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 6

Jack's back.

Jack Napier, aka The Joker.

The psychopathic prankster who had tormented Gotham City for years with activities ranging from the malicious to the homicidal. The white-faced, green-haired madman who had bedeviled Batman and his proteges with a jack-booted army of clown-garbed henchmen. The gleefully cackling mastermind who had arranged for the murder of Helena's mother and -- not incidentally -- personally shot and paralyzed Barbara. The criminal who had been single-handedly captured by Barbara's mentor, Batman, over seven years ago and who had, until not too many hours before, been safely secured in the Arkham Correctional Facility for the Criminally Insane.

Like some unstoppable creature out of a Stephen King novel -- or from Barbara's own nightmares -- The Joker was somehow back on the streets of New Gotham.

The cyber-vigilante had thoroughly chewed on those thoughts during the remainder of her seventh period class and during her hurried drive home. Although she suspected that actually digesting and assimilating all of the repercussions would take a great deal longer, she was able to maintain her composure -- to ask all of the expected questions and calmly accept bureaucratic reassurances -- throughout the phone call she'd just received from the District Attorney's office.

The call had come not five minutes after Helena and Dinah, responding to her emergency page, had arrived at the clock tower and received a terse update. As the redhead patiently worked to extract every tiny detail from the anonymous mouthpiece on the other end of the line, she circumspectly observed the two younger women.

Perhaps understandably, given her youth and inexperience, her current ward's most visible reaction seemed to be uncertainty. Although Dinah was quite conversant with the history surrounding the Clown Prince of Mayhem, she had arrived in New Gotham well after the arch-criminal had been removed from the streets. A gasp of surprise... or fear... had escaped the blonde when Barbara had made her announcement a few minutes before, but now she was simply perched quietly, expectantly, on the edge of the platform, clearly awaiting elaboration or instructions or a plan.

Helena, however...

Absently jotting another note about the timeframe for the madman's escape, Barbara kept her lashes lowered, green eyes fixed on her former ward. The dark figure was gliding silently through the shadows at the back edge of the platform, her movements graceful and controlled as always, seemingly unconcerned. Still, there was no mistaking the pallor under the brunette's tan.

Although Helena had never directly encountered The Joker, she had been living in the city during the final days of his last violent rampage, and she'd certainly been intimately affected by his handiwork. When the older woman had announced The Joker's escape, every muscle in the lithe figure's body had tensed, and her stunning blue eyes had snapped to gold before changing to something which, now, seemed to be a flat steel-grey. While Helena might seem almost casual, Barbara could literally sense the energy crackling around her partner.

"Well, that confirms it."

The cyber-genius reseated the cordless in its cradle, allowing that the courtesy call from the DA had been too little, too late. Some pointed rolling from vertically slitted blue-grey eyes suggested that the sentiment was more than shared.

"How the fuck could he have been out for more than a day without us knowing about it?!"

Although she noticed that Dinah jumped minutely at the furious question, Barbara managed to turn calmly from her monitor. Inhaling slowly, she caught her partner's anguished gaze and shook her head once. The brunette dipped her head, muscles along her jaw ticking a staccato beat, and the older woman mustered a small, bitter smile.

"It seems that Arkham staff have been engaged in some damage control for the last twenty-six hours, Hel," she offered with a mildness which clearly surprised both younger women.

It certainly surprised her.

"Covering their asses, you mean," the brunette spat.

Despite her agreement with the brunette's unvarnished assessment, the older woman recognized that finger-pointing and recriminations would gain them nothing. It was time to focus on the facts.

"Be that as it may, Helena..."

Barbara deliberately clipped her words.

"...the official story is that the staff were conducting an exhaustive search of the premises before recording the escape in order to avoid unnecessary panic."

The younger woman snorted softly and averted her gaze to study the presidential plate displayed over the centrifuge. The three remained quiet for a few moments, only the pervasive humming of the Delphi and the ever-present click of clock gears parting the leaden silence. It was Dinah who finally broke through the ennui.

"So, uh, he's really been out since yesterday afternoon?"

The redhead offered a small nod, observing her newest protege as she processed the implications of the information.

"So, all of that -- or most of the crime last night was his work?"

Again, Barbara nodded.

"It would seem likely, Dinah. Perhaps... he..."

The redhead stumbled briefly, not missing the fact that none of them seemed inclined to use the madman's name.

"...was celebrating his escape or attempting to divert resources from tracking him down or -- "

She quickly shook her head, pushing aside her frustration and her desire to shout. She inhaled deeply, needing to slow the spinning cogs in her mind which insistently hammered questions about who the hell knew what that lunatic had been thinking.

"-- or any number of things, Dinah."

The redhead thought she managed to finish with relative calm. The sight of Helena quietly gliding to her side and the sensation of a strong hand coming to rest gently on her shoulder suggested that her facade might not have been entirely convincing. Finding the contact more reassuring than she could have imagined, Barbara lightly brushed slender fingers with her own.

"So," the brunette's voice was gravel rough, "I guess our crazy astronomer did more damage than anybody thought, huh?"

Relieved to have something concrete to focus on, the cyber-vigilante turned a few degrees and tapped a half dozen keys with her left hand. Peripherally, she noticed Dinah climbing onto the platform to look over her other shoulder as she brought up schematics from the prison.

Apparently, the damage caused by the rock slide from Frank Loewen's mis-aimed laser fire of six weeks before had been greater, and more insidious, than the staff at the facility had known. While the prison staff had done their job in insuring the integrity of the Joker's cell, there had been an unnoticed weakening in another, distant, block of cells.

"It seems that there was structural compromise here -- "

The redhead highlighted a section of the diagram with her mouse, feeling both of the younger women behind her leaning forward for a clear view.

"-- and one enterprising prisoner -- a serial arsonist, I believe -- broke through to an access tunnel and, over the last few weeks, made his way to... here."

She clicked once on a cell marked with a green "J".

The information she'd hacked from the belated reports at the prison, not to mention a few tidbits she'd extracted from the DA, suggested that the sociopathic sycophant had entertained illusions of gratitude for his role in freeing The Joker. Like so many misguided second-string criminals, perhaps the enterprising tunneler had hoped for a spot at the insane clown's right hand. He had been rewarded for his efforts, so to speak, by being compressed so tightly in The Joker's own straightjacket that he'd become little more than a bloody spot cavalierly abandoned in the access tunnel.

A soft question drew the redhead from her almost hypnotic study of the green "J" which seemed to fill the monitor.

"So, uhm, what do we do now, Barbara?"

Straightening, the practical woman carefully pushed back from the workstation. Before turning, she gave herself a moment to think, raising one hand to pinch at the bridge of her nose. While the movement bought her a few seconds, unfortunately, it didn't seem to kick her brain into gear or engender any divine insights. Resultantly, when she looked up to meet frightened, pale blue eyes, she could only iterate the obvious.

"If last night is any indication, he's going to be busy."

The redhead sighed as the weight of anticipated weariness settled itself firmly on her shoulders.

"So, Dinah, for starters, we'll try to pin down what he's targeting and try to protect..."

A low growl cut her off.

"Then we'll find the bastard, and I'll rip his heart out."

Barely suppressing her own gasp, Barbara registered Dinah's shocked "Oh". She whipped her gaze up and to the side.


Green eyes caught dark blue, attempting to impart how utterly serious she was.

"You don't know... him. It's not going to be that si--"

The younger woman knelt beside her, silencing the redhead's protest. She allowed her partner to capture both of her hands, attempting to decipher the complex mix of emotions washing expressive caramel features.

Barbara could clearly identify anguish... and fury... and resolve. Yet, there was something else which she couldn't quite pin down in the maelstrom of her partner's feelings.

"Maybe it could be, Barbara."

The older woman held her breath, knowing that the brunette had more to say. Slender shoulders straightened and gamine features hardened before her eyes.

"Maybe it *should* be."

The softly husked words touched something deep within the older woman, and, with a quick tremor, she suddenly identified the other emotion in Helena's eyes: a fierce, overwhelming protectiveness.

The power of the brunette's passion was awe-inspiring and terribly, terribly alluring, and Barbara was shocked to realize that, for once, her defiantly independent side had no protest. As the dark vigilante continued, her voice gaining strength in the sincerity of belief, Barbara felt herself almost physically wavering above an abyss.

"He doesn't know me, Barbara. He's never fought me. If Daddy-dearest could take the fucker out, there's no reason that I can't either."

The brunette visibly controlled herself, pitching her next words so softly that Barbara instinctively swayed closer.

"And, isn't it time to finish it? Take..."

A slender hand disentangled itself from hers, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the chair. When Helena lightly placed her fingers on her abdomen, Barbara winced at the delicate pressure which had come to rest over one starburst scar.

"... this fear away, once and for all?"

Like those first moments at school only a few hours before when she'd first seen the blinking light on her pager, time seemed to slow and morph into a thick, gooey amalgam. The brunette's final words echoed through the large room, an oddly sweet Siren's song. In the face of the other woman's ardent certainty, the jagged rocks of conviction and morality which Barbara had dashed against for her entire life suddenly didn't seem so insurmountable after all.

For a minute, perhaps a minute and a half, the redhead remained still, locked in place by blue eyes which begged -- and offered -- so much.

Distantly, she heard Dinah shifting nervously by her side. Absently, she registered the quiet hum of the Delphi and the whir and click of the gears of the clock surrounding them. Bitterly, she noted the pressure of her chair at her back. Awed, she took in her partner's sweet face.

Red lashes lowered as Barbara embraced, once again, all of the signs and symbols of her life -- her role -- as she'd fashioned it. Unflinchingly meeting blue eyes, she summoned a tender smile and gently cupped her partner's cheek.

"That's not who we are... or what we do, Hel."

