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.
ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER: I've made several references to a baddie (Crimson Claw) from another work of fanfiction -- The most-excellent "Feral" by Barb/Pink Rabbit Productions. No infringement intended; rather, consider it an homage to a breath-taking work of fanfic (and another plea that Feral be completed??).
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

The Way We Were

Ch. 23

"Hello, Tiger. Bet you weren't expecting to hear from me so soon. But, honestly, it's just *super* to see you again."

The faux-innocent tone, in combination with the use of that particular word, grated on the brunette; she didn't attempt to keep the sour expression from her face and the ire from her tone as she entered Harleen Quinzel's penthouse apartment.

"What the fuck was that about last night?"

Helena crossed to one of the leather wing chairs and flung herself into it. The minute her pager had gone off yesterday, there had been no doubt in the younger woman's mind who was behind the mysterious crime wave of the night before.

The blonde's reply was decidedly snappish. "Just trying to get your attention, Helena. Someone certainly got mine yesterday."

At that, the brunette realized she was deeply, deeply at sea; maybe it was time to tone things down a bit and try to find out what was going on. Looked like the good doctor had noticed her confusion; she was practically cackling:

"You *don't* know, then, do you? Hmmm, how utterly delicious."

Helena was pretty sure she didn't like the sound of that.

Quinn continued, chirping brightly, as she moved to the wet bar. "And, of course, you have my sincerest apologies for last night's little misunderstanding, Helena. Let's just chalk it up to my giving you a socially acceptable way to work off all of that anti-social anger of yours, shall we?"

"Thanks so much, Quinn, but, I've been, uh, doing a lot of yoga and, uh, Zen shit recently...." Helena couldn't resist the jab, "And, of course, after our court-mandated sessions to work through my 'anger issues'", her fingers made quote marks in the air, "I'm just a walking center of karmic fucking calm now."

Quinn laughed delightedly, and Helena was uncomfortably reminded that the blonde always had appreciated her sarcastic edge, that she'd always 'gotten' her.

She tracked the older woman with golden eyes as she approached and handed Helena one of the two scotches she'd prepared. The brunette took a sip and watched Quinn pace, trying to decipher the meaning behind the words suddenly pouring forth.

"I can just smell your curiousity, Tiger. And, yes, I will get to that. But, right now I simply must think a moment, reconsider the Arkham situation and my role... Oh my goodness, let's be honest, shall we? Our role there."

Helena suppressed a shudder as the blonde laughed gaily. 'Arkham? What about Arkham? What about Arkham and *them*?'

"I just knew," the older woman continued, setting her drink down, "that you were a woman of your word, dear Helena. Intense brooding anger, all of that lovely, lovely potential for pain and violence, yet still carrying that flag of honor a mile wide. It's almost trite...". The other woman trailed off for a moment, almost like she'd forgotten that the brunette was present. "Yet, oddly, so appealing to me."

Seeming to come back into the moment -- at least as much as the psycho could, Helena thought bitchily -- Quinn blinked at the younger woman and continued softly.

"That's neither here-nor-there, is it? But, you have to admit, don't you, Helena," Here, she paused again and the brunette shivered under the desperate sincerity in the older woman's gaze, "that I've been true to my word? That you've been able to trust me? Haven't I been, darling?"

Clearly, some sort of response was called for here. Helena decided to go with what usually proved to be the best option, the truth.

"Yeah. I mean, I was a little surprised, y'know."

Another brittle laugh scraped the brunette's tense nerves. Sometimes, the woman was just nails on a chalkboard, wasn't she? Hell, most of the time.

"Well, of course you were, Helena. Trust is such a difficult emotion, isn't it?"

Helena set her drink aside, watching with some disbelief as her former therapist, in her $800 suit, slid to the floor, wrapping her arms around her legs, resting her chin on her raised knees. She looked so small; and kind of scared and lonely. As the petite woman simply sat for a moment, Helena fought the urge to go to her, offer some sort of solace. It had always been one of her big faults -- Barbara called it a virtue, as-if! -- this need to comfort others who were in pain.

The urge evaporated abruptly as pale, pale blue eyes locked with gold. Again, the younger woman was reminded of facing a cobra.

She thought that Quinn was going to say more; instead, the woman rolled onto all fours and crawled over to the brunette. Helena shifted minutely as she felt the petite woman raising herself along one of the her leather-clad legs before resting both hands on the tops of Helena's thighs.

