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 11

For what seemed like hours, Barbara remained paralyzed by a rictus of horror, listening to the increasingly faint sounds of her partner struggling for breath. Bile rising in her throat and cursing her own helplessness, all she could do was listen to the indistinct taunts of the green-haired madman.

<<"A bit hard to come out with your little quips now, isn't it, my dear?">>

The only response she heard was a shallow, wheezing gasp: <"Ba-- Ora...">

The soft plea, echoing distantly from a remote location, hissed tinnily through the earpiece, and Barbara was buffeted by chill tremors of regret and loss. Damning herself, the situation, the green-haired madman, she thrust aside her terror and checked the scanners.

"Huntress?! Sweetie? Hold on. Police are on their way."

There was no answer from the younger woman, only the receding voice of The Joker himself.

<<"I'm leaving. Finish the job.">>

Hearing several clicks -- guns cocking? chains and cuffs? -- the redhead grit her teeth and viciously pushed back from her keyboard, fisting both hands and bringing them to her thighs with bruising force.

How could she... she just be sitting here, listening to her lover's fading life sounds? What had she been thinking, having the younger woman take on the madman from her nightmares?

With little other recourse but to get to the van and hurry across town, Barbara yanked off her headset and viciously spun her chair to the ramp. The awkward movement briefly tipped her to one side, and she released an angry curse, jerking her body in the opposite direction and not even noticing the jarring thump of the wheel hitting the ground. Moving again, she forced herself to be more deliberate, recognizing that a spill would loose her valuable time.

Time which Helena probably didn't have.

Noises from the speaker arrested the redhead's departure halfway down the ramp: The mutter of male voices -- <<"Hold her arms while I get this off.">> -- and a sudden, harsh gasp.

Helena's gasp.

Instantly, Barbara clamped on the rims of her chair, reversing direction and backing up the ramp to reseat her earpiece.

"Huntress?! Can you hear me?"

A weak gasp was the only reply. The sound seemed to enliven the men who were on the scene with the brunette.

<<"Yeah, she's still alive. This should be fun now.">>

Fully cognizant of what The Joker's henchmen probably had in mind for her injured partner, Barbara ground her teeth, fighting to hold back the cry clawing at the back of her throat.

Although Helena had certainly faced this particular threat more times than the older woman cared to count, this situation -- Helena's injury, the involvement of The Joker's men -- was incomprehensible. Therefore, when she heard some sort of wailing, Barbara wondered if her body had simply overridden her emotional control, forcing her to scream her helpless rage.

A beat later, her brain kicked into gear, identifying the sound of police sirens and the scuffle of heavy feet in flight. One hand still frozen in place against her earpiece, she heard a soft, ragged cough through her earpiece and nearly screamed again -- this time, her relief. Instead, she shut her eyes in gratitude and collected herself.

"Huntress? Can you respond?"

A wheezing gasp reassured the anxiously waiting woman more than she could have believed.

<"Yeh... M'kay...">

She heard the sound of her partner moving, not with her usual stealthy grace, but moving nevertheless. A quick check of the scanners showed that the police were in pursuit of The Joker's men and, naturally, losing ground rapidly.

The redhead discovered that, at this moment, she honestly didn't give a flying fuck.

"What happened, Huntress? Are you injured?"

It took the younger woman a few seconds to respond. During that time, Barbara heard her breathing grow steadier, her movements more coordinated.

<"Son of a bitch zapped me with some kind of...">

The redhead waited out her partner's soft cough, detecting night noises suggesting that the brunette had reached the roof.

<"...bubble gum gun or something. Then he took off.">

Green eyes narrowed, and crimson brows knit.

"Bubble gum gun?"

<"Uh huh. Just like the pink stuff they package at the factory, but I don't think four out of five dentists are gonna be recommending this stuff. It covered my mouth and nose and arms and... ">

Again, the dark figure coughed before inhaling deeply, and Barbara considered the implications of this substance. Clearly, the gum had some sort of bonding and strengthening agent added to it, making it a formidable weapon. Heaven only knew what a mind as twisted as Jack Napier's would come up with to use the stuff on.

"How did you get free?"

<"One of his goons cut it off me after Laughing Boy left.">

A short pause preceded the brunette's next words.

<"I think they mighta wanted to play some more.">

Clenching her jaw in renewed fury, the redhead regulated her breathing and concentrated on the fact that the police had arrived in time. In addition, the younger woman's voice was nearly normal again, and Barbara offered heartfelt thanks to the powers-that-be for the brunette's remarkable recuperative abilities.

When she finally found the words to respond, the crimson-haired crime fighter discovered that her own voice was distinctly shaky.

"Indeed, Huntress. Why don't you..."

She cut herself off, then abandoned any attempt at formality.

"Please come in for the night."

The younger woman made it back to the clock tower within minutes, although it was hardly soon enough for the anxiously waiting redhead. The instant that the doors opened, Barbara was at her side, reaching out to clasp one reassuringly warm hand then, unable to fight the need, tugging the surprised woman down.

"Easy, Barbara. I've still got this goo all over me."

Distracted, the older woman scarcely heard the light warning.

"I don't care."

Urgently, insistently, she captured the brunette's cheeks in her hands, noting a faint pallor beneath normally dark skin and turning the younger woman's face to search bright -- and slightly puzzled -- blue eyes.

Carefully, she traced her fingertips over dark brows, then brushed the pad of her thumb over full lips. Her heart trip-hammered as dark lashes lowered, and, unable to resist, she dropped her hands to deceptively slender shoulders, roughly palming muscle and bone under thick leather sweeps wear, almost frantically hunting for proof of her partner's solid presence.

Finally, Barbara slowed her ragged motions and brought her right hand to rest above her companion's heart. Her own staggered heartbeat ultimately slowed to match her partner's strong, steady rhythm.

Throughout the forceful inspection, Helena remained still, knees buried in the deep padding on each side of the older woman's thighs, head bowed, a soft rumble emanating from her chest. Only when Barbara's urgent movements settled did the dark figure move, shifting forward lightly. Barbara felt the slight figure leaning forward against her palm, her weight solid and strong, as warm lips brushed her cheek.

"I'm okay, Barbara. I'm here."

Hearing a slight gasp, the redhead wondered if her partner were still having trouble breathing before she belatedly comprehended that the sound had come from her. Gradually, she managed to unlock the rigid set of her right arm, enveloping the other woman in convulsive hug.

"I didn't know...", she managed to breathe out.

A dark head settled on the older woman's shoulder.


The quiet word, little more than a sigh, held a world of understanding.

For uncounted minutes, the two lingered in a wordless embrace, with Barbara squeezing her eyes tightly against their burning pressure. Bit by bit, she allowed herself to accept that their luck had held, and, eventually, she released the rictus of her grip and pulled back a few inches. Grimacing in distaste over the stickiness covering her hands, she didn't miss the flicker of a smile across dark features, her partner's humor helping to free the constricting band over her heart.

"You're right, Hel."

The redhead was surprised by how normal -- almost light -- her voice sounded.

"This stuff is strong."

The brunette laughed, shifting backward to take her weight on her knees.

"Yeah. Bet it beats anything you've found under the desks at school, huh?"

The redhead managed a tight smile as her partner gracefully rose.

"You'd be surprised, Helena."

The younger woman's double-take almost evoked a laugh; however, her next words were instantly sobering.

"Just think, Barbara. If Dinah had been there, she could have just put a TK bubble on me and blown this shit off."

The older woman arched a brow as her partner shucked her duster.

"That's certainly possible, Hel."

She accepted the garment with a brief nod of thanks.

She'd certainly be able to retrieve copious samples to analyze. If she could replicate the... goo, perhaps she could have her teenaged ward put her TK prowess to the test.

"In the meantime, Sweetie..."

She looked up, blandly meeting blue eyes.

"...might I suggest a cold shower for starters?"


Barbara smiled, not unsympathetically: Helena's loathing for cold water was almost legendary.

"Cold water has the best chance of solidifying the goo so that you can get it off."

An hour later, Barbara Gordon sat alone on the balcony, fighting off violent shivering which had nothing to do with the temperature of the spring night or thoughts of cold showers.

Grimacing almost comically, Helena had decamped for her shower earlier, after exacting the redhead's promise to join her before too long. For some reason, Barbara had been unable to make her way to their shared bedroom yet.

For fifteen or twenty minutes, the redhead had simply sat by the Delphi, listening to the sound of the shower and the younger woman's song-stylings: Helena was doing an excellent rendition of Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles", but Barbara simply hadn't been able to find the relief and humor that her partner had.

Rather, the relentlessly practical woman had found herself considering the... sensation in her chest. The feeling, she'd decided, was something between a fracture and a tear, somewhere behind her sternum. She'd noticed a flash of pain, akin to a rupture, when Helena had made her dramatic entrance at the bubble gum factory earlier; since then, it seemed to be growing, rending muscle and bone and ligaments in its path.

Retracing the origin of the... discomfort, Barbara had determined that it was not -- strength of the sensation notwithstanding -- a physical malady. Accordingly, she'd concentrated with fierce determination on closing the fracture which had rent her emotionally at the sound of the gun blast.

Resolve notwithstanding, when a soft sob had escaped her, she'd realized that she could no longer distance herself and had hastily made her way outside.

Shaking violently, she felt her horrified fear and helpless terror relentlessly leaching through her, taunting her: The horror she'd experienced when she'd heard his voice so close to the comms, his orders to finish the job; The helplessness she'd felt hearing Helena's choking gasps; The feeling of... paralysis it had engendered.

With that thought, the analytical woman released a bitter bark of laughter: the nightmare figure from her dreams, apparently, no longer needed either gun or bullets to render her useless. And, if that were the case, there was nothing she could do.

Locking her hands around the arms of her chair, the redhead allowed her head to fall back, revealing the gloomy night sky. Something dark and terrifying slithered inside her, undoubtedly escaped through the crack the gun shot had created within her. With every fiber of her being, Barbara wished she could reclaim the use of her legs for five minutes in order to kick the terrifying thing back into its dark recesses and pretend that it wasn't there.