Unsurprisingly, the younger woman didn't surrender easily. Blue eyes flashed and full lips parted in protest, but the analytical woman knew that she couldn't allow the debate.

That way lay madness.

Straightening, she reached inside herself and drew upon reserves of strength, settling her iron mantle on her shoulders.

"We. Do. Not. Kill."

Helena had never truly been able to -- or tried to -- hide her emotions. It was, therefore, not difficult to read the disappointment and anger in her eyes, but Barbara held herself steady, knowing that she couldn't show the smallest sign of weakness.

Perhaps fortuitously, the ring of the phone broke the standoff. Of the three, only Helena didn't start at the shrill interruption.

Drawing a deep breath -- when was the last time she'd remembered to breathe? -- Barbara checked the caller ID and nodded that she needed to take the call. Even as the two younger women withdrew to the kitchen and she picked up the handset to greet her father, the older woman found herself battling unease, not entirely certain what her exchange with Helena had meant -- or would mean.

Since she was admittedly unenthusiastic about the possibility of revisiting a topic which she could not allow herself consider, Barbara took her time with the conversation. Her father also, of course, had received a call from the DA, and the redhead found herself hurriedly switching gears to assume the role of suitably cautious, responsible daughter.

Barbara would not -- could not -- give in to Jim Gordon's repeated requests that she consider a body guard: There was simply no way that she could do what she needed to cosseted by some security detail. Nevertheless, recognizing the seriousness of the situation, she did promise to stay out of sight, which seemed to reassure her father.

Her reminder of her secret weapon also didn't hurt.

"You know that Helena is going to be sure that I'm safe, Dad."

The ex-police commissioner's rueful chuckle was tacit admission of his admiration for the young brunette.

"Believe me, Barbie -- "

Notwithstanding the circumstances of the call and the fact that, at that moment, police were on their way to her father's house to provide round-the-clock protection for him, the relentlessly practical woman smiled at the nickname.

"--if there is anybody in this world I trust to protect you, it's Helena."

Barbara laughed softly, then waited, hearing a hesitation over the line.

"But, as much as I know that you can take care of yourself and that Helena will watch out for you, she is only human, Barbara."

The redhead felt a fond smile crease her features but remained serious, assuring her father again that they would take all due precautions. Somehow, she managed to lead the conversation into a dissection of the escape and then a lengthy analysis of the police's options before finally winding down the call a half an hour later.

With her father's parting "I love you, Barbara" warm in her heart, the cyber-genius moved onto the balcony, pulling the doors shut behind her. Daylight had faded, the first stars of the night peeking through the pervasive cloud cover over the city, and Barbara knew there wasn't much time before another storm of crime blew through her city. She shivered, suspecting that the response had less to do with the cool spring evening than other factors, and played her father's warning through her mind again.

While Helena was human, she was far from "only" anything. By the same token, Jack Napier *was* only human, although -- in the face of the overpowering madman -- it scarcely seemed so. Still... still, perhaps, Helena hadn't been too far off the mark earlier when she'd made her claim that she could... handle The Joker.

The redhead's battle against cautious hope was interrupted by the quiet click of the balcony door. Mustering a smile, she looked back, surprised to see not Helena but Dinah edging her way onto the terrace.


The girl responded with a tentative smile, extending Barbara's favorite cup. The older woman automatically accepted the offering, bringing the steaming beverage to her face and breathing deeply of the comforting scent of Plantation Mint.

This time, her smile was more genuine.

"Thank you, Dinah. It smells wonderful."

The blonde ducked her head, hooking a thumb toward the interior of the clock tower.

"Uhm, you're welcome, but I'm just your friendly server, Dinah."

A smile skirted across her lips as Barbara watched the slender teen curtsy awkwardly.

"Helena made the tea for you."

The older woman's smile stretched a bit more when she took a sip, detecting a tiny hint of cream and sugar. The combination was one she never would have considered, however Helena had introduced the mixture years before as an experiment. Unlike a few of the younger woman's more notable mis-mixtures, this was surprisingly soothing, hinting as it did of mint cookies and milk.

After Dinah lowered herself to perch on the arm of one of the Adirondack chairs which had mysteriously appeared on the balcony several weeks before, Barbara raised one brow a few millimeters and inclined her head toward the living area.

"Uh, I think she's still in the kitchen. We, uh, had some leftovers and then Helena said she wanted to clean up."

The redhead pursed her lips, both at the wide, pale blue eyes searching her face and at the information Dinah had just shared.

Helena volunteering to clean was usually not a good sign.

She sipped again, then lowered the warm mug to rest on her lap, finally allowing, "She probably wanted to work off a little energy, Dinah."

The girl nodded, then tucked a strand of long hair behind her ear. Quite familiar with the nervous gesture, the redhead sat patiently.

"She's kind of upset about, uh..."

A pale hand fluttered toward the darkness of the cityscape.

"...all of this, isn't she?"

Since there was absolutely no point in obfuscation, Barbara spoke plainly.

"Helena has... lost quite a bit to The Joker, Dinah."

The blonde accepted the explanation with a slow nod, and the two women sat quietly for a few moments, nothing but the faint rumble of late commuter traffic carried to them on the wind. Eventually, Dinah shifted, and Barbara narrowed her eyes at the sight of her ward gnawing at her lower lip.

"Dinah? Is there something...?"

Wide, frightened eyes met hers.

"How bad is it do you think? I mean, what's going to happen, Barbara?"

Tucking her cup between her legs, the redhead crossed the small distance separating them and extended her hand in invitation. Cool fingers came to rest on Barbara's palm, and she squeezed lightly.

"I don't know, Dinah," she admitted on a soft sigh. "Judging from last night, it's going to be messy. But,"

She deliberately waited until cornflower blue eyes met hers and projected as much confidence as she could.

"...we don't know if he's even going to bother himself with... old targets. The call from the DA was just a formality, you know."

When the tense set of the young woman's shoulders eased and a tiny measure of relief flickered across pale features, the older woman thought that -- for once -- she might have said the right thing. A minute later, she was forced to reconsider when the city's emergency warning sirens screamed into the night.

Chapter 7

A muted scream captured Barbara's attention, and the cyber-genius straightened and directed her attention to the living area. Wincing at the stiffness of her shoulders and neck, she slowly removed her glasses, blinking to refocus from intense short-range scrutiny of her monitors to take in the features of the darkened room.

She could just make out a hint of grey through the transom above the doors to the balcony, suggesting that the long dark night would eventually recede. The redhead pushed aside her desire to *will* the sun to rise before its scheduled time and cautiously massaged her thumb and index finger over her eyelids, pretending not to notice the grainy scratchiness accumulated from almost two days without sleep.

Something about that thought tickled Barbara's mind, and with the barest flicker of a smile she realized that it was the accuracy of her time estimate which was in question. In all honesty, she hadn't gotten much sleep on Saturday night either -- although the reason had been much more pleasant than the last two nights of vigilance and worry -- making it almost three days on the go.

Reasonably satisfied that she had a chance of seeing something more than blurred silhouettes at this point, she again peered into the darkened living room, finally making out the images flickering across the big screen -- the source of the noise which had distracted her moments earlier. On screen, it appeared that a buxom, curly-haired brunette was being menaced by a slimy, green monster.

A split second later, green eyes blinked and a tiny smirk flickered across the redhead's face when she realized that "romanced" more accurately described the situation.

"Swamp Thing", then.

Barbara shook her head in fond exasperation, then extended the movement into a full, slow roll, squeezing her eyes shut against the tiny cracks of muscles and vertebrae unwilling to surrender their rigid watch.

While the 1982 camp classic was, undoubtedly, the epitome of mindless relaxation, the cyber-genius had never been able to share her younger partner's enthusiasm for the movie. Cryptic -- and faintly lascivious -- comments about Adrienne Barbeau's contributions to the story notwithstanding, neither the plot nor the special effects had ever seemed especially engaging, leaving the redhead mildly puzzled and bemused by Helena's apparently limitless ability to enjoy the video any time it was on.

On this early spring morning, she found herself less amused than grateful that the brunette had found an old favorite on one of their myriad channels. When the younger woman had returned to the tower a few hours earlier -- bruised, battered, and utterly soaked -- Barbara had suggested some well-earned sleep; unfortunately, it seemed that the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree in their crime-fighting household, and Helena had professed herself unwilling to turn in.

The redhead was quite aware that her young partner's actions had nothing to do with the possibility of discovering a hidden gem on a movie channel. Helena was... sitting shivah with her. As they had too many times to count over the years, she and her young partner were ticking off the hours of a long night together.

In the past, they'd done so as they'd wrestled with their respective demons, and when Barbara had nursed Helena through injuries, and as Helena had offered a shoulder for Barbara to cry on about her non-existent love life.

This night, they were waiting for the next strike of a madman.

If Sunday's haphazard cacophony of crime had been a symbolic stretching of unused criminal muscles, this last night had been a clear exhibition of strength... and a vivid, vivid announcement that Jack Napier was back. Having somehow swiftly mustered an army of willing lackeys, The Joker had announced his presence in a big way by setting off the city's emergency response alarms and sending thousands of terrified residents into the streets. Once there, many panicked citizens had been greeted by high-pressure water canons spraying water which had been tainted with indelible green paint; others had been struck with rubber bullets showering from wildly careening cars and vans.

For almost two hours, Helena had hustled from incident to incident -- diverting the shooters from neighborhoods, forcibly shutting off fire-hydrants or tying off hoses, assisting some of the injured in finding safe routes to the hospitals -- constantly on the look-out for the green-haired mastermind behind the mayhem but encountering only scores of burly underlings. All the while, Barbara had worked frantically from the Delphi, seamlessly multitasking among tracking emergency reports, directing her partner where she might do the most good, and attempting to hack into the city's civil defense system to shut down the terrifying sirens which continued to wail like harbingers of doom.

