Title: Feral
Author:
Pink Rabbit Productions
Archive: The Pink Rabbit Consortium (www.altfic.com)

Disclaimers: It belongs to other folks, and women are having sex ... with each other. Work it out for yourself.
Pairing: Barbara/Helena
Author's Notes: Okay, so I started this either before we learned that Selina gave up being Catwoman when Helena was born, or at least before I noticed that Selina gave up being Catwoman before Helena was born, so I guess it's officially an alternate universe piece. Ummm, past that, I dunno. Hopefully it doesn't suck too badly, though at some level, I'm tempted to make it two stories, since I actually wrote Act I after Act II (there was originally a completely different prologue---which didn't work at all), and the it sorta grew like Topsy (it was really only supposed to be a few pages). And I'm not sure how well the two go together. Ah well, just playing with someone else's characters to give my brain a break and a workout at the same time.

Feral
By Pink Rabbit Productions

Act IV

 

One week later

Barbara leaned back in her chair, staring at the readout on the computer screen with a triumphant smile. It had taken her a little while to conquer the worst of the learning curve on the Delphi. It was such a change in thought that it took some serious concentration, but she was getting a handle on it, and even starting to customize the code a bit to speed things up and make it do exactly what she wanted. She was also starting to figure out the ins and outs of using it to hack her way through the universe. There were enough emulators to let her run anything she wanted, and conversion codes to let them run as native programs as well. In short, she was a happy camper.

And now, she was looking at the full schematics to Guy Falcone's newest nasty little business, running and cooking drugs. She'd hacked her way in with a combination of luck, muscle, and sheer sneakiness that she was mildly amazed to have pulled off, then promptly tinkered a bit and installed a back door she could use any time she wanted. She owned his system now, and he didn't have a clue. Of course, it was pretty obvious that he didn't know that whoever had set up the system had put in the back door that let her get in in the first place. Sneaky bastard had made her job a whole lot easier. She wondered if it was a cop somewhere gathering evidence, a flunky covering his backside, or someone planning on muscling in on the would-be kingpin. In any event, she owed them a debt of gratitude.

"Well?" Dick asked from the couch, his posture deceptively lazy. She glanced at him, noting the computer manual resting open on his chest and the fact that he appeared to be in exactly the same place he'd been in the last time she looked. Okay, maybe not so much deceptively lazy as actually lazy. Fine by her. She was none too eager to let him touch her baby anyway. She knew what Dick could do to a car or a motorcycle. It didn't instill much confidence when it came to the idea of letting him touch a multi-million dollar piece of equipment.

"Got it." She turned the grin his way. "And a whole lot more than you even asked for."

He bounded off the couch, frowning as he joined her and peered past her shoulder.

"I've got their entire filing system ... plus the info on every nasty little corner of their operation. Incoming shipments, various labs ... all of it."

Dick watched as she shuffled through various bits of data, his grin broadening with every addition piece of information she showed him. "Remind me never to get on your bad side." From what he could see she had everything on the guy probably going back to his grade school truancy reports.

She shrugged, but she was grinning, enjoying the hunt even if she couldn't get out and do it personally any more. "I have my moments," she allowed demurely. "I'll just package this up and make sure it gets leaked to the right sources. With this much data, the feds and local cops ... probably even several foreign nations can get a chunk out of him. It'll be like shark feeding time down at the aquarium."

Dick nodded, eyes narrowing, mouth pursing. He hadn't gone to this much effort to just hand Falcone over to law enforcement. Not before he had a little fun with him first. "Where's the man himself?" As much information as she had, she had to know.

Barbara looked up at him over the top of her glasses. "Dick, you can't seriously be thinking of--"

"Where?" His jaw hardened, making him look more like his adopted father than she would have thought possible.

"Alone ... without backup? He's careful and he's always got bodyguards. It's too dangerous to try and go after him alone." She'd gotten the information to turn it over to the proper authorities, not help him get himself killed.

He looked at her, expression far more serious than usual. "I'm going. You can either help me or stay out of the way ... but he's mine."

Barbara sighed very softly, annoyed that he'd choose this time to get stubborn. It didn't happen often, but on the rare occasion he got that look it was useless to try and talk him into or out of anything. He'd already made up his mind and if she didn't work with him, he'd still do it and probably get himself killed. "According to what I found, he's scheduled to check out the lab and warehouse here in town tomorrow night ... but it's heavily guarded ... armed guards, cameras, sensors ... the whole enchilada."

"And you can get me in," he said confidently. "Then out again."

"I'm nowhere near that competent on this system yet," she disagreed, but he only grinned at her. "And there isn't a damn thing I can do about men with guns," she added pertly. There were limits---quite serious ones---to how much good she could do hacking.

"You can do it ... and I can handle the men with guns ... plus since you've improved the old comm-system, we can whispered sweet nothings in each other's ears while I kick his ass."

His rakish grin was meant to be seductive, but it scared the hell out of her. He was taking this way too lightly. Falcone wasn't a two bit operator any more, and the more she looked at his records, the more she thought he'd gotten in with someone a lot bigger time than he was. Falcone had never been what one would call clever or creative, but much of what she was looking at was very clever indeed. Twisted and sick, but clever. Truth be told, she still had her doubts that he'd been the one wanting the Eye of Ra. That seemed more like a front for someone else, though she hadn't the faintest idea who. It didn't seem like the Joker's style, certainly not Hawke's, and she couldn't think of anyone else that Falcone likely had ties to, at least no one major. "Dick--" she tried again, but his eyes remained flinty.

"I'm going in."

"Fine," she exhaled after a long moment, accepting that he wouldn't be dissuaded this time. "I'll help you, but I don't want Helena to know about this." Things had been relatively quiet, a minor miracle given the amount of time Dick was spending in the loft. The last thing she wanted was to have the girl find out and go off half-cocked on some mission of revenge.

"Don't worry," Dick said softly, barely resisting the urge to roll his eyes. Despite Barbara's apparent belief that the sun rose and set on the kid, he was more than happy to cut her out of any loops available, and he certainly didn't want any wet behind the ears teenager trailing after him on a mission, no matter how talented Barbara might consider her to be. "When tomorrow?"

"He's coming in on a charter ... should be at the plant by seven tomorrow night." She glanced at her watch, noted the time. She punched up the plans, refusing to betray any shakiness as she trailed a finger along green lined city plans. "It looks like the best way in is over the wall. Time it right, and you shouldn't have to face the patrols that check the wall. I can shut down the cameras and motion sensors, but you'll have to deal with the guards on the roof. Once you're in...."

He leaned forward, arms wrapped around the chair, hands gripping the armrests, cheek just touching her hair, chin only an inch or two above the line of her shoulder as he listened to her plan. In truth, he'd have preferred to just go in and rely on his wits to save the day, but she was like Bruce, carefully laying everything out in advance, even though nothing ever went according to plan, and they always wound up making it up as they went along. Seemed to him all the planning was mostly a waste of time, but they both seemed to enjoy it, so he was willing to go along. Turning his head, he entertained himself by watching the steady throbbing pulse in her neck, quite fascinated by the tiny, ticking beat. One hand gravitated naturally off the arm of the chair, fingers spreading over the flat plain of her stomach, while he suddenly couldn't resist the urge to taste that throbbing pulse any longer.

"Dick," she murmured, sounding faintly annoyed, "the plan."

"Mmmm, plan: I go over the wall and beat people up ... you do everything else." She turned her head until they made eye contact, her look decidedly disapproving. He only grinned, which drew a long suffering sigh.

"Y'know, the other night when I was asking why Bruce should have trusted me, I think the better question is why did he ever decide to trust you."

Dick's grin broadened. "I'm so damn cute," he offered, hoping to charm her. It occurred to him just how that sounded a millisecond later as her brows shot up and she turned on her, 'is there anything you'd like to tell me?' look. "That didn't come out quite right," he admitted.

"That's a relief," she muttered, returning her attention to the screen and ignoring the way he brushed her hair aside in the interests of exploring her neck more intimately.

"Though," Dick mused between kisses, "I am that damn cute." He laughed softly at her annoyed snort, then complained good-naturedly when she didn't respond, "You work too hard."

"Pardon me for trying to keep you from getting yourself killed," she responded, her tone arch.

"You worry too much." He continued the nibbling and light stroking. "My head's hard and I bounce remarkably well."

A faint smile twisted her lips, but she didn't rise to the bait, simply murmured, "It's not a joke."

He opened his mouth to pop off a fresh one liner, only to have the words dry up as it occurred to him that she had more than a little reason for her seriousness. "Are you okay with this? Being a part of it, I mean?" he asked at last, worried that maybe it was too intense after what she'd already been through.

She glanced over. "Not even remotely comfortable with the idea of you going in alone ... and I'm really not sure I'm ready to go live with the hacking on a new system with someone in a dangerous situation."

He kissed her temple lightly and offered a confident grin. "We'll both be okay."

Entering on that moment, Helena barely resisted the urge to make gagging sounds, proclaim herself blind, and ask that they keep it inside the bedroom. Which, all things considered, she felt was a comparatively mature response given what she really, really wanted to do---which involved tearing the Boy Blunder limb from limb. She was actually rather proud that she managed to mutter, "I'm home," plaster a fake smile on her face, and storm up to her bedroom, the door slam that followed only hard enough to rattle the light fixtures for several yards around instead of everything in the entire apartment the way it had only a couple of days before.

Dick stared at the door, wondering distantly how much more punishment it could take before it just shattered into kindling. "I think she's warming up to me," he deadpanned.

Barbara glanced up, raised an eyebrow, then went back to the computer without further comment. Anything short of armed combat was a gainer as far as she was concerned.

"In a drop dead sort of way," he added wryly.

She didn't respond to that either. She was getting through by firmly refusing to be baited by either of them. She'd made her position clear to all involved. The ball was now in their courts. As long as the combat remained at the relatively low level of sniping and door slamming she wasn't getting involved.

He waited a long moment until he was absolutely certain she wasn't going to comment, then asked more seriously, "So, what's the plan?"

 

Barbara glanced up just as Helena's stereo went off with the force of a small nuclear blast---a rhythmic nuclear blast with a caterwauling guitar in the background. "She'll be out studying for finals tomorrow night ... so we'll have the place to ourselves." She ignored Dick's doubtfully raised eyebrow, focusing instead on the computer screen. She didn't want Helena anywhere near when they did this, terrified she'd do something stupid, like insist on being involved and get herself killed. When she realized he was staring at her, she sighed softly. "She knows better than to lie to me again."

He rolled his eyes, but didn't challenge the assertion.

Ignoring his obvious doubt, she brought up a three-dimensional plan of the area and indicated a building across from the aging industrial park that hid the drug lab and warehouse. "You can see everything that goes in and out from here. I'll track the incoming flights ... let you know when he's touched down ... then you let me know when he gets there. Once he's inside, I'll take control of their security system ... and we'll go from there...."

He nodded, listening carefully to the details and committing them to memory even though he was comfortably certain it wouldn't happen that way. He'd worked with Bruce Wayne long enough to know that nothing ever worked the way it was supposed to.

Up in her room, Helena just turned the music up a little louder an hour or so later when she still managed to hear the soft sounds of the lift even over the screaming guitar riffs of Midnight Scream. Not her favorite band, despite the apropos title, but they were definitely the loudest and loud was good. Loud battered her eardrums and made it almost impossible to think. It also had the appealing side effect of annoying the hell out of superhero studboy, even if it was some of the worst music on the face of the earth. Maybe if he was sufficiently annoyed he'd actually go home for once. Not that she could blame him for doing his damnedest to spend every last bit of time possible in Barbara's company. In his shoes, she'd have done the same thing. Hell, she did do the same thing every time they had a therapy session and she dragged it out as long as possible, enjoying the company, the trust, the physical contact---even if she was scum for that last one.

Flopping down on the bed, she buried her face in one pillow and yanked the other one over the head to escape the assault of bad music. Unfortunately, escaping the music meant letting her brain function. Not a good thing because then she started imagining what was going on in the nearby bedroom. Unfortunately, she'd always had a very good imagination.

Just remember

, she reminded herself when her imagination got too vivid, when he asked if it was going to last, she said no. You can deal with it as long as you have to. You're the one she called family and he's the one she said would lose if she had to choose.

Finally, the CD clicked off, leaving silence in its place, and she didn't bother to put in a new one, just rolled over and fell into an uneasy sleep.

* * * * * *

With different information showing on each of four monitors---one of Barbara's tweaks allowed the Delphi to run like a small network with each monitor showing a separate program---the redhead adjusted the microphone tucked in one ear. "Nightwing ... sound check time," she said into the microphone hanging in front of her mouth, then allowed herself a small smile as Dick's voice came back almost immediately. Looked like her improvements were working.

"You're coming in loud and clear,"

he started to use her name, cut himself short, then asked, "What should I call you?" Somehow, in all the insanity, they'd forgotten to agree to some kind of code name, and it wasn't wise to go using real names over any kind of open signal, no matter how scrambled she'd been able to make it.

Barbara hadn't really considered the question, started to give the obvious answer---Batgirl---only to change her mind. She noted the logo on the computer and smiled. "Oracle," she said softly, thinking it was all too apropos.

Dick chuckled softly, clearly getting the joke. "Got it ... Oracle." She heard the faint rustle of boots on cheap tin roofing. "I can see the guards on the roof. They aren't wearing night vision gear, so it should be easy enough to get past them if you can shut down the electronic surveillance and motion sensors. Just let me know when it's time to move."

She pulled up the tracking information from the tower at the airport. "I've got his transponder signal. Looks like he's about fifteen minutes out. It'll take at least twenty minutes for him to get there after he's touched down, so you might as well get comfortable."

"I always hate this part,"

he muttered, "hurry up and wait ... hurry up and wait."

"Don't we all?" she murmured sympathetically, smiling ever so slightly as she remembered all the ways she'd entertained herself over the years while perched in some uncomfortable spot, usually in some uncomfortable position, waiting for something to happen. Now, there was no waiting. She was doing a dozen things at once, bouncing between programs, tracking everything she could think of to make absolutely certain that nothing went wrong from her end.

* * * * * *

Poised on a rooftop across the way from the innocent looking, walled-in industrial park that hid the drug lab, Dick Grayson settled in for the wait, taking on the semi-relaxed, semi-tense position he was so accustomed to, ready to react if the unexpected happened, but not too stressed so as not to go into a fight already exhausted from just sitting around. Several minutes passed while he watched the silent buildings across the way and listened to the soft background noise of typing in his ear. "Do you miss it?" he asked at last. She could be hard to read, and he couldn't help but wonder if the injuries she'd suffered had scared her away from the insanity of their old hobby, or was she sitting around, longing for that old freedom and madness.

Silence followed the hesitant question, even the typing no longer in evidence. "Of course I do," she admitted after a long moment, though the answer was cooler than he expected as though she was containing any emotion behind a very high wall.

"I'm glad," he admitted, "because I miss you." Not the staid, stable Barbara Gordon, but the black garbed friend who'd leapt from building to building with him. "I mean ... y'know ... the time we used to spend together," he said, then felt the need to say more when he realized his answer could be misread---particularly in light of their current relationship. "I mean ... not being alone at times like this."

There was a quiet note of understanding in her voice as she assured him, "I know what you mean."

"Nothing's the same anymore," he sighed sadly, missing the days when they would have been someplace like this together, often using hand signals to communicate, so attuned to one another that they even had silent jokes that would bring knowing grins. He felt like he didn't know her anymore and it scared him. Or maybe he'd never really known her, just the side she chose to let him see, he mused, which, in some ways, scared him even more.

"No, it's not

," she sighed, and the sounds of typing returned along with the occasional squeak of a wheel.

"Do you ever get mad at him?" he asked, feeling more lonely as he waited on that rooftop than he could remember feeling since he was a boy and had just lost his parents. Even though Bruce and Barbara were still alive, one had left without telling anyone where he was going and the other seemed so different than he remembered that she wasn't quite the same person most of the time. And now he was out there alone, and it wasn't nearly as much fun as the old games.

No need to ask who he was. "Sometimes I think I'm angrier at him than ... than any of us," she admitted, her voice soft and a little bitter as she added, "The last time I saw him was when we said goodbye that night." Genuine hurt threaded through her voice, "As far as I know he didn't even come to the hospital."

Not realizing she'd thought that, Dick flinched. "You're wrong," he said softly. "He was there ... when they brought you in ... and later ... but she was there too ... and she couldn't deal ... so he stayed out of her way." He shrugged, resenting the girl again despite his best efforts. Even knowing what she'd been through, he couldn't quite forgive the impact she'd had on his life. "I guess he figured she needed to be there more than he did ... but he checked on you every night ... and I'd bet money he was still here ... somewhere ... even after we thought he'd gone." Bruce had his dark moods, but he'd never been one to leave friends in a lurch, even though it might seem that way sometimes.

"I've thought that a few times,"

Barbara mused out loud, "sometimes even thought I could feel him watching." A long pause. "Does that sound crazy?"

"No," he whispered. "I've felt it too sometimes." The problem was he never knew if he was right, or if the feeling was just a figment of his imagination; a kind of phantom sensation, like those experienced by amputees who can still feel the missing limb.

And then there was no more time for personal discussions as Barbara suddenly whispered, "Plane's landed."

* * * * * *

Barbara tapped into the airport security system, squinting to make sense of the poor quality, black and white shot of the small plane that pulled into a private gate. Tall and well dressed---New Gotham's own private Dapper Don---Falcone stepped off the plane and disappeared into a waiting sedan, several bodyguards in attendance. "He's in a dark Chrysler sedan," Barbara informed Dick. "Looks like four personal bodyguards." She shifted to another station and started working her magic, fingers moving rapidly over the keyboard. "Can't see well enough to see how well armed, but they didn't look to be carrying anything larger than a handgun. Can't tell you what might be in the car though."

"Four huh?"

Dick murmured, sounding uneasy.

Hoping that maybe he was thinking better of this plan, Barbara quickly said, "I can still get the cops ... let them clean it up." She liked that plan better anyway.

"No ... the bastard's mine."

She could just envision the determined look in his eye. Dick had a stubborn streak. It didn't show up very often, but it was there. "Remember ... no killing," she reminded him.

* * * * * *

"Right," Dick exhaled, though he was human enough to contemplate squeezing the life out of the bastard.

Minutes later, he watched the sedan pull through the gates, noting the well armed guards that abruptly appeared with a raised eyebrow. Not just any old warehouse, now was it? "He's here," he informed Barbara.

"Okay, just give me a moment,"

she instructed him. "Remember, I'll be looping the security cam footage, so they won't be able to see you, but neither will I."

"Check."

Several moment passed, and then her voice echoed in his ear. "Okay, you should be clear now."

"Check," Dick said again and turned away, hurrying back to the access ladder he'd used to reach the roof. He moved fast and soon was soon over the wall and hidden in the shadows of the warehouse. He trotted along the wall until he found a route up, then started climbing. "I'm going up," he told her, his voice nearly inaudible.

"Be careful,"

she whispered.

"Always," he assured her.

* * * * * *

Mentally tracking his position, Barbara was already hacking her way through the next layer in the security system guarding the drug lab. She pulled up a picture, smiling grimly as she tracked Falcone's progress through the complex. He was being led by a harassed looking geeky sort who kept pointing out assorted equipment and looking like . To anyone who didn't know what was going on, it might have just looked like any plant owner being shown the workings of the place. "I'm linked up with the interior cameras. He's inside." She carefully checked the other figures following the two men. "Looks like the weaponry is minimal, but judging the by jacket bulges, his bodyguards are definitely armed ... something pretty good sized ... and one on each side. Probably twin .45s or .44 mags ... I'm going to try and break them away from him and lock them out once you move, but no guarantees."

"Gas?"

he asked, his tone practical.

"That would be my choice in your shoes." It would worsen vision, but he had the gear to breathe safely and with luck, he could knock out his enemy and get away clean. And then she heard a soft grunt, followed by several soft thuds, another grunt or two, and the sound of Dick's breathing, harsh and strained. "Be okay, be okay," she mouthed without making a sound. There were four guards on the roof. Normally, the sort of thing he could handle, but it was enough that it was far from guaranteed, and Dick got cocky sometimes and wasn't as careful as he should be. "Nightwing?" she whispered when he still hadn't responded.

"I'm okay,"

he assured her after another good, solid thump. He was wheezing faintly, she noticed. "That last guy just took a little extra work."

"Dammit, don't scare me like that," she pleaded. Listening to the uneven timbre of his breathing, Barbara could feel her tension building, some part of her painfully convinced this was just a bad idea. She was new on this computer and Dick was all alone in there and there were just too many possibilities for disaster. She should have refused. Except if she had, he would have gone ahead and made the attempt anyway. A fresh command unlocked the locks on the roof access. "You should be clear to enter," she informed him, then heard him moving followed by a soft rustling sound.

"Okay, I'm inside,"

he informed her, and she exhaled a heavy sigh of relief. "It's a steep staircase ... can't see anyone moving below me." She heard the faint his as he drew a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"I've got the cams on the stairwell looped. You can go ahead. Go down two floors and then wait for my signal."

"Got it."

She was already working the next problem, namely popping the keypad on the locks that would let him into the main part of the building, and looping the footage on the next set of cameras, so he wouldn't be seen by whoever was monitoring the live feed.

"Anytime."

She rechecked everything, making sure the next little way was clear, then set the loop and popped the locks. "Okay, you can go through."

"Got it, Oracle."

The tiny dinging alarm from her laptop brought her head up almost immediately. She'd linked it into the system, using it to track the other back door in the system on the off chance the other hacker showed up. She'd also set it up so it could remain remotely linked to the Delphi via wireless modem if absolutely necessary. It wasn't as reliable as she would have liked, and she didn't expect to have to use it, but she'd been taught paranoia young and learned the lesson well. A hand swung over, typing quickly even as she saw the image loops she'd installed start to come down, the real live time images coming back online one by one. "Oh shit," she exhaled. The other hacker was back and undoing everything she'd set up so carefully. Not good, not good at all. They hadn't shown up during any of her previous forays, which meant either they were very lucky, or she'd missed some kind of watchdog in the system. Either way, the mission had to be scrubbed.

"Oracle?"

"Nightwing, get out of there ... now."

"But--"

"I said, move it," she said without pausing, her fingers already dancing over the keyboard in a digital wrestling match. She heard him hit something solid and metallic.

"Only one problem. The door locked behind me."

She turned her attention back to the system, trying to unstick it, but whoever was on the other end had things well and truly jammed. "Okay, I want you to go forward and to your left," she told him even as his image came up on one of the camera views. "And be ready for anything. You're back on candid camera ... I've got company in the system, and they're undoing everything I've done as fast as they can."

His response was short, to the point, and quite obscene, but she could hear him running.

She'd known this was a bad idea. "Okay, there's a window in the corridor straight ahead. It's not neat, but it'll get you out of there." She punched in another set of codes and managed to knock most of the cameras down, which might keep them from finding him, but it would undoubtedly serve as a big, red warning flag to whoever was looking for him.

Then somebody started bringing them back online, but blocking her access at the same time. As she watched in horror, signals started going dark all across the board.

"Wait, I don't think anyone knows I'm here,"

he argued with her plan. "There's nobody moving ... no alarms--"

"You're on camera, Nightwing ... or at least, you were," she added uncertainly, fingers still dancing as she fought her unseen opponent, trying to find out what they knew. "So I'm sure somebody knows." She could feel her frustration rising with his refusal to just listen to her and get the hell out of there. "Just get out of there."

"There he is,"

Dick whispered suddenly, raw emotion making his voice rough.

"Where the hell are you?" she demanded. If Dick had even remotely been following her directions, he shouldn't have been anywhere near Falcone.

"Some kind of overlook above several glass enclosed cubicles that look like offices."

Barbara stared at the building plans and cursed. "You didn't do what I told you."

"Sorry, Oracle, I can't walk away when I'm this close."

 

"Dammit," she didn't get a chance to finish bitching him out as her backdoor suddenly started locking down on her, the passcodes on different services changing in front of her eyes. "Get out of there ... get out now," she barely controlled the urge to shout. "It's a goddamned trap."

"Yeah, I got that part," he exhaled, suddenly sounding faintly ill.

Suddenly the cameras came back online with a fresh angle, an overview of Dick's position. She hadn't done it, so she had no doubt it was courtesy of the other ghost in the machine ... taunting her now. As she watched, she saw men converging on him. "You've got eight men ... all sides ... but it looks like only two o'clock and four o'clock have guns."

"Got it,"

he said sharply. "That means they go down first."

She watched the figure on the screen explode into motion, moving almost inhumanly quickly, striking out, hitting, kicking, and throwing his would-be attackers about. He was fighting well, but there were more of them coming, and even Nightwing had his limits.

