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 16

As it had to, the night came to an end.

The rising sun -- specifically, one cheery tendril of light penetrating the heavy bedroom curtains and pinning her squarely between the eyes -- dragged Barbara from a deep, dreamless sleep. Squinting irritably and wondering why she'd never had that east-facing window bricked over, the redhead groggily fisted her pillow with the intent of burying her head underneath and stealing a few more precious minutes of rest.

A chill raced through her functioning nerves mere nanoseconds after her brain registered that the pillow she was wrestling with was not hypo-allergenic foam rubber encased in a three-hundred thread count Egyptian cotton case. Rather, it was human flesh: soft, pliant, and very, very warm.

A blast of heat which surpassed her bedmate's body temperature immediately chased the chill from the analytical woman, and she felt her face and neck and entire upper body instantly transform to a shade of red which was, undoubtedly, not complimentary to her hair color.

Forcing herself not to jerk away, Barbara attempted to slow her racing heart and grappled with the implications of her position.

It was not the fact that she'd awakened with her head pillowed on Helena's chest which was so terribly difficult to grasp; after all, in the course of the last month or two, she'd frequently awakened twined against her lover or with the younger woman blanketing her. It was the fact that she'd awakened with her head *still* pillowed on the brunette's chest, which meant that she had -- somehow -- fallen asleep earlier... doing...

Seemingly impossibly, the redhead felt the heat in her face intensify.

What on earth had she done?

She wasn't... didn't...

She just wasn't.

For heaven's sake, she'd been a formula baby: bottle, not breast, fed. In all honesty, she suspected that it had had as much to do with her mother's alcoholism as it had with the popular wisdom of the time which advocated formula over breast milk. Nevertheless...

Barbara caught herself at that, mentally rolling her eyes as she admitted that what had occurred earlier had absolutely nothing to do with her infant feeding habits. Yet, it also had had damned little to do with sex either.

She continued to focus on her breathing, replaying the events which had transpired only hours before. Pierced anew by her pleasure in the encounter -- something so acute that it almost bled into pain -- she was forced to accept the reality of the peace and fulfillment she'd experienced. Somehow, in the darkness, she'd lost herself in her partner, in a union which was distinctly not sexual, yet which had been infinitely sensual and intimate.

And, apparently, exactly what she'd needed.

A low purr rumbled against her cheek, followed by words still thick with sleep.

"Hey, Beautiful."

Green eyes blinked against a burning sensation. Barbara worked her jaw to respond but, at a loss, only managed a non-committal murmur.

Obviously still waking, the younger woman didn't comment, contenting herself with a few languorous stretches beneath her. The movement afforded the perfect opportunity, and Barbara pushed herself up and onto her back. Somewhat to her consternation, her bedmate followed the movement, coming to rest on her side against the older woman, effectively reversing the position they'd just been in.

Still, the brunette didn't speak, seemingly happy to snuggle indefinitely, and, gradually, Barbara allowed herself to relax into the somnolent contact. Just as she'd begun to think that she'd dreamed the entire odd night, a soft whisper dissolved her hopes.

"Can you tell me about it now, Barbara?"

Something caught in the older woman's throat, and she frantically worked to organize her thoughts, to sift through information and distill what she needed to. In the midst of her struggles, something brushed her shoulder -- a gentle kiss, the softest blessing of a warm mouth -- and her mind's frantic whirling simply... stilled.

Just like that, the fiercely independent woman grasped that she was not going to have to carry the weight of her discovery all alone.

Perhaps fifteen minutes later, Barbara lay quietly, once again curled in the safe haven of her partner's strong arms. While there had been no tears during her revelations, she still felt purged, leached of some sort of slow-acting poison. Not surprisingly, she realized that she also felt about one hundred and twenty pounds lighter.

Well, perhaps only sixty pounds lighter, since she could only ask Helena to shoulder half of Dinah's weight.

"Yeah, I guess the way D fucked up his acid wash at the reservoir could have pissed him off. Finding out that she's tied to you has to be gravy."

The older woman allowed a quiet snort to signal her agreement, and her partner continued thoughtfully.

"He's gotta know that she can put a real crimp in things. The Kid saved a lot of lives on Wednesday."

The soft voice under the redhead's cheek paused for a heartbeat.

"She saved a couple more last night, too. He's going to see her as a threat as long as we can keep up with him."

Even as she smiled fondly at the pride evident in her partner's tone, Barbara felt the stirring of an idea -- a potentially dangerous idea -- working within her.

"Indeed, Hel."

Deciding to let the thought percolate in the parallel processors of her mind, she tightened her hold around the younger woman and pressed a gentle kiss to her neck. The movement effectively seemed to distract the brunette from all thoughts of Dinah.

Barbara shivered pleasurably as slender fingers walked playfully up her forearm, her smile growing when she heard her partner speak again.

"What say we stay in bed all day? I'll just run out to the kitchen for some snacks, and then we can burrow into the covers and forget everything."

Ignoring the trickle of bitterness in the back of her throat over the fact that the appealing suggestion simply wasn't an option, the analytical woman spoke wryly.

"Why would you need to leave, Sweetie? I seem to recall that you thoughtfully provided pop tart sprinkles for us."

She looked up just in time to observe the other woman visibly brightening.

"You're right. Cool."

The redhead's breath hitched as she was effortlessly turned, Helena coming to rest above her, supporting herself easily with her arms wrapped under the older woman's back.

"So let's stay here all day. We can sleep and cuddle and talk..."

Barbara squirmed ticklishly when the dark head ducked down and even teeth nibbled at her ear.

"...and eat pop tart sprinkles..."

The older woman's movement changed to something more deliberate when she heard her lover's next words.

"...and touch each other..."

The inviting soprano dropped to a breathy purr.

"... and touch ourselves."

The redhead's gentle undulations beneath the younger woman abruptly ceased, and Barbara cautiously licked lips which were suddenly very, very dry. A thick, sticky heat worked through her chest as graphic images from her own fantasies floated through her mind.

How had she neglected that particular desire for so long?

Swiftly re-prioritizing one of her mental to-do lists, she laughed ruefully.

"I wish we could, Sweetheart..."

Her heart squeezed a tiny bit when sweet blue eyes met hers. Tenderly, she raised a hand, tucking a few locks of chestnut silk behind her lover's ear.

"...but we have work to do."

Softer emotions made way for laughter at the vision of Helena clapping her hands over her ears and squeezing her eyes shut tightly. Rolling them to their sides, Barbara walked her fingers across the younger woman's sternum, up the slim column of her throat, and then over her sharp chin.

Crimson brows knit as Barbara unexpectedly *saw* the beautiful woman next to her, and she worked to reconcile this childlike person next to her -- who was so playfully resisting her blandishments -- with the woman who had comforted her so during the night.

Ultimately, she was forced to set the exercise aside for later, opting to stroke her fingers lightly over full lips.

"I think you'll enjoy this work, Hel," she purred coaxingly. "There might be drinking in seedy dives involved."

One blue eye cracked open, appearing decidedly doubtful.

"Indeed," the older woman nodded sagely, pretending not to notice the inspection, "and, probably some ass-kicking in dark alleys."

That got her companion to lower her hands from her ears and open her eyes. An infectious, happy smile transformed expressive caramel features.

"And, after that, I can come home and make love to you for the rest of the night?"

The redhead contented herself with a knowing smile, and the younger woman sighed, wriggling infinitesimally closer.

"As great as that sounds, can we at least have another five -- no, ten minutes?"

Barbara didn't even have to think about her answer, delivered over her partner's rumbling purr.

"Most definitely, Hel."

And, somehow, the extra twelve minutes they allowed themselves truly seemed to put a bounce in her wheels for the day. Feeling more energized and level-headed than she had in ages, Barbara worked through the day with calm resolve and peaceful purpose.

After conscripting Dinah for some chemistry work, she turned her attention to further cyber-tracking, not surprised to discover that the other trails from the secondary firewall she'd located the night before were a great deal more convoluted than the one which led to the high school. Nevertheless, it was a fairly trivial matter for her to reconstruct a great deal of her quarry's network activity. In the late afternoon, she began to narrow in on the origin of his net uplink before being stopped by another tangle of electronic threads. With a frission of excitement, she unleashed a tracking bot to work through the maze and finally straightened from her keyboard.

"Oh, this could be good, Gordon."

The cyber-genius didn't realize she'd spoken aloud until a teasing soprano replied, nearly scaring the wits out of her.

"It better be. I had to call in a lot of favors to get take-out from Luigi's."

"Jesus, Helena!"

The redhead spun from her monitor, belated realizing -- if the array of containers and candles on the coffee table were any indication -- that her cat-footed partner had apparently been nearby for some time. Accordingly, she collected herself -- perhaps some nitroglycerin tablets would be a good thing to keep on hand -- and smiled apologetically.

"I'm sorry, Hel."

The younger woman ducked her head, smiling her acceptance, and Barbara gestured toward the living area.

"What's all this?"

The brunette sauntered up the platform and bent to buss the older woman's cheek. Green eyes narrowed speculatively, noting that one of the younger woman's hands had remained behind her back throughout the exercise.

"Dinner, Red. You know, sustenance? Oh, and..."

Crimson brows shot upward when the young woman almost shyly extended a showy bouquet. Smiling, the redhead automatically accepted the offering and buried her nose in the fragrant tiger lilies. Not even aware that she was doing so, she counted the flowers in the oversized bunch, catching a difference from her initial assumption that there were a dozen.

Eleven bright orange flowers, not twelve. Perhaps one had gotten crushed, or she'd find it later on their bed, or...

The redhead's speculation ended abruptly when she recalled something from earlier in the day.

When she'd returned from a trip to the kitchen, she'd found a small pile of red cinnamon candies -- Barbara believed they were commonly called Red Hots -- on her mouse pad. At the time, she'd assumed that one of her charges had set them down and then wandered off, however, now...

