decidedly too-innocent sound of a low soprano captured her attention.

"Okay, D, you hold the nail there, and I'll pound it."

Barbara reflexively winced and straightened, about to call out a suggestion about the merits of using a pair of needle-nosed pliers for that particular task. She stopped herself, glancing down to survey an almost invisible bump on her forefinger.

Some lessons simply had to be learned through experience.

Enthusiastic pounding echoed from the other room; however, since no shouts or cries ensued, the redhead assumed that Helena's natural grace had prevented an "accident". Helena's subsequent utterance, delivered with genuine admiration, forced her to reconsider her assumption.

"That's so cool, Dinah. How many do you think you can hold at once? Or, heck, you think you could push 'em in with your TK and save me the hammering?"

Smiling fondly, the older woman returned to her work, both annoyed that she'd created the Gordian knot for herself and, a bit perversely, pleased by the challenge. The cryogenic applet had done the trick, halting the encrypted message mutation cycle; after that, cracking the message had not been too difficult for the decryption program.

Therein lay the rub.

Since Barbara had programmed the encryption schema, she suspected that she was a bit... vested in its success. Even if it had merely been an exercise to test her decryption routine, she found herself miffed that its output could be decoded so easily.

Thus, having boosted her decryption program's prowess, the redhead now felt a little like a hamster on a wheel, laboring to improve the encryption routines again.

Hours later, the sound of music -- specifically, music from the 'Shrek' soundtrack, if she weren't mistaken -- again dragged the cyber-genius from her abstraction. Rotating her neck, she wondered how random her partners' choice of CDs had been.

Obviously, it had been a... tactical error when she'd spontaneously channeled the animated hero of the movie a few weeks before after making the connection between Frank Loewen's laser and a spate of jewelry thefts. Since then, the two young women had seemingly made a mission of not allowing her to forget the flight of fancy. Barbara had been finding small Shrek items -- Pez dispensers; trading cards; a Donkey hat, complete with ears -- tucked throughout the clock tower.

Frankly, she suspected that Helena was behind most of the whimsy. However, Dinah had certainly had something to do with the Princess Fiona bobbin' head doll which had floated around the Delphi platform the week before.

Barbara stretched again as the music beckoned and her curiousity nibbled at her. She'd about reached her limits for her Zen programming; her latest obsessive checks showed everything in order at Arkham; and she was still waiting for her fleet of 'bots to finish scouring cyberspace for crimes involving Clown fish.

Was it time for a break?

The analytical woman deliberately jostled her work surface, and Princess Fiona vigorously nodded her encouragement from her position atop the primary monitor. Loathe to refuse advice from a fellow redhead, the older woman saved her work and briskly decamped to the training room.

Pausing in the doorway, Barbara felt a huge grin split her features. Dinah and Helena were busy painting the box they'd constructed while they danced to the contagious lyrics of the Baha Men.

Helena, naturally, was utterly graceful -- and terribly, terribly seductive -- limboing and shimmying to the hip-hop beat in paint-spattered tee and ripped jeans. However, even the normally self-conscious Dinah had thrown her inhibitions to the wind, hopping from foot to foot and wielding her paintbrush with cheerful abandon.

Utterly unconcerned by the fact that the two young women were spilling as much paint as they were applying, the redhead laughed brightly and applauded as the song wound down. Two heads -- one fair and one dark -- snapped her way.

"That was wonderful," she enthused as she approached, casually assessing her proteges' carpentry.

The angles were relatively square, and the sides, essentially, plumb. Altogether, not a bad job for a snowy Saturday project which was slated to be cut in half in a few weeks.

Looking back up, Barbara caught the tail end of a disturbingly conspiratorial look between the two carpenters and sucked in a breath. The brunette sauntered slowly toward her.

"C'mon, Red, it's not a spectator sport," the dark woman purred, extending a spare paintbrush.

The older woman primly accepted the brush and took a closer look at the artwork in progress. Apparently an astrological motif...

Suspicious, the redhead circled to the back of the box -- Helena's side -- and quirked her lips. While there were some judiciously placed stars and planets on that side, they scarcely eclipsed the more telling portions of a voluptuous sorceress' anatomy.

"Hit it again, D."

The older woman jerked around in time to see the teen press the repeat button on the stereo. At the same moment, the brunette bounced over with an infectious smile and a fetching shake of her hips, bright blue eyes locked on green.

I get such a thrill

When you look in my eyes

My heart skips a beat, girl

I feel so alive

Please tell me baby

If all this is true

'Cause deep down inside

All I wanted was you

"C'mon, Babs, dance with us."

Slender fingers caught hers, the limber young woman ducking to spin easily under their joined hands. From the corner of her eye, Barbara saw Dinah dip her brush into yellow paint and dance to the end of the box. Bowing to the moment, the older woman laughed and dropped her free hand to pop her chair in time to the music.


Makes me wanna dance


It's a new romance


I look into your eyes


Best years of our lives

The cyber-genius had never denied that she was a bit 'dancing-challenged'; however, her younger partner seemed to have rhythm to spare. For the duration, the redhead lost herself in spinning and grooving, moving with a rare joy and lack of concern. Nevertheless, as the song segued to something slower and Barbara neatly wrapped up an inspired arm wave she'd dredged from her memory, she recalled that there was an element of work involved in their little party.

With a quick wink at her partner, she assumed responsibility for the couture of the buxom figure on Helena's side of the box. Some time later, as she made her final strokes on a flowing sash, Barbara looked up and found herself drowning in cerulean eyes which were, seemingly, fixed only on her.

"Looks like we're done," the brunette grinned. "Wanna call for pizza while the Kid and I hit the video store?"

Two delicious pizzas, one and a quarter marginally entertaining DVDs, and one long shower later, the redhead sat at her dressing table, carefully working moisturizer into every millimeter of skin.

Turpentine was simply so drying.

Satisfied with her ministrations, she finally slid into bed and picked up her new best-seller, eager to see what twists and turns would turn up in this novel by the prolific author. She distantly registered the hall door to her bathroom opening and closing and assumed that her boisterous partner had finished her brain cell massacre with Dinah and called it a night.

Frankly, after the first twenty minutes or so -- after "the girlfriend" had disappeared from the movie -- Barbara hadn't been able to comprehend the two younger women's interest in the completely derivative story about a Special Weapons And Tactics team.

The redhead had barely gotten through the first half of her novel when Helena, wrapped in a towel, emerged from the bathroom. An impressive cloud of steam billowed behind her.

"That was quick," the older woman noted without irony.

Helena offered a saucy wink.

"Thought I'd leave a little hot water for the Kid."

With a quick shake of shaggy, damp hair, the brunette released her towel, tossing it casually over the hamper. She dropped a tank top and pair of underwear on the night table before crawling onto her side of the big bed.

Barbara circumspectly observed the glorious amount of firm, tanned flesh on display beside her, feeling something seem to twitch in her abdomen. Smiling warmly, she arched a brow in question.

"Thought you could check and see if I got all of the paint off," the younger woman supplied easily.

A trifle distracted, the redhead made the mistake of speaking without thinking things through.

"But, your clothes should have kept the paint off --"

The sight of very amused blue eyes batting blandly -- and expectantly -- kick started the older woman's brain.


Sometimes, the vivacious younger woman simply had the best ideas.

"You're right, Hel," the redhead murmured, turning toward her partner, "it would be just dreadful if you missed anything..."

Barbara took the younger woman's rumbling purr to signal agreement and promptly began a slow, careful inspection. Moving with intent, she whispered lightly-calloused fingertips over the silken flesh of her partner's torso, working both to relax and to arouse. The redhead was deliberate in her movements, touching almost every square inch of skin presented to her, from the younger woman's forehead all the way to her toes.

Throughout, even when she coaxed the dark woman onto her stomach, Barbara never lifted her fingers from golden skin. Yet, knowing just how sensitive her partner was, she kept her touch -- and the tiny kisses she couldn't hold back -- butterfly light. By the time she swept her palms lightly down the back of lean thighs, Helena's soft whimpers were an unremitting background to the redhead's own labored breathing; the twitching of sinewy muscles, a tantalizing counterforce to the older woman's careful movements.

In a state of almost mindless nirvana which even Siddhartha would have been hard-pressed to achieve, the redhead almost jumped when the writhing figure under her hands abruptly pulled away, rolling to sit up on her knees.

Blinking rapidly to reorient herself, Barbara supported herself on one arm and fixed her partner with an unapologetically disgruntled look.

"Uh, maybe I should check you, too, Red. You know,"

The lithe woman offered a smile and a half-shrug which managed to be sweetly charming and unbearably sensual at the same time,

"...make sure you got all the paint off, too?"

Wordlessly, the redhead pushed upright with a smirk and efficiently stripped her own tee over her head.

"Well, Sweetie, cleanliness is next to--"

Oh, dear god...

The sensation of incredibly warm, silken skin sliding over her bare torso completely derailed the cyber-genius' thoughts. An instant later -- too damned soon -- the blissful experience ended when her partner pushed upright, slender fingers curling under the elastic at the waist of Barbara's boxers.

Blue eyes peeked shyly from under thick, dark lashes.

"These too, Red?"

The older woman swallowed audibly and wet her lips, nodding slowly. She watched those stunning blue eyes shift to gold and continued to fix on her partner's face as the younger woman dropped her gaze, following the garment's decent.