Yet, the twinkling lights of the New Gotham skyscape wouldn't allow her the luxury. Her commitment to the city... to her partner... to herself wouldn't allow her the indulgence.

Very deliberately, recognizing that she needed to do so in order to give herself a chance at distance and perspective, Barbara allowed the memories to surface: Memories which were indelibly burned in her mind and soul. With her infallible eidetic memory, it was more than recollections she allowed to escape the tight container she'd built years before: it was images and sounds and scents -- and emotions -- which had played through her dreams several times every night, which had looped through her waking moments every day, for more than a year after the... event; memories which still fragmented her dreams periodically, seven years later.

Barbara shuddered and felt something rise in her throat when her mind's eyes provided the first image: her hand, still beaded with water from the shower and peeking from the sleeve of her bathrobe, on the knob of her apartment door. The sound of Helena's voice -- young, terrified by what she'd just witnessed, distorted by the cheap telephone at the redhead's ear -- was next, begging for help and reassurance after the attack on Selina Kyle.

Swallowing furiously, willing herself not to gag on the sour metallic taste at the back of her mouth, the cyber-vigilante knew that she had a chance to stop it -- to push it all back into its lockbox right then. She could stomp it down and pretend and deny, while the sickening pieces licked at the shadows of her nights and scraped bony fingers down her back each day.

Ultimately, she would not surrender to her own fear.

With every functioning muscle in her body vibrating terrified protest, she clenched her jaw, shut her eyes, and allowed the tempest free.

She gasped -- just as she had seven years before -- when she saw the figure who had been waiting outside her door. She cringed when the sickening terror -- then the fury with herself -- about being so goddamned vulnerable swept through her. Her ears rang -- small muscles in her cheeks tightening in reflex -- at the laugh she couldn't forget, like nails on a chalkboard.

Even in the face of the threat, she puzzled over the twisted smile permanently etched in white features and the maniacal glee in the madman's eyes, noticing fine lines etched across the man's features -- lines she was certain were not from laughter.

Just as it had then, events slowed, and Barbara panted shallowly through her mouth as a white gloved hand rose in surreal time. She observed, again, the incongruous details on the three tiny buttons on the wrist of the glove -- the tiny green harlequin masks imprinted on white horn -- as a horribly loud noise echoed and she felt herself falling. For a moment, she found some distance, watching the man's spat-covered shoes take two steps, one foot coming to rest on each side of her thighs, and wondering what he was going to do with her on floor.

Wondering -- for that matter -- how the hell she'd gotten to the floor.

The brief respite of detachment fled, and the redhead heard a soft whimper -- hers -- as she watched the tall man bend, almost casually, to push her robe open. Clamping down on her own soft noises, Barbara pursed her lips, catching them in her teeth against the roaring hatred she experienced as her vulnerability was laid bare. The whir and click of a camera filtered through, and she almost laughed when her brain insisted on playing games with the word 'exposure'.

Alone on the balcony, the analytical woman raised her hands to her face, noting wetness against her palms.

The movement, the sensation, was a parody of how she'd tried to push up under her attacker, an echo of the puzzling slickness -- warm and viscous -- under her hands on the cheap Berber of her apartment floor. The scent of copper flooded her nose, and, absurdly, she fretted about losing the damage deposit on the apartment after she'd been so careful.

Red lashes fluttered open, green eyes searching out a twinkling star in the evening sky, the flash of light similar to something she'd seen when she'd forced herself to look up into a madman's eyes. The Joker had tsk'ed and waved the gun over her, the acrid stench of cordite so close that she'd almost gagged. Eight crescents marked her palms as she tensed to strike, baffled by her muscles refusal to respond. Goose flesh rose, trailing from her chin in a meandering line down her torso, in response to the sensation of cold metal tracing her skin like a lover's touch.


But, yes, she would finish it, force herself -- as she had then -- to watch as her attacker straightened, then -- almost casually -- pulled the trigger again.

And again.

And one last time.

Barbara released the breath she'd been holding forever when the green-haired madman tipped his fedora, picked up the phone -- she could still hear the teenaged Helena's confused shouts -- and hung it up out of reach, then departed, carefully shutting the door behind him.

Gasping, she bent to bury her face against her legs, wrapping her arms around her unfeeling knees.

Chapter 12

Since grief over remembered terrors would gain her nothing, Barbara didn't allow herself to wallow long after reliving the attack from so many years before.

Straightening from her uncomfortable self-embrace with a wet snort, she roughly scrubbed her palms over her face and inhaled deeply of the cool night air. The distant wail of emergency sirens suggested that their nemesis, or his minions, were still at work; however, the number of sirens were few.

Apparently, even the forces of evil needed time to sleep or rest.

Shaking her head at the thought, the cyber-vigilante returned to the interior of the apartment, wondering if the same could be said about those who were embattled by said evil forces. The utter stillness of the tower and the darkness from the rooms down the hallway told her that at least one dark-haired crime fighter had succumbed to the need; however, given the events of the evening, Barbara honestly couldn't imagine finding the peace of mind to rest herself.

Deciding to be bemused by her own compulsivity, the redhead wandered into the kitchen. She swung the refrigerator door open and, working in the dim light, efficiently heated water in the microwave and fished out a bag of Orange Pekoe. She dunked the tea bag and set her mug on the counter, giving it a few moments to cool lest she unknowingly burn her legs carrying it back to the other room. As she waited, she idly scanned the contents of the refrigerator, noticing that Alfred had taken pains to stock the pantry with many of Helena's favorites: meatloaf, lasagna, a chocolate pie, and... heavy cream.

With a fond smile, she snagged the cream and a wedge of lemon, adding a dollop of the former and a squeeze of the latter to her tea. Satisfied with the combination, she picked up her mug and bumped the appliance door shut on her way from the kitchen.

The redhead settled herself at her workstation, sparing a glance at the onscreen clock as she positioned her tea to the left of the keyboard. With a guilty start, she remembered her promise to join Helena -- some time ago -- and automatically dropped her hands to the rims of the chair before staying the motion.

If the silence from the master bedroom were any indication, her partner was already sleeping; joining her now would only risk disturbing the younger woman's much needed rest.

Resolutely, the analytical woman surveyed her work environment, debating between returning to work on her crime analysis and prediction program or starting to process the specimen from the factory. If those activities failed to engage her, Barbara admitted that she was falling behind on keeping the database of The Joker's criminal activities up to date; pranks, larceny, and mayhem had been coming so fast and furious, she'd been hard-pressed to notice everything, much less record it.

Accepting the lack of chatter on the scanners as a sign, the cyber-crime fighter turned her attention to updating the crime database, slotting work on the prediction program next. She'd save the analysis of the bubble gum goo for daylight, after Dinah returned.

It was quite possible, after all, that the teen might enjoy running the tests with her.

Barbara shook her head over her predisposition to turn every situation into a learning opportunity and toggled to her database window. For long minutes, the redhead focused on her data entry and on cataloging the crime descriptions with controlled search terms, long fingers flying across the keyboard in a blur of motion. When she reached the entry for the evening's incident at the bubble gum factory, her fluid keystrokes abruptly halted as she debated what primary heading to assign to the activity.

B&E? Theft? Kidnapping? Attempted murder?

Puzzled by her indecision, the cyber-genius pushed her glasses toward her forehead with thumb and forefinger, pinching the bridge of her nose. Deciding that she must be more tired than she'd realized, the redhead pursed her lips and made a rude noise, allowing her glasses to reseat themselves.

If the sticky pink material which had been used on Helena were taken into account, the primary purpose of the attack at the Huffa Bubba Factory had been Weapons Procurement, plain and simple.

With that determined, Barbara entered the other terms as secondary descriptors and then rapidly imported the dozen new incident reports from the last few hours. A few final keystrokes and the database was current, ready for sorting, filtering, and whatever other machinations she could come up with to attempt to find... or force... some sort of structure onto the seemingly random events.

Exhaling her frustration, the cyber-genius exported the rows and rows of data, feeding it into the nascent prediction program.

Couldn't hurt to see what the program made of it. After all, she certainly wasn't making any headway with a visual analysis.

Impatiently, Barbara focused on the cyclical processing of the program, attempting to summon concern over the cpu's it was utilizing or interest in it's eventual output. To her dismay, her efforts to focus failed miserably. As she absently bumped the lip of her long-cold mug of tea against her lip, it gradually dawned on the redhead what lay behind her distraction.

As important and urgent as her work at the Delphi was, like a magnetic pole, the bedroom -- rather, the young woman in the bedroom -- was pulling at her. Plainly stated, regardless of the growing threat to New Gotham *or* Helena's need for sleep, Barbara wanted to be with her partner.

A small noise tickled the redhead's throat, and she slowly resettled her mug beside her keyboard. A few keystrokes set her monitoring routines to their highest level.

Having done what she could, the cyber-vigilante sighed soundlessly and descended the platform, moving unhesitatingly down the hall to the bedroom. As quietly as possible, she cracked the door and entered the room, green eyes narrowing at the muted light of the bedside lamp.

Obviously, the small figure burrowed under the covers had been anticipating her arrival.

Barbara efficiently removed her shoes and pants, then transferred herself to the bed. Years and years of practice had allowed her to perfect the movement, and she completed her stealthy entrance under the covers without rousing her obviously exhausted partner. Before settling herself, she snapped off the bedside light, aware that dawn would be brightening the room before long, and then inched herself into position around the woman occupying the center of the bed.

How someone as physically slight as the brunette could simply... fill a bed so completely escaped the redhead. Pressing a kiss to a sharp shoulder blade, she chalked it up to sheer presence: Helena had *always* been able to fill whatever space she occupied through force of personality.

A small smile flitted across her lips as Barbara recalled her first encounter with the other woman: the second period sophomore English class she'd taught almost nine years before.

It had been the young redhead's second year of teaching, and so she'd tended to draw the "scut" classes filled by underachievers with bad attitudes and little interest in literature. Unjaded by long exposure to these classes, Barbara had held on to her resolute -- and undoubtedly naive -- belief in the potential of each student. However, even she had entertained second thoughts the instant a willowy, gamine-featured young woman had sauntered unhurriedly into the classroom -- ten minutes late.