The brunette shifted again as pale fingers teased. As the blonde placed her face on one of Helena's thighs, the younger woman fought a quick wave of nausea at the similarity to her position with Barbara just last night. When Quinn breathed warmly against her center, Helena fought the tidal wave of arousal coursing over her.

Already ramped up by a combination of anger and fear, the younger woman mentally cursed at the difficulty she had in denying her body's needs... desires... in her augmented state.

'C'mon, you can do it.... This isn't how you want this to go down, is it? Just, uh, breathe in.... Oh, shit! Gotta get her mouth off...'

Helena blew out a relieved... no, frustrated... no, definitely relieved breath when Quinn suddenly disengaged herself and stood up.

"Oh dear." A teasing moue transformed her features as the blonde lilted, "Where *are* my manners, Helena? You must be simply starving, and I have been cooking for hours. Special occasion, you know."

Knowing that Quinn would fill her in about the "special occasion" and Arkham and whatever-the-hell-else was on her mind only when she was good and ready, Helena consciously relaxed, feeling her eyes shift back to normal, and inhaled deeply of the tantalizing odors emanating from the other woman's kitchen.

During the years of their 'relationship', Helena had quickly come to realize that her former therapist's sybaritic tendencies surpassed even her own. In certain respects, the brunette was even able to draw some enjoyment from this fact: unlike Barbara, who often forgot or overlooked even her own body's needs, Quinn was intimately in tune with her body's desires. One of those desires was for good, no, excellent food.

Almost two years ago, Helena had been surprised to learn -- and then immediately surprised that she *was* surprised -- that the blonde was a very capable cook. "Who better to cook for me the way I like? It got so dreadfully tiresome having to come up with creative ways to kill all of those chefs who didn't meet my standards.", Quinn had chirped as she presented the younger woman with the first-of-too-many exquisite dishes. While the brunette had scarcely been able to swallow any of that first intimate dinner with her former therapist, she now found herself genuinely, well, not 'delighted' but certainly not unhappy when the other woman cooked: not only did it delay any other activities between the two women, but Quinn really laid out a mean spread.

This evening was no exception. Helena tucked appreciatively into the rack of lamb, baby asparagus, garlic potatoes, and fruit compote, all the while marveling -- Cripes, her life was weird sometimes -- at the fact the two women were able to make innocuous small talk about patrons at the Dark Horse and some of Quinn's...Quinzel's patients' amusing quirks. Knowing some of her former therapist's more unconventional methods, Helena carefully avoided questions about treatments for said quirks and deliberately kept focused on inane topics.

'Just like a real freakin' date', Helena smirked.

She sobered when she realized that, in fact, the blonde was really the only person she'd ever had these sorts of dinner-dates with. Would she ever get the chance, she wondered morosely, to remedy that situation with Barbara?

After the two women demolished most of the lamb, the brunette watched her dinner partner tidily refold her almost pristine linen napkin and lean forward appraisingly. For her part, Helena was resisting the urge to lick her fingers and, symbolically, loosen her belt. She might have overdone it on dinner, but, hey, she hadn't eaten much in the last few days. She kind of wished she hadn't worn the tight leather pants, kind of wished she was wearing a belt so that she could loosen it.

At that thought, she guffawed and then blushed in the face of Quinn's patently curious look.

"Sorry -- I'm just ... I mean, that was really, really good. And, I was just thinking that all I need now is to belch and scratch a little, pop a beer, and go watch Sports Center....".

Slightly abashed blue eyes peered through dark bangs.

"Well, just, thanks for a great meal, Quinn."

Even if she wasn't exactly here out of desire, the younger woman had had manners thoroughly drilled into her by her mother, then by Barbara.

"Oh, my pleasure, Helena. It's just not as satisfying preparing a special meal only for oneself, is it?" the blonde queried, rhetorically Helena assumed since the woman had to know that her companion didn't prepare meals beyond dialing a phone for delivery.

Quinn continued, her voice vibrating concern too sincere to be genuine: "But, I do hope you didn't overdo; there's still creme brulee... and other things..." one platinum brow rose suggestively as the woman stood up, "for dessert. Why don't you stretch out, digest a bit, while I tidy up?"