Without moving from her position by the redhead's ankles, Helena tossed the shorts to the head of the bed -- Barbara didn't miss that they were within easy reach -- and lifted the older woman's right foot to her lap. The older woman smiled tenderly as her partner rubbed her thumbs against her instep; her smile transformed to something a little less... soft when the younger woman bent to graze her face along the unfeeling calf muscle.

"Man, you smell good."

Barbara heard a purring rumble, witnessed a quick movement of the brunette's jaw.

"Taste good, too."

The older woman's smile disappeared entirely at the vision of the dark figure nimbly shifting to prostrate herself over her thighs. Helena supported herself effortlessly above the older woman, lightly, seemingly randomly, brushing her face and upper chest across her legs. If soft purring were not indication enough, the sinuous movements of the brunette's lower body and the evident pleasure in her features left no doubt about the young woman's response.

Eventually, the brunette unhurriedly ascended to her torso, sweeping her hands over nerves which could -- and did -- sing under her touch. The sudden, acute sensation shocked Barbara to her core, and green eyes blurred, then blinked in astonishment.

Somehow, impossibly, during Helena's attentions below her waist, the eroticism of the younger woman's actions had been such that the redhead had forgotten... or not noticed... that she wasn't feeling her lover's touch. The realization left the relentlessly logical woman lightheaded.

Warm breath against her ear grounded the redhead, concurrently impressing on her that there would be far better times than the present to analyze the odd phenomenon.

"Turn over? Gotta check your back, too, Red..."

Barbara snorted softly but obligingly shifted, aware of her partner's unobtrusive assistance. The brunette started her work at the older woman's neck this time, dawdling over a tension knot by the redhead's left shoulder blade, nosing playfully under her arms, washing the small of her back with warm strokes -- claiming that she'd found some paint there. Relaxing under the tender, playful attention, the redhead concentrated on the thick heat welling within and the reasons behind it.

Love-making with previous partners had never been like this. Before the shooting, her encounters had largely been about flesh and sweat and urgency. Since then, well, perhaps flesh had been involved, but there'd been damned little sweat or urgency.

This, however... This was something else, blending the physical and emotional almost seamlessly. Under her partner's hands, Barbara felt loved and desired in ways she'd never dreamed of, much less allowed herself to hope for.

A playful humming drew the redhead from her musing. Slender fingers continued to brush her lower back, however the absence of other sensation and the slight dip of the mattress near Barbara's knees suggested that her partner had moved down to straddle her legs.

The older woman's unconcerned glance over her shoulder revealed that the brunette was, indeed, straddling her, bright blue eyes regarding her... hindquarters with distinct interest.

Was that amusement in the younger woman's features?

"H-- "

The redhead cleared her throat.



She heard the younger woman shift and glanced back again, this time finding bright eyes fixed on her questioning face. A smirk painted itself across expressive caramel features before Helena offered an explanation.

"You've got the cutest little... dimple on your butt."

Not entirely thrilled with the resolution of that little mystery, the redhead snorted and decisively returned her chin to the back of her loosely crossed hands.

"I believe," she spoke wryly, "the word you're looking for is cellulite."

Sighing ruefully, she added, "I suppose I need to haul out that new case of Slim Fast."

As diligent as Barbara was in the training room, her passive exercise of her lower body simply didn't tone and condition the way that she wanted.


The brunette sounded distracted.

"You don't need to diet. And..."

Seemingly oblivious to her own illogicality, the younger woman continued with more certainty.

"...you don't want to lose too much. I know a guy from the bar who lost 3000 pounds, and he was miserable."

She was going to regret it. She was going to regret it. However, Barbara was helpless to stop herself.

Glancing back, she raised a skeptical brow.

"3000 pounds, Hel?"

Catching the bright flash of white teeth, the older woman prepared herself.

"Yeah, it was his '67 Mustang."


Contenting herself with that, the redhead returned to her previous position. Silence reigned for a few moments until she detected some sort of movement and shivered at the whisper of lips against the fine hair of her lower back. She had difficulty deciphering the brunette's purring words.

"Guess I could do a little lip'suction."


Seeking clarification, the redhead automatically emphasized the "O" in the word before she found a clue and her partner's meaning hit home.


Helena's next pronouncement did nothing to reduce the arousal which had just surged through her.

"You taste good everywhere..."

Amused, and aroused, by the words, Barbara twisted to look back. All air seemed to exit her body at the sight of a tousled head bent over her and tan fingers gripping her hips almost convulsively.

The cyber-genius exhaled slowly and squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating with every fiber of her being on imagining that she could feel... After all, she'd always had a vivid imagination. As a child, she'd often been singled out by teachers for getting lost in her own head. This moment seemed like a perfect time to put her imagination through its paces.

Accordingly, she cracked her eyes again to watch her partner's movements and drew on memory and knowledge and desire, all in the hope of being able to respond to the beautiful woman who was loving her so passionately.

Regretfully, Barbara realized that some of her... determination must have telegraphed itself to her lover, for the younger woman gradually disengaged herself and flowed upward to blanket her back. A tongue teased the shell of the redhead's ear before her lover spoke.

"Relax, Red. It's not a race or a contest or something. It's supposed to feel good being together."

There was absolutely no recrimination... or frustration... or any of the host of other emotions which the older woman thought might be warranted. That very fact somehow made her feel even worse.

"It does feel good, but I want to feel you, Helena."

As quiet and choked as her words had been, the redhead had no doubt that her partner had heard her. She forced herself to add the rest.

"You deserve someone who can respond completely."

Barbara felt a lingering kiss pressed to her shoulder blade before the younger woman husked her reply.

"I've got someone."

Crimson brows furrowed, and the redhead breathed slowly, attempting to find the sense -- any sense but the obvious one -- in the words. The brunette seemingly recognized that her utterance might be subject to misconstrual because her next words, while not exactly rushed, were... prompt.

"I meant you, Barbara. You respond to me."

The older woman sighed softly and reached back to catch her partner's fingers in hers, squeezing softly.

Helena really was simply too sweet for her own good sometimes.

The sensation of her hand being guided -- down her side and then under her own body -- recaptured Barbara's attention. Warm fingers cradled the back of her hand, positioning the older woman's palm and fingers carefully midway between her hip bones. At the same moment, the dark head behind her twisted and soft lips seized the redhead's throat, suctioning fiercely.


Helena drove their joined hands against the older woman's belly, and... and...

"Dear heavens..."

There had been movement: a flutter -- a faint but unmistakable... response.

The brunette delicately extricated their joined hands, sliding onto the bed by the older woman's side and wrapping her arms around her. Despite their slightness, Barbara thought her partner's arms were stronger than any she'd known.

"See, Barbara..."

The redhead opened her eyes, instantly lost in the emotions in her partner's deep blue.

"...you do feel. You just don't know it yet."

Utterly overwhelmed, Barbara blinked furiously and shifted onto her side to wrap herself tightly in the other woman's arms, burying her face against the brunette's chest.

Helena's strong heartbeat was tremendously reassuring.

The two remained still for a number of minutes, Helena's tenderly brushed kisses the only movement, before gentle fingers finally tipped the redhead's face up. Loving blue eyes twinkled.


The older woman narrowed her eyes, prodding at the lone syllable from different angles. Entirely uncertain about what to expect, she finally gave up.

" 'Nope'? "

Dark lashes fluttered innocently over deep blue eyes, a sinful smile transforming lush lips.

"That's right. No paint on you."

Chapter 12


Barbara hated the stuff.

Red foam noses, long floppy shoes, colorful rainbow wigs. Itty bitty cars, too.

Essentially, all things "clown".

Straightening from her download of recent criminal mischief in New Gotham, the cyber-crime fighter puffed her cheeks in exasperation, hoping that her little phobia wouldn't soon expand to include all Amphiprionae.

Clown fish were, after all, cute little things and, from what she'd gathered from her research, utterly inoffensive. An added plus, in the older woman's opinion, was the entire "mating for life" behavior.

The redhead roughly removed her glasses and tossed them next to her keyboard.

She was, she admitted, extremely weary of rolling through the hoops of fear which seemed to appear whenever they were confronted with the specter of one particular clown. Honestly, it was getting downright Pavlovian.

Not to mention, the redhead mentally amended with a smirk, like a bugaboo out of a very poor quality Stephen King novel.

Retrieving her glasses and absently tapping one earpiece against her lower lip, Barbara wondered what would be involved in setting up a saltwater aquarium and filling it with the tropical fish and, for variety, a blue tang or two. Of course, putting aside the purely reactionary nature of the idea and the fact that her younger partner might very well give all of the fish coronaries, there was the very real possibility that, by the time they figured out just what was going on, there might not be any of the little fish left in the city.

Barbara reseated her glasses and ruefully surveyed the latest additions to the petty crime database she'd set up five nights before. Since her first check on Thursday evening, there had been two more smash-and-grab fishing expeditions: another at a pet store and, more disturbing, one at a private residence. Two such occurrences in little over four days was not just an orange and white striped pattern; it was a giant red flag.

Somebody, or somebodies, in New Gotham was acting with purpose.