The young brunette had simply radiated cynical bad attitude and youthful disdain for classroom structure. More frightening to her youthful teacher had been a world-weariness and don't-give-a-fuck broodiness which belied her years. Yet, despite the girl's willful tardiness, despite her sneering excuse -- something about a line at the soda machine -- and despite the interruption of the redhead's carefully choreographed introduction to the semester, the moment that Helena had entered the room, all eyes had been on her.

A tiny flicker of nervousness coursed through Barbara's veins as she recalled meeting her new student's intense blue eyes for the first time. Ignoring her discomfort, the redhead clicked through her mental files, finally unearthing and identifying her emotional response at the time.


With a start, Barbara realized that she'd felt like she was falling forward, about to meet twenty year old institutional linoleum face first in front of two dozen bored fifteen year olds.

The feeling had been so overwhelming, Barbara had immediately, and thoroughly, buried it for almost a decade. Bringing it to the surface now, especially on the tails of her earlier trip down memory lane on the balcony, was certainly... unsettling.

For an hour, perhaps a bit longer, Barbara lay still behind her partner, grappling with thoughts of predestination. She'd arranged her legs to spoon the younger woman to her lower half and had one arm possessively wrapped around a narrow waist. The younger woman's body heat and her deep, steady breathing were inordinately soothing; however, a subtle shifting under her arm roused the redhead from her peaceful near-sleep.


Barbara felt as much as heard the sleepy emanation. She certainly felt slender fingers twine with hers. Squeezing lightly, she brushed her mouth against the satin skin of her bedmate's shoulder.

"Go back to sleep, Sweetie. There's plenty of time."

She smiled at the brunette's soft snuffle, not certain if it signaled agreement, awareness, or something else. A more purposeful shifting distracted her from her consideration as the younger woman turned within the half-circle of her arm to face her. Even in the dim light of pre-dawn, Barbara could see that dark lashes were remaining resolutely shut.


Feeling a smirk cross her lips, the older woman obligingly pushed to her other side, aware of her partner's legs twining with hers, unobtrusively assisting in the maneuver. She settled under the covers, the younger woman immediately scootching forward to blanket her back.

"Better, Hel?"

She couldn't keep the amusement from the tender question, an emotion which transformed to something softer when she made out her bedmate's sleepy reply.

"Spoon you, too."

Inhaling deeply, Barbara worked to keep her breathing steady as a strong arm snugged her waist gently. She fought a shiver, then a giggle, when the slim fingers nestled against her abdomen began to twitch. Coinciding as it did with a soft rumbling tickling her back, she recognized that her feline companion was kneading in her sleep.

Making biscuits.

The venerable cat-lover's phrase popped into the redhead's forebrain. Simultaneously, almost overwhelmed by her partner's contentment, the redhead set loose a prayer of thanks to the powers-that-be for the younger woman's well-being and for her ability to find peace during this difficult period.

Of course, the brunette usually managed to maintain her equilibrium over the situations and horrors she encountered in her role of protector of the city. As volatile as Helena could be, as violently as her reactions sometimes were, as anguished and broody as her later responses might be, the dark figure somehow seemingly managed to push her doubts and anger aside, to focus on what she could do rather than where she'd failed. It was, undoubtedly, one of the young woman's strongest points; a trait which Barbara freely admitted made her protege a much more apt crime fighter than she had ever been.

Or, very probably, ever could have been.

A tiny change in her companion's breathing drew the redhead from her ruminations, alerting her to the fact that the human blast furnace behind her was slowly ascending from sleep. Regretting that their interlude was drawing to an end, she lightly clasped her hand over the back of the other woman's and lay quietly.

"Did you sleep?"

Since she'd noticed Helena's return to wakefulness, the older woman didn't start at the soft inquiry. She took a moment before answering, finally hedging.

"A little."


Amazing how much the younger woman could pack into a single, grunted syllable.

Feeling suitably chastised, the redhead blinked and then spoke truthfully.

"I wanted to be near you."

There was no reply other than the minute tightening of the arm which embraced her from behind. The two lay quietly, breathing in tandem for a few minutes until Barbara heard her own voice, raspy from exhaustion, speaking her heart.

"I'm so grateful you're here, Hel."

A slow exhalation greeted the admission before the redhead felt her companion press herself fully to her back, hugging her fiercely with the arm around her waist. The younger woman's reply, so quiet and shy that Barbara could have missed it -- or, she realized with a thrill of dismay, could pretend to have missed it -- was electric.

"Show me."

One crimson brow arched as the older woman allowed the words to blow through her, feeling her skin tingle and the fine hairs on her arms dance in response to the whisper.

She knew that she wasn't always at the head of the class when it came to showing her affection or demonstrating her feelings.

Honestly, she was never at the head of the class, counting herself fortunate if she fell on the upper side of the bell curve.

Too often, she seemed to end up lost in her own head, endlessly analyzing the hows and wherefores instead of acting. This time, Barbara instantly determined, would not be one of them.

Eschewing words, she clasped the back of her partner's hand more firmly, guiding their joined hands up her torso to place the warm fingers under hers on her breast. Instantly, a hot exhalation stirred the hair on the back of her neck, and she felt full lips press against her tee shirt-covered shoulder.

"Oh, fuck, yeah."

The redhead's hips shifted under the younger woman's sudden thrust, and Barbara's breath caught when she felt an almost convulsive tensing of the sinewy muscles in her lover's forearm under her hand. A heartbeat later, her tension changed to something else under the awareness of how the younger woman was gentling her touch, cupping her firmly, but ever-so-delicately.

Reverently, the analytical woman's overactive mind supplied just before a thumb brushed her rapidly hardening peak and deflected her thoughts.

How could such a subtle touch stir her so?

When the tender contact ended, the redhead's soft noise of question died in her throat at the sensation of her hand being gently captured by slender fingers and guided up her torso. The movement mirrored Barbara's actions of only moments before, only this time it was her own hand which was placed on her chest.

The redhead caught her breath, arousal warring with uncertainty.

This was something her partner hadn't asked of her since that memorable Monday morning six weeks before. Six weeks ago as they'd just begun exploring a physical side to their relationship. As it had been then, the older woman didn't know if this was something she could do, something which she could offer.

Steadying herself, she allowed her lover to move their joined hands lightly across the heavy swell of flesh under her tee. Feeling her unmistakable response to the shared caress, Barbara relaxed marginally. Gradually, she took over the motion, arching forward into her own touch, her own physical reaction nowhere near as powerful as her pleasure in offering this to her lover.

She wanted -- needed -- to show Helena how much...

The deep groan reverberating from behind her eloquently expressed the younger woman's feelings. Barbara shivered, then moaned, when her partner spoke, her voice thick as honey, rough as a cat's tongue.

"God, seeing you like this... It's... you're so fuckin' hot..."

Slender fingers danced randomly over the redhead's body: stroking her tensed bicep, flirting with the hem of her shirt, brushing her cheek. Eyes shut in concentration, Barbara felt every touch magnified, heard every whisper amplified.

"I want to be inside you... on you... all around you... everywhere."

Ignoring the insideous whisper of uncertainty, the redhead urgently pushed her upper back against her partner, twisting her head to try to catch the other woman's mouth with hers.

"Jesus, Hel. Kiss me..."

Soft, full lips met hers -- too briefly -- before the dark head dropped and teeth raked the side of the older woman's neck. She thought that the guttural moan in the room had been hers, but the panting words against her skin left her, frankly, unconcerned about the origin of the moan.

"I love you so... fuckin' much. You're... it's everything."

Even as Barbara struggled to turn within her lover's embrace, she freed the arm which had been pinned under her side and swept the heavy fall of hair back from her neck, arching and offering more access to the other woman. The brunette accepted the invitation, and the older woman clenched her teeth against the keening whimper scratching insistently at her throat in response to a fierce, hungry suctioning.

"...in me... so deep..."

Green eyes flew wide when Barbara registered the words panting against her skin, and her heart stuttered, picking up the urgent pace of boyishly slim hips which rocked against her. Only ruing that her partner's state suggested that she had no time to savor, she managed to shift onto her back and work her near arm around the other woman, yanking her onto her.

The redhead's breathing hitched as the dark figure reared up with a snarl. She controlled the reaction, amazed anew by her lover's sheer responsiveness, as the younger woman deliberately dragged her upper body across Barbara's still partially tee-shirt covered torso. Helena drew out the contact, grinding once, downward, until warm breath tickled the older woman's belly button and, then, all sensation stopped.

The redhead barely had time to draw in a slow, steadying breath before the younger woman slithered back up, pushing the hem of the tee with her nose and tracing a wet trail up the center her chest with her tongue. With the tee around her neck, Barbara fumbled for Helena's tank, working with more resolve than finesse to get it up... over... out of the way until, with a soft sigh which was echoed by the other woman's rumbling purr, they came skin to skin.

Dear heavens, how had she lived -- existed -- without this... this perfect, silken contact? ...this melding of skin to skin, their sweat mingling and breath mixing in a fathomless body kiss which drew on and on?

The redhead stretched her upper back into the full body caress, certain that the minute jerky movements of the smaller woman's hips against her upper legs were tickling air currents across the impossibly sensitized nerves of her upper body. Before she had time to consider the feasibility of this, the younger woman pushed up on her fists, the corded muscles of her forearms flexing by Barbara's shoulders.

Green eyes widened when the lithe young woman panted her plea.

"Please, Barbara -- I need you now."

The redhead smiled warmly -- very warmly -- as she tenderly cupped her partner's cheek.

This request... the need... was something she could respond to without doubt or concern. It was something, the practical woman had admitted to herself during the last few weeks, which filled her with a great deal of pleasure as well.

As little as Barbara had enjoyed being a... vessel for her male lovers' satisfaction during the last seven years, she'd discovered that she found immense gratification as an... instrument of Helena's pleasure. Whether that had to do with this particular lover or her own take-charge urges was something the redhead had chosen not to delve into too deeply.

It was enough -- more than enough -- that the situation seemed to work for the two of them.

