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 VII

Three Weeks Later

Helena let out a low groan as she shuffled another load of dirty drink glasses into the back of the bar, her back and shoulders aching after several hours of grunt work. After settling the latest tray in a sinkful of glassware waiting to be put into the industrial dishwasher that did glasses by the ton every night after work, she glanced at her watch, noting the number of hours left on her shift with a soft groan. She had a job---albeit a lousy one as a barback at one of the college hangouts where the beer flowed fast and furious during the Friday and Saturday night, and the frat boys were slowly but surely learning there was at least one girl in the place who didn't appreciate being grabbed. So far she hadn't had to break any wrists, though she was seriously debating the option. The Alpha Tau guys were particularly obnoxious when they were drunk, and they were always drunk.

Forcing down a tired sigh, she grabbed a fresh crate of mugs and ran them out to the bartender, valiantly struggling to ignore the pain in her feet. She wasn't even a bartender, just the poor sod schlepping glasses, restocking the liquor, cleaning up messes, bussing tables, and occasionally taking orders when things got really wild, which meant she got ten cents on the dollar of the bartender's tips, and twenty percent off the food---mostly french fries and fried cheese sticks, both of which were mildly edible as opposed to the burgers and dogs they served. She'd seen the ingredients on the hot dog packs, and what the hamburger looked like raw---she hadn't known before that meat came in that color---no way in hell was she touching those.

It had never occurred to her that she might get out into the world and find out that crime fighting was actually easier than real life. As a black-garbed vigilante stalking the night she'd never needed to worry about the mundane realities of making the rent, stopped up plumbing, fighting with the landlord, breaking glasses, or a myriad of other boring details. Barbara had paid the bills and handled the intel, Alfred had seen to matters of personal comfort, and Helena had handled the ass kicking. She found she rather missed that division of assignments. She was good at ass kicking. Cooking, laundry, and finances were another matter entirely.

She reracked the latest batch of clean mugs for the bartenders on duty, her mind still on other things, though she was aware of the speculative glances Bill Chambers, the older the two 'tenders, threw her way. He'd been hitting on her virtually since she'd gotten the job, and tended to leer even when not actively pursuing. He also liked to 'accidentally' grab her ass now and then. She would have preferred to break his arm. Unfortunately, he was best buddies with the owner, and it would probably cost her the job which, cruddy as it was, she still needed.

She'd managed to get a bank officer to explain the financial reports Barbara had brought over, and the money had seemed like a huge sum until she'd started calculating just how much she needed to cover her rent, food, clothes, and everything else, then it started dwindling rapidly in her head. No two ways, a job was an utter necessity if she was going to avoid having to slink back to the clocktower to beg for a handout in fairly short order. And no way in hell was she going to do that. No, this time, if someone gave ground, it was going to have to be Barbara. Three weeks apart had given her just enough equilibrium to make that decision. She'd been pining after the other woman for years, and all it had gotten her was an ever-thicker wall between them. Not this time. This time the ball was in Barbara's court. And if she didn't want to play, then maybe it was time for Helena to just grow the fuck up, accept it, and move on.

Even as that thought went through her head, it struck her as mildly comedic given that it didn't seem to be working. Oh, she'd tried, but ... well....

Oh hell, who was she kidding? The chances of that happening were almost nonexistent. Three weeks away and her feelings were no less intense. And no more stable. In the course of the average day, she whipsawed between love, anger, resentment, the certainty that Barbara would appear at any moment and beg her to come back, and the terror that she'd never see the other woman again. Meanwhile sleep was close to impossible and seldom restful when it came, broken as it was by dreams and nightmares that never failed to leave her emotionally devastated. They ranged from tormentingly furious, to kinky as hell, to sweetly erotic, but they all left her shaking for one reason or another ... and Barbara was always the key factor, whether they were fighting, making love, or doing both.