Unfortunately, the cyber-genius was having quite a bit of difficulty in coming up with reasonably plausible motivations for the crimes. Exhaustive searches had revealed no commercial use for the whimsical creatures; resale to hobbyists would have a very low profit-to-risk ratio; and the novelty sushi concept was of limited appeal. Barbara simply couldn't fathom why the colorful fish were being targeted.

Unless someone -- the redhead felt cold fingers trace her upper back at the vision of a specific green-haired, pasty-faced someone standing over her with a gun -- was sending a message...

Frustrated with herself, the crimson-haired crime fighter briskly shook her head.

Repeated checks by the staff at Arkham and her own compulsive scans continued to show that everything was in order. It was time to move on.

"What about freeing Willy?"

The older woman hiked her brows and endeavored to ignore the color flooding her cheeks as a host of images -- only a few relating to large mammals of the sea -- cascaded across her forebrain. With as much aplomb as she could muster, she removed her glasses and regarded her companion who had just returned from the kitchen with a large bowl of vanilla ice cream.

"I'm sorry, Dinah. I'm afraid I'm not following you."

The lanky teen leaned against the desk, scraping her spoon around the edge of her treat.

"Well, I just got to thinking that, maybe, someone is trying to rescue all the Clown fish so they can, uhm, return to the wild or something?"

The redhead considered that hypothesis while she watched her companion tucking into her snack. The two of them had been conducting various searches and tossing around ideas for almost an hour while Helena had chimed in with occasional suggestions during her quiet sweep. A convenience store robbery fifteen minutes earlier had sidetracked both Barbara and her partner on the street, leaving Dinah to her own devices; but, with two terrified would-be robbers on their way to jail, the blonde was obviously determined to get back on track.

"It's possible," Barbara finally allowed, "yet, the sheer destructiveness of the thefts doesn't demonstrate much concern for the well-being of the animals being rescued."

Nodding thoughtfully, the teen licked the back of her spoon and scrunched her eyes in thought.

"And, you can't find -- "

Apparently noticing the focused direction of her guardian's gaze, Dinah interrupted herself to extend the bowl in invitation. The redhead automatically lifted a hand to accept before, with an awkward jerk, she just as automatically caught herself and returned her hand to the keyboard.

Considering the discovery of a butt-dimple, as her partner had so charmingly described it, self-restraint was clearly the order of the day. Still, she had made do with a sensible lunch and dinner, and -- a distinctly wicked glint entered green eyes -- Helena really had seemed to appreciate the, er, landmark in question.

Qualms instantly dissolving, Barbara raised her hand again -- she supposed that she'd looked like some sort of mad orchestra conductor -- and accepted the bowl with a happy smile. She helped herself to a healthy spoonful and then returned the dish while her benefactor completed her question.

"-- uhm, any medical uses or anything for them?"

The redhead swallowed slowly -- no need to encourage an ice cream headache -- and licked a dab of vanilla from her upper lip.

"Other than the calming effects of watching them?"

The blonde smiled at the older woman's playful question just as a low soprano purred over the transceiver.

<"Like a regular living lava lamp, huh?">

The two women at the clock tower grinned, and Barbara returned to Dinah's question.

"Generally, no, Dinah. They do have the interesting mucus coat which seems to protect them from the poison of the anemones they live in, but I haven't found much current research or interest in that either."


The brunette was playfully indignant.

<"--don't forget about that whole gender change thing they do when their mates die. Now that's something medical science should be looking into.">

This time, Barbara chuckled audibly then, seeing the look in pale blue eyes, held her breath in anticipation.

"Why, Huntress? Are you thinking about making some changes?"

As playful as the teen's gibe had been, the redhead didn't even crack a smile. Instead, she blinked rapidly, wondering just what that little transformation might entail... for both of them, then minutely shook her head.

Although she'd certainly always previously preferred the company of the other sex, Barbara had to admit that -- at least as far as Helena was concerned -- gender truly didn't seem to be an issue.

<" .... which is why I have all the equipment I need, Canary.">

Unashamedly pleased that her brief distraction had prevented her from listening to her partner's response in its entirety, the cyber-crime fighter attempted to get things back on track.

"Speaking of equipment," she cut in smoothly, "if our fish fetishist is keeping his collection alive, it seems that he'd need quite a set-up."

The blonde set her bowl aside, almost wriggling in her excitement.

"So, maybe if we can access the sales records from the pet shops in town, we could get a lead?"

"Exactly. And..."

Long fingers flew over the keyboard as the teen moved to peer over the cyber-crime fighter's shoulder.

"...I think I'll put some sniffers on New Gotham's internet hubs. We don't want to rule out online purchases."

A decidedly physical sniff interrupted the work with electronic detection robots.

"Yes, Huntress?"

The younger woman was a bit sulky.

"Sounds like fun, Oracle. But, you got any crime right now for me to play with?"

Green eyes sparkled in appreciation for her younger partner's... enthusiasm, and Barbara checked the scanners. Regretfully -- and not missing the irony in the feeling -- the older woman relayed her bad news.

"I'm sorry, Huntress. It's quiet tonight."

She heard something which could have been a leather boot irritably kicking an aluminum can.


The brunette's succinct reply spoke volumes.

<"Guess I'll swing by the club district just to see if anything's happening then call it a night.">

Barbara automatically checked the on-screen clock and did some calculations. Since the odd brawl at the poetry club two weeks before, nothing out of the ordinary had transpired in the district. Thus, there was a good chance that things would be quiet this evening, and she could expect her partner to return not long after Dinah turned in.

She spoke briskly.

"Sounds like a plan, Huntress."

For the next half an hour, the redhead absorbed herself in coaching her young ward through the intricacies of programming and deploying a dozen transaction monitoring sniffers through the city's web hubs. Observing the girl's facility with the task, the older woman wondered what other parents -- not to mention her fellow teachers -- would have to say about the "quality time" she spent with the teen. She set that concern aside -- they were in a strange business, after all -- when the blonde excused herself for bed, after extracting Barbara's promise to show her how to hack into the various pet stores in New Gotham the next day.

If only her students at school demonstrated that level of enthusiasm for learning.

Noting the time, she decided to touch base with her partner in the field.

"Do you copy, Huntress?"

<"I copy. What's up?">

The younger woman sounded distinctly bored, however the redhead also detected a certain edginess as well.

"Actually, that's what I wanted to find out from you. Is anything going down?"

The dark vigilante exhaled noisily, almost masking the sound of rushing air and a soft footfall -- presumably one of her graceful leaps to a new rooftop.

<"Nah, it's pretty quiet. There's a lot of club hopping going on but nothing for me to sink my teeth into. It's just...">

Barbara waited patiently for half a minute before realizing that her partner might not be planning to complete her thought.

"Just what, Huntress?"

<"I dunno. There's a vibe or something. Folks are, uh, pretty physical tonight. It's like a frikkin' hormone soup out here.">

The redhead smiled at the puzzled description even as she knit her brows.

"I was under the impression that it's usually, ah, like that."

The other woman snorted softly, her words slightly abashed.

<"Yeah. It's probably just me.">

This time, Barbara's smile was fuller. And much warmer.

"That's not necessarily a bad thing, Huntress."


The short response was a little grumpy, but the younger woman's tone lightened as she considered that.

<"Yeah, Oracle, you're right. Guess that's why you're the big brain of the operation and everyt-- Waitaminute--">

The redhead straightened, automatically checking the scanners. According to the official sources, New Gotham was its usual law-abiding self.


Barbara honestly had no idea what to make of the purring exhalation.

"Huntress? What is it?"

The younger woman's teasing reply went a long way towards clarifying matters.

<"Looks like a little back alley action going on down there.">

Rolling her eyes, the older woman raised her right hand and, in a practiced gesture, used her thumb and index finger to push her glasses to her forehead while she pinched the bridge of her nose.

Apparently, it was time to encourage her libidinous partner to return to the clock tower and investigate some of the offerings on the higher-numbered tier of their satellite dish.

"Huntress, we do have vid--"

An angry hiss cut her bemused suggestion short and instantly flooded the redhead with adrenaline.

<"Fuck no, that's no hookup. That's a goddamned wolf pack!">

Chapter 13

<"Son of a bitch!">

The angry exclamation and the rush of air signaling one of Helena's dramatic descents from a rooftop were almost obscured by the rumble of masculine voices.

<<"Hold her right there!">>

<<"C'mon, girlie, you can't just lead us on like that.">>

<<Yeah, you gave it up for him. Share the love, baby.">>

<<"You tell 'er, Mike.">>

Helena's enraged snarl neatly cut off the men's taunts.

<"Get the fuck away from her.">

The older woman instinctively brought up her police dispatch interface, readying herself as male voices rose in anger.

<<"Back off, bitch!">>

<<"Yeah, wait your turn.">>

Helena's response was of a decidedly nonverbal nature. For several minutes, pummeling and curses provided a vivid narrative of the action for the anxiously poised cyber-vigilante. Since she was confident in her partner's abilities and there was no indication that Helena was having any difficulty dealing with the assailants, Barbara forced herself to remain still, not signaling for the police.

Eventually, the sound of shuffling replaced blows: presumably the men were beginning to take the lithe woman seriously and were falling back to regroup. Harsh panting and muttering replaced angry shouts: apparently the men also needed a breather.

It was Helena, not the slightest bit winded, who broke the standoff.