Green eyes lost focus and tracked slightly to the left as the analytical woman called up a mental image of the tiny candies as she'd found them by her computer. They'd been arranged in a circle... no, a heart shape, and there had been exactly eleven of them.

Pursing her lips, Barbara looked up to find dancing blue eyes regarding her expectantly. A slow smile graced her lips as she inhaled the fragrance from the flowers again.

"Not that I mind, Helena -- everything is very sweet -- but why eleven?"

The younger woman's expression turned decidedly smug.

"I like eleven."

The redhead inclined her head as the dark figure squatted beside her and gently clasped her hand.

"Don't you like eleven, Babs?"

By now, Barbara was quite certain that she was missing something obvious; however, for the life of her, she couldn't imagine what it was.

"Eleven is a very nice number, Helena. Both prime and palindromic."

Of course, that earned her a laugh -- a head thrown back, shoulders-shaking type of laugh, no less.

"Yeah, it is, Red. But, it's also our anniversary. Eleven weeks."

The older woman's brief pique disappeared as she performed some rapid-fire calculations.

"The police banquet...?"

The dark head near her shoulder nodded decisively.

"Yup. It was eleven weeks ago when you went all cave-woman on me in front of God and country..."

This time, it was Barbara's turn to laugh as her companion thumped her chest with a fist and lowered her voice, presumably in imitation of a stone-aged romantic.

"My woman. Reese back off...!"

Laughing even harder, Barbara leaned over to capture her lover's mouth, mentally giving thanks that she had, finally, acted. Judging from the enthusiasm with which her gesture was received, her feeling was very much shared.

As enjoyable as the moment was, the redhead found herself distracted by the tempting aroma of Italian food... and, to her chagrin, the rumbling of her stomach. Her partner pulled back, smiling softly as she rose.

"Let's get some food for that thing in your stomach, Red."

Since embarrassment was a bit ridiculous, Barbara nodded and turned to follow the brunette to the living room.

"This is tremendously thoughtful of you, Hel. How did you think to do this... now?"

Helena settled herself cross-legged on the couch.

"We can't live in a state of siege forever, Red. Just 'cuz he's out there doesn't mean we can't celebrate. Even if..."

A slender hand gestured towards the open wine bottle on the low table.

"...I went with sparkling grape juice instead of wine, and I knew better than to try to drag you all the way to the kitchen table. Life goes on, right?"

Arranging herself at the other end of the sofa, Barbara gave herself a moment to consider the wisdom of the younger woman's words.

"Indeed, Sweetheart. Thank you for reminding me of that."

The shy duck of a dark head warmed the older woman, but she remained silent while her companion retrieved two wine glasses and filled them to the brim with juice.

"Where's the Kid tonight? I got enough for three, but I'd sure prefer not to share."

Not at all surprised by the admission, the redhead raised her glass in response to her partner's toast and sampled her beverage. It was a bit on the sweet side but was a decent approximation of a cheap red.

"I thought she'd put in enough time today working on a solvent for the bubble goo."

Barbara interrupted herself, expanding proudly on her newest protege's accomplishments.

"Dinah thinks she's found a combination of common household ingredients which will not just dissolve the stuff but possibly repel it."

Flushed with renewed excitement over the teen's work, she met wide blue eyes.

"Do you realize that, if she's right, Hel, we can publicize the recipe, and the citizens of New Gotham can mix up their own -- "

Dark lashes blinked a measured tempo as Helena cut her off.

"Their own UV Gum Blocker?"

The older woman dipped her head once and waved her wine glass.

"Exactly! Apparently, a combination of ordinary dish washing liq--"

The meaning behind Helena's slow -- patient -- blinking finally registered, and the cyber-genius caught herself.

"Er, yes. Well..."

Unable to resist the almost doting smile on her partner's features, she laughed self-consciously.

"...after that sort of breakthrough, I suggested that she spend the night at Gabby's."

Not missing the sudden flicker in the younger woman's eyes, Barbara primly added, "Especially since you're going to be occupied in bars and dives this evening."

The brunette simply laughed, stretching out to begin ladling copious quantities of pasta onto two plates.

"Probably a good thing I'll be spending some time in bars again. I ran by the Dark Horse this afternoon, and..."

Smiling her thanks, the redhead accepted a brimming plate, her mouth watering at the savory aromas.

"...even though Leonard's seemed pretty glad I'm not asking for any shifts..."

The brunette paused to fork an overstuffed ravioli to her mouth, chewing with obvious relish. As she waited for her dinner companion to continue, Barbara interjected a soft inquiry.

"Apparently people are unwilling to come out even for drinking now?"

Helena nodded and sipped from her glass.

"Yeah. You know it's scary when our usual crowd won't come around. Still..."

She cheerfully twirled her fork in her pasta.

"I don't want to lose my feel for being in bars, right?"

The redhead chuckled, working on her own mouthful of lasagna. A beat later, as she watched Helena sucking a length of fettuccini between her lips, the older woman discovered that she was having quite a bit of difficulty swallowing. Heat, not a blush, touched her upper chest and face as recent memories of that specific type of pasta working its way across her thirty-five inch plasma monitor threatened to overload her neural network.

A beat later, as if reading her mind, the brunette looked up with a slow, sinful smile. The heat suffusing the older woman only intensified when Helena touched the tines of her fork lightly to the strands of pasta on her plate.

"I got some of these with sauce on the side, you know. Just in case something comes up later."

Chapter 17

<"We've got it, Oracle!">

When she heard Helena's enthusiastic exclamation, Barbara clenched her fist tightly, raising it into the air for an enthusiastic victory pump. Seeing her youngest partner skipping over from her workstation, she straightened her fingers and transformed the movement into an open-palmed high five.

A pointedly polite cough in her earpiece recalled the cyber-vigilante from the impromptu victory celebration.

"I'm sorry, Huntress. We got..."

The redhead cast about for the best way to describe her feelings.

Excitement? Of course.

Happiness? Perhaps a bit premature.

Validation? Exactly.

"...a little carried away. Why don't you come in now?"

The brunette's cheerful acknowledgement ended the long-distance conversation and, for the first time in a week, Barbara pushed back from her keyboard with a sense of peace. Finally, she could see a bit of light at the end of the kaleidoscope which The Joker had thrust them into seven days before.

While a cat might have nine lives and their green-haired foe an infinite number of tricks up his horn-buttoned sleeves, Barbara had discovered that she, too, was capable of rising again. Like a phoenix of sorts, she had -- and would -- rise from the ashes of each persona she shed: from gymnast and scholar, to masked vigilante, to teacher and parent, to mentor and friend, to the complex blending which made her who she was at this point. Mired in the bitter ashes of terror and defeat, she'd struggled, only to discover that she soared best not alone, but with another.

And now, it was time to act.

Act. Not react.

It was a mantra which had been drilled into Barbara Gordon throughout her life. As a child, she'd certainly internalized the essence of the truism when her father had come after her with belt and fists. Later, in the happier circumstances of the gymnastics circuit, she'd consciously embraced this wisdom to save jumps or landings. In the classroom, it was invaluable advice for dealing with the constantly changing and often startling actions of her students. As Bruce's disciple, she'd had the words drilled into her until they'd become second nature. Years later, when she'd taken on the mantle of mentor herself, she'd heard herself repeating the advice by rote.

In her terror and guilt of the last week, she'd allowed herself to forget. No more.

Over the last two and a half days, the small team of crime fighters had exacted an elaborate game plan -- a scheme based on careful physical and electronic tracking and on seemingly random encounters. The result was a well-coordinated, ever-narrowing spiral which, not ten minutes before, had pinned down The Joker's base of operations.

To accomplish this, Barbara had seized on a dangerous idea, one which ran counter to everything she had fought for her entire adult life. Yet, with their limited resources and the seemingly unlimited manpower at the disposal of their foe, she'd been forced to accept an unpalatable reality: they would have to allow The Joker free reign in the city.

For five-plus days, the three vigilantes had run themselves ragged simply trying to keep up with the Maestro of Mayhem's shenanigans. As fast as Barbara had pinned down the location of one criminal act and Helena had dispatched the perpetrators, two more incidents would occur. Clearly, playing catch-up -- even in attempts to safeguard the city and its populace -- wasn't enough. In order to exact a killing stroke against the body of the many-headed hydra they'd been battling, they'd need to concentrate on finding The Joker's headquarters.

In short, Barbara had made the painful decision to allow the beast free reign -- or nearly so -- and to leave the police and citizens of the city essentially to their own devices for the last few days. This action had freed Helena entirely for other pursuits and had partially freed Barbara and Dinah, but it had not been without cost.

All three vigilantes were acutely aware that the number of deaths and hospitalizations had risen dramatically in the last two days. As diligent as Barbara and Dinah had been about monitoring activities and attempting to route reports to private security firms, private security couldn't compare with the security provided by one lone dark crime fighter. The recipe Dinah had created to repel and dissolve the madman's bubble goo, which they'd released anonymously to the media on Sunday morning, had saved countless lives; however, it couldn't protect against bullets and fists and knives, which had appeared with increasing frequency on the streets of the city.

It couldn't be helped.

Barbara had pulled Dinah from the streets to help her at the Delphi: a fresh set of eyes in tracing the circumspect electronic footprints which The Joker had left in cyber-space and another set of ears to monitor and route emergency dispatches.

As for Helena, Barbara had focused on other strengths of her remarkable partner: she'd yanked her from visibility and sent her to the shadows.

Even as leader of the little team had continued to track and chart the madcap and malicious crimes plaguing the city, she, too, had fallen back: focused on plotting and detection and setting her snares.