It was enough to make her half crazy to the point that she regularly fantasized about going back and not stopping until she had Barbara in bed and moaning her name. She shivered as a fantasy slid through her brain, her attention momentarily swallowed up by the near palpable thought of blunted nails digging into her shoulders, low moans echoing in her mouth, shared sweat coating bare skin, the taste of silky flesh on her tongue, the smell of--

"Hey, Kyle," Bill Chambers' voice shattered the momentary illusion, and she glanced back as she realized she'd stood frozen for a second or two, "the boss doesn't pay you to stand around. Table four needs cleanup."

Right. Back to cleaning up dirty drink glasses. It would have been infinitely more fun to heave a few of them at Chambers' head, but she still needed the job ... at least ... well ... for now, though some part of her still hoped that maybe later ... well ... it wouldn't be necessary.

And in the meantime, Helena would just ignore the homesickness, the loneliness, and the general lack of focus by working until her feet hurt like hell and she never wanted to see another frat boy as long as she lived. Of course the frat boy thing had come about five minutes after she met her first one, so it wasn't much of a stretch, but still.... She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She could do this.

She was nearly finished clearing the table when a small crowd entered, their voices cheerfully raucous. She glanced up, then stiffened when she saw a tall, bearded, bear of a man slide an arm around the slender figure at his side, laughing as he swung her around, his voice rising above the usual bar chatter. "Rack 'em up, bartender, the doctor is in the house."

It struck Helena that by the look of things, racking them up would be on the redundant side as Allison Robicheau squirmed in his hold, nearly stumbling when her feet hit the floor again.

"Danny," she chided, her voice happily slurred, "try not to be too big a pain in the ass, would you?" Somebody'd been barhopping big time by the look of it.

A blonde woman, cute in a slightly zaftig way, leaned over Robicheau's shoulder, sounding no more sober than the others. "Doc," she said pointedly, "try to just kick back and enjoy it for once." Judging by the way the brunette jumped, the blonde goosed her from behind as she offered a bleary grin. "Tomorrow, you can be your usual self and torment your students, but dammit, tonight, eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we graduate."

"I think it's still officially a couple of weeks away ... and tomorrow's Sunday ... no students to torment ... dammit," the brunette riposted, the smartass tone trailing off into a laugh as someone else grabbed her from behind by slinging an arm around her neck. Helena wasn't entirely certain of the gender of the latest one, just that Kool Aid was no better a hair dye now than it had been when she was in high school.

"Stop being a hopeless tightass for just one night ... Doctor," the lanky androgyne chided, adding extra emphasis to the final word. There was a chorus of agreement from the rest of the small group, though their answers were mixed with laughter.

"Love you too, guys, I just--" The grad student's voice chopped off rather abruptly as her gaze accidentally landed on Helena's lean frame and brown eyes clashed with blue.

Helena straightened, tossing the last of the glasses into the bus-tub and slinging the bar rag over her shoulder, her expression silently defiant. She hadn't heard from the other woman since the night of Alfred's visit when they'd talked for hours about everything but emotions or feelings, arguing art, history, and politics with the ease of two people who knew far too much.

Then the other woman had moved to leave, and Helena had found herself afraid of being alone again, terrified of the whispers of her own mind and the mental games that seemed to torment her whenever things got quiet. She'd touched a slender shoulder lightly --wishing it were more muscled, but willing to settle---her tone openly pleading when she'd admitted she didn't want to be alone. She'd seen the reticence and used her innate charisma to turn the tide. Before it was over with, they'd wound up in bed instead, bodies touching, moving together....

Ally'd been gone in the morning without a word or a hint of communication since.

It had left Helena feeling anything but good about the situation, even though she knew logically, she was the one who'd set the rules of engagement. Still, she couldn't help but resent the way the other woman had turned away so easily and so totally---too much like Barbara. So much so that her resentments of one woman blended into her resentments of the other, magnifying both grudges in illogical ways. She supposed she should let it go, but that just wasn't possible. A hint of a sneer curving her lips, she hefted her load and did a neat turn on her heel, pointedly ignoring the other woman as she headed toward the back kitchen.