<"You guys ready to give up, or do you like pain?">

The question seemed to wound a few male egos.

<<"What's it to you?!">>

<<"Fuckin' bitch!">>

Barbara finally addressed her partner.

"Is everything under control, Huntress?"

Although her partner's words weren't addressed directly to her, the older woman gathered that they signified assent.

<"I'm gonna finish kicking your asses and then haul you in. Rapists are real popular in prison, you know.">

The threat -- promise -- evoked some indignant shouts and protests.

<<"Ra--? No way!">>

One of the men -- Barbara thought it might be Mike -- took charge, electing himself spokesman for his compatriots.

<<"Yeah, we weren't doing -- that. It's not like she said 'no' or anything.">>

The young vigilante made no attempt to disguise her disgust for the sneering defense.

<"She's in no shape to give consent to anything.">

The older woman detected heavy footsteps coming closer. Mike's voice was coarse.

<<"Well, how about you then? Can you give consent?">>

The cyber-crime fighter clenched her teeth, a muscle twitching in her jaw. Back in the day, she'd taken a great deal of satisfaction in dealing with creeps like these. Knowing that her protege shared her sentiments, she eagerly anticipated the dark woman's response. To her surprise, rather than the growl -- or punches -- she'd expected, Barbara heard her partner take a step towards the taunting voices.

When she spoke, Helena's voice had dropped an octave, becoming low and intimate. Despite the situation, the redhead shivered as an auditory memory of hearing that same tone against her ear from a sea of blankets washed through her.

<"Yeah, I can consent, and, as a matter of fact, I have been a little itchy tonight...">

The words elicited a round of less than subtle, but appreciative, feedback from the men. Barbara wearily guessed that some crotch-grabbing was accompanying the whistles and hoots.

So, what was the brunette doing?

<"But, since I'm pretty sure I can do a better job of satisfying myself with one hand tied behind my back than all of you guys could do with a truckload of Viagra...">

Not doubting for an instant the truth of her partner's disdainful words, Barbara snorted softly.

<"I'm just gonna have to say no.">

The gibe had the effect that the brunette had presumably been angling for, and bedlam erupted again.

Smirking at the volume of the men's shouts and the enthusiastic snarls from her partner, Barbara wondered if she could justify purchasing the equipment to measure the Pre-taunt and After-taunt decibel level of Helena's altercations.

It was only when masculine shouts transformed to whimpers, then snuffles, that the redhead detected cries from a previously unnoticed member of the incident. Furrowing her brows over what she thought she was hearing, the older woman thumbed up the volume of her transceiver.

<<"Don't... Oh, stop! Why did you hurt them?">>

The words were muffled by tears, but the voice seemed familiar. Trusting that her memory would make the connection, Barbara concentrated on the events in the alley as they came to her over the comm set.

<"What are you talking about? They were hurting--">

The brunette's confusion was palpable.


The soft syllable might have been lost under the sound of masculine moans save for the fact that quiet footsteps and increased volume suggested that the two women were closing the distance between them.

The fine hairs on the back of Barbara's arms twitched as her nerves tingled. Years of experience told her not to ignore the warning.

Something was... off.

"Huntress, what's going on?"

<"I don't know. She's--">

The sub vocal response suddenly morphed into a hair-raising snarl which was immediately followed by masculine whimpering. The redhead guessed that one of the attackers had been getting restless before the dark vigilante persuaded him to settle down again.

<"...She's confused, I think.">

<<"No, I'm not. I'm Adele.">>

The young woman certainly sounded confused.

<<"I know you...">>

The voice was very, very close to the microphone in the necklace around Helena's throat, and Barbara almost gasped aloud when she identified it.

<<"You were at the warehouse last week.">>

What were the odds?

The analytical woman recognized that she'd long had a skeptical streak a mile wide. After almost a decade and a half of protecting and investigating crimes in her city -- and after a decade of sorting through the excuses of her students -- she knew that she had long since ceased to be a doubter. At this point in her life, Barbara Gordon was an atheist when it came to accepting coincidences.

"Huntress? Is that the young woman from Thursday's incident?"

The whisper of skin across fabric sounded through the comms.

<"Ah... yeah.">

Crimson brows furrowed, clearly detecting how fast -- and hard -- her partner was breathing.

Had Helena been responding to her question or to something else?

<<"You're a bad one, aren't you?">>

Peevishly, Barbara wondered if Adele could get any closer to the microphone without actually crawling inside it. The next words she heard did little to improve her mood.

<"What... what are you... do you mean?">

<<"I can make you feel good.">>

Had that soft noise been a kiss? Some things took the concept of heroic reward entirely too far.

Barbara glanced up, observing Princess Fiona nodding her agreement. That made it unanimous.

To her credit, the brunette seemed to be trying to get matters back in hand.

<"Hey, uhm, you need to... settle... down?">

Leather creaked.

<<"I know how you like it. How you need it.">>

The slow click of a zipper was unambiguous. Helena's soft whimper, unequivocal.

<<"And, I can give it to you. Anything that you need, everything that you're not getting.">>

Rumbling filled the transceiver, its volume almost shocking after the breathy whispers.

In the early years of their joint venture, Barbara had often been concerned or baffled by the sound, mistaking it as she had for a malfunction or interference with the equipment. It hadn't taken too long for her to recognize the sound for what it was: one of her partner's rarely heard vocalizations.

Purring, to be precise.

The sound usually signified agitation, excitement, or even anger. More recently, the redhead had gained a first-hand appreciation for the emanation's significance in more sensual or pleasurable situations.

The older woman determinedly pushed aside the host of emotions inundating her, recognizing that the sound also signaled another emotion: distress. Considering the confusing situation which her partner was in and the fact that Helena seemed incapable of taking control, that interpretation seemed as plausible as any other.

While Barbara was quite aware of her partner's decidedly physical nature, not to mention her generally unconcerned attitude about sexual encounters, she did not -- would not allow herself to -- doubt for an instant Helena's commitment to her. In addition, there was the fact that the young crime fighter was in a none-too-private alley, surrounded by four barely subdued would-be rapists, dealing with an obviously none-too-stable potential victim.

It was time to get things focused.

"Huntress! Mind on the mission."

The older woman honestly hadn't intended for her words to come out quite that sharply; however, it seemed to do the trick. The brunette whimpered quietly, then gasped. The sound of hasty movement followed before Helena carefully addressed the other woman.

<"Listen, Adele, I don't know what's going on, but this is messed up. Are you sure you don't want me to haul these guys in?">

Baffled, Barbara listened to the exchange, recognizing that Helena had put herself on the line a second time for the woman, again apparently for nothing. As the young crime fighter wrapped up the encounter, the redhead idly wondered if the sex-crazed almost-victim would consider a suggestion about counseling and, somewhat regretfully, immediately dismissed the idea.

Each person had to find her own path. Adele would need to complete whatever... detour or scenic by-way she was on, in her own time.

After powering the Delphi to stand-by, Barbara headed to the kitchen and dug in a side cupboard. After the events of the evening, she suspected that both Helena and she needed a bit of fortification, and cocoa just wouldn't do the trick.

She'd just set two tumblers on the table next to the bottle of Jack Daniels when she sensed her partner's arrival. In deference to the bottomless pit which the brunette called a stomach, she positioned a box of Girl Scout cookies next to Helena's place.

"Hey, Barbara."

Green eyes snapped toward the doorway in response to the subdued greeting. Any remaining ire in the older woman's system simply dissolved in the face of the younger woman's abject mortification. Without a thought, she closed the distance and tangled her fingers with the other woman's.

"Hello, Sweetheart."

"God, Barbara, I'm so sorry--"

The cyber-genius thought that her heart cracked a tiny bit when she witnessed the younger woman's features crumbling. She instantly tugged the smaller woman onto her lap, wrapping her arms firmly around deceptively slender shoulders. Detecting moisture against her neck where the brunette had buried her face, the older woman pressed her lips to chestnut hair. She waited for her lover to calm, rubbing her hands soothingly against the trembling muscles of the young woman's back.

"Sounded like you had a rough time out there tonight, Hel."

Wet blue eyes peered up to meet green. The redhead almost laughed at the frank incredulity painted across expressive features. She briefly wondered if she would cry at the gratitude also visible.

Opting to do neither, she decided that her best option for reassuring the other woman lay in... being Barbara. Accordingly, while she kept her tone gentle, her question was factual.

"Can you tell me what happened?"

"I... I don't know."

The brunette straightened a bit, raising her right hand to wipe the back of her wrist under her nose. The older woman somehow conquered her nearly overwhelming urge to dig into her pocket for a Kleenex.

"She just... she just kept getting closer, and I..."

Helena dropped her gaze, fixing the arm of the chair with an embarrassed glower. Her shame was almost a physical presence in the room. Needing to banish it, Barbara snugged the younger woman close and pressed soft kisses to her temple. When she felt the brunette's tension lessen, the older woman finally ducked her head and offered a tender smile.

Biting at her lower lip, the younger woman roughly admitted, "I didn't want to, Barbara."

The look of abject misery in her partner's features left little question about what Helena thought the outcome of her resolve would have been. In and of itself, the admission was a tantalizing bit of information.


When her companion threw back her head, laughing loudly, the redhead realized that she'd spoken aloud.