On Saturday afternoon, a second review of the men Helena had captured at the reservoir had tickled the redhead's memory: eidetic memory notwithstanding, some faces you just didn't forget, especially one she'd encountered during fights with The Joker back in the day. If this particular fellow was still attached to Jack Napier seven years later, chances were good that he was valuable.

Shortly after she and her partner had finished a delicious Italian dinner, an inexplicable paperwork snafu at NGPD's central booking office had resulted in the release of the man on Saturday evening.

Then, Barbara had released her hunter.

A small brunette going in to pay a parking ticket for a boxy SUV had brushed against the man on his way out of the police station. While it was uncertain how their quarry felt about the contact, it had afforded Helena the chance to plant a pinhead tracking device on his belt.

Then, the hunt had begun in earnest.

Helena had stalked on the streets and rooftops, flowing through the shadows, following The Joker's henchman. He'd been clever enough not to head directly to his boss, choosing instead to celebrate his newfound freedom with a few buddies at a bar. One said friend probably thought he'd hit the jackpot when he was approached later, separately, by a sultry young woman for a drink. Not too long thereafter, he'd had reason to reconsider his thinking when his lovely companion had invited him into the alley behind the bar and the physical activity which had ensued was possibly less pleasurable than he might have anticipated.

The knowledge Helena had gleaned from the encounter had permitted Barbara to forecast --accurately, for a change -- a break-in later in the evening. The Huntress had been waiting, stealthily trailing the men as they left the scene of crime, skulking through alleyways to catch whispered conversations, sniffing the air from the rooftops. From there, the young woman had effortlessly leapt from one crime to another, one encounter to another, throughout the night and most of the next day.

Barbara had recorded every bit of data her partner provided, running plots, comparing previous hide outs, scanning utility records, everything and anything to try to pinpoint a central location. A whisper from the comms meant an update; an update allowed a projection; the projected location was crisply delivered back to the shadowy figure on the streets. The two women had been in sync -- in a seamless flow -- of their partnership, always circling, centering in.

A hunch, a moment of prescience, had led the cyber-crime fighter to direct her partner to the club district. There, their old friend Clint Williams, the proprietier from the S&M club they'd recently investigated, had even provided an offhand tip, mentioning that he'd been approached about procuring Clown fish -- for the normal aquatic display uses -- by some men with traces of white grease paint on their necks.

The phone number they'd left, which Helena had persuaded the club manager to hand over, had been another valuable piece of data in triangulating The Joker's men's position.

Throughout, Barbara had moved on logic and, uncharacteristically, intuition. Repeatedly, she caught herself shivering -- pleasurably for a change -- as she listened to her partner's soft updates and growling interrogations. Repeatedly, she'd experienced an absolute thrill in the confidence and strength of Helena's movements and actions -- whether it was roughing up a lowlife in an alley or trolling for drinks and tidbits of information in dark bars.

Early this morning, the cyber-genius had slipped through the secondary firewall she'd located three nights before, and she'd had it: the location of the electronic uplinks. Several surreptitious hacks on her part had followed, and a conversation with a rogue ISP provider by Helena had resulted.

And, by noon on Monday, they had it.

The Joker was not, as the redhead had half-suspected, near the docks or the airport; rather, he was in a nearly empty tenement downtown which had the advantage of an underground parking structure.

"That was freakin' awesome, Red!"

Having heard her young partner's exuberant thump on the balcony, Barbara didn't even blink when Helena breezed in, already talking.

"The way you and D pinned down the location of that hacker-boy. I can't believe how fast that pimply-faced rat coughed up his hard-wiring plans."

The redhead exchanged a look with her blonde companion, confirming that neither of them was surprised by the brunette's considerable powers of persuasion with the young man who had run an illicit T-1 line into the tenement.

Apparently oblivious to the silent exchange, Helena shucked her duster and bounded onto the Delphi platform.

"So, what's the plan, Barbara? When can we take that fucker out?"

Not missing how her teenaged ward perked to attention at the question, the older woman managed to reply with a laugh.

After all, she couldn't fault Helena her enthusiasm.

"No take-downs for us, Hel."

As her partner's perpetually raised left eyebrow worked its way higher, Barbara placatingly raised one hand, resting it lightly on the dark figure's firm abdomen.

"Rather, no take-downs on our own. We're going to scout the building tonight and then contact the authorities."

No time to wait or dally over the information they'd gleaned, but the older woman knew they couldn't do it alone. She simply wouldn't take the risk.

A short dip of chestnut hair reassured the older woman, and she smiled her thanks. The next words she heard, an excited and somewhat reedy soprano, neatly stripped the smile from her face.

"Kewl! I'll go clean off my boots."

Despite the sizeable lump which had appeared in her throat, Barbara kept it low-key. She drew in a slow breath and turned to meet pale eyes, trying to impress upon the girl how serious she was.

"Dinah, I don't think that you need to be out--"

"For God's sake, Barbara!"

This time, the redhead changed the direction of her gaze with a great deal more speed.

Whiplash was, perhaps, a possibility.


The incredulous question was met with a decidedly truculent dip of a dark head, and Barbara felt her temper flare. Resultantly, she spoke very, very calmly.

"I can't believe you'd suggest that she actually walk right up to his lair."

As long as they'd known each other, the older woman was confident that her partner recognized her tone. Still, the brunette didn't back down, meeting her gaze evenly and gesturing toward the teen.

"Shit, Barbara. She wouldn't just 'be walking right up'..."

The tone clearly encapsulated the words in mocking quotation mark.

"...She'd be sneaking over the rooftops to the vicinity of his building and offering me a helluva lot of backup in the process."

"I can do that, Barbara."

So focused had she been on her partner's argument, the redhead had forgotten that the subject of their discussion was still present.

It was time to take things down a notch.

With a weary sigh, the cyber-genius turned to smile gently at her ward.

"Dinah, would you mind excusing Helena and me for a few minutes?"

The girl clearly recognized a dismissal when it landed at her feet. In her haste to depart, she by-passed the ramp, simply hopping from the platform and gesturing down the hallway.

"Uh, sure. I'll, uh, just, uhm, go be anywhere but here."

An amused snort from beside her eased a tiny measure of the redhead's tension, and she painted on a smile.

"Thank you, Dinah."

Waiting for the soft click of the teen's bedroom door, Barbara raised a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose, frantically working to organize her arguments. A whisper of movement, followed by the sensation of strong hands resting on her shoulders distracted her. When her companion began knead the always-tight muscles of her neck, she realized that she was suddenly at a distinct disadvantage in the debate arena and opened her mouth to say as much.

A whisper through her hair cut her protest short.

"Relax, Barbara. I'm not trying to get something over on you or anything. But, can you listen for a second?"

"Fair enough, Hel."

To emphasize her sincerity, the older woman allowed her chin to drop, permitting gravity to stretch the tight muscles being relaxed under expert hands.

"We know he's got the Kid in his sights, and he probably knows we know. But, we know he knows we know, too, right?"

Since she thought she'd followed the circuitous trail, the redhead murmured an agreement.

"But isn't it better for her to be watching him, too?"

The older woman straightened her shoulders, feeling her brows furrow in helpless frustration.

"Helena, I just don't know if we should -- "

"I know."

A quiet chuckle of commiseration silenced her protest. A beat later, the younger woman circled the chair and leaned against the edge of the desk.

"Few years ago, I didn't think you were *ever* gonna let me solo."

Remembering very well her nervousness at the idea, Barbara smiled fondly, before sobering.

"And, The Joker wasn't on the loose then, either, Hel."

The younger woman nodded seriously, then fiddled with the mouse.

"I know, but Dinah's not going to be on her own either."

This time, the redhead nodded, valiantly ignoring her desire to rescue her optical mouse.

"I'll keep her back, Barbara. You know she listens to directions, but she wants to come. And -- "

The dark figure nervously tossed the delicate prototype pointing device from hand to hand.

"--honestly, Red, I'd kind of like to have the back-up. If that crackpot has something new on that bubble goo stuff..."

The brunette allowed the remainder to go unspoken, but Barbara fully understood the implications. She'd long preached the importance of teamwork to her younger charges; apparently, her lesson -- hypocritical as it was considering her predilections back in the day -- had been taken to heart.

A line from the play she'd started with her class the week before echoed dully through her mind: Torvald's words about his songbird drooping her wings; and the older woman slowly inclined her chin to her chest, signaling her agreement with her partner's arguments. She could only hope that she wouldn't regret the decision later.

With the detente, the brunette's nervous restlessness simply... disappeared. A beat later, still attempting to comprehend the change, Barbara observed a distinctly different sort of energy begin to move almost visibly through her partner. She had time to blink twice before the younger woman flowed onto her lap, her words purring into her ear.

"We've got some time to kill before dark. Wanna burn off some nervous energy before our scouting expedition?"

Amused despite herself, the redhead turned to meet the younger woman's eyes. Her laughing reply -- something about the heavy bag in the training room -- died on her lips. She felt her heart skip a bit as she realized that, indeed, her partner's suggestion held a great deal of appeal.

She'd done all she could to prepare. Now, burning of some energy was exactly -- *exactly* -- what she wanted to do.

An hour later, trailing her lips across one of many specific sensitive areas of her lover's body, she pulled back a few inches, watching the young woman shiver and listening to her shallow panting.

"You like that, Sweetheart?"

The question was absolutely unnecessary, of course, but her partner didn't ignore it. Her gasps did make it difficult to make out exactly what she was saying.

"Fu-- fuck. I like, ugh, everything when you touch m--"

Having a good sense of the response, B shifted her touch, moving more deliberately. And firmly.

" --Oooh, fu..."

The dark head shifted, glittering gold eyes catching green.

"... I... I really like that..."

Then, there was no more talking for a few minutes as a fine sheen of sweat rose on her lover's tan skin, and the undulations of the younger woman's hips became less fluid, more jerky.