When the cyber-vigilante had finally found a back door to the city's system, she'd lost valuable time trying to navigate through a system which was damnably unresponsive. With something about the layout of the OS tickling at her brain, Barbara had finally pushed back from her monitor and called Dinah over, needing a fresh set of eyes. Wearily, she'd waved a hand toward the display, focusing on the way pale eyebrows had knit for a few seconds and then suddenly shot upward.

"It looks like Pac Man...?"

Dipping her chin and allowing her glasses to slide down her nose a few centimeters, the redhead had peered dubiously over her frames until the miasma suddenly took shape in an almost Rorschachian splendor and her infallible memory had supplied just where she'd encountered such an operating system before. Not indulging in what she believed to be entirely warranted disgust -- with herself for not seeing it, with the city for it's lack of forethought -- she'd toggled open another window and, with two dozen efficient keystrokes, unleashed a fleet of 'bots to scour the web for the documentation she needed for the system.

In surprisingly short order -- who would have imagined the materials which techno-nerds made available? -- she'd had a blurrily scanned copy of a manual in front of her and begun to slog through the haphazardly organized files on the none-too-robust Commodore 64 which the city used for civil defense matters. Eventually, she'd been entirely confounded -- although hardly shocked -- to discover that the twenty-five year old computer, undoubtedly located in a basement somewhere and plugged into the net on a whim, existed only to record maintenance and tests on the city's alarm system.

The switch for the sirens, naturally, was manual.

Gritting her teeth over the time she'd wasted, the cyber-genius had made a mental note to contact her city council representative about the sad state of affairs in the civil defense office and balefully regarded the ever-growing list of incidents plaguing the city.

While water canons and rubber bullets had still been spraying, many of The Joker's men had moved on to activities involving baseball bats and window-smashing. In the meantime, the unrelenting emergency sirens had driven many people into their cars, and accidents abounded as New Gotham's residents attempted to flee the nameless terror. Still other good citizens of Barbara's fair city had seized on the complete disarray as an excuse for wide-scale looting; with numerous shop windows helpfully broken by The Joker's crew and emergency personnel stretched thin, there had been little to stop them.

Barbara had contacted Helena, directing her to the location for the siren's switch. She'd waited for her partner to reach the building, her fatalistic sense of why nobody from the city had shut off the alarm confirmed when the brunette had arrived.

<"Building's overrun with goons in red noses.">


The older woman had immediately felt heat rush to her cheeks at the lapse, managing a quick apologetic smile toward Dinah even as Helena's cheerful response had come through the comms.

<"Well, no way through it but to do it, huh?">

The question had been accompanied by the soft sounds of twisting metal, leading the cyber-vigilante to pull up a schematic for the building.

"Air duct, Huntress?"

A soft rustle had preceded the other woman's words.

<"You betcha, although -- ">

Barbara had flinched minutely at the sound of a stifled sneeze.

<"-- looks like it hasn't been cleaned since the Cold War.">

"I'll be certain to add your dry cleaning costs to The Joker's bill, Huntress."

Stealthy as she'd been, Helena had still needed to fight her way through almost a dozen men before the siren had finally been silenced. Possibly a signal, the sudden deafening calm had seen the retreat of The Joker's men and, gradually, a cessation to the night's insanity. It had only been at that point that Barbara had called her partner back in and shooed Dinah off to bed.

When Helena had squelched in from the balcony several hours before, her fatigue had been evident, and the older woman had kept the debriefing... brief. Then she'd packed the brunette off for a hot shower and lost herself in systematic checks of all of her monitoring programs: she did not want to be taken unawares when The Joker struck again.

Thirty minutes later, Barbara had been startled by the reappearance of her partner, who was swimming in a pair of the redhead's NGPD sweats and toweling her hair vigorously. Caught up in recording the damage from the night and monitoring for the first indication that The Joker's men might be on the move again, she'd barely noticed when the younger woman had made a pass through the kitchen and then planted herself on the couch.

Truthfully, the cyber-vigilante admitted wryly, had it not been for Ms. Barbeau's powerful vocals, she probably still wouldn't have been aware of the other woman's presence across the room. The lights were out in the living room, and the volume of the television was pitched low -- a distinct advantage to having a partner with meta-human enhanced senses; Helena easily picked up dialog -- such as it was -- at a volume which didn't bother anyone else.

Given the younger woman's penchant for choosing programs based on the quantity of screaming and explosions in the plot, her willingness to keep the sound down was a blessing on many, many levels.

Barbara scrubbed her face with her palms again, dawdling a bit before she forced herself to start programming a fleet of sniffers to monitor New Gotham's internet traffic for activity related to The Joker. She glanced back to the living area, allowing her gaze to linger on the big screen for a moment as she noted that Alice Cable had lost yet another item of apparel somewhere in the swamp. Immediately annoyed with herself -- both because one of her brain cells had retained the name of the heroine and because she'd nearly succumbed to the non-aesthetic allure of the movie -- the redhead resolutely dragged her eyes from the screen.

From her elevated position on the Delphi platform, she could just make out one bare foot resting on the back of the sofa, and she smiled softly as her mind's eye instantly supplied her young partner's position: after years of finding the brunette sprawled on the couch, Barbara knew that Helena was lounging on her back, right arm pillowed behind her head, left hand possessively guarding the remote, one leg elevated onto the cushions at the back of the sofa.

Green eyes lost focus, tracking slightly to the left, as the older woman ticked through many occasions when she'd seen the other woman in the habitual position or, even, the many times she'd shared the couch with her, sometimes giggling as they'd wriggled for the most room to stretch out. For some reason, one particular instance struck her: the first time that the two had shared the sofa like that after Helena had abruptly moved out so many years ago.

When the young woman who had been her ward until not quite two years before had abruptly cleaned out her room and moved into her own apartment, Barbara had been mystified... and hurt... and terribly lonely. Until then, she'd hadn't appreciated how much energy and life the brunette had brought into the home they'd shared.

The younger woman's departure coincided with a... shutting down as well: where once she'd been hard-pressed to get the girl to stop talking, it had become almost impossible to draw two sentences in a row from the surly figure; where they'd once easily passed long nights together in movie binges or scrabble-fests, contact had become limited to nightly sweeps and twice-weekly training sessions.

As agonizing as it had been, Barbara had been unable to coax any meaningful explanation for the abrupt change from the young woman. Unable to make sense of it herself, she'd finally forced herself to chalk it up to separation-individuation needs and the urges of powerful twenty-something hormones.

With the powerful benefits of hindsight -- not to mention a great deal of recent hands-on study -- the redhead ruefully admitted that she'd only recently discovered how right she'd been.

It had taken almost a year -- forty-seven weeks of stilted conversations and patient support and cautious attempts -- before Helena, seemingly inexplicably, had breezed in from sweeps one evening, parked herself on the couch, and casually asked whether there was any microwave popcorn. So elated she'd almost floated into the kitchen, Barbara had been determined to produce the requested item -- even if she'd needed to do something frightening with canned corn and a blow dryer. Fortunately, Alfred had kept the cupboards stocked and, four and a half minutes later, she'd emerged triumphantly with a slightly scorched bag of "Gobs o' butter" and two beers.

The movie they'd watched -- something with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan -- had been insipid; however, the company had not. Somehow, that first movie had transitioned to another, then another, until the rosy glow of the rising sun had interrupted them. Despite her lack of sleep, Barbara hadn't been the slightest bit tired, buzzing through the day at school fueled by more energy than she could have gotten from eight hours sleep and a triple espresso.

It had only been years later -- not too many weeks before, actually -- that Barbara had finally mustered the wherewithal, and courage, to try to discover what had been behind Helena's decision to... rejoin their lives after that year of chill and distance. Lying on the couch together, clothes in complete disarray, Helena had been lackadaisically flipping through channels and had stumbled across another Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie, sparking a memory for the older woman.

Hesitant to reopen old wounds, the redhead had nevertheless tendered a cautious question, smiling fondly at the puzzlement in her lover's face as the younger woman had worked through the circumspect inquiry. When Helena had finally answered, she had been sweetly puzzled... and factual, as if there could be no other reason.

"Even if there wasn't going to be any chance for... us, I needed to be with you."

Smiling at the memory, the redhead fought a yawn and debated the wisdom of taking a break to fire up the espresso machine in the kitchen. Ultimately, she decided against it, suspecting that the tepid coffee in her mug was a safer alternative.

The last time she'd attempted to use the elegant machine, two rolls of paper towels and a mop had been required for cleanup.

Sternly reprimanding herself for her wool-gathering, she reseated her glasses and turned back to the keyboard just as a dark head popped up from behind the sofa back.

"It's not too loud is it? I heard you not typing and, well..."

A tiny shifting movement accompanied the somewhat awkward observation -- a small shrug, Barbara surmised -- and the redhead smiled tenderly.

"Not at all, Hel. I was just regrouping for a moment."

A winning smile greeted the admission, and the younger woman gracefully flowed over the tall back of the couch and leapt onto the Delphi platform. In the time it took for Barbara to make sense of the movement, her partner was behind her, slender hands coming to her shoulders and working gently at the accumulated tension.

"Why don't you... regroup over there for a little bit with me? Alice is just about to make kissy-face with Swampy."


The response she'd managed was, the older woman decided, something between a snort at the playful invitation and a moan of delight as tight muscles grudgingly succumbed to the expert ministrations of strong fingers. The woman behind her, apparently, took it as an invitation to extend her invitation.

"C'mon, Red, you need a break. Can't you let it go for just a little while and be w..."

The purring words stumbled, and Barbara inhaled slowly as the younger woman completed her plea.

"...be kind to yourself for a few minutes? We did okay tonight, you know, holding our own against his goons."