"Man, Barbara, you've really got to watch that whole Commander Spock thing."

Helena gracefully stood and turned to drop into her chair.

"You've got it down, right down to the whole pointy eyebrow and..."

The younger woman made quote marks in the air and arched her left eyebrow in a perfect Leonard Nemoy impersonation.

"...'Fascinating, Captain', schtick."

Barbara laughed ruefully but didn't bother to refute the observation. She waited patiently as the younger woman filled their glasses and tore open the cookies before making another inquiry.

"Do you think it's possible that the young woman's..."

Crimson brows lowered while the cyber-genius searched for both the right word and a politically correct way to phrase her inquiry. She readily found the former and ultimately decided that there wasn't such an option for the latter.

"...charms contributed to the interest the men were showing in her?"

Faintly bemused blue eyes and a sympathetic grimace suggested that the younger woman hadn't missed her mentor's verbal dilemma.

"I don't know, Babs. As much as I hate what they were doing, she did have a lot of... sizzle."

Swirling her drink, the older woman chuckled softly.

"Hot, eh?"

She thought she detected a hint of color in her partner's caramel features. Nevertheless, Helena's reply was boldly flirtatious.

"Not as hot as you, Red."

This time, Barbara laughed fully.

"I suspect that any heat you're detecting is a result of the fuzzy socks, Sweetie."

With a wink, Helena raised her glass.

"Well, then, here's to fuzzy socks."

Warmed by the sweet words, Barbara returned the gesture. The two women sipped their bourbon until something else scratched at the older woman's mind.

"Still, Helena, as... rough as those men were, it seems that she should have been a bit more upset."

Green eyes narrowed.

"Could you tell whether she was drunk or on drugs?"

The brunette pushed a cookie into her mouth and chewed, giving the question some thought. Finally, she shrugged.

"I didn't pick up on anything like that, Barbara. She was kind of..."

The brunette tilted her head to one side, poking the tip of her tongue out to capture a crumb at the corner of her mouth.

"...out of it, I guess. But mostly, really, really, horny."

The older woman nodded, trusting her partner's instincts. Her gesture morphed into a curious tilt of her own head at the sight of the brunette digging into her pocket.

"I did get this, in case you want to test."

Helena held up a plastic evidence bag, containing what appeared to be a bloodstained tissue.

"One of the guys split her lip, so I, uh, helped her clean up."

The redhead set the bag aside with a happy smile. The expression faltered when she noticed her partner's expectant hesitation.


The young woman fished in her pocket again.

"She also had these."

The brunette leaned forward, a matchbook extended between her first and second fingers. Automatically accepting it, Barbara felt her brows inch upward when she read the logo on the cover: "Chains Of Love"

Although it wasn't unexpected that the almost-victim might have visited the club, it did seem a trifle coincidental that it was the same club frequented by the brawl-inspiring Goth poet of two weeks before. Still, Barbara didn't know what to make of her partner's continued expectancy until she turned the item over.

Neatly embossed in san serif letters in the strike line was the club's slogan: "Transcending limits."

Chapter 14

Well, if this wasn't the absolute limit, Barbara wasn't sure what would be. Still, she'd never been one to back away from a challenge.

Taking a fortifying breath, the redhead plastered on a smile and met cheerful blue eyes.

"Ready to hit the mall?"

The younger woman smiled and caught the car keys coming her way.

"I guess so, but it would help if I knew what kind of clothes we're shopping for."

The redhead felt her smile become a little strained even if the question wasn't entirely unreasonable or unexpected. It wasn't as if she could plan a shopping expedition without her companion eventually finding out what she was hunting.

Time to bite the bullet.

Green eyes lost focus and tracked slightly to the left as the older woman's memory helpfully supplied the exact instructions she'd been provided.

"Er, something, ah, sleezy..."

Wondering why the collar of her crew neck sweater felt so tight, Barbara blushed extravagantly and forced herself to add the rest.

"...but butch."

Helena had been adamant about that part.

Cornflower blue eyes widened before Dinah laughed.

"Well if it's butch you're after, the mall is so definitely not the place to go."

Barbara wasn't entirely certain how she felt about her young ward's knowledge in that particular matter. Nevertheless, avoiding the mall would reduce the likelihood of running into any of her coworkers.

Heaven only knew how she'd be able to explain shopping for those sorts of outfits with her innocent young ward.

Throwing her hands in the air, the redhead smiled and paraphrased the Bard.

"Lead on MacDuff."

Barbara gripped the edge of the passenger seat -- as covertly as possible -- knuckles turning white.

A sword fight with MacBeth -- or with every title character from the playwright's works -- would be preferable to this.

"Alright, let's try this again, Dinah."

The older woman was a bit surprised by how calm she sounded.

"Just pull even to the driver's seat of the car in front of the space-- You're a little close on the side here."

Perhaps she should carry a supply of business cards from the auto body shop to leave under the wipers of the girl's victims.

"Okay, that's good. Now shift into reverse and turn your wheels sharply toward the cu-- You probably don't want to start moving until the wheels are in position, Dinah."

Had she remembered to send in the auto insurance payment for this quarter?

"Now you can start easing back into the space. That's it... Slowly, Dinah. Don't let him rattle you."

The redhead directed some unkind thoughts to the impatient driver behind them. Although he couldn't get around the boxy SUV on the narrow street, his honking was doing nothing for the teen's confidence.

"Very good. Can you see the headlight of the car behind you in your side mirror?"

An eager nod suggested that the sound of a breaking headlight was imminent.

"Excellent, Dinah. Stop and turn the wheels sharply in the other direction."

A thank you card. She needed to pick up a thank you card for her father. Of course, he had insisted on teaching her to parallel park in a VW Bug.

"Now, ease back again until you see the middle of the car's hood in the rear view mirror... "

Was it time to schedule a dental appointment? It had been a while, and stress fractures seemed like a possibility.

"Straighten the wheels, and pull forward to center yourself in the parking place."

The blonde put the Hummer in park and shut off the ignition, practically bouncing in her seat.

"That was so cool, Barbara! I can't believe I got it this time."

Flexing some circulation back into her fingers, the older woman couldn't help but agree.

"Well, you know, they say that the third time's the charm, Dinah."

Why the city hadn't put any parking lots in during the renewal of the waterfront district was simply beyond her. Not to mention the mystery of why there was so much traffic in the shopping district on a Thursday afternoon.

The redhead drew in a cleansing breath -- her first full respiration in an eternity, it seemed -- and turned, smiling fully.

"You did very well. This isn't the easiest vehicle to handle, much less parallel park."

The teen positively glowed under the praise, and the older woman instantly chastised herself for every uncharitable thought which had gone through her mind during the ordeal, er, lesson. Dinah had to learn somehow, and she certainly listened and followed instructions well. Unlike Barbara's previous ward who had seemingly been determined to revise the premium schedules for every auto insurance company in the country when the redhead had worked on her parking skills.

Speaking of which...

"Er, Dinah? I thought that Helena had been working with you on handling the Humvee?"

The girl unbuckled her seatbelt, waiting while her guardian muscled her chair into place.

"Oh, she has been," she allowed sunnily.

The Look would have been overdoing it. Barbara utilized a mild variant -- an arched brow and a dubious gaze -- instead.

"Kind of."

The redhead pinched the bridge of her nose before raising the other brow.

"It's just that, uhm, Helena sort of has a different way of parking the Hummer."

Barbara really didn't want to know, however it would be irresponsible not to find out.

"And, what way is that, Dinah?"

To give the obviously embarrassed girl a measure of privacy, the older woman occupied herself with transferring to her chair. It was, she realized, prescient that she had her back to the girl, given her reaction when Dinah finally responded.

"If the space is kind of small, she just hot wires the cars in front and in back and scootches them forward and back to make more room."

"Hey, what about these?"

Green eyes balefully regarded the heavy canvas cargo-type pants which Dinah held aloft triumphantly.

There were... certainly a lot of pockets.

The redhead sighed, and her shopping partner tucked the item back on the rack.

"Uhm, Barbara, it would probably help if I knew where you and Helena are going for this undercover j--"

The blonde stumbled, color rushing to her cheeks over the unintentional entendre.

"-- uh, where you're going for your date."

The cyber-crime fighter considered that, even as parallel circuits in her mind considered whether Dinah would know about Chains Of Love and -- if she did -- whether Barbara wanted to know about that.

The excursion slated for the following night was hardly a pleasure outing: frankly, the redhead would have voted to return to the bookstore or, possibly, to visit The Speak Easy. It wasn't exactly an undercover job either, as Dinah had termed it. It was, the older woman decided, a reconnaissance job.

The chains of coincidence surrounding the nightclub had simply become too thin. Barbara could readily accept that it was the preferred spot for the singularly untalented poet who had sparked a brawl. She might have been able to dismiss its link to the masochistic young woman whom Helena had mistakenly "rescued" twice. She might, just might, have been able to swallow that the sadist at the warehouse had parroted the club's slogan. However, the clincher had been something she recalled from the police report about the same-sex sexual assault which had occurred in the club district almost three weeks before.

Barbara had, unnecessarily, called up the report again, confirming her recollection that the victim of the assault had mentioned frequenting another club just before heading to the club where the assault had taken place. Under the guise of a police investigator -- she even had paperwork for a shadow identity on file at the station -- the cyber-vigilante had called the victim and confirmed it: the club he'd been in prior to the incident had been Chains Of Love.