Feeling distinctly like Alice in the rabbit-hole, wondering how she could be exchanging these perfectly normal words in this unreal situation, Helena nevertheless moved gracefully to her feet and joined the other woman in clearing the table, tidying the nearly immaculate kitchen. Minutes later, the young woman found herself back in the living room, watching Quinn whisk into the room with a serving tray holding the brulee and coffee; from experience, Helena knew that the coffee was strong and was not decaf.

While Quinn sipped her coffee silently, seemingly preoccupied, the brunette picked at her dessert. For some reason, Helena never had much of a taste for sweets around the blonde -- perhaps it was due to the saccharine facade the other woman often presented, or maybe it had to do with a rise in her own more carnivorous side around the other woman. Whatever.

Setting the barely touched ramekin back on the tray, the younger woman glanced casually at the clock: 9:30 already. Well, no big deal: she'd already told Barbara, as the redhead was rushing off to school that morning and apologizing profusely for falling asleep literally *on* Helena, that she'd be working a double at the bar that night and probably would just crash at her place. She'd squared her schedule with Leonard by working the low-tipping afternoon shift and promising to be in first thing tomorrow to help with inventory.

The brunette wondered when she'd ever get a chance to sleep again. Two nights ago, she -- and Barbara -- had barely slept; last night, she'd not slept at all, holding the soundly-sleeping redhead close, breathing in her sweet scent, worrying about the upcoming meeting with Quinn; and tonight... Well, who knew?

Helena had come to the meeting tonight fully intending to do... something to renegotiate the terms of their 'arrangement'. Something that would, finally, allow her to be Barbara's...and only Barbara's. The younger woman wasn't quite sure what she'd had in mind; after all, planning ahead had never been her forte -- Hell, she was still convinced that going with her instincts on sweeps rather than always following Barbara's carefully planned grid approach was the way to go. But, with the tantalizing snippets that Quinn had been dropping all evening... well, who knew?

All that Helena did know was that she was tired: tired of dancing to her former therapist's whims; tired of hiding things, still, from Barbara; tired of waiting to find out what the fuck Quinn had up her sleeve tonight.

The brunette exhaled impatiently. Not surprisingly, Quinn seemed to pick up on her impatience; probably had seen her look at the clock, too.

"Ah, yes, it is getting late, isn't it, Tiger? And, we have so much to cover."

The other woman was teasing her, taunting Helena with her desperate desire to know what was going on at Arkham, with the Joker.

"So, let's get to the point, so that we can move on to other, more pleasurable topics."

Through narrowed eyes, Helena watched the tiny woman delicately place her china cup in its saucer, balance the whole wad in one small hand. In a clipped, businesslike tone, the blonde continued briskly:

"It's recently come to my attention, Helena, that things in Arkham are progressing in a fashion that makes my continued presence of dubious wisdom. Not to mention, of decreasing value to my Mr. J, who -- I feel I positively must mention -- has become of less and less interest to me over the course of my association with you, dear Helena." Ice blue eyes batted playfully towards deep blue.

Ignoring the last comment, it was just too much to think about at the moment, the brunette growled, "What's going on at Arkham, Quinn?"

"All in good time; all in good time. I know how you do enjoy good pillow talk, Tiger."

Hearing the sing-song tone, Helena fought her instinct to leap across the coffee table and throttle the information from the woman.

"First things first; the important things. Specifically, I want you to know that I'm considering departing our fair Gotham in search of greener", again that gay laugh, "or, perhaps, *less green* pastures."

Fine with her. The younger woman wisely kept that response to herself, opting instead for, "What are you going to do, Quinn?"

After a speculative sip from her coffee cup, the blond smiled. There was, Helena noticed, very little humor in that smile.

"Well, Helena, I considered moving my practice to another city; however, I'm feeling a bit burned out listening to the uninspired bitching and moaning of the common masses. There's always the option of retiring to some tropical paradise and working on my tan while taunting the natives."

The blonde waved a hand airily towards her pale features and spoke sadly, "I'm afraid that there's just not enough sun block on this planet, not to mention lovely hands to rub it on me..."

Again, those pale eyes batted playfully. Helena resisted the urge to shift restlessly. God, the woman sure loved the sound of her own voice; probably a bad trait in a shrink.

Quinn spoke again, apparently finally coming to the point.

"Well, Helena, long story short, I'm now considering turning my not-inconsiderable skills towards fighting the good fight, as you might put it."

The pause, combined with the positively beaming, expectant look that the blonde was throwing her way, clued the younger woman in to the fact that some sort of response was expected.