"I-- oh, shit -- don't stop... I'm gonna -- "

With an almost inaudible whimper, Barbara stopped.

Immediately, she was pinned by incredulous golden eyes.

"Wha-- what the hell?"

Swallowing thickly, the redhead ducked her head, wondering if this had been such a good idea. Reaching within, she forced herself to hold her lover's gaze.

"I want you to come inside me, Helena."

For a split second, when the brunette stiffened and then moaned - low and heavy -- Barbara feared that her request alone had been enough to... lose the opportunity, as it were.

To her credit, the younger woman somehow calmed her trembling, and a slow sinful smile spread across flushed features.

"Do you think you..."

Barbara teased two fingers to complete her question. In an instant, Helena flowed upward, effortlessly repositioning them.

"At this point -- "

Although her hands were steady, the brunette's voice was anything but.

"--I think it's guaranteed. But, are you sure?"

Crimson brows knit even as dark brows waggled playfully. The two positioned themselves, Helena mated against the redhead, and Barbara gasped watching them move slickly together.

"I don't have any protection you know."

Amazed anew by the way her lover so effortlessly combined sensuality and humor, the redhead heard a tiny laugh bubble forth. Twining her fingers in chestnut silk and dragging kiss-bruised lips to hers, she smiled her reassurance.

"I'm sure, Hel. My students keep telling me that no one ever gets pregnant the first time."

Chapter 18

There was a first time for everything.

While this wasn't the first time that Barbara had been involved in elaborate plans to take down The Joker, it was the first time that she'd been at the helm, piloting the operation and largely responsible for its success or failure.

The realization was sobering, to say the least. Nevertheless, the cyber-crime fighter tried to calm her jangled nerves a wee bit, recalling a recent experience when choosing the right pair of socks to wear for a date had seemed more daunting than the life and death decisions she made in her other life.

Tapping her fingers restlessly against the ergonomically angled wrist rest of her keyboard, the redhead wished, for twentieth time in the last half hour, that she could be on the scene with her younger partners. Even set up in the van within binocular range would provide some measure of relief; unfortunately, it wouldn't provide her nearly enough computing power to handle things from her end.

<"We're in position. There's still a lot of movement around the place.">

The relative lack of criminal activity in the city for the last few hours had already told the cyber-crime fighter that their prey had yet to depart his lair for the night.

"Hold your position until you're positive that he's left."

<"Copy that.">

A quick blip on the GPS caught Barbara's eye, and she looked more closely. The granularity of the display was such that it was almost impossible to detect movement of less than thirty or forty feet, however it appeared that her partners in the field were on the prowl.

"Huntress? Canary? I show movement."

The inquiry was mild. After all, scouting the exterior of the building was expected; however, she didn't want any surprises.

<"Little scouting from the rooftops, Oracle.">

A soft whoosh of air, followed by the softest of scuffs, suggested that her younger partner had just cleared the distance between two buildings. A few seconds later, a quiet grunt signaled that Dinah had also bridged the distance using her TK.

<"Streets are lousy with goons.">

Oblivious to the fact that it was a voice-only link, the redhead nodded.

Perimeter guards were hardly unexpected.

<"Huntress is right, Oracle. Just on this side, I can count six hanging out on--">

Dinah's recon report was cut short by a soft cough, and Barbara blinked once, then felt a smile skirt her lips when she heard Helena whisper something to the teen.

<"You mean that bum, too?">

<"You wanna take any chances, Canary?">

Barbara was fairly certain she heard the girl swallow.

<"Uhm, update on that number, Oracle. We count seven on this side.">

"Thank you, Canary. I'll make a note of that."

The redhead began to update her schematics of the area, the detailed plans they'd be fleshing out during their reconnaissance, hearing her partners' quiet movements and the sound of Helena whistling softly through her teeth.

Warren Zevon's 'Werewolves', if she weren't mistaken.

<"What's the weather forecast for tonight, Oracle?">

The cyber-genius automatically toggled to her NOAA window even as the brunette continued.

<"Should I run back to base for my... cat-brella?">

Dinah's snicker coincided with another smile for Barbara.

"It might not hurt, Huntress. This is New Gotham, you know."

A disgusted snort acknowledged the truth of the observation, and the woman at the computer took a minute to turn and look through the transom to the balcony.

Clouds, low and mean, scudded through the dark night sky. As she watched, a gust of wind cleared the cloud cover for a moment, allowing a star to flicker into view, and something Helena had told her years ago came to mind.

One late night, perhaps two years into their joint venture, Helena had returned to the tower -- bruised, battered, and less than victorious -- after a battle with Clayface. Barbara had tenderly cleaned and stitched her partner's wounds and then moved to the kitchen to procure a few ice packs. When she'd returned to the living area, there'd been no sign of the broody young woman, and so, unerringly, she'd headed to the balcony.

She'd found Helena there, perched against the gargoyle on the parapet, eyes fixed on the sky. Barbara had chosen not to speak, simply casting her gaze skyward as well. Eventually, a low soprano had broken the silence.

"Up there?"

An almost painfully thin arm had risen, pointing to the southwest and a bright star in a well-known constellation. The older woman had nodded, certain that her partner would detect the movement in the darkness.

"My mom always told me that the brightest star in Orion's belt is the special wish-star of hunters."

The redhead had turned to regard the sharp lines of her protege's face in profile. She'd heard a ribbon of pain... or tension threading her companion's voice and, at the time, had assumed it had to do with memories of Selina which Helena's encounter with Clayface might have brought up.

"Are you wishing now, Helena?"

Blue eyes, reflecting the lights from the sky, had met hers, and Barbara had shivered at the enigmatic reply.

"I'm always wishing."

This evening, Barbara cast her own wish: for a successful, safe operation. From bitter experience, she knew that injury was a distinct possibility, even in successful attacks against the madman. He was truly a force to be reckoned with.

Instantly, the redhead's perfect memory supplied the sights and sounds and emotions which had nearly overwhelmed her during the first attempt she'd joined in to capture the Clown Prince of Darkness. Bruce had directed her to stay back -- primarily to watch and learn, she suspected in hindsight; at the time, she'd assumed that she could function as an element of surprise if needed.

Chuckling without humor about the naivete of youth, the cyber-vigilante sobered, recalling her first impression of the madman when they'd penetrated his waterfront hideout: Size, sheer size. Jack Napier was well over six feet tall, with the breadth and musculature to match. With his flamboyant garb and booming laugh, his presence was almost awesome... or simply awful.

He -- and his goons -- had certainly been overwhelming that night. In a rare instance of bad intel, Bruce had seriously underestimated the forces they'd be taking on, and almost immediately after they'd entered, Barbara had been horrified to see Bruce and Dick taking a beating at the hands of the green-haired villain and his henchmen.

When the two had opted for an strategic retreat, her gasp of dismay from the rafters must have been audible, for she'd suddenly been pinned by eyes containing only pure malice. As if he'd had all the time in the world, the white-faced lunatic had strolled toward her.

"Well, well. What have we here? Don't tell me that The Caped Nitwit and Boy Blunder have finally found a brood mare!"

Barbara had almost been furious enough to attack; fortunately, her rational side had persuaded her otherwise. Unfortunately, no amount of rational thought had been able to free her from the madman's almost hypnotic eyes, his taunting words.

"Come down, Little Bat-Breeder. Wouldn't you rather make happy, smiling offspring -- "

The implication behind the clown's leering perma-grin had been clear enough to make the crimson-haired vigilante's stomach turn.

"-- than depressed and gloomy do-gooders?"

Her nauseated anger had finally freed her from her shocked paralysis and she'd retreated -- thoroughly shaken -- from the building. She hadn't moved fast enough to escape the horrifying cackle of the madman's last words.

"Perhaps, I should just make certain that you can't!"

Shaking off the memory, the cyber-crime fighter trailed her hand across her lower abdomen, pursing her lips against a phantom sensation of pressure when her fingers brushed over a ridge of thick scar tissue just above her pubic bone.

To this day, Barbara still wondered if at least one of the four bullets which The Joker had pumped into her seven years before had been an attempt to make good on the chilling threat from that first meeting.

Unlike the frontal assault her mentor had attempted during her first meeting with The Joker so many years before, this time Barbara's plan was to wait until the Master of Mischief sallied forth for his nightly torment of the city. At that point, Helena would approach the building and scout for access and hidden traps. If things were clear -- and Barbara had been quite adamant about this point -- then the young vigilante might even try to enter the building, perhaps disabling weapons or taking out any lackeys who might not be missed.

After that, Helena and Dinah would wait, circle the building, and confirm The Joker's return. As soon as Barbara finished a schematic of the building, complete with details about weapons and traps, she would contact the authorities for an early morning takedown.

In the field, her partners were ready.

At the tower, the leader of the little team was also as prepared as she could be. Every screen on the Delphi was logged in for every possible contingency. Dinah had helped her put together an emergency bag, holding two cell phones and an array of batarangs and escrima sticks, which was looped over the back of her chair. The keys to the van were tucked in her front pocket: Helena hadn't even blinked when Barbara had asked her to move the van as close as possible to the elevator in the garage.

Unknown to the younger women, the redhead had made one additional preparation while her partners were on their way to the tenement: She'd dug her father's old service pistol out of the gun safe and placed it in the pocket of her chair. If some sort of wild rescue were required of her, Barbara intended to be fully prepared.

<"Looks like they're moving out for whatever fun they have planned tonight, Oracle.">

The quiet update, scarcely louder than the night winds which whispered over Helena's microphone necklace, raised the fine hairs on Barbara's arms. Acute emerald eyes mechanically clicked from monitor to monitor, confirming that the terminals were still linked into GPS, EMS, Police dispatch, and every private security firm in the city.