"Pu-- please, Barbara... Touch me."

Unable -- unwilling -- to deny the achingly open plea, the redhead insinuated her hand between them. With a hiss, her lover curved forward in a spine-cracking C-arch at her first touch, sparking an undeniable want within the older woman. Controlling the response and thrusting more deeply, Barbara felt the tendons of her wrist stretching under the harsh angle, but instantly forgot the slight burn when Helena buried her mouth against her shoulder, whimpering her pleasure.

Too quickly it was over, the speed of the encounter a harbinger of the intensity of Helena's climax. Dazed and oddly sated herself, Barbara held her position, tenderly, possessively, cupping her lover even as she rubbed soothing circles on her back with the other hand.

The younger woman finally pushed herself up, languidly rolling to her side and pressing tightly against the redhead. Squinting to focus at such close range, Barbara gently brushed shaggy bangs away from slumberous blue eyes and drank in the tranquility of the beautiful features under her fingertips.

The twinkle which appeared in those stunning eyes and the supremely satisfied smile drawing across kiss-bruised lips distracted Barbara from her examination. The younger woman's rumbling words forced a laugh past her lips.

"Good morning to you, too, Red."

Chapter 13

"Good grief, Barbara, I'm not... "

Almost visibly trembling in her search for words, the young woman gesticulated dramatically before finding her voice again.

"...*clueless* or something!"

The older woman pursed her lips against a smile: Honestly, 'clueless' was just about the last word she would have chosen to describe her companion. Somehow, she managed a sage nod as she raised one hand placatingly.

"I'm aware of that, Dinah. I'm just concerned that you may be..."

Barbara allowed herself a few seconds to search for the words which would express her worry without making the teen feel that her ability was in doubt. Despite the sickening clench of her abdominal muscles -- How could she help the young woman understand how serious the situation was? -- she managed to remain calm, measured.

"...taking on too much too soon. The J -- This isn't like anything you've encountered on sweeps before, and I don't want you pushing yourself for the wrong reasons."

The redhead felt a warm breath of pride touch her as she watched the blonde's features transform from defensive to thoughtful to, finally, accepting.

Such a willingness to listen and consider her guardian's words bespoke a maturity well beyond the young woman's years.

"I understand what you're saying, Barbara. Really, I do."

Earnest, cornflower blue eyes sought green, and the lanky teen turned to lean against the lab counter near the Delphi.

The two women had been engaged in a detailed analysis of Helena's bubble goo specimen for the last few hours, the shared camaraderie and quiet musings giving Barbara an opening to bring up her concerns with her ward. Unfortunately, while their examination of the sticky substance had proven fruitful -- revealing a combination of epoxy, latex, and bubble gum -- the discussion did not seem to be proceeding nearly as well.

"And I know I kind of, uhm, freaked out a little at the reservoir on Wednesday and all, and I guess maybe -- well, really you probabaly just are... right, I mean, about him being a lot worse than anything I've met on sweeps, but, it's just -- "

Barbara offered a measured blink against the verbal deluge. Long exposure to the young woman allowed her to follow, and even make sense, of the outpouring.

"-- Well, I guess I got kind of freaked that he'd do something like that..."

If the blonde's brief stumble weren't enough, her absolutely stricken expression eloquently bespoke her horror over the situation she'd witnessed.

"... Pushing his own... or... really..."

Dinah slowed, clearly working through what lay at the roots of her feelings.

"... That someone could do that to anybody, I guess."

Nodding sympathetically, the older woman approached her companion. She slowly raised one hand, waiting for an almost imperceptible dip of pale features, before resting her hand on the teen's shoulder. She rubbed small circles at the base of the girl's neck, hunting for the right words.

"Man's inhumanity to man can be boundless, Dinah, and I hope you'll never..."

She purposely emphasized the word, searching pale blue eyes for understanding.

"...fail to be horrified by that type of cruelty."

A tremulous smile suggested that she was making her point, and so the cyber-vigilante continued.

"At the same time, Dinah, there's no need to exposure yourself needlessly... or too early... to situations like that. I know it's not a popular idea at your age,"

The older woman pulled back with a self-depreciating smile, hoping to remove any sting from her words.

"...but holding on to a bit of innocence isn't such a terrible thing, you know."

The teen nodded.

"It's not just unpopular, Barbara, it's almost impossible."

The two women shared a smile over the observation before Dinah's eyes clouded.

"I know that, Barbara."

Shifting a bit, the girl pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, then fiddled with the focus on the microscope. Aware that her newest protege was, possibly, more facile with the expensive piece of electronics than she was, Barbara noticed that she didn't even tense.

Unlike, a portion of her mind supplied wryly, her response when she witnessed Helena twiddling with the carefully calibrated settings of her equipment.

"And, uh, Helena and I kind of talked about this last night."

Pale blonde brows rose in question.

"At dinner, you know?"

The redhead smiled.

"Did you find the... talk helpful, Dinah?", she inquired, taking pains not to pry into specifics.

The girl shifted from one foot to the other before resting her hip against the counter again.

"Yeah. I mean, there isn't a lot you can say, I guess."

Barbara absolutely, positively, refused to press for details; however, apparently, her puzzled frown didn't go unnoticed. Her companion laughed, seeming to relax.

"Helena and I talked a little about the other night. Uh,"

The older woman pursed her lips sympathetically when she witnessed the blush creeping up her young companion's pale features.

"...you know, stuff about how it feels to see something like that."

The teen seemed to look inward for a beat before meeting green eyes again, and the redhead smiled her comprehension: Of all of them, Helena was certainly best suited to tackle topics relating to feelings.

"Mostly, she was telling me about some stuff that Dick told her a while back."

"Dick?", the older woman parroted, a bit stupidly, she feared.

The blonde head bobbed once, and green eyes narrowed.

"Dick and Helena?", Barbara repeated, working valiantly to wrap her mind around what Dinah seemed to be saying.

While the brunette's feelings seemed to have mellowed a bit in recent years -- or, perhaps Helena had simply become a bit more diplomatic -- her antipathy toward Barbara's former colleague was legendary. For years, Barbara had assumed that a great deal of the younger woman's sneering disdain had been spill-over from her feelings toward Bruce; she'd only recently deduced that the bristling hostility her ward had demonstrated for years might have had something to do with the fact that, for a brief time after the shooting, Barbara had taken the young man as her lover.

There was another cheerful nod.

"Uh huh. She didn't go into a lot of specifics, but it had something to do with when you all were taking on The Crimson Claw?"

The pieces of the puzzle suddenly shifted, just enough, and clicked into place.

Almost four years ago, the budding crime fighting venture which Barbara had recently undertaken with her former ward had been sorely tested by a horrific creature which the press had named The Crimson Claw. Wont to kidnap -- and then consume -- children around the full moon each month, the shadowy creature had thwarted every attempt Helena and her mentor had made to pin him down for two months.

On the full moon of the third month, the two women had caught a break of sorts, and Helena had burst into The Claw's lair before he'd finished his work on the six children he'd gathered. After a battle which had left the dark vigilante more battered than Barbara had ever seen her, Helena had rescued four of the children.

The young woman's failure to rescue the other two had brought her to her knees like nothing before... or since.

Broody, bitter, and radiating self-loathing and defeat, Helena had questioned everything the two were doing... or could do. Since the young woman was obviously in no shape to take on the criminal worst of New Gotham -- much less battle the still-marauding Claw -- Barbara had contacted Dick, requesting his assistance.

The young man had arrived within the day and, to Barbara's distinct amazement, had somehow coaxed... or cajoled... or forced Helena to abandon the clock tower long enough to go out for ice cream. The two young crime fighters had been gone for several hours; however, when they'd returned, Helena had put on her duster, professing herself ready to take on the worst that New Gotham could throw at her.

Neither Helena nor Dick had mentioned their conversation to Barbara, and the older woman hadn't asked, unwilling to pry and simply grateful that her protege had found what she needed to absorb the blows cast her way in their job. Years later, apparently, whatever wisdom Dick had bestowed was benefiting Dinah.

Profoundly grateful that -- whatever their differences -- the generations around her seemed to support each other so well, the older woman hid a fond smile and made a mental note to send an extra care package to her former partner from when she'd been on the streets. However, with that thought, Barbara also remembered herself and the topic at hand.

"I'm glad that you were able to talk some of this out with Helena," she carefully began, again marshalling her arguments for caution, "and that she shared some of her experiences with you."

Point of fact, 'glad' didn't begin to express her feelings for what Helena had done: grateful, amazed, delighted, overwhelmed... Obviously, she'd need to take some time later -- after the current mess had been resolved -- to consult her mental thesaurus and then endeavor to thank her partner.

"And, I'm very, very pleased..."

The redhead dropped her voice a tiny bit, seeking the younger woman's eyes.

"...that you're feeling a bit less overwhelmed, Dinah."

The teen bobbed her head in emphasis, and the older woman returned Dinah's quirked grin with a soft smile of her own.

"However," Barbara sobered, "don't you think it might be advisable if you don't join Helena for sweeps until things are..."

Crimson brows knit briefly.

"...a bit more normal?"

The lanky girl stood abruptly to pace across the platform, her agitation obvious. Barbara couldn't help but notice that, despite her obvious upset with the suggestion, Dinah -- unlike the redhead's former headstrong ward -- chose not to speak immediately. It was only after the blonde crossed the platform twice that she finally found her voice.

"It you really want me to stay in, Barbara, I'll do it."

The words were calm, thoughtful, forcing the redhead to take note unlike any amount of shouting or anger ever could have.

"But, I really think I can maybe help out -- even if it's just a little -- on sweeps. You know,"

The blonde head tilted to one side, a half-shrug accompanying the gesture.

"...even if it's just kind of hanging back and keeping a lookout when Helena is, uhm, going after people and stuff. I mean, I know that I may see stuff that's way over the top from what I'm used to, but I really want to help out, Barbara."

Utterly conflicted by her pride in the girl's thoughtful resolve and her trepidation about her ward's well-being, the older woman blew out a frustrated breath.