"Huh?" Oh, yeah, Barbara woulda been proud of that...

Apparently, Quinn was willing to overlook the brunette's current conversational shortcomings.

"Vigilante crime-fighting, Tiger. You make it sound like just oodles of fun. And, you must admit, it would be a change of pace for me."

Pale blue eyes focused thoughtfully somewhere on the ceiling.

"I've read that the average adult changes careers... or jobs or callings... something like seven times over a lifetime. Had you heard that little statistic?"

Helena wasn't certain that her baffled head shake even registered with the older woman as the blonde barreled on.

"I was thinking somewhere cosmopolitan; New York, perhaps; Paris might be nice... There's only one problem with this idea, Helena; I'm missing a vital piece to make the whole thing fly, as it were."

There was absolutely no way that she could have regained consciousness from her battle with the Crimson Claw, the younger woman realized. She wasn't just down the rabbit hole, she was obviously in a deep, drug-induced coma or something. Only way to explain the surreal words her brain was hearing.

Noticing that the blonde was poised expectantly again, head tilted like some hyped-up kewpie doll, Helena realized that it was her turn to contribute to the conversation. She suspected that waxing nostalgic about her childhood years in the city of light was not what was called for, so went with the obvious.

"And what's missing, Quinn?"

"Why you, of course, dear Helena."

As surprised as she was at the older woman's words, the brunette was even more amazed by the utter sincerity on the pale face. Thankfully, it seemed that Quinn didn't need an immediate response since the younger woman doubted that she could form a single coherent syllable at the moment.

The blonde chattered on.

"I do mean it when I tell you how fond I've become of you, Helena. Just think of it; together, we could be unstoppable. Naturally, when I started considering the idea, I first thought of us as partners in crime. It could be just too delicious..."

Helena watched, fascinated, as a shiver ran down the other woman's body.

"Of course, I realize that you simply couldn't abandon all of those pedestrian scruples of yours; so, here I am, ready to change my vocation, run off to Paris, settle into a perfectly hum-drum life on the up-and-up. All for you, Tiger."

The neck of Helena's shirt was feeling pretty tight, which was odd, the brunette realized since she had a rakish number of buttons open. A little strangled sounding, she tried to put the woman off gently.

"Well, that does sound really, uh, romantic and all, but - y'see - I'm kind of settled here."

Quinn waved dismissively. "Oh pish-posh."

'Pish-posh? Who the hell said pish-posh?' Brows furrowed, Helena refocused on the other woman.

"...nothing that you can't do with me elsewhere. We're really so very, very similar -- seeing the world in angry shades of gray and all. Our sexual...proclivities.. certainly seem to bring us both a measure of satisfaction. We belong together, Helena."

Having spent all of her years prior-to-Quinn insuring that her sexual escapades allowed her to avoid just this sort of conversation, the brunette was at a loss for how to ... what was it called? ... let the blonde down easy. Diplomacy seemed to be the order of the day.

"Well, I'm really, uh, flattered." Yeah, that sounded right. Well, maybe not, if the older woman's gleeful cackle were any indication. Maybe another tact.

"I mean, maybe if we'd met... sometime... somewhere..." letting that trickle off, the brunette mentally completed the thought, '...on another planet and we were the only two people on it.'

"I know it's a lot to absorb at all once, Tiger; so, don't be hasty in making a decision. Especially since I'm about to sweeten the offer."

The petite woman slowly stood, stretching languorously as she moved around the coffee table to stand next to Helena. One pale hand snaked out and began massaging the back of the younger woman's neck.

"I know how important it is for you to keep your dear sainted Barbara safe from the grimy clutches of evil; a certain green-haired evil, in particular. Of course, you could never flit away on the wings of romance, " the voice trilled slightly on the word, "as long as there was any danger to your good, good friend. But, Helena, even you can't be everywhere at once; even you can't absolutely guarantee Barbara's safety from my Mr. J."

'Blah, blah, blah.' Sounded like the same arguments that had first gotten her into this mess, the dark woman snarked. Would the other woman ever get to the point?

Half-listening to Quinn's droning, Helena decided that, on second thought, she might not be interested in the blonde even if they *were* the only two people on a remote...

"...come with me, and I'll absolutely guarantee that Mr. J can never bother your sainted Barbara again."

Still caught up in thoughts about distant planets and specific pleasant thoughts about stowing Quinn on a space shuttle and shipping her to Jupiter, it took Helena a moment to process the blonde's last words.