Thankfully, she had work to do in the back, so she could escape the sounds of happy laughter and teasing jokes. She didn't feel like listening to other people enjoying themselves when, for three weeks, she'd been doing well when she worked her mood all the way up to miserable, and she felt best when she was too tired to think. Mostly she worked, and when not working, she tried to sleep, and when she was tired of staring at the ceiling, she hit the clubs and danced until she was completely mindless. Despite the offers that invariably came her way, she'd avoided repeating the trap of losing herself in anonymous sex. Somehow it no longer felt so anonymous. She already had enough complications in her life from that sort of thing. She didn't need anymore.

So she buried herself in work. It was mindless and physical, and both qualities appealed to Helena. Work, she'd learned, was a decent escape from her own thoughts. Ignoring any tasks on the floor, she dug in, rearranging and cleaning out the main stockroom ... right up until she became aware of a prickling at the back of her neck. The sensation was familiar enough that she instantly recognized it. Crouched down and glaring at a row of bottles, she shifted her weight, automatically on the defense as she came around in a slow pivot that put her weight on the knee she lowered to the cement floor. She relaxed considerably when she laid eyes on the figure leaning against the door jamb, arms folded across her chest, silently watching. As their eyes met, she raised an eyebrow.

Blue eyes turned flinty. "No customers allowed in the back, Ma'am," Helena said, her voice dripping icicles. "The manager wouldn't like it if he found you back here."

The other woman shrugged, unimpressed by the insulting tone. "I just looked like I knew where I was going. I doubt it'll be a problem."

It was the sort of thing Barbara had said somewhere in the past, and the attitude she often took in dealing with things. It made Helena's teeth grit. Moving almost too gracefully---Huntress mode engaged, though she kept her powers at bay---she rose, a mocking smile on her lips. "Not supposed to talk to the customers ... Ma'am," she added, her tone pointed.

Allison had the good graces to flinch. "Oka-aay," she exhaled after a beat, "I guess I deserved that."

Helena just glared, mouth pursed angrily, then folded her arms across her own chest, her nonchalant pose a complete work of fiction, and not an especially believable one either.

Another moment of uncomfortable silence passed before the older woman dropped her hands to her sides, fidgeting under the intense gaze directed her way. There was something very disconcerting about the way the younger woman was capable of taking control of a situation, her self-confidence and steely-eyed looks more than a little intimidating. Certainly far more so than most people her age. "Look," Allison said after a moment, "I just wanted to make certain that...." She paused for a long moment, apparently dissatisfied with whatever she'd been about to say. "Are you okay?" she asked at last.

Full lips twisted and Helena shook her head. "Don't pretend you give a shit," she growled. She was sick and tired of people who offered all the right words and made her feel like she actually mattered, then turned around the first chance they got and made it obvious that it was all a lie. "We both know you wouldn't be talking to me if you hadn't stumbled in here with your friends." It wasn't like the other woman had looked her up on purpose.

Gnawing on her lower lip, Allison fought the temptation to back away from the angry young woman glaring at her. Social skills were clearly not Helena's strong suit. "Believe it or not ... I do care ... it's just that--"

"That it was embarrassing that you fucked someone young enough to be your kid," Helena snapped, wanting the other woman gone and hitting hard to achieve that end. She didn't want to feel, and certainly didn't want to be reminded of all the emotions this woman brought up through her similarity Barbara.

Brown eyes sharpened. "Only if I was exceptionally precocious," Allison shot back, then continued, her voice hard, "Just for the record, your first shot's free, second one's highly discounted. Along about number three, I start charging full price." It was a clear warning shot across Helena's bow. She wasn't going to take any abuse.

Helena looked away, teeth grinding furiously, but she didn't mouth off this time.

After a long moment spent in separate corners, Allison tried again. "Now, believe it or not, I do give a damn," she began carefully "...and I'm sorry if I hurt you when I left--"

"To quote you, I guess I deserved that," Helena ground out, the admission making her want to scream and rage.