Obviously, stubborn resolve wasn't the sole purview of practical redheads.

Or, Barbara admitted wryly, of temperamental brunettes either.

"You are an adult, Dinah, and you've obviously thought about this, so I'll leave it up to you."

She forestalled the enthusiastic smile she saw forming with a raised hand.

"With the caveat that, if you're out there, you always do what Helena tells you to. She has a lot of exp--"

"I think you've almost got it there, Red."

The woman in question neatly interrupted the speech Barbara had been gearing up for, appearing silently from the hallway and causing both women at the Delphi to jump. The older woman tamped down on the sudden surge of adrenaline in her system with a quick shake of her head and turned to face the brunette, who was still toweling her hair after a shower.

" 'Almost', Hel? What am I missing?"

The younger woman, clad in brief nylon running shorts and an oversized NGPD sweatshirt, leapt gracefully onto the platform and bent to buss the confused redhead's cheek before responding.

"You need to take out that part about 'being out there'..."

Slender fingers encapsulated the words in quotation marks as a devilish twinkle entered dark blue eyes.

"...and make sure the Kid does what I say all the time."

"Fat chance!"

Surprised to hear herself chuckle -- when was the last time? -- the older woman arched one brow primly. An instant later, Barbara was even more surprised when she heard herself speak.

"Indeed, Hel. However, I was under the impression that that was your role with me."

Judging from the hawk like expression which instantly transformed Helena's face *and* the rush of color which pinked Dinah's pale features, not one single possible meaning of the unconsidered words had escaped either of her companions. The redhead, feeling the warmth of her own blush, flirted with the possibility of attempting damage control; realistically, she suspected that she'd simply make things worse and so opted for a rescue.

Accordingly, she caught distinctly... interested blue eyes with hers and raised her brows in supplication. A lazy wink suggested that her partner hadn't missed the plea, nevertheless, Barbara held her breath in anticipation when the brunette finally spoke.

"I guess you're right about that, Barbara. So, for now..."

The younger woman waved towards the lab equipment.

"...if you two are finished with your big brain thing, I've got something I need the Kid's help with before I go out to rescue New Gotham one bite of pie at a time again."

Dinah laughed, then squealed a protest when the older girl snapped her damp towel in her direction. Although green eyes widened in a bit in curiosity, Barbara simply smiled and extended a hand, palm up, to usher Dinah from the platform.

They could pick up their work with the bubble goo later. Based on its composition, replicating the substance would be trivial, allowing the two to experiment with the teen's TK and with creating of solvents for it.

While Barbara remained distinctly edgy about their green-haired tormentor's plans for his ultra-strong, non-breathable goo, she was able to take a small measure of relief in the fact that, at least temporarily, he'd turned his energies to other activities. After his appearance at the Huffa Bubba factory the night before, the madman had yet to be seen in the city, however, he had devoted a not-inconsiderable amount of resources to his latest caper.

Mid-morning, The Joker's men had swarmed into the Bond Street Bakery, stymieing law-enforcement with a hostage situation which, seemingly, had no demands. Tensely monitoring the situation from the catwalks and rafters of the bakery, Helena had reported that the workers didn't seem to be in danger: their captors had pressed them into service to create... a pie.

Hours later, when two helicopters had landed on the roof of the factory and then departed swinging a giant confection through the sky, the purpose of the takeover had finally revealed itself. The terrified bakery workers had been forced to create a two ton banana cream pie which the waiting helicopters had air-lifted and dropped over the central police station during the Friday 4:00pm rush hour.

Humor and creativity of the attack aside, the prank had nearly suffocated a uniformed officer, and one Records Office Clerk with severe lactose intolerance would be in the hospital for the night. Preliminary reports also showed that the motor pool was predicting that it would take weeks to clean out sugar-fouled gas tanks.

Checking the monitors for updates, the cyber-vigilante wearily supposed that the Clown Prince of Mayhem had been proving that revenge could be sweet. Even Helena had initially found the situation so when she'd waded through the five foot flow of cream filling to help with rescues; however, the dark vigilante's notorious sweet tooth apparently had limits, as demonstrated by the younger woman's somewhat queasy expression when she'd finally returned to the clock tower for a long shower.

Satisfied that nothing too urgent was occurring in the city... yet, Barbara peered in the direction of the training room, idly wondering what her two young charges where up to. With a shrug -- the low murmur of voices and occasional giggle didn't imply that there was any need for... intervention -- the redhead set to work recording her notes from the afternoon's work with Dinah and roughing out a plan for testing the substance when they replicated it.

Half an hour later, the cyber-genius grimaced in distaste as she absently took a swig of coffee grounds from her long-cold mug and decisively headed to the kitchen. She methodically rinsed out her cup, up-ending it on a folded dish towel by the sink, then dug in the refrigerator for something which would be both hydrating and stimulating: Friday nights were always busy and, with The Joker on the prowl, this wasn't likely to be an exception.

As the redhead sat in front of the open refrigerator, weighing the merits of the Red Bull in her right hand against the diet cola in her left, she caught herself humming in time with a familiar, albeit old, bouncy tune emanating from the training room. Since it had long been maintained by everyone who knew her that she couldn't carry a tune in a bucket -- using both hands -- she immediately quashed her vocalizations. However, her curiosity was now thoroughly piqued.

Deciding on the cola -- Helena tended to be a little possessive about her Red Bulls -- Barbara quietly approached the training room.

Here comes johnny and he'll tell you the story

Hand me down mu walkin' shoes

Here come johnny with the power and the glory

Backbeat the talkin' blues

He got the action, he got the motion

Yeah, the boy can play

Dedication devotion

Turning all the night time into the day

The redhead stopped at the door to the room, tapping the index finger of her left hand to Dire Strait's infectious beat and puzzling over the younger women's actions: now stripped down to a form-fitting halter-top, Helena was engaged in some showy arm-work in the parallel bars, and Dinah, for some reason, was capturing the brunette's actions on the camcorder.

He do the song about the sweet lovin' woman

He do the song about the knife

He do the walk, he do the walk of life

And after all the violence and double talk

There's just a song in the trouble and the strife

You do the walk, you do the walk of life

As the song faded to silence, the lithe figure popped into a neat handstand, balancing herself easily on the bars. Barbara blinked as the young woman spoke to the camera -- Had she just said something about eating bugs? -- and soundlessly approached. Ten feet behind Dinah, she clearly made out Helena's patter.

"...care for fruit that much, but I sure as heck can climb trees like a cat to get it. Don't even get me started on fishing..."

The brunette swung around and performed a precise turn, supporting herself on one bar with both hands.

"...and I may hate getting wet, but I can swim like nobody's business and..."

Crimson brows slowly crept skyward as Barbara observed her partner's graceful dismount and the sultry smile she offered the camera.

"...if you think this is good..."

One slim hand gestured at the brunette's skimpy outfit.

"...you won't believe how great I look in a bikini."

Helena held her pose for a moment before relaxing.

"That's a wrap, D. Cut it."

The blonde laughed happily as she lowered the camera.

"That was great, Helena. You ought to be a shoo-in."

Grinning without a trace of modesty -- false or otherwise, the twenty-something snagged a water bottle before pinning Barbara with twinkling eyes.

"Yeah, I think so, too, Kid. What about you, Babs? How was I?"

Barbara felt her brows descending, furrowing actually, as she attempted to guess what the two young women were talking about.

"Did I miss a memo, Hel? What, exactly, is it you're getting into?"

The younger woman took her time before answering, guzzling deeply from the water bottle. Thirst apparently slaked, she recapped the bottle and smiled conspiratorially.

"Open auditions for next season's 'Survivor'."

Now quite certain that she was having her leg pulled and simply hadn't felt it, the redhead cast a disbelieving look at Dinah. She discovered that the situation wasn't significantly clarified when the blonde grinned broadly and nodded emphatically.

"The television show...?", she somehow managed.

The brunette's expression, Barbara promptly decided, could only be described as "smug".

"Uh huh. Just think how well I'd do. Not to mention..."

Despite herself, Barbara chuckled as her partner pirouetted and struck an exaggeratedly showy beauty pageant pose.

"...how hot I'd look running around on a tropical island for thirty-nine days."

The older woman opened her mouth, then silently closed it.

There was simply no denying the truth of the younger woman's words. But, still...

"Still, Helena, reality television?"

The redhead mentally grimaced at the slight -- almost unnoticeable -- squeak her voice had taken at the end of the question.

How could Helena even be thinking about something like that? Especially during their current crisis?

Barbara pushed that last question soundly aside when her partner approached, speaking confidently as she knelt beside her.

"Well, I figure that it's either 'Survivor' or 'American Idol' and..."

Dark brows waggled playfully.

"...between you and me, Red, I just don't think we could handle all the publicity that's going to come around here when I get chosen as the next enduring overnight sensation of the Clearasil set on 'Idol'."

Blinking against the oxymoron, not to mention the younger woman's sheer... hubris, the redhead tilted her head speculatively.

"Not to mention having to put in wider doors to allow your head through, Hel."

To her credit, the brunette threw back her head, joining in fully with the guffaw which Dinah was attempting to hide behind her hand. Marveling at her partner's ability to -- like some sort of Zephyr -- breeze past the tension which had surrounded them for almost five days, Barbara waited out the mirth before tangling her fingers with the younger woman's.

"As explosive as you would be on screen, Sweetie, I'm not sure we could do without you if you gallivanted off to an island for that long."

The brunette smiled serenely as she rose slowly, brushing her lips to the older woman's ear.

"Yeah. My luxury item would sure have to be a picture of you."

Even as she wondered if she might melt on the spot, the redhead admitted that -- with Helena on television -- Hollywood would never be the same.

Chapter 14

"Huntress? Canary? What's your ETA to the Cineplex?"

Somehow, Barbara managed to sound almost calm when she made her inquiry, even as she snapped several keys on her keyboard with more force than was strictly necessary.

<"We're hustling, Oracle. Another two blocks...">

The redhead nodded grimly, Helena's somewhat breathless update confirming what she'd seen on GPS.

"Hurry, Huntress. NGFD hasn't reached the scene yet, but The Joker's men have encircled the theatre."