"What exactly do you mean?"

One blood-red nail traced delicately down the brunette's face, down her neck and chest, raising a trail of goose bumps in its wake. Then, the softly trailing hand came to rest and gave a firm squeeze, calculated to be just on the painful side of the Pleasure/Pain continuum.

Over the faint sound of her own gasp, Helena heard the reply.

"It's simply the logical next step in our relationship, Tiger. Come to bed, and we'll talk all about it... and about Arkham, too."

No way Helena could walk away from the promise of that sort of information. Maybe, just maybe, though, she could keep things from getting too wild this time.

Ignoring a voice in her head -- was it Barbara's? Her mother's? -- whispering something about curiosity and cats, Helena stood and pulled the blonde into a fierce kiss. Both women were breathing heavily by the time they separated.

The younger woman twined Quinn's hand in hers and purred, "Shall I lead?"

Ch. 24

Barbara decided to lead with "Sweeney Todd". The movie, of course.

Hopefully, something fun and just a little twisted would encourage a classroom of recalcitrant juniors to be a bit more open-minded about a semester studying various plays. Jotting a few more notes for the syllabus for her upcoming second and third period classes, the redhead scheduled "Medea" next -- another strong female lead; hmm, "Our Town" to coincide with homecoming; and, "Macbeth", naturally, in time for Halloween.

As she wrote, Barbara grinned, remembering the quote that she and Helena had shared from the Bard's play a few days ago in the training room. That memory, of course, led her to recall, vividly, several other things the two women had shared that evening. Their exhaustion and Helena's work schedule had kept them from exploring this new facet to their relationship for the last two days; for the normally patient redhead, it felt like an eternity.

'Enough wool-gathering, Gordon. Back to work.'

She resolutely pushed her glasses up her nose and refocused on her notes. Unlike many of her fellow faculty members, Barbara preferred not to recycle the same lesson plans from year to year; it was more work for her but, she hoped, kept her from getting stale.

'Let's see, two more should get us to Winter Break...' Would "The Crucible" be just too hackneyed for November and the Thanksgiving period? Green eyes temporarily unfocused as the teacher tapped the ballpoint against her lower lip.

Deeply lost in her planning, Barbara almost stuffed the pen up her own nose when a low voice purred directly in her ear, "I dunno, Red. Why don't you just shoot 'em all and save them the misery?"


Trying to look marginally less flustered than she was feeling, the older woman wheeled her chair around sharply, pointedly *not* concerned with avoiding the younger woman's toes. 'Let her little cat feet just deal with it', she thought a trifle uncharitably. When she spoke, that too was a little more brusque than she'd intended.

"Good. God. Helena. One of these days, I'm going to have to put a bell on you!"

The dark head immediately dipped, hang-dog expression one that never failed to reduce the redhead to mush.

"I'm sorry, Barbara. I didn't realize you were so..."

Feeling guiltier by the minute for her over-reaction, Barbara saw even white teeth gnaw at a lush lower lip for a moment before the brunette continued, a guardedly hopeful expression on her face.

"I'll try harder to stomp next time...?"

Now Barbara was feeling like a total ogre. It wasn't Helena's fault that the older woman had been so wrapped up in her own thoughts. And, if the cupcake and can of soda in the brunette's hands were any indication, she'd been in the clock tower, rustling around in the kitchen, for at least a few minutes. And, it certainly wasn't the dark woman's fault that she just naturally moved so very, very silently. Barbara mentally added in the fact that she hadn't seen Helena since the morning before; and *this* was how she reacted?

Time to start over.

"No, I'm sorry for snapping at you, Hel." The older woman exhaled, then smiled warmly. "Can we try this again?"

Barbara, oddly, felt her heart simultaneously clench and swell at the shyly spoken response.

"Barbara, I'll keep trying as long as you want me to. As long as you let me."

Nothing she could do with that except smile. Broadly.

"As long as you'll let me do the same, Hel. Now, come here and give me a proper hello."

Barbara's smile grew as the brunette stepped forward, set her snack on the desk, and leaned down to brush her mouth softly to hers. The older woman thought she heard Helena breathe out "Hi, Red" even while the younger woman's lips tenderly -- almost hesitantly -- brushed and nibbled at Barbara's upper lip. When she felt that pierced tongue softly trace along her parted lips, the redhead broke. It simply wasn't enough.