"Not particularly," Allison sighed, then took a moment to gather herself, suddenly wishing she'd followed her initial instincts and avoided this confrontation altogether ... which led her to wonder why the hell it was that she kept doing things she ought not when she was around this woman. "It's just that you're very ... hard ... on my ... equilibrium," she admitted haltingly, then paused for a second, shaking her head, her expression perplexed. "Getting out just seemed like the best idea for all involved ... because things get out of hand when I'm around you. I intend to walk out ... and somehow find myself in a bed with no sheets ... again." She exhaled an annoyed sigh and reached up to ruffle her hair. "Which just isn't good for either of us." It was just that she kept finding that charm turned her way, and saying no ultimately seemed anywhere from impossible to downright idiotic. The younger woman continued to glare. "It would be too easy to slide into using each other. I'm past the point in my life where that's something I'm willing to be a part of." She wasn't in love with the younger woman, and Helena wasn't in love with her ... and the sex was too tangled and confused to be even remotely healthy. Simple, happy-go-lucky fornication it wasn't. That she might have been able to deal with.

"Right," Helena bit out, teeth grinding together. And once again she was the one out in the cold. Light fingers reached up to the hair that fell across her brow back, drawing her head up as she twitched away from the faint caress. "Don't," she hissed and backed up a half step, lip curling into a jeer at the pity she saw in the other woman's expression. It was no more real than anything else she'd pretended to feel. She was just another one who knew how to float above the real world, making people think she cared when her brain was probably somewhere else entirely. Maybe it was some weird skill that teachers learned.

Allison dropped her arm back to her side, struck once again by the young woman's fierce beauty. As young as she was, there was something frighteningly experienced in those eyes, as though she'd been born already knowing more about the world than anyone else, and her youth was more a matter of still figuring out how it all fit together than a lack of knowledge. "Have you talked to her?" she asked at last.

No doubt who 'her' referred to.

Helena's eyes slid to the side, focusing on a point somewhere in the distance, and shook her head. "She knows how to find me," she growled. Barbara had proven that much.

"And you know where to find her, I'm assuming," Allison pointed out with quiet logic.

Helena winced. Yeah, she knew, except she wasn't going back there, especially since she wasn't sure what kind of welcome she'd find. "I'm always the one who gives in ... does things her way." She shook her head. "Not this time."

That declaration was met by a long moment of total silence, then Allison reached out, resting a hand lightly on Helena's shoulder, drawing her attention back up. "Let me give you a piece of advice ... talk to her ... call ... write a letter ... something--" Maybe then she could stop feeling so damned responsible for a situation over which she had no control.

"You don't understand--" Helena snapped, only to find herself interrupted.

"Maybe not ... but I'll tell you what I do understand, lines of communication degrade very quickly ... anger builds up, multiplies, and even when it fades, there's an ugly kind of resentment left in its place ... that kind of bitterness ... it has a habit of destroying people." It was said in a tone of voice that said she knew too well how easily things could go that way.

Helena's lips pursed. It was the story of her life ... then again she was more comfortable with anger anyway. "Don't worry, I'll be fine."

"Actually, I was thinking of her," Allison said softly, surprised to feel so much sympathy for a woman she'd never met, could only even imagine through the subtle clues expressed as much by what Helena didn't say as what she did. She'd managed to assemble all the clues Helena steadfastly refused to see into a picture that the younger woman simply wouldn't understand---even though it might well be the answer to her every dream. It had to be a special kind of hell to want what you couldn't have---what you couldn't even contemplate wanting for fear of what it would make you. She was barely dealing with her own actions, and could barely imagine the daily temptation of the raw longing that glittered in blue eyes at the mere mention of the mysterious Barbara's name. To have resisted so long, whether or not one was really interested---and Allison was oddly certain that Barbara, whoever she was, was more than just interested---was an impressive feat. Hell, she was doing well when she made it for five minutes every time those eyes turned her way. And she wasn't even in love, just somebody with healthy hormones. She couldn't imagine holding out for years, especially if there was real emotion there. Instinct told her denial had played a healthy part in the successful effort.

That got a bark of grim laughter from Helena. "Oh, don't worry, she's fine ... probably relieved to be rid of me." Except she couldn't help but remember the shattered look in Barbara's eyes just before she'd turned and fled Helena's tiny studio apartment. Helena had tried to chalk it up to a dozen different things, but she always came back to that look of pain ... and it made her ... what? Hurt? Want? Afraid? She didn't even know how to categorize the emotion. She just knew she was afraid to find out it was something other than the hurt and loss some part of her desperately wanted it to be. Had it been something like relief, she wasn't sure she could survive the news.

