DISCLAIMER: I do not own the characters. They are the property of DC comics and the WB network. I'm just borrowing them for a short period of time.
MUSIC DISCLAIMER: Song lyrics don't belong to me either; no profit gained or infringement intended.
SERIES: Third part of the Elemental series following Landslide and Watershed.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.


Chapter 1

"Honestly, I really didn't feel a thing."

And, that was the truth of the matter, even if the comment earned Barbara Gordon a big laugh in the process.

Swinging into her chair from the decimated remains of the wooden box she'd helped decorate only a few weeks before, the redhead could only trust that allowing her students to see her in a humorous light would be a positive event. Heaven only knew, most of them were so filled with angst and hormones and self-consciousness that any opportunity to show that they didn't have to take themselves so seriously should be beneficial.

And to think, serving as a role model for the intrepid set had only cost her a lung full of sawdust and -- Green eyes blinked suddenly as the analytical woman looked down to her lap.

Well, apparently, it had nearly lost her her legs, too.

Returning to the main floor and settling herself next to her companion, Barbara wryly acknowledged that her admonition to Dinah -- when she'd finally allowed herself to be persuaded to become "a volunteer from the audience" -- might not have been too far off the mark at all.

As she'd ascended to the stage not too many minutes before, she'd easily observed the stark nervousness in her young ward's features. Despite Dinah's success in pulling various objects from a hat, bending spoons, and making her assistant, Gabby, disappear, the young woman's stage fright, apparently, hadn't abated.

Clearly, that wouldn't do. The Senior Follies were meant to be enjoyed both by the audience *and* by the performers.

Watching the teen prime the chain saw for her magic trick while she'd fitted herself into position to be cut in half, the older woman had caught pale blue eyes and smiled confidently.

"When you get me in half, Dinah, can you work on replacing my legs with a pair which work?"

After a half-dozen startled blinks of pale lashes, the girl had grinned expansively and revved her saw with a gusto which would have put a chainsaw murderer to shame. Dinah had visibly relaxed, running through her light patter easily and welding the saw on the box -- with Barbara in it -- with elan.

Perhaps -- green eyes warily regarded the severed belt loop on the outer most side of her jeans -- a bit too much elan.

The sensation of slender fingers insinuating with hers and a gentle squeeze against her hand drew the redhead from her consideration about her young ward's stage presence. The sight of blue eyes twinkling in the dim theater and a dark head leaning towards her caused Barbara to respond in kind. Tilting her head, she barely made out Helena's whisper as it carried softly under the Choral Club's finale -- an up-tempo medley of Rogers and Hammerstein show tunes.

"The Kid's good with a chain saw, huh?"

Smirking, Barbara contented herself with a nod, then barely managed to swallow her chuckle when the brunette continued.

The hills might have been alive with the sound of music, but her partner's voice was verdant with satisfied pride.

"I showed her that over-the-head circle thing, you know."

It took most of the redhead's considerable will and power of concentration to do so, but somehow she straightened and arched one crimson brow, mustering her best prim school marm expression.

"Indeed, Hel. Perhaps you'll also help her repair the curtain she sliced through with that little move, as well?"

Expecting a laugh or an indignant refusal, Barbara was unprepared when the dark figure on her right leaned close again. She shivered as warm fingers released her hand and danced across the waist of her jeans, tugging at the recently mutilated belt loop. She nearly moaned when a soft whisper teased her ear.

"Nah. I'm going to be busy taking advantage of the opening the Kid started here."

Something warm and thick rose in the older woman's chest, and she fought to breathe, to steady herself against the overwhelming power the younger woman seemed to possess over her. Perhaps fortuitously, the thick drive also pushed before it -- naturally -- a rush of heat to the redhead's cheeks. Moving slowly, hoping for stealth in the darkened auditorium, Barbara casually captured her ebullient partner's restless fingers and squeezed lightly. Without glancing to the side, she husked her reply.

"Soon, Hel."

The brunette's sub vocal growl raised the fine hairs on the back of her neck and left the older woman wondering if Helena -- or she -- would make it through the evening. Given the mood that the younger woman had been in before leaving the clock tower -- honestly, given her own mood -- the chances seemed fifty-fifty at best.

The house lights slowly coming up in tandem with the chorus' rousing finale distracted the redhead, but only for a moment. While the fresh faced singers lauded the winds sweeping o'er the plains of Oklahoma, it was the sight of Helena's hands sweeping up the inside of the younger woman's own thighs which evoked a large measure of Barbara's surprisingly energetic applause.

Just over an hour later, sipping a wine spritzer so weak that it definitely couldn't have been in conflict with the school's No Alcohol policy, the English teacher wished that she'd managed to hold on to the burst of energy which had possessed her at the conclusion of the Senior Follies. She simply couldn't imagine how many more times she could feign enthusiasm for yet another vacuous conversation about the track team's chances at State.

Truthfully, given Helena's -- and her own -- reaction in the auditorium earlier, Barbara had considered skipping the faculty get-together after the student production. Yet, after all of the trouble she'd gone through to convince Helena to accompany her -- including a promise that the event would *not* count toward one of their twice-weekly dates -- the redhead simply wouldn't allow herself to back out. If nothing else, this was the first school function which she'd attended since... well, since things had changed with the younger woman.

Smiling pleasantly, Barbara managed to murmur something suitably non-committal yet pro-school spirit about the sophomore sensation on the relay team. Even as she idly decided that, if it hadn't existed, the term 'ectomorph' would have been invented to describe Jimmy Wilson, the redhead scanned the shifting crowd, searching for one particular person and hoping that she wasn't being too obvious... or too ridiculously clingy.

While she'd not -- as she'd teased Helena earlier -- kept the younger woman by her side for the party, Barbara had noticed a marked disinclination to lose sight of the brunette for too long. Some of that, she allowed, might be the younger woman's sheer vivaciousness and ability to skip through the most tedious of conversations: Barbara had never been above allowing herself to be rescued at parties. Another part, the older woman admitted on a faint blush, was the pure enjoyment of admiring the lithe figure in her form-fitting purple shirt and just-tight-enough slacks.

The remainder of course probably *was* pure adolescent sappiness. Regardless of the fact that it wasn't yet a topic for public consumption, the relentlessly practical woman felt strangely giddy to be at a function with her... girlfriend.

Green eyes narrowed slightly as Barbara evaluated the word, finding that it was not entirely to her taste.


Most definitely.


It seemed like forever.


A soft smile captured the older woman's face as she considered the layers of meaning in that word, embracing them all.


Unbeknownst to the older woman, her soft small transformed to something a bit less innocent, and Barbara shivered.

Belatedly recalling that she was, nominally, engaged in a conversation, the redhead looked up, ready with another "Go team" endorsement, only to find that the topic had shifted to the upcoming summer school schedule. Since she couldn't summon the slightest interest in a topic which she'd already digested and dispensed with seven weeks earlier, Barbara nodded her exit and moved to the buffet table. Once there, she pretended to pick over the array of rapidly congealing dips while actually watching Helena crack up the unfortunately named Coach Dudley Fallure.

If memory served, Dudley had taught Helena's senior class in state government. Still, if the laugh booming through the faculty lounge and the shaking of the man's beer gut were any indication, he apparently bore no ill-will for the numerous acts of civil disobedience the younger woman had experimented with during that year.

Giving up on the dips, Barbara calculated -- for the fifth time -- whether she had put in enough time at the party and could make a circumspect exit with the other woman. She immediately dismissed the notion since there was no way to make either an entrance or an exit with Helena which didn't attract attention. The only question remaining was, did she care who noticed and what conclusions they drew?

The analytical woman was honest enough to admit that, despite the public venue of this staff party, she wasn't exactly outing herself. After all, Helena -- or her dad, or Helena and her dad -- had accompanied her to a number of school functions before this. The difference was, the redhead decided, internal: *she* knew that things had changed, and it cast the party in an entirely different emotional light.

A thin shadow blocked the light, and a swirling paisley dress blocked the view of the deceptively slender brunette across the room. Blinking to refocus, the redhead looked up, thoughts of her own little struggle instantly pushed to one side and, simultaneously, brought to the forefront.


Somehow, the English teacher managed a civil tone and a relatively gracious nod for the superannuated History teacher. Since their conversation at the bookstore several weeks before, she'd managed to avoid any encounters with the woman.

"Barbara." Alethea Harkness pursed her lips in a saccharine smile. "So lovely to see you up on stage this evening helping out your newest little project."

Very, very slowly, the redhead retrieved a carrot stick from the relish tray. Working for nonchalance despite the hot gust of anger blowing through her, she snapped the vegetable on the diagonal and absently tested the point she'd created against her index finger.

She was spared the need for an action which would have certainly cast her hopes of a city pension into doubt when a warm hand came to rest lightly on her shoulder and a low soprano purred from behind her.

"Yeah, Barbara and Dinah made it look really safe, didn't they? Maybe you want to volunteer next time?"