Unfortunately, she couldn't afford to sit still. She was too busy digging in and trying to do something to regain control of the system.

He took down four of his eight attackers in moments, clearing a pathway to his left.

"Take that corridor," she told him, fighting with the locks that would give him some breathing room.

The other ghost fought her, but this time Barbara won the battle, popping the keycode before the other hacker could change it. Dick dove through just ahead of his ever expanding batch of pursuers, and she snapped the door shut in his wake, throwing the locks, then scrambling the codes. "Keep going," she instructed him. "I'm going to try and shut off the cameras so they can't track you anymore, but if I do, you're going to have to tell me exactly where you are."

And then she yanked another keyboard over, fingers moving rapidly, forcing her way into the computer network that controlled the city utilities. If necessary, maybe she could kill the power and throw another monkey wrench into the works. Dick was used to working the dark, the guards weren't.

* * * * * *

Dick nodded, breathing hard as he kept running, ducking and dodging down corridors under her commands until she informed him the cameras were dead, and then he was telling her where he was as he dropped down another story and raced through the haphazardly arrayed cubicles and corridors, then broke into the overlook on a large storage area. "I'm on the second level, overlooking the ground floor warehouse," he told her.

"That's good,"

she panted. "There should be catwalks overhead, and a ladder access to your right. Get up there and across, and getting out should be easy." He heard more of the rapid fire typing. "I'm going to kill the power. That way they won't be able to see you."

He tipped his head up, tracking a ladder that ran up the side of one wall to a series of catwalks high overhead that could be used to access the cooling ducts and light system. They would take him right over the heads of the men looking for him and straight to a bank of high windows across the way. A way out, he realized and fought the urge to heave a sigh of relief. No use getting too excited until he was clear. "Brilliant, Oracle," he said gratefully, and started the climb up the ladder, moving fast to get clear of the area before anyone noticed him. He was halfway up when the industrial lighting died a quick death and the roof blowers circulating the air slowed to a halt.

"Power's down,"

she informed him needlessly. "I cut it through the city system, so the hacker shouldn't be a problem."

"Remind me never to get on your bad side," he murmured, moving even faster.

"Once you're out, I'll call the cops in. Let them handle it."

He hated the idea, but didn't bother to argue this time. With everything going on, it wasn't the time for personal vendettas. As he reached the top, he looked up, a smile touching his mouth as he noted that the ladder just kept going. "Wait a minute. I can get onto the roof from here ... then just go across and down.

"Nightwing, I'm not sure that's a good idea. I don't have a layout on what's up there, and they may have guards back on the roof who could see you--"

His mouth twisted in a grin. "I'd rather take my chances with them than those guys following me," he pointed out logically.

"Maybe,"

she exhaled, sounding very uncertain.

He kept climbing and pushed his way out through a trap door obviously meant to access the roof, a cool wind ruffling his hair as he made his way to some semblance of freedom. "We're gonna be okay," he panted, thinking that clearly they needed to refine their technique a little more before trying any stunts like this again. And then he was jogging across the rooftop, aiming to simply drop to the ground in back, then make a run for it.

He ran surprisingly quietly, despite the circumstances, experienced enough to know how to keep his footsteps light even when moving that quickly and kept his eyes peeled, watching for any sign that he'd been spotted.

His mistake was to forget to check the surface of the roof.

The skylight had been painted out to prevent anyone seeing in, so he didn't catch a glint of moonlight on glass until it was too late and he was aimed straight for it. Suddenly he was falling, crashing through glass, arms and legs pinwheeling helplessly. He hit something hard, the edge of a catwalk railing that knocked the wind from his lungs and sent a bolt of agony through his left arm when he tried to catch himself without success, fell again, then finally hit bottom as the world went black, his last conscious memory, the sound of Barbara's voice screaming his name in his ear.

* * * * * *

Helena's first thought as she pulled Barbara's car into her slot in the underground parking garage beneath the clocktower and realized the redhead was inside the van in the next slot, was that she was seriously busted. The stereo was rampaging and Barbara was very firm about the fact that she wasn't supposed to have it loud enough to block out normal traffic sounds. She'd even threatened to sell the car the moment Helena ignored her rules, since she couldn't use it any more. The teen slammed the volume down as fast as she could, but there was no way her guardian couldn't have noticed the ear shattering sound, and she fully expected a van window to slide down and the bellowing to start. For someone who could be so totally cool about some things, Barbara could also turn into an adult at the most annoying times.

Only it didn't. Instead, Barbara didn't even look up, her entire concentration on whatever she was doing inside the van as she settled herself, then turned to deal with something in the front passenger's seat. Helena had the strangest feeling her guardian hadn't even heard the stereo, which was impossible, given that it had been loud enough to shake loose any less than secure particles of cement from the walls of the surrounding building. Something, Helena realized in a rush, was very wrong. She piled out of the car and crossed the short distance between the two vehicles, coming up on the passenger's side and peering in through the window. Barbara's head was down, and Helena could see an open laptop on the passenger's seat....

Right next to her batons, a tazer, nunchucks, and a pair of handcuffs, as well as several other devices Helena didn't recognize, but was comfortably certain were weapons.

The girl's heart hit her throat in an instant.

Helena had keys to the van on her ring and she didn't even pause, just unlocked the passenger door and yanked it open.

Green eyes snapped up, and Helena saw a slender hand start to dart toward the batons only to come up short as Barbara realized who the intruder was. "Go to your room. I'll be home later," the redhead snapped as though she wasn't sitting in the middle of her own private armory.

"Like hell," Helena exhaled, eyes wide, mouth wanting to hang open. Something was really, seriously wrong. "What's going on?"

"Nothing you need to worry about," Barbara clipped and twisted in her seat, starting the engine. "Just something I need to deal with. Now, go."

"You've got a small arsenal in here, for god's sake," Helena said, shaking her head in disbelief. "Why?"

"It's nothing," Barbara shot back impatiently, and started the engine. "Now, I need you to--"

"Does this have something to do with Falcone?" Helena demanded, completely ignoring her guardian's orders. She couldn't help but remember what she'd overheard between Barbara and Dick. Nightwing had been hunting for the bastard. Had he found him? She got an answer of sorts when the redhead lost all color.

"Just go upstairs," Barbara bit out, but the panic in her eyes confirmed Helena's worst fears. She didn't know what had happened, but it was obvious that something had.

"Barbara, if that bastard's involved, you can't--"

"I need you to go upstairs and stay out of it ... now," the redhead cut Helena off, her voice hard, her expression grim. She wasn't negotiating this one.

Helena shook her head. "No, not until you--"

"I don't have time!" Barbara exploded, then abruptly reached across the passenger's seat and yanked the door shut, snapping the locks and throwing the car into reverse before Helena could do a thing to stop her, moving suddenly enough that the girl leapt back instinctively, though she was in no danger of being hit.

Barbara glanced back, her face momentarily reflected in the rear view mirror, pale and frightened, and then she was focused front again and gunning the engine.

Helena didn't pause to consider her response, just leapt, low and fast. Her feet hit the back bumper as preternaturally strong hands caught hold of the spare tire on the back and she ducked low to avoid being seen through the rear window. It was not exactly the ideal way to go riding through town, but something was up, and she had no intention of being left out---not if one of the people who'd contributed to her mother's death was involved, and not if Barbara was walking into some kind of danger. No way was she going up to her room like a good, little girl if either option was in play. She didn't know where the hell the Boy Blunder was, but if he wasn't going to do the right thing and make sure the woman he was involved with was safe, Helena damn well would.

Teeth gritted, she pulled herself tighter against the rear of the van, muttering every single obscenity she could think of as Barbara drove wildly through the streets of Gotham, screeching her tires on every corner, running red lights, and swerving wildly into every narrow space between cars that might gain her an extra few feet. If they both came out of this little adventure alive, it was going to be a fairly major miracle, Helena decided as she clung so tightly, she left dents in metal. The woman was desperate and scared in a way that the girl had never seen before, not even when they'd both been facing down four armed thugs. Once or twice, she thought she heard her talking---calling out really---the Boy Blunder's name appearing prominently---maybe on a cell phone or something like that. Barbara sounded as scared as she'd looked, and as scared as she was driving.

Not good. Not even a little.

And then they were pulling onto a darkened street that Helena recognized as part of the industrial district, slowing slightly, the headlights gleaming as they touched on functionally ugly buildings, most of which had seen better days. The van moved through the confusing tangle of narrow streets, and then slowed ever further, the lights going black as the van, suddenly swung into a narrow driveway. They went a short distance, then finally pulled up next to a dilapidated warehouse of some kind, dark on the inside, better than half of the high windows broken out.

The girl heaved a sigh of relief as the engine went silent, then realized that relief wasn't necessarily a very sensible emotion given Barbara's obvious fear. She was here for a reason and it wasn't likely to be a rousing game of hopscotch. She could hear Barbara moving around inside the van. Concluding the van wasn't going to suddenly pull away again, the girl dropped to the ground, moving quickly around to the passenger's side where her keys were still caught in the lock. She unlocked the door, yanked it open, and lunged across the passenger seat almost in one move, grabbing the handcuffs lying next to the gun as she dove forward. She saw Barbara's head come up, registered her look of surprise and snapped one bracelet around a narrow wrist, latching the other one to the steering wheel before the other woman could respond.

"What the hell?" the redhead ground out, eyes blazing with fury once she realized it wasn't an outside threat.

"What's going on?" Helena demanded as she pulled back out of range of Barbara's reach. "And don't give me any bullshit," she snarled, eyes gleaming as she grabbed the key off the seat and stuffed it in her pocket.

"Give me the keys," Barbara snapped and held out her hand to the limits of the handcuff.

Helena just shook her head and backed up another step, her expression somewhere between defiant and scared.

"Give me the keys and go home ... now," the redhead growled, serious and angry in a way Helena had never seen her before.

The girl shook her head, amazed at her own temerity. She wasn't letting the other woman get herself killed even if it meant Barbara wound up hating her guts. "Not until you tell me what's going on." And maybe not even then. "Is it Falcone?" she demanded again.

Barbara took a deep breath, calming the absolute fury, well aware she couldn't afford it, not when Dick's life was resting in her hands. Obviously Helena had heard something she wasn't supposed to, so lying was pointless. "The building across the way belongs to Falcone. He's there ... and Dick went in after him, with me handling the security system ... only another hacker got in ... fucked things up." She slapped her hand into the steering with, ignoring the throbbing pain it set off in her wrist. "I've got their cameras hung up, but Dick's down. I haven't heard from him in about twenty minutes. Now I need you to unlock the cuffs and go home ... because I've got to try and find a way to get him out of there." Assuming he was even still alive, something she couldn't be entirely certain of.

"How?" Helena demanded as she absorbed the speedily offered answers, her expression twisted with disbelief. "By rolling up and politely asking them to hand him over?" She shook her head, wondering if sleeping with the Boy Blunder had made the woman's brain go on the fritz.

"I'll figure something out," Barbara growled, though she didn't even have the beginnings of a plan. "Now, give me the keys."

Helena shook her head again, unwilling to let the redhead throw her life away that way, because she could see the desperate intention in green eyes. She'd do it and never even question the insanity of it. She pointed at the 2-way earphone and mic hooked to Barbara's ear. "You got another one of those?"

"Yeah, but--"

"Fine, I'll go," Helena couldn't believe she was saying it even as the words left her mouth. She was about to go in to try and save the life of a man she resented, loathed, and very nearly hated ... for her. Because if she didn't Barbara would go in there and get herself killed---because she loved him, and Helena couldn't stand the idea of the other woman losing anything else. And worst of all, she was going to do it because, love him or hate him, Dick Grayson was a decent man, and she couldn't stand on the sidelines and let him be murdered by the same people who'd killed her mother and wounded Barbara; a fact which would have disturbed her if she'd stopped to think about it. That sentiment was far too much like something her much despised father might feel for her comfort.

"I can't let you--"

"You can't stop me," Helena corrected her, her tone hard. "You can either help me, or you can stay on the sidelines." She flinched at the flash of pain the harsh reminder brought to green eyes, but none of them had time for it. "Your choice."

Barbara shook her head, yanking her wrist uselessly against the restraint of the handcuff. "Give me the damn key."

"I'm not letting you kill yourself that way," Helena said very softly, her tone a little sympathetic, but determined as she turned away and started toward the buildings where Dick had disappeared. "But if you won't help me, I'll just go ahead and--"

"Fine, I'll help you," angry and stressed the word cut through the knife, and Helena pivoted just in time to catch a small transceiver tossed her way. "Now give me the damn key." Barbara knew she could pick the lock, but that would take time she simply didn't have.

Helena tucked the unit into her ear and arranged the piece that wrapped around the ear to hold it into place, then settled the microphone. When she was done, she lobbed the key, waiting while Barbara freed herself, then dragged her laptop over and started typing.

"Okay, you should be able to hear me now,"

the redhead said so softly Helena couldn't hear her voice on the air, but she heard it over the speaker tucked in her ear. "Mic check."

Helena didn't know what to say, so she just whispered, "Testing one, two, three."

Barbara nodded, "All right ... refer to me as Oracle ... no real names over open mic. I'll call you--"

"Huntress," Helena said very softly, the derivation of her mother's old nickname for her feeling right. Not so little now, the hunter was all grown up. She drew closer again, watching the woman in the van, feeling comforted by the delicate electronic strand that now bound them together. Fear coiled tight in the pit of her stomach, but the warm voice in her ear chased it away almost instantly.

"Okay,"

Barbara agreed. "I've got the cameras and night vision down ... Dick dented the guards, but some may be regaining consciousness by now ... and you will do exactly as I tell you ... if that means I tell you to run, you run ... no argument." Her voice was deadly serious in a way Helena had never heard before. "We're in this situation because Dick wouldn't listen to me, so don't you dare--"

"I won't," Helena promised, her tone serious. "I swear. If you say run, I'll make like a bunny."

Barbara's eyes slid closed for just a second, the urge to call a halt to it all nearly overwhelming. If she could come up with anything else, she'd have been doing it. "This isn't right," she exhaled. "You're just a kid."

"I'm going in whether you help me or not," Helena reiterated, and meant it. She couldn't allow Barbara to go in when it would only get her killed, and if she called the cops, Dick was almost certain to wind up dead. She had to try. "And you were both younger than I am when you started."

She was going to hell, Barbara decided right then and there. Going to hell, and rightfully so. She had no business letting the girl go in there or exposing her to danger, and yet she could see the familiar determination in blue eyes and knew what it meant. In that moment, Helena looked eerily like the father she'd never known. "All right," she whispered. "I've killed the power, so the lights and cameras are off ... at least for the moment, but it's possible some of them may have night vision equipment, so don't assume they can't see you. You'll be going over the wall. I don't want to take you in the same way I did Nightwing---they'll be looking for that---and the last time I heard from him, he was in a different area ... in the back ... from the sound of it that area's not well guarded. With luck, he's still in the area." Then she reached into an open bag that sat on the floor on the passenger's side. "And put this on." She thrust a black domino mask at Helena.

The girl peered at the mask, then at her guardian.

"There are cameras ... if they get the power back on, they'll be live again,"

Barbara said quickly. And they'd both had their pictures in the paper the year before. If somebody got a look at Helena, they might connect the two.

Cursing softly under her breath, the girl nonetheless tugged it into place, then didn't wait for any more admonitions or half panicked commands, just turned and took off at a dogtrot.

"Don't get cocky,"

Barbara's voice rang in her ear.

A wry smile twisted full lips as it occurred to the teenager that every response she could think of was likely to get her grounded for the rest of her natural life. Her eyes glossed gold, the world shifting as inhumanly perfect night vision kicked into gear. As she crossed the street, a slender figure all in black, wholly out of place in the industrial district, she spotted two guards on the roof, but paid them little mind. She knew all sorts of ways of not being seen. Growing up as Selina's Kyle's only child had taught her that much. Her mother might not have minded most of her extra curricular activities, but that didn't mean she hadn't gotten quite good at keeping them hidden. She listened, her hearing more than good enough to be confident there was no one close to the wall, then leapt, easy dropping to the ground on the other side.

"Stay close to the wall, Huntress, and move around back."

"Got it," she murmured, her voice low as she ran, confident despite the darkness. With her powers active, she could see almost as well as she could in daylight, certainly far better than anyone who might have been hunting her. "There are two guards moving on the roof, but it doesn't look like there's anyone else on the grounds."

"Let me know when you're in back. You'll see a ground floor loading dock."

"Will do."

* * * * * *

Even though she'd killed the power, there were still some remnants of the system controlling the drug lab online. Obviously, some elements weren't at that location, and the hacker was trying any number of tricks to block Barbara out, while the redhead kept fighting with the system, trying to retake total control with the idea that if she had that, she could flip the power back on and control any threats more directly. As she worked, she kept an ear cocked to Helena's situation, tracking her movements and ready to drop everything in a heartbeat. The other hacker was good, playing like a pro, not enough better than she was to completely wrest control back, but neither was she good enough to retake command of the system, setting up a push-pull of power grabs as they each tried to maneuver around the other. "C'mon, Nightwing, talk to me," she pleaded, so desperate she almost turned the cameras back on. Except if he was okay, they might just let his pursuers know where he was.

"He'll be okay,"

Helena's voice rang in her ear, soft and sympathetic enough to draw a watery smile from the woman. Considering how thoroughly Helena detested Dick, she knew the comfort wasn't lightly given.

"God, I hope you're right." Barbara couldn't even contemplate any other options. There'd already been too many losses. She couldn't face any more.

"I'm in back ... can see the loading dock. Looks quiet."

Barbara snapped the plans to the building onto her monitor despite the fact that she'd already committed them to memory and knew every inch of the scale drawings like the back of her hand. "The last time I spoke to Dick he was on the roof."

"Okay, that's where I'm headed then."

"Be careful ... I don't know how what he ran into."

"Don't worry."

Not possible, Barbara thought with some irony. "Just be careful," she repeated, her voice more emotional than she meant it to be. God, if anything happened to the girl she was going to have to finish her plan to do a header off the clocktower. She couldn't live with that idea. Couldn't even contemplate living with it. "Please."

"I'll be okay,"

the girl whispered, her voice soft and understanding.

Barbara forced herself to calm down and focus on the problem at hand, not the gut-rotting terror that Helena would be hurt. "You should see a bank of windows above the loading dock...."

"Yeah, looks like a couple of them are open."

"They lead to a catwalk above the main warehouse. You should be able to get a look inside and see if there's anyone moving."

* * * * * *

"Understood, Oracle," Helena whispered, then broke into a run, staying low and moving fast, letting go of her normal self and becoming one with the night, a thing of the shadows, just like she had as a child when she'd learned to follow her mother on the rooftops above Gotham City. By trial and error, she'd discovered all the ways to stick to the shadows and find the dark places in which to hide, and she used those skills to their utmost value. There were a couple of empty shipping vans and she used those for cover then ducked down behind the edge of the loading dock. One quick leap took her onto the thin metal roof that stretched over the loading dock, and a second took her up to the windows. She landed lightly on the narrow ledge, gripping the frame where she could reach through because of an open panel. "I'm on the window ledge," she whispered, then eased in through the narrow gap in the glass, clinging easily to her high perch above the ground floor. Blue eyes searched the darkened confines of the huge area, tracing the outlines of huge crates and smaller boxes, plus stacks of what looked like green hay bails covered in huge sheets of thin plastic---probably marijuana. Looked like Falcone was selling the complete package. She easily spotted a couple of figures moving through the stacks, their strides hurried as they checked the nooks and crannies. "There are a couple men moving in the warehouse ... moving fast. They're searching."

"Which means they haven't found him,"

Barbara exhaled, her relief palpable.

"That'd be my guess," Helena admitted. She searched the catwalks and the rafters. "No sign of anyone moving up here though." The mask itched, the edges tweaking her peripheral vision and making her think things were coming up from her sides so she peeled it off and shoved it in her pocket. With the power off, the cameras weren't working, and there was no one around to see her, so she saw no need for the precaution. "I'm going on up to the roof." She slipped back out, leaning into the faint breeze that played with her hair. A short leap took her straight up and she caught the edge of the roof, doing a quick vault to take her on up. A moment of being airborne and then she landed lightly, tense and cautious, searching the darkened roofline for any sign of pursuit. Nothing. "I'm on top. Looks clear." Moving light and quick, she searched for some sign of the missing Nightwing. Nothing. And then she noted the sharp edge and faint rise of some kind of frame set in the roof. She trotted quickly, coming up short as she reached the edge and saw the glittering edges of broken glass. "I think I know what happened to Nightwing. There's a broken skylight up here ... looks like it was painted out. He probably never saw it."

"Any sign."

Helena crouched down, peering through the open window frame past the interconnected catwalks, to the crates and bales far below, frowning as she searched the deep shadows for any signs of a black garbed figure. It took her a moment to be certain, but then she spoke up softly. "I think I see him ... he's not moving though."

"Oh God,"

Barbara's sick exhalation sent a bolt of pity through Helena. She knew that helpless feeling all too well.

"Looks like he landed on one of the bales ... not cement. He may just be unconscious," Helena offered what little comfort she could even though he was awfully still. She leaned forward, gripping the rail around the edge of the broken glass to see better. There were two pairs of men moving, searching for the invader, but they were on the opposite end of the huge room, and the bale Dick was lying on appeared to be at least ten, and maybe more like fifteen feet high. He hadn't been seen so far, so with luck, she wouldn't be either. "I'm going in."

"Be careful,"

Barbara whispered again.

Helena could hear the fear, and even kind of understood it. This had to be sheer hell for someone whose basic inclination was to protect others---to be stuck on the sidelines, unable to do what every instinct told her she should be doing. "I will be ... I promise," she whispered, then stepped forward and dropped straight down. For just a second, she was flying, then she touched down on the catwalk railing directly beneath the window, landing impossibly lightly on the narrow bar before kicking off again. Once again the sense of flying swept over her, her descent amazingly controlled. An eerily graceful landing came a moment later, her feet crunching thin plastic gently as she sank into the bales it covered. She instantly dropped to a crouch next to the figure lying crumpled, face down. "He's breathing," she told Barbara as she rested a hand lightly on his back, then reached around, fumbling uncertainly for the pulse in his throat. "Pulse is steady. Looks like he just knocked himself silly."

"Thank god."

"Nightwing ... Nightwing," Helena hissed, crouching down to hiss in his ear. She shook his shoulder lightly, then dropped low as she heard the soft sound of voices drawing closer. He chose that moment to stir ever so slightly, groaning softly, and she flattened her hand over his mouth, terrified he might wake up just enough to say something and get them both killed. The voices drew closer---a woman and a man by the sound of it---and Helena twisted, peering over her shoulder, a hint of a frown creasing her brow as she caught a glimpse of movement, the very top of what looked for all the world like some kind of court jester's hat. She was still questioning her own sanity when the man lying sprawled suddenly came awake in an instant, rolling before she had a chance to react and tumbling her beneath him. "Dick," she hissed, praying he was the only one to hear.

He froze, staring at her in confusion. "Helena?"

She didn't bother to reply, just grabbed the front of his costume and yanked him down next to her as she heard the voices drawing closer. "Quiet," she hissed, praying he'd just listen to her.

Movements hesitant, he reached up and straightened his earpiece, tucking it back into place. "Oracle?" he breathed, his voice barely audible.

"Do what she tells you, Nightwing,"

Barbara whispered in their ears.

Dick didn't know what to make of the situation. His skull throbbed like someone had taken a jackhammer to it---along with just about every other part of his body---and now Helena was there. He glanced at the girl, barely able to make out her features in the dark. She made a shushing face and he nodded, sinking down into the black plastic, tense and uncertain.

"This is bad,"

Barbara whispered. "There are two trucks pulling into the driveway ... with men in the back. Looks like they've got reinforcements coming in," she warned them over the two-way. As if to confirm the news, headlights gleamed through the high warehouse windows, the sound of heavy vehicles drawing closer even as the two people walking their way did the same, their voices growing clearer as they drew nearer.

Helena managed to make sense of the man's voice first, his tone nervous---no, more than nervous, scared. "...almost had him until the system went down ... and now ... well, I can't help the fact that the batteries on my laptop aren't holding a charge anymore--" She signaled for Dick to stay where he was and carefully crept closer to the end of their perch, ears cocked to hear anything possible about the newcomers moving their way.

"I understand," the one in the court jester's hat murmured, her tone low and soothing---almost hypnotic. "It's not your fault."

"N-no ... it's not. I'm glad you understand that ... I've always been loyal."