"Even you don't believe that," Allison's voice broke in on her thoughts, "no matter how much easier it would be if you did."

Helena's mouth opened and she drew breath to deny the charge, only to find the words wouldn't come. She snapped her jaw shut. "I don't know," she said at last.

"If nothing else, write her a letter. From what you said, you were close once. She's probably just as frustrated by things as you are ... may not understand what happened any better than you do."

Feeling chased onto a corner by the softly spoken suggestions, Helena bristled. "Why do you care?" she demanded, her tone aggressive enough to back all but the most ham-handed off a pace or two. It was just that she didn't understand the sense she was getting from the other woman at all. In her experience one night stands typically fell into two groups, those who never wanted to see her again---generally fine by her since she felt much the same---and those who instantly proclaimed their undying love---a breed she'd largely learned to avoid. Trying to get her with someone else just didn't compute, and at that point, she wasn't inclined to trust anything she didn't understand.

Allison was human enough to tense ever so slightly, though she'd dealt with enough football players angry over less than impressive grades that she didn't back down. "I suppose because once upon a time I screwed myself over by being bone-headedly stubborn." No doubt how she saw Helena. "Wound up sleeping with people I didn't want ... and losing someone I did." She glanced down at the floor between her feet for a brief second, gaining a little distance before continuing. "Sound like anyone you know?" she asked as she directed a pointed look at the younger woman.

Helena didn't answer, just stood grinding her teeth, her eyes blazing and wild, making it clear that the advice wasn't welcome.

Allison waited a moment, then shook her head, wondering why she bothered. Habit, she supposed even as she vowed one more time to stop picking up strays and trying to save the world. "Y'know, you're right, this is none of my fucking business," she ground out, silently berating herself for not resisting the urge to check on the younger woman. Clearly she was an adult capable of looking after herself. "Be as stupid as you want ... chalk it up as a learning experience. That's what the rest of us do." She shoved her hands in her front pockets. "And now I have a party to get back to." She offered a brittle smile. "I passed my orals ... the rest of my work is done ... and I plan on getting extremely drunk to celebrate." Without waiting for a response from the younger woman, she turned on her heel and started back toward the main room of the bar.

"Wait!" Helena said abruptly, and Allison froze, half turning her head without looking back. "Congratulation. I-I know how important it was to you." The other woman's passion for her field had been obvious during the hours they'd spent arguing history and philosophy, and Helena suddenly felt bad about taking her anger out on someone who wasn't the rightful target when she was just out to celebrate something she'd spent years working on.

The older woman's chin bobbed in a nod of acknowledgment. "Have a nice life," she muttered, then hurried out, leaving Helena feeling more alone than ever, suddenly struck by how much she missed Barbara. The loss of their closeness was an actual physical ache, one that left her wanting to rage and scream---or run home, climb into Barbara's arms, and just feel safe again.

"Hey, Kyle," Bill Chambers interrupted his thoughts as he stepped into the back room and flashed a look her way that was half leer, half jeer, "you're here to work, not make dates." She was comfortably certain he wouldn't have been so pissy about it if he'd been the one with a shot at getting a date.

"I wasn't," Helena ground out, then hooked a thumb over her shoulder. "The storeroom needed straightening ... stuff was getting pretty haphazard in there. Could've fallen and broken stock ... and if the health department saw some of that stuff, they'd pull the food licence." She straightened her shoulders and stared him down. "And you know Vic would feel if that happened." It was the first time she'd managed to use the bar owner against the bartender, rather than the other way around. He was constantly threatening to get her fired, but this time, she'd turned that on its ear. Victor Standish was paranoid about losing his liquor licence or his health department rating since either one would reduce what he could offer and there was plenty of competition on college row.

Chambers' eyes flashed, his mouth thinning with dislike. He'd cheerfully get naked with her, but her refusal to see him as anything but a slug had not triggered his most gentlemanly qualities. Not that he had any gentlemanly qualities to be triggered anyway. "Fine then," he sneered and nodded toward the main part of the bar. "Looks okay now. Get back on the floor."