Although Barbara hadn't doubted it, the brunette's low growl provided ample confirmation that Helena was aware of the gravity of the situation. A moment later, the young woman again verified the sterile dancing of LED coordinates across the GPS.

<"We're here. Fire looks nasty, but it's still confined to one section.">

Preliminary reports had suggested as much, and so the cyber-vigilante focused on what she didn't know.

"What about the people? And The Joker's men?"

This time, it was the youngest member of the crime fighting team who responded.

<"People are coming out of the theatre fast, but there's not much panic so f--">

A rumbling soprano cut her off.

<"I'm going in the back to make sure nobody's trapped. You stay here, Canary.">

Even as she heard the sound of her partner's swift movement, Barbara couldn't hold in her warning.

"Be careful, Huntress."

<"Always, Oracle.">

As reassured as she supposed it was possible to be, the redhead tried to ignore the sound of crackling flames which echoed through Helena's headset, directing her attention back to Dinah.

"Canary? What about reports of The Joker's men being in the area?"

The cyber-vigilante could almost hear her newest protege peeking over -- or around -- the edge of whatever semi-secure rooftop or alley Helena had picked.

<"Yeah, they're here, Oracle. Probably a dozen or more guys in rainbow wigs and red noses... No, maybe more like fifte--">

"What are they doing, Canary?"

Loathe to interrupt the blonde's survey, Barbara nevertheless summarily cut her off. The teen didn't seem too upset.

<"Uh, kind of hanging around some cars parked by the front entr-- Oh no!">

Before she had the opportunity to request clarification, the sound of what seemed to be shotgun fire, followed by terrified cries from the people pouring from the burning theatre, provided a graphic illustration for the redhead.

"Stay back, Canary."

Green eyes narrowed when Barbara realized she'd spoken, then the redhead clenched her jaw and nodded her agreement with the instinctive directive.

<"But, they've covered a bunch of people with that bubble stuff, Oracle and...">

"If you think you can do it safely, you can try your TK--"

<"Try your TK, Kid, and blow that shit off them. I'm gonna kick some ass.">

The interruption, as well as the advice, was very welcome, for a variety of reasons.

"Huntress? Is everyone out of the cinema?"

<"Just in time to get splatted, Asshole!">

The redhead didn't even blink at the harsh words. Coinciding as they had with a voluble male "Ooof" and the sound of surprised shouts, Barbara assumed that the younger woman had efficiently combined an update report with her attack on the men on the ground.

"Copy that."

Picking up the sound of approaching sirens over the transceiver, the cyber-vigilante instinctively toggled to her EMS dispatch window. She winced at the sound of teeth cracking, followed by a high tenor yelp, from Helena's comms and deliberately modulated her voice.

"Fire and rescue is only a block away, Canary. Can you update me on how you're doing with the bubble goo?"

There was no reply for a long sixteen seconds, however Barbara knew that the teen was very probably concentrating on her task. She forced herself to trust that the girl was following instructions and remaining away from the fray.

<"I... I got it off... three.">

The strain on the young telepath was obvious.

<"Going to... another...">

Despite her concern for Dinah's well-being, Barbara didn't bother warning the blonde not to overdo or any such nonsense. She was quite aware that all of them would do whatever they could... as much as they could.

"Good work, Canary."

An angry shout from the other comm unit distracted the older woman from her concern.

<"Shit! They're hauling ass!">

A split-second hesitation followed the dark vigilante's update before Helena continued, a hint of question in her words.

<"I think I can get one of the cars, Oracle...">

Completely sympathetic to her partner's frustrated dilemma, Barbara effortlessly prioritized.

"Let them go, Huntress, and see if you can help the victims."

Helena's answering growl was immediate.

<"Copy that.">

The noises of confused and panicked movie-goers grew louder, presumably as the brunette plunged into the crowd. The cries and shouts didn't mask the anguished whisper which followed.

<"Oh, fuck! There's a kid... He's covered in it... turning blue...">

Barbara felt the blood rush from her head, hating -- as much as her younger partner -- when the youngest and most innocent were victimized. Furious at their foes' casual disregard for life, the redhead picked out a woman's tearful cries -- something about taking her son to his first movie -- and, from the other comm set, a distressed vocalization.

<"I didn't see him. Oh, god, I should have been closer...">

Hearing the sound of Helena tearing through the impermeable, sticky mess and beginning CPR, the older woman held her breath... waiting. During an interminable minute and a half, the sounds of the brunette's rescue attempts and Dinah's soft panting and the crowd's shouting all dimmed under the noise of her own self-reproach.

Dear heavens, if only she'd caught on sooner... or been a bit more vigilant, she could have prevented the entire meltdown.

The old proverb about the entire kingdom being lost for want of a nail echoed hollowly through the redhead's mind, and she bitterly acknowledged how well it applied in this situation. Only, in this case, rather than the lack of a nail and horseshoe, it had been for want of her own alertness and good sense.

Eight or nine weeks ago, if she'd only worked harder to put the pieces together about the jewel thefts and Frank Loewen's laser; six or seven weeks ago, if she'd only considered potential damage to the outlying areas at Arkham...

But, she hadn't. Perfect memory and years of experience and finely honed analytical skills notwithstanding, she'd... coasted along like her skull was stuffed with cotton wool.

Red lashes lowered, and Barbara acknowledged what had lain at the heart of her distraction: For the last three months, she'd been too damned caught up in falling in love -- or realizing that she was in love -- with Helena to spend serious time on the analysis which could have prevented this catastrophe.

A weak, wet cough and the collective sigh of the crowd drew the cyber-crime fighter from her bleak thoughts. Dinah's voice, heavily painted with relief, confirmed her guess that Helena's rescue breathing had been successful.

<"She did it. He's alive.">

Slowly, Barbara removed her glasses, holding them between her thumb and the last two fingers of her right hand. She pressed the knuckle of her index finger between her eyes, pushing at the pounding pressure, before exhaling soundlessly and straightening.

"Good work."

She deliberately paused, then emphasized her next word.

"*Both* of you. As soon as you think EMS has the situation under control, please return to base."

She needed to get Dinah in -- the teen's exhaustion was evident in her breathy acknowledgement -- and she suspected that even Helena could use a break after having been on the go for most of the day. In the meantime, the analytical woman ruthlessly pushed aside her doubts and remorse, resolutely turning back to what she'd been working on just before the fire at the Cineplex.

During the afternoon, the sniffers she'd deployed throughout New Gotham's net hubs had picked up suspicious activity matching the parameters she'd coded. A bit of rapid investigation had revealed that, indeed, The Joker had gone high-tech, launching highly efficient denial-of-service attacks against almost every financial institution in the city.

It had been a simple matter for Barbara to intercept the rogue packets, and she'd diverted them to a dummy router programmed to signal that the DOS packets were hitting their intended marks. With The Joker, hopefully, under the impression that his cyber-attacks were working, she'd begun the tedious process of tracking the packets' routes in the hope of discovering their genesis.

For several hours, the cyber-genius had painstakingly traced signals from one router to the next, impressed despite herself by the complexity of the trail. She'd finally linked several dozen of the electronic threads and identified what appeared to be a secondary firewall: the staging area, as it were, for the green-haired madman's deployment across the web.

Rather than immediately focusing on hacking into the firewall system, she'd opted to follow the electronic footprints departing the machine in the hopes of identifying where her foe had been casting his net in cyberspace. Just minutes before the fire at the theatre, her tedious electronic tracking -- jumping from one hub to the next -- had placed her suspiciously near a well-known location.

With a distinct sense of foreboding, Barbara resumed her electronic journey, following a trail which was becoming clearer by the keystroke. In seconds, she reached the terminus of the trail, biting at her bottom lip when her suspicions were confirmed. The redhead didn't bother firing up her password hacking software, simply logging in with her own ID and then scanning the system logs to determine just what The Joker had been seeking in New Gotham High's central computer.

Two dozen keystrokes later, she had it and, for the second time in minutes, felt the blood drain from her head in a dizzying rush.

As she'd expected, the trail led to the personal records in the system; however, the hack by-passed the faculty personnel records, sifting, instead, through the student files. With an almost surreal sense of calm, Barbara navigated to a subdirectory -- the L's -- no longer following electronic trails, simply trusting her intuition.

L-A... Laaske... Ladd... Lakerman... Lambert...

Lance, Dinah.

Almost absently, she noted that the timestamp on her ward's file had been altered only hours before and heard a soft gasp whisper through the empty clock tower.

Her own.

Since there were ways to access and alter files without disturbing the timestamp, clearly The Joker wanted it known that he'd touched this particular file.

Green eyes blinked as Barbara struggled to bring the wavering letters of the filename back into focus. When the amber-tinted block letters resolved themselves, she reached for her mouse, puzzled by an inexplicable shakiness to the cursor as she clicked to open the file.

Connected as she was with a T-3 line, it took only nanoseconds for the PDF to cross the virtual miles and open on her desktop. Once open, it took almost as little time for the cyber-crime fighter to find a change -- an addition -- to the record.

On the first page of the file, the digitized image of Dinah's senior photo greeted Barbara: the teen, arrayed in robe and mortar board, was smiling brightly at the camera and her future. As bright and engaging as the picture was, the redhead barely glanced at it: after all, there was an exact duplicate which served as wallpaper for one of her monitors and another copy in her wallet. What drew her attention was the jpeg image which had been placed in Dinah's record.

For ten, perhaps fifteen, seconds, the analytical woman remained fixed in place, unblinking, unbreathing as she fought the clear implications behind the image... and its placement: a Warhol-esque rendition of a Huffa Bubba gum wrapper was superimposed above the girl's picture, obscuring her features.

The soft ding of the elevator broke through Barbara's horror and fury. Aware that she had only seconds before her charges ascended from the parking garage, she gave herself two seconds to regain control of her breathing. After that, she swiftly renamed the pdf and closed the file; almost as an afterthought, she closed each terminal window she'd used to trace The Joker's packets, leaving only her usual three dozen or so screens open. That done, the crimson-haired crime fighter checked her posture, wondering if the rigid tension of her muscles would simply crush her back and ribs, and moved from the platform just as the elevator doors rolled open.