Grasping slim shoulders, the older woman gave a sharp tug and neatly dropped the brunette into her lap. Barbara immediately slid her hand down Helena's arm, began to stroke the younger woman's throat and upper chest.

"Better", the redhead husked as Helena continued the frustratingly slow caresses of her mouth against Barbara's.

Let's see....

The older woman dropped her hand to knead eagerly, almost roughly, at one of Helena's breasts. The younger woman's instantaneous response shocked but hardly displeased the redhead.

Those soft lips froze against Barbara's mouth even as the brunette opened her mouth slowly, her jaw rigid, to groan "Oh, fuck yes!"

Barbara was fairly certain that she felt something in her lower abdomen clench in response. She had no doubts about the heat which roared through her chest.

A moment later, the redhead experienced a fleeting sensation of loss, followed by a frisson of excitement as Helena tore her mouth away to arch her head back, even as her hips began to rock in time to the older woman's kneading hand. Unable to resist the slim column of tan flesh offered so temptingly, Barbara attached her mouth to Helena's pulse point, sparing just a moment's regret that her other hand was effectively pinned under the brunette's back.

The lithe figure's throaty groan thrilled the redhead anew. The low growl inspired her.

Barbara used her not-inconsiderable upper body strength to wriggle the arm pinned behind the brunette down, down until she could reach the other woman's hip. Without the slightest hesitation, the redhead palmed the firm flesh on her lap, massaging in counterpoint to the hand still kneading Helena's breast. The young woman's hips bucked urgently, almost violently.

My god, Helena was so responsive, so completely...ready.

As was she, herself, Barbara acknowledged. Patience be damned. Today. Right now. She would finally have the time to focus on Helena, to touch, to taste...

Barbara dropped her hand from the soft sweet flesh of Helena's chest and began to pluck at the buttons of the brunette's jeans. The young woman's writhing temporarily stymied her efforts, and so she lowered her hand to cup Helena's center. Astonished by the heat radiating from the brunette, the older woman yanked her mouth from that delicious neck.

Was that a *hickey* she'd left?

Barbara glimpsed a flash of bright gold before Helena's eyes squeezed shut, the gamine features absolutely rigid. Reeling from the intensity of the brunette's response, not to mention her own, the older woman lifted her hand from Helena's center. Over the quiet whine of protest, Barbara fumbled frantically at the button fly, all-the-while whispering, "Oh, Sweetheart. Yes. Let me in there. Let me touch you."

Just as she conquered the second button and was giving serious consideration to just by-passing the other damned buttons, the redhead felt her fingers grasped gently, her movements halted absolutely.

Had *she* made that soft whimper of protest?

Barbara jerked her gaze from the brunette's body to her face. Wet blue eyes stared pleadingly into green, even as the older woman felt her hand being moved, gently but with no hint of hesitation, to the arm of her chair.

"What is it, Hel? What do you - " The redhead's husky rasp was summarily cut off.

"Dinah's coming."

The brunette gracefully leapt from Barbara's lap and, without a backward look, disappeared into the training room.

Barbara wanted to scream.

Two hours later, the redhead had calmed down considerably, actually managing to complete two other syllabi between interactions with Dinah. The young blonde had regaled her guardian with tales of shopping for the latest required wardrobe essentials for the upcoming school year and had even shyly modeled an outfit or two. However, when the teen had suggested joining Helena to do some sparring, Barbara unhesitatingly put the kibosh on that idea; the sounds emitting from the training room were hard and fast. Somehow, the redhead thought it might be unwise to put Dinah between Helena and the furious energy the dark woman was obviously working out.

Barbara almost missed it when the brunette finally emerged, only the profound silence from the training room tipping her off that Helena might be through with her workout. The redhead glanced away from the Delphi just in time to catch the younger woman, sweat-soaked and glowering, as she moved silently down the hall and headed directly to the shower. Barbara made a mental note to look into getting a new heavy bag -- there couldn't be much left of it after today's pounding -- and strained to hear the almost inaudible singing from the bathroom.

Find yourself a partner and treat them well

Try to give them shelter night and day

'Cause here in this blue light

Far away from the fireside

Things can get twisted and crazy and crowded

You can't even feel right

Frowning slightly, the redhead attempted to place the haunting melody.