The teen's breathy confirmation was almost as soft as Helena's.

<"... a fleet of Escalades and Crown Victorias just pulled out of the garage moving... uhm...">

<"South">, the older woman on the scene provided.

Capturing the security camera at an ATM several blocks south of her partners' position, Barbara watched the parade of vehicles move by. Despite the grainy quality of her video feed, she couldn't mistake the identity of the passenger in the third car in the procession.

"Give it another ten minutes before moving, Huntress."

<"I'm in no hurry, Oracle.">

The quiet words reassured the redhead, again, that her partner understood the risks of the situation. Resultantly, she didn't bat an eye when she heard a soft question through the transceiver.

<"Wanna go grab a burger while we're waiting, Canary?">

While Helena's question had been light, Dinah's reply was anything but, and, once again, Barbara reconsidered the wisdom of allowing the girl to accompany the more experienced older woman.

<"Uhm, I don't think I could eat right now, Huntress.">

The brunette didn't directly comment on her partner's case of nerves.

<"Yeah, me neither, but I'll bet you a taco that we'll be ready to eat a horse after we mop the floor with this creep.">

A flicker on the GPS distracted Barbara from a mental inventory of the kitchen -- Helena was undoubtedly correct about how hungry they'd *all* be after they wrapped this up -- and she interrupted her charges' soft debate about the merits of omelets versus burgers for post-sweeps sustenance.

"Is Canary in position, Huntress?"

<"Uh huh -- ">

<"Sure is --">

The replies were almost simultaneous, followed by a beat of silence while the two presumably sorted out who should complete the update.

<"I've got her behind the marquee of the Reel Deal.">

The redhead nodded approvingly. The location -- one story up outside the long defunct theatre -- gave the teen a vantage point in three directions and an unobstructed view of the parking garage entrance.

"Well done, Huntress."

Barbara drew in a slow breath.

"Are you ready?"

<"As I'll ever be.">

With that, the dark vigilante moved out, easily leaping the street separating the theatre from The Joker's building and scaling silently to the roof. Once there, she began to move through the route Barbara had worked out with her earlier, scouting first the top of the building.

<"And, that makes four.">

"Copy that, Huntress."

The sub vocal description of another fortified position for guards or look-outs was hardly unexpected: clown that he was, The Joker took his security very seriously.

<"Maybe I can pay the guards up here a visit before the PD arrive, Oracle.">

"Indeed, Huntress."

The cyber-vigilante highlighted the findings about the rooftop positions in her schematic even as she allowed that her partner's suggestion was, possibly, the best chance to disable the guards and provide a slim chance of a surprise arrival when the police made their raid.

"Are you ready to move on?"

<"Checking the fire escape right now...">

A rusty creak set the redhead's teeth on edge. She couldn't imagine how it had impacted the younger woman's sensitive hearing.


Despite the surprise evident in the exclamation, the young vigilante's curse was barely a whisper.


<"Frikkin' bricks are crumbling around the bolts holding the fire escape. May take a little longer to cover the building...">

"Slow and steady, Huntress."

For the next hour, Helena cautiously circumnavigated the exterior of the three-story building, peering through grime-encrusted windows and detailing everything she saw: from the presence of a lone guard who was dozing in front of a television, to the number of cots and sleeping bags in each room, to the types of weapons stacked casually against walls and furniture. As Barbara methodically recorded every finding, she continued to check in with Dinah.

The blonde reported quiet streets from her vantage point, and compulsive checks of the scanners showed why: the residents of the building had apparently decided to strike hard with their bubble goo -- possibly before New Gotham's citizens seized on the repellent recipe which had been broadcast. Shopping centers, the hospital, and two nursing homes had all been hit in the last fifty minutes, leaving numerous people injured and two senior citizens dead.

Taking the latest EMS dispatches as a sign, Barbara updated her partners in the field.

"Joker is hitting hard with the bubble goo. Is your repellent still fresh?"

<"I just put more on.">

The redhead nodded her approval of Dinah's conscientiousness, ignoring a soft mutter -- something about 'teacher's pet' -- from the other comm set.

<"Just doing it now... ">

A soft spritzing confirmed the brunette's acknowledgement. It was followed by a pointed sniff.

<"Didja have to use the lavender dish soap, Canary? I smell like somebody's grandmother.">

Hearing a nervous giggle from the teen, Barbara smiled before growing serious.

"My schematics show that you've covered the exterior, Huntress. Is that it?"

She tried to ignore the fear which blew through her at her partner's response.

<"Above ground, yeah. Guess I'm ready to hit the garage.">

Barbara couldn't stop herself. Once Helena was inside, her options for escape were much more limited.

"Be careful, Huntress."


The older woman sat stiffly, listening to... no sound at all as the brunette stealthily made her way into the underground structure. It was only when a low whistle sounded through her earpiece that Barbara realized she'd forgotten to breathe during her wait.

"What is it, Huntress?"

The younger woman's voice was hushed, but distinctly awed.

<"There's like sixty crates of bubble gum in here...">

The redhead waited out Dinah's soft gasp and Helena's brief pause.

<"...and six barrels of nitro and enough C-4 for a Bruce Willis movie. With a sequel.">

When the dark vigilante completed her description by noting that it was all stacked near the entrance, next to the water canons which had been used just a week before during what Barbara had come to think of as The Joker's coming out bash, a chilling vision of just what the maniacal clown was planning came to mind. While the raid which would be triggered from their exploration would doubtlessly curtail the terror he'd planned, all three women were aware that the presence of the explosives would complicate an assault on the building.

<"Is there anything we can dump in the nitro to, uh, stabilize it?">

A crimson brow crept upward as Barbara considered Helena's question.

"Sawdust would be absorbed best and work to raise the activation po--"

A terrified whisper cut short the impromptu science lesson.

<"There's no time! They're coming back now!">

The roaring of engines and squealing of tires graphically emphasized the blonde's warning, somehow intensifying the burst of adrenaline which shot through the older woman.

"Get out now, Huntress!"

<"On my way...">

The softest of clattering evidenced the brunette's hurry, and Barbara clenched her jaw -- unmoving, unbreathing -- for a long ten seconds.

<"M'out... and...">

A soft thump, almost swallowed by shouting voices and revving engines from the street, accompanied the update.

<"...back with Canary. What the hell happened?">

Noticing that scanner reports -- which always lagged a bit -- were dropping off, the redhead realized that their quarry must have abruptly pulled all of his men back to their base.

"Something must have tipped him off. What's going on?"

The brunette's voice was rough with frustration.

<"They're clearing the place out. Stuff from the garage first. I can hear him yelling...">

The older woman held her breath, willing her partner's acute hearing to do its thing.

<"...Something about being compromised, Oracle. Shit! I must of set off an alarm somehow.">

Even as a plethora of creative invective ran through her mind, Barbara couldn't stand the frustration in her partner's voice.

"It couldn't be helped, Huntress. Can you get some tracers onto their vehicles before they--"

<"Holy shit!">

<"Oh no!">

Fortunately for her nerves, the older woman didn't have to wait long for an explanation for the twin exclamations of dismay.

<"He's torching the building, Oracle. Canary, how many barrels of nitro did you count coming out?">

The redhead felt her eyebrows shoot skyward when she heard Dinah's reply.


"Pull back. Now."

<"Copy th-- Waitasecond...">

Barbara's brows descended with alarming speed, knitting in consternation.

What could be so interesting that Helena would dawdle near a burning building containing powerful explosives?

She'd just snapped open her mouth to make an inquiry to that effect when her partner made the gesture superfluous.

<"Joker's got the guard who was watching TV inside. He looks really pissed off...">

The redhead nodded grimly, aware that Jack Napier did not tolerate screw-ups well -- especially one that lost him an established base of operations. She was distracted from that thought -- nearly jumping out of her chair, in fact -- by the nearly simultaneous sounds of two gun shots, a high-pitched male scream, and Dinah's whimper.

<"That bastard knee-capped him!">

Helena's hushed update was rife with fury.

<"He's dragging the guard into the garage while everybody else is burning rubber...">

As horrifying as The Joker's swift punishment for his lackey was, it was Dinah's tearful words which truly terrified the leader of the small team of crime fighters.

<"We can't just let him burn! Hel-- Huntress, can't we do something?">

"Stay out of it!"

The words -- sharp, decisive -- were out before Barbara even thought about it. When she heard a resigned sigh from her younger partner, she realized they'd been for naught.

<"We have to try, Oracle.">

"Huntress, no. Don't do this."

She heard the lithe figure's movement before Helena replied.

<"In and out. I promise. Canary, you stay back.">

The redhead grit her teeth but recognized that, indeed, they couldn't not try.

A week before, she'd said it herself to her impassioned younger partner: they did not kill. By the same token, they couldn't simply stand back and allow someone to die an agonizing death.

Steeling herself, the cyber-vigilante completed her emergency dispatch to NGFD, with a prominent warning about the explosives. She'd just hit the send key when a shotgun blast and her partner's hoarse grunt boomed through the comms. The snarling voice which followed, highlighted by the crackle of flames and the angry screech of twisting metal, simply froze her in place.

<<"Well, well, I knew one of you do-gooders would come in to save this worthless piece of offal, and now you need saving, too!">>

The horrified gasp from the other comm unit eloquently expressed Dinah's reaction.

"Hold your position, Canary!"

The directive, banded with iron, was instinctive. A split-second later, Helena's almost taunting tone gave her hope that she'd made the right choice.

<"Big deal, Clown-boy. This stuff is gonna dissolve any minute now--">

<<"Ah, ah, ah!">>

The sly tsking evoked a completely visceral terror in the redhead, but she ruthlessly pushed it aside.