Hastily nibbling at her makeshift weapon to cover a delighted chuckle, the redhead gratefully looked up and caught blue eyes. After a split second's hesitation, she reached up to capture the slender hand and tugged the younger woman to her side, blandly facing the obviously affronted older woman.

"Alethea, I believe you remember my partner, Helena?"

An almost electric current ran up the back of her arm when Barbara felt the brunette minutely stroking her thumb against the back of her hand. She offered a gentle squeeze in response even as the History teacher collected herself to peer primly over her glasses, radiating how very, very unimpressed she was with the younger woman.

"Yes, your partner in some sort of online pastry business, isn't it?"

Barbara felt her partner's muscles vibrate the tiniest bit under her fingers.

Circumspection be damned.

Despite wanting to scratch the old biddy's eyes out, the redhead somehow mustered an almost bland smile. Then, she held her partner's gaze as she purred her reply.

"Among many, many other things, Alethea."

While the older woman's noisy inhalation and the rapid blinking behind thick lenses was almost reward enough, Barbara found that her partner's response -- a shy duck of her head which masked a sweet smile -- was more than sufficient thanks for her little feat of courage. Still, she was not entirely satisfied with her own efforts in expressing her gratitude for Helena's capable defense of Dinah and herself. Somehow -- as was so often the case -- the younger woman had been there for her, for their family.

Cheerfully bidding Alethea farewell, the redhead caught her partner's eyes.

"Are you ready to leave, Hel?"

An enthusiastic nod galvanized the older woman's round of farewells and, within ten minutes, she found herself settling into the passenger seat of the van, simultaneously nervous and curious about exactly what sort of gossip might greet her on Monday morning. Pushing that thought firmly to the back of her cortex, she tugged the strap of her shoulder belt across her chest, then released it.

Ignoring the quiet whir of the material retracting into its holder, Barbara leaned to the side and stretched out to weave her fingers loosely through the silken hair at the base of her partner's neck. She just had time to observe the surprised widening bright blue eyes before she tugged the younger woman toward her and captured her mouth for a deep, hungry kiss.

Barbara was pleased, although hardly surprised, to find that the brunette responded to the sudden oral assault with her usual catlike reflexes, stretching forward on a soft moan to take her in. For long, lovely moments, the older woman lost herself in the warm strokes and liquid dance of tongues and teeth and lips, shifting herself slightly to bring her free hand to her partner's face and thrilling to the subtle play of muscles against her palm.

Gradually, grudgingly, she disentangled herself enough to rest her forehead against her companion's and pried her eyes open. Approximately four centimeters away, blue eyes blinked happily.

"What was that about, Babs?"

Struggling not to bat her own eyes reflexively at the sweep of thick dark lashes so close to her, Barbara peripherally noted the younger woman trailing the tip of her tongue around the edges of her lips in a movement which was, somehow, unbearably sensual.

"Not that I mind or anythi--"

The older woman thought that her smile -- one which was undoubtedly doting... or possibly just dopey -- silenced the brunette's utterance. The sudden silence might also have had something to do with her pulling back, transfixed by the juxtaposition of her own pale fingers tracing the darker skin of the younger woman's jaw and neck. Or, perhaps it had been her ragged sigh when she'd witnessed gooseflesh rising against the sweep of her fingertips.

Unconcerned both by Helena's question and her abrupt speechlessness, Barbara leaned in again to brush her mouth against the brunette's neck. Still, she didn't forget that they had been engaged in a conversation of sorts.


The redhead's murmured question whispered across the millimeters of air separating her lips from the younger woman's throat, and Barbara was certain that she felt the fine hair on her partner's skin vibrate in reaction. She was quite positive that she felt the thready jump of the lithe woman's pulse against her chin.

Crimson lashes lowered to shut out unnecessary sensory distraction as the older woman swept her tongue into the concave hollow at the base of Helena's throat. She then nipped softly at the other woman's sharply delineated clavicle before sucking fiercely at her pulse point, focusing on one small patch of skin and savoring the sweetly musky taste until the younger woman's rumbling purr threatened to numb her lips from the vibrations alone.

Steadying herself, Barbara straightened minutely, skimming her fingers across the faintly red, wet mark she'd left and allowing them to trail into the intriguing shadows of decolletage.

"Hmmm," she prompted again, not quite certain what they'd been discussing, but fairly confident that Helena had been saying something.


The response, barely more than a hiss, suggested that, in these circumstances, conversation was overrated. The older woman felt her palms tingle when her partner arched into her touch, leaning in for another kiss which could best be described as 'tonsil-swabbing'.

A niggling awareness of the size of the van's front window and of the fact that a parking lot light was fully illuminating their little passion play finally separated the redhead from the moment. She regretfully pulled back, a bit dumbfounded to find her hand inside Helena's shirt -- for that matter, inside *any* item of clothing not on her own person -- in the very public parking lot of the school.

She managed, just barely, not to jerk her fingers free of the younger woman's top and, momentarily, found reason to regret the slow caress she'd indulged herself with. Her partner's response -- a quick jerk of her hips -- not to mention a marked flare of heat in her own chest evoked a sudden, uncharacteristic desire to insinuate herself between the younger woman's knees and... and...

Green eyes blinked once, twice, as Barbara struggled with the shocking strength of her own desire.

Her own... want.

On the second decent, she left her eyes closed for a beat, grappling with the graphic urges and images blowing through her: she could clearly visualize her lover arching and bucking under her mouth and hands; she could almost hear the younger woman's soft whimpers, culminating in a keening cry; she could practically taste the rich, intimate essence which she knew would flood across them both.

The sheer visceral intensity of it all was staggering, leaving the relentlessly responsible woman teetering over an abyss of temptation. Yet, as she clenched her hands against her thighs, reality reared its head, and she exhaled slowly, abandoning the wild flight of fancy and, concurrently, facing the reasons for her reticence.

It *wasn't* the very public nature of the venue, nor the fact that the van was in the school parking lot.

Well, at least it wasn't just those two factors. After all, back in the day, Barbara hadn't been unfamiliar with working off a bit of the heat from a fight in some less-than-private ways with Dick.

Rather, it was the impossibility of what she wanted. What she wanted was -- van or no, public or private -- simply not something she could do. In four achingly slow and deliberate blasts at the hands of a green-haired madman, she -- and her lover -- had been denied that sort of spontaneity.

Straightening into her own seat, Barbara inclined her head as she opened her eyes. She deliberately allowed the fall of her hair to shield her features while she schooled herself then turned with an apologetic smile. The wicked glint in the golden eyes which met green easily intimated that the redhead had not, perhaps, been alone in her flight of fantasy.

The older woman smirked as her companion hooked a thumb toward the back of the vehicle, then laughed outright at the hopeful waggle of dark brows.

"Whaddaya say, Red? It *is* a van..."

Although she'd firmly dismissed the idea and, truthfully, suspected that Helena wasn't entertaining any serious hopes about a backseat interlude, Barbara cocked one brow.

"What about all of the gear bags, Hel? There are some delicate electronics back there..."

Snorting softly, the brunette rolled eyes which were reverting to their normal stunning blue. The older woman drew in a slow breath as she watched a sinful smile ease across gamine features.

"You know what, Barbara?"

Barbara moved her head from left to right very slowly, truthfully having no idea what might be running through the other woman's very imaginative mind.

"I think I want to eat something."

"This is news?"

She managed to keep the words light, even as she readied herself for any number of less-than-subtle entendres.

Of course, given where her own mind had just been, she had to admit that she really didn't have much room for offended propriety.

Blue eyes twinkled as slender fingers turned the key in the ignition.

"Let's go get some pancakes."

It wasn't until Barbara was tucking into the lumberjack-sized portion of buckwheat pancakes which she'd ordered -- they were such a favorite and so hard to find -- that she thought to ask her partner about what had inspired the craving. When slitted blue eyes met green, the older woman briefly forgot how to chew; however, she discovered that the younger woman's words did a great deal to spark her appetite -- again -- for the feast in front of her.

"It's for you. You're gonna need the carbs later."

Chapter 2

Complex carbohydrates. That just might do it.

Rather, if she could update her program with an automatic lookup for the food of the day featured in the USDA website's carbohydrate tier, then fire off a query to the CarbBase site to pull in the structure of the specific carbohydrate and use that as the basis for a random number generation, Barbara thought she just might be able to beef up her encryption program enough to stymie the decryption algorithm she was continually testing.

Since, in the world of bits and bytes, there simply was no such thing as a genuine random number, the cyber-genius had been spinning her wheels for non-derivative approaches to seeding such a number generator. System bit time, file lengths, even kilohertz cycling of the computer were all readily available and simply too obvious and, thus, easily replicated by her decryption code. This idea, however, especially if she expanded it to include a mini-database of other sites to query for crystalline structures, might just throw enough complexity into her algorithm to keep her busy on the decryption side of matters for a few days.