So you dream of Columbus

Every time the panic starts

You dream of Columbus

With your maps and your beautiful charts

You dream of Columbus

With an ache in your travelling heart

The song was lovely but not quite what she'd expected... hoped for. Perhaps more Shania Twain or, given the brunette's just-completed rounds with the heavy bag, even some "Eye of the Tiger".

Rubbing her temples, fighting a low-grade constant of aggravation, Barbara sighed and returned her attention to the Delphi.

The cyber-crime-fighter was still wading through the terabytes of decrypted data from the Sports Arena. So far, it all seemed to be a record of instantaneous sales, then returns, of blocks of tickets. If she could just find a pattern somewhere...

Suddenly the pieces of the puzzle clicked into place.

She'd been so caught up in the content of the data pouring into the arena that she'd only spared brief attention to the effect of the messages.

Uh huh, thought so.

The arena's fall-through for the vast quantity of data led to an array of computers on a network shared by numerous New Gotham businesses. When the terabytes of data hit the secondary network, there was no way that the businesses on it wouldn't feel the hit. A bit more cross-checking on the origin of the transmissions -- cleverly masked, but really just a moment's work for the Oracle -- against the businesses on the secondary network, and she had it.

"Oh good grief." The redhead's cheeks dimpled as she debated whether to let loose from her sizeable store of expletives or simply burst into amazed laughter.

The fiendish mastermind behind all of this was, well, one Harold Grivens, who'd run up a sizeable outstanding balance at the NG Comic Emporium and, apparently, had his credit suspended. In return, he was trying to cripple the store's network access.

Barbara couldn't believe it. She'd spent a week on this only to discover that it was some kid who was disgruntled about not getting his Spiderman fix.

Well, they couldn't all be plots to take over the world, the redhead smiled philosophically. She quickly programmed a tracer block which would pop up with a warning to cut the crap the next time hacker-boy tried his thing.

There. If Harold ignored her warning, his computer would get hit with enough bugs to take his mind off comic books for a good long time. Nothing destructive or damaging, mind you; just... aggravating.

After a moment's reflection, she was unable to resist adding a secondary pop-up with a suggestion to visit the public library for better reading material. She did manage to suppress her urge to recommend some titles.

A tank of hot water later, Barbara cheerfully looked up from a crossword puzzle to see the brunette noisily approaching. The younger woman had commandeered one of the redhead's sweat suits, and Barbara absently noted that it was decidedly baggy on the smaller woman.

She looked absolutely adorable. Adorable? Had she thought that?

Apparently conscious of the older woman's scrutiny, Helena paused several yards from the base of the Delphi platform, then teased, "Sorry, Red, I'm still working on the stomping thing."

Barbara's mouth suddenly felt very dry as the younger woman resumed her deliberate approach. Was the brunette... stalking? If those gleaming blue eyes were any indication, perhaps she was.

"Well, Ms. Gordon, are you ready to get back to our too-long-delayed physical activities?"

Fighting a shiver from the purring tone and unable to articulate a single syllable, the redhead nodded.

"Let's get to it then, huh?"

That was a smirk, definitely a smirk, Barbara decided.

The older woman also wasn't quite sure about the 'short and to the point' approach that Helena was taking, but, as she felt her heart rate increase under that burning blue gaze, Barbara had to admit that brevity could, indeed, be the soul of wit.

"So, whaddaya think? On the floor here..." Barbara blinked. She couldn't have heard that right; Dinah was just down the hall in her room. She listened attentively as Helena finished her question. "... or the training room?"

"Excus..." Coughing delicately, the older woman evicted the frog from her throat and started again. "I'm sorry. Perhaps I misunderstood something?"

The redhead realized she'd definitely been had -- not the hardest thing to pull over on her right now; apparently her brain simply ceased to function normally around the brunette.

"I was asking if you want to do your physio here or..." a slim hand fluttered towards the training room, and Barbara grimaced slightly as dark brows waggled playfully.

Oh, what the heck. She was long overdue, Barbara admitted with a chuckle. Bowing to the necessary, the older woman risked an innuendo of her own as she headed towards the training room.

"You take such good care of me, Hel. Can you think of anything I can do to reward you later?"

Later, forty hard minutes later, Barbara was feeling pleasantly, thoroughly stretched. She was also faintly amazed at the self-discipline her younger partner had been showing: While the older woman had been tempted at several points -- in all honesty, constantly -- to cut the session short and move on to other activities, Helena had remained completely focused and business-like.

"I'm not letting you slide this time, Red," she'd growled playfully the one time that Barbara had hinted about more... rewarding exercises.