<<"Are you so certain that you'll have a minute? In the meantime, where's Gordon's newest little bird? Doesn't she want to play? Doesn't she want to do the right thing?">>

Well aware that the madman was deliberately taunting whoever might be listening, Barbara murmured a low warning to the teen just as the the taunting voice spoke again.

<<"It really doesn't matter, though. One by one, I'll get through you, and then I can reacquaint myself with your precious leader.">>

Buffeted by more reactions than she could grasp, Barbara still didn't miss the faint response of the young woman trapped in the parking structure.

<"No... body plays... Stay the fu-- uh -- away from... family.">

The words were brave, however the brunette was gasping.

Against her bonds? The smoke? The heat? The older woman could only guess.

<"Bar-- Oracle! I've got to go in!">

The hushed, desperate whisper apparently distracted both of the older women, and they spoke as one.

<"Stay away, Kid!">

"Canary, stay back!"

The Joker's gleeful laugh squealed through the earpiece even as the crackle of flames grew louder and Helena grunted painfully.

<<"Wrooong choice! Bye bye, Birdie!">>

Helena's voice was pure, agonized rage.

<"Then you're coming, too, Asshole!">

Frantically yanking off her headset, the redhead pushed back from her computer and fumbled for the keys in her pocket. In the instant before she turned for the elevator, she peripherally noted a blip on the GPS: a blip from Dinah's unit which could have signaled movement.

<"I have to try to get close enough to use my TK!">

Barbara instinctively grappled for the microphone, then stiffly stilled her movement.

There was simply no way she could get there in time to do any good, and Dinah was there. Specifically, she was there for backup for just this sort of situation.

Slowly, she approached her workstation again, settling the weight of her headset around her, aware that she'd have to ride this out remotely. Time seemed to slow, stretching around her like hot taffy as she listened to the events playing out:

The Joker's screams of fury.

Dinah's terrified whimpers as she tried slip past the heat of the fire.

Helena's exultant shout that she'd freed herself and was on her way out.

The explosion which abruptly silenced everything from the remote units.

Chapter 19

The silence was overwhelming.


Almost a living entity demanding to be recognized.

Not altogether surprising, Barbara supposed.

Despite the ebb and flow of family and friends in the waiting area, regardless of the efficient hustle and bustle of staff in the corridor, there could be no forgetting what those in the large central ward or the individual rooms were enduring. As a result, conversations were short; voices, hushed; movements, restrained.

There was silence.

Oddly, the redhead found that the sepulchral nature of her environment was unleashing fragments of an old song, damnably juxtaposing 1960s folk music with the words she needed to concentrate on.

Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again,

Or, perhaps not so odd after all.

"Are you certain you want to do this? It isn't necessary... or you could wait until she's more..."

Barbara slowly looked up, somehow having forgotten that Jesse Reese was personally accompanying her. Perhaps he misunderstood her confusion, because he dropped his voice and continued.

"It's pretty bad right now, but later today when--"

A sharply raised hand cut him off.

While the redhead understood that the handsome young police detective was attempting to look out for her, she wasn't expecting anything... pretty.

"I have to see..."

Sympathetic, deep brown eyes held hers, offering another chance, and Barbara suddenly very much understood at least some of what her vivacious partner had seen in the young officer.

The detective held the look for a beat before backing down, dropping his gaze uncomfortably. The older woman thought he was considering adding something; however, something in her face persuaded him otherwise. Ducking his head, he swung open the heavy door and stepped back, allowing the redhead to proceed him into the cavernous central room.

Within the sterile environment, florescent lights which had been dimmed to two-thirds illuminated a half-dozen gurneys. The makeshift beds were arranged, almost haphazardly, with three occupied by individuals who hadn't yet been relocated. A nurse, wearing scrubs printed with bright tropical flowers, was working with the IV bag hanging above one.

With a blink of surprise -- although she wasn't certain what had caught her unawares -- the redhead revised her count. There were four occupied beds, although the occupant of the gurney which was pushed against the wall, almost as an afterthought, was hardly in the same category as the others in the room.

Barbara was quite aware that, overwhelmed as they were by The Joker's rampage and the influx of injuries from the tenement fire, hospital staff had been hard-pressed to keep up.

Nevertheless, it wasn't... right to have him in here.

Almost against her will, she turned to face the stretcher, taking in the glint of the manacles still securing the occupant to the steel rails of the bed. While the cuffs were now completely unnecessary, Barbara realized that she had absolutely no desire for them to be removed.

For a beat, she stared at the still figure, until the soft scuff of her companion's shoes alerted her to the fact that she'd stopped. Somehow, she found purchase on the rims of her wheels with her sweat-slickened hands and forced herself to approach the gurney against the wall.

Before her, still larger than life, limbs stretched in the grip of final agony, lay the body of Jack Napier, The Joker.

Abstractedly, the redhead noted that her nemesis' dapper purple suit was nothing but charred cloth; his green hair and pale skin were burned and blistered, revealing raw flesh and bone. The man -- ultimately nothing but a man -- had tarried too long in his own trap and paid the ultimate price; yet, even the oxygen mask which was still fixed in place from the ambulance ride couldn't conceal the madman's wild grin.

The analytical woman breathed shallowly through her mouth, taking an extra moment to attempt to comprehend the... triumph in the maniacal smile. Although she couldn't begin to guess what the man had seen in his final gasping moments, she had a bitter understanding of what lay behind her foe's expression.

Crisply rotating her chair, the cyber-vigilante unerringly made her way to a different gurney, mechanically taking care not to tangle herself in the myriad wires and tubing and other accoutrements of medical care which spilled from the other beds.

In restless dreams I walked alone Narrow streets of cobblestone, 'neath the halo of a street lamp, I turned my collar to the cold and damp


No longer transfixed by the visage of evil in the bed against the wall, Barbara was assailed by the overwhelming, dreadful cold of the room. She shivered violently, wishing she were curled up in her big bed, with her young partner blanketing her with her tremendous heat.

Or, really, that she were anywhere but here.

Stopping inches from a bed near the center of the room, she realized that her trembling now had very little to do with ambient air temperature.

Slowly, carefully, she stretched out, shakily reaching for the slender figure curled on the high rolling bed. After a hesitation so brief it might have gone unnoticed, she rested her finger tips lightly on the sheet which had slipped from an awkwardly skewed shoulder. Somehow, she resisted the urge to straighten -- or otherwise fuss with -- the linen, instead slowly inching the cover down.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening

Distantly, Barbara registered that Jesse had stepped closer, that he had, perhaps, said something. She peripherally noted a movement which could have been the young detective lifting his hand toward her shoulder before aborting the motion. She was profoundly grateful that he had resisted his impulse to comfort, fearing that she would have shattered at the touch.

The analytical woman inclined her head to the side, taking in the small figure before her. Due to the height of the makeshift bed, the younger woman was at eye level, and Barbara mentally cursed her position, her inability to see completely. From long years of practice, she forced herself to ignore her anger at herself -- her limitations -- and concentrated on what she could take in.

Removing her hand from the sheet, Barbara blinked against the heat in her eyes, then exhaled soundlessly, bringing thumb and forefinger to the bridge of her nose. A soft, rhythmic beeping from some machine echoed against the pulse she could feel pounding in her temple, and the hiss of an air compressor grated her nerves. Almost absently, she lightly traced a length of plastic tubing which was coiled through the fold-down rail on the side of the gurney, wondering when the overworked staff would have time to tidy the mess.

Probably when they moved the young woman from the temporary bed.

The older woman nodded, scarcely aware that she was doing so, and finally allowed herself to take in fully the deceptively small woman who lay before her, curled into a tight rictus of pain beneath the gossamer weight of the sheet draped over her.

Green eyes traced the sharp angle of the dark figure's jaw, clearly discerning the tense set of muscles clenched in agony. Barbara followed the slender column of the younger woman's throat, and she abruptly looked up, one hand fluttering toward her own neck.

Her silent companion moved forward a half-step, digging into his coat pocket.

"There wasn't much left of her clothes, but I retrieved this when we found her."

The young detective extended a loosely clasped fist, dropping a bit of mangled metal into the older woman's open palm. Barbara bleakly regarded the remains of the comms unit which had been around her Helena's neck, her stomach performing a slow roll as her mind automatically supplied the melting point -- in degrees Celsius and Fahrenheit -- of the metal.

And the sign flashed out it's warning,
In the words that it was forming.
And the signs said, the words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls.

The decision to have the van ready the night before had been prescient. The moment that the explosion had boomed over the transceiver and then the transmissions had ended, Barbara had been on her way. Breaking every traffic law in the city and state, she'd reached the burning tenement only moments after the fire department.

By then, evidence of their prey's presence -- crew, weapons, and vehicles -- had vanished, but using a mobile GPS unit, the crimson-haired crime fighter had quickly located one of her two team mates.

Dinah, terrified and desperate, had been battling against the flames and showering rubble, exhausted to the point of collapse yet still struggling to use her TK and her hands to penetrate the building in search of her older partner. When Barbara had managed to attract the teen's attention -- the litter of bricks and metal flying from the building had forced her to stay near the van -- Dinah hadn't paused in her frantic attempts to gain access to the parking garage.

"I saw her... Just before... Trying to get that guy out, and The Joker was pulling her back!"

Even when the entire building had collapsed under a fire so hot it melted sixty-year-old bricks, Barbara had barely been able to pull the girl away. It was only when she was so exhausted she could barely make it to the van that Dinah had finally given up. The two had silently watched the fire department battle the blaze, their hopes that Helena had escaped the inferno fervent but unspoken.

Finally, knowing that she needed to treat the teen's injuries -- not to mention, suspecting that the brunette would return to her home if she were able -- Barbara had abandoned their vigil at the fire. They'd passed the hours of the long dark night monitoring the scanners until a call had come from Jesse forty-five minutes before.

Fools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you.