The redhead felt her stomach clench convulsively against the realization that holding their own would not be enough. Still, almost desperately wishing that it were a night -- a situation -- when that sort of easy relaxation would be possible, Barbara shook her head slowly.

Registering her partner's disappointment, she spoke honestly.

"I wish I could, Sweetheart, but I really need to stay focused."

The brunette didn't push, simply nodding as she descended the ramp and disappeared behind the back of the sofa again, and the cyber-vigilante resolutely re-attacked her list of tasks.

On this night, it wasn't about relaxation and happy memories. It was about preparing herself for whatever might come.

Chapter 8

<"Score one for the good guys!">

Even with the wet, explosive roar still echoing through the comms, the exultation in the words was impossible to miss. Since victories had been in short supply of late, Barbara didn't hesitate to indulge herself, licking her index finger and painting a big "1" in the air.

"You were... awesome, Huntress."

From her position atop the oversized plasma display, Princess Fiona nodded her agreement with the effusive assessment.


The young crime-fighter's tone was distinctly pleased.

<"That was pretty frikkin' amazing, wasn't it?">

One crimson brow crawled upward at the complete lack of modesty in the younger woman's question, however Barbara couldn't manufacture any genuine annoyance.

It had been, well, amazing: That Helena had happened to note, during a brief lull in activities this morning, suspicious traffic near the Sports Arena; that Barbara had caught a split-second blip on a security camera; that Helena had located a bag full of C-4, removed it from the building, and had gotten it into the none-too-pristine waters of the harbor seconds before it had exploded. Not only had the daring move saved the city's architectural eyesore, but Helena had saved the lives of several hundred junior high students present for an intramural soccer match.

"Yes, you were," the cyber-vigilante deliberately emphasized the pronoun.

Heaven knew, a bit of adrenaline wouldn't be a bad thing for either of them at this point. Both women were exhausted and sleep deprived from almost non-stop work to protect the city and its residents for the last two days.

Having apparently satisfied himself with a relatively low-key coming out event on Monday night, The Joker had stepped into high gear and taken his activities into daylight. Tuesday had seen the beginning of increasingly daring robberies -- the motivation, cash flow, obvious. There had also been two dozen drive-by shootings with high-powered paint guns doctored with radioactive isotopes. Tuesday night, fires had popped up all over the city, followed by a rash of break-ins.

Throughout, Helena had been on the move almost constantly, directed by Barbara who had maintained her vigil at the Delphi. They two had focused on the victims of the mad attacks although, recognizing her partner's need to blow off steam and some opportunities to thin the criminal forces, Barbara had steered the younger woman to some of the break-ins, allowing the brunette to engage in some good old fashioned ass-kicking and, simultaneously, to apprehend fourteen of The Joker's lackeys.

Pumped with her success, the brunette had crashed for a few hours in the early morning before a renewed onslaught of alarms had drawn her forth again. The attack on the Sports Arena had been a frightening reminder of the vigilance required in what felt like an epic battle.

<"Uh, well,">

The brunette's words were soft, almost hesitant.

<"...no 'I' in team, right, Oracle?">

A fond smile creased the older woman's face as she automatically checked the scanners and monitors. There were reports of continued drive-by attacks and some store robberies, however, in comparison with the night before, the city appeared almost peaceful.

<"So, what's next? Any chance I can grab a bite to eat before saving New Gotham again?">

Laughing, Barbara relayed the happy news to her partner and returned to coding a complex program to calculate incident types, locations, and frequency. She honestly had no idea if it would help in predicting other events or, ideally, pinning down a central base of operations for The Joker, but she couldn't not try any possibility.

Half-listening as her partner in the field ordered a sandwich from a street vendor, the redhead felt herself wince as she registered the array of ingredients Helena was adding to her cheese steak: cooked *and* raw onions? mustard? Simultaneously, she registered a rumbling from her lower abdomen and absently wondered when she'd last eaten.

The opportunity to consider the question -- much less do anything about it -- disappeared when an alarm beeped from one of her monitoring programs. Since the cyber-genius had coded the programs for silent notification except in certain specific instances, she immediately realized that Helena was not going to be able to enjoy her lunch.

"Huntress? Do you copy?"

The redhead distantly noted how calm the question had sounded.

<"Yo. I copy, Oracle. What'sup?">

The words were a bit muffled, presumably by a mouthful of stomach-bomb.

"There's an alarm from City Hall. The Joker has been spotted."

There was a moment of absolute silence after the announcement, and Barbara felt the blood pounding through her veins. Throughout the wild attacks of the last few days, sightings of the green-haired Maestro of Madness had been infrequent, and Helena had yet to encounter the man.

<"I'm on my way.">

The rush of air signaling rapid movement accompanied the words, and as the older woman prepared to provided a more specific location, she felt the hair on the back of her neck rise in response to the dark vigilante's anticipatory growl.

<"It's finally time to kick some ass.">

Several hours later, the words whispering over the transceiver were a great deal less charged.

<"No use.">

The statement was utterly flat, its very lack of affect revealing more than any impassioned oratory.

"You did what you could, Huntress. Come back in now. Please."

Receiving a quiet acknowledgement, Barbara sighed softly, knowing that she didn't have much time before her partner arrived. Stiffening her spine, she automatically toggled the Delphi to its highest level of monitoring, removed her glasses and placed them neatly into their pocket on the right side of her chair, and carefully pulled a printout -- one with thirty-four names, four of them in red -- from the laser printer and tucked it out of sight. Only then was the cyber-crime fighter ready to leave her post.

Out of long force of habit, she lowered her arms to check the brake on her chair; however, instead of unlocking the wheels and pushing away from the desk, she slowly placed both palms on the edge of the table. Very deliberately, she locked her elbows and began to strain against the sharp edge of the desk. With her not-inconsiderable upper body strength, she easily -- too damned easily -- forced herself back from the workstation.

Exhaling softly again, she shut her eyes, massaging firmly at her temples, before straightening. With a rough motion, she pushed her hair back, steadying herself for what might come. Even as distracted as she was, Barbara didn't miss a soft thump from the balcony. Coinciding as it did with an almost electric frisson of awareness, she realized that her partner had arrived.

In the instant before the balcony doors swung open, the redhead scrubbed the heels of her hands against her eyes -- ignoring the dampness she felt -- and then efficiently unlocked the chair and moved cautiously down the ramp. A heartbeat later, when she observed the blood covering her partner's hands and arms and took in the dark figure's stricken expression, she wished that she'd not taken the time to indulge in her own emotional flagellation. She gave the wheels of her chair a push which was a bit more forceful than was strictly necessary and belatedly met the lithe figure in the living area.

"Are you injured, Helena?"

The younger woman hadn't reported any injuries on her trip back to the clock tower, however she had been --

The redhead brusquely corrected herself. Helena *was* obviously upset and might have... forgotten to mention something.

The quick shake of a dark head reassured the older woman, and she lightly rested one hand on her partner's elbow, heedless of the congealing blood covering the sleeves of Helena's duster. Blue eyes, filled with more emotion than Barbara knew how to identify, met green.

Blinking against the deluge, the redhead thought she saw her partner rock towards her, briefly anticipated the younger woman's knees bending, and caught her breath. But, the small figure did not falter under her soft touch, and when Barbara looked up again, she detected what could have been the completion of Helena's eyes morphing from gold to blue.

She dismissed the idea, focusing on the necessary and practical.

"Let's get you washed up, out of your coat."

Still silent, the brunette turned to the training room, years of habit leading her to drop her coat in the Bio-Haz bin and to use the medical sink to wash the blood from her hands. The older woman fetched clean towels then sat through her partner's lengthy washing, a quiet valet-in-waiting.

Finally, Helena shut off the water but still didn't turn from the sink. Instead, Barbara watched the corded muscles in the younger woman's forearms tense as she braced herself against the edge of the sink, leaning in, seeming to follow the swirling pink water in its course down the drain. Since she had, from her own bitter experiences, a fairly good idea of what her partner was seeing, the cyber-crime fighter didn't press, choosing to wait until Helena was ready.

"Well, that was a fuckin' fiasco."

The utterance was made without real heat as the brunette turned and accepted a towel with a quirked smile of thanks. Pursing her lips, Barbara inclined her head in invitation and followed the younger woman to the kitchen.

Once there, she fetched a two sparkling waters from the refrigerator, suspecting that anything else wouldn't sit well. Only after the two had arranged themselves at the table, with Helena -- seemingly unconscious of her actions -- opening both waters, did the redhead speak.

"You did everything you could, Helena."

Truth be told, the young vigilante had done more than anyone could -- or should -- expect over the last two days. Her actions of the afternoon alone had undoubtedly saved untold lives.

As soon as Barbara contacted her, Helena had abandoned her cheese steak, making it to City Hall in record time. Once there, she'd worked her way stealthily through the HVAC system until she could monitor the situation from behind a vent in the wall. The sub vocal reports which she'd provided had been chilling.

At high noon, The Joker had shown up at the Motor Vehicle Office, claiming that he needed to renew his license after his time away. Filled with citizens attempting to conduct routine license renewals and vehicle registrations during their lunch hours, the office had instantly become a prison, with almost three dozen responsible citizens and DMV staff becoming hostages to the maniacal clown and six jack-booted thugs welding machine guns.

Clearly reveling in the situation, the criminals had taken their time terrifying their victims with insane variations of bureaucratic regulations: threatening to blind those who failed impossible vision tests; forcing others to throw books and manuals at each other; and having many jump through literal flaming hoops. As mentally and emotionally sadistic as the activities had been, the threat had remained minor for over an hour, and Barbara had actually begun to hope that the Clown Prince of Mayhem might release his hostages unharmed after having his fun.

Shortly after 1:00pm, she'd been violently reminded of how cruel false hope could be.