"Of course you have. Not your fault the enemy's smarter and more talented--"

"No, I didn't mean--"

"Just being honest," the court jester said with matter-of-fact cruelty. She shrugged, her tone practical. "Now, I just need to find someone smarter and more talented than they are," she mused aloud, then considered another option, "Or I can just kill them."

Helena's mouth twisted into a furious sneer, eyes glittering with barely contained fury, the notion that this woman was threatening someone she loved triggering her anger in dangerous ways. Try it and she'd kick the witch's multi-colored ass. Her fighting skills might not be Batgirl stuff yet, but she really doubted some chick in a clown suit was going to be much of a threat. She seriously considered going after her, only to remember Dick's presence as she felt him move up next to her. He was still shaky---she could feel the faint tremors that slid through his muscles as he nudged up against her. Draw attention to them, and she was comfortably certain she could escape, but he wouldn't have much of a prayer.

"Either way, you're not much use to me anymore--" the court jester continued aloud.

"Wait," the man said, his tone panicked now. "Before my laptop cut out, I was backtracing the hacker--"

"And?" the woman's voice was sharp and impatient now, no longer that deadly soothing drawl that reminded Helena of the tales she'd read of the hypnotic stare of a cobra.

Her lackey was hopeful now, sensing just how close to the edge he was, and ready to do anything to get back on her good side. "After we discovered the intruder, the hacker was jerky for awhile, coming and going, then their responses slowed ... judging by the delays, I think they moved to a remote system ... probably linked to a server through a wireless modem of some kind."

"Meaning?" the woman was getting even more impatient now.

"I think they're near here ... maybe even communicating with our burglar ... the system detected some unusual transmissions in the nearby area, but nothing that could be locked down."

"Interesting," the woman drawled. "I appreciate your telling me."

Helena saw another flick of movement as the woman turned, then a dull crunch that reminded her all too much of the time when she was eight and had broken her wrist. That sound was followed by a soft gacking gasp, then a dull thud.

"Not enough to let you live, of course," the woman drawled, "but I do appreciate it."

Eyes wide, the girl eased forward just enough to peer over the edge of the bale, swallowing hard as she stared down at the scrawny figure lying sprawled on the floor some distance below, his eyes open and panicked, mouth working silently, his head at the wrong angle in relation to his neck and body. Their gazes met, and she saw him die while the court jester just kept on her way, apparently not caring. The teenager was still shaking, uncertain what to do when several men flooded in through the loading dock entrance. They were all armed, and judging by their bulky chests and the way they moved, several were wearing flak jackets.

A hard hand dug into the back of her jacket, pulling her back from the edge as Dick leaned over her and hissed near ear, his words intended for Helena and Barbara both. "We need to get out of here."

"Quickly,"

Barbara told both of them. "I didn't get a good look, but I'd guess there were at least twenty men in those trucks ... maybe more."

Helena registered the words, but her focus was on the court jester, watching her as she pulled away, tracking her progress. The girl pulled away from the grip on her jacket, shifting so she could see better. The jester was speaking to what appeared to be leader among the newly arrived men, a big, broad shouldered man all in black with a dark beard. He was carrying the sort of rifle Helena had seen soldiers carry in the movies, big and heavy with a wide clip.

"Okay," Dick exhaled, "We'll just--"

"Hang on," Helena said, and rolled, wrapping an arm around his waist as she hit her knees. They were in the deepest shadows, while the newcomers were standing in the brightly cast lights from the trucks. They wouldn't be able to see past that ring of light. At least not for the moment, but they didn't have long. "Time to fly," she added and dragged his arm across her shoulders and leapt. She heard Dick's sharp gasp as they were airborne, and took perverse pleasure in his shock. He'd seen her make the leap from the ground floor to the loft, knew she could do things no normal human could, but obviously, he had zero idea of the extent of her abilities. She landed on the edge of the catwalk and gripped the rail with her free hand, then swung a leg over, noting that Dick let go of his hold on her shoulders as fast as humanly possible in order to do a quick vault over the railing.

"Too many people that way," Dick whispered when he saw her looking toward the loading dock. He glanced back toward the ladder that led up to the ceiling. "We can go out that way. I...." He suddenly realized that Helena had pulled away and was jogging toward the loading dock. "Oracle, we're on the catwalks, but she's headed straight for the men who just arrived."

"Huntress ... I want you to do as Nightwing tells you now. He has more experience--"

 

"Yeah, and that nearly got him killed," Helena answered, her tone distant, her entire concentration on the scene below as another man joined the jester and her flunky. Guy Falcone, she realized in an instant. She recognized him from his pictures in the paper and on TV and had the urge to leap down and rip his throat out, but she held back, needing to know what they were talking about. Instinct told her it was important. He gestured to the bearded man, who nodded and spoke into a radio as he waved to someone out of her range of vision. She glanced back, saw Dick following her, nowhere near as fast or sure footed, and poured on the speed, becoming a fast moving ghostly shadow until she was directly above the jester. She didn't care about the danger to herself, only finding out what was going on.

"He's close," the jester was saying, her voice high pitched and faintly manic, not insanity perhaps, but something very close to it. "I want him found ... brought to me." A tiny laugh escaped her lips, but she didn't turn, denying Helena a chance to see the face that went with that voice. "I want his secrets ... and then I want his head."

"We've got men searching the area. If your hacker's anywhere close, we'll find him," Falcone assured her confidently. "I told you this site is secure."

"I don't think I'd brag in your shoes," the jester jeered, "since so far, it's proven to be remarkably porous. But find the hacker ... or at least his head, and then we can discuss security."

Helena abruptly lost all color as she realized her instincts were right. They weren't just hunting for Dick now. They were after her guardian as well. "Barbara," she breathed, totally forgetting to stick with code names in her near panic, "get out of there ... get out of there now. They're looking for you." She glanced back, easily seeing the way Dick's expression shifted despite the darkness, and the way his gaze dropped to the jester and her cronies. Suddenly she didn't give a damn about anything beyond the need to keep a loved one safe ... whatever that took.

"She's right," he clipped without bothering to argue.

"But you need pick up."

"We'll be okay." He grabbed Helena by the scruff, pulling her back and shoving her toward the ladder he planned on using to escape with the hissed command, "Move." Damned if he was going to let the kid get herself killed. If nothing else Barbara would never forgive him. Worse, he'd never forgive himself. "Now, get out of there and don't argue."

* * * * * *

Barbara was just about to argue when the play of headlight in her rear view mirror brought her head up. She'd had nearly free rein of the computer for several minutes and had been considering several ways she could help her comrades inside and lost track of her surroundings just a little. Bad move, she realized in an instant as she glimpsed silhouetted figures hopping out of the back of the truck, their weapons large and heavy looking. Somebody definitely wasn't interested in playing nice. They split into two groups, clearly intent on coming around on both sides and blocking her in. "I've got company ... moving out," she informed the other two as she turned the engine over and slammed the van into reverse, whipping the wheel hard as she gunned it. Still adjusting to the vagaries of driving with hand controls only, she accelerated too hard into the turn and skidded the van's wheels in a barely controlled 180 that toggled unsteadily and nearly rolled the vehicle. No time to wait to come out of the skid naturally, she accelerated and prayed it wouldn't roll. With a high center of gravity and lousy traction, the van had never been intended for this sort of use and it protested hard, but managed to stay upright. She saw weapons rising, and gunned the engine, running straight up the middle and forcing the men to dive out of the way to avoid getting run over. She whipped the wheel at the last moment to avoid the truck aimed her way. The driver's arm came out, a pistol aimed her direction as she passed him by and she dove down behind the dash even as heavy calibre bullets shattered the side and front windows and tore through the side panels.

"BARBARA!!"

Helena's frightened scream rang in her ears along with Dick's softer, "Oracle??"

"I'm okay," she hissed as she shook shattered safety glass out of her hair. "Worry about yourselves ... get down to the ground, and I'll get to you." She could see the lights of the truck as it came around in pursuit. "Somehow...."

"We'll try,"

Dick responded, his breathing suddenly coming fast and furious, along with the sound of boots on steel. "But whatever happens, get yourself to safety."

* * * * * *

Dick didn't release his grip on Helena's collar as he broke into a run across the catwalk, dragging her along despite the way she fought him to get at the harlequin and her lackeys. That scream meant they'd been made big time and the mercenaries below were just trying to get a good shot.

"Get a light in here!" someone shouted. "He's up on the catwalks."

"Barbara," Helena exploded. Well past practical considerations like code names, she just wanted to stop any threat, "they're trying to kill her!" Maybe if she could just get down there, rip out Falcone's throat and wipe up the floor with his clown suited girlfriend, they'd back off.

"I know," Dick snarled, his voice softer and more controlled, but no less determined. "That's why we've got to get to her." On her own she didn't stand a chance against the kind of firepower they were looking at, especially if she got cornered.

"I'm all right,"

Barbara repeated, though she sounded breathless and scared, "just take care of yourselves." He heard a screech and squeal of tires against the background percussion of gunshots over the headset, the explosive hammering forming a stereophonic effect as he heard the shots for real less than a block away.

In an instant, Helena got what he was trying to tell her. Right now, they needed to get to Barbara before the team on her tail caught up with her.

"Now move," he ground out and shoved the girl toward the ladder, forcing her into a hard run even as a powerful spotlight was aimed ceilingward, hunting for them while gunfire suddenly stitched the air on all sides, shooting blind in hopes of hitting them. He thrust her in front of him, well aware that, while he had a layer of kevlar in the form fitting costume, she had no protection whatsoever.

"Called the cops,"

Barbara informed them breathlessly, the squall of tires punctuating the news.

"Good," Dick panted, pulling up short and yanking Helena back as several bullets tore through the catwalk grating just in front of them. He glanced back, noted the number of weapons aimed their way. They weren't going to make it if they didn't move. He felt the girl spin to peer around him. She instantly realized the same thing and her head tipped back on her shoulders as she peered upward. He caught a faint glimpse of a grin and looked up, following her gaze to the broken skylight. He was still grabbing for the grappling hook on his belt when he felt delicate hands dig into the front of his costume, then a hard tug upward that was almost as much fun as the last wedgie he'd gotten somewhere around junior high, with roughly the same effect. At some level, he was comfortably certain the girl hauling him skyward would have enjoyed that particular piece of knowledge. They shot straight up so fast it was less than a second before she kicked off on the ceiling widow frame into a second shorter leap, letting go of Dick just before she landed a few feet away and dropped into a half crouch. He caught sight of the glitter gold of those strange eyes and then the teenager was moving, sprinting toward the front edge of the building.

He was only a few feet behind her as they saw two pair of headlights swerving crazily through the twisting back entrance that led to the building across the way, the rear vehicle clearly chasing the lead and trying to cut off its escape route. And then suddenly lead pair of lights slewed sideways and skidded to a halt.

"Oracle, are you all right?" Dick demanded.

Helena didn't wait for a response, just leapt, almost seeming to fly as she bounded, then hit the ground and kept moving.

"Holy shit," Dick exhaled, then grabbed a grappling line off his belt, forced to find other, more humanly possible ways to the ground. "Oracle ... Oracle, are you okay?"

* * * * * *

"Been better," Barbara groaned and reached up to wipe at the stream of blood running down her face from the cut along the inner edge of her left eyebrow where she'd had the misfortune to meet her steering wheel in far too personal a manner. Crowded and forced to play chicken with the truck, she'd had to brake hard and whip the wheel to avoid going head first into the walls on either side of the entrance gates to the drive. The resulting skid and near-crash had left the van dented and her badly shaken. She glanced over, noting that only a couple of men had managed to get aboard with the truck when it took off after her, but they were well armed---M-16's or Armalites by the look of it---and big as oxen. Her engine had stalled out, but she got it going again just as one of them came up on the driver's side. With the window shot out, he grabbed for the doorframe, but she unlatched it and shoved it hard into her would-be attacker, slamming him back several paces. He came back at her almost instantly, reaching for the edge of the open door with a meaty hand. Grabbing a baton off the passenger's seat, she brought it around in an arc, hitting his forearm with every last ounce of strength and shattering bone in the doing. Caught up in that fight, she momentarily forgot the second man, and by the time she looked for him again it was because she became aware of a dancing, red pinlight playing over the van and then her face. Laser sight, she realized and started to dive down at the same instant she glimpsed his finger tightening on the trigger.

Except, instead of a crack of gunfire, the only sound was the clatter of a rifle hitting cement, followed by the dull thuds of fists striking flesh. She looked up again to see Helena, her expression intent, beating the hell out of the man who'd intended to shoot her. She glanced over, noting that the truck driver was bringing the vehicle around, apparently intending to run over both the girl and his colleague and backed the van up, blocking his way as she shouted out, "Huntress, get in!" and reached across the seat to shove the passenger door open. "NOW!" she bellowed when the girl didn't move. "MOVE IT!!" And then the teenager was flying, shoving things aside as she scrambled into the passenger's seat.

Somewhere in the distance, she heard the sound of sirens headed their direction. Not too much longer.

"Nightwing?"

"I'll meet you on the corner,"

he panted.

"Get the door for him when it's time," Barbara ordered Helena and gunned the engine, pulling around the truck trying to block their way in a wild maneuver, then racing hard.

Climbing into the back, Helena shoved the side panel door open as they pulled onto the street. "There he is," she told Barbara when she spotted a black garbed figure leaping over the high compound wall. He landed lightly, then raced their way, catching up as Barbara slowed for him. "Come on," the girl called out, helping to haul him in when he dove for the van. She shoved the door shut in his wake while he lay sprawled on the floor of the van.

"Hold on," Barbara ordered them both as she accelerated hard, desperate to lose their would-be pursuers as quickly as possible. It was going to be close.

* * * * * *

Hearing the distant sound of sirens, Harley Quinn's mouth twisted in an impatient smile that was all manic energy with no kindness behind it. "Blow it all," she said with considerable irritation. Her current flunky looked surprised.

"But, Ma'am, there are still men in there."

A smile twisted full lips. "Yes, I know." She looked at him and offered a beatific smile. "Would you like to join them?"

He lost all color. "I'll see to it, Ma'am," he quickly assured her, and hurried off to do as told.

Well, at least she'd made sure the place was wired, so it shouldn't take more than a couple of minutes. She was still standing there, musing on how beautiful the resulting explosion would be when Guy Falcone came stumbling out, his guards nowhere in evidence.

"What the hell happened?" the mobster demanded.

Harley peered up at him with a raised brow. "Mongolian Cluster Fuck," she answered simply.

He frowned. "Look, you stupid bitch--"

It was the wrong thing to say and she informed him of that fact by kneecapping him with a single, sharp kick. He went down hard and screaming obscenities. "Never call me stupid," she said with a manic smile. "Now, one question...." She crouched down, reaching inside his suit coat to draw the .9 millimeter Sig Sauer holstered under his left armpit, "did you follow my orders in funding the drug lab as requested?" When he didn't immediately answer, she pointed the weapon at his other knee, trigger finger tightening fractionally.

"Yes," he all but screamed, panicked now, "God, yes ... I did everything just like you said to ... paid off the researchers to develop what you wanted to spec ... it's all in the computer files just the way you wanted."

"Good boy," she exhaled and reached out to pat his hair lightly. "Apparently you do have one or two uses."

He saw the madness in her eyes and felt sweat start to trickle down the line of his spine, the agony in his broken kneecap suddenly all but forgotten. Looking death in the eye has a way of doing that to people, particularly cowards.

She raised the gun, taking aim on his chest. "Unfortunately for you, one or two just isn't enough."

Panicked, he held up a hand. "Wait. I know things ... some of the Joker's secrets ... things he found out after you left before."

"Really?" she murmured, tempted by that bit of news. "Mister J sent me away before," she complained, "off to expand his operations into Metropolis, then got himself caught while I was away." Her mouth twisted into a pouting sneer. "Never did get to find out why he did some things." She was his right hand girl. Being left out of the loop really, really annoyed her. Her lips pursed unhappily, a hint of a frown touching her forehead. She didn't like being annoyed. Definitely needed something to let off a little stress.

Falcone nodded. "I know things ... lots of things. Like why he shot that girl that night."

Blonde brows drew together in a frown behind cake white makeup, while full lips pursed. "Police commissioner's daughter," Harley Quinn pronounced impatiently. "Everybody knows that," she dismissed and fired, point blank, before he could say any more. She leaned down, studying the hole in his forehead, surprised to find it so neat. Usually they were messier at that range. A frown twisted her expression as she found herself wondering if perhaps she'd acted a bit prematurely. Okay, so she felt better now. Nothing like a good head shot for letting off stress, but still, he might have known something of value. "Should I have let you say more?" she mused out loud as she studied him. "No, I don't think so. What could you really know, after all?" She was still standing up and dusting her hands off when her senior flunky appeared, breathing hard and nervous.

"It's all set, but we've gotta get out of here cos those explosives you set may take most of this block."

Harley smiled. Now that sounded like a lovely sight.

* * * * * *

Having spent far too many hours prowling the industrial district as Batgirl, Barbara, knew almost every nook and cranny and it was all committed to that perfect memory which gave them their only real advantage over their pursuers. She used that knowledge, ducking down narrow streets, using the cover offered by the surroundings buildings, anything to gain every inch possible so that they lost her a little more around a each turn, until finally, she killed the lights, still driving wildly, a black shadow in the night. Helena was in the front passenger seat while Dick was kneeling between the seats just behind them.

She was finally confident that they'd finally lost their pursuers when a hard explosion rocked the earth behind them, throwing smoke and flames hundreds of feet into the air.

All three looked back, eyes wide, reflecting the fires of hell.

"I'm guessing the police won't find much in the way of evidence," Dick sighed, then flopped down on the floor of the van. "Well, this went well," he muttered unhappily and folded an arm over his eyes.

"It wasn't our best moment," Barbara sighed, then offered a wan smile to the teenager in the neighboring seat before flicking the van's lights back on. As she pulled up to a stoplight, she reached up, wiping at the blood still trickling from the cut on her brow, and was surprised when a gentle hand reached out, mopping up the worst of it with a handkerchief. She winced gently as Helena daubed at the injured area itself---which was nearly as bruised as it was cut. "By ours, I mean mine and Dick's," she pointed out, her tone ironic, though the smile she turned on Helena was enough to make the girl's heart soar. "You, on the other hand, did really well."

The girl grinned, suddenly not minding the fact that she'd just saved the life of her competition. "Just helping out," she demurred, thinking that she'd do almost anything to have that look directed her way.

Barbara reached out, ruffling her hair gently. "Well, from here on out, let's see if we can make sure that's not a necessity." She glanced back at Dick where he lay sprawled in the back next to her wheelchair. Sensing her gaze, he looked up and their eyes met, her irritation and disapproval almost palpable.

"I should've listened to you," he sighed and folded his arm over his face, none too thrilled to find he probably owed his life to a seventeen year old girl that he couldn't stand and who hated him, while the woman he loved was looking at him like a prime grade-A screwup.

"Yeah, well, this whole thing was a nice idea," she muttered as she turned to face front again, "but I think it loses something in translation." It had been a fun fantasy, but it seemed obvious the idea was doomed to failure. Dick never had followed orders worth a damn, and even with the Delphi she couldn't do enough during a live mission to watch his back. He was better off knowing he was on his own. It made him more careful. Like it or not, she wasn't Batgirl anymore, and if something went wrong, there wasn't a hell of a lot she could do to help from a wheelchair. She shook her head, throwing off the thick wave of depression that thought threatened to engender, attention returning to the road as she swung onto an onramp, opting to lose herself in the steadily moving freeway traffic, figuring they could ditch any remaining pursuers in the flow of cars.

"We just need to work on our timing a little," Dick disagreed. "I got too ambitious ... but the idea's workable--"

"We'll talk about it later," Barbara interrupted, not in the mood for a bout of Dick's version of charming her into a dumb idea. She'd already fallen for that spiel once. Not again. Helping her old friend get himself killed was not on her list of things to do today.

He sighed softly and flopped back down, but not before he caught a glimpse of the smirk Helena threw his direction. It was, he sensed instinctively, the beginning of the end. Not that Barbara would throw him out that night, but the easy synergy they'd once possessed was gone now, and something told him it wouldn't be coming back. He was still the same, but she'd changed and the old energy was a thing of the past. She still had the drive and the instinct to do right, but it wouldn't happen with him by her side.

That night, he slept in her bed, smiling at the attention as she kissed his bumps and bruises, then sleeping deeply enough that he didn't feel her slip from bed and leave.

* * * * * *

Barbara was unsurprised to find Helena's bed empty after she finished checking on the Delphi's monitoring system. Uncertain whether to consider the news she'd found good or bad, she was just feeling restless, so she was oddly relieved to find the girl on the lookout, sitting on a gargoyle's head, arms wrapped tightly around her upthrust knees. "Hey there," she whispered just loud enough to catch Helena's attention, offering a tired smile as blue eyes swung her way.

"Surprised to see you up," the teenager murmured, a blush touching her cheeks as she turned to stare out at the city again.

Barbara shrugged. "Couldn't sleep," she admitted, "and I was checking on the situation we left ... using the Delphi to raid the police scanners...."

"News?" Helena whispered, sensing there was more to it.

"Falcone's dead," Barbara said softly. "The fire's still burning but they found his body near the edge of the explosion. Single bullet to the head. The rest of the place is a total loss."

Helena looked over and tried not to smile. She knew that probably wouldn't go over well.

Barbara didn't miss the glint in the girl's eyes and sighed softly, rolling her chair forward until her knees were nudged up against the edge of the low wall around the lookout. "I wish I could be so sure it's good news," she exhaled as she stared thoughtfully at the surrounding city lights. "Slimy as Falcone was, I don't think he was the mastermind."

"The court jester," Helena whispered.

"A harlequin actually," Barbara whispered. "I've seen her once before ... working for the Joker." She frowned thoughtfully. "High up in the organization by the look of it." She ruffled her hair, scraping it back from her brow, then settled back in the chair, her gaze unfocused as she stared out at the lights of the city, lost in her own thoughts.

"So, what are you gonna do about it?" Helena asked quietly, unwilling to be locked out or have a wall go up between them.

Barbara looked over, her expression wryly depressed. "I think tonight proves pretty conclusively that I'm out of the biz," she muttered unhappily, finally accepting that any thoughts she'd had of keeping even a toe in her old life were foolish at best. Absolutely nothing had gone right, and she had no intention of helping put people she cared for in that kind of danger again. She might be able to dig up a little info for Dick now and then, but that was obviously going to be the limit of her participation.

Helena shook her head. "You'll never be out of it," she whispered, a little frightened by the sudden burst of insight. Barbara might intend to walk away, but she couldn't. She was a junkie and there wasn't a twelve step program in the world effective enough to get that monkey off her back.

The calling as Bruce had called it. Barbara shook her head, her gaze distant, wondering if maybe it was the time to run like hell. Leave Gotham and go somewhere quiet. It might be the best thing for both of them. She glanced over at the girl---no, young woman---she'd become responsible for, a little scared by the way blue eyes stared right through her, so intense she often feared they saw every secret she'd ever had, even the ones she didn't know about. "You're wrong," she said very softly, but her voice lacked conviction. "I screwed up tonight ... could've gotten Dick killed ... hell, could've gotten you killed." She shook her head and made a disgusted sound in the back of her throat. "I had no business letting Dick talk me into that madness ... and I certainly had no business letting you get involved. God, I should be taken out and shot for that alone."

"I didn't exactly give you a choice," Helena pointed out. "And we both knew the risks." She slid off the gargoyle, dropping lightly to her feet, then reached out, curving slender fingers to the arm of the wheelchair, urging Barbara to turn her way as she dropped to her knees to stare up at her guardian. "You can do things with a computer that no one else can. You've only had a few days and you cracked their system when no one else could--"

"It went wrong," Barbara hissed, tempted beyond measure but also aware of the dangers. "Damn near got you two killed." A muscle twitched along the line of her jaw as she ground her teeth together. "Did get Falcone ... and probably others killed." She knew that news wouldn't depress Helena, but it wasn't their place to act as judge and executioner and the thought that people had died because she'd helped set events in motion sat heavily on her shoulders whether she wanted to accept the weight or not. At the same time, there was a part of her that knew that there were things she could do with computers that no one else could, and already her mind was running with plans, tweaks, ways of getting information that could be used against people who would misuse power.

Staring up at Barbara, Helena was a little startled by how easy it was to see the need in her. Locking that part of her away would eventually destroy her soul more thoroughly than being relegated to a wheelchair ever could. "Yeah," she agreed, "but from what you've said, your first appearance as Batgirl wasn't exactly a triumph...."

"No ... it wasn't," Barbara admitted, a faint twist of a smile touching her lips. Looking back, it was a wonder Bruce hadn't turned her over his knee and delivered a much deserved spanking. "But it's not the same thing," she added to ward off the temptation. She hadn't understood the consequences then. She did now.