Grimacing ruefully at her own compulsivity with this particular mental exercise wheel, Barbara wryly wondered just who... or what... she could eventually use the encryption code for. It already packed enough punch to safeguard the codes for Fort Knox and the President's little black box combined.

Perhaps, she allowed as her expression eased into a smirk, she could offer the technology to some of the world's soda and fast food manufacturers as a method to safeguard their secret formulas.

That whimsical consideration, naturally, returned her attention to the basis for her current satisfaction: namely, the idea of using carbohydrate structures. More specifically, the redhead realized that she was dwelling, at some length and in glorious detail, about some of the specific benefits of late evening carbohydrate consumption.

Straightening, she removed her glasses and rolled her neck, releasing some of the ever-present tension in her shoulders and upper back. Unconsciously checking the time, she absently tapped one earpiece against her lower lip.

Was she becoming too food obsessed?

She had heard that new love -- like the first year at college -- often led to the dreaded extra ten pounds. If she were honest with herself, the pancake binge on Friday evening or even -- the redhead felt heat touch her cheeks at the memory -- a recent indulgence with dark chocolate mousse were a bit difficult to justify, regardless of how many calories she might expend in later indoor activities. Perhaps adding an extra day each week in the training room wouldn't be a bad idea.

Pursing her lips sourly at that idea -- reps on the weight circuit were, without doubt, simply dull -- the redhead cast about for other options, brightening immediately when she realized that the weekly outings she planned for her partner might fill the bill nicely. If she merely planned activities with a physical element to them she could have the dual benefit of keeping herself in shape while allowing her to watch her companion get sweaty in the process.

Green eyes lost focus and tracked to the left while the analytical woman reviewed some options.

Sculling in the city park pond might be nice; however it was still a bit cool for that. If they wanted to engage in water sports, for the time being, the school's huge indoor pool always beckoned.

Shopping, as had been so recently demonstrated by her youngest charge, could certainly be a high-energy activity, and it was something which Helena enjoyed. Nevertheless, Barbara had to admit that she'd absolutely shopped her limit the week before with Dinah.

Kite flying on Saturday afternoon had been fun, however the actual exertion involved for her had been minimal; in contrast, Helena had worked up quite an appetite climbing numerous trees to retrieve their errant kites.

A slow smile crept across the older woman's face as she stumbled on a likely activity -- one she'd been meaning to try for years and might just be doable, despite some of her constraints. The redhead suspected that her smile took on a different edge as her always active imagination supplied some images about ways to utilize gear from the specific activity which had nothing to do with... outdoor recreation.

Shaking her head in bemusement, she reseated her glasses and turned back to her terminal window, chuckling softly.

"Concentrate on your coding, Gordon..."

Her chuckle transformed into a sharp gasp and her head snapped up with potentially dangerous velocity when a cheerful voice interrupted her thoughts.

"What's funny about programming?"

"Puppies and kittens, Helena!"

The redhead jerked the rim of one wheel with her left hand, performing a swift forty-five degree turn, even as her right hand flew to her chest.

"You scared the hell out..."

Deciding that the extent of her reaction to her partner's cat-footed entrance spoke for itself, the older woman drew in a fortifying breath and concentrated on returning her heart rate to something below one hundred beats per minute. Concurrently, she worked to identify the words which had given her such a sudden start.

Laughing lightly as the lithe brunette strolled toward the Delphi platform, she removed her glasses and obfuscated slightly.

"Oh, I was just wondering if I've been overeating, Hel, and thinking about some ways to work off the extra calories."

A puzzled quirk of a dark brow was the only response as the other woman leapt lightly onto the platform and leaned against the edge of the table.

Barbara supposed that the younger woman's confusion was natural: with her physiology and rigorous activities on sweeps, Helena could -- and did -- eat like a high school football team. Resultantly, she waved her glasses vaguely and worked to clarify matters.

"Er, that, new love phenomenon?"

A hearty laugh -- a long, head-thrown-back guffaw, in fact -- greeted that, leaving the older woman a bit uncertain until her partner raked her with a frankly assessing gaze, then grinned wolfishly.

"No worries, Red. You could stand an extra pound or two."

Green eyes flashed as Barbara readied herself to counter any comments about there being more of her to love. Her pique diminished considerably when the other woman continued cheerfully.

" 'Sides, I've always heard the opposite. You know, the three signs that a woman is in love?"

The older woman searched her infallible memory, and, not surprisingly, came up blank.

Being in love had never exactly been her metier.

Despite the suspicion that she was going to regret asking, she was helpless to stop herself.

"And, what signs are those, Helena?"

She placed her glasses carefully by her mouse pad, casually brushing the other woman's leg in the process. She didn't miss how the lean muscles tightened at the brief touch, however the brunette didn't allow herself to become too distracted.

"Oh, you know: You can't eat. You can't sleep."

A crimson brow arched primly in response to dark brows waggling meaningfully over the last word.

"...And you go out and buy yourself all new underwear."

The redhead's chuckle morphed into a short cough when she recalled that she had -- in a purely spontaneous and, thus, uncharacteristic manner -- paid a visit to Victoria's Secret not too many days before. Granted, in the interest of efficiency, she'd done her shopping online and had yet to receive her shipment of new unmentionables; however that fact did little to alleviate her mild befuddlement over what had been, apparently, completely predictable behavior.

Barbara's bemusement gave way to mild exasperation when her younger partner straightened, casually kicking off her boots, unbuttoning her pants, and beginning to shimmy out of them. She waited until the brunette divested herself of her multi-hued shirt and turned toward the bedroom, wardrobe items in hand, before venturing an observation.

"You do realize, Sweetheart, that we could just rent a truck? Or, you could make a few trips with the Hummer."

While the newly co-owned closet space in the bedroom was dwindling rapidly, the older woman's practical side continued to chafe at her partner's insistence on bringing only one set of clothes at a time -- doubled over her outfit of the day -- from her apartment.

Just disappearing into the hallway, the brunette arrested her progress and popped her head around the corner, her grin completely infectious.

"Hey, this way I get to see how fabulous I look in all of this stuff from the back of my closet."

The dark head ducked quickly, but the other woman's tone remained light.

"Also, I don't want to overwhelm you, Red."

Not completely positive that the other woman was referring only to the volume of her wardrobe, Barbara managed a stiff smile while Helena resumed her trip to the bedroom, voice fading slightly but still carrying down the hallway.

"I figure another hundred outfits and I can start bringing my boots and shoes over."

The dark woman bounced back into the living room with an bright smile.

"Now *that's* really gonna be scary."

The redhead laughed softly as her partner rejoined her.

"Not so scary, Hel. I'm sure my shoes won't be too intimidated. But..."

She pursed her lips thoughtfully.

"How will you manage to wear two pairs of shoes at once?"

Reaching for her back pocket, Helena froze for a beat, blue eyes widening in comic dismay. Finally, she shrugged offhandedly and leaned against the edge of the desk.

"We'll figure it out, Babs, right?"

The redhead grinned and automatically extended her hand to accept the bulky envelope which her companion had retrieved.

"You got them?"

Given the business label on the envelope, the question was completely superfluous; however, the older woman forgave herself the indulgence. Holding the weighty item, she felt a giddy thrill run through her at her partner's enthusiastic nod, and, for a split second, she flirted with the idea of tearing open the packet to rifle through it like a child on Christmas morning.

Perhaps fortuitously, Helena's next words distracted her from that idea.

"Uh huh. I even paid for half of it --"

Barbara felt her eyebrows crawling toward her hairline, but she managed a smile when the brunette stopped and corrected herself.

"-- well, most of half of it -- out of my own savings."

Carefully tucking the documents into the back of her equipment warranties drawer -- *not* a location that tended to encourage casual browsing -- the cyber-genius murmured a quiet protest.

"That wasn't necessary, Helena. You know that I planned to pay--"

A dark head shook emphatically.

"No, this is something I want to feel like I'm really helping out with, too."

The redhead nodded her understanding but, nevertheless, was compelled to object.

"It's terribly expensive, Sweetie, and it's really not nec--"

The younger woman shot to her feet, radiating tension and instantly silencing the redhead. Her voice vibrated roughly with more emotions than Barbara could identify.

"Shit, Barbara! I don't always have to be on the dole, you know!"

Since that wasn't what she'd meant to imply at all, the older woman found herself shaking her head, speechless, as her partner barreled on.

"And, it's not like I'm some fucking ki--"

Green eyes narrowed fractionally when the brunette abruptly cut off her impassioned words. Easily observing the tiny tic of the dark figure's tightly clenched jaw muscles, Barbara decided to press a bit and inclined her head to catch stormy blue eyes.

"Not what, Hel?"

Although she was reasonably confident that the muttered response -- "It's just... I can handle my money, you know" -- was not what the other woman had been starting to say, Barbara couldn't find it within herself to push any further. Instead, she carefully rested one hand on the brunette's arm, struggling for the words which might reassure her.

"I know that, Helena, and I'm sorry if it didn't seem that way."

Encouraged by the sight of blue eyes peeking petulantly through thick lashes, the older woman smiled apologetically and continued.