Helena's mouth twisted into a dark smile. "Right," she said, offering up a sneer of her own. He leaned against the door jamb and didn't move as she drew close and started to step past him.

Helena felt the older man start to move almost the instant he thought about it, and her hand snatched out, catching his wrist before he could make contact with the portion of her anatomy he'd been aiming to 'accidentally' grope. She looked at him, barely containing the urge to go feral. "Only if you want to lose it," she warned him. She'd hit her limit. That was it. if he touched her, she was going to do serious damage. No job was worth putting up with this sort of thing.

His eyes narrowed and he drew breath.

Helena spoke before he did, her brain running fast and furious, combat mode engaged, even if the combat was just a matter of words and looks instead of the punches she would have enjoyed throwing. "Don't ever touch me," she growled, then full lips twisted in a confident smile. "In fact, don't even look at me. And if you're thinking about trying to get me fired, you should know that there are plenty of lawyers who'd love that sexual harassment case. Might not win, but I guarantee you it'd be all over the papers in short order ... and I'm guessing your wife and both girlfriends would be interested in all sorts of details I could come up with."

Bill Chambers paled noticeably, leaning away from the wild look in her eyes.

Helena's smile broadened as she opened her fingers, releasing his wrist and silently daring him to push her. She'd had it with the world and wasn't especially averse to the idea of beating the bartender senseless. The pleasure the thought gave her showed in her expression alongside the absolute confidence that it wouldn't even make her work up a sweat. "I don't think we'll have any more problems ... you?"

He just glared.

"Didn't think so," Helena drawled and swept out, adding an extra bit of sway to her hips when she heard him mutter, "Bitch," under his breath.

She barely resisted the urge to turn around and confirm the insult, but it just wasn't worth it. He wasn't worth it. Consciously ignoring the small knot of partying grad students, she went back to her job, though she was well aware that at least one of them was ignoring her every bit as pointedly.

Which was fine by Helena. Christ. She didn't want any goddamned attention anyway. If it wasn't Barbara, she just wanted to be left the fuck alone. She didn't want to be spoken to, didn't want to read the paper, see a TV---not that she could afford one anyway---didn't want to know there was a world out there. She couldn't literally cease to exist, but if she worked hard enough, she could come close enough, especially since she was so low on the totem pole that nobody much noticed her or cared to treat her with any respect. She knew she was wallowing in her misery, but, Christ, didn't she had a right to do a bit of wallowing? The world was a miserable, fucking place as she knew from hard won experience. Her mother was dead, her father didn't give a fuck, and the one person she'd thought she could rely on apparently felt just about like a father did.

She managed to finish her shift without speaking a single word to another human being, which even Helena would have acknowledged probably didn't do a lot of good for her already lousy mood. She'd already done so much that cleanup was a five minute job, and she was out the back door before Chambers even had a chance to make another pass. She didn't have keys, so she didn't have to stay while the others finished up their jobs. Not that she had anywhere to go, just a crummy apartment, though she'd finally managed to get sheets for the bed. Not much else, but sheets.

The air whipped with an early spring chill, too cold to feel good, but no longer bitter winter icicles turned to air just so they could slice right through a body. She glanced at her watch. Too late for the buses to be running, and she didn't own a car. Thank goodness, there was nothing in the night that scared her. The last thing to do that---the Crimson Claw---was safely locked up in Arkham, thank god. She could never have walked away as long as he was slaughtering at will. Helena sighed softly in response to that thought, tempted to curse herself for the brief notion that maybe catching him wasn't such a great thing after all. After all, as long as he'd been on the loose she'd had no choice but to stay with Barbara. Even thinking such a thing in the grimmest of jokes sent a bolt of guilt through her as she remembered what he'd done ... and how. Her stomach rolled with the memory, and she reached up, massaging her temple as though she could somehow reach inside her skull and pull out the images that played in her mind's eye. She just wished she could blank the memories, degauss her brain as though it was a videotape.