"How could anybody be so goddamned..."

The brunette interrupted her low growl, clearly searching for suitable verbiage.

"...so twisted?" she finally finished, fury and anguish bleeding through the words.

Carefully, the older woman placed her hand lightly atop her partner's clenched fists, and searched for a way to make it better. Neither she nor Helena were strangers to wanton cruelty: both had seen enough violence and loss of life to last ten people a lifetime; however, The Joker's machinations simply took things to an entirely different level.

"I don't know, Sweetheart," was, ultimately, the best the older woman could come up with.

Fourteen years in the life -- give or take a few months -- and she still couldn't reconcile how one individual could be as cavalier and... gleeful... about causing pain.

After toying with his hostages for an hour, the green-haired madman had -- with great pomp and flair -- opened a trunk he'd brought in and produced... an old-fashioned camera, complete with photographer's drape and a tripod. The crimson-haired crime fighter had puzzled over her partner's quiet description of events, suspecting that some souvenir-gathering was about to occur.

With the apparatus arranged to The Joker's satisfaction, his henchmen had dragged one of the DMV staff to the driver's license photograph "toe line", menacing her with their weapons while the mastermind of the little affair had capered and threatened from under his drape. Only after the woman had been reduced to pleading and tears had the cruel clown snapped a picture, revealing that his camera had been retrofitted with a Polaroid to produce an instant record of terror.

One by one, the hostages had been positioned and threatened -- with guns and knives and fists -- with each finally photographed and, with a flourish, handed their picture: a macabre memento. As the number of unphotographed hostages had dwindled, Barbara and Helena had begun to hope that the situation might be winding down, until -- seemingly at random -- The Joker had revealed an additional retrofit to his photographic equipment: a .44 magnum secured to the camera body, which he casually triggered instead of his flashbulb when the twenty-third hostage had been positioned in front of him.

The gunshot, barely proceeding the other hostages' terrified screams and Helena's enraged cry, had signaled the end of the impasse. The young vigilante had burst from concealment, the sound of machine-gun fire and screaming leaving Barbara white-knuckled at her keyboard. In spite of the firepower present, the speed of Helena's attack had limited the casualties to relatively minor wounds for three hostages; however, The Joker had escaped in the melee.

"That fucker shot him in the neck, Barbara."

The redhead could only nod her comprehension of the additional cruelty of having the victim bleed out. The brunette's ragged whisper when she'd moved to assist the victim of madman's first bullet had spoken eloquently.

Now, sitting across from her protege, Barbara simply didn't have words. The utter absurdity of sitting at the kitchen table, in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the week, as they grappled with their reactions to a mounting storm of terror was overwhelming.

Ultimately, she could only repeat the truth.

"You -- we didn't know. You did everything you could, Hel."

With the firepower present in the small office, combined with the fact that activities had remained non-violent for so long, neither Barbara nor Helena had wanted to risk setting off a volatile situation as long as there had been no imminent threat. Hindsight, naturally, suggested that a different course of action might have been advisable.

The brief smile which the younger woman managed was, Barbara knew, strained. Nevertheless, the dark figure seemed to accept the inadequate absolution. The rigid tension in slender hands eased, and the younger woman finally exhaled slowly.


Straightening, Helena scrubbed her hands through her hair, then rose gracefully from her chair.

"He's... He's got a lot to answer for, Red."

The redhead nodded again and pushed back from the table, stretching to rest her hand on a sinewy forearm, not missing the slight tremor which traveled through her fingertips.

"Are you --"

She caught herself, aching for the inadequacy of what she could offer as she looked up into shuttered eyes.

"Will you be alright, Hel?"

The younger woman averted her face for a beat before exhaling noisily again and meeting emerald eyes.

"Yeah. I'm just..."

Helena gestured toward the master bedroom, turning as she spoke.

"...gonna get cleaned up."

A hour later, Barbara found herself in the bedroom, nervously rocking the wheels of her chair outside the door to the bathroom. The sound of the running shower was evident, but she knew that the duration of her partner's time in the bath went well past cleanliness. Even with the oversized hot water heater she'd put in in deference to the brunette's sybaritic delight in long showers, the redhead knew that the water must be cold.

Chewing at her lower lip, the analytical woman debated whether to intrude. She suspected that she understood the demons Helena was attempting to wash away: back in the day, she'd taken a few marathon showers of her own after situations gone bad. The question, therefore, was not what was occurring but how she should respond.

Until a few months ago, the brunette had dealt with these sorts of infrequent defeats in her own way -- sometimes disappearing into the night to do whatever, sometimes destroying another heavy bag in the training room, sometimes asking Barbara to join her on the couch for silent companionship. Now, however, things had changed.

With that thought, Barbara didn't give herself any further time to think or delay. She simply tapped once on the door and then entered the steam-filled room.

Blinking against the sauna-like atmosphere -- apparently that hot water heater was a great deal more efficient than she'd guessed -- the redhead slowly covered the short distance to the shower and then came to a stop. Through the frosted glass of the oversized shower stall's door, she could make out the dark silhouette of her partner sitting on the fold-down shower seat. The young woman was leaning forward, elbows resting on her knees, with the spray jetting across her head and back.

The older woman felt a muscle in her jaw tic convulsively. She exhaled slowly and retrieved the fluffy towel which Helena had left on the sink, then quietly opened the door.


The brunette didn't start -- doubtless, she'd heard Barbara's approach -- simply looking up from her intense inspection of her hands. Blinking rapidly against something in her eyes, the redhead stretched into the shower and turned off the water. For an instant, she debated trying to move into the stall before acknowledging the awkwardness of such an attempt. Instead, she rested one hand lightly on the younger woman's corded forearm and raised the towel in her other.

"Let's get you dried off, Sweetie."

Wide, liquid blue eyes met green, and the older woman silently offered a tiny smile of encouragement. She was gratified when the dark figure stood and stepped from the stall although she didn't miss what seemed to be a tiny stumble in the always-graceful woman's step. Deciding to focus on the practical, she closed the small distance, gently buffing her partner's body and legs, then wrapping the towel around her in a make-shift sarong. She turned for a second towel to cover the younger woman's hair but was distracted by the other woman's movement.

Amazed, Barbara watched the brunette slowly sink to her knees; humbled, she felt slender arms insinuating around her waist; overwhelmed, she saw expressive features crumble as Helena buried her face in her lap. Instinctively, the redhead leaned forward to embrace the smaller woman, her own chest tightening against the brunette's soft sobs.

"Here... Come up here."

Barbara straightened enough to tug gently at the dark woman's arms and, in a heartbeat, could finally wrap her arms around her partner's body, hugging her tight and pressing tender kisses to damp chestnut hair. Helena's face was pressed to her neck, and the older woman clearly felt wetness against her skin, whether tears or water she couldn't begin to guess.

"I hate him."

The words were ragged with a pain and helpless agony which Barbara understood only too well.

"I know, Hel."

For long minutes, the two remained still, Helena's restless trembling and Barbara's tender stroking the only movement. Gradually, the younger woman's quiet whimpers and tiny gasps gentled although the almost convulsive hold the brunette had around Barbara's shoulders didn't ease. Having no words to offer -- Were there words for this? -- the redhead pressed her lips to a dark brow and simply held her lover close.

At some point, she thought she detected a change... a shift. The soft breath panting against her neck changed to a different cadence, a different weight. Uncertain, Barbara focused on the sensation before realizing that she was not mistaken: Helena was no longer panting, her warm breath blowing across her in shallow bursts; rather, she was softly drawing air across the redhead's skin, her lips just making contact with her throat.

Scenting her, the older woman recognized with a rush of emotion.

For a beat, perhaps two, Barbara felt herself tense in disbelief. The trembling of powerful muscles shifting minutely under her hands was unmistakable. The slow sway of slender hips rocking in her lap was unambiguous.

How could Helena want this? Or -- green eyes squeezed shut -- how could she want it *now*?

Then, soft kisses ghosted the older woman's jaw, and a soft whimper breezed across her skin. Barbara opened her eyes when the younger woman shifted and slender fingers wound softly through her hair. Incredulous, she blinked once as soft lips ranged over her jaw and mouth to press short, desperate kisses over her skin. The dark figure's sudden, haphazard movement didn't give the redhead time to meet her lips, to respond to the gossamer touch of wet skin against her.

Struggling under an onslaught of emotion, the older woman slowly raised her hands to stroke soothingly up and down her partner's upper arms. The motion seemed to settle the agitated figure, and the kisses stopped. Barbara shivered slightly as the fine down of her lover's cheek tickled her face.

Words, so quiet they were almost lost in the last drips of the shower and the faint swirl of water disappearing through the pipes, teased the edges of the redhead's mind.

"I need..."

Feeling as if she'd been struck in the chest, Barbara tore herself away from the pleading whisper of soft lips against her. She managed to capture her partner's face between her hands, gently coaxing over-bright blue eyes up to face her.

"Sweetheart, what do you...?"

She saw, rather than heard, the words which formed on perfect cupid's bow lips.

"Touch me."

A hot ribbon of want coiled, then stretched, in the redhead's belly when Helena pulled back, coaxing her hand to her chest. The brunette push her towel aside, and Barbara swallowed convulsively as her palm was pushed hard against her lover. The heat pouring from the younger woman's skin was overwhelming, and something akin to electricity coursed from the diamond hard peak under the older woman's palm across her skin to center in her belly.

Her ragged gasp almost obliterated Helena's next urgent words.

"Fuck me."

Something hard and demanding rose in the older woman at the rough plea, and she realized that this was not want, but need. Perhaps, something they both needed.

Lowering her head to sample a droplet of water from the lush slope of her partner's breast, she almost missed the raw whisper through her hair.

"Love me."