"You've already done so much already, Sweetheart, coming up with the plans and picking these up..."

Trailing off awkwardly, Barbara lifted her hand, fluttering it nervously in the direction of the warranties drawer. To her relief, the brunette's tension eased.

"Seriously, Babs."

The younger woman scrubbed the heels of her hands against her face, then flashed a wry grin.

"I can't believe you were really just gonna print out the confirmation e-mail as a gift and forget about it."

Relieved by the respite, the redhead rested two fingers against her lips to mask a smirk.

"A printout seemed logica-- "

Noting the way dark brows were rising, she hastily amended her words.

"-- er, adequate, but your idea is much better."

Cerulean eyes rolled dramatically, easily telegraphing how very, very unimpressed the younger woman was. Nevertheless, the low soprano held a teasing lilt.

"You really can't help yourself, can you, Red?"

Despite the hint of a rebuke inherent in the question, the cyber-genius couldn't stop the smile which creased her face.

"And, what is that which I can't help today?"

The brunette grinned, her words airy.

"That whole ... I dunno... linear thing of yours."

Barbara started to defend herself, however the affectionately doubtful look pinned on her simply took the wind out of her sails. Feeling herself color, the practical woman ruefully admitted to herself that she was, as Helena had termed it, linear; it seemed to be something within her on a molecular level, this propensity to look at the trees for the forest, as it were.

She gave up with a self-effacing laugh.

"That's me, Hel, just like plot points on a graph."

She smiled, this time with genuine humor.

"Just call me Graphical Gordon."

Her whimsical musings about changing her comms "handle" ended suddenly when the younger woman leaned down, bringing them nose to nose, and gave one of her trademark eyebrow waggles.

"I kind of prefer Graphic Gordon, Babs."

The slender figure smoothly flowed into the redhead's chair, resting her knees in the padding on each side of Barbara's legs. The cyber-genius found herself arching her head to meet the soft, warm lips brushing her ear.

"C'mon, share something graphic with me, Red."

With a mental shrug, the redhead did just that, whispering something so explicitly detailed that she felt herself blushing at her own temerity. The heat suffusing her seamlessly shifted to something else -- something more searing -- as she witnessed the blue eyes facing her flickering to gold and felt, rather than heard, the low rumble from her partner's chest.

Leaning forward a few inches, Barbara captured the tail of her lover's growl against her lips, pushing back her own moan as slender fingers danced across her shoulders. Softly, she traced the full lips which brushed hers, delighted and humbled yet again by her partner's apparent willingness to put herself in her hands.

The sensation of wiry muscles stiffening under her hands alerted the older woman to a change moments before the door to the training room burst open and Dinah bounded into the living area.

"So, are we going to work out today or what? Oh, uh -- sorry..."

Since she'd had a bit of warning, Barbara somehow managed to withdraw calmly -- avoiding an entirely unattractive gasp-and-jerk performance -- and captured her partner's fingers gently with a soft smile of promise.

To her distinct amazement, the older woman thought that her own blush might have been less heated than the color gracing Dinah's cheeks. Helena, naturally, exhibited no embarrassment about the interrupted moment, standing gracefully and leaping lightly from the platform.

"Oh, I'll make sure you get a workout today, Kid..."

Observing the wicked glint in her partner's blue eyes, Barbara clenched her jaw in anticipation.

"... I've got energy to burn today."

The brunette's growl was low but playful, and the redhead relaxed marginally when Helena left it at that, hooking an arm around the blonde's neck and herding her to the training room. Turning to save her work before she joined her charges for their regular mid-week workout, Barbara arrested her motion when something which Dinah was saying tickled her cortex.

It was something clearly teasing, the girl's slightly reedy soprano seemingly surprised at her own boldness.

It was something which evoked a hearty laugh from the blonde's companion in the training room.

It was something, if Barbara weren't mistaken, having to do with how Helena had been -- or had been ready to be -- tied up.

A blaze of heat covered the cyber-genius from her chest to her hairline, and she questioned, yet again, the wisdom of having her telepathic ward coming into contact with her lover. Dinah's words, she recognized with a long-suffering sigh, were a direct reference to the graphic image she'd painted for Helena only a few minutes before.

Chapter 3

"You burning yet, Babs?"

Working to regulate her breathing, Barbara's response was, perhaps understandably, a bit fragmented.

"...Ready as... I'll ever be... "

She raked her gaze across her partner's face, suddenly hit by a billowing delight to be sharing this with the other woman.

"...For this," the redhead added.

She barely managed to wet her very dry lips with the tip of her tongue before Helena leaned down, bringing them almost eye to eye, upper lip curling in what seemed to be a snarl.

"Let's do it."

Despite the fine sheen of sweat already enrobing her body, Barbara felt a shiver course through her at the whisper of delicate fingers across her abdomen. Blinking to give herself some distance, some sanity, in the face of the glittering blue eyes fixed on her, the redhead managed a relatively confident grin as she reached down to her own waist, cinching the D-ring a bit tighter against herself.

The dark figure hovering above her answered with her own eager grin, lithely shifting to kneel next to the redhead. With a bit more space at her disposal, Barbara scooted forward a few inches then slid two fingers under material at her waist, tracing the webbing around to her back, then down to her upper thighs.

Just because she couldn't feel most of it didn't mean she needed to invite chafing. It was really a shame that something in a soft -- but sturdy -- leather hadn't been available on short notice; still, if she and Helena... made a habit out of this, perhaps she could find something more to her taste.

Mentally rolling her eyes at the host of bad puns cavorting through her mind after that last thought, the analytical woman curiously raised her eyes when she felt a wisp of her hair brush her cheek. She discovered that the movement had been the result of her companion's apparent restlessness: the brunette was leaning close again, the force of her breathing -- panting, almost -- easily bridging the distance between them.

Noting the way those bright blue eyes tracked every movement of her hands on her lower body, Barbara pursed her lips, battling an insidious whispering fear that she wasn't ready... wouldn't be capable...

"Do me now?"

The redhead tamped down on her instinctive reflex to question her companion, yet again, about her decision: they'd already gone through that discussion twice.

Even though it was absolutely unnecessary, the brunette had insisted on being decked out in a fashion very similar to the older woman. Barbara had a sneaking suspicion that part of it might have had to do with the younger woman's clothes-horse tendencies, even if the current apparatus seemed less suitable for the bedroom closet than the gear closet in the living area.

Calling upon reserves of courage -- not to mention years of training and habit -- the redhead pushed aside her self-doubt. In the face of her partner's obvious readiness, she simply wouldn't afford herself the luxury of spoiling their first attempt before it got off the ground.

Pushing aside those thoughts for the moment, Barbara indulged herself in a long, unfettered look at her partner. As usual, the dark figure was breathtaking: muscles tensely corded, shaggy hair damp with sweat, mouth fixed in a playful moue which just begged to be...

Green eyes blinked once, and the older woman recalled that Helena had made a request.

With a slow smile of approval, she reached out and snagged the thick belt which hung low on the other woman's slender hips. Almost casually, she leaned close, running her index finger along the inside circumference, expertly checking for ease and fit, and not missing the rippling of firm abdominal muscles against the back of her hand.

Not surprisingly, the older woman found the belt to be entirely too loose: initially, she'd been startled to realize that the younger woman had very little experience with this; however a moment's reflection -- and Helena's own purring remarks about preferring a natural approach -- had revealed how little use Helena had for such... accoutrements.

Catching her partner's eyes, she chided softly, "It's not just a fashion statement, Sweetie. I expect it to do it's job as well."

The brunette's unapologetic response -- something to do with leaving room for some swivel -- turned into a sharp hiss when the redhead summarily tugged the harness up, snugging it firmly -- very firmly, judging from the way blue eyes had flickered to gold for a beat -- against the other woman's crotch. Satisfied with the position, she swiftly rebuckled the unit and nodded her approval.

"That should be a bit more functional--"

Barbara felt her nostrils flare slightly when she witnessed tan fingers tracing the webbing, adjusting it a bit to one side, but managed to continue primly.

"--assuming you actually decide to use it instead of modeling it."

The lithe figure leaned close again, caramel features exhibiting a singular lack of modesty -- nay, a remarkable smugness -- for a split second. Not for the first time, the older woman found herself marveling at the mix of playfulness and sensuality which the other woman brought into their every encounter.

"I do look pretty hot in it, don't I? But..."

The low soprano became playfully petulant.

"...modeling sucks. This thing is like a frikkin' a thong."

Snorting softly, Barbara pushed back on the brunette's shoulder, giving herself some room to work, and smirked as she snagged one end of the rope she'd left coiled neatly by her side.

"You haven't felt anything yet, Hel."

Since a soft, anticipatory growl was the only response, the redhead expertly played out several yards of the eleven millimeter Kernmantle, unconsciously testing for weak spots as she slid the fibers between her fingers. Reasonably confident of the rope's integrity, she debated for a moment before deciding on a overhand loop.