Naturally, Helena had suggested scouting the club by herself. Given the series of odd occurrences surrounding the establishment and considering what had happened in the alley and her partner's response, the redhead was having none of that.

And so, it was a date. A date requiring new, butch couture.

"Let's just say," the older woman finally supplied, "that it's a pretty rough club."

"It's awfully... frayed?"

The teen beamed.

"Yeah, isn't it great? It's hard to find them that beat up right off the rack, you know."

Distinctly unimpressed green eyes regarded the garment, idly noting the price tag. The redhead blinked.

Why on earth would she want to pay $120 for something which she would normally toss in the rag bin? Still, Dinah was awfully enthusiastic, and they had been in every shop in a six block radius.

She looked up helplessly.

"I'm just not sure this is what Helena had in mind, Dinah."

The teen wrinkled her nose in thought before responding sympathetically.

"Yeah, I guess we need to figure out a theme for the club and for Helena."

Utterly lost, the redhead nodded sagely, coming to attention when her companion visibly brightened.


The word was utterly confident. Barbara was less certain.


The blonde head nodded vigorously.

"Uh huh. I know she really liked it when you wore your motorcycle jacket out to rescue--"

The girl snapped her mouth shut, obviously correctly reading her guardian's expression.

The redhead mustered a brittle smile, decisively not thinking about just what her telepathic ward was picking up during sparring sessions with her lover.

The blonde smiled back brightly.

"Uh, ready to try the next place?"

Dazed by the marathon which Dinah had obviously enrolled them in -- it was clearly time to reevaluate how much sugar the girl was eating -- Barbara nearly plowed into her guide when the blonde performed a sudden u-turn in front of her.

"Sorry, Barbara."

The young woman gestured towards a side street they'd just passed.

"There's a great place down there which I almost forgot about."

The redhead peered down the narrow, dimly lit street. They were near the university now, having exhausted every possible -- and what Barbara thought were a few distinctly implausible -- stores in the waterfront area.

"Oh, good. I was afraid we might miss one."

Grinning enthusiastically, the teen briskly took the point again, seemingly oblivious to her guardian's tone.

"No way, Barbara! I know them all."

Good heavens, the girl had a meta power which she'd been unaware of.

"You have got to get those, Barbara."

The redhead looked up in befuddlement, gingerly holding the items in question between thumb and forefinger.

"What possible use--?"

Dinah cut her off.

"They'll just make the whole outfit come together. You know..."

The last two words carried a well-known tone of exasperated teenaged suffering, clearly conveying disbelief that any adult could be so completely oblivious.

"...make the 'tough femme' thing work."

The older woman surveyed the flimsy garments with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, finally observing mildly, "But, I thought that was why we bought the chains?"

The blonde bobbed her head in agreement.

"And these will really complement them. You know, top and bottom?"

For some reason, Barbara found herself fighting a blush, however that didn't keep her relentlessly practical side from kicking and scratching.

"In that case, Dinah, wouldn't a steel bustiere work even better?"

Pale blue eyes narrowed, and the girl chewed at her bottom lip.

"Yeah, but, uhm, it's probably still a little cold for something like that."

Green eyes widened, then blinked.


"I'll take them."

"Diii-- nah."

Barbara absolutely, positively had her back up at the door to the shop.

She'd set the brake of her chair, if need be.


Half through the door, the teen looked back, misreading the older woman's resistance.

"It'll be fun. And, it's the last stop. I promise."

The redhead regarded the sign on the door again.


She winced, as much, she suspected, at the Dan Quayle school of spelling as at the shop itself.

"Dinah," she tried again, "this is only a one-night recon job."

The young woman nodded and opened the door more widely. Sighing, Barbara tried again.

"One. Night. I don't believe that I'll need a permanent physical reminder..."

With her infallible memory, Barbara was quite certain of that. In addition, 24 hours wouldn't be enough time to remove the bandage from the ink.

The teen laughed brightly.

"Oh, no! These are temporary. Really high quality stuff they apply here, and it wears off in a week or two."

Dinah seemed to sense that the older woman wasn't convinced.

"Or, uh, you can remove them sooner, too."

The redhead considered that, and the girl pressed her advantage.

"Just think about the verisimilitude, Barbara."

Not for the first time that afternoon, the cyber-genius threw her hands in the air and soon found herself sorting through the shop's extensive offerings. The H-D "Born to be Wild" tat for her bicep was, obviously, a no-brainer. It had taken a bit of persuasion on her companion's part to convince her about the bleeding rose for the side of her neck; however, she had to agree that the effect would be... impressive, even if the colors might clash with her hair.

Waiting for Dinah to settle on a design for herself, the older woman found herself, oddly, returning again and again to an image of a panther. The temporary tattoo was large -- about six inches -- obviously meant for the torso or upper thigh. Nevertheless, the dark cat was powerfully alluring for some reason.

"You should get that one, too."

Barbara jerked her head up guiltily, then laughed awkwardly.

"But no one would see -- "

A tiny smile ghosted the blonde's lips, and the redhead caught herself.

"-- er, it wouldn't be visible."

Dinah's smile widened, and the older woman added the tat to the two she'd already picked out.

"Can you believe how many piercings she had? I bet when she takes a drink she looks like a sprinkler."

Barbara laughed in agreement and nibbled at her biscotti.

"True, Dinah. I didn't know that they were piercing eyelids now."

Stirring the foam in her cappuccino with her index finger, the teen giggled at the memory of the pin cushioned sales woman.

"That's nothing, Barbara; they pierce everything nowadays. I mean, there's a girl in my gym class who has a chain of rings through her--"

The redhead raised her hand and shut her eyes.

She did not want to know.

Attempting to steer the conversation to less pointed topics, she gestured at her neck.

"You're sure that this comes off with baby oil, Dinah?"

When she considered the array of chemicals which had been used in applying the design, "temporary" seemed like a bit of a stretch. The design on her arm was safely out of sight in most situations, however, this was very, very visible.

"Uh huh," the blonde confirmed brightly.

Not missing the way pale blue eyes dropped to inspect the girl's chocolate chocolate-chip muffin with a level of interest not warranted by the pastry, oversized as it was, Barbara quirked a brow.

"Dinah? Is there something I should know?"

The teen bit her lower lip and smiled, a bit stiffly.

"Uhm, sometimes it takes a couple of applications. And -- "

Mumbled as they were, the redhead clearly made out the next words.

"-- sometimes it leaves an outline for a few days."

Obviously, she'd need to take stock of her turtleneck inventory.

"Indeed. Well, what's the occasion for yours, Dinah?"

Her ward had chosen to have an elaborate and colorful morning glory motif applied to her ankle and lower leg.

Clearly relieved by the change in topic, the blonde wriggled in her chair and smiled happily before launching into an enthusiastic description of the party she would be attending with Gabby on the following evening. The older woman sipped her coffee and listened attentively, attempting to determine what the young woman might not be sharing.

She had absolutely no concerns about the gathering which Dinah was describing or about her ward's actions should there be questionable activities at the party. Rather, given the awkward half-conversation which the teen had initiated several weeks earlier in the training room -- and her own less than stellar level of helpfulness -- the redhead hoped that the girl had found, or was finding, the answers she needed.

Resultantly, when the loquacious blonde stopped for air and took a slurp of her coffee, Barbara tap danced around the topic.

"And, how are things with Gabby, Dinah?"

Pale blue eyes peeked shyly from under blonde lashes; however, the older woman didn't miss the extremely... satisfied expression which flashed through those eyes.

Question answered.

"Uh, good?", the teen squeaked.

Marshaling her best "supportively neutral" expression, Barbara was about to let the matter go when she noticed another emotion in her companion's features: unhappiness.


She waited with seemingly infinite patience while the blonde fiddled with her cup for an eternity. Finally, Dinah exhaled softly and pushed her mug aside.

"Gabby's decided that she's going to State."

The cyber-genius considered that information carefully. Dinah had been accepted at that university as well -- at every university she'd applied to, for that matter; yet, the girl's demeanor left little doubt about her response to her girlfriend's choice.

"And, I take it you've decided not to attend there, Dinah?"

The girl met her gaze shyly.

"Yeah. Uh, I sort of want to go to NGU. At least for the first two years."

It was only due to her years of experience in facing down the worst criminals of society and in listening to the worst excuses that her students came up with that Barbara managed to hide her ecstatic grin under a sympathetic smile.

"Well, State is certainly within driving distance, Dinah. But, why have you decided on NGU?"

A thought struck her.

"It's not financial concerns, is it? Because that is not an is--"

"No, really, it's not that," the girl cut in. "I just think NGU has good science programs. And, well..."

The older woman smiled encouragingly.

"...I guess I wanted to be near you -- and Helena -- a little longer."

Obviously, something had blown into her eyes; it was simply the only way that Barbara could account for her rapid blinking. Before she could control the response, the girl continued hesitantly.

"I mean, I figured I could live in the dorms and everything."

The redhead nodded her comprehension.

Dorm life was a wonderful part of the college experience.

Her mood deflated slightly when her ward elaborated.

"...give you and Helena some space now that, uh, maybe Helena's going to be moving back in and everything."