A large, well-manicured hand coming to rest lightly on her forearm drew the redhead from her inspection of the necklace. She looked up, nearly falling into fathomless brown eyes, and arched a brow.

"Knowing what we're dealing with, I thought you'd want this."

Barbara felt her brows knit as she accepted a small test tube which contained a miniscule bit of matter.

"For, er, DNA testing? There wasn't -- "

Tucking the melted necklace and the vial into the pocket of her chair, the redhead looked up sharply when her companion stumbled. The young man drew a breath, and Barbara fisted her hands in her lap when he continued sorrowfully.

"We couldn't get fingerprints, but the dental match we could make was positive."

The cyber-genius felt the muscles in her jaw pulsing as she clenched her teeth against the young man's unspoken words: Even a dental match had been difficult, given the way the young woman before them had fractured her teeth in agony.

"Still, well, I just figured..."

Barbara managed to nod an acknowledgement as the detective trailed off, gesturing awkwardly toward the gurney. She followed the movement, catching her lips between her teeth at what she saw.

Yet, despite the horror of the burned and twisted flesh before her, Barbara realized that the old movie standby of someone being burned beyond recognition was a complete and utter load of horseshit. Even in the face of such appalling injuries, there could simply be no doubt.

Oh, as meticulous and methodical as she was, as much as she desperately hoped to discover... something which could help, the relentlessly practical woman knew that she would run the sample which Jesse had provided. She also knew, given The Joker's delight in his last cruel prank, that the chances of a surprise discovery were almost non-existent.

Taking great care not to bump the tall bed, the redhead inched forward. Even without her partner's meta-human senses, she had no difficulty -- even now, hours after the blaze had been extinguished -- detecting the smoke which clung to tattered remnants of chestnut hair, of feeling the impossible heat still radiating from the young woman's body. Swallowing against the sourness in the back of her throat, Barbara reached out, lightly touching the tip of her index finger to the line of the younger woman's left brow and breathing a silent prayer.

The barely audible whoosh of the door drew her from her study, and she turned to watch an orderly approach one of the other two occupied stretchers. The scrubs-clad worker efficiently unlocked the wheels of the unit and pushed it away.

Presumably, the hospital was slowly making space, and... everyone in the room would soon be moved as well.

Very deliberately, the redhead looked up, catching her companion's eyes. While she appreciated -- more than she'd ever be able to put into words -- that the detective had notified her immediately when rescue workers had made their discoveries, there was something more she needed to know.

"What about the..."

She struggled over the words, ultimately giving up.

"...other man?"

The sad shake of a dark head indicated the young man's comprehension, and the older woman allowed her lashes to descend. The detective's next words forced her to keep her eyes shut for a beat longer.

"We found the man that he shot. He didn't make it."

"In vain?"

The words were little more than a croak, with the redhead looking helplessly to her companion who could only lick his lips and blink.

"But, The Joker took the brunt of the explosion. He..."

Brown eyes searched her face, the young man clearly uncertain about how much to say. Perhaps something in her eyes reassured him.

"At least he suffered, Barbara."

Barbara had never considered herself a vindictive soul, however, she hadn't a doubt in the world about her grim response.

"Not enough."

Turning back to the tall bed, the redhead again brushed her fingers against the young woman's shoulder in a gossamer caress, then pulled back and turned to the door. She'd be back, but at this moment it was time to focus on the other young woman in her life, who was currently waiting in chairs outside.

In the few, long, hours they'd waited together between returning to the tower and receiving Jesse Reese's call, there had been no way to miss the teen's horrified guilt and terror and uncertainty. Now, waiting outside, picturing God-knew-what, Dinah had to be in agony.

Because a vision softly creeping,
Left it's seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

Straightening her spine, the redhead followed the young detective from the room then turned to the waiting area. Because of the whisper quiet progress of her rubber wheels on scrubbed linoleum, she caught sight of the blonde an instant before the girl saw her and bolted to her feet.

Dinah's formerly long hair was pulled back in a messy pony tail, the ends darkened and shagged by fire. Her normally pale complexion was pinkened by first and second degree burns, and her arms and hands were bandaged to cover the deeper burns she'd sustained trying to beat away burning rubble to reach her partner. As she slowly approached, pale blue eyes searching the older woman, her gait was unsteady.

Drawing a deep breath, Barbara held open her arms and nodded. In the moment after her ward's face crumbled and Dinah collapsed against her, the redhead attempted to find the words but, ultimately, came up empty.

Then, cradling the sobbing girl to her chest, she looked up to focus again on the stark signage over the door she'd just exited:


Chapter 20

It was over.

For the first time in over a week of madness, the sound of emergency sirens wasn't a constant backdrop; the chatter of rescue workers on the scanners was merely harried rather than overwhelmed; gunfire and bubble guns and explosions were no longer echoing through the canyons of the streets.

And, the damnedest thing, Barbara realized, was that she didn't know quite how she felt about the peace in her city.

Rather, the price which had been paid to achieve it.

Sitting on the balcony as dawn's rosy glow crept over the tops of the city's buildings, the redhead shivered, raising her hands to rub absently at her upper arms and wishing for the warmth of a leather coat wrapped around her.

More honestly, she wanted to be wrapped in the strong arms of one certain individual wearing a leather coat.

Slowly, she lowered her hands, fisting them in her lap. Focusing intently on her fingers, she thought she detected a hint of smoke from the tenement fire in the air and narrowed her eyes in puzzlement.

It should have been impossible. The ruin of The Joker's hideout was miles away.

Crimson lashes fluttered down when the analytical woman grasped that what she was detecting was the memory of smoke -- the smoke which had permeated the bodies she'd seen not much more than an hour before.

She forced her eyes open again, needing to focus on something real while she grappled with the images being projected in her mind.

How did one qualify or quantify a reaction to what she'd seen at the morgue? How could she even... allow a response to everything that it meant?

The redhead smiled without humor, bitterly admitting that it was not the sight of death itself which left her at such a loss. Over the years, she'd certainly seen more than her share of death, and it never became easier... or made more sense.

The first, really, had been her Aunt Barbara, the woman she'd been named for, the woman who had taken her in when she was twelve and had loved her as her own. Aunt Barbara had been the first woman the redheaded girl had felt that she could trust, that she could love; it had been devastating when she'd been diagnosed with the cruel disease which had riddled through her. The end had taken years, and when the older woman had finally given in, she'd battled her disease for so long that the only emotion they'd seen in her features had been peace.

Not so for the second dead person Barbara had seen.

The first death she'd caused.

He'd been a petty burglar, caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. Barbara been on the streets as Batgirl for just over a year, and Bruce had become confident enough in her abilities to dispatch her on solo patrols. Young, dumb, and -- green eyes blinked as Helena's voice echoed through the redhead's memory, supplying the next words -- full of come, the nascent vigilante had certainly felt invincible.

That night, she'd surprised the man during a break-in of a seventh story business office. Foolishly, he hadn't wanted to surrender quietly, probably assuming that one small, redheaded girl -- and she had been scarcely more than a girl then -- was no threat. Barbara had let loose, nothing to hurt him permanently, but she had decided to practice some of her newer moves. Unfortunately, she'd misjudged -- both the strength of a sweeping round house kick and the man's balance when she made contact.

And, one other thing: how close the burglar had been to the floor-to-ceiling window.

With a sickening crash, the man had been hurled through the plate glass into the night sky. For a long, stomach-clenching second, he'd seemed to hang in midair, his panicked eyes meeting hers as she'd rushed forward, scrabbling for her bat cable.

She'd managed to free the rope from her utility belt in time to see the raw terror in the man's eyes flash to hope. Just as she'd swung the cable toward the broken glass, she stumbled over a chair which had been broken in the fight and missed her chance to catch the hapless soul who screamed his terror all the way to the concrete below.

Since that time, there had been so many: The nameless, faceless victims which she'd not been strong enough or fast enough or smart enough to protect; the criminals who had paid the ultimate price to escape justice; others in the business, such as Carolyn Lance and even Shiva, who had sacrificed for their own abstract causes; and, the innocents, like Wade, who had just been in the wrong place.

The analytical woman prodded at that final thought, finally forcing herself to acknowledge an additional truth: Those who had been in the wrong place because they had cared about her or... in some small way, been linked to her and her cause.

Of all of those, which was the young woman who had died so brutally at The Joker's hand?

Hero? Victim? Innocent?

Who would mourn her other than the very few who knew?

Setting her features, the redhead looked up from her intense inspection of her hands, attempting to make sense of it, to comprehend. Every muscle fixed, her back ramrod straight, she shut her eyes, allowing the slow rise of the sun to warm her face.

It had seemed fitting to seek... something on the darkened balcony. The spot had long been a refuge for Helena -- for brooding amid the gargoyles, for communing with the night stars, and simply for soaking in the winds of the sky she flew through almost nightly.

As Barbara considered her partner's ability to find her answers in the darkness and the skies, she smiled sorrowfully as a fragment of a poem whispered through her mind:

"I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above; / Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love."

On its heels came the memory of Helena's voice, agonized and enraged, as her captor had tormented her in the parking garage just moments before the explosion: "Then you're coming, too, Asshole!"

Had Helena hated The Joker?

A week before, when they'd discovered the reality of his escape, the passionate young woman had threatened...

Green eyes blinked wide as the cyber-genius corrected herself.

Last week, Helena had offered to end the problem. And, six days before, after the murder at the DMV, she'd spoken her hate for the man. Three -- no, four nights before, when Barbara had succumbed to her fears, her partner had willingly shouldered a burden which should have been the older woman's alone; what had Helena taken from that?

And, what about those she fought for?

There could be no doubt about the dark vigilante's devotion to her partners, but what about the citizens of the city?

For that matter, the redhead forced herself to ask, what were her own feelings? Did she love the citizens of the city which had taken so much from her? Did she hate the madman they'd battled?