"It's exactly the same," Helena disagreed. "This was your first time trying something like this ... mistakes were predictable ... and you both bit off more than you could chew." The teenager's tone was quietly practical. She peered up at Barbara with a lopsided smile. "You won't make that mistake again." They were both silent for a long moment as she just peered up at the older woman, silently challenging her to look at the truth.

"I don't know..." Barbara muttered at last. The notion of getting completely out of the game made her feel like she was right back in that invisible, shrinking cage ... but worse, it made her feel completely useless, something she'd never been able to stomach in the least. "Maybe I could give information to the police," she said, thinking out loud. That wouldn't involve putting anyone in danger. "Guide things ... investigate where they can't...."

"That's right," Helena said, a hint of a smile curving her lips as she saw the light re-enter green eyes, but then Barbara pulled back emotionally, scared again.

"I don't know though.... Maybe it's not such a good idea." She shook her head, looking away, the temptation coiling tight in her stomach, but twined with a cold, sick kind of terror. "Maybe I've lost the edge."

"Bull," Helena whispered and reached up, stroking Barbara's cheek lightly, drawing her eyes back until their gazes met. "Your edge was just fine. It was something completely new, so some things were a little ... disorganized. But you handled yourself fine ... we're all okay." She smiled easily, remembering the way Barbara had dealt with the physical end of things. "And ... well ... there was the slight problem of Nightwing not following orders."

"You weren't so good at that either," Barbara pointed out practically from what I hear.

"What ... me?" Helena said, sounding offended, though a grin teased her lips. "I'll have you know that I--"

"Didn't run away when told," Barbara broke in. "Didn't wear the mask." Her brows arched in an ironic expression. "In short, you were immensely luckier than Dick, but didn't actually follow orders any better."

Seeing that being charming wasn't going to make a successful end run around the older woman, Helena drew a deep breath and released it again. "No," she admitted after a beat, "I didn't." She shrugged and went back to the lopsided grin that had always been so successful at beguiling adults. It fell away when Barbara continued to peer seriously at her until she deflated ever so slightly. "They were trying to kill you," she said at last and shook her head. "I couldn't let that happen." She looked down at her hands where there rested on her thighs, noting the way they curled into fists despite her best efforts to keep them relaxed and open. "I could have killed Falcone," she said very softly, answering the unasked question, "thought about it ... but then I realized you were in danger ... and that was the only thing that mattered." She looked up. Much as she wanted revenge, she couldn't risk what little she had left. "I couldn't lose you," she said haltingly, then looked down again, agonizingly embarrassed by the intensity of her own emotions. Gentle fingers slid through her hair, ruffling lightly, the gesture affectionate, and she leaned into the warmth of the tender contact, eyes sliding closed, her breathing slowing as some of the leftover terror fled.

"I'm not going anywhere," Barbara assured her, her voice low and soothing.

Helena leaned more deeply into the slow caresses running through her hair, soothed by the warmth and reassurance. "Promise me," she whispered, and felt a faint flicker of tension in the fingers sliding through her hair. She looked up, eyes wide and a little frightened. "Promise me," she said again, a pleading note entering her tone.

"I promise," Barbara assured her, then continued petting gently when Helena heaved a sigh of relief and leaned back into the slow caresses. "Is this about Dick and I?" she asked carefully, well aware of the way Helena tensed.

"A little," Helena admitted, then added, "but it's also about how much I value your life ... and it scares me sometimes because I'm not sure you do." She looked up, her eyes clear and a little glossy with the threat of tears. "I need you ... and I need you to know that."

Startled by the near desperation in blue eyes, Barbara was momentarily frozen, the memories of the times she'd contemplated the ultimate solution to her problems running through her head. "Helena, I..." she began to speak, uncertain what she intended to say, unable to lie in the face of the look directed her way.

"You were ready to throw away your life going after Dick without any kind of plan..." Helena said softly, her eyes scared. She'd been sitting up there thinking about it, afraid of what it meant. "They'd have killed you, and you didn't seem to care."

"No, I--"

"Yes," Helena cut her off, anger lancing the fear. "You were ready to throw your life away ... and I need you." She reached up again, stroking Barbara's cheek lightly. "You said we're family before." She trailed her hand down, twining her fingers with Barbara's and holding on tight. "Family has to stick together."

Barbara squeezed back, struck by the fear she saw in blue-violet eyes. "I'm sorry," she whispered as it occurred to her just how badly she must have scared the girl. Caught in her own fears and frustration, she'd forgotten that she really was all that Helena had left. "I didn't think."

Relieved to see understanding enter green eyes, Helena offered a smile. "Well, don't let it happen again," she teased lightly.

"I promise ... I won't," Barbara assured her.

"No more raids with Dick?" Helena whispered, needing to be certain. Whatever games Barbara played, it couldn't be that one. It was just too dangerous.

"No more," Barbara promised. "Whatever I do, I'll make sure to play it safe." At least for now.

Suddenly exhausted beyond measure, Helena leaned forward, resting her cheek against Barbara's knees, hands clinging loosely to the sides of the chair, very nearly purring as gentle fingers returned to her hair, rhythmically slipping through the silky strands.

That was how Dick found them when he roused enough to become aware of the empty bed. He stood in the doorway for a long time, unnoticed, simply watching the tender scene. Finally, he just turned and went back to bed without drawing their attention. He knew it wasn't the bravest choice he could make, but it was the only one he had the stomach for at that point. The end would come, but he wasn't up to facing it any sooner than he had to.

* * * * * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Act V

Two Months, Sixteen Days, Unknown Hours Later

The end to Barbara's affair with Dick came two months, sixteen days, and approximately thirteen hours after that mad dash to escape Falcone's men (Helena was out during the actual event and so never could track the exact time). It was more of a whimper than a bang thing, though judging by the tension of both participants when Helena accidentally stumbled into the scene, there must have been some bang-like qualities. His overprotectiveness and her stubbornness were both mentioned in the minutes before the two participants noted Helena's presence, and Helena tried not to enjoy it too much when Barbara tearfully said, "We really should have just stayed friends."

He sighed softly at that point and shook his head. "Don't ask me to regret what happened."

Totally involved in the scene before her, Helena stumbled over some piece of equipment Barbara had left lying around. She tried to catch it even as they both turned hard looks her way. Helena backed up a step, uncertain how to respond to the accidental discovery, her eyes wide as she noted the gym bag slung over his shoulder, bulging with all the stuff he'd left at the apartment during the preceding months, including his Sega. This was serious. "I ... uh ... didn't...." She had enough tact and good sense ... and enough human emotion---at least where Barbara was concerned---to feel for them ... and also to want to be anywhere but in the middle Dick's exit. Besides she was comfortably certain the happy-happy-joy-joy dance wouldn't go over so well. "Sorry ... I'll just ... go." She hooked a thumb over her shoulder to indicate her bedroom on the second floor, then did a quick vault to get there and quickly slammed the door.

Once Helena was through, she spun back and plastered her ear in an effort to hear anything she could, which wasn't much. Still, it was enough for her to be certain that the I-love-you-so-much-I-want-to-pack-you-away-in-cotton routine had not gone over well, nor had the I-can-do-everything-for-myself act. She gritted her teeth a bit when the whole, I'll-always-love-you part of the breakup speech came into play, then smiled again when it morphed into a we're-good-friends-but-lousy-lovers refrain before sliding into a unique bit of, I-was-thinking-of-leaving-town-for-grad-school-anyway. Which was fine by her. The farther Dick Grayson was from all of them, the better as far as she was concerned. Probably a churlish attitude---as she would have cheerfully admitted if anyone asked---but he didn't belong there, was all wrong for Barbara, and she was just as glad to see him go.

And by eight o'clock that night he was---gone that is. And maybe all wasn't right with the world, but it was at least a better place as far as Helena was concerned. She raided the refrigerator, one eyebrow rising high as it occurred to her that she was going to miss at least one thing about the Boy Blunder; the groceries. Barbara hated grocery shopping and, worse, on the rare occasion she condescended to such mundane matters, tended mostly toward foods generally defined as healthy. Dick, on the other hand, ate like the college boy he was, and tended to keep the cupboards well stocked with sugar packed soft drinks, Pop Tarts, cheese curls, Hostess cupcakes, and a host of other wonderfully disgusting things. Oh well, she decided as she grabbed a coke and a double pack of cupcakes, gulping better than half of the first one down with obscene speed, she was willing to suffer through the hunger if need be.

Nobody at the computer when she finally wandered out of the kitchen. That was unusual enough to draw a look of curiosity---Barbara had taken to monitoring it nearly constantly, honing her skills and protecting the city a new way. It wasn't perfect as systems went, sometimes there was no way for the law to use the evidence she secretly sent them, the police didn't always respond quickly to dangerous situations she spotted, and she couldn't always find ways to see where she needed to, but overall, she'd done some amazing work. An affectionate smile on her face, the girl wandered onto the balcony overlook, unsurprised to find Barbara there, just staring at the city.

She plopped down cross legged on the wall around the overlook, coke in one hand, half a cupcake in the other, the remaining one on the wall in front of her. Barbara flashed a faintly disbelieving look her way over the mix of sweets and soda and Helena just grinned. "You okay?" she asked after she'd gulped down enough coke to wash away the chocolate taste in her mouth.

Barbara just stared at Helena for a moment, faintly queasy over her choice of foods. "Fine," she murmured.

"Don't sound so great," Helena said around another large bite cupcake as she finished off the first one preparatory to tearing into the second.

The redhead peered at her ward, watching as she chased the cupcake with another swallow of soda. "Yeah, but that's mostly your eating habits," she explained with a small, faintly hesitant gesture toward the foodstuffs in question.

The girl grinned. "Not a healthy calorie anywhere in sight," she agreed cheerfully, then studied the older woman more carefully. "Seriously, how are you doing?" She might not have been all that fond of Dick, but obviously Barbara had been---Helena pointedly ignored the twine of jealousy in the pit of her stomach in favor of offering any comfort possible. She'd gotten good at ignoring the jealousy. It was the only way she'd avoided completely alienating the woman she loved. If Barbara knew the real depth of her feelings---not just the teen angst, but the soul deep agony---she'd have felt the need to do something about it, undoubtedly with the idea of doing away with what she would view as nothing more than a youthful crush. Helena had no intention of allowing that to happen. It was better to simply keep her emotions under cover until there was a chance she might be taken seriously.

A soft sigh was the only initial reply. "I suppose I should be upset," she said at last.

Helena shrugged. Not as far as she was concerned. Of course, recommending the happy dance wasn't likely to be a big hit either, so she just offered the most sympathetic look she could summon and quietly disagreed, "Not if that's not how you feel."

Barbara shook her head slowly, feeling vaguely lost and more than a little confused. The whole thing with Dick had been one giant lesson in confusion; sometimes intensely comforting, the reality of having someone to hold her when the nights started closing in tremendously soothing, but at the same time it had often been entirely too stressful, leaving her with a sense of being shut in, shut out, and failing that did nothing for her confidence or ego. "It's hard to explain," she sighed at last, talking more to herself than Helena, "I'm sorry it went bad ... but it just ... it made some things a lot harder ... and I...." She abruptly trailed off, turning to peer at Helena as it occurred to her that she really shouldn't be dumping her personal problems in the teenager's lap. "And I probably shouldn't be discussing this with you," she muttered. Sometimes she tended to forget that Helena was her responsibility, and not just another friend---scratch that---her only friend these days.

"Hey," the girl yelped as though stung. "Who else are you going to discuss it with? Your father? Oh yeah, that'd be rich." She shook her head over the notion of Barbara discussing anything so personal with her very straight-laced police commissioner father. That was just scary.

"I just meant ... I shouldn't be dumping things on you," Barbara explained with a small wave of one hand, though a grin snuck through at the suggestion she talk to her father. No, that wouldn't be happening. She was comfortably certain her dad still thought she was a virgin, and she was in no hurry to disabuse him of the idea.

"Dump away," Helena disagreed and leaned back on her elbows to stare at the night sky. "Rumor has it I'm kinda strong. I think I can handle it."

It was tempting. Maybe too tempting, Barbara decided as she shook off the urge to do entirely too much talking. Discussing her most personal and intimate problems and fears with the seventeen year old was so inappropriate it wasn't even funny. She already let Helena shoulder too much responsibility. Time to act like the adult she was rumored to be. "I appreciate it ... but I really don't think it's a good idea," she said softly, eyes falling to touch on her hands where they were twined together in her lap.

Helena frowned, experiencing a bolt of hurt as she felt a wall go up between them. "Oh," she exhaled, and covered her momentary discomfort by taking a long swallow of soda. "I guess it ... uh ... hurts too much to talk about," she whispered after a beat, not liking the idea that maybe losing Dick had left Barbara so ripped up that she couldn't even say his name. "I just ... I thought maybe it would help to ... to get it out," she said a little unsteadily.

"It's not that it hurts too much," Barbara said, sensing she'd hurt the girl in some way and seeking to wash away the pain. "I'm just ... tired of worrying about it." Which was true enough, she realized even as the words left her mouth. She'd been analyzing, rethinking, and doubting her relationship with her old friend almost from the moment it began, and she was tired of the stress. Sadly, it was kind of relief to have it over even though she knew it was going to take some work to put some semblance of the friendship back together. They'd been great pals once upon a time, but so much of the basis of that was gone now. There was a reason they'd never become lovers before, and it wasn't just the few years between them. They didn't work at that level. And not just because of her current physical problems, but because of basic personality differences that would have been just as real without a shattered spine as they were with it. "Truthfully," she said after a beat, "I think I just want to let it go for awhile."

Which was fine by Helena. The notion of listening to Barbara cry over the loss of the Boy Blunder didn't do a blessed thing for her peace of mind. She tipped her head to one side, considering the options before speaking up. "Tell you what," she said at last, "I vote we hit the video shack ... grab the tackiest, nastiest flicks we can find ... then stop off and at the 24/7 and get the most disgusting, unhealthy, chemical and fat laden foods on the shelves and make a party of it."

Helena's inviting grin was such that Barbara almost couldn't resist. Damn, she was good at that, offering that sneaky little smile of hers and making it impossible to keep any semblance of a protective shell in place. "I thought you had a date," Barbara reminded the younger woman in an effort to put things back on keel.

Helena froze. She'd completely forgotten about that, the notion of an evening of tonsil hockey with Joe Pallas---who'd dumped the y in his name some months before when his hormones finally kicked in and granted him shoulders and a voice in the lower registers---paling before the idea of spending totally uninterrupted time in Barbara's company. They'd had Dick tagging along most of the time for months, and even when he hadn't been there, there'd been the chance that he'd show up since he'd developed the annoying habit of magically appearing anytime she and Barbara were alone. Of course, she'd gotten remarkably good at doing the same thing to scotch him, so she didn't have much right to complain. Still, the idea of a little time alone was way too appealing to lose in favor of teen hormones. She waved it aside. "It was nothing certain," she lied. "Just a get together if we're both free kind of thing." Besides, after only five dates, Joe was already starting to talk like they were boyfriend and girlfriend. Not hardly. He was a nice guy, fun to hang out with, and these days, not half bad looking, but that was the extent of it. "Besides, aren't junk food and bad movies the traditional way of dealing with the end of a ... relationship?" She offered a tiny smile, the one that invariably worked to get her her own way.

Barbara wasn't immune to the charm directed her way. Actually, she appreciated it tremendously, but it hardly seemed fair for Helena's social life to bear the impact of her romantic failure. "Thanks for the offer, but I'm fine ... really ... go," she said, pointing toward the door, her tone firm as she pushed down the temptation to lean on the teenager more than she really should. She probably already did far too much of that anyway.

"But--"

"Hey, I know you two have been having a lot of fun together," Barbara said quickly, well aware that Helena had gone on several dates with the boy and seemed to be enjoying his company. And Joey was a bit more stable than her usual fare. It seemed like a good idea to encourage her along those lines even though it would have been nice to have her around. "Believe it or not I'm a big girl. I can look after myself." She forced a reassuring smile, and quickly continued when she saw Helena draw breath to argue. "I'm just going to spend a quiet evening working on the Delphi."

"You really shouldn't be alone," the girl said instantly, her protective streak touching Barbara more than she could say.

"Really ... I'm okay," Barbara assured Helena again despite the fact that the company sounded really good. She tamped down on that childish part of her that would have enjoyed the comfort. After all, the girl had a right to have some fun, and not get stuck hanging out with her guardian, hardly the most exciting hobby in the world. Though, she had to admit, they did generally have fun together. "I've got a couple of ideas I've been wanting to play with anyway."

Helena pulled up short, suddenly hesitant to press the matter since it almost seemed as though Barbara didn't want her there, and she was afraid she was starting to act like some dumb kid with a crush. Okay, so technically, she probably was just some dumb kid with a crush, but it was the last way she wanted to act. "If you're sure..." she said after a beat, wanting to stay with all her heart, but uncertain how to do so without pushing the matter unreasonably.

"I am," Barbara assured the girl. "Go ... have fun."

"Okay," Helena muttered after a long moment and started to draw away. "I don't think we'll be late. Probably just go to a movie and maybe dinner afterward." Joe wasn't a clubbing sort of guy, and she wasn't much in the mood anyway.

"Okay ... just call in if you're going to be after midnight." Joey was a good kid, and Helena was broaching her 18th birthday. With school out, Barbara had gotten a lot more flexible when it came to curfews, especially since she'd been so good since the drinking incident at the Fine Line.

A little over an hour later, Barbara found herself wishing she hadn't been quite so self-sacrificing as the walls threatened to close in. Her brain was running around in circles, playing mental games and leaving her feeling very alone. She massaged her temple and glared at the program she was having no success in redesigning. Her brain just refused to deal with the intricacies of code, instead replaying all of the low points of the previous few months until the neurons firing were more like wheels spinning in the sand than anything resembling coherent thought.

After months of straining around the edges because she was never left alone by the doctors, nurses, therapists, counselors, well-meaning friends, Alfred, Helena, and Dick, it suddenly occurred to her that she'd lost some of her old ability to feel totally comfortable on her own. Once upon a time, she'd spent hours with nothing but her own company as she haunted the rooftops of New Gotham. And now? Judging by her uneasiness and inability to concentrate, she'd lost the skill, and maybe the first night after breakup wasn't the time to start trying to get it back. She massaged her temple slowly, privately wishing she hadn't been so damn stiff-necked and brave about sending Helena on her way. The teenager had a knack for cheering her out of her darker moods, and would have been a welcome distraction from thoughts she'd have preferred to avoid.

Like the fact that she no longer knew her own body, and was far from certain that she ever really would again. Unable to resist the urge, she trailed her fingers along her own thigh, pressing steadily more firmly until the contact would have been painful if she could have felt it, desperately hunting for any promise of sensation. Nothing. Not a damn thing.

She sighed softly, fighting the depression that threatened to settle on her shoulders. All things considered, she thought she'd done comparatively well at the whole dealing-with-depression thing, but some times were a lot harder than others. This was officially one of those times.

Peeling her glasses off, she tossed them aside, then leaned forward on her elbows, massaging her temples slowly as she fought the memories rolling through her mind. It was just that it was hard to stop the replay of Dick's pitying looks, and obvious frustration, hard to escape the doctor's gentle reminders that it was too soon to be certain of anything even as he tried to brace her for the fact that this might just be it for the rest of her life, and damn near impossible to contemplate even considering another romantic relationship somewhere down the road when it presently felt like all it did was leave her emotionally slashed and bleeding. It just hurt too damn much, forcing a nightly acknowledgment that everything in her life had changed in unwanted and very undesirable ways.

It wasn't even that Dick had meant for her to feel that way. Quite the reverse, he'd done everything in his power to make her feel beautiful and desirable. But at some point, the flattering effect of his obvious love and lust had started to pale before her feelings of inferiority when faced with his equally obvious pity and frustration at not being able to bond with her the way he wanted. In the end, it had hurt them both, damn near destroyed their friendship, and left her painfully uncertain of herself. Sighing heavily, she let her head fall forward, working her fingers into her hair as she moved, massaging her scalp in an effort to relieve some measure of the stress headache on the verge of reducing her to tears.

Or maybe it was everything else that was on the verge of reducing her to tears.

Oh yeah, she was in such a cheery mood, now wasn't she?

She leaned farther forward, sliding her hands around to the back of her neck, massaging stressed muscles with pressing strokes in an effort to work out the worst of the knots that had developed. Okay, so maybe she wasn't handling things quite as well as she wanted to believe. Then again, maybe it was an illusion she desperately needed to get through each successive day. If she pretended it wasn't so bad, then maybe one day it wouldn't be.

Cheerier and cheerier.

Barbara sighed softly, and seriously considered just taking a couple of pain pills and crashing. She still had a few left over from the period when she'd been heavily medicated. Afraid of becoming addicted, she'd weaned herself early, but there were still a few pills left over in storage. She supposed pain killers probably weren't a great answer for what was plaguing her, but maybe it was time to cut herself a little slack. "God, you're pathetic, Gordon," she muttered disgustedly.

"Well, yeah, but I think it's mostly that a redhead should never wear that color."

Barbara yelped, yanking her head up so fast she nearly gave herself whiplash as she grabbed for the wheels on her chair and yanked it around. "Helena," she gasped when she spotted the slender figure that leapt easily down from the mezzanine, the handles of several plastic sacks hooked over each wrist. "I thought you were out ... with Joey ... at a movie or something," she said haltingly, her heart still hammering in her chest. She wasn't so good with surprises anymore.

Helena shook her head, swinging the sacks in hand around and tossing them onto an open section of Barbara's workstation. "Nope," she disagreed cheerfully. "Or more correctly, not anymore." She grinned. "I told him I had something more important to do." Which hadn't gone over all that well, and had ultimately driven her to disabuse Joe of the idea that they were an item. "Oh, and he goes by Joe these days." Not that it really mattered, since it didn't look like they were going to be seeing each other anymore.

Barbara looked up at the girl, torn between guilt and gratitude, intensely relieved to see her, but at the same time feeling vaguely childish for being freaked out. "You shouldn't have cancelled your date for me."

Full lips curved in a gamine grin. "Getting kinda full of yourself, aren't you?" Helena demanded as she went digging through one of the bags and started plucking out DVDs. She looked up, winking at Barbara's flummoxed expression. "As it happens, I wasn't thrilled with the movie selection. Seemed like more of a classic movie night."

It was obviously a lie, but Barbara appreciated the way the girl felt the need to look after her and spare her feelings at the same time. Still, it wasn't fair for Helena to be stuck home when she probably would have preferred the company of her peers. "You really didn't have to--" Barbara began, even though her stomach was already clenching with stress over the notion of being alone again.

"True," the girl broke in. "But like I said, I was more in the mood for a classic." She handed over one of the DVDs, her grin widening as Barbara stared at it, clearly dumbfounded.

"Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?" the redhead exhaled doubtfully.

"Mmhm, a true classic," Helena pronounced and began rooting through the other bags, digging out Ding Dongs, Twinkies, candy and chips of all sorts. "Plus, there's no way in hell I could afford a junk food binge like this at movie theater prices." She dragged out a couple of quarts of ice cream with a cheerful, "Ha-ha." She showed them to the redhead. "Chocolate Mint N Chip, and Chocolate Fudge Ripple ... two of the traditional cures for what ails you."

"Helena--" Barbara began only to find herself interrupted as the teenager leaned down into her space, her eyes gleaming mischievously.

"You need cheering up," Helena pronounced without a trace of doubt.

Hard to deny that, but Barbara still felt like she ought to try. "I'm fine ... really."

The girl tipped her head to one side, peering at her guardian with an openly assessing look. "Usually you lie better than that," she pronounced after a beat, catching the woman completely by surprise. She snatched the movie out of Barbara's hand before the redhead could respond, eyeballing the tacky cover with a fond smile. "This is a camp classic," she murmured, her voice softening with the memory of other times. "My mom loved this flick. It's like the worst movie ever made ... purposely bad ... and she'd just howl while she was watching it." A muscle clenched along the line of her jaw, her eyes suddenly glossy. It suddenly struck her that it was the first time she'd managed to summon a pleasant memory without the agonized image of her mother's final moments burning in her brain. She plucked up the other movies, fanning them like an impressive poker hand. "We also have The Producers, A Fish Called Wanda, Ruthless People, Dogma, Mall Rats ... or if you're in the mood for something just a tad more serious, the original cuts of the Indiana Jones movies." Barbara was just staring at her as though she'd lost her mind. "Well, what are you waiting for?" Helena demanded when her guardian still hadn't moved. "Can't go watching videos on the computer...." She paused, realized that actually they probably could. "Or at least it's not very comfortable," she amended. "Which is why we're using the big screen TV, and crashing on the couch ... no argument ... go." She pointed in the proper direction, her manner jokingly firm.