Ignoring her feelings about a conversation yet to be had with her lover, the older woman spoke decisively.

"Dinah, the tower is your home, too. It always will be, just as it always will be for Helena."

The teen's puzzlement informed the redhead that she was going to have to plow ahead.

"Even if Helena and I weren't, er, that is, whatever our relationship, Helena will always be welcome. The same is true for you. If you want to live in the dorms, that's wonderful; if you want to stay at home -- "

She deliberately placed a bit of emphasis on the word.

"-- then please do."

In an instant, the girl was around the table, nearly tipping them over with her enthusiastic hug.

Barbara carefully worked the muscle-relaxant into her trapezoids, surveying the bags on the bedroom floor and replaying the afternoon's outing.

Shopping for skank-wear: $73.

Time with someone she loved: priceless.

Chapter 15

"Is that a dog collar?"

The young brunette grinned easily, swinging the item in question from her index finger.

"Well, I guess it could be a cat collar. For a really big, tough cat."

Barbara grinned in return, as much at the reply as at the sight of her partner. The younger woman had certainly dressed the part -- whatever that might be -- and the redhead felt her heart rate increase fractionally.

Helena was wearing an outfit which would have been downright tawdry on almost anyone else: a red micro-mini, white ankle boots, and a white tube top which showed her firm abdomen to advantage. A hot pink jacket completed the ensemble. On Helena, the outfit looked... damned fine.

Wryly, the older woman realized that, while the colors of the outfit might have signaled "Stop", her own response was something quite the opposite. Curiously, she found herself wondering just what her partner had on under the mini-skirt.

"Still, Sweetheart, a collar?"

The younger woman nodded emphatically.

"Yeah, I figured you might forget to pick one up so, uh, I took the liberty."

Crimson brows furrowed, then arched, then furrowed again. Annoyed with her forehead's St. Vitus dance, the redhead cocked her head as her partner slowly approached, extending the heavy black leather circlet.

"Uh, you can wear it if you want to, but I don't think anybody's ever gonna mistake you for a bottom."

Barbara accepted the offering, absently testing its strength.

"Indeed, Hel."

The brunette gracefully knelt beside her and lowered her head, and green eyes blinked rapidly against the quick flash of phantom sensation which had coursed through her pelvis.

"So, you gonna put it on me?"

Slowly, Barbara leaned in, fastening the restraint loosely. For a few moments, she allowed silken hair to slide through her fingers before she drew her hand forward to stroke her lover's sharp jaw.

"Are you so certain, Helena?"

The redhead smiled teasingly and removed her hand to gesture towards her hips.

"I do seem to have the... equipment for the role."

The younger woman grinned and then became serious. Barbara worked to remain relaxed under her partner's long, appreciative assessment.

"In that outfit, Red? No way."

The redhead grinned in turn at the playful reply, wondering how her outfit for the evening differed so much from some of her usual casual-wear. After all, she wasn't wearing anything that unusual: an old pair of jeans -- the rip in the knee hadn't cost extra either; her favorite motorcycle boots with the feminizing new chains wrapped around them; a tight black muscle tee with a blood-sucking bat and -- the redhead fought a mental shudder -- cut-outs; her motorcycle jacket; and some utterly useless lacey half-gloves.

Utilizing items already in her wardrobe, she'd brought the entire venture in for less than $75 -- $100 if she included the stop at The Common Grounds and the tube of Icy Hot she'd needed for her shoulders and arms after the marathon expedition.

Somehow, she doubted that Helena had been quite as economical. The younger woman was usually delighted by any excuse to add to her wardrobe.

Idly, and not for the first time, the cyber-vigilante wondered how she could deduct these expenses on her taxes. They were, after all, work-related.

The brunette eased forward, resting a slender hand on the older woman's knee and neatly distracting her from all thoughts IRS-related.


Bright blue eyes caught green, and Barbara swallowed when her companion danced the tip of very pink tongue around the edges of her red, red lips.

"Kid's at a party tonight, right?"

The redhead nodded carefully, suddenly feeling quite a bit like a bird in front of a very hungry cat.

"So, howsabout we stay in and play dress-up?"

As seemed to happen so often with her lovely partner, Barbara found herself balancing on the razor's edge of arousal and amusement. The hopeful waggle of dark brows tipped her in one direction this time, and she laughed.

"I am dressed up."

After the thought and effort she'd put in to the outfit, the older woman was determined to get at least one use -- outside the clock tower -- from it.

"Besides," she added with a wicked smirk, "what could I possibly trade up to after this, other than my Batgirl costume?"

The brunette mulled that over for a beat, then grinned lasciviously.

"Yeah, that'd definitely be hot, but not such easy access, huh?"

Snagging her heavy jacket, the redhead responded primly, "You'd be surprised, Sweetie."

She rang for the elevator over the sound of her partner's surprisingly loud growl.

The volume of Helena's vocalization at the clock tower had been nothing compared to the din at Chains Of Love. Before they entered the club, Barbara felt the thump of the bass traveling through the rubber wheels and padded seat of her chair, causing her muscles to tense to a beat which seemed to fill her bones. Once inside, the smoke from dry ice and the flash of strobe lights blinded her, momentarily distracting her from the music.

Fumbling instinctively for her glasses before realizing that a) they'd not do her much good and b) they might detract from her "tough femme" appearance, the redhead wryly acknowledged that she'd be lucky to escape her bit of field work without a pounding headache.

"It's great, yeah?"

At least that's what the older woman thought her companion had bent down to say. There could be, of course, only one response.


The brunette threw back her head and laughed.

"Sounds like a plan, Babs, but let's grab a table first."

Somehow, the younger woman unerringly located a free table, one mercifully distant from the nearest speaker. She waited until the redhead was settled and unzipping her jacket before gliding toward the bar, returning in short order bearing Barbara's drink, two bottles of water, and a glass of something clear -- presumably vodka -- for herself.

The older woman nodded her thanks and reached for her glass, pausing mid-motion to regard the amber liquid suspiciously. Again, the brunette laughed.

"Relax, Red. There's no profit margin in drugging all the drinks. But..."

The dark figure raised the amber liquid and took a healthy swig. She smacked her lips appreciatively.

"Tastes fine to me, and I am a professional bartender. But, if you want, I'll try it again."

Barbara laughingly rescued the remains of her drink with a quick shake of her head.

"Thank you, Helena. I appreciate your self-sacrifice, but I think that will do."

The brunette gracefully seated herself, crossing her legs at the knee and exposing an entirely distracting amount of smooth, tanned skin. Resolutely dragging her eyes from the enticing display, the older woman sampled her drink.

"Seriously, Babs, if something -- something that all of your high tech gizmos and tests can't detect -- was in the booze, it seems like we'd be seeing a lot of odd behavior."

"Indeed," the redhead concurred before pointedly surveying the room, "however..."

She waited as blue eyes narrowed in puzzlement, following the older woman's scan of the room. Helena finally barked out a laugh.

"Shit, Barbara, haven't you ever seen a little... muskrat love?"

Despite her fear that a certain 70's tune would now be looping through her brain indefinitely, the older woman managed a quick smile.

"Well, yes, I have, Hel. Just not in such quantity."

Or variety. She mustn't forget the variety on display.

Since Barbara's senses had finally adapted to the ambiance, she turned her gaze to the denizens of the club. Not surprisingly for a Friday night, the place was filled to capacity, the dance floor a seeming sea of flesh and every table around the periphery occupied. While there was a predominance of leather present, the analytical woman automatically categorized other varieties of outer wear: silk, denim, canvas, and a surprising amount of latex.

Apparently, she could have saved herself the shopping ordeal and simply rummaged through her old costumes.

Completing her first sweep of the establishment, the redhead focused on individuals, fine-tuning the granularity of her appraisal. Patrons of the club were dancing and drinking and mingling and...

Green eyes blinked, verifying some of the activities she'd glimpsed in darker corners -- and right on the dance floor.

People were enjoying the environment in every possible combination as well: male and female; female and female; male and male; and some combinations in-between. There were couples, trios, and -- well, after that Barbara supposed that it went right to group territory.

Although some of the activities were a bit more overt than she'd encountered at other clubs, the redhead granted that a bit of physicality was hardly unexpected. However, the specifics of many of the displays were eye-opening: for one thing, the dynamics between -- or among -- the participants were clearly unequal; for another, props -- from whips and cuffs to blindfolds and, er, latex -- were in plentiful supply.

Thank heavens she hadn't even considered Helena's second suggestion for the recon job: a false ID for Dinah.

The older woman calmly downed half her bourbon and set the glass on the table.

"Ready to get to work, Helena?"

Instead of an immediate reply, the brunette leaned forward, slowly, deliberately. Barbara stiffened, wondering what her partner was up to, until soft lips touched the corner of her mouth and she felt the quick flicker of a warm tongue.

"You had a drop...", the younger woman explained, easing back to her seat with a wicked grin.

The redhead flashed a tight smile.

What sort of... hormone soup was she exposing her sensual partner to? If the mood that Helena had been in earlier were any indication, the dark woman was already primed for action, as it were. The hormones -- and pheromones -- in this environment certainly wouldn't help the situation.

It was time to focus on work.

"The mission, Hel."