Barbara shifted a tiny bit, resisting the urge to rock her chair. Unable to identify her own feelings with anything resembling certainty, she turned her attention to the remaining member of the team.

Stiffening her shoulders, she faced the reality that, after all her ward had seen and endured, Dinah had very probably learned a great deal about fear and hate which she'd never suspected. In less than seven short days, a world of innocence had been wrested from the girl.

Perhaps, from them all.

Barbara tipped her head back, watching the clouds scudding across the pinkening sky. Feeling moisture on her cheeks, she distantly wondered whether the always-dreary city was shedding its own tears. Green eyes squeezed shut, and Barbara felt the axis under her chair tilt and swirl. The sensation of a slim hand coming to rest lightly on her shoulder grounded her again, and, blinking, she reached back to brush the slender fingers gently with her own.

With a flicker of irritation, she noticed that her companion had already removed the gauze bandage from her hands.

"Are you feeling better, Hel?"

Frankly, the older woman was a bit surprised that her partner was up after all she'd been through. When the brunette had arrived at the clock tower, seventy-five long minutes after Dinah and Barbara had abandoned their vigil at the tenement, she'd been injured, exhausted, and filthy from the sewer she'd been forced to wind her way through. She'd barely allowed the redhead to dress her wounds before ducking through the shower and then collapsing into bed.


The word ghosted the still air of the balcony as the younger woman silently moved to perch on the edge of an Adirondack chair. Barbara took a moment to observe burns which were, already, visibly healing and, once again, thanked the powers-that-be for her partner's remarkable recuperative abilities.

When the brunette absently scratched at her throat, the older woman remembered to tack on a thanksgiving for the lithe figure's meta-human strength and reflexes as well.

While Helena's leathers -- and The Joker himself -- had shielded the young vigilante from the worst of the explosion and flames, every bit of exposed skin -- from her hands to her face to her upper chest -- was nevertheless reddened and blistered. If the green-haired madman hadn't been shoving the young woman into the hidden storm drain at the time of the explosion, it would have been far, far worse.

Grimly, the redhead allowed that she owed their nemesis a debt of gratitude, of sorts. Yet, considering the prank he had died attempting to put in place -- not to mention the horrors inflicted on the young woman at the morgue -- she simply couldn't bring herself to offer the man any credit for the outcome.

The sight of her companion shifting restlessly drew the analytical woman from her own thoughts, and she tendered a small smile of invitation.

"I ran into D on her way to bed," the young woman began.

Barbara nodded, pleased that her ward was attempting to rest. Even with the recent threat no longer present, she simply couldn't muster any energy to encourage the girl to head back to school today. She'd put on her responsible guardian's hat again tomorrow... or perhaps the day after.

"Is she..."

The redhead caught blue eyes and raised her brows in question, at a loss. As was so often the case, Helena seemed to intuit her meaning.

"Yeah, I think so. Or--"

The younger woman inspected her fingers and frowned as she apparently reconsidered her easy reassurance.

"-- I think she will be. It was pretty rough, but -- "

Warmed by the pride evident in the other woman's tone, Barbara felt a smile skirt her lips.

"-- she did really good. Coming after me like that and all."

The younger woman finally looked up, offering a rueful grin.

"Hell, after a little sleep, the Kid's head'll probably swell and there'll be no living with her, right?"

Barbara considered that, finally prompting, "A little well-deserved pride might not be so bad, Hel."

The brunette sobered and returned to her inspection of her hands.

"No. It wouldn't. She really deserves it after everything she saw."

Pained blue eyes looked up.

"D told me about, uh, while I was sleeping -- "

The brunette gestured in the direction of the cityscape.

"-- the hospital."

Pressing her lips together in a tight line, Barbara nodded across her soft sigh. After a beat, the brunette cocked her head a few degrees to one side.

"So, he's really dead?"

Again, the redhead limited her response to a nod. She wasn't sure what the expression which flickered across her partner's features signified, but she was fairly certain that she heard a single word in the younger woman's exhalation.


Choosing not to comment, the cyber-vigilante allowed her partner to digest the reality of The Joker's demise. As she waited, Barbara turned the whispered word around in her mind, wondering what it meant or, more to the point, if any of them ever would be free of the horrors wrought by one green-haired madman.

After a moment's reflection, the dark figure shifted minutely and scratched around a line of blisters on her left wrist.

"What about the girl?"

"Probably homeless or a runaway. Someone he found who had your bone structure and coloring."

The cyber-vigilante realized that she'd spoken more bitterly than she'd intended when her companion visibly flinched.

"I'm sorry, Sweetie. It's just -- "

She trailed off a bit helplessly, unable to put into words just what she was feeling. When the brunette quirked her lips, Barbara chose to take the gesture as acceptance of her halting apology.

"Do you think you'll be able to find out who she is-- was?"

Barbara waited until her companion met her eyes, then spoke softly.

"I'll run the DNA, but chances of a match are pretty slim. Without fingerprints -- "

She didn't miss shudder which coursed through Helena's slender frame. Unable to sugar-coat it, ultimately, the older woman simply continued.

"...and with her teeth destroyed, then covered with the casts from your teeth, we may never know."

Dark brows furrowed momentarily before the younger woman spoke wonderingly.

"The bubble goo from that night at the Huffa Bubba plant?"

Knitting her fingers in her lap, the redhead looked down to watch her thumbs fidgeting against each other.

"You said that it covered you... got into your mouth, Hel. It seems logical that he could have used it to make a cast to replicate surface details and dental structure," she finally allowed.

This time, the emotion flooding those expressive caramel features was unmistakable: Pain.

Instinctively, the older woman leaned forward, reaching for her partner's hands. In deference to the healing burns, she diverted her movement, resting one hand on her partner's sweatpants-covered knee. She waited while the brunette gnawed at her lower lip and then breathed an aching question.

"So just 'cuz she looked a little like me and he wanted to fuck with your head, he...?"

Silently, Barbara nodded, willing herself not to contemplate just what the green-haired madman might have had planned for her partner if he had captured her and convinced the world that she was dead. Helena's next soft inquiry distracted her, but unfortunately diverted her to other grim thoughts.

"And, they didn't find a double for Dinah?"

Swallowing with some difficulty, Barbara hedged a bit.

"Well, she was never hit with the bubble goo."

The two lapsed into silence for a few beats, neither bringing up the probability that their foe had probably had no plans to feign the young telepath's death. Finally, the younger woman broke the leaden stillness between them.

"Would it have worked?"

Barbara felt her brows dip.

"Would what have worked, Hel?"

The breath seemed to rush from her lungs when the brunette softly clarified.

"Do you think you would have known? Without the DNA?"

Irritation battled fond resignation as the older woman realized that, of course, Helena would want to know. The fact that the relentlessly practical woman had been steadfastly refusing to contemplate that very question since encountering her young partner's doppelganger at the morgue simply didn't matter.

Looking up at the brightening sky, Barbara drew a steadying breath and forced herself to consider how she might have reacted to the call from Jesse Reese if Helena had not already returned to the tower and fallen into bed an hour earlier. Heart seizing, she had to push that line of thought aside, resolutely replaying what she'd seen and experienced at the hospital morgue.

The likeness of the poor young woman -- at least as much as could be detected under the terrible burns -- had been startling. The trouble which her foe had gone to to insure a dental match was another jarring factor. Would that have been enough?

With a soft smile, the redhead returned her gaze to sweet blue eyes. Carefully, she raised one hand, lightly tracing her lover's perpetually raised left eyebrow.

"Once I saw her, no. I couldn't have mistaken her for you, Sweetheart."

Dark lashes shuttered the younger woman's eyes.

"So, he killed her for... a joke, and it wouldn't even have worked?"

Returning her hands to her lap, the older woman could only offer a brief nod. At that, the brunette exhaled forcefully and abruptly stood, turning to look over the parapet. It was only the movement of the wind, carrying soft syllables to her, which allowed Barbara to hear her partner's bitter whisper.

"I'm glad he's dead."

Crimson lashes slowly descended, and Barbara felt the muscles in her jaw pulse. Deliberately, she replayed some of the last words Helena had spoken in the parking garage before The Joker had ripped the comms necklace from her and the explosion had silenced everything. Cautiously, she moved forward a few feet, wetting dry lips with the tip of her tongue when the brunette turned, dark brows inching upward in question.

For a moment, the older woman teetered on the precipice, tempted simply to let it go, to... forget. Ultimately, she couldn't.


She forced herself to hold the other woman's gaze, knowing that Helena had never been able to lie convincingly to her.

"Did you...?"

As usual, having spoken without thinking it through, the analytical woman found herself woefully at a loss. She mentally flailed for a moment, struggling for words to describe... intent, until the dark figure before her stiffly dropped to her knees and caught her hand.

Barbara abandoned her lexical perambulations, certain that her partner had grasped her... intent. She remained poised, feeling oddly breathless, as Helena took her time, studying their joined fingers. Finally, blue eyes met green.

"I didn't go there to kill him, Barbara."

The redhead nodded once, slowly, aware of all that was unsaid in the words.

Nodding again, more decisively, she lightly tugged at the young woman's hands, encouraging her to rise. As she turned toward the balcony doors, intent on crawling into bed with her partner and staying there for the day, the poem which had danced through mind earlier insisted on finishing itself.

"Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds, / A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds; / I balanced all, brought all to mind, / The years to come seemed waste of breath, / A waste of breath the years behind / In balance with this life, this death."

With Helena moving down the hallway, Barbara Gordon pulled the balcony doors shut behind her and turned to follow.

She couldn't forget how close a call it had been only hours before; yet, somehow, their luck had held once again.

For now, it was -- it would have to be -- enough.

The End

Return to Birds of Prey Fiction

Return to Main Page