With a sharp ache pervading her body and arms, redhead slowly looked up. She waited until feverish blue eyes sought her face before husking her own fervent words.

"I do, Helena."

Then, Barbara moved with intent.

"And I will."

Approximately an hour and a half later, redhead worked to rouse herself. Semi-reclined in the center of the big bed, lightly running her fingers through dark silk as her partner slept soundly on top of her, she was loathe to end the tranquil moment.

Yet she knew she must.

Almost ninety minutes earlier, Helena had stiffened against her and buried her face against Barbara's neck, her hoarse cry reverberating across the redhead's skin. Stunned by the force and urgency of the encounter, Barbara had only had the wits to wrap her arms around her lover as they'd both struggled for breath. Yet, even as the older woman had fought for reason, she'd felt her partner move against her -- possibly less urgent but no less clear in her intent, her need. Helena had reared back from the redhead's shoulder, and almost wildly glinting golden eyes had pinned green.


This time, Barbara had moved them into the bedroom, to the bed, to give herself a bit more mobility and space. This time, the redhead had taken more time, although not enough: her dark lover's need had still been too insistent. When the younger woman had crested a second time -- her cry sounding as much of pain and release as it did of pleasure -- Helena had collapsed over her, bonelessly wrapping herself to Barbara's side. Bright blue eyes -- so terribly open and vulnerable -- had peered through dark lashes.


The shaggy head had dipped shyly, a delicate nose brushing the older woman's chest.

"At least... a little while?"

And, she had.

For the last few precious minutes, Barbara had embraced the sanctuary and peace of their shared bed. She'd held the younger woman tightly to her, tenderly stroking her face -- the fine cartilage of her nose, the sharp angle of her jaw, the always-quirked left eyebrow -- and marveled at her partner's deep, dreamless sleep.

However, the time for rest -- the time to hide away and succor their pain -- had passed.

With a soundless sigh of resignation, the redhead cautiously disentangled herself from her lover, grateful that one of them had found a way to cope -- however fleeting it might be.

Chapter 9

The silicon chip inside her head

Gets switched to overload,

And nobody's gonna go to school today,

She's going to make them stay at home,

And daddy doesn't understand it,

He always said she was as good as gold,

And he can see no reason

Cos there are no reasons

What reason do you need to be shown

Shivering slightly at Tori Amos' raw vocals, Barbara summarily stabbed the sound system's Off button and then nearly jumped out of her seat when the action was met with an angry shout.

"What the fu--!?"

Coinciding as it had with a sudden stop to avoid a City Hall security van which had just screeched through the intersection, the older woman decided that her companion's exclamation had more to do with her opinion of the other driver than with Barbara's choice to cut short the CD. Of course, even if Helena's protest been about the music, the redhead was reasonably confident that she would have ignored it.

Given their destination, given the state of the city for the last few days, and given the call she'd received earlier in the day, that particular selection hit just a little too close to home. When she added in the fact that The Joker's escape had been announced on a Monday, "I Don't Like Mondays" became entirely too apropos, and that even took into consideration the fact that Monday had been a cake walk compared to the remainder of the week.

Since the official announcement of his escape, the arch-criminal had been on an increasingly violent rampage, exacting macabre vengeance against the city with a spate of crimes ranging from pranks and larceny to violence and murder. The city had gone into a state of siege, with police and private security firms working double and triple shifts to provide a semblance of protection.

While the schools and stores had yet to close in the face of the random violence, the local news reported an epidemic of "Clown flu", as average citizens called in sick rather than risking the dangers of the streets. Barbara herself, largely in deference to the safety of her students and coworkers, had taken time off work, not leaving the clock tower for almost three days.

While she had chafed a bit at being under self-imposed house arrest, the cyber-vigilante had hardly been bored: both she and her younger partner had been working almost non-stop in the face of the Clown Prince of Darkness' attacks. Helena had been on the streets almost continuously, rushing from incident to incident in attempts to prevent too much damage or to rescue the victims of the madman's attacks. Barbara had spent three largely sleepless days and nights monitoring police and citizen's band, directing her partner to areas where she was most needed, and figuratively banging her head against the Delphi as she struggled to plot and predict where The Joker might strike next.

The cyber-vigilante's efforts so far had resulted only in a splitting headache and a growing sense of inadequacy. Apparently, a mind as... linear as hers was at a distinct disadvantage in attempting to predict the plottings of a madman.

Of course, considering some of her recent decision-making, Barbara had begun to wonder how close she was coming to looking at the world through a decidedly skewed point of view.

Case in point: The fact that, somehow, she had permitted Dinah to join in on their triage work the night before.

Despite a great deal of well-founded resistance on her part, the two younger women had simply... double-teamed her. Helena and Dinah had approached Barbara on Wednesday evening, as Helena had prepared to hit the streets again and Barbara had continued her frantic attempts to organize the influx of emergency reports.

The younger members of their little team had correctly pointed out that -- with Bruce having disappeared after he'd captured The Joker seven years ago and with Dick tied up in the Gulf -- they couldn't reasonably count on other assistance. Helena certainly hadn't said as much -- and Dinah probably had been too wise to try -- but Barbara had clearly grasped the implication: as amazing as Helena was, the young woman couldn't do it all herself.

The three had carefully discussed what the teen could reasonably attempt on her own -- largely working to protect civilians and, more important, covering Helena's back -- and Barbara had extracted solemn vows from both young women that caution would be the watchword. While there was a certain element of relief in knowing that Dinah could, to an extent, cover Helena's back, 'uneasy' didn't begin to express the redhead's feelings when she'd bowed to reason.

Unfortunately, her concern had proven prescient.

Possibly frustrated by the interruption of his activities at the DMV, on Thursday evening, the Maestro of Mayhem and his men had been spotted at the city reservoir. By the time Helena and Dinah had arrived, the crew had managed to dump two truckloads of Mr. Bubble -- and a half-ton of acid -- into the city water supply.

As they'd promised, the two young women had utilized their skills effectively... and safely: Dinah had stayed out of sight, using her TK to divert the poisonous froth from the utility company's main intake, and Helena had -- well -- entered the fray with fists flying.

From the noises Barbara had monitored over the comms and from Dinah's somewhat fragmented and frightened descriptions, the dark vigilante had been hopelessly outnumbered, without a chance of reaching the leader of the group. Nevertheless, she'd fought ferociously, managing to take out a half dozen of the madman's henchmen as she'd worked frantically to reach The Joker himself.

It had been at that point that the homicidal clown had, again, demonstrated his utter disregard for life. Dinah's horrified scream, coinciding with a maniacal laugh which Barbara could never mistake, had been the older woman's first indication that something had gone amiss. In that split instant, the redhead had thought her heart might pound through her chest as images of horrifying scenarios had flashed through her mind.

She'd rapidly gotten herself under control, Helena's enraged shouting and Dinah's cries for the brunette to do something providing just enough evidence that neither woman had been injured. Gradually, the pieces had come together over the comms: In his desire to effect an escape, The Joker had created a distraction by pushing one of his own men into the reservoir.

The strategy had been successful, with Helena giving up her fight to attempt -- unsuccessfully -- a rescue while Dinah had struggled to continue diverting the acid-laced water from the city supply. The dying man's screams, juxtaposed with The Joker's wild laughter as he'd fled, had been horrifying enough through the distance of the transceivers.

Clearly, they'd been more than horrifying for at least one of the young women at the scene. Hearing her ward's muted whimpers, Barbara had ached to call the girl in from the scene; yet, until the utility company had arrived and by-passed the intake, Dinah had been the only force standing between the tainted water and the city.

Sighing softly, Barbara re-gathered the stack of papers she'd been shifting through just before Helena's unexpected attempt to avoid a collision with the harried security detail. She tucked them neatly into a folder as her chauffer came to a stop in the school parking lot and then swung around to activate the lift for her chair. The sight of her companion shifting to face her arrested her movements, and she readied herself to defend, yet again, her decision to make the trip.

Truthfully, the older woman knew that she could have scanned and e-mailed all of the lesson plans and semester grades which she had balanced in neatly labeled, color-coded folders in her lap. However, a call she'd received from the guidance office two hours before had provided a reasonable excuse to escape the clock tower for a short bit.

For the last three days and nights, the cyber-vigilante had affected calmness, confidence, as she'd watched first Helena, then both members of her little family, depart to face increasing violence and mayhem. The effort had stretched already frayed nerves to the breaking point.

She knew she needed a respite, and even if this errand wasn't exactly carefree, it did offer something besides familiar walls and the green and amber glow of her monitors. There was also the fact that it had been relatively quiet during the day: presumably the mass capture Helena had effected the night before had temporarily slowed some of the madman's plans; and, with school out for the day, the risk of incident seemed acceptably low.

"Yes, Helena?"

The redhead gave herself points for not snapping. In fact, she'd managed to make the question seem almost casual.

When the younger woman shifted nervously and finally spoke, she was very glad that she had controlled her temper.

"Uhm, it's just, well..."

Barbara watched silently as slender fingers raked through artfully disheveled hair. Earnest blue eyes finally captured green.

"I just don't want you blaming yourself."

Since that had been nowhere near the top of the list of things she'd been expecting, the redhead suspected that her befuddlement was obvious.

"What do you mean?"

The brunette shrugged awkwardly.

"About Dinah. About letting her go out with me and, uh, seeing him."

Even white teeth gnawed briefly at a lush lower lip.

"About seeing that."

Turning to follow the progress of Coach Fallure as he made his way across the parking lot to his mid-life Mustang, Barbara deliberately allowed her hair to fall forward, obscuring her face as she processed her partner's words.