"-- totally rocked, Kid."

Two sets of blue eyes -- one as pale as summer sky, one as deep as the ocean -- met green.

"Hey, Red. I was just telling D how awesome she was out there, popping that goo right and left."

The older woman managed a tight smile as she watched the younger women exit the elevator. Although she was disheveled and covered with soot, Helena moved with her usual lithe grace. Dinah, while less visibly touched from the evening's activities, was more pale than usual, moving a bit slowly. Accordingly, she focused her attention on the young telepath.

"Helena, Dinah. It sounds like you both did some amazing work tonight."

Barbara approached her ward, carefully catching the young woman's hand and offering a slight squeeze. In the process, she feathered her fingers over the girl's wrist, noting her elevated pulse rate.

"How are you feeling, Dinah?"

Purposely, she kept the question open-ended, curious about how her newest protege would interpret it. When the blonde met her eyes, smiling tiredly, she found herself swallowing rapidly against something in her chest which threatened to drown -- or crush -- her.

"Really good, Barbara. I mean, I guess I'm a little tired, but nobody got really hurt tonight, and that feels really good."

Not quite trusting her voice, the redhead pursed her lips and offered a quick nod before jerking her gaze to the other figure in the room.

"The... "

She blinked once and licked her lips, trying again.

"The boy will be alright, Hel?"

The brunette shrugged out of her duster, laying it over the back a chair.

"Looks like. His mom was probably more freaked than he was."

Suspecting that she had some insights of her own into those sorts of feelings, Barbara quirked her lips, certain that her brittle facade would facture at any moment. Hoping that any... irregularities in her behavior would be attributed to the events at the theatre, she pushed her shoulders back another hairsbreadth and turned back to Dinah.

"I'm really proud of you both, but, for now, Dinah, perhaps you should turn in?"

Warmed by her ward's shyly delighted smile, she waited until the blonde disappeared down the hall before returning to the Delphi, Helena trailing behind her. She mechanically checked the police scanners, then arched a brow as she turned to find that her younger partner was parking her hindquarters on her mouse pad.

"Everything's relatively quiet, Hel. It looks like you can take a bit of a break finally."

"Well, that's good news. It's been a heckuva day."

Barbara returned her companion's easy smile, a trifle stiffly she supposed, then felt her expression falter when Helena gently tangled their fingers.

"But, you too, Red? Will you come to bed?"

Even as something within her clawed and struggled to scream, the older woman squeezed her partner's hand before releasing it to reach for her glasses. She allowed her hair to fall forward as she seated the frames on her nose and gestured toward her monitor.

"Give me a few more minutes, Sweetie. There a few other things I need to check."

The brunette exhaled noisily but, mercifully, didn't push it, simply rising gracefully and heading toward the bedroom by way of the kitchen. Barbara remained still for a few minutes, then brought up her database of recent activities, efficiently updating it with the score of crimes and pranks from the evening. When she heard the shower from their bathroom go on, she finally minimized the database and dragged her cursor to the file she'd downloaded from the school earlier.

After a moment's hesitation, she double-clicked, opening the file and scrolling down to the bubble gum jpeg. As she'd thought, there was a tiny irregularity in the image: One edge of the wrapper was twisted back, revealing a hint of pink gum.

Positive that the wrinkle was no accident, she traced the cursor around the edge of the drawing, finally clicking on the picture. Slowly, the cyber-candy unwrapped, transforming into a diaphanous pink bubble.

Green eyes narrowed, seeing something... somethings... moving, almost waving like wheat on the prairie, inside the bubble. The cyber-vigilante swallowed with some difficulty, then clicked on the bubble. The cursor stuttered across the screen, and the mouse clattered from its pad to the desktop when the redhead's hand flew to her mouth to hold back her whimper.

Appearing from the pink bubble, a photographic likeness of a well-known visage took shape. A beat later, a rasping voice -- one that Barbara would never, ever be able to erase from her memory -- echoed through the computer's speakers.

The redhead clenched her jaw, frantically wrestling back her instinctive panic. After the first half-dozen syllables, panic gave way to a different emotion as she comprehended the words being spoken: a well-known poem -- adapted for his own message -- coming from the animated clown's mouth.

"You are the hollow men / You are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! / Your dried voices, when / You whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass / Or rats' feet over broken glass / In your dry cellar"

Long fingers pressed more firmly against the cyber-genius' mouth as her infallible memory supplied the next words a beat before the maniacally grinning cartoon face:

"Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion / Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow."

Chapter 15

Deliberately, Barbara allowed the animation embedded in the jpeg to finish. Only after The Joker's cackling laugh faded and his white face vanished from the screen with a pink bubble gum 'pop', did she finally move.

Carefully, she closed the school record, methodically burying it directories deep on one of her system's hard drives. Later, she'd deconstruct the image and animation to hunt for clues about where it had been created.

Noting that she'd not saved her updates to the crime database, the cyber-vigilante recaptured her mouse and positioned it on its pad, saving her additions from the evening. With a few more clicks, she exported the recent additions and loaded them in her prediction program, setting it to work. Although it hadn't turned up anything so far, the embedded AI in the routine meant that every new bit of data would make the program more likely to come up with a possible guess about new targets.

The redhead gave the emergency scanners another cursory check, relieved beyond measure to find that the city was reasonably quiet. Apparently, testing the bubble goo at the theatre had been the highlight for the evening.

Suddenly possessed by a bone-deep weariness -- how much sleep had she gotten in the last five days? -- Barbara stared blankly at her primary display, not sure she could summon the energy to set the monitoring routines in place and make it down the hall to the bedroom. If not, it wouldn't be the first time circumstances had dictated grabbing a bit of rest in front of the Delphi.

That thought drew the practical woman from her lethargy. She'd made a promise of sorts to Helena, and it didn't include spending another night in separate rooms. With a quick shake of her head, she roused herself, setting the Delphi on standby and then briskly descending to the living area.

Crossing to the far wall to turn off the dim lights, she briefly eyed the doorway to the kitchen. Not surprisingly, the idea of sustenance -- solid or liquid -- was utterly unappealing.

The redhead entered the bathroom which adjoined the master bedroom through the hall, flinching the tiniest bit when a cloud of steam from her partner's recently completed shower billowed out the door. She transformed her startled reaction into a fond smile, snagging a hand towel and stretching across the sink to buff the fog from the mirror.

As the haze cleared and a pale face appeared before her, Barbara slowed her motions, then lowered the towel to the counter. Arrested by the vision in the small circle she'd cleared, she tilted her head to one side, her reflected companion doing the same. She blinked once, trying to make sense of the dark circles surrounding her reflection's green eyes, of the hollow concavity reflected in pale cheeks.

Eventually, finding no answers, she simply looked away, dismissing the sight. Instead, she focused on the routine acts of preparing for bed: wetting her toothbrush and applying an even three centimeter line of paste to the bristles; brushing with short circular strokes, ten seconds per tooth; unwinding a forearm's length of the minted green floss, wrapping it efficiently around her index fingers, and working the filament between each tooth. Oral hygiene complete, she mentally stumbled -- more tired than she'd known, apparently -- before stripping her shirt and pants and then picking up her brush.

Since she'd been cutting her usual routine short, Barbara determined not to shortchange her usual hundred strokes. Counting almost unconsciously as she ran the brush through her hair, she revisited her years-old debate about simply chopping the entire mess off. Undoubtedly, it would be less work; not to mention the fact that she was reaching an age when long hair was a bit of a youthful indulgence.

For some reason, that observation caused the redhead to still her motions, and she furrowed her brows. A trickle of wetness against her left cheek caught her attention, causing her to purse her lips in vexation.

It was only hair, after all.

Pushing aside any further thoughts on the matter, she efficiently completed her toilette, snapping off the light before quietly cracking the door to the bedroom. She discovered that her stealth was unnecessary: Helena was awake, propped up in the big bed, paging through a magazine.

"Ma -- "

Barbara felt a hint of heat touch her cheeks at the hoarseness in her voice and quietly cleared her throat as she approached the bed.

"Maxim, Hel?"

She observed a flash of white teeth while she transferred herself onto the bed and then occupied herself digging into her bedside table for her bed socks.

"I just like the articles about the gadgets."

The older woman contented herself with a quiet snort, leaning over to pull the socks on and then carefully arranging the covers over her waist. She'd always been a bit... fussy about her covers but now, when it should matter less, she'd gotten rather fanatical about it, possibly as a result of waking one morning not too long after her shooting and finding a finger-width cover-crease running down her right thigh.

Finally satisfied with the relative symmetry of the covers, she met her partner's gaze and spoke primly.

"Indeed. So, what type of gadget is -- "

She craned her neck slightly, squinting the tiniest bit.

"-- Heather demonstrating in her thong, Helena?"

A rueful chuckle was the only reply, and the redhead pushed herself down, under the covers while her partner turned to deposit her educational reading material on the table on her side of the bed. To Barbara's surprise, the younger woman didn't turn off the small bedside light and slide under the covers, electing to remain upright at the head of the bed.

Suspecting that some action was required on her part, she looked over to discover her partner regarding her with the abashed, faintly hangdog expression which usually meant that Helena had done something and was hoping to charm Barbara out of being upset. Years ago, for her own peace of mind, the older woman had stopped being irritated by the fact that the tactic was invariably successful.

"Yes, Helena?"

The younger woman offered a quick smile but didn't meet her eyes. When the brunette began plucking at the top sheet, Barbara quashed her instinctive urge to still the restless movement and waited more-or-less patiently.

"Uhm, it's nothing much really."

Apparently, this would be a situation requiring some coaxing. Unlike, the older woman reflected wryly, some events which her partner simply blurted out -- usually leaving Barbara shell-shocked and dumbstruck.

"That's good to know."

She smiled tenderly as she captured the slender hand which was mussing the sheet which she'd just neatly folded over the top of the blanket. Blue eyes peered through thick lashes.

"It's just, well, I was sort of hungry after my shower."