She was about to do a quick, scrambling leap to carry her to the top of the nearest building, more comfortable well above New Gotham's streets than she was at ground level, when she realized she wasn't entirely alone. A slender figure was standing beside one of the few remaining cars in the parking lot, wavering on her feet, and cursing softly as she fought with the keys. Helena briefly considered just leaving, but if the other woman managed to actually unlock the car door and killed someone while she was behind the wheel, Helena wasn't sure she could live with herself. She knew what broken bodies looked like, whether by murder or accident. That sort of knowledge changed how a person viewed some things.

The decision made, Helena moved inhumanly quickly and perfectly silently, lean body a black-clad ghost, her coat winging out behind her like a swirling, ebony cape. She was within reach in a heartbeat, one hand darting out before her target even knew she was there.

"Hey!" Allison Robicheau yelped as the car keys were snatched from her hand. She spun too quickly for reflexes dulled by far more alcohol than was prudent, and nearly went down as the world wobbled crazily around her. Breathless, the woman leaned against the side of her car, staring at Helena as though she'd seen a ghost.

"You're too drunk to drive," Helena ground out, furious at the sheer irresponsibility of the act.

The other woman would have grabbed the keys, but Helena held them just out of reach, and pushed her back with her other hand. They tussled briefly until Allison leaned back, accepting that she wasn't going to achieve anything that way, and glared at the younger woman. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded, her voice less slurred than Helena expected, though it was obvious from the way she was clinging to the side of the car that her balance was in bad shape.

"I repeat," Helena said, her voice deadly soft, "you're too drunk to drive." She looked around. "Where are your friends?" Maybe she could catch a lift with one of them, though Helena doubted any of them were any more sober.

The question earned a faintly mystified shrug. "I think Danny went home with Angel ... and Rick picked up some blonde. Terry and Sandy left early, and I don't know about Stan."

Given that Helena didn't have the faintest idea who any of those people were, it wasn't quite the answer she was looking for. She cursed under her breath.

"Now, may I--"

"Christ," Helena snarled furiously, "get behind the wheel of a car drunk and you could kill someone." Really, it wasn't like it was a complicated concept.

"It's only a couple of blocks, and I'm not that--"

"Drunk?" the younger woman demanded angrily, then shook her head in disgust. "You can barely stand up," she disagreed pointedly, then shoved the keys in her pocket. No way in hell was she going to let anyone drive in that condition. She'd seen so many acts of brutality during her nightly sweeps, and it was the most avoidable of them all.

Allison drew breath to argue, then the swirled around her and she felt her knees threaten to buckle. Okay, so maybe she had drunk a bit much to be getting behind the wheel of a car. She ignored the temptation to wilt under the hard look directed her way, not liking the sudden sense that Helena was the more mature one. "Fine," she snapped after a beat, "I'll catch a bus." Careful not to let her feet tangle despite their best efforts to send her tumbling, she turned away and started in the direction of a nearby bus stop.

"They stopped running forty-five minutes ago," Helena pointed out practically.

"Then I'll fucking walk," came the response as Allison stuffed her hands in her coat pockets and lengthened her stride. The cold air would probably help clear her head anyway. "Just lock my keys in the car."

Helena snarled a curse under her breath, then called out, "Not smart ... even this late." New Gotham had more than its fair share of criminals who'd cheerfully take advantage of a woman alone---particularly one for whom sobriety was a distant concept.

"Don't worry, little girl," Allison called without looking back, "I was clubbing when you were still in diapers." It occurred to her as the words left her mouth that her accent had slipped for the first time in ages, a touch of a Louisiana drawl slipping in unwanted. God, she really was tanked. And maybe walking home wasn't such a brilliant idea. Except doing anything else meant turning back and facing blue eyes that shot sparks and angry looks. God, what was it with the woman? She kept popping up at the strangest times, all accusation and wild sexuality---appealing, confusing, pathetic, and more than a little frightening. That sort of wild child, half-woman, half-girls was always a heartbreaker in her experience. All fire, and totally unattainable. And this one was in love with someone else into the bargain. Just looking at her too long was asking for a nice bout of emotional devastation.

Absorbed in her own thoughts, she didn't notice the eyes that watched her pass by from a densely shadowed alley.