Barbara's mouth worked for a moment, but no words came out.

"Go," Helena reiterated. "I'll be popping the microwave popcorn ... and which flavor of ice cream do you want?"

The redhead experienced another moment of total mental paralysis, then finally she muttered, "The mint," in a vaguely dazed voice.

"Mmmm, good choice," Helena approved before grabbing up the food and disappearing into the kitchen.

Barbara stared after the girl for a long moment, then finally shook off her daze. She considered further argument, then glanced at the computer, remembering her depression of moments before. Suddenly, the world felt like a very different place and she was in no hurry to go back to her earlier mood. She was still caught in the predictable debate when Helena popped her head back out of the kitchen.

"Go ... the couch ... now. Consider it an order." Then she ducked back into the kitchen.

"I guess that settles that," Barbara muttered under her breath, surprised when Helena called from the kitchen, "Damn right," her voice punctuated by the staccato beat of popcorn popping. "And I expect to find you sprawled on the couch when I get there."

Shaking her head, the redhead finally turned the chair around and headed toward the living room.

* * * * * *

 

"That may be the worst movie ever made," Barbara murmured as she watched the concluding moments of the adventures of Mason Dixon versus the vicious killer tomatoes. "I think the appearance of the San Diego Chicken at the end that really guaranteed it that slot."

"Mmmm," Helena confirmed around a mouthful of popcorn. "That's part of its charm. Y'see, it's intentionally bad ... carefully constructed to attain the pinnacle utter badness. The complete and total utter badness package ... from the acting to the effects, to the musical numbers ... plus the biggest star in the whole thing is Mr. Carlin from the Bob Newhart show."

A russet eyebrow rose. "How did you know--"

"Nick at Night," the girl explained, then grinned. They were lying on opposite ends of the couch, lounging on huge pillows, legs semi-tangled in the center, surrounded by the tattered remains of their binge. "Young Frankenstein next?" she questioned as the credits rolled to an end and she untangled herself to climb to her feet.

"Mmm, yeah, sounds good," Barbara murmured through a yawn as she settled back into the pillows. That one was a bit less frenetic and she was starting to wind down. Kind of amazing considering the volume of sugar Helena had all but force fed her, but she'd barely slept for several nights running, dreading the confrontation she could feel coming. When Helena returned, she watched as she resettled herself, then nodded to indicate the stack of videos. "So what's with the old movie binge?"

The teenager shrugged. "My mom always liked stuff like that. Sometimes we'd just do stuff like this ... y'know ... just be silly."

A gentle smile touched the redhead's expression. It was so strange to think of Catwoman as being silly, having fun, just enjoying herself and the company of her daughter. "I think that's really great," she said after a beat.

Helena nodded. "Yeah ... she was pretty cool." Her eyes slid closed for a long moment, the old longing for her mother's company washing over her. When her eyes snapped open again, there was a faintly forced quality to her good cheer. "No depressing thoughts tonight," she decreed seriously even as the opening credits started to roll. A shared smile followed as she settled back into the couch, enjoying the relaxed warmth of the night far more than she would have an evening spent in Joe's company, even if it was a hell of a lot harder on her hormones. After all just looking at Joe didn't make her vibrate with lust, and with him she could have had some measure of resolution for the sensations and emotions playing havoc with her mind and body. She carefully nudged Barbara's calf with her bare foot to make a little more room for her leg, even that slight contact enough to send runners of hot sensation up and down her leg, the experience so intense she was perversely grateful that Barbara couldn't feel the contact or she might have looked up and noted her response.

"Always liked this movie," the redhead murmured distantly, snuggling deeper into the cushions, then pulling the afghan folded over the back of the couch down over herself.

Helena cuddled a little deeper into her own cushions, her eyes on Barbara, watching from under the cover of thick lashes. She suddenly realized she was rubbing her big toe gently against Barbara's calf where they were nudged up against one another, the move instinctive and unplanned. In an instant, she went from being perversely grateful to being lost in agonizing pain. All it would have taken was that tiny touch and any number of people she'd dated would have been all over her, hoping for the ultimate pleasure. Barbara didn't even know it had happened. It was so wrong and unfair that some goddamned psychopath had taken so much from both of them. From them, she repeated the thought mentally as it struck her what she was thinking. Not that it was a new thought, it was just that she abruptly realized that she'd just assumed so much ... like that she had a chance. Barbara's affair with Dick probably rejected any chance of that.

After all, if big, muscular, and very male was what Barbara was looking for, Helena lost out on all points. Except that there were times that the redhead would look at her a certain way, lean a little closer during their workouts, or get a particular tone of voice that gave her hope in a way she couldn't even begin to describe.

It wasn't like the lusty looks she got from her own age group and perverts far too old to rightfully be looking at her that way. But Barbara wasn't like either of those groups, and the looks weren't about lust, though Helena thought she'd detected the undercurrent of temptation and desire on more than one occasion. It was there in the softness that came over her expression, the gentleness of her touch when she'd reach out and brush Helena's bangs back with a light hand. She remembered her guardian's disgust when one of the student teachers had been caught dating students. She'd been furious that anyone would abuse their position that way. Which was exactly how Barbara would view anything between them, the girl realized in an unwanted rush of understanding. Which probably explained a lot.

Or maybe she just wasn't interested in anything beyond their current relationship, and Helena was seeing shapes in the clouds if she thought there was anything more to it. She sighed softly, sinking into the cushions more deeply as she tried to concentrate on the movie, though she was aware enough of the woman on the other end of the couch to know exactly when she relaxed into shallow sleep, her breathing slowing and becoming more even.

Long minutes later, she was equally aware of Barbara's steady slide into far deeper sleep. Good, she needed the rest. At the best of times, Barbara tended toward overwork, but lately she'd been spending increasing time on the Delphi and decreasing time in bed. Fine by her, if she was honest about it. She wasn't one to complain when Barbara wasn't in bed with Dick because when she was it was enough to make Helena faintly insane with jealousy. Or perhaps extremely insane, judging by the fact that she hadn't slept so well for the last couple of months either, too tormented by all the things she'd imagined between them to get more than the most shallow, restless slumber.

Helena wasn't even aware of falling asleep, just that she must have lost consciousness when something wakened her again and she noted that the television screen was black, the film long since ended. At first she didn't know what had wakened her, then she heard Barbara whimper softly, not quite a word, more the frightened sound a trapped animal might make. She pushed up on her elbows, purposely using her powers to see as well in the darkened room as she would have in a well lit one. Barbara was twitching gently, hands clutching a pillow tightly, tiny sounds escaping her throat, obviously caught in the throes of a nightmare.

Helena didn't even pause to consider her actions, simply moved, the animal part of her ensuring that her reaction was absolutely controlled and graceful. She rose and reversed herself in one move, coming back down stretched out alongside her guardian, slipping easily into the narrow space between Barbara and the back of the couch, her arms sliding naturally around the slender figure. "Shhh, it's okay," she breathed near a delicate ear. "You're safe." She let a hand flutter soothingly through crimson silk, stroking slowly, her voice soft and warm. "I'm here ... and I'll take care of you...." She continued petting soft hair and whispering soothing nonsense as she felt the tremors drain away, her heart suddenly in her throat when Barbara turned more into her body as though seeking protection. "It's all right," Helena soothed, then groaned low in her throat as Barbara nuzzled into the curve of her neck, her breath playing over sensitive skin. Suddenly, she was the one trembling, her hands aching to touch and stroke, mouth eager to taste and tease. "You're safe," she whispered again, her voice dropping lower this time, taking on an all new note. Barbara mumbled something unintelligible, pressing deeper into the curve of Helena's neck, one hand curling into the girl's blouse, knuckles resting against her upper chest. The girl's teeth dug into her lower lip, tension running through her muscles, temptation like fire in her blood. Her lips moved, the soft words she uttered very nearly inaudible. "I love you." One hand was braced on Barbara's center back and she slid it down, easing it under the soft fabric of the older woman's blouse, fingers spreading against velvety skin. A tiny, high pitched whimper abruptly escaped the young woman's throat when Barbara nuzzled a little deeper, her lips brushing already overheated skin.

"Safe," her guardian mumbled, settling back into a deep, comfortable sleep.

"Yes," Helen groaned softly, "you're safe now." She wanted like she'd never wanted anything before in her entire life. Like she couldn't imagine wanting anything in her future life. She ducked her head, lips brushing Barbara's forehead, just barely moving her hand against the soft skin stretched taut over the faint unevenness of her spine as she worked her way higher, caressing tenderly. So close. And it would be so easy. Full lips were gently parted in sleep, and Helena knew it would be so simple to brush them with her own, kiss softly, let caresses slide around from Barbara's back to the warmth of the firm breasts pressed against her chest. She could feel the subtle shape of her nipples, soft now, but she could imagine stroking them, feeling them grow taut and firm under her touch. Just like she could imagine layering free floating kisses over the redhead's torso, taking her time in exploring runs of newly rebuilt muscle and discovering all the ways to touch and arouse. She'd read what little she could find on the subject---a couple of pamphlets stolen from the doctor's office and another pamphlet from a self help group that specialized in informing patients about such things---knew it would take some experimentation and a lot of care, but she was ready to do anything to assure Barbara's pleasure. Because Barbara's pleasure would be her own.

Her mind a riot of erotic fantasies, she gave complete way to the animal, the improved senses, strength, and power ... desire ... and her lips brushed Barbara's forehead again, then moved along to taste the delicate flesh at her temple. Warmth coupled with the faint salt of skin filled her senses, inflaming them, driving her passions in ways she had little hope of controlling. All she had to do was duck her head a little farther to taste the mouth that was driving her half mad with want. She could kiss and press past soft lips, explore more deeply while her hands touched and caressed. Her breath coming in ragged, unsteady gasps, the need for more driving her half mad, a soft, possessive growl bubbled up from her chest. Barbara would resist at first, her morality far too staid to allow her to simply give way, but once she�

NO!

You can steal things all you want, Helena ... I'm in no position to tell you not to ... but you can't steal people....

Her mother's words rang in her ears.

...you can't steal people....

Actually, she could ... but, no ...she couldn't. She felt sweat gathering over her spine as she consciously pulled back and eased her hand free of Barbara's blouse, breaking the burning contact before she gave way to the heady lust. She might want, but she had no right. She was shaking, her teeth chattering as if from the cold, but she did what she had to.

What her mother would have wanted.

If this didn't get her into heaven, nothing would. She sighed heavily, releasing some of the tension, and started to ease free of her position where she was pressed up against Barbara only to freeze as the hand on her chest curled loosely into her blouse, clinging while a soft, sleep-filled mumble reached her ears.

"Don' go." Not entirely asleep, but far from awake, Barbara lay warm and quiescent against Helena.

"I...." The girl lay frozen, the neurons in her brain misfiring. Oh yeah, God had a sense of humor. No question about it. Barbara was asking her to stay right where she was, except as sleepy as the other woman was, maybe it wasn't Helena she was asking, but Dick, and either way, if she stayed she somehow would manage to have one foot in heaven while the other resided in hell.

"Jus' so tired," Barbara sighed softly, her breathing slowing once again. "Feel safe here." The hand on Helena's chest slid loosely around her neck, muscles momentarily tensing to move, then going limp again. "Wanna sleep ... safe...." The soft exhalation sounded very young and a little frightened, the timbre enough to shatter the teenager's hormone driven lust.

Helena sighed very softly, her breath ruffling red hair, while her fingers slid lightly over the fine strands. "I'll keep you safe," she reiterated her earlier promise.

"I know," Barbara exhaled, her voice trailing away into slow, steady breathing.

Definitely one foot in heaven and the other in hell. There was no other way to describe it, Helena thought as she lay there, driven half mad, but resolute. She wouldn't touch, wouldn't take. More than a year before her mother had accused her of using her anger as an excuse to try and take something she had no right to ... and she'd been absolutely right about that. No excuses this time.

Her fingers fluttered over silky hair, sifting through the fine strands and enjoying their cool texture. She took another deep breath, released it, forcing down some of the tension. "I'll protect you," she repeated, her expression softening. She could do this. She closed her eyes, concentrating on her mother's words. Not the right time, she'd also said. Maybe, maybe not, Helena thought, the intensity of emotion coupled with the softness and warmth of the body pressed so close making it seem like it was, while an edge of realism said no. "Claws-off territory," she breathed almost inaudibly, purposely repeating her mother's admonition even though it brought up the vague reminder that she hadn't been the only one experience that early, raw attraction. She pushed that thought down, not wanting to think of her early suspicions that perhaps her mother had pursued some fleeting bit of pleasure with Barbara. No, she'd said the redhead was claws-off for both of them. She wouldn't do that to Helena, and she'd never lied to her daughter even when she didn't speak a word of truth to the rest of the world. Not the right time was what she'd said of Helena's feelings for her teacher, which implied maybe there was a right time.

She'd already survived watching the affair with Dick. She could get through anything. Even not giving way to the painful, aching, desperate allure of the body in her arms. "You can do this," she breathed over and over to ward off the urge to do what she knew she shouldn't.

She fell asleep still whispering the protective mantra, despite everything, her body more relaxed than it had been in months.

* * * * * *

Barbara was trapped, caught in the frame the doctors had strapped her into to assure she didn't harm her back, helpless to defend herself as the Joker advanced, his mouth twisted in a cruel smile. Come to finish what he'd started, she realized, and tried to bring her arms down. Only now, instead of just her legs, her entire body was immobilized. Laughing softly at her inability to fight back, he paced around her, and she heard the ear numbing explosion of gunfire followed by the click and whoosh of a camera ... over and over, the sound barely registering past the agony that made her whimper and moan. Then suddenly something else was there. No, not something, someone. A figure, slender but so strong Barbara couldn't help but feel the radiating power, stepped between the trapped woman and her attacker. The lean body tensed, a soft, confident laugh floating on the air. The click and swish of the camera stopped along with the Joker's mad giggles, and suddenly she was alone with her dark protector.

"You're safe," she whispered and leaned close, graceful hands freeing the bindings. "I'll protect you."

Some part of Barbara wanted to revolt against the quiet proclamation, declare herself completely independent, insist that she needed no one, but the words wouldn't come.

"I'll always protect you."

She was still musing on the identity of the voice when she realized she wasn't being held by ropes or steel, but that the bindings around her body were warm and giving, the padding against the back of her head rising and subsiding rhythmically---breathing? She blinked, the dream gradually giving way to reality. A moment's disorientation, and then she realized she was in the darkened livingroom, lying on the couch, the television long since gone dark. Warm breath teased the back of her neck, the arms wrapped loosely around her torso tightening fractionally as she twisted, frowning in confusion. Dick? No, Dick had taken his things and left. She felt a faint stirring, then more controlled movement, and Helena pushed up on one elbow, peering past Barbara's shoulder as she leaned into view. "I ... uh ... what?" the redhead whispered in confusion. As she thought about it, she remembered that they'd both been on the couch watching the movie, but on opposite ends, facing opposite directions. Obviously, something had happened somewhere along the way.

The girl blinked sleepily and reached up to brush overlong bangs out of her eyes. "You ... uh ... you had a nightmare," she said by way of explanation. "And it seemed to help ... y'know ... to have someone close," she added haltingly.

Barbara felt an embarrassed flush slide over her skin and was suddenly grateful for the darkness that sheltered the sight from view. Or at least, it probably did. With Helena's abilities, maybe not. "Oh," she breathed, looking away. A tiny, wry laugh escaped her lips. "First time that's happened in awhile."

Torn between the impulse to run and the desire to stay right where she was, Helena found she couldn't move. "I know they were pretty bad there for awhile," she whispered, remembering the times she'd seen Barbara straining against the restraints meant to protect her back, and later, when she was out of the hospital, but still drugged and attended to by a staff of nurses, there'd been times when Helena had lain the niche above her bedroom, tormented by the frightened whimpers from the woman below.

"Yeah," Barbara admitted, sounding even more embarrassed. She hated the vulnerable feeling the memories drew to the fore. "They were nasty." She closed her eyes, the memory of those gut-ripping dreams still enough to make her tremble. "But I haven't had any lately ... not since I got all the way off the pain killers."

"The shooting?" the teen whispered.

"No," Barbara said, "being back in the back-frame ... unable to move ... and then the Joker showing up." she shook her head, suddenly feeling very young and vulnerable, oddly grateful for the protective shell of the surrounding darkness. "Taking pictures ... I could hear the camera...." It was easier to admit to some things that way. She fought a shiver at the memory of those sounds. "Guess I'm a little shakier than I thought," she added, her tone ironic.

Helena settled back into the cushions, sensing that Barbara wasn't eager for the close perusal she would have preferred. She felt the other woman relax, still only half awake. "Not surprising. You've been through a lot ... and I probably didn't help with the sugar rush."

"It's not your fault," Barbara quickly denied. "Just ... everything ... piling up on me." She sighed heavily, thinking she ought to move, but needing the comfort too much to pull away. She felt a gentle hand on her hair, petting slowly, the light caresses soothing.

"You want to talk about it?" Helena asked.

Barbara knew she should refuse, but still shaken by her dreams and torn apart by all the worries and fears she couldn't escape, she found herself whispering. "Sometimes it just feels like I'm never going to feel whole again...." She closed her eyes, blocking the world out and concentrating on herself. "I mean, Dick was in love with me ... and even that couldn't make it work ... couldn't fix anything ... couldn't even change anything." She was so tired of feeling so damned alone.

The quiet despair in her voice nearly broke Helena's heart, making her want to fix all the things that Dick couldn't, ready to do anything to make everything the way it should have been. "Okay, so he wasn't the right one," she murmured, and her fingers still sliding rhythmically through crimson silk, "but you'll find someone." Her, if Helena had anything to do with it. Her thumb brushed Barbara's temple, her touch incredibly gentle, achingly aware of the texture of soft skin and hair. "Just take your time ... make sure it's right."

Barbara shifted ever so slightly, snuggling deeper into the warmth of the arms wrapped around her, impossibly soothed by that sense of closeness and caring. It would be so easy to just sink into depression; easy and oh so tempting, but the girl had a way of dragging her back from the edge when she found herself on the verge of tumbling. "I just can't do it again," she whispered, not arguing when Helena's arms tightened around her. She'd taken to rejecting that sort of comfort, afraid she was putting too much on slender shoulders, but at that moment she needed it too much to turn away. "And besides ... it's not about..." she paused, considering her words before she continued, "whether or not I'm in a relationship. It's more than that." She sighed softly. "I think I wanted Dick to fix me ... but I've got to find a way to think of myself as something other than broken--"

"You're not--"

"I am," Barbara disagreed. "Inside." She reached up to massage her temple. "I'm not talking about my back ... but ... I dunno how to put it. I just ... there are things I need to figure out for myself ... find out who I am now ... because I don't know ... me ... anymore...." She made a small, frustrated sound in the back of her throat. "Nobody else can fix things ... I need find the answers for myself ... not lean on someone else."

"I'll do anything I can to help," the teenager proclaimed quietly.

"I know," Barbara assured her, reaching up and back to ruffle soft hair affectionately. "You've been great." She felt a twinge of guilt for how much she relied on the girl, but she honestly didn't know what she would have done without Helena. Responsibility for the teenager had given her a reason to fight for her life, drawn her back from the point of death where she'd willingly been ready to go when she realized that her days of leaping from building to building---or just walking down to the corner store---were over for good. Then after that, the girl had shown a real knack for getting past---or more correctly around---the walls she built, of finding ways to reach her where everyone else failed miserably. "I don't think I could have made it through everything without you."

"You'd have been okay," Helena disagreed quietly, part of her eager to think that Barbara needed her, but also unable to contemplate that under different circumstances, she might not have made it.

"No," Barbara disagreed seriously, "I don't think I would have been." She'd been so close to the edge, and she was far from certain she'd have had a chance without the things Helena brought to her life. "I need you," she whispered very softly.

The quietly spoken words were like a punch straight to the heart, and Helena didn't know what to say or do when she heard them. She couldn't think straight, couldn't see straight, had to actually concentrate to remember to draw air into her lungs, then exhale, then inhale again. "I ... uh ... I guess it's a good thing I'm here then," she finally managed to croak.

"Yeah," Barbara murmured, the quiet words releasing the tension more effectively than she would have thought possible. It felt good to admit to some of the fears tearing her apart ... no matter how obliquely. "Definitely a good thing."

Swallowing hard, Helena leaned a little closer, silky hair brushing her nose and cheeks, nerve endings alive with the awareness of the body ensconced safely in her arms. Way beyond good, she thought. She wanted more, wanted to try for more, her instincts triggered and driving her to seek out and conquer what she wanted more than life itself. Except other instincts told her that a pass wouldn't be welcome, and a failed attempt would do more damage than she was willing to risk. Teeth gritted, she held back on the thick, sensual drives. "We're family now. That's all that matters."

"Mmhm, family," Barbara confirmed, relaxing with a soft sigh. Fingers continued to pet her hair lightly, and she closed her eyes, tempted to simply slide back into the comforts of sleep, certain the nightmares were gone for the moment.

Helena simply snuggled in, grateful for anything she could get.

They were still lying like that nearly an hour later when a soft, high pitched ringing brought them both out of the pleasant repose. "Delphi alarm," Barbara muttered, twisting to reach for her wheelchair where it sat next to the couch. She grabbed the alarm attached to the side of the chair, hitting a switch to backlight the scrolling text. "Attempted kidnaping," she whispered, then sounded shocked as the system just kept scrolling. "Hold ups all over town ... a three alarm fire ... four burglaries in progress ... two brawls at local bars...." She trailed off, just staring as more things scrolled across the beeper like device. "What the hell?"

Helena pushed up on her elbow, peering past Barbara's shoulder at the readout. "As in hell's breaking out all over," she murmured as she stared at the sheer volume in shock.

"I've got a very bad feeling about," Barbara muttered. Yeah, New Gotham was a crime ridden city, but this was ridiculous. She reached out again, dragging her chair closer.

"Back to work?" Helena questioned, trying not to sound as annoyed as she felt.

"Definitely," Barbara said, her full concentration on the text still scrolling across the tiny screen. Definitely way too much happening to be nothing but a coincidence. Pushing upright, she easily shifted herself into the chair, and was already rolling for the computer when Helena bounded to her feet and followed close behind. Barbara already had a chart of the city showing the various incidents gleaming on a large monitor when she arrived. The tiny, red dots were bright and steadily increasing.

"That's not good, is it?" Helena murmured, staring at the mess in silent horror.

"Not the least bit," Barbara confirmed and grabbed for a headset, adjusting the mic in front of her mouth as she started typing. "Sounds like the police are mobilizing fast," she said as she monitored their communications on the headset. Something dinged, and she hit a switch, bringing up a new line. "Nightwing ... yeah...."

Helena tensed, none too thrilled that the Boy Blunder might have found a way back into Barbara's life.

"It's going off all over town ... way too much for any one person to deal with. The police are on most of the reports," the redhead murmured, unaware of Helena's response as she tracked through the reports coming in from all corners, "but there's a possible hostage situation at sixth and Vermont ... that's not too far from your place, and it looks like the police don't have anyone in the area." Her fingers were still moving, apparently independent from whatever she was saying. "Call in when you can ... you too."

"Dick?" Helena murmured, and even managed to keep most of the hostility out of her voice.

"Yeah, he called in because he could hear the sirens going off on all sides." Barbara's concentration remained on what she was doing. "Figured there was trouble ... and he knew I could track it." Her tone was all business, making it plain that nothing personal had been mentioned.

"So, what's going on?"

The older woman shook her head. "I don't think this is a coincidence," she said at last, the words coming in halting syllables with longer than normal pauses between. She glanced over at the gleaming map with its incident reports, suddenly seeing the pattern. "Oh shit," she exhaled. "They're drawing the police away from North end of town."

Helena spun and stared, her jaw dropping as she saw what her guardian had seen. "Why?"

"Good question," Barbara murmured.

"What are you--"

"Mobilizing additional police since they haven't yet."

Helena didn't even want to know how Barbara could do that with nothing more than a few keystrokes. "But won't that take time?"

"Yeah," the redhead confirmed. "At least an hour ... and my guess is whoever's doing this knows that. They've thought this through. That's why they're triggering things all at once ... making sure the incidents are just dangerous enough that they can't be ignored." She'd seen a similar pattern once before ... when Joker tried to take over the city. "Whatever they're planning, it'll happen fast ... they'll have to hit during the window when everyone's busy, but more officer's haven't come in yet." But the Joker was locked up tight. "The harlequin," she exhaled as she realized who it had to be. "Dear God, she's going to try and break the Joker out."