For a start.

Barbara looked up from her expert knot work, catching her breath at the unbridled anticipation in the features which were fixed on her. She recovered herself and offered a warm smile, crooking one finger in invitation.

"Shall we?"

The brunette seemed to flow forward, hovering inches above the older woman before lowering her hands, palms out, by the perfectly executed loop.

"You sure you don't want to...?"

Quite aware that the energetic younger woman was very, very ready, Barbara simply shook her head briskly as she bound the rope, tugging experimentally to insure that it was secure. Satisfied again, she drew in a slow breath and secured the other end of the line before straightening fully in readiness.

The other woman seemed calm, her eyes focused upward, her breathing just a tiny bit faster than normal. Barbara noted the almost unconscious tensing of the brunette's hands and reached out, briefly stroking her forearm.

"Are you certain you want to do it like this, Sweetheart?"

The young woman licked her lips and tugged softly at the rope securing her before raising her arms over her head.

"Fuck, yeah, Red."

Not bothering with a verbal response, the older woman steadily took in the slack as they slowly worked into a rhythm. Incongruously, she noticed the slight give in the dynamic line and found herself questioning whether a static fiber might have been better. Dismissing the concern for later consideration, she focused on the play and stretch of her partner's sinewy muscles, on the fine sheen of sweat spreading over the dark figure, on the bow-taut arch of the lithe woman's back.

A soft grunt drew the redhead's attention, and she felt her eyes widen at the hard lines of the younger woman's face.

Barbara swallowed, not entirely certain that she would be able to go through with this.

"Are you doing okay, Hel?"

The inquiry was soft, and, for a moment, the older woman wondered if her partner had heard her. Arms fully extended above her head, dark lashes lowered as she breathed deeply, the brunette remained still, muscles trembling and twitching minutely. Then, the deceptively slender woman shifted to one side, taking the strain on one arm, and blue eyes sought green.

"I don't know wh -- "

Offering what she hoped was a reassuring smile, Barbara played out a bit of slack in the line and inclined her head to the right.

"There. Can you stretch and try an undercling?"

In an instant, Helena exacted a long reach across the vertical face and found holds for both hands. Whooping exultantly and continuing to allow her arms to hold all her weight as they'd agreed, the brunette hung lightly from her finger tips, twenty feet above the floor of the gymnasium.

Barbara laughed her delight as well and checked the rope's position around herself while her partner dipped the fingers of first one then the other hand into her chalk bag. The woman on the ground snugged her grip on the rope, resecuring her belay position, and with that, the smaller woman was off, moving laterally and vertically across the expert-level indoor rock wall using only her hands and arms for leverage.

Since the brunette was moving confidently as she neared the top of the forty foot wall, the older woman allowed herself to multitask, focusing both on the technical requirements of her rope work and simply enjoying the vision of her lover moving so gracefully.

There could be no doubt that Helena's royal blue lycra shorts and tank top highlighted the aesthetic aspects of Barbara's job as well. As usual, she found herself feeling a bit dowdy in her own outfit: sleek black track pants and a sleeveless muscle tee which showed the as-yet unfaded temporary tattoo on her bicep to advantage. As usual, she pushed those thoughts aside.

If nothing else, Helena's reaction to the outfit -- or to her in the outfit -- should have been reassuring, which led the analytical woman to suspect that her feelings might have more to do with nervousness about what she was planning to do with her gear than about how she looked in it.

When she'd first hit on the idea of rock climbing a few days before, the older woman had suspected that there would be non-aerobic benefits to the activity. It had been, in fact, thoughts of ropes and harnesses and uses which had very little to do with mountaineering which had had her chuckling when Helena had surprised her on Wednesday afternoon.

Prurient aspects to the side, Barbara *had* wanted to try climbing for years: it was a sport in which upper body strength and clever rope work could go a long way towards success. And, she'd decided, even if she couldn't hold her own on the course, she could certainly belay for her partner.

Watching the dark figure rappel herself easily down the vertical climbing wall, the redhead replayed her partner's ascent, determining which stretches might work for her and where she might do better. While she had a reasonable confidence in her upper body strength, she could not forget that she did not have an additional set of limbs to fall back on in a pinch.

"Man, that was fun. Maybe I'll try it one-handed next time."

Barbara tore herself from another methodical check of her body harness and regarded the brunette dubiously. She contented herself with a mild observation as she finished recoiling the rope and clipped a neat bowline through a carabineer.

"*That* would be worth seeing."

To the accompaniment of her partner's cheerful laugh, she positioned herself at the base of the wall, stretching up for her first handhold. When Helena confirmed that she was ready on belay, the redhead stretched up, testing her grip and biting back her urge to suggest that the younger woman consider a different position: given her greater weight, a full body belay seemed wiser than the showy hip wrap which the younger woman had chosen.

Ultimately, she decided to do her damnedest to insure that no belaying would be required and simply leveraged herself up, working determinedly through the hardest part -- the five or six vertical feet required to get her lower half untangled from her chair. The burn in her wrists and shoulders was pronounced but not unbearable -- so far -- and since she'd already mapped and memorized the route she planned, the cyber-vigilante moved smoothly along the wall, gaining height quickly and only almost missing a handhold once.

Helena's cheerful estimations of how far she'd climbed spurred the redhead on until she moved just past the halfway mark. It was at that point, naturally, that she decided to challenge herself and abandon her preplanned route.

Approximately eight feet to the left, the protruding handholds became much sparser, replaced by fissures and cracks in the artificial surface. Two long reaches left the athletic woman dangling from one hand as she dipped the other into her chalk and tried to remember everything she'd read about executing a face climb by jamming.

"Are you showboating up there, Barbara?"

The younger woman's question displayed no concern, only, the redhead suspected, a trace of pique that she'd not thought to try the fissures first.

"You bet your bippy, Hel," was her light reply.

Couldn't hurt to try.

Seven and a half long minutes later, Barbara realized that she had, in fact, been just a bit too cavalier in her assessment. Sprawled on the narrow ledge at the top of the wall, laughing like an idiot as every functioning muscle in her body fired off indignant protests, she realized that it had hurt quite a bit.

And, looking down at her enthusiastically grinning partner, she also realized that she didn't care at all.

The redhead gave herself a minute to catch her breath, then freed her line and changed it to a Munter hitch before rolling herself off the ledge.

Apparently, some things -- like riding a bicycle -- simply weren't forgotten, even after more than seven years, and Barbara found herself effortlessly rappelling down the vertical face and blessing the hours and hours she'd put in on the ropes back in the day.

With that thought, the redhead flashed back to her first solo ascent, over thirteen years earlier. She'd been training assiduously with Bruce and Dick for months, had learned how to handle the rappelling gear blindfolded, and had managed to transform her instinctive terror of swinging over an edge into something approaching excitement.

On one night, after finishing a study session at the dorm, she'd met her mentor as usual and been informed that she was going to test her climbing skills on her own by scaling the recently constructed New Gotham Arms High-rise Apartment building. With nothing but a walkie talkie in her utility belt in case of difficulty, she'd managed to hook a batarang over the roof twenty stories above her and -- praying that it was well set and that her arms were up to the task -- had embarked on a methodical climb in the darkened night. By the fourth floor, fear had become too exhausting in the face of the remaining sixteen stories, and Barbara had surrendered to an almost mindless calm, tackling each step, each grip, with an oddly serene, mindless concentration.

It hadn't been until she'd reached the eighteenth floor that she'd understood why that particular building had been chosen: sweating rivers and soundlessly running through every creative curse she could pull from her memory, the redhead had been startled -- to say the least -- when a window next to her had popped open. Dick had poked his head out, offered her a soda, and casually chatted with her about the weather or some such nonsense, until Barbara had recalled that she was dangling almost two hundred feet off the ground, her arms quivering like last Christmas' jello mold.

Barbara snorted at the memory, thankful for the passage of the years -- bringing with it as it had accumulated wisdom, better gear, and improved upper body strength.

Ten feet from the ground, she snapped the end of the rope against the carabineer with her brake hand and nudged the wall with her shoulder. The movement provided just enough push to center her over her chair, and she sedately lowered herself to terra firma.

Helena was beside her in an instant, joining in her laughter, then interrupting the redhead's self-indulgent victorious fist pump to wrap her in a fierce hug.

"You totally rocked up there, Barbara!"

Disentangling herself enough to catch dancing blue eyes, the older woman hoped that her blush would be mistaken for exertion. She wasn't, however, able to disguise the delight in her voice.

"It was fun, Hel," she allowed. "We should do this again."

Helping coil their line as they moved away from the rock face so that another team could take their place, the brunette smiled but didn't meet her eyes.

"For sure, Red. Though, maybe next time you'll actually let me belay you?"

Since she was fussing with carabineers and D-rings, Barbara wasn't sure whether she'd actually heard a note of reproach in the teasing words. She stilled her hands and looked up, quirking a brow.


The younger woman secured the Kernmantle with a neat half-hitch before turning with an easy smile.