When Jessica had called a few hours before, reporting that Dinah had been alternately tearful and snappish during several classes, it hadn't taken a mind as sharp as Barbara's to put the pieces in place. Since the faculty knew Dinah -- and because they knew some of her guardian's history with The Joker -- the teen certainly wasn't in trouble. Jessica's call had been a courtesy to alert the young woman's guardian of her distress.

The redhead suspected that she wasn't likely to learn much more in person, however, a brief face-to-face with a few of Dinah's teachers couldn't hurt. At the very least, it might give her a bit more to work with when she discussed the situation with Dinah later and tried to come up with some sort of reasonable alternative to safeguard Helena without having Dinah on the streets with her.

Obviously, the youngest member of the household wasn't quite ready for the powerful force they were facing.

Snorting soundlessly at that insight, Barbara allowed herself a moment's indecision, acknowledging the reality that none of them might be ready.

The sensation of slender fingers brushing the fall of hair back from her cheek and the sight of a dark head ducking to catch her gaze reminded the redhead that some sort of response was probably in order.

"Well, Helena, ultimately I was the one who approved having her go out on sweeps with you."

The younger woman exhaled slowly before beginning to scootch forward on the side of her seat.

"That's true, but... Godfrikkin...!"

Barbara suppressed a quick smile when the dark figure flailed irritably in the confines of her seat. Still grumbling, the brunette snapped the tilt adjustment for the steering wheel and popped the wheel out of the way, giving herself room to move around in the driver's seat. Finally settled, Helena offered a faintly abashed smile, then grew thoughtful.

"Listen, Red, I'm betting that ninety percent of the kids at school are on edge right now."

Dark brows rose, seeking confirmation, the younger woman waiting for Barbara's slow nod before continuing.

"And, even if D wasn't going out on sweeps or, hell, even without the whole telepathy thing, the Kid's gonna be picking up on a lot of, uh, tension around the tower right now."

Accurate as they were, the words did little to alleviate the older woman's concern. She felt herself stiffen and instinctively attempted to mask the reaction with a deep breath. For a few moments, she considered how she could *possibly* shield her ward from the vibes which she was obviously giving off at the terahertz level.

The older woman's self-flagellation was interrupted when Helena gracefully eased across the center console and climbed into her lap. Barbara blinked and managed a quirk of her lips as the brunette captured one of her hands, stroking the tips of her fingers tenderly across the corded tendons raised in tension across the back of her hand.

"And just cut that out, too, Barbara. It's not your fault or anything. Even if we were just three normal people in a happy, more-or-less normal, nuclear family, the kid would still be on pins and needles having that nutcase running around."

Since it would have been ridiculous to disagree with that, the cyber-genius didn't bother. Opting to focus on the practical, she knit her brows and met those stunning blue eyes which were so close to her.

"What do you think we can do for her, Hel? It's not right to have the last few weeks of her senior year... disrupted so."

Helena's response was tentative, delivered after a quick dip of a dark head which hid the young woman's eyes under thick lashes and long bangs.

"Yeah, I know. But, D's a big girl. She knows that shit happens."

The redhead smiled -- a bit tremulously, she feared -- as she was struck by a powerful wave of tenderness for the resilient young women in her life. The feeling was pushed back a bit as her analytical brain helpfully supplied all of the many events Dinah and Helena had needed to recover from.

"But, howabout letting me talk to her?"

The younger woman lightly slid from Barbara's lap, somehow managing to open the door and exit the van in the process.

"School's almost done for this week anyway, and, who knows..."

Joining the other woman on the asphalt, the redhead couldn't help but echo Helena's hopeful smile.

"...by next week, this could all be over."

The crimson-haired crime fighter nodded her enthusiastic endorsement of that sentiment as they traversed the parking lot, even as she wondered just what they could do to make it so. An exaggerated huff by her side drew her from increasingly bleak thoughts.

Glancing up, the older woman arched a brow primly.

"Yes, Sweetheart?"

Her companion's playfully petulant response momentarily vanquished her self-doubts.

"You could have at least *tried* to object when I said we weren't more-or-less normal."

The two were still laughing as they turned a corner of the main hall and came face to face with the one person -- the one non-criminal person -- Barbara really didn't want to face. Nevertheless, manners and habit kicked in, and the redhead managed a relatively cordial greeting.


The older teacher was almost visibly puffed with self-importance. Her greeting, practically a simper, raised the hairs on the back of the English teacher's neck.

"Barbara! I'm surprised to see you here."

Since the old biddy hadn't even hiked a brow above her rhinestone-encrusted frames about Helena's presence, Barbara knew that her fellow faculty member must be in possession of a tidbit of gossip so juicy that it took precedence over backbiting.

The redhead mentally rolled her eyes as she waved in the vicinity of the folders on her lap.

"We're -- "

She deliberately added the tiniest bit of emphasis to the word, smiling sweetly as the older woman pursed her lips.

"-- just dropping of some lesson plans. I'm not sure how long I'll be out, you know."

When Alethea Harkness's disapproving pucker transformed into a knowing smile, every sense in the cyber-genius' body snapped to attention.

A happy Alethea was simply not a good thing.

"Perhaps not too much longer, Barbara, if that nice DA is right."

An almost sub vocal growl from just over her shoulder alerted Barbara to the fact that her partner found the conversation as unsettling as she did.

"In fact," the white-haired woman continued, "I'm surprised that you didn't run into him yourself. He just left after trying to find you here."

Barbara worked for nonchalant interest even as she frantically attempted to rationalize why the city would send someone to the school rather than calling.

"And, did you happen to find out what he wanted here, Alethea?"

She cringed as her fellow faculty member puffed up a bit more.

"Oh, yes, we had a nice conversation. It seems that they may be close to catching that horrible Joker, and Mr. Rapien wanted to verify your whereabouts. And..."

Now the familiar unpleasant tone resurfaced as the older woman peered disapprovingly over Barbara's shoulder.

"...any family of yours."

A cold bolus of blood seemed to pound against the redhead's abdomen as her mind effortlessly supplied the definition for the name: "knave". An icy chill crept up her back as she instantly worked the anagram.

"...seemed upset when I told him you'd been out for the last few da--"

"What did he look like?"

The words ground against Barbara's throat like broken glass. If Alethea's startled blink were any indication, the interruption had sounded as harsh as it had felt.

"Er, he was very tall and rather oddly made up. I think he might have been wearing make-up or something to hide a birthm--"

As she thrust the folders into her fellow teacher's hands and performed a precise 180-degree turn, Barbara almost barked out a laugh when she witnessed concerned puzzlement flooding Alethea's rosy features.

"Did I do something wrong, Barbara? He seemed so pleasant... He was always smiling..."

Shuddering, the redhead swallowed frantically and silently returned to the van with her partner, almost oblivious when Helena started the vehicle and pulled out of the parking lot. As the CD automatically resumed, Barbara sat rigidly under the weight of knowing -- under the leaden fear -- that The Joker did, indeed, have her in his sights again.

All the playing's stopped in the playground now

She wants to play with her toys a while

And school's out early and soon we'll be learning

And the lesson today is how to die,

And then the bullhorn crackles,

And the captain crackles,

With the problems and the how's and why's

And he can see no reasons

Cos there are no reasons

What reason do you need to die

Chapter 10

With a soft sigh, Barbara reviewed the message she'd just composed, automatically checking composition and grammar before sending the e-mail. A self-depreciating smile ghosted her lips when she caught one of her habitual spelling errors -- Honestly, doubling the "L" at the end of the word for a gerund seemed logical -- and she corrected the error. Recognizing that she was as satisfied as she was likely to be with the note excusing Dinah from Friday's classes, the redhead clicked the send key and dispatched her message to the school principal.

Task completed, she slowly removed her glasses, dangling them idly from her fingers as she contemplated the sense of failure the message engendered within her. While the The Joker's visit to the school this afternoon was certainly motivation enough to keep her ward at home, it was not the threat of a madman which nibbled at her conscience... and her confidence. Rather, it was Dinah's upset from her work with Helena on sweeps the night before which continued to plague the analytical woman with self-doubt.

A soft thump from the balcony alerted her to the fact that, momentarily, she might receive a bit of positive new on that front. An hour and a half after Helena and she had returned from their outing, even as Barbara had continued to dissect the implications of the Joker's visit to the school, the redhead had heard her partner tendering a dinner invitation to the teen.

At least she'd chosen to take the rumbled words -- "Hey, Kid. Chinese. I'm buying" -- as such; and Barbara had assumed that Helena was following up on the sororal chat she'd mentioned earlier.

When the brunette entered from the balcony, bearing a container of still-steaming Sesame Chicken, she was alone. Peeling back the wilted cardboard flap of her dinner container, the older woman pointedly tamped down her curiosity and kept it brief.

"Is everything alright with Dinah?"

Helena looked up from her pre-sweeps inventory of the capacious pockets of her duster to flash a bright, supremely satisfied smile.

"Sure is. We shot the breeze. I gave her a few more grrrl pointers -- "

The playful waggle of dark brows drew a quick smile from Barbara. The younger woman's growling inflection made the redhead's palms tingle.

"-- then I sent her off to practice for the night at Gabby's."

Barbara couldn't hold back her laugh, almost choking on -- or spewing -- a mouthful of chicken in the process. Collecting herself, she took a minute sip of water and arched a brow.

"And, she was... "

Crimson brows knit as the older woman searched for suitable words. The younger woman spared her the effort.

"She understands that a break would be a good idea, Red."

The redhead raised another bite of chicken to her mouth, diverting her chopsticks at the last second when her partner's words fully registered.

"A 'break', Hel?"

She deliberately emphasized the word, not at all pleased when the brunette nodded almost absently as she fished a Stick-Up air freshener from the inside breast pocket of her coat. Opting to ignore the item in the younger woman's hand -- no doubt, there was quite a story behind it -- the redhead set her container on the desk, neatly balancing the chopsticks on top.