Helena felt her pulse slam into overdrive, the world ghosting, then becoming far sharper to her eyes as her powers kicked in. "Tell me you're kidding," she breathed, her breathing slowing, becoming controlled, gaze honing to razor sharpness.

"I don't think so," Barbara said, zooming the map view out as she calculated in the reports from the county sheriff's office as well. Same pattern. "This is not good."

"You've gotta warn the cops."

"I am ... have ... but they've got civilians at risk. They can't not respond based on what might happen. All they can do is mobilize as quickly as possible." She was working fast, tapping into Arkham Asylum's security system and taking control. She already knew the way into their computer system. She'd checked on Joker in the past. When the nightmares got too intense and she was spooking herself in the dead of night, afraid he'd come to finish the task of eliminating everything Batman loved from the face of the earth, she'd needed to reassure herself that he couldn't come for them. Even before the Delphi, she'd managed a low level hack into Arkham's security system, unable to do anything, but good enough to get a look at the security cameras that confirmed he was still safely locked up where he couldn't do any more damage. She pulled up the security cameras, punched in the right code. There he was, wrapped up tight, straight jacketed and padded roomed. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy. She pulled up his patient records, then frowned, her head tipping to one side as she considered what she was reading. "That's why." She tapped her thumbnail against the screen. Focused on what she was doing, she never noticed the way Helena stepped back, slinging on her jacket, then retrieving Barbara's latest incarnation of a miniature two-way radio.

"What?" the girl asked as she tucked the headset into her ear and wrapped the throat mic around her neck.

"They're moving him tomorrow ... to a federal facility ... much more secure." Another alarm went off on Barbara's panel. "New Gotham Bank is getting hit," the redhead murmured, wincing as a soft explosion could be heard in the distance. "Sounds like they're trying to blow the vault." That would draw the attention of any cops responding to the call. Which would leave no one who could respond if there was a problem at Arkham. There were guards on duty, but most of them were poorly paid and ill trained for the job. And, except for one or two on the main gate, they were unarmed, the risk of allowing weapons into the facility considered far too great to even consider given the extraordinarily dangerous clientele they cared for. The whole system was designed to keep people in ... not out.

"Are you sure that's the plan?" Helena demanded, her voice ragged. The bastard had murdered her mother and put Barbara in that damn chair. If somebody was trying to break him out, she had no intention of allowing it to happen.

"Not a hundred percent ... but it makes sense." Barbara trailed a finger down a listing for the Arkham security system, hunting for anything that she could use if needed, sublimating her stark, raving terror into the task of making sure her mentor's old enemy remained contained.

"Then I'm going out there," Helena said without pause.

Barbara froze as though she'd taken a solid jolt of electricity, then she spun, staring at the girl with a look of horror. "No," she said simply, her tone decisive. She couldn't forget what had happened the last time she'd been on headset with someone in a dangerous situation. "It's too risky."

"I'm going," Helena repeated, eyes gleaming with deadly determination. If the Joker got out, he'd come for both of them, and she had no intention of allowing him another chance to finish what he'd started with Barbara. She shook her head. "I won't see him escape."

"Don't worry, that's not going to happen," Barbara assured her, and spun back around, unable to spare the time to talk the girl out of whatever she was planning. "I'm notifying the local F.B.I. ... making it look like an emergency order from Washington. They'll get agents out there. They'll move him tonight."

"I'm going," Helena said again and backed up a step as she flicked the transceiver and microphone on.

"No ... you're ... not," Barbara snarled, eyes blazing as she flashed a glare over one shoulder at the girl.

"You can't stop me," Helena said simply, and pivoted on one foot as she started toward the door.

"Actually, I can," Barbara disagreed calmly, and hit a shortcut on her keyboard, bringing up the controls on the security system, newly patched through the Delphi. A single command and the entire thing was locking down. The intention had been to keep any unwanted visitors out, but it would work just as well to keep the girl in.

Helena did a fast spin, swallowing hard as she heard locks engaging on all sides.

"You're not going," Barbara said simply and focused on her monitors again, fingers dancing over the keyboard, navigating the system and hunting down ways of doing what she had to.

Her expression taut with fury, Helena just glared at her guardian's back, enraged to think that Barbara was preventing her from stopping the Joker's escape, just like her father had refused to kill him, and made sure she couldn't even do the job. "Unlock the doors," she demanded, her voice little more than a tight rasp.

No debate, no anger, no emotion whatsoever, simply a flat statement. "No."

"Dammit--"

"I nearly got you killed once before. I'm not letting it happen again." Better the Joker escape than the girl wind up dead the way her mother had. That was a risk Barbara couldn't take.

"And if he gets away, how many people die?" Helena demanded.

"That won't happen," Barbara insisted, switching the camera view to one of monitoring positions on the outer wall, and silently scanning the surrounding countryside. Nothing moving. And then suddenly she saw a flicker of movement. Light in the distance and moving fast. "Shit," she breathed, comfortably certain that meant trouble. Arkham was at the end of a very lonely, empty road.

"You can't stop that." Helena shook her head and pulled away. "I can." And then she spun, moving fast, vaulting up to the second level, her boots noisy on the grating.

"Helena ... no!" Barbara snapped, her voice ringing over the headset in the girl's ear.

The doors to the overlook were locked, and the clock face was all triple reinforced, bullet proof glass---even Helena probably couldn't break through that---but the window above Barbara's bedroom was manual, a simple latch that everyone probably assumed had ceased working years before. She hit the bedroom and bounded high, leaping to the narrow window ledge and shoving the glass pain open with a single hard shove. In an instant, she was out into the night, wind ruffling her hair, a wild thing once again. "Sorry," she apologized to Barbara. "I have to do this."

The redhead spun just in time to see a lean, fast moving shadow fly in front of the window panels of the clock as Helena tore away into the night. "NO!!" she very nearly screamed. "Goddammit, Huntress," she snarled, barely remembering to use code names, "get your ass back here, right now!"

She could hear the whoosh of rushing air backing Helena's firm refusal. "No."

"Dammit," Barbara hissed, fighting panic even as she forced herself to concentrate on the computer screen. "Don't do this." She was torn between pleading and commanding. "God only knows what they've got planned. You can't face them alone."

"It'll be okay,"

Helena insisted. "You've the security system covered. You can back me up that way."

"Great plan, we saw how well that worked before," Barbara hissed sarcastically.

"Nightwing didn't follow orders. I will."

"Oh yeah, you're doing so well with that," the redhead shot back furiously.

"I trust you,"

Helena said simply. "Now you've got to trust me ... because we both know someone has to do this."

Green eyes slid closed and the redhead shook her head slowly. "You don't understand. This security system is much more complicated than the other one. Once I take over completely, I won't be able to go remote and maintain any semblance of control. If something goes wrong, you'll be on your own ... and you're not ready ... not even close." She was close to making the decision to just set up the remote and leave on general principles. Except the wireless modem on her laptop---while the best money could buy---was nowhere near up to the task of the kind of tight, fast hacking that might be necessary. And any delay was likely to get the girl killed. Hard as it was to admit, she could probably do more good right where she was than she could in the field.

"Somebody has to go, Oracle, you know that as well as I do. Nightwing isn't available. I'm the only one who can do this ... and we can't risk letting the Joker escape."

"It's too dangerous," Barbara disagreed.

"No ... letting him escape is too dangerous."

Great, the kid had to pick tonight to start sounding so damn mature it hurt. "Please," Barbara whispered at last, terrified of the prospect of helping to shepherd someone else she cared for into a dangerous situation, "don't do this." Don't do this to me, she added silently.

"I'm sorry,"

Helena whispered, more than a little pity in her voice. "I have to."

Barbara wanted to scream and rage and grab Helena around the collar and drag her back by force. Unfortunately, that was no longer an option. Even in the hummer she'd bought to replace the trashed van, she couldn't beat Helena to Arkham. "If you get yourself killed, so help me God, I'm never speaking to you again," she threatened.

"It'll be okay,"

Helena assured her.

* * * * * *

"I won't let anything hurt you," the girl added soundlessly, her mouth working, but words unheard on the other end of the line. "What about that incoming vehicle?" she asked aloud.

"It's slowed way down ... but that's a pretty rough road, so they may not have much choice."

Or they might have paused to get ready for a full out assault. Helena was already close to the edge of the city and she leapt, catching a ride on the top of a Ryder truck headed her way. On the open road, it could move faster than she could. "Tell me about the layout of the place," she demanded, wanting any information she could get.

A moment passed and then Barbara began, clearly fighting to keep her voice cool and emotionless. "The system is mostly automated. Not many guards, since they've had problems with them being ... influenced ... by some of the inmates. Joker's in a massively reinforced section ... locked away as tight as they can keep him."

"Then they'll be ready for that," Helena whispered, clinging tightly as she watched the world go by.

"Probably."

A few minutes later, another leap landed Helena on a panel truck as it turned onto the Arkham road. "I'm almost there," she informed Barbara, then fell silent as she suddenly realized she could hear noises inside the truck. She looked down, a frown sketching its way across her features. "Uhh ... Oracle," she exhaled, "I think there's somebody in this truck."

"Umm ... I would hope so,"

her guardian murmured on a confused note.

"No ... I mean ... in the back. I can hear what sounds like people moving...." She pressed her ear to the top of the truck. "And voices.... I ... uh ... I think whatever's going on, they're a part of it." She looked up and saw the reflection from headlights on up the road. "And I think maybe not joining up with that other truck is a really good idea," she decided out loud.

"Can you get to the driver?"

Barbara asked.

"We'll see," Helena murmured and crept forward. Sliding onto the cab, she leaned over the side and carefully peered in. The driver was dressed all in black and wearing some kind of tactical vest loaded down with what appeared to be weapons. There was no one in the passenger seat. "There's just a driver ... but he's armed," she informed Barbara.

"If you can get to the steering wheel, and yank hard, you can make it jackknife, but you'll have to jump off fast. You don't want to be aboard when things go wrong."

Helena nodded. She'd seen the maneuver in a dozen cheesy movies, but trying it in reality was a totally different prospect.

"Look, you don't have to--"

"Yes, I do," she growled, then swung herself over the side of the cab, grabbing for the outside rear view mirror with one hand and punching with the other. Safety glass gave and shattered inward and she heard the driver's shouted obscenity as she grabbed for the wheel and pulled it her way as hard as she could. The driver screamed in shock, reaching for the pistol holstered under his armpit, and she let go of the wheel just long enough to punch him hard in the jaw. She saw his head rock to the side with the force of the blow, and then the world was rushing by at an amazing rate as she hurled herself clear. She hit dirt and leaves and tumbled, then used her momentum to roll to one knee, watching as the panel truck skidded sideways down the highway, wobbling momentarily before it tipped on its side, skidded a few more yards, then came to a halt. She trotted forward, found the driver unconscious and bleeding, while there were groans coming from the back. "They'll need medical transport for these guys," she informed Barbara.

"I'll see to it. Are they locked up?"

"Tight," Helena said as she checked things. "I don't think they're getting out of here anytime soon." She turned her attention back up the road. "But it looks like the other vehicle's moving faster now."

"Yeah, I can see that."

The teenager broke into a run, legs eating up the distance, her every instinct telling her she had to stop that van from getting to Arkham.

"There's a federal SWAT team on the way. You only have to delay things until they can get there."

"Understood." Cutting cross country, running faster than any human could, she came up on the van just as it reached the outer gates of the asylum.

"I've got security as locked down as I can make it ... totally taken control. But if they've got explosives ... the walls may not hold."

Helena pulled up short, watching from the cover of a tree, simply blending in with the shadows. "Looks like there are fifteen ... maybe twenty of them," she told Barbara as she tried to count the invaders without much success. Dressed all alike in black and moving around the truck, it was impossible to be certain how many there were. "Well armed." Then she saw a man lift what looked like a bazooka to his shoulder. "Shit," she hissed as she dove down.

A sharp hiss, then a whoosh, a flash of light, a crash, and something hit the outer wall of Arkham. A small, sharp, directed explosion followed, drilling a neat hole through the thick wall.

"They're already through," Helena whispered.

"Yeah ... I can see."

The girl could hear the rapid fire sounds of typing in the background. "What the...."

"What?" Helena demanded.

"Just a sec'," the older woman ordered briskly. "Something's not ... right."

* * * * * *

"What do you mean?"

Helena demanded over the headset.

Barbara was staring at the video image of the Joker playing on one monitor. He was giggling and babbling, driven even madder by his last encounter with his nemesis. "I'm not sure."

"Look, I've gotta move now ... or I lose my chance."

"Hold off," Barbara ordered, still hunting for what was bothering her.

* * * * * *

"I can't," Helena insisted. Once they got through the walls, it would be far more dangerous to try and follow. In tight, unknown confines, it would be that much harder for one person on their own to take on a well armed group of attackers.

"You said you'd follow orders--"

"Yeah, but--"

"Then do what I tell you ... and stay put until I figure out what the hell I'm looking at.

Teeth gritted, the girl hissed a curse through her teeth, but didn't move. "All right." She didn't like it one little bit, but she'd made the agreement.

* * * * * *

Barbara was still studying the readouts and trying to find the flaw in the system, hunting for the answer she could sense was very close, when everything started to go wrong just the way it had before, her control over the security system tumbling like neatly arranged dominoes. She dug in, fighting it, but it was like everything she'd done was an illusion.

An illusion?

She stared at the image of the Joker, still giggling madly.

"Oracle ... another van just showed ... big and black, guys in full gear coming out."

* * * * * *

Helena didn't wait for Barbara to order her to get down to hit the dirt, just dove down just as automatic gunfire began to fill the night. Not aimed at her, thank god. Nobody'd noticed her in the chaos, but she was still sitting more or less between them, and several of the men trying to break into Arkham seemed to be trying to make their way her direction in hopes of getting closer to their attackers while using the trees as cover. She glanced back and forth. She was a sitting duck. "Sorry, Oracle, gotta move it or lose it," she gritted and thrust to her feet, breaking into a run and skirting the combat headed her way, running parallel with the wall until she saw a tree that would do what she needed. She leapt, scrambled, using branches to kick off and gain momentum, made it high enough, then leapt again, easily sailing high over the bundled razor wire meant to keep the inmates inside. The bad guys were busy trading gunfire with the newcomers and never noticed her. She dropped to the ground just as several made their way into the building and followed close behind.

"Helena?"

"I'm inside," the girl hissed. "No choice. It was that or get shot." She glanced behind her, noting that the others were still fighting with the newcomers. "Doors were unlocked ... I'm following two of the guys." Her jaw clenched, eyes flinty. "They're headed for the Joker."

"I've got you on monitor, but I'm not commanding the system anymore ... so be careful."

"I promise," the girl whispered, still following the men, but treading lightly now. Arkham was a dark place, dominated by deep shadows and narrow corridors. There were massive security measures, but none of them were functioning. The gates were slid back, the doors open, and there wasn't a guard in sight. "This isn't right." There should have at least been a few guards trying to maintain security. No such luck.

* * * * * *

"No, it's not," Barbara agreed as she pulled up the angle that should have shown Helena. Only suddenly she wasn't there. Just an empty hallway. "Where are you."

"Maybe fifty yards inside the south entrance ... took a right from there."

Which was exactly where Barbara placed her mentally. Except the monitors didn't show her there. "You're not on the cameras," she whispered in confusion, then went back to the image of the Joker. Something wasn't right. Her eyes went back to the monitor that should have shown Helena. She pulled a camera from the outer walls, noting the ongoing firefight. The thugs had made their way inside the walls and were using them for cover, heavily enough armed that they were giving the SWAT team holy hell. She frowned as several of them broke away from the others, heading inside. Not good. That put Helena sandwiched between armed men. The two men ahead of her were completely focused on where they were headed and not where they'd been, apparently convinced their backs were covered.. "You've got two men ahead of you ... I can't see you so I'm guessing ... probably about twenty yards ... lightly armed. Can you take them down?"

* * * * * *

Helena cocked an ear, plucking out the sound of boots on tile and nervous whispers ahead of her. "Oh yeah," she breathed. This was what she was here for. Okay, so if she happened to run into the Joker and rip his head off while she was at it, that was okay too. And then she was moving, incredibly fast and silent, very nearly gliding, her feet hardly seeming to touch the floor. Eyes that were perfectly geared to seeing in the dark made out every detail of the shadowed hallway ahead of her, tracking her prey as she rounded a corner and came up on them from behind. She saw their guns---pistols, in hand and pointed ceilingward---and reached for them as she advanced at superhuman speed. Delicate fingers closed on their upraised hands and the guns they held, clamping down and twisting at the same time. Unbelievable pressure resulted in a symphony of snapping bone, and agonized screams. Desperate to stop the pain, both men spun toward her, but she snapped their hands up, pistol whipping them with their own weapons while they were still holding them. Both men were bloodied and whimpering in seconds. She stripped their guns away as their knees buckled, hurling them aside, then took them all the way down with a couple of hard blows that left broken noses, and knocked out a couple of teeth.

"There are more coming,"

Barbara warned her, "so hurry."

"Almost got it," Helena assured her, taking a moment to drag both men into a storage room where they were out of sight. She glanced up, noting a security camera. "Can you see me?"

"For a just a second and then you dropped off again,"

Barbara responded, the confusion obvious in her voice. "I think I've got another ghost in the system ... it's too regular for a glitch," she added, calm but with an underlying note of fear, reminding Helena that they'd both already been through this scenario once before and it hadn't played in their favor. "I'm trying to track it down, but be careful. I don't know what's going on."

"Don't worry. I'm okay."

"Yeah ... well ... I want you to stay that way."

"I'm all for that plan," Helena agreed. She looked around herself as she continued at a dog trot, moving easily down silent, dark hallways. She slowed as she reached a security station, hunting for any sign of the guards that should have been on duty. Nothing. "Just a security block ... but it's open ... nobody here."

"Yeah,"

Barbara murmured in her ear. "I've got the next one down the line on camera and it's the same."

"This nuthatch is for the criminally insane, right?" Helena questioned, still moving fast. The whole damn place was open as far as she could tell.

"Yeah,"

Barbara confirmed, her tone faintly distracted, leaving Helena comfortably certain she was up to something.

"So shouldn't there be guards and stuff?"

"Yeah."

"I knew you were gonna say that." She hit a junction in the hallway and looked back and forth, trying to decide which way to go. "Which way is he?"

"There's no need for you to--"

"Which direction, Oracle?" the teen demanded, her voice hard. She couldn't get this close and not look into the eyes of the man who'd ordered her mother's murder and shot Barbara. She wasn't even sure what she was going to do, just that she had to see him.

"Huntress--"

"If they're trying to break him out, then that's where they'll be headed," Helena cut her off, forcing herself to argue logically and not fall back on emotion. "And that's where I need to be." She glanced over her shoulder as she heard the echo of men headed her way. "Somebody's coming. I don't have time to argue."

A long pause while even the typing stopped. "To your right, and up three flights of stairs," Barbara said abruptly.

Helena cut sharply into a narrow corridor, breaking into a run as she heard the voices behind her drawing closer, hit the door to the stairs, relieved to find it unlocked, then nearly flew as she took the steps four and five at a time. Men lunged onto the ground floor landing as she was midway up on her way to the third floor.

"When you hit the third floor, take the fourth door on the left,"

the voice in her ear continued.

"There!" a hard male voice shouted from below. Helena ducked as her pursuers took aim and fired up the stairwell. Luckily they were at a bad angle and nothing came close to hitting her.

She lunged through the door to the third floor corridor and heard it latch in her wake, dashed down the corridor, then dove through the fourth door on the left just as Barbara had told her to.

* * * * * *

"Thanks,"

Helena panted, sounding a little scared and breathless to Barbara.

"No problem," the redhead said smoothly, her full attention on the screen in front of her. "Now go left ... past two doors, then right."

"This'll take me to him?"

Helena said softly, sounding hopeful and a little scared at the same time. A soft explosion in the background signaled that her pursuers were back on target.

"Something like that," Barbara answered, her tone cool, fingers moving rapidly over the keyboard. She had partial control of the system back from the other hacker and was gaining more ground with every passing moment. He was good. She was better. It wasn't so much a game now as a proving ground. She had to do this ... had to wrest command back, protect Helena, and prevent the Joker from regaining his freedom. It was like her life depended on it. Oddly enough, the terror had fled, leaving her old confidence in its place. For months, it had felt like she was trapped in that moment between the time she leapt off a building and the moment the grappling hook caught, when she didn't know if this would be the time she fell to her death. Finally the hook had caught and she was flying again. "Left again," she ordered Helena. The other hacker changed tactics and she shifted to match him, backing him down and taking control of another section of the system. "Third door ... go right," she ordered her young charge, her mind on a dozen things at once, but Helena's safety of prime importance. She tracked the hacker, following him through the system even as he tried to block her out, then followed him back into a section of the Arkham system where he'd made himself comfortable, using the power of the Delphi to force her way in. A brief moment of struggle and she laid it open and took total control.

And then she understood everything.

She stared at the image of the Joker onscreen, a hint of frown touching her brow. It was all so damn simple once you knew the secret.

"Left again," she ordered Helena, her tone distant, her attention focused on the other hacker once again, trying to tack the location on his system. She cursed softly as he blocked her neatly, giving away so much and no more, built in triple blinds blocking her from what she wanted to know.

* * * * * *

"Oracle?" Helena whispered, sensing the other woman's distance in her tone of voice. "What's going on?"

"Go right at the next junction,"

Barbara responded without answering Helena's question.

The girl came up short against a steel barred barricade. "I can't ... the route's blocked by a security gate."

Barbara's voice was low, confident, almost triumphant as she murmured. "Not anymore."

The gate slid aside and the girl stepped through, glancing back as it clanged shut again. She went a little farther, then rounded a sharp corner to find that the corridor butted up against a central kiosk with corridors radiating outward on all sides, the doors and windows on all sides protected by glass so thick it warped the view. There was a key card slot next to the door, but Helena heard the lock release, signaling that Barbara was in control.

"Inside,"

the voice in her ear commanded as the door on her corridor slid open under a light touch.

She glanced back as another explosion shook the walls around her. "I think they just blew the gate back there," she panted as she hurried into the protected area. The door clicked shut in her wake, the locks instantly re-engaging.

"They did,"

Barbara confirmed. "It's in pieces."

The girl did a slow pivot, a frown touching her brow as she noted the monitoring equipment spaced all around the hexagonal room. She was still turning when lights on various panels started flickering back to life signaling something was going on. "Oracle ... the equipment?"

"It's all right,"

her guardian assured her. "I'm the one turning it on."

"You're back in control?" the girl asked.

"That's right,"

Barbara answered without missing a beat.

Helena frowned, dissecting her guardian's tone, turning it over in her head, silently analyzing the audible shift in her mood. "You know what's going on," she said at last.

"Yeah,"

Barbara confirmed.

"Care to share?" the teenager demanded, sensing that Barbara was keeping something from her.

"Soon enough,"

the woman murmured. "But right now, I need you to keep your mind on what you're doing."

A frown sketched its way across Helena's brow, drawing finely arched brows together. "Oracle, I--" she began, but the voice in her ear cut her off.

"Monitors coming back online,"

Barbara warned her. Monitors started popping to life almost instantly, showing views of the cells, pictures of the most brutal, cruellest criminals imaginable gleaming in bright color.

Her frown deepening, the teenager leaned closer, her gaze sliding across the banks of monitors, taking them in one by one until the journey halted on a skin, green hair, white skinned figure tightly bound in the sort of jacket that had extra long sleeves that latched together in the back. The Joker. Mad as hatter judging by the way he was babbling and giggling, nearly foaming at the mouth he was so out of it. Her hands tightened into fists at her sides as she envisioned closing her fingers around his scrawny throat until she heard vertebrae snap and pop. Just seeing him was like being hit by a ten pound sledge, and she couldn't think of anything else for a moment.

"I need you to get it under control,"

Barbara warned her, her tone unsympathetic. "Because the timing's gonna be close."

"What's going on?" Helena asked tersely, the hunter's gaze still locked on the figure of the Joker. Her prey. She didn't care what rules her father or Barbara had. If she got the chance, she was going to kill him.

"It's a trap,"

Barbara answered.

Of course it was, Helena thought with a trace of irony.

"For the bad guys,"

Barbara added, the words catching Helena by surprise.

"I--" the girl's head snapped up, eyes going wide as her pursuers appeared in the hallway leading to the kiosk.

"Down!"

Barbara snapped..

Helena didn't need to be told twice. She dropped to a crouch behind the nearest console just as they opened fire, bullets slamming into the glass in a rapidfire rhythm. She fully expected to have shattered glass flying over her head along with flying lead.