"You just always had your own weight, Barbara."

Crimson brows briefly knit as the practical woman puzzled over her partner's observation before she redirected the conversation.

"Well, did you enjoy the climb, Helena?"

Since the young vigilante nightly flew over the rooftops and scaled buildings with meta-human ease, Barbara had doubts that the addition of gear and the constraint of only using her arms would be to Helena's taste. The brunette's enthusiastic grin alleviated her concerns.

"Seriously fun, Barbara. Besides,"

The dark woman rose from storing their chalk bags in a duffel.

"any sport which features 'chimney techniques'..."

Slender fingers made quote marks around the words.

"... and stemming, *and*..."

Barbara readied herself when she heard her partner's emphasis and saw dark brows waggle.

"...fist jams has got to be cool."

The redhead tried, but she simply couldn't hold her arch expression in the face of Helena's insouciant smile. A snort escaped her, then a full-blown chuckle as the two returned to wriggling out of their harnesses. Perhaps caught in the spirit of the brunette's observations about the sport, Barbara returned to one of her partner's earlier claims.

"You were right on target about the thong thing, Hel."

Freeing herself from her seat harness, the smaller woman pointedly tugged at the back of her lycra shorts.

"Uh huh, I've got a wedgie you wouldn't believe."

"You think that's bad, Hel?"

Barbara calmly worked on folding her body harness. When she was certain she had her companion's attention, she continued, joining in with the younger woman's explosive laughter.

"After wearing this, I can't feel my legs."

Chapter 4

The noise of the explosion echoing through Barbara's earpiece was nearly deafening. Jerking minutely in reflex, the redhead couldn't begin to imagine how it had impacted the sensitive hearing of her partner on the scene.

"Huntress? Do you copy? Are you alright?"

Despite the fact that an explosion had not been something she'd anticipated, despite the vivid sounds of flames and collapsing bricks licking through the comms, despite the sorrowful wailing of sirens approaching the scene, the cyber-crime fighter managed to keep her inquiry relatively calm. After years of working together, she trusted -- she had to trust -- her young protege's reflexes to keep her safe. Anything but complete confidence in the dark vigilante would be... unsupportable.

<"What was that? I couldn't hear most of th-- Shit!">

The surprised invective and a rush of air signaling hasty movement proceeded -- but only by a split second -- a rapid-fire popping which sounded suspiciously like semi-automatic weapons fire. Green eyes blinked in consternation even as long fingers flew gracefully across the keyboard, instantly accessing the operating permits and recent inspection reports for the building.

As she'd suspected, Barbara found no indication that the New Gotham Sporting Goods Factory should have anything resembling ammunition, explosives, or gunpowder on the premises.

When the sounds muted marginally, suggesting that her partner had found shelter of some sort, the older woman thumbed the volume on her microphone up a notch.

"Huntress? What's the situation? Is that gunfire?"


The other woman's voice was reassuringly strong... and just a trifle irked.

<"What's with the shouting?">

Even as another incoming transmission beeped insistently, Barbara rolled the volume back, muttering a hasty apology.

"Sorry, Huntress. Hold on--"

Suspecting that if Helena felt confident enough to complain the situation couldn't be too serious, she toggled to the other mic and spoke briskly while she checked the GPS.

"Canary, are you in position?"

<"Yes, Oracle, I can see the store from here. Do you want me to go in?">

"Hold for now. I'll be right back."

Observing two more alarms coming across the scanners, the redhead sighed silently and returned to her primary comm set. To her relief, the sound of gunfire seemed to be slowing.

"Huntress, what's the situation?"

The brunette's reply was both exhausted and amused.

<"Looks like this was the week for the factory to make ping pong balls. They're coming down like hail.">

The cyber-vigilante released a tiny measure of tension from her shoulders, smiling ruefully.

"Could be worse, Huntress. Hold on while I touch base with Canary."

Barely waiting for Helena's swift acknowledgement, she toggled to the second comm unit, verifying that the youngest member of the small team was holding her position outside the convenience store which had set off a silent alarm minutes earlier. After securing Dinah's solemn promise to stay back unless it appeared that there was a danger to the clerk, she toggled back to her other partner.

"Huntress, can you tell what caused the explosion?"

The sounds of fire and sirens -- and an occasional caroming ping pong ball -- became clearer when the younger woman presumably abandoned her refuge.

<"Dunno, Oracle. I saw the flames when I got here, then... ka-blowie. Fuck!">

A quick hail of rat-a-tatting and rapid scrambling sounds painted a picture of an unexpected volley of plastic projectiles.

<"Ouch! Why don't I have an umbrella when I need one?">

Relieved that the sources of possible injury were relatively minor, Barbara spared a moment for levity while she prioritized the incoming alerts.

"Well, Huntress, if you weren't so concerned about spoiling the lines of your outfit and would consider wearing a utility belt, you could be popping open a Bat... er... Catshield right now."

A decidedly aggrieved huff accented the younger woman's next words.

<"And *this* is the thanks I get for running from one end of town to another all night and -- Waitasecond!">

All humor instantly vanished.

"Huntress, what is it?"

The crimson-haired vigilante straightened, automatically checking the police and EMS monitors. According to the latest updates, the fire at the sporting goods factory had just been upgraded to three alarms. The distinct sounds of high pressured hoses and shouting emanating through her earpiece certainly confirmed the reports.

<"Looks like the building is about to collapse -- ">

Noise from falling concrete and groaning girders increased in volume, presumably as the dark woman neared the building.

<"I count at least three firefighters who are still inside. I'm going in.">

The older woman forced herself to remain calm, to trust in her partner's abilities and instincts. Carefully monitoring the transceiver for any indication that Helena might be in difficulty, she rapidly toggled through a dozen screens reporting incidents which had popped up all over the city.

For some reason, after more than five weeks of nothing more alarming than thefts of tropical fish and hormones running amuck in the club district, all hell had broken loose this evening. There had been ATM break-ins, muggings, convenience store robberies, even a multi-vehicle pile-up on the western edge of town and a unicycle hit-and-run in the mall. However, the burglar alarm -- which had coincided with a fire alarm -- at the sporting goods factory had definitely capped the activities. New Gotham's Finest, always understaffed, were at their limits, and even her capable young protege was wearing thin after four hours of hustling from one incident to another.

The redhead breathed a sigh of relief as she heard Helena emerging from the collapsing building with a second fire fighter, then unconsciously tensed when the brunette immediately returned for the final rescue worker. Cognizant that worrying would gain her nothing, she toggled back to the other member of the team, questioning herself -- not for the first time -- for having allowed Dinah out into the bedlam in the first place.

It had been the realization that both the NGPD and her partner couldn't begin to keep up with the flood of crime which had led the practical woman to capitulate to the teen's suggestion that she hit the streets to offer what assistance she could. Not certain whether she doubted her judgment more for having let the teen go out in the first place or for having done so on a night before school -- a Sunday, no less -- the redhead mentally shrugged her shoulders, thankful that the girl had been following her instructions to the letter about staying away from direct danger.

"Canary, what the situation at the store?"

The blonde's reply was puzzled... and puzzling.

<"It's weird, Oracle. There are two guys using, uh, Bop-em sticks to rob the clerk.">

Emerald eyes widened, then slowly blinked.

"I'm afraid I'm not following you, Canary. Bop-em...?"

<"Uh, yeah...">

A slightly embarrassed laugh sounded.

<"You know, those plastic things you can blow up and kids whack at each other with them?">

Ungrammatical as it was, the description was clear enough.

Suspecting that the clerk should be in little danger from those particular weapons, the cyber-genius quickly scanned through the mercifully dwindling list of remaining incidents.

"Let's leave the store then, Canary. I'm showing a silent alarm from at Gizmos Galore. Can you check it out?"

Acknowledging the girl's confirmation, Barbara toggled back to her primary transceiver in time to pick up a breathy update from her other partner.

<"...t's it for here. You copy, Oracle?">

The redhead exhaled soundlessly when she noted a report on the EMS band about a mysterious rescue which had saved three lives. She then raised and lowered her brows several times to release the tension which had been crawling over her scalp. She didn't bother attempting to release the strain in her upper arms and back, knowing that it was as much a result of Saturday's rock climbing as of this evening's tension.

"I copy, Huntress. Good work."

A long, noisy exhalation was initially the only response. When Helena finally spoke, the level of enthusiasm in her voice had diminished considerably from her usual gung-ho attitude.

<"Yeah. So, uh, what's next?">

Barbara smiled fondly and consulted the reports on her screen again.

Truthfully, she'd already determined that the city could handle the remaining incidents: they appeared to be primarily malicious mischief, undoubtedly sparked by EMS-workers' preoccupation with more serious crimes. Since nothing new had appeared in the last seventy-five seconds, she trusted her sixth-sense that the evening's mayhem was finally winding down and spoke with a clear conscience.

"I think that may be it for now, Huntress. I've just dispatched Canary to a B&E alarm at the Gizmo superstore. Why don't you rendezvous with her there and then come in?"