And so, Barbara watched the long slim hands moving her legs, distractedly answering questions about the last two in-service days and listening to Helena good-naturedly kvetch about doing inventory at the bar: her amazement at the amount of dust she'd inhaled; her dismay at the discovery of a case of hot dogs which had somehow escaped the refrigerator *much* too long ago...

"I mean, really, Barbara. It's just disturbing. Wouldn't you think that a 'meat product'", her voice encapsulated the term in quotation marks, "which has been sitting in a box under three cases of cheap vodka for four months would have given up the ghost and rotted by now or something? I'm telling you," she paused to check her placement as she slowly flexed the redhead's right knee, "other than the addition of a shiny leathery sheen, these puppies looked just like the dogs we serve every day."

Barbara watched blue eyes widen, then blink, as the younger woman considered the implications of *that* observation. Apparently, the brunette decided not to pursue that train of thought, shaking her head slightly and continuing her narrative.

"Anyway, like I said; it was really grody, Barbara." Tone teasingly petulant, the brunette added, "I'm probably gonna have nightmares for weeks. Doing battle with giant weenies and fighting the forces of nitrates or something."

Ignoring the blatant play for sympathy, Barbara laughed and then asked, "Well, if the date stamp was on the outside of the box, Hel, why *did* you even open it up?"

The question seemed reasonable to the older woman, however, the aggrieved look on the other woman's face suggested that she thought Barbara was clearly not seeing the whole picture. Barbara kept a straight face as Helena launched into a highly passionate explanation about the benefits of scientific curiosity and why the older woman, of all people, should appreciate that sort of intellectual curiosity.

When the brunette's diatribe wound down -- just as the physio was ending as well, Barbara noted -- the redhead experienced a tremendous wave of tenderness towards the other woman washing through her. Among the many other responsibilities Helena shouldered, she had always, Barbara realized, tried to be sure that there was laughter in their life.

Watching the younger woman as she conscientiously finished with a light calf massage, Barbara realized that, perhaps, putting some laughter in her life wasn't quite what the younger woman had been up to this time. Helena's amusing patter and repartee were about more than jollying her, Barbara suspected; the brunette was distracting her, distancing them from the romantic and sensual connection they'd been enjoying earlier. And, not just in the interest of completing overdue PT; while Helena had always been conscientious about the twice-weekly sessions, even Barbara -- the brunette's decidedly biased number one fan -- had to admit that the younger woman had never had any problem re-arranging priorities in her pursuit of physical pleasures.

Helena, the redhead realized, wanted to avoid having her thinking about sex right now. With a sharp intake of air, Barbara followed the thought to its rational conclusion: Helena wanted to avoid sex... intimacy with her.

Perhaps the young woman heard the noise and interpreted it as a sign of discomfort, for she was beside the redhead in an instant, kneeling by Barbara's side. For the second time that afternoon, Barbara Gordon seriously entertained the notion of screaming when, instead of the sweet intimate connection she craved, there were only slim fingers shakily brushing the hair from her face.

Then, Helena straightened and took a deep breath. Had the brunette's eyes just augmented for a moment? Barbara felt a strong arm under her back, knew there was another under her knees, as the brunette lifted her and helped her settle into her chair. When Helena moved to turn away, the redhead reached out, tangling their fingers, tugging the younger woman back around.

Barbara vowed she'd be damned if she allowed the younger woman shut her out.

Green eyes searched the brunette's face, insistently focusing on Helena's attempts to hide her eyes, *willing* the younger woman to look at her. When Helena quietly sighed and looked up, the redhead discovered that those phenomenal blue eyes were looking at her with longing... and anguish.

"Hel? What is it? What's going on?"

The response was so quiet, so *tiny*, that the redhead had to strain to hear it.

"Can we talk...uh, about Quinn?"

Oh. Of course.

Barbara struggled to keep her expression open and inviting. "Of course, Sweetheart. Whatever you want."

For a long, painful minute, the older woman could only hear Helena's rapid breathing as the younger woman kept her face turned, features obscured by the fall of dark hair. When she detected the minute trembling of slender shoulders, Barbara recognized the fear -- terror? -- for what it was and spoke instinctively.

"Helena? Remember? There's nothing you can tell me that's going to change how I feel about you. About us. Nothing."

The words were halting: "She's uh, planning something at Arkham..."

Part 25

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