Only it didn't happen that way. She sneaked a look as it occurred to her that the glass was holding.

"Don't worry, it's bulletproof,"

Barbara assured her.

"Couldn't you have told me that before?" the teenager demanded breathlessly.

"Just wanted to make absolutely certain,"

Barbara murmured. "Now, up and on your way. Take the third door to the left of your current position."

Helena nodded, pushing to her feet and moving fast, though she glanced back as she saw her pursuers start to fight with the door.

"Move!"

Barbara barked in her ear when she paused.

The door control moved under Helena's hand and she dove through, spinning and pushing it closed again when she heard the locks on the door she'd entered the kiosk through pop and give. Her heart hit her throat as she saw weapons aimed her direction and two men dove for the door through which she'd just escaped. They hit it just as the electronically controlled locks engaged. The girl fell back, knowing they couldn't get through but human enough to be startled by the sheer rage on their faces as they began pounding on the glass. "A trap for the bad guys?" she whispered breathlessly as it struck her what Barbara had been saying when all hell broke loose.

"That's right,"

Barbara confirmed. "It was a setup." Even as she said the words, the kiosk doors locked behind Helena's pursuers, trapping them inside the bulletproof, bomb-proof security station.

The girl fell back another step as one of her would-be attackers realized they were trapped and opened fire on the lock binding them into the room. The bullets ricocheted, forcing them all to hit the floor, their startled screams backgrounding the sounds of shattering glass as several shots took out assorted monitors.

* * * * * *

"How did you--"

Helena whispered.

"I'll explain later. Right now, I need you to keep moving," Barbara said coolly, glancing at another monitor to note that the S.W.A.T. team had taken down the men left to guard the position on the wall. Three were locked up and being loaded into a paddy wagon, two more seriously wounded. That left the half dozen trapped in the kiosk. She punched up a subsystem of the security system and arranged for knockout gas to be pumped into their position. Plus there were five more still loose and wandering, moving through a part of the building that was only partially electronically controlled, making it far harder for her to do what she needed. Damn Arkham for not getting the necessary upgrades on anything approaching a rational schedule. This would have been a hell of a lot easier and safer if they had. Of course, if there was a bad guy out there with her kind of equipment and abilities, then it could be a hell of a problem. She made a mental note to send a long letter to Arkham detailing the system's weaknesses when this was over.

"He's ahead, isn't he?"

Helena demanded, breaking in on her thoughts, and Barbara looked up to see the teenager looking around herself, matching up what she could see with what she'd been able to make out on the monitors in the kiosk. Barbara could almost see the wheels turning in her head.

"His cell is ahead," Barbara confirmed, and watched Helena glance back at the kiosk one more time before she rounded a corner and it disappeared out of sight. "You knocked out two. I've got six contained ... and the SWAT team has five more tied up ... but there are still five of them in there, and they're headed his way on another route ... and I don't have full control over some areas that still rely on older, mechanical systems."

"Meaning this could turn into a party,"

Helena said softly, her voice low and dangerous, the expression on her face almost eager. Barbara reached out, just barely brushing the image of the girl with her index finger.

"A very nasty party," she admitted.

A dark smile twisted full lips. "Sounds like fun," the girl murmured.

"Don't get cocky," Barbara growled in a harsh reminder. "These men are armed ... and very dangerous." The Joker didn't hire any other kind, and she was comfortably certain the harlequin would follow his lead. She'd fought their ilk before, knew just how tough and hard they could be.

"Yeah ... well ... I'm pretty dangerous too."

Barbara muttered a curse under her breath, but didn't argue. Helena was dangerous as hell. She had a natural facility for combat that was downright creepy some days. On the other hand, no matter how fast and tough she was, she couldn't outrun a bullet, and she was a long way from invulnerable. "Just be careful and do what you're told," she ground out, then added, "Left at the junction ahead."

"Got it,"

the girl murmured.

* * * * * *

Moving fast, but silent, Helena found herself checking every darkened corner and empty hallway, more nervous than she wanted to admit. She could hear an occasional hint of sound from the kiosk behind her, but not enough to indicate they'd managed to find a way out. Besides, she knew perfectly well that Barbara would warn her if they got loose. Still, it was nerve wracking being all alone and followed by armed men who'd just as soon kill her as look at her. Actually, considering her parentage and who those men were trying to free, they'd probably prefer killing her to looking at her. "Was it like this for you ... I mean when you were doing this kind of thing?" she asked her ever-present companion, potently aware of Barbara even when she wasn't speaking.

"Not exactly,"

Barbara murmured. "I didn't usually have anyone looking over my shoulder."

"That must've been lonely," Helena whispered, thinking that the voice in her ear was actually a comfort. She knew Barbara was doing everything in her power to watch her back and protect her, and just knowing there was someone out there who cared helped calm her nerves.

"Sometimes,"

Barbara admitted.

"Why did you do it?" the girl asked, suddenly incredibly curious. Barbara rarely talked about that part of her life. Sometimes it seemed as though it just hurt too much to remember what she couldn't do anymore, and other times, there was a sense that it was just force of habit. Barbara Gordon had spent her entire adult life keeping certain things secret. Doing anything else went against her nature.

"One could argue stupidity was heavily involved in the decision,"

Barbara answered wryly. "But I think it was just because I wanted to make the world a little better."

"I can understand that." She reached another junction and approached it cautiously, glancing right, then left.

"Keep going straight,"

Barbara ordered briskly.

A distant, faintly muffled sound reached the girl's ears from the right corridor. "That's the other ones, isn't it?" she whispered, suddenly feeling the pressure of being alone against armed men.

Barbara didn't try to pull any punches. "Yes."

Helena nodded, accepting the information.

"I'm going to try and hang them up ... trap them like I did the others ... but it may be a little harder. They're probably on some kind of two way system ... and they may know what I did to the others."

The girl kept moving, going deeper into the dark hallways, the strangeness of the place making her skin crawl. It looked and felt like a madhouse, not some modern, psychiatric facility, but something out of a gothic nightmare. A high tech Bedlam. As scared as she was, Helena was excited too. She could feel her heart roaring in her chest, the adrenaline flowing through her veins, the predatory side of her enjoying the game of hunter and hunted. This was what she was designed for, she thought with a certain grim practicality. She gnawed on her inner cheek, mind suddenly on other things, other discussions that bordered on arguments. In the ultimate non-sequitur, she abruptly said, "I don't wanna do any more higher ed right now."

There was a long pause, and when Barbara spoke up again, her confusion was impossible to miss. "What?"

"College," Helena clarified, "I don't want to go." They'd been arguing about it for months, but in a roundabout, where-do-you-want-to-go, I-don't-know-yet-let's-talk-about-it-later sort of way. She hadn't really come out and flat out said no, just hemmed and hawed and hinted that maybe it wasn't really for her.

"This isn't really--"

Barbara began uncertainly, the sounds of typing momentarily disappearing.

"I know it's not a good time," Helena admitted, except it was easier this way, when she didn't have to face Barbara or see the disappointment in her eyes. "But I'm tired of school ... classes. I'm not good at learning that way and I don't wanna do four more years ... at least not right now."

The sound of keys being punched resumed, though Helena thought she heard some extra force being put to the task. "We'll discuss this later." Barbara's voice came out short and impatient, bordering on annoyed.

"I learned more from you than any of my high school teachers," Helena added as though that decided everything.

"Later,"

Barbara repeated sharply, though Helena had a sense that she'd upset the other woman. "Go right," she ordered as Helena reached another junction.

"This is what I want ... or maybe what I'm meant to do...." As scared as she was, it still felt right.

"Your mom wanted you to--"

"She'd understand ... and I'm not saying I don't want to learn," Helena quickly added. "I'd just rather learn from you." She'd been doing that for the last year anyway. Where her classes bored her to tears, Barbara always seemed to know how to engage her mind and imagination. The notion of four more years of school left her feeling trapped, a little like being an inmate in Arkham, but the idea of Barbara teaching her sounded good.

"Mind on the job,"

Barbara murmured after a beat, pushing the issue aside. "You'll be going through a security gate ahead. I'll open it for your, but your friends are coming up fast." A moment's pause. "And they'll be able to shoot through the gate."

"Understood," Helena exhaled and glanced nervously back as she heard voices confirming the warning. She poured on the speed, ducking through the security gate and pausing just long enough to make certain it locked down in her wake. Then she was moving again, darting around a corner just as her pursuers reached the gate and caught a glimpse of her. They opened fire, but she was well ahead of the bullets, and they ran harmlessly into the wall behind her. "I'm not going," she repeated the earlier sentiment as she kept running.

"Later,"

Barbara said grimly. "You've got another security station coming up--"

"Same maneuver as before?" the girl questioned.

* * * * * *

Barbara checked the group trapped in the first station. Still unconscious from the knockout gas she'd hit them with. "That's right." she answered, trying not to think about Helena's little bombshell. Great, that was just great. She'd known the girl didn't want to go to college, but she'd thought ... what had she thought? Maybe that she'd see the light. Fat chance of that when Barbara had been doing well to get her through high school. And now really wasn't the time to worry about it, she reminded herself as she followed Helena along on the monitors and readied things for what came next.

"I'm just not good at school,"

Helena broke in on her thoughts.

No, she wasn't. She was more than smart enough but settling down and learning by burying her nose in a book just wasn't something Helena tended to be very good at. The problem was, Barbara was worried about what she would do if she suddenly had no aims, no goals, and nothing to do all day. She was basically a good kid, but she was also her mother's daughter, with a wild streak a mile wide. How much trouble would she get into just to keep from getting bored if she didn't have any structure? Only now wasn't the time to fight about it. Neither of them could afford the distraction. She heard a soft gasp on the other end of the line and suddenly realized that her charge was scared to death, not of the men with guns following her, but of bringing up her decision. "We'll come up with something," she said softly, her tone meant to soothe any fears. She knew Helena worked to please her, and had to be scared to death of bringing this up. Why else would she leave it to the most inappropriate time imaginable? "It's not that big a deal." She heard an audible sigh of relief.

"Y-you ... you're not mad?"

Helena asked, her voice trembling with hesitancy. Yep, scared to death.

Her eyes on the monitor showing the men following Helena as they readied charges to blow the security gate, Barbara gently reassured her, "No." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly to get her own responses under control, knowing the teen needed to settle down emotionally in order to be at her best. "Not at all." Green eyes shifted, carefully tracking the girl's lean frame on another monitor. "I only want what's best for you," she said, hoping she'd deflected any further discussion along those lines. "But right now, I need you to keep your mind on what you're doing." She kept her tone firmly encouraging, not letting even a tinge of anger or frustration through, knowing that right now, Helena needed to feel completely supported.

"Right, mind on what I'm doing,"

Helena reminded herself breathlessly, then stumbled and had to regain her balance as the floor trembled beneath her feet.

Barbara's head swung back to the other monitor, noting that Helena's pursuers were through the gate and moving fast. "Stay calm," she soothed, her fingers never slowing, doing what she needed to as quickly as possible. "The security station's right around the next corner."

* * * * * *

Which was good news as far as Helena was concerned. She could hear the armed guys coming up behind her, their boots and shouts noisy and intimidating. She rounded a corner, skidding to a halt a few feet past the bend as she came up against the blockading wall and security door. Still locked. She looked up, spotting the camera monitoring her progress, her voice faintly panicked and breathy sounding. "Oracle?"

"One second,"

the voice in her ear assured her, and then the heard the click and felt the door unlatch. She yanked it open and dove inside without pause, dragging it shut again, keeping her hands on the knob---ready to hold it shut---until she heard the click of the lock re-engaging. The teenager danced back from the door, eyes rising and sweeping around the room as monitors began coming on at all stations. It was like a goddamned ode to the Joker, his image playing on all sides, his laughter a taunting concerto in her ears. It was so intense she nearly shut down ... and then the hunter took control. Sharp teeth gritted, hands fisting at her sides, eyes blazing. That was the figure the Joker's thugs came around the corner to find.

This time she didn't drop down when they fired, despite Barbara's voice screaming at her to do so. Instead she stood perfectly still and faced them as their ammunition exploded harmlessly into the bulletproof windows.

Rather than a bank of exits, there was only one door out of this station---one door that she instinctively knew led to her prey and she glanced back toward it, mouth turned up in a sensual smile.

"Huntress, move, now!"

Barbara barked, her tone bordering on angry.

"Gotta go now, boys," Helena mouthed at the thugs as she sauntered toward the exit door in question. As she reached for the handle, she turned to blow them a kiss even as she heard Barbara's scream in her ear and caught sight of an RPG aimed at the glass.

"DOWN!!"

This time she hit the floor, hands over her head as the rocket propelled grenade hit the glass and exploded with far more power than it had ever been meant to withstand. Inches thick safety glass tried to hold, but it couldn't, and warped and bowed under the strain, cracking inward, and crazing the entire pane, though it didn't come apart. Helena pushed up on her hands and stared back, noting that the backblast had left the thugs shaky and stumbling, but not enough out of it to forget their mission. The biggest of them was up and reloading the RPG. She scrambled for her feet, grabbing hold of the door handle, twisting and yanking in one move. "Oracle--"

"Move,"

the redhead bit out.

Helena didn't need to be told twice and dashed through, yanking the door shut in her wake and breaking into a run even as the security station behind her exploded into a fiery hell as the second RPG tore all the way through the glass and exploded just inside the station.

* * * * * *

Fighting the urge to curse under her breath, Barbara only worked that much faster. Dammit, she could feel things going to hell just like they had the last time. There was only one way in or out of this section of the facility and Helena had just gone through that. If the men behind her managed to get through the security station, then they were home free ... and Helena was trapped. "Keep moving," she ordered even as she watched the thugs load a third RPG onto the shoulder mounted launcher in order to take out the door Helena had just gone through. It hit, exploding violently enough that the door warped and seemed about to give way. Ultimately, it held, but banks of monitors on all sides were left shattered and burning. Most of the defensive facilities of the station were offline due to the massive damage inflicted by the second RPG, but she fought to redirect control through any unfried circuits she could find, bringing what she needed back online just as they readied to fire a fourth rocket. She hit the switch, opening the gas canisters just before it exploded into the already damaged security door that was the only remaining barrier between Helena and her pursuers. The door exploded outward, and the system inside the security station went all the way down, leaving her to simply hope that she'd managed to open the canisters before she lost all control. At least the cameras in the corridor just outside the station were still functioning, so she saw the first man climb through the hole in the window, take a few steps, then waver and spill to his knees. The gas was working. A second one followed quickly after him and both were soon unconscious on the floor along with a third who got too close to the hole in the window and collapsed in the corridor.

"Oracle?"

Helena's voice echoed in her ear, sounding small and scared.

As Barbara watched, the two remaining men held their breath, then covered their faces with their sleeves to escape the effects of the gas and plunged on through, coming out the other side before the gas could affect them. "They took down the door. I managed to trigger the knockout gas before the system went down, but there are two still conscious ... they'll be after you, so be careful."

"Right,"

the girl whispered, and Barbara could hear the way her breathing roughened with stress.

"They're around two corner, better than a hundred yards back," Barbara informed Helena as she tracked the men. "You've got time to respond."

"Oracle?"

"Backtrack and hit them as they come around the last corner. You're going to have to neutralize their weapons and take them down quickly." The redhead pushed down the panic as she made the suggestion. Logically, she knew it was for the best, and Helena had the skills to do it, but it was the hardest goddamned thing she'd ever done in her entire life. She was supposed to keep the girl safe, not help her walk into danger. "You can do this," she assured the girl when she saw the fear in her expression.

* * * * * *

"I can do this," Helena repeated as she reminded herself that she was the one who'd made the choice to be here. Barbara had taught her how to fight. She'd already faced two real life combat situations and come out okay. She spun on her heel, breaking into a run.

"You've still got time,"

Barbara updated her on her prey's position, her voice calm and confident, sounding just like she did when she was encouraging Helena to try a scary maneuver during their workout sessions. "They're at least thirty yards from the bend."

"Can you kill the lights?" Helena whispered as long, silent strides carried her back to where she wanted to be. She could see in the dark, but her enemies couldn't. Darkness would give her the advantage.

"Done,"

Barbara assured her. A second passed and then the lights started to flicker, then died. "Twenty yards ... ten yards...." she counted down.

As she reached the sharp turn in the corridor, Helena leapt straight up, fingers digging into acoustical tile as she swung herself up so that she hung parallel to the ceiling. She clung there with ease, dangling as she waited for her prey to come, seeing as easily in the dark as most people saw in bright lights. Super powers definitely had their advantages. They walked right under her, never suspecting the figure poised above them in the shadows.

"All we gotta do is take the bitch out and release the Joker," the taller one said.

"Yeah ... should make for a hell of a payoff," the other one agreed, chuckling softly. "Shouldn't be too hard, since there's nowhere for her to run now, except straight into us or the boss."

A predatory smile made its way across full lips as she tracked them until they were right where she wanted them, then Helena dropped lightly to the floor behind her prey, so perfectly silent they never guessed she was there. "Think again," she drawled, the flush of power sweeping over her as she tore the weapons from their hands before they could draw a breath. The taller one actually knew something about fighting and he countered her quick blows as he spun on one heel. Slower and nowhere near as strong as she was, he was still good enough to slow her a beat or two, and buy enough time to shove his companion into Helena. The smaller thug flailed, his panicked struggles momentarily confusing her, making her think he knew what he was doing before she realized it was all random. She blocked his clumsy efforts, then struck back, delivering a flurry of quick, hard blows that soon dropped him to the floor in an unmoving heap.

Then she was running again, chasing after the other one, moving incredibly quickly in the narrow confines of the corridor. As she came up on him, he spun, drawing a second handgun from his shoulder holster, but she didn't give him time to draw a bead or fire. Instead, she launched herself forward, kicking off on the wall, and hurtling straight at him. She stripped the gun away before he could pull the trigger and tackled him to the floor, delivering brutal, pummeling blows, then rolled to her feet, hauling him upright by his lapels. He made a dull, gurgling sound as she slung him up and slammed him into the wall with enough force to shatter bone. She dropped him, a twisted smile touching her lips as she watched him hit to the floor in a limp slump. Kneeling, she dug through the tactical vest until she found a pair of plastic ties meant to be used as handcuffs, then rolled him over and bound his hands.

"You okay?"

Barbara questioned as she worked, fear making her voice thick and rough.

"Yeah," Helena assured her, then looked up, suddenly realizing that she was standing at the end of the corridor where it deadended against a super-fortified cell door. There was a video monitor inset in the wall next to the steel panel. Glowing brightly, it showed a single familiar figure.

Him.

The man who'd murdered her mother, put the woman she loved in a goddamned wheelchair, and damn near destroyed her life, .

The Joker.

"Open the door, Oracle," she commanded the woman on the other end of the connection as she rose to her feet with almost preternatural grace, her voice harsh with barely contained rage, eyes wild and intense.

"Huntress, you need to clear the area. The SWAT team--"

Full lips pulled back from tightly gritted teeth. "Open it," Helena snarled, the hunter in her demanding blood. She had to see him, look into his eyes and see if there was anything human there.

"Huntress--"

"Now!" Helena bellowed, hands fisting tightly at her sides. "Or I'll break it down." She meant every word of the quiet threat. Her father might not have had the guts to kill the bastard, but she did.

Barbara's voice was low and soothing, though Helena knew her well enough to hear the undercurrent of her own pain and hatred. "Going through that door won't help anything ... won't change anything--"

"It'll make sure that he never hurts anyone ever again," Helena growled, the feral madness growing wilder in the pit of her belly. "Open it."

* * * * * *

"Huntress ... no," Barbara said very softly, her voice torn between commanding and pleading, well aware of the thin bead of sweat making its way down her back between her shoulderblades. She ignored it, knowing that soon enough the faint tickling sensation would fade away as it made its way lower. "It won't do any goo-"

"The hell it won't. If nothing else it'll improve the world's air supply if he's dead,"

Helena shot back as she glared at the door. Then suddenly she was lunging at it like a wild animal, the furious, genetically driven strength turned on the barrier between herself and her quarry.

"Huntress, please--" Barbara begged, trying to soothe away the girl's agony.

"No!"

Helena bellowed. "Not this time. He may have let him go, but I sure as hell won't!" She hit the security door, lunging back and forth, putting all of her strength to the task of shattering the secure locks.

Uncertain what to do, Barbara froze for a second, not looking up until her console dinged and three words appeared in the text messenging window above the image of Helena.

Three words appeared. //Let her in.// A pause, then, //Or I will.// Which indicated that perhaps her control of the system wasn't as total as she wanted to think.

Teeth gritted, her eyes flashing angrily, Barbara reached for the keyboard.

* * * * * *

Helena froze, then fell back a step in stunned silence when she suddenly heard and felt the pins all the way around the door retract into the steel and cement reinforced frame. The girl swallowed hard, her heart roaring in her chest as she reached for the rocker handle that controlled the only latch still keeping her out.

"You don't have to do this,"

Barbara whispered in her ear as though she understood the conflicting flux of emotions running through the girl all too well. Considering some of the things she'd been through, she probably did, Helena thought. Except it was his fault that she'd had to go through all of that; the bastard in that room had personally pumped those bullets into Barbara and damn near killed her. Even without her mother's murder, that would have been sufficient cause for revenge.

A soft, inhuman growl vibrated up from the girl's chest. "The hell I don't," she told Barbara as the hate surged anew. At some level, she knew it would change everything, that Barbara would never see her the same way, and she'd never be the same person. It wasn't that she didn't care. It was just that it didn't change anything. He had to die for the way he'd hurt all of them and to make sure he couldn't inflict this kind of pain on anyone else. "I'm sorry," she exhaled as she wrenched the door open and lunged inside.

Eyes perfectly adjusted to darkness immediately zeroed in on the lean figure on the opposite side of the room. Wrapped in a straight jacket, his mad cackle echoing in the air, caught in a bubble of light as though trapped there. He never noticed her, didn't appear to hear her soft growl, and didn't flinch when she suddenly exploded into motion, hands outstretched, eager to close on his throat, lips pulled back from her clenched teeth in a feral snarl. She moved impossibly fast, ready to change her direction if he pulled back at all, but he showed no sign of noticing her. And then she was almost on him, an animal snarl on her lips. Almost there, only suddenly her hands closed on nothingness and she felt a cool mist on her skin as she broke through a Joker that was no more substantial than a ghost, warm projector light playing over her skin. Not understanding the trick she kicked back and spun, hunting for the trap.

"He's not there,"

Barbara said softly, her voice a little sad.

"What?" Helena snapped as she reached out, running her hand through the effect and quickly realized it was just a video image projected onto a steamy mist. In the near darkness, with only a splash of light, it was effective enough to fool a viewer for a few seconds.

"It was a preplanned setup,"

Barbara told her. "A trap to catch what was left of his machine before they realized he was gone. They were supposed to lunge in to get him ... then the door lock behind them."

Simple plan, even made sense, all things considered. "You knew," Helena breathed on a sudden note of understanding. Her hands fisted tightly at her sides as she waited for an answer.

"I figured it out,"

Barbara quietly confirmed without elaborating, "a few minutes ago."

Helena swallowed hard. "Where is he?"

"The feds moved him to a more secure---and less known---facility two days ago. They did it in secret ... hoped they could catch--"

"The harlequin," Helena finished for her. "Did they get her?"

A momentary pause. "Not as far as I can tell."

Helena stumbled back from the makeshift image of the Joker, gaze rising to note both the mister and the projection unit. Very clever. "Whose idea was it?" she demanded even though a part of her knew.

* * * * * *

Barbara swallowed hard, flinching as though the question were a blow. //Damn you,// she typed, but there was no response this time. She wanted to dig in, chase the other ghost down, hack until she found him, but a quick glance confirmed her fears that the SWAT team was headed Helena's way. "It doesn't matter," she answered Helena's question, uncertain of the truth herself, and not wanting the girl's emotions any more ripped up than they already were. She watched Helena reach out, passing her hand through the ghostly Joker as if to be absolutely certain he wasn't real. Barbara killed the power to the illusion with the quiet comment, "It's not real." Her voice growing more stressed, she continued, "You need to get out of there now." Her gaze swung back to the black garbed special forces officers headed Helena's way. "Otherwise you're likely to wind up arrested and being questioned." Which wouldn't be a good idea at all.