The younger woman smiled lazily, rather, Barbara thought, like a waking cat. For that matter, although her eyes were still blue, her pupils did seem to be slitted.

"Whose mission, Babs?"

Since the question was playful, the older woman opted for a slightly different tactic.

"The sooner we scout things out here, the sooner we can leave."

She suppressed a smirk when the brunette snapped to attention with gratifying alacrity.

"What's the plan?"

An hour or so later, the older woman had thoroughly explored the periphery and back hallways of the club. While she'd found nothing overly suspect, she had interrupted a number of trysts and learned a few things about the novel colors that latex was apparently now available in. From a relatively safe vantage point against one wall, she observed her partner's "information gathering" on the dance floor.

The younger woman had charmingly encouraged Barbara to join her on the floor; however, another quick glance at the crowd had convinced the older woman to forego. She didn't want to roll on any toes, and, given the density of bodies, it seemed inevitable.

The redhead was glad she'd declined. Not only had they deployed their resources efficiently, but now she was free to enjoy the sight of her lithe partner circulating in the crowd, gyrating and moving in rhythm to the music. The younger woman was her usual utterly graceful self. With the flashing strobes highlighting her long legs and the firm flesh of her belly and arms, dark hair whipping from side to side in freeze-flash snapshots, she was also something akin to sex in motion.

Bemused -- among other responses -- by her somewhat lecherous observation, the redhead resolutely turned her attention to the large aquarium in the back wall of the club. Having determined that it contained strictly freshwater species, her interest in the display was aesthetic rather than investigatory.

Honestly, she was seeing Clown fish everywhere.

Regardless, the liquid vista was soothing, despite the preponderance of black and silver specimens.

An amused baritone interrupted her reverie.

"Isn't that a little cliched?"

The redhead looked up to find herself under examination by an imposing dark-haired man. He was, she decided, attractive in a Wayne Newton fashion.

She smiled her confusion.

"I'm sorry. What?"

The man chuckled and gestured at the aquarium with his drink.

"It seems a little trite, focusing on this with all of the fish out there."

He completed his motion by inclining the glass toward the dance floor. When she grasped the reference, Barbara smiled coolly, trusting the smoke and neon to mask her blush.

"Since I've already caught my limit out there, admiring these seemed reasonable."

The swarthy man widened his eyes in mock dismay.

"But, limits are such artificial constraints, don't you think, Ms. ...?"

"Call me Red," the cyber-crime fighter supplied, quirking a questioning brow in turn.

The tall man bent down to extend his hand.

"Clinton Jefferson Williams, at your service. I'm the manager here."

Barbara returned the firm handshake as he continued.

"I hope that the fact that you're over here by yourself isn't a reflection on what my little establishment has to offer. Perhaps I can help you find someone -- or someones -- to keep you company?"

The redhead hid a smirk, suspecting how well that would be received by her partner. She demurred as politely as possible.

"No, thank you. I've been enjoying the scenery while my partner -- "

Barbara inclined her head in the direction of the mass of bodies on the dance floor, not missing how sharp brown eyes seemed to fix unerringly on Helena.

"-- works off some energy."

The proprietor smiled without humor.

"That's very... tolerant of you, Red."

Raising one brow, the redhead redirected the conversation.

"A moment ago, Clinton--"

"Clint," he interjected smoothly.

"Clint," Barbara acknowledged. "You mentioned something about limits."

The tall man nodded for her to continue.

"I also noticed that Chains' slogan has to do with overcoming limits."

Williams swirled his drink reflectively.

"Very true. It's what it's all about here."

The dark-haired man snagged a chair and lowered himself to eye level.

"For some of the people here, it's a dream. For others, a philosophy. And, for a few lucky souls..."

He raised his glass toward the floor in a toast.

"...it's a way of life."

The cyber-genius signaled her comprehension with a quick nod.

"Nevertheless, Clint, from some of what I've seen here, some of the people in that last group seem to take it very seriously. Perhaps to the point of physical injury."

The redhead struggled not to squirm as fathomless dark eyes raked over her.

"True, Red. But one person's pain is someone else's pleasure, isn't it?"

He took a measured sip from his glass, warming to the topic.

"Pleasure and pain, dom and sub, give and take. It's all just different sides to the same coin, an opportunity to face and, hopefully, transcend our fears and inhibitions."

"Consensually, of course?"

Barbara spoke quietly, intrigued by the glint in the man's eyes. When the man finally laughed, she detected very little humor in the sound.

"Of course, Red. However, sometimes, as I'm sure you know, consent can be a nebulous concept. Sometimes a little... persuasion--"

The crimson-haired crime fighter somehow felt vaguely unclean when the word crawled over her skin.

"--is necessary. How can anyone really know what they're consenting to before the fact? What about consenting to something only to find that you're not getting what you thought you would or..."

Williams paused and raised a hand to tap his index finger against his chin, eyeing his listener speculatively.

"...even discovering that you're taking far more than you'd ever dared to dream?"

Focusing on keeping her breathing even under those almost hypnotic eyes, the redhead managed one word.


"Yes, Red. For instance, in the dynamics of power and pleasure, who is really, really, vulnerable and exposed?"

Trapped in a verbal undertow, Barbara knit her brows.

"I'm not following you, Clint."

The swarthy figure offered a smile full of dark promises.

"Just think about the give and take. Where is the real risk, the total exposure? The risks -- and rewards -- in submission are obvious, no?"

Williams took another sip of his drink, waiting for the redhead's slow nod.

"But, in controlling the scene, don't you expose everything? All of the dirty desires and head trips that you'd never want the world to know about? Or, that you wouldn't want to expose until you break free from your own limits."

Caught up in an undeniably charismatic presence, not to mention struck by words hinting at the truth of a life she'd led for fifteen years, Barbara simply stared at her companion for a few minutes. It was Williams himself who broke the charged silence.

As Depeche Mode's "Policy of Truth" boomed through the speakers, he glanced to the mass of bodies on the dance floor.

"Speaking of control, Red, it looks like your partner's getting a little full of herself out there."

The redhead followed the direction of brown eyes, finding Helena dancing sinuously, and very closely, with a well-muscled man clad in a completely insubstantial amount of leather. Without thinking, she raised her hand to touch the small pin above her heart, and within seconds Helena was at her side.

Blue eyes fixed on the older woman's companion with undisguised hostility.

"Is this jerk bothering you, Red?"

A crimson brow arched deliberately, and the redhead waited for her partner to tone down her bristling defensiveness a notch or two.

"No, Sweetie, everything's fine. Would you mind getting another drink for me?"

The confusion in caramel features was obvious, however the brunette merely smiled sweetly.

"Sure. No problem."

As the lithe figure slipped through the crowd, Barbara noticed the club manager nodding speculatively.

"The bell's a nice touch, Red. Very..."

Rising from his chair, he searched for a word.

"...elegant. Still, that one's obviously a handful."

The redhead nodded sagely -- Williams didn't know the half of it -- as the tall man reached into his pocket and handed her a tightly coiled length of leather.

"Perhaps you should consider training her to the leash."

Stupefied, Barbara blinked furiously as the dark figure disappeared into the crowd and then dropped her gaze to the item in her hand.

Black, butter soft, with small -- but very sharp -- silver studs along its length. A beautiful piece of craftsmanship and, if she were any judge, quite strong.

A familiar sensation recalled the older woman, and she managed to thrust the leash into her jacket pocket just as Helena returned, drink in hand. It was impossible to miss the relief in the younger woman's face when she observed that Barbara's companion had departed.

"Here you go, Barbara. Who was that -- Whoa!"

The dark head slowly swiveled, appreciatively following the movements of a full-figured woman with red and purple hair. Barbara raised one eyebrow a few millimeters in amusement and spoke mildly.

"Down, girl."

Her teasing follow-up remark -- something having to do with Helena putting her tongue back in her mouth -- died in her throat when she observed her partner's response to the lighthearted reprimand.

The younger woman lowered her gaze and instantly dropped to her knees by the redhead's side. While the older woman thought she detected the hint of a smile at the corner's of her partner's mouth, there was something more than playfulness in the dark woman's expression and posture.

Barbara felt herself flooded with a wash of tenderness for the sweet young woman -- and something more powerful. Even as she contemplated how much the atmosphere of the club was affecting them both, she raised a hand to cup the brunette's jaw. She felt, rather than heard, her partner's low rumble, sparking something in her chest.

Deliberately, she caught the other woman's golden eyes, running the pad of her thumb roughly over a lush lower lip. Her movement stilled, and the redhead gasped softly when a warm tongue flickered against her. The younger woman purposefully held Barbara's questioning gaze, dropping her jaw and opening to her. Despite the completely public venue, the older woman could do nothing but slip inside.

Lost in those burning eyes, Barbara struggled for air, for reason, when Helena hungrily closed her lips over a moan which traveled up the older woman's arm and settled in her stomach. The redhead felt her partner teasing the base of her thumb with the stud in her tongue, pulling deeply. Amazed, and aroused beyond all good sense by the intentionally sexual act, by the delicate flare of aquiline nostrils, by the deep suctioning evidenced by the concavity of her lover's cheeks, the older woman fought for control.

Gently, gradually, she extricated her hand, brushing her fingers through shaggy chestnut bangs. When she finally spoke, her voice was raw.

"Let's go home, Helena."

Part 16

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