The suggestion seemed to bolster the young crime-fighter's flagging energy, and Barbara heard the nearly silent sounds of wind whispering across the microphone in the necklace at Helena's throat.

<"Sounds like a plan to me, Oracle. I'm on my way.">

Reassured by the brunette's cheerful enthusiasm and relieved that the worst of things seemed to be over, the cyber-vigilante focused on capturing the myriad incident reports from the night and saving them in a database. As she'd discovered so recently during the spate of Clown fish thefts, having the reports at hand and easily sortable was invaluable, and given the sudden crime spurt of this evening, she hoped to determine if there was a pattern to the madness.

The practical woman's bemused contemplation about whether to include the unicycle incident in the database was interrupted by a low whistle over her earpiece. She came to attention, confirming on the GPS that Helena had outpaced Dinah and reached the popular electronics store first.

"Huntress? What's going on?"

<"Freakin' bizarre, Oracle. There are thousands of -- Hey, Canary. What kept you?">

Tamping down on her impatience, the redhead waited through the teenager's overly detailed description of her trip from the other side of town and tried to remember whether she'd had to coach her first protege on the values of succinctness.

<"...and that's why I had to stop and get that poor woman's walker back from those jerks. You don't think I should have just -- Wow!">

A soft snort eloquently expressed Helena's feelings when Dinah apparently noticed the situation at her current incident.

<"What's going on, Oracle?">

Barbara pursed her lips and bit back her sarcasm.

"That's just what Huntress was about to tell me, Canary. What *is* going on?"

When the dark vigilante finally resumed her description of the scene, the older woman vacillated between puzzlement and amusement.

<"There are thousands of wind-up dolls in the street, marching around and bumping into things.">

All traces of mirth vanished instantly when she heard the brunette's soft addition.

<"Wind up clown dolls.">

Chapter 5

Was 'A Doll's House' too serious for the final weeks of the school year?

Absently puncturing the end of her navel orange with a neatly blunted thumbnail and peeling the skin, Barbara regarded the slim book on her desk and deliberated whether it would be too reactionary to change her lesson plan at the last minute. Given the doll army which Helena and Dinah had encountered the night before, not to mention her own distinct disinclination to accept or appreciate coincidences, the English teacher found herself leaning a bit towards something more absurd.

Perhaps Ionesco's 'Rhinoceros' would do. It certainly fit the bill; however, with its themes about the human masses' capacity for cruelty, it also seemed too linked to the mechanical masses which had been on the streets of the city.

Sighing restlessly at her own indecision, at the niggling sense of foreboding possessing her, Barbara popped a wedge of fruit in her mouth. She chewed slowly, savoring the sweetly acidic tang of the juice coating her tongue and attempted, for the hundredth time, to make sense of the scene her partners had found outside the electronics store.

The digital pictures which Dinah had snapped had shown that there hadn't been the thousand dolls that Helena had estimated; as far as the cyber-crime fighter had been able to extrapolate, there had been between six and seven hundred of the eight inch figures swarming through the street. Since it had been after midnight, the area had been largely vacant, leaving all three women puzzled by the purpose of the tiny crowd.

<"Do you want us to pick up some of them?">

With her sixth sense singing like a diva, Barbara hadn't needed to think twice about Dinah's question.

"No, stay back for now, Canary."

The two young women in the field had heeded the directive, observing from a rooftop with Helena providing a mildly humorous play-by-play of two of the dolls' disappearance down a sewer grate. The humor of the scene had ended abruptly when Barbara had detected an eerie noise through the comms.

It had taken the older woman a beat to analyze, then identify, what she'd heard: silence. The pervasive, minute whirring and clicking of the mechanical figures had ceased.

"Huntress? Canary?"

The brunette's response had been hushed.

<"They've all just stopped. Like... clockwork. I'm gonna go take a look...">

Even as one set of neurons calculated the possibility of such a singularly coordinated occurrence, Barbara had issued an urgent warning.

"Stay back! It sounds like a tr--"

A massive explosion -- rather, six or seven hundred tiny concurrent explosions -- had cut her off. When the noise had abated enough for other sounds to be heard, the younger women had described a scene of total destruction on the street -- every store front had shattered -- but, fortunately, no casualties. Instructing the two to sweep for victims -- or perpetrators -- and then return to the clock tower, Barbara had triggered a dispatch for NGFD before methodically recording the incident in the night's crime database.

Since then, the redhead had spent a sleepless night analyzing the doll fragments which Dinah had collected and returned in a TK bubble and trying *not* to consider the similarities to such events seven or eight years before. Her findings that the plastic fragments contained traces of C-4 had done little to relieve her concerns.

A soft cough from the entrance to the classroom jolted the cyber-vigilante from her musings with a barely-suppressed squeak. Green eyes flew to the door, widening in the realization that Barbara's visitor was already several steps into the room.

"That must be one really good orange."

The redhead quickly surveyed the remaining wedges of her lunch with an abashed laugh, then offered a more genuine smile.

"More like second thoughts about attempting Ibsen at this point in the year, Maggie."

Maggie Moore made a face, brown ringlets of her poodle perm haloing her cherubic features.

"You're braver than I am, but you do have honors classes. I think I'll be lucky if I can get my classes to make it through some Twain or Cheever now."

Barbara laughed sympathetically at the truth of her fellow English teacher's wry admission, thanking her lucky stars that she'd escaped the tortures of teaching 'Short Stories for Jocks' five years before. Turning to face the other woman, she gestured an invitation which was met with a quick head shake.

"No, I can't stay. I need to finish revising my quiz for my next class. I just wanted to let you know that on my way in I saw your, er, Helena in the parking lot. I thought I'd warn you so that she didn't burst in and surprise you, but it looks like I did the job for her."

Ignoring the plump woman's tiny verbal stumble, the redhead managed a soft laugh at her own expense.

"I've been told that it's not difficult to do, Maggie."

She smiled as the other teacher turned to depart.

"Thank you for the warning, though."

The soft click of the door latching ended the short exchange, leaving Barbara faintly uncertain, feeling a bit buffeted by the ever-shifting winds of school gossip.

While she wasn't surprised to learn that her younger partner was at the school -- she'd picked up on some tentative plans between Dinah and Helena for an unusual lunch date -- the relentlessly logical woman realized that she was having some difficulty identifying her reaction to her fellow faculty member's response. Truthfully, most of her coworkers probably hadn't noticed the little exchange she'd had with Alethea at the potluck ten days before; of those who had, several had actually sought her out to offer tentative well-wishes. Still, Barbara was aware that not everyone on the staff was open-minded and that Alethea had undoubtedly been making the rounds among them in the last week.

A soft knock, followed immediately by the door opening, spared the English teacher the need to fret any further over the issue.

Having been forewarned, she was able to respond to the sight of a shaggy dark head peering through the cracked door with a genuinely happy, if tentative, grin. The brunette's answering smile and cheery wave alleviated most of the older woman's slight nervousness about seeing the other woman -- at school or otherwise.

The night before, after returning from her harried sweeps, the dark figure had been decidedly... keyed up. Talking nervously, prowling the edges of the Delphi platform, fidgeting with the microscope: Helena had exhibited a restless energy and nervousness which -- until a few months before -- had usually sent her off into the night after sweeps.

Unfortunately, Barbara's own distraction about the possible significance of the horde of clown dolls had left her utterly oblivious to her young lover's... unrest. When she'd finally surfaced from her analysis of the doll fragments around 3:00am and discovered that the brunette had disappeared onto the balcony to sulk, the cyber-genius had been seized by embarrassment -- and a bit of exasperation -- over the situation. While they had cuddled up in bed for an hour before the alarm, both had been quiet, and Helena had departed before Barbara had emerged from her morning shower.

"Helena, I'm glad you stopped by."

The redhead wasn't surprised to find that she meant it. The answering dip of her partner's head warmed her more than she could have imagined.

"How was lunch with Dinah?"

The younger woman stepped into the room, allowing the door to close behind her.

"Lunch was good. D wanted to bounce around some ideas about her living arrangements next year."

Barbara nodded, recalling in detail a recent conversation with the young girl about the benefits of the dorms.

"I hope she'll choose what she wants, Hel, not what she thinks she needs to do..."

The sentence petered out, with the older woman somewhat cravenly unable to add the final three words: "for our privacy". Gliding around the perimeter of the room, brushing her fingers across a display of PBS posters on one bulletin board, Helena either didn't notice the omission or simply overlooked it.

"Yeah, well, I think she's kind of leaning toward the dorms."

Apparently not missing the older woman's expression, the brunette hastily added, "For a lot of reasons."

At the back of the room, the brunette chuckled with a nonchalance which Barbara somehow found suspect.

"Somehow, when we were talking, we ended up batting around the idea of her moving into my place. Subletting, I guess."

Barbara blinked, then heard words spilling from her mouth before she could think, cringing when she heard the parental disbelief in her tone.