Helena shook herself, visibly throwing off the daze. "What do I--"

"Back out the way you came," she told Helena, relieved when the girl spun on her heel and hurried back out of the cell as though she couldn't escape fast enough. "Once you're through the blown security station, I'll have to give you directions." She glanced at the text messenging system, noted the cursor was simply blinking now, then refocused her attention on more immediate matters, tracking Helena's progress as she made her way back to the destroyed computer station. "Cover your nose and mouth and don't breathe until you're out the other side," she told the teenager. Helena did as told and was soon past that barrier. "You're going to go about twenty yards, then there's a door on your left. Go through it." As she gave the instruction, Barbara's fingers danced over the keyboard, pulling up the specs she needed. "I'm going to take you out via the roof." With Helena's abilities, she could sail right over the police and lose herself in the thick, spiney forest that surrounded Arkham. When the girl was through the door, she locked things down, then guided her to a technical access route, locking the doors behind her to cover her back.

* * * * * *

Helena heaved a sigh of relief when she finally set foot on the roof and fresh air filled her nostrils and ruffled her hair. "I'm out, Oracle," she whispered.

"Stick to the rear of the building. It should be easier to avoid the SWAT guys that way." A momentary pause followed. "Meanwhile, I'm blanking any evidence that you were ever there."

Helena nodded, absorbing the softly spoken directions. "I would've killed him if he'd been there," she said very softly braced for anger or at least disappointment.

There was a moment of silence, then Barbara spoke, her voice low and serious. "Which is why I'm glad he wasn't--"

"He deserves to die," Helena snapped, hatred tying her stomach into knots.

"Maybe,"

Barbara admitted, "but you don't deserve to have to kill him." She heard Barbara take a breath before she continued, "You don't want that weight on your shoulders ... not even to destroy him."

Helena didn't argue, even though she couldn't imagine feeling anything but joy if the Joker was dead. "Moving out," she said simply, then broke into a run, gaining momentum in a wild dash across the roof before she flew wildly into open space, clearing the distance between the roof and the outer walls in a single, mad jump. She landed lightly a short distance from the edge of the woods and quickly circled around the outer walls. She was about to melt back into the forest when two of the injured prisoners being loaded into an ambulance abruptly made a break for it. Slowed by their wounds, it was obvious no one had expected them to be a danger, and they got their hands on their captors' guns before anyone realized they were even still conscious. Helena's first thought was that it wasn't her problem. Her second was that the cops were dead if somebody didn't do something. She didn't even consider her next action, just leapt. She hit the would-be escapees before they could fire, stripping the stolen weapons out of shaky hands and hurling them aside, then knocking their heads together before anyone quite knew what was happening.

She looked up as her victims collapsed, meeting the eyes of the startled officers, and grinned. "You looked like you could use a little help."

"Thanks," one of the shocked men murmured.

"Anytime," Helena said and winked, enjoying the shock and gratitude in the eyes watching her. Then suddenly she was up and moving again, leaping high enough to kick off the top of the paddy wagon, certain the men in blue could handle the situation now.

* * * * * *

Barbara leaned back as the girl's image faded into nothingness on the cameras monitoring the forest surrounding Arkham's outer walls. "You okay?" she whispered, then leaned forward again, fingers moving quickly as she erased any remaining visual records of the Helena's presence.

Helena's voice was breathless with euphoric laughter when she responded, her fury forgotten in the face of that last bit of heroism. "Oh man, did you see the looks on those cops' faces when I grabbed those guys?"

"You probably saved their lives," Barbara said, proud of the girl's reaction, even if it had scared the living hell out of her. Helena had seen the situation and simply reacted to protect ... just like her father would have.

"I did, didn't I?"

Helena chuckled, still caught in the adrenaline high and enjoying her own sense of accomplishment.

"You did," the redhead confirmed, her tone serious.

"It felt good,"

Helena admitted, her voice soft enough that it was nearly lost in the sound the wind made as it rushed past her.

Barbara recognized the familiar note of amazement in the girl's voice as the realization of what she'd managed to do washed over her. She'd been there herself, knew just how heady that kind of power could be. Because of the girl's actions at least two men would go home that night, and wouldn't have to be mourned by families and friends. Powerful stuff. "You probably saved someone else from the kind of pain you've experienced."

For a long moment all Barbara could hear was the soft sound of wind rushing past Helena, then the girl spoke, her tone serious. "Those men probably had kids 'n' stuff, didn't they?"

"Parents, friends, lovers, children, wives," Barbara confirmed, wanting the girl to understand what she'd done in making the decision she'd made, how many lives she might have affected for the better.

More silence followed, indicating that Helena was mulling things over the way she was wont to do. She tended to draw into herself when she was thinking about something serious, briefly losing her tendency toward sarcastic one liners. "Is that better than killing him?"

It was a serious question asked by someone struggling with the ongoing battle between her inner demons and the angels of her better nature. Barbara treated it with the gravity it deserved, her tone making it clear she didn't take Helena's doubts lightly. "Some people might disagree, but I think so." She paused a moment to gather her thoughts before she began carefully, "It's not simple ... and I do understand what you're feeling. Do you think I never think about killing him ... about tearing him limb from limb for what he's done?" She took a deep breath in an effort to restore a little emotional equilibrium, nearly as on edge as her young charge. "But it wouldn't fix anything ... and I'd have that much more weight on my shoulders. It's not worth it," she added a little hoarse with emotion. "You saved two people," she continued after a pause. "And as long as he's contained where he can't hurt anyone, that's a lot better than killing the one...." She ran out of words and was still waiting for Helena's response when the text messenging broadcast a fresh flow of words.

//She's not ready,//

the text message read, //but she has the calling,// The words were like a hard punch to the stomach. She'd wondered, thought maybe, but now it seemed almost certain it was him. Who else would know to say those words to her? //Teach her like I taught you.//

"Bruce?" she whispered almost inaudibly, then leaned forward, fingers flying over the keyboard, hunting for some clue to where he was hiding, but the other ghost in the machine disappeared back into the ether as quickly and gracefully as he'd appeared, leaving her to doubt her own sanity. She pinched the bridge of her nose, wondering if maybe she was just seeing what she wanted to see.

"Oracle?"

Helena broke in on Barbara's frantic efforts. "Did you say something?"

Barbara froze for a moment, uncertain what to say. As torn as Helena's emotions were where her father was concerned, dropping this bombshell on her while she was still in the field was just asking for trouble. Maybe later. Then again, maybe not since Barbara was far from certain how she felt about it. Much as she loved her mentor, she couldn't forget that he'd left them all when they'd needed him and she still didn't know why. And besides, she couldn't be one hundred percent certain, and what evidence she had didn't seem like enough to be worth upsetting the girl's already tumultuous existence. "No," she exhaled after a moment. "Just thinking out loud."

"Careful, Oracle, you know what they say about people who talk to themselves,"

Helena teased lightly.

"I'm already certifiable, so it's a moot point," Barbara riposted neatly, amazed by the fluidity of youth that allowed the girl to be on the verge of murder one moment, saving lives the next, then philosophical, and now almost joking. She shook her head, faintly dazed by the whipsaw of emotions, and surprised to find herself going along. "And be careful. Don't assume things are clear just because they seem that way," she reminded the girl. She'd seen situations she thought were calm explode too many times to discard the possibility.

"Yeth, Mommy,"

came the sarcastic reply.

"Seriously," Barbara said firmly, "be careful. Some of the worst blow ups I've been in happened after I thought everything was over."

That seemed to work to sober Helena up because when she responded, she was serious again---or maybe it was just time for another mood swing. Barbara was never certain which. "Any sign of the harlequin?"

Barbara rechecked the monitors, watching the mopping up procedure at Arkham. "No ... nothing." Unfortunately. "Looks like she was never there."

"She likes controlling things from the background,"

Helena mused out loud, "playing the mastermind."

"But she also likes to do her own killing," Barbara reminded the girl. After all, Helena was the one who'd seen the murder at the drug warehouse.

"She'll be back, won't she?"

Barbara nodded. "Yeah." The crazy ones never disappeared permanently unless they were dead, and instinct told her this one was very much alive. "But my guess is it'll take awhile. She probably used everything left of his machine to pull this off ... and it's pretty well shattered. She's on her own now ... so she'll need to take time to regroup."

"Why don't I find that comforting?"

Helena exhaled.

"You're cursed with sanity?" Barbara offered helpfully.

That got a soft snort. "If you say so...."

* * * * * *

Makeup remover easily cut through the clown white hiding soft skin, peeling it away to reveal pink cheeks and lips that were naturally crimson without the aid of lipstick. Harley Quinn tipped her head to one side as she watched the transformation taking place, studying her own features carefully in the bathroom mirror of a cheap motel, hunting for signs of the insanity she knew dwelled within her brain, and startled to find there was nothing there to see even for eyes as sharp as her own. And if she couldn't see it, then no normal person would. She glanced back at the now dead radio transceiver. Well, not so much dead as no longer linked to anything. Her teeth ground together, fury glittering in her eyes as she recalled the soundtrack of her total humiliation. They were going to pay for that. Just like they were going to pay for locking up Mister J. When she was through, the citizens of New Gotham wouldn't know what had hit them ... but they'd know how much it hurt. How it made them bleed and beg for mercy. The little crime wave she'd managed to engineer in an effort to draw resources away from the assault on Arkham Asylum would seem like a children's birthday party when she was through.

She reached up, yanking off the Harlequin cap, then ruffled blonde hair, dragging it away from her scalp. A hint of a mad smile touched her lips. Well, at least she was rid of any less than intelligent flunkies. Time to start over and rebuild. After all, she still had a few resources left with which to generate much needed cash, and even more importantly to create the sort of havoc on which she thrived. The insane smile spread as she contemplated her next move. They were looking for her, no doubt in her mind about that. Whoever had set this operation up wasn't trying to catch a bunch of low level wiseguys. They were after her. Which meant it was time for her to try another tack. When one insane plot to destroy the world fails, one just has to get up, dust off, and try another.

She turned away from the mirror, blotting damp hands on a towel, then stepped back into the bedroom where she picked up the black portfolio sitting on the bed. Flicking it open a wry smile touched on her lips and a slender finger traced the outlines on the nearly forgotten link to her old life. Time for Harleen Quinzel to be reborn.

The diploma would be her ticket back into normal society.

And once she was accepted and in power, she would loose the dogs of hell on the people of New Gotham.

Oh, what a party that would be.

 

* * * * * *

Bumps and bruises had been treated, dirt and sweat washed away in a hot, purging shower, and Helena was beyond exhausted, but still too keyed up to go to bed. She lay on the low wall around the clocktower overlook, hands folded under her head, quietly staring at the stars overhead. The soft sound of wheels on cement reached her ears, but she didn't bother to look up, though she tracked Barbara's entrance by sound.

"How are you feeling?" The redhead's voice was soft and husky, wrapping around Helena and cocooning her in a much needed sense of safety and belonging.

Helena shrugged. "Okay, I guess." She'd been thinking about the image of the Joker she'd glimpsed, wondering if the undirected malice she'd seen in his madness would be the same if he'd been there for real. Would he have even known she was in the room, or was he so lost in his own insanity that nothing could break through it? Would killing him mean the same thing if he didn't know who she was or even that he was dying?

Barbara guided the chair a little closer, watching the girl closely. "Thinking deep thoughts?" she asked, more than a little worried about the aftermath of the events at Arkham. Helena had been quiet since returning, her gaze distant, eyes shadowed.

Full lips twisted in an expression that was somewhere between smile and smirk. "Me ... deep ... perish the thought," Helena evaded the question neatly, uncomfortable discussing her thoughts when she wasn't entirely certain what they were. The whole thing was a confusing jumble in her head, hatred, anger, excitement, pride, even a kind of joy at what she'd accomplished. She had no idea how to express what she was thinking or feeling.

A russet eyebrow rose high on Barbara Gordon's forehead as she contemplated the girl, well aware that she used the image of superficiality to shield her most private thoughts, to shield the fact that she even had private thoughts. Deep? In Barbara's experience the word barely began to describe the workings of Helena's mind or the thoughts and emotional turmoil that spun through her existence. The girl was a study in paradoxes, far more fascinating and thoughtful in some ways than anyone so young had a right to be. Barbara often had a sense that the day Helena decided to truly open up, she could talk for weeks, never repeat herself, and never be boring. She suddenly realized she was staring when Helena looked up, her eyes a bright blue even in the faint light, her expression curious.

"Y'know you could've disagreed with me," she complained, drawing a smile from her guardian.

Barbara shrugged, affecting an overdone innocent look. "I was just struck completely silent by the notion that you're anything but as deep as the oceans."

The smile melded into a definite smirk. "Yeah, right," the girl muttered, a faint blush staining her cheeks. She dropped her head back to the cushion of her hands. "Are you mad at me?" she asked after a beat. Much of the euphoria had faded, leaving her uncertain how her mad dash and need for revenge might have affected their relationship. She couldn't help but think of those moments when Barbara had lain in her arms, her body soft and warm in sleep, trusting her completely. Had she blown that and gained nothing the process?

Barbara considered the question for a moment. "Care to be more specific," she said at last. There were enough issues at stake that she wanted to know exactly where Helena's mind was before she started answering questions like that.

"For going when you said not to ... for wanting him dead ... for ... for not being you, I guess," Helena rambled haltingly, then looked up, her confusion showing in her expression.

That caught Barbara by surprise, forcing her to pause before answering. She'd been braced for several things, but not the notion that Helena thought she wanted to create some kind of carbon copy of herself. "Actually, being me is last thing I want for you," she said after a moment. She looked down at her hands, distracting herself by tugging a bit of lint off her slacks. "I just want you to be happy ... feel safe ... a little peace would be nice." She sighed softly, considering the rest of her answer carefully. "I'm not angry at you for what you did ... for wanting him dead ... or rushing off. I just wish I could take away the anger and the hate ... the pain." She closed her eyes for a moment, blocking the world out as she hunted for her own equilibrium, uncertain she was such a good one to be giving lectures on emotional stability when she often felt anything but stable. "I'm scared for you," she admitted after a beat, well aware of the eyes watching her closely. "I've seen what that kind of anger can lead to...." Half the villains she'd fought in her time had started out as righteously angry people who'd let the rage take control of them. She looked up, studying Helena carefully, admitting to the fear burning in her gut that it would be dangerously easy for the younger woman to wind up on that path. The ingredients were all there. All it would take was the match to make the bomb blow. "I don't want that for you."

Helena sat up, turning so that she was sitting with her feet planted on the floor of the overlook, elbows resting on her knees as she leaned forward. "And the thing about college?" she asked, betraying a child's fear of displeasing someone important to her.

She was going to wind up with whiplash one day, Barbara mused at the sudden change of topics. She sighed softly, still irritated with the way of breaking the news as much as the choice itself. "You're old enough to make that decision for yourself," she allowed. "I don't necessarily agree with it, but I'm not going to try and force you to do anything." She carefully ignored the bolt of terror in her stomach that so much free time would get the girl into trouble. "However, in the future, I'd appreciate it if you controlled the urge to break that kind of news during difficult situations." She managed to put an ironic, black-tinged hint of humor into the suggestion.

A dark eyebrow quirked thoughtfully. "Does that mean there are going to be more ... er ... difficult situations?" Helena questioned, her meaning obvious. She wanted to keep doing this ... learning how. She wanted the high that came from saving someone's life and busting the bad guys. She wanted for them to be a team.

Barbara sagged back into the chair with an inelegant snort. "What are you asking?" she said softly, knowing full well, but uncertain she was ready to hear Helena actually say it. Dear God, had Bruce gone through this kind of indecision? No, she realized in an instant as she remembered the words on the text messenger. Bruce was driven enough to have avoided the whole problem of conflicting emotions. If only her own life was as simple.

"You know," the girl said softly, her eyes alight with the kind of fire Barbara knew all too well.

The determination in the teen's eyes left the older woman feeling vaguely adrift. She shook her head and exhaled a short, sharp, frustrated sigh. "It's not that simple," she said at last.

"I can help you," Helena quickly responded, showing that she'd already considered all the arguments her guardian was likely to offer. "Like the other night ... when the cops couldn't get to that armed robbery you spotted. Somebody could've been killed because they weren't there. If we were working together, I could go--"

Barbara waved that idea off entirely. "You're not ready," she said firmly. Even Bruce had agreed on that much, and she had no doubt he'd watched the entire performance. Assuming she hadn't slipped a few cogs and the other hacker really had been him and not some F.B.I. computer specialist overseeing the operation. She forced down a burn of anger, keeping her mind on the subject at hand.

"I did okay today," Helena disagreed.

"You got lucky today ... we both did," Barbara shot back. She'd been in the middle of enough operations to know the difference between true success and chance.

"Then teach me how to be more than lucky," Helena said softly. She slid to her knees in front of the chair, peering up into green eyes. "Teach me how to be as good as you are."

"Was," Barbara corrected her just a little bitterly. She almost told her Bruce had been involved at that point. Considering the way Helena felt about him, it might have been the one thing that would chase her off this course. "It means digging and working ... not just playing with a few self-defense moves. There's a lot more to it than that." A whole host of skills from lock picking to hot wiring a car, to computer hacking. "It's nasty, gritty, boring work, not a game."

"I know," Helena assured her, her eyes shining brightly.

"And it means doing what I tell you ... not deciding you know what's best and rushing off on your own. Do that again, and so help me god, it's over." Barbara's voice was hard, her expression absolutely serious. She meant every word of it. That sort of impulsive behavior was too likely to get someone hurt or killed, and she wouldn't be a part of it. "You're nowhere experienced enough for that kind of decision-making."

Despite the temptation to argue and point out how well she'd done this time as well as two previous occasions, Helena nodded, her expression serious. "I know," she admitted, desperate for Barbara to believe she didn't take this lightly. "I shouldn't have run off the way I did. I just ... I knew it had to be done, y'know?"

Barbara sighed softly. She knew all too well. "Yeah ... I know ... but from now on, the only way this goes forward is if you do what you're told. No more running off half-cocked ... leaping in before we know the situation ... and before you're ready."

Helena nodded seriously. "I understand."

Barbara shook her head, her tone ironic. "Why do I seriously doubt that?" she muttered under her breath.

"Trust me," Helena begged as she reached up and caught Barbara's hand in her own, twining their fingers together. She needed this for reasons she couldn't even completely explain; needed the raw intensity, the sense of doing something, and the bond it formed between them.

"I do," Barbara assured her, the sincerity of her tone sending a bolt of warmth through the girl. "There are a lot of issues, but it's not about trust." She squeezed the hand bound to her own. "At least not about trusting you." She looked down at Helena's hand where it rested in her lap, stroking delicate knuckles with her thumb. "Not sure how much I trust myself ... to do right by you," she admitted in a burst of honesty.

"I trust you," Helena breathed, totally lost in green eyes. She wanted to arch up and see if the lips she couldn't stop staring at tasted as good as she suspected. "Isn't that what matters?"

Barbara's response was a world weary head-shake. "Not even a little," she sighed, feeling far older than her years. "This isn't going to be easy," she said softly, then felt the need to try one more time. "In fact, in comparison, college is a cakewalk ... it seldom leaves bruises, and almost never gets you killed."

"I heal fast," Helena offered helpfully.

"You'll be glad of that before this is over," Barbara said with the wisdom of hard won experience.

Helena only smiled.

"There is one thing we need to discuss," Barbara said after a moment, "and it's deal breaker."

Fear flickered in blue eyes. "What?"

"No killing ... at least not intentionally." She looked down at their hands for a moment, then up again. "I know accidents can happen ... I'm not unrealistic, but I won't teach you how to be a murderer. This isn't about making ourselves into a star chamber." She wouldn't be like those secret judges of old who had decided who would live and who would die.

Helena absorbed the quiet words. "You have my word," she said after a moment.

"Even if it's the Joker?" Barbara asked, purposely choosing the girl's most-hated enemy to push her to the limit.

Tension rippled through Helena and her eyes blazed. "Don't ask me to--" she begged, her voice little more than a hoarse rasp.

"I have to," Barbara told her, then took a deep breath, wanting Helena to understand. "The moment you set out to kill, you become just like the people I've hunted ... and I won't be a party to that."

Blue eyes ghosted, changing color, the pupils restricting to narrow vertical slits. "I don't know if I can promise that," Helena growled, the memory of the pure slashing hate she'd felt when she'd thought she was looking on her enemy drawing her powers to the fore. "But I won't go looking for him ... and I won't go looking to kill." Her jaw firmed with her determination. "I know you're worried ... but I need to do this ... and I think you do too." She wasn't the only one who'd felt more alive by facing down their enemies. Barbara had as well. Helena had seen it in her eyes and her increasing confidence.

Barbara was silent for a long moment, seriously doubting her own wisdom in even contemplating going forward. Except Helena was right. She did need this. She'd been able to do a lot of good since getting the Delphi, but nothing like what she could achieve if she was working with a street operative. She should turn away, kill this insanity and ... and what ... force Helena to go to college and be a normal teenager? That'd be the day. And what happened when she had her days footloose and free for months on end? More hanging out in bars, finding the company of kids as wild as she was? And where would that lead? A shiver of unease ran down her spine at the thought. Or maybe the girl would do something almost as dumb and try to go crimefighting on her own. Without training and on her own, she'd be lucky to survive a week. "I guess I'll have to make sure you stay out of the Joker's way then."

Helena's eyes shifted again, turning their normal shade of blue. "Does this mean we're on?" she asked nervously.

"I should probably be horse-whipped, but yes." Barbara shook her head, wondering if she'd ever been that young. "And now the first order in your training schedule is for you to get to bed--"

"But--"

"You're tired and beat to hell. You need to give your body a chance to rest and heal." She knew the girl was keyed up. Given her head, she probably wouldn't sleep for a week. "Tomorrow's going to be a long day."

Helena considered arguing, only to decide it probably wasn't the way to start things out. Rising gracefully, she gave Barbara's hand one last squeeze, then let go. "I'll see you in the morning," she said softly.

Barbara watched the girl slip back inside, her footsteps perfectly silent, then ran a hand through her hair and leaned back to stare at the lights of the city, lost in her own thoughts, or perhaps in avoiding her own thoughts. She was still sitting like that some time later when Alfred appeared, his footsteps nearly as silent as her ward's. She looked up, smiling at the elderly butler.

"It's rather chill tonight, Miss Barbara," he said softly as he held out a cup of steaming tea. "I thought perhaps this would help."

She accepted the cup, then looked back out at the city, knowing full well that his reasons for joining her on the balcony had precious little to do with tea and a great deal to do with sympathy. He'd always had a knack for knowing when his charges needed the gentle sounding board he offered. "She wants me to train her," she said after a long moment.

"Ah," Alfred exhaled, sounding wholly unsurprised by the news. "I rather expected that was coming."

Barbara looked up at him, one eyebrow climbing toward her hairline. "Am I wrong in agreeing to it?"

He was silent for a long moment as he considered the question with the same gravity it was asked. "I don't believe so," he said at last. "She is phenomenally talented ... and possessed of many of the same qualities as both her parents ... which makes a more ... normal ... life ... unlikely."

"But does that mean I should encourage her to play a game that could get her hurt ... even killed?" Barbara mused out loud. "Selina didn't want her pushed into anything. What right do I have to go against that?"

"I don't believe you've pushed ... and the reality is that with her ... proclivities ... it would be very easy for her to go the other direction."

Barbara winced, flinching in the face of that unwanted reminder. Fingers steepled together, she gnawed on her thumbs. "I think Bruce was behind the setup at Arkham," she said after a beat.

Used to the various machinations of those he cared for, Alfred showed no signs of being surprised. "I rather wondered if he was," he admitted. "When you told me what happened, it rather reminded me of his methods."

"Yeah," she exhaled a little bitterly and blinked away the threat of tears.

"He said she had the calling ... told me to train her ... like he trained me."

"Ah," the old man murmured, his tone momentarily distant, giving away nothing of his emotions. In truth, he loved all of them as though they were his children, but he still disagreed with Master Bruce's decision to settle so many responsibilities on Miss Barbara's shoulders. He knew the other man had his reasons for the choices he'd made, but he often thought he'd asked too much of the young woman who'd become his prot�g�. Then again, perhaps he'd understood her better than any of them, because Alfred had to admit that, despite everything, she'd grown far stronger than he would have predicted since those first days when they'd all been waiting for the worst to happen. "I think perhaps you should instead try to train her as she needs to be trained." They were very different people. Different methods were called for.

"But what if I'm only doing it to please him?" Barbara questioned seriously. "And she's only doing it to please me." The notion of that unending cycle scared the hell out of her.

Once again Alfred was silent for a long moment. "I do not believe you would do that to Miss Helena," he said at last. "In the last year, you've placed her good above everything else ... even when your own resources were extremely limited ... and I don't believe that's changed now." He paused for a moment, then continued thoughtfully, "She wishes to do this ... and for the moment ... I think that's for the best for both of you."

Barbara looked up, meeting the butler's kind gaze. "I hope you're right," she said at last, then turned to look back out at the city. "God, how I hope you're right."

* * * * * *

Continue to Act VI


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