"I was under the impression that we were going to encourage her not to go out on sweeps altogether until this -- "

The cyber-crime fighter stumbled a bit on the words, ultimately waving a hand vaguely towards the balcony.

"-- situation is resolved."

Somehow, Barbara managed to wait patiently as the younger woman finished restocking her pockets with memory cards for the digi, Slim Jims, and gum. She didn't crack a smile when the brunette, with a seemingly unconscious shrug, tucked the Stick-Up back into a pocket. Only when she was apparently satisfied with her gear did the brunette settle her duster over a chair and join the older woman by the Delphi.

"I talked with her about it, Barbara."

Barbara blinked once as her partner settled one hip on the table and appropriated her chopsticks, digging into the cardboard container with relish.

"It's something she wants to do, and, really,"

The brunette popped a bit of chicken into her mouth and chewed slowly.

"I don't think we should stop her."

Barely noticing as she did so, the redhead reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose, fighting an incipient tension headache. The implications of her partner's words were distinctly... unsettling. While it was certainly true that she probably hadn't had a snowball's chance in Hades of keeping her first ward from embracing the life she'd chosen, Barbara had hoped that Dinah would take more time in weighing the costs and benefits of vigilante crime fighting.

The redhead honestly thought she'd tried to present a balanced viewpoint, emphasizing that there was no expectation or time limit for the decision. While Helena had, essentially, leapt before looking, the situation had been very different.

"Perhaps under norm-- other circumstances, Helena, but this isn't the same as normal sweeps."

It was only after she spoke that Barbara realized how sharp her voice had been. Accordingly, she quirked her lips apologetically, grateful for her companion's quick nod of understanding.

"I get that, Barbara."

The younger woman dropped the chopsticks into the open container and seemed to search for words.

"But, the Ki-- Dinah's not a kid. We talked about it, and she knows what we're up against. She wants to help."

Instinctively, the redhead tried to protest, only to be cut off when Helena bent down slightly to catch her eyes.

"Barbara, listen. Codename and stuff to the side, D's not some kind of song bird that you can cage away to keep safe. She's got to..."

Green eyes narrowed when the brunette interrupted herself with a quiet chuckle.

"She's *going to* learn to stretch her wings somewhere."

Impressed with the analogy in spite of herself, not to mention the fact that her relentlessly non-poetic young partner had used it, the older woman considered the words. She had to grant that her partner had a point... but only to a point.

"That's true, Hel; however, there's teaching her to fly, and then there's teaching her to fly in a den full of lions."

And tigers and bears and nasty, nasty, clowns, too, oh my.

The grin which transformed the younger woman's expressive features distracted the redhead from the nonsense addition to her words. With a sudden flash of insight, Barbara realized that she could no longer describe that particular expression as "wolfish".

Leonine, perhaps...

"Trust me, Red. After all the time I've put in with her in the training room and on sweeps, she's already done that."

Barbara managed a quick, tight smile at that and gave up on the debate for the time being. She planned to discuss the matter with her teenaged ward when Dinah returned, hopefully impressing on her that there were other ways she could help. In the meantime, judging from the latest alarm which had triggered, she needed to refocus on matters at hand.

After a relatively prank- and crime-free day in New Gotham, The Joker and his crew were reappearing as the sun sank below the horizon to spread their malicious glee throughout the city.

"Back to work, huh?"

The question was accompanied by the whoosh of a leather duster swirling dramatically through the air as Helena settled her sweeps wear on her shoulders. Barbara nodded ruefully, catching blue eyes.

"Be careful, Hel."

The quick flash of even white teeth was almost as comforting as the words which echoed through the tower after Helena's departure.

"Always, Red."

And, for over two hours, the attacks and crimes which the two had battled remained relatively normal: a shaving cream attack at the mall; numerous muggings by red-nosed perpetrators; miscellaneous robberies and arsons. Somehow, Helena was even managing to keep up with most of the violent crimes.

Frankly, the cyber-vigilante didn't know if her partner's ability to effect so many rescues had to do with the relatively slower pace of crime or the fact that she was moving more swiftly without Dinah on her heels.

Just before 11:00pm, a quiet beeping from the emergency dispatch and security monitoring routine alerted the cyber-crime fighter that the situation might be about to change.

Earlier in the day, departing NGHS in a daze, Barbara had been seized by a certainty that the situation with The Joker was about to blow up. Not quite six hours later, she found herself fearing the curse of Cassandra when she realized how oddly close to the truth her premonition had been. At the same time, the relentlessly practical woman couldn't help but wonder if her world view had skewed just a bit too much.

Or, perhaps she simply needed to re-evaluate her sense of humor.

"Huntress? Do you copy? Are you available?"

The younger woman's response was delayed for a beat, and Barbara thought she detected the sound of a size six leather boot impacting someone's anatomy. When she heard her partner's low growl -- <"Stay down, dammit"> -- she concluded that this last clown-suited mugger had been feeling a bit cocky.

<"Yeah, I copy, Oracle. What's up?">

Checking the GPS and police dispatch, the redhead determined that the police were on their way to pick up Helena's latest package.

"I've picked up an alarm from the Huffa Bubba plant. Can you take a look?"

Soft sounds of movement provided the dark vigilante's answer. A more audible snort announced the younger woman's reaction.

<"The bubble gum factory? Guess I can really tell him to blow it out his--">

"Indeed, Huntress," the redhead cut in smoothly, quite cognizant of where her partner had been going with her musing.

"But, do be careful. I've hacked into the surveillance camera, and The Joker *is* at the plant."

She pointedly didn't considered the reaction she'd experienced when she'd seen a brief flash of green hair and white skin moving past the exterior camera.

A soft, decidedly anticipatory growl was the only response, and so Barbara focused on hunting, unsuccessfully, for interior cameras at the factory until a soft soprano whispered over the comms again.

<"I'm on the roof. Skylight...">

The cyber-vigilante remained quiet, confident that her partner in the field would update her. When the younger woman spoke again, her voice was pitched so low that Barbara was forced to thumb up the volume on her headset.

<"...s here. He's got a security guard tied up.">

The redhead stiffened.

When The Joker added a civilian -- a hostage -- to a situation, it was usually not a good sign.

"Does he seem to be at risk?"

<"Not right now. Or, at least nothing more serious than a strained jaw.">

Crimson brows inched skyward.

"I'm not following you, Huntress."

As quiet as it was, the dark vigilante's reply was light.

<"Looks like they're stuffing him full of bubble gum and making him chew.">

Relaxing a tiny bit, the cyber-vigilante shook her head in amazement. The respite was short-lived.

<"Fucking hell!">

The sound of breaking glass -- the skylight, Barbara presumed -- almost obscured Helena's succinct explanation. The realization of what the sound meant, oddly, seemed to tear at something within her.

<"Gun! I'm going in.">

The redhead didn't even have time to draw a breath after her partner's announcement before a voice, terrifying in its familiarity, stole her ability to breathe. Fortunately or not, events then transpired so rapidly that she scarcely had time to miss her lack of oxygen.

<<"Well, well. What have we here?">>

<"Get that gun out of my face and maybe I'll tell you, Dough-face.">

Despite her terror, Barbara discovered that she had room for a warm burst of pride in her partner's courage. Unfortunately, she suspected, courage alone might not be enough in this situation.

<<"I recognize you. You're the pup from City Hall...">>

The crackling voice dropped a register, becoming almost oily.

<<"...and from last night.">

The redhead flinched, green eyes widening.

<"I'm nobody's puppy, Jack-O. I'm--">

The homicidal madman's familiarity finally freed the older woman from her paralysis, and she hissed an urgent warning.

"Don't answer him, Hel... Huntress! Don't give him anything."

Not wanting to distract her partner, Barbara left it at that, baffled by her own near-slip over the comms and seriously questioning her ability to direct matters. Without hesitation, she keyed an urgent dispatch to NGPD, praying that a black and white -- hell, a fleet of black and whites -- was in the area and would respond with sirens blaring.

<<"It doesn't matter. None of you young fools hold a candle to the old-do-gooders.">>

Goose flesh crawled down the listening woman's skin when she heard the sound of facetious tsk-ing. A cold finger dragged down her spine, and Barbara's right hand rose of its own volition to cover her mouth, almost unseating the slender microphone connected to her earpiece.

<<"There's just no comparison with someone like -- ">>

A cackle of laughter squealed like nails on a blackboard.

<<"-- like Batgirl, for instance. Quite the spitfire... in her day.">>

Carefully, the redhead lowered her hand to the keyboard, distractedly noting the damp beads of sweat dotting her hands and arms.

<<"Just look at that sad excuse for a costume you're wearing. No style, no panache.">>

The Joker's voice turned disdainful.

<<"I'd almost think that you didn't have any pride in your work.">>

<"Yeah, yeah,">

Helena's voice was disdainful as well... and wonderfully, reassuringly, steady.

<"I'd love to stand here chatting about fashion, but, seriously, why would I listen to someone who dresses like you? And, don't even get me started on your coif, Dude, 'cuz that's just nasty.">

An almost delighted-sounding cackle nearly covered the soft sounds of the young crime fighter's movement.

<"So, I'm just going to take this fellow and leave you to your candy--">

A wild laugh screeched through the headset, setting Barbara's teeth on edge, and she caught her lower lip with her teeth. The words which followed and the sound of some sort of gun cocking would have caused her to bite through her own lip -- had she been able to move.

<<"I think not. In fact...">>

<"What the fuck!?">

The brunette's indignant exclamation came less than a second before three nearly simultaneous -- and bone-chilling -- sounds.

The Joker's sing-song words: <<"I think I'd rather see how you handle a sticky situation!">>

The sound of a shotgun blast.

And, Helena's gasping, choking cries.

Part 11

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