"You're not seriously considering having an eighteen year old live above a bar, are you, Helena?"

To her credit, the younger woman didn't visibly react to the accusation in the question. Moving between two rows of desk toward the front of the room, she simply shrugged lightly.

"Why not, Barbara? We both know she's responsible, and I'll be at work most evenings and can check on her."

The brunette seemed to debate a split second before she added, " 'Sides, I wasn't much older when I moved in there."

A brief silence, one which Barbara acknowledged would have been awkward indeed had the two not have come through so much together, ensued. Neither woman needed to mention what had sparked Helena's hasty move from the clock tower just before her 21st birthday.

The decision had come, the redhead had determined after months of reflection, two days after the two had shared one of their late-night movie binges. Throughout the unusually light and romantic play list of DVDs which the younger woman had selected, Helena had teased and cajoled Barbara about the redhead's romantic interests and future. Somewhere around 2:00am, finally realizing that her former ward wasn't going to let the topic die, the older woman had paused the movie and spoken honestly, flat out telling Helena that she simply didn't see any prospects for herself in that arena. The movie had finished in silence, and, two days later, the younger woman had revealed her plans to move out, leaving Barbara completely puzzled -- and hurt beyond what she wanted to recognize.

Almost four years later -- and having reached a completely different place with the other woman -- the redhead had quite a few more pieces of the puzzle and found no reason to reexamine old wounds.

Considering that, the redhead acknowledged that a bit of distance could go a long way. Accordingly, she deliberately tempered her voice.

"You're right, Hel. It's just a bit sudden. Why don't you let me wrap my mind around the idea and we can discuss it later?"

Chestnut hair bobbed enthusiastically and, feeling a bit like she was playing a scene as June Cleaver, Barbara gestured toward the visitor's chair next to her desk.

"In the meantime, was there anything else noteworthy about your lunch?"

The lithe figure gracefully positioned herself in the chair, smiling easily as she fished into an oversized pocket in her army surplus coat.

"Nah, just burgers and bullshit. But, I thought maybe I could have dessert with you."

Helena triumphantly emerged with two cellophane wrapped packages of... something, fanning them onto the desk. A crimson brow rose a few millimeters as the older woman identified the items: chocolate covered Swiss cake rolls. Her razor sharp decision-making skills kicked in, and Barbara instantly swept the remains of her healthy lunch -- multigrain crackers and cheese -- back into her insulated lunch cooler with a laugh.

Chocolate -- and a healthy dose of processed sugar and fat -- just might get her through an afternoon of persuading her spring-fever addled juniors to delve into Ibsen's play.

"Thank you, Sweetie. I think these will be more helpful than you know."

The brunette winked and snagged a package for herself, neatly tearing open one end with her teeth.

"Cool. The face the Kid made when I bought 'em, you'd think they were toxic or something."

Neatly biting into the end of her first roll, the redhead laughed.

"She could be right, Hel."

Blue eyes caught green, widening in mock dismay. The two women held the pose for a beat before shrugging in unison.

"Doesn't know what she's missing," was the younger woman's assessment as she raised her first cake to her mouth.

Barbara nodded her agreement, then -- somehow, barely -- managed to swallow her second mouthful. She felt her brows crawling toward her hairline and noticed a distinct lack of oxygen in the room as she watched her partner tuck into her first roll.

Helena's technique for eating the chocolate-enrobed, cream-filled rolled cake was, she decided, perhaps a bit unconventional.

Certainly a bit messy.

And definitely, definitely, sexy as all hell.

The older woman shook her head minutely, blinking against that last thought, but found herself unable to tear her gaze from the other woman. Having carefully, methodically, nibbled the chocolate coating off the cake with tiny nips of even white teeth, Helena was now peeling back the swirled snail-like layers of cake with teeth and lips -- pausing occasionally to catch an errant crumb with the tip of her tongue -- before lapping delicately at the white cream filling.

Amazingly unself-conscious in her eating, the brunette seemed unaware of the inherent sensuality of her actions.

Reattacking her own dessert with a gusto it undoubtedly didn't deserve, Barbara considered that observation, finding it difficult to accept: if there was one thing which Helena had always been aware of, it was -- just like her mother -- the impact she could command.

The redhead finished her first roll just as her partner started to work on her second. Since she found that she had somehow lost her appetite, she neatly refolded the top edge of the cello-wrap and pushed the package towards her guest. Blue eyes followed the movement, widening in question.

"Not hungry?"

Barbara might have found the sincerity of the question more convincing if her companion had not been slowly sucking traces of white cream from her index and second fingers. With a mental shrug, the redhead rolled onto the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" convoy.

"Not... for chocolate, Sweetie," she purred.

Not even one heartbeat later, she had reason to question the wisdom of her decision when the younger woman stretched forward to capture her hand, drawing it to her mouth. Barbara held her breath as the dark figure deliberately licked an errant smear of chocolate from her thumb then managed to withdraw her hand -- none-too-steadily, she noted sourly -- when Helena straightened.

The brunette snagged the remaining cake, tucking it into her pocket with a wicked grin.

"Anything you want me to pick up, you know,"

The redhead pursed her lips primly as the young woman's perpetually raised left eyebrow snaked a little higher.

"...to have on hand later?"

As usual, Barbara folded, throwing her head back with a laugh.

While she could bluff with the best of them in poker, she suspected that no one could out-flirt Helena.

"Just yourself, Sweetheart."

The other woman's oddly shy smile made the practical woman wish for the ability to wrinkle time and step across -- rather than through -- her next three classes. She instantly forgot her uncharacteristic whimsy when the soft smile faltered and the younger woman ducked her head to peer through thick lashes.


The brunette crossed her legs, then cracked her knuckles.

"I, uh, just wanted to apologize."

The redhead suspected that her furrowed brow eloquently expressed her confusion. Helena exhaled soundlessly, then clarified.

"About last night... this morning? I know you were pretty, uhm, caught up with that doll thing and, well, I'm sorry I acted like a jerk."

Giving her chair a sharp turn, Barbara closed the distance, bringing her knee-to-knee with her lover. She leaned in, resting her elbows on her knees and claiming dark hands in her own.

"No apology necessary, Helena, but if it makes you feel better, I accept."

She continued as slender fingers squeezed reassuringly.

"And, I'm sorry, too, Hel. For... Well,"

The cyber-genius cursed the blush she felt crawling up her neck but plunged ahead.

"I know I tend to get a little obsessive sometimes, and I'm sorry that, er, we were at cross-purposes last night."

She mentally winced a little at the awkwardness of her words, however, the other woman -- as usual -- let her off the hook.

With a pointed glance at the clock, the brunette disentangled their hands and stood. Barbara shivered, her eyes fluttering shut, when the younger woman bent, her warm breath tickling her ear.

"Let's make it up to each other later, Red."

And, approximately two and a half hours after she'd reluctantly bid the brunette farewell, the older woman found herself replaying the words, once again determining that her partner sometimes came up with the best ideas. Once she finished with this last class, she could shake the chalk dust from her wheels, hit the florist's shop, and -- if the powers-that-be were merciful -- enjoy a quiet, doll-free evening with her partner.

A faint buzzing against her lower back alerted the redhead to the fact that chances for a quiet evening would be slim indeed. Only three people -- Helena, Dinah, and Alfred -- had the number for the small pager; other than calls from one of her crime-fighting companions, it could only be triggered by specifically programmed events which the Delphi monitored.

Putting the class to work on the next scene, Barbara moved behind her desk and casually fished the small unit from her belt. She felt herself blanch when she saw the display and fought a sudden trembling in her hand.

Not altogether incongruously, a line from the play her students were reading raced through her mind, and Barbara found herself very much longing to scream 'Bloody Hell!'

The redhead, naturally, quashed that longing, somehow calmly reaffixing the pager to her slacks, although it took her three tries. A quick assessment suggested that her students were reasonably engaged with their reading, and so she excused herself, hastening down the hall to the teacher's lounge.

Once inside, Barbara found herself fumbling frantically with the latch to the handicapped stall, barely securing the door behind her before she leaned forward, retching convulsively. With her stomach instantly emptied, she forced herself to still her dry heaving, then wiped her mouth and flushed, exiting the stall and moving to the sink. She splashed a bit of water on her face, then sat quietly for several minutes, allowing the cold water to run over her wrists while the image from the pager display window painted itself against her closed eyelids.

No message. Simply a blinking light, a light purposely coded to flash the hex color code 00FF99 -- a color which Barbara thought of as institutional green and which Helena had dubbed school-puke green. It was a color the cyber-genius had chosen deliberately, one she'd never seen on her alerts, and one which she'd fervently hoped never to see.

A complex monitoring system she'd set in place years before, one with six cross-checks and numerous fail safes, was the only way to trigger that green flashing light. The safeguards were all in place to spare her possible false alarms and reactions like the one she was currently battling as she faced the reality of the alert.

There had been a security breach at Arkham.

The Joker had escaped.

Part 6

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