The redhead nodded, widening her eyes encouragingly.

Her companion's declaration was hardly a surprise. When was Helena not hungry? And, given their harried schedules of the last week, none of them had taken time for regular meals.

"So, I figured that a couple of pop tarts would hit the spot."

Despite herself, Barbara found herself relaxing into the slow pace of the confession.

"And, did they, Sweetie?"

Perhaps the young woman was still hungry and was hinting about a late night raid of the kitchen.

A bright smile and enthusiastic nod of a dark head forced the redhead to dismiss that hypothesis.

"Oh, you bet."

The dark figure extricated her hand and patted a well-toned abdomen in evident satisfaction. Barbara felt a tiny smile ghost her lips at the gesture, an expression which morphed into a puzzled quirk when her partner lifted the covers a few inches and gestured to the darkness beneath.

"It's just, uh, I ate them in here, and there may be sprinkles..."

Barbara waited, certain that couldn't be all of it, then snorted. Unnecessarily, she smoothed the sheet again before meeting dancing blue eyes.

"I'm sure I won't even feel them, Hel."

The younger woman laughed, finally twisting to shut off the small reading lamp and scootching under the covers. Barbara felt her heart jackrabbit once, hard, when she sensed her companion inching across the space between them, and she struggled not to stiffen when a warm hand came to rest lightly over her waist.

For several slow breaths, the two remained still, before Helena shifted the tiniest bit.

"Are you okay, Barbara? You seem a little..."

The older woman felt the slight hand on her waist rise and sensed, rather than saw, a hesitant flutter before it curled around her again.

"... edgy or something."

The redhead exhaled slowly, debating. Ultimately, she decided to share part of the truth.

"I've been kicking myself about Loewen's laser, Hel."

Silence met the admission. Finally, the younger woman moved again, and, in the shadows, Barbara could just make out her partner rising above her and moving close.


The word was a low burr against her cheek, followed by the sensation of full lips softly brushing against her own. The older woman blinked rapidly, barely managing not to avert her face.

How could Helena even...?

The other woman didn't move -- neither closer nor away -- holding her position and the tender contact. Barbara remained still, attempting to identify and separate her feeling, knowing that she was exasperated but not caring to look too closely at the cause.

Pulling one hand from under the covers, she lightly rested her palm on a deceptively slender shoulder.

"Helena, I... can't."

Despite what the admission had cost her, the redhead almost smiled when she felt those lush lips curve into a playful smile.

"Sure you can. Just pucker up your lips a little. I'll do all the work."

This time, a tiny burble of laughter escaped the older woman, and she felt her partner's grin against her cheek.

"That's better."

Another soft kiss brushed Barbara's jaw as the younger woman shifted to move away. In the instant that her laughter and relief eddied with shame, the redhead belatedly realized that her partner might have her own pent up energies... or concerns... of her own to deal with. Accordingly, she lightly rested a hand on a sinewy forearm to stay her lover's movement.

"Sweetie, do you...?"

The question was embarrassingly hesitant, damnably inadequate. However the younger woman seemed to grasp the meaning.

A tiny sigh whispered across the older woman's hair before she heard a quiet reply.

"I'm not looking for skyrockets in flight, Red. Just, let me rub your shoulders or brush your hair or..."

Again, Barbara sensed as much as seeing her partner's quick grin.

"...read computer manuals to you or something."

Even knowing that a certain 1970's hit by the Starland Vocal Band would be looping through her brain, Barbara experienced an insidious flicker of temptation at the quiet request. Yet, somehow, what her partner was offering seemed too fraught with danger and the risk of collapse.

Hating the helplessness of her words, she spoke honestly.

"Helena. I... don't know how."

The response was soft, with no recrimination.

"I know."

Full, warm lips bestowed a gossamer benediction to the older woman's forehead.

"Sometimes, Babs, it's okay..."

The older woman held her breath as another soft kiss touched her lips. She squeezed her eyes shut when she felt the fine down of her partner's cheek brushing her face.

"...to let go..."

There was a final ghosting sweep of impossibly soft lips against her jaw.

"...just for a little, even."

With that, the brunette settled back onto her side, snugging close and burying her nose against the older woman's shoulder. The two lay still for a few minutes, with Barbara fretting over how such tender words could... impale her so.

Cocooned in her partner's gentle embrace, Barbara pushed her thoughts aside, opting to focus on the red LED of the bedside clock. Oddly, the numbers seemed to blur in and out of focus, vexing the redhead with her inability to stay in sync with the slow update of the display. She felt her partner warm breath brushing her neck, the reassuring sensation of the younger woman's hand softly kneading against her far side.

Steadied by that security at least, she pressed a soft kiss to chestnut silk, murmuring the emotion she too often neglected to put into words.

"I love you, Hel."

Since she didn't possess the younger woman's enhanced hearing, she wasn't certain, but Barbara thought that she detected a tiny rumble from her partner's throat. She couldn't miss the words which purred lightly against her shoulder.

"I'll take a bubble gum bath any day for that, Red."

The response had been light, playful, and the older woman mustered a short chuckle.

And then, to her utter surprise and mortification, the redhead heard a hitching gasp which she barely had time to recognize as her own before she felt the muscles of her face tic. A moment later, she couldn't breath under the force of her chest's contractions, and she clenched her teeth to hold back a low wail trying to escape her iron control.

Before she had a chance to stuff it all away and get herself in check, a warm body settled lightly over her, blanketing her with surety while impossibly strong arms wrapped snugly around her and a tender kiss touched her cheek.

The younger woman didn't speak -- no soft shushing noises or empty reassurances -- and Barbara didn't know whether to be grateful or not. If Helena were only to tell her that everything would be all right, the redhead knew that she could have gathered her tattered self-control, stuffed her fears and inadequacies away. She could have hugged her back, and blown her nose, and found something self-depreciating to say to lighten the mood.

But, Barbara discovered that she had no defense against the steadying embrace, against the sensation of soft lips drinking her tears from her cheeks, against complete unspoken understanding. And so, for uncounted minutes, she accepted the embrace, the solace, as her fear and helplessness welled from her. Cocooned in the darkness, she allowed the wetness to escape her eyes and the silent hitching gasps to jerk against her ribcage.

Finally, however, needing to breathe, to reclaim some measure of herself, the older woman pushed up, and -- again in silence -- Helena turned onto her back, helping Barbara follow her movement. Exhaling raggedly, the redhead pillowed her head on the younger woman's chest, and again let the tears leak down her face onto the soft cotton of her companion's tank. Unknown minutes later, she was amazed to find her tightly controlled sobs gentling under the sensation of slender fingers combing through her hair.

Throughout, the other woman remained quiet although her breathing was shallow, not the deep regular respirations suggesting that the younger woman had slipped into sleep. As she calmed, settled, a bit, Barbara relaxed against the younger woman, resting her cheek against the pillowy softness of her partner's chest, lulled by the steady thump of a heart beating under her ear.

Wanting to hear more, she ducked her chin, somehow surprised when her lips grazed against firm flesh straining under damp cotton. A measured inhalation was the only response to the unintended caress.

In the darkness of night, relaxed by her partner's comforting embrace, it seemed natural and effortless then to part her lips, to trace her lower lip over the pebbled peak beneath her lover's thin tank. This time, the response was more distinct: A soft purring rumble echoed against the redhead's cheek.

Wordless, she felt her companion shift minutely, gently helping to raise her head as she snaked her tank up. The younger woman then lay still, allowing -- Barbara realized as something burned her eyes -- her to choose.

After a long moment, she lowered her cheek to silken skin, the heat of her partner soaking through her. Again she brushed her lips once, twice, against the firm peak before touching her tongue to sweet flesh.

In that instant, she understood.

Shifting to take in, Barbara heard her own soft "Oh" of surprise blending into a murmur of pleasure... and surprising peace.

For uncounted moments, Barbara touched and tasted, drawing into herself a sustenance she'd never dreamed existed. Her lover remained still, one hand lightly scratching at her scalp, offering everything without demand, seemingly content under a caress less sensual than... hungry.

Still -- this...

The older woman blinked, reluctantly disengaging.

It was... more... too...

Unwilling to surrender the moment completely, Barbara slid her right hand between them, tracing the strong muscles of her partner's stomach. Brushing her lips against firm flesh again, she teased her fingers across the material of her companion's high cut panties. Without haste, she followed the gentle slope of a slim hip before easing two fingers under the elastic band of the leg. Before she even touched, the moist heat radiating against her hand sent a flare of warmth through the redhead.

Almost cautiously, Barbara brushed wiry curls, tensing her jaw at the slow rocking of the younger woman's pelvis. Lightly, she touched more deeply, insinuating one finger into liquid silk before she felt her lover carefully encircle her wrist with a warm hand.

Comprehending the movement, Barbara blinked once and jerked her chin up an inch in question. An almost inaudible rumble tickled her lips where they rested lightly on the upper swell of her partner's breast. Soft lips pressed the top of her head as Barbara felt her right hand coaxed upward to rest over her companion's heart.

"Not... now, Red."

The brunette's voice was calm. It was utterly sincere. And, the redhead slowly noted, inviting.

Barbara pursed her lips against an onslaught of emotion, then she gasped silently when slender fingers wove through the hair curtaining the side her face, tenderly drawing her mouth back down. She stiffened instinctively, then stiffened further in an attempt not to telegraph her reaction to the subtly guiding pressure of her lover's hand. Again, still, her lover remained calm, body loose beside her, arms solid in their embrace.

For two, perhaps three, heartbeats, the two held the tableau before the younger woman shifted minutely, raising her head. Barbara shivered as soft, full lips touched the shell of her ear. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, struggling for control when she heard -- comprehended -- her partner's low burr.

"You don't always have to be strong. Let me give you this tonight."

Helpless to refuse, and oddly no longer wanting to, the redhead opened again. In the warm haven of her partner's arms, she felt her limbs loosen and her terrors recede under the thick, safe warmth sliding languidly through her.

For perhaps the first time in her life, Barbara Gordon discovered that it was not that hard at all to put down her burden for one night.

Part 16

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