* * * * * * *

Helena watched the other woman stride away, her lips pursed disapprovingly. She, of all people, knew the sorts of dangers that prowled the New Gotham nights. Letting the other woman walk home alone went against her every instinct. Maybe she should just--

No.

No, no, no. It wasn't her goddamned business. She wasn't a blasted hero charged with protecting the city anymore. It wasn't her responsibility. She got to be just another body in the night now, no longer an avenging angel. On the other hand, speaking of things she wasn't sure she could live with. If she just stood there, and something did happen to the other woman---after she'd let her wander into the night, drunk and alone---oh yeah, that'd mean a lifetime of guilt.

No. It was none of her damn business. She was out of the hero game, and if people wanted to act like dumbshits, it was no longer her problem. Besides, Allison would probably be just fine. Hell, she'd hit thirty-five, apparently without major incident. She probably knew what she was doing. Helena turned away, long strides eating up the ground as she headed in the opposite direction. She was still moving quickly when she heard the first, distant squeal of sound. Sharp ears pricked instantly, hunting for any further sounds that might indicate a problem. It was late enough that there weren't many traffic noises to distract her from what she was looking for. Not that the noisy, metallic crash that followed several seconds later would have been easy to miss. Helena spun and broke into a run in one, graceful move, moving fast, though she wasn't entirely certain exactly where the crash had come from. She rounded a corner, pulling up short as she hunted for any sign of the other woman with eyes that saw as well at night as most saw in daylight. The street was empty, but there were several dark alleys. Helena paused, not wanting to waste time searching the wrong one.

Another crash, softer than the first, and followed by a strangled sound that was frighteningly human. She was able to locate the noises this time, and she moved fast, running hard, nearly gliding, her feet barely touching the sidewalk. The world was clear and sharp, her heartrate smooth, every move controlled. The Huntress was back in her element. She rounded the corner at full tilt.

And abruptly skidded to a halt.

Allison was down, but didn't appear to be hurt. It looked more like she'd been shoved clear. She was on her backside, leaned back on her hands, head tipped back, staring wide-eyed at the scene in front of her. Helena couldn't really blame her. A blonde Amazon standing a good foot above the ground, clutching a grimy looking thug by the collar wasn't exactly your everyday sight---even for her, and she was a damn superhero vigilante for god's sake. The floating woman was taller than average---six feet if she was inch---her wheat blonde hair cut in a fluttery page boy, and dressed in a mix of white and pale cream, with a long milky, suede coat that fluttered behind her like a cape. A white domino mask hid something of her face, though Helena had a hard time believing that anyone would fail to recognize her if they saw her again---mask or no mask---six foot plus, blonde Amazons being on the unusual side.

"You've been a very bad boy," the blonde ground out as she lifted the would be mugger up until they were eye to eye. His legs worked helplessly where he dangled in mid-air. The blonde showed no sign of noticing. She glanced at Allison where the woman sat on the ground, staring up with disbelieving eyes. "You really shouldn't be alone in this neighborhood at night, Ma'am."

Allison didn't reply, just stared, though she did manage to bob her head in acknowledgment.

"It's really not safe," the blonde lectured helpfully. The mugger made another desperate attempt to escape and she just shook him until he went limp. A sly smile curved her mouth. "Time to be on my way," she told the sprawled woman who managed to nod her head again. The blonde pointed her toes, rising another foot or so, then spoke, but clearly not to her prisoner or the woman on the ground. "Oracle, I'll see you in a little while. Just have to drop something off, and I'm finished for the night."

Helena felt like she'd been hit by a forty pound sledge.

Oracle. She'd said Oracle. She was talking to Barbara.

As she watched, the blonde shot straight up, not jumping, but flying. Helena did a slow pivot, tracking the pale figure until she disappeared into the night.

No wonder she hadn't heard from Barbara. Three weeks and she'd already been replaced. Helena drew in a ragged breath as she realized her body was screaming for oxygen. She'd forgotten to breathe for a moment. She shook her head slowly. She should have known Barbara couldn't stay out of the game. When it came to the redhead, nothing was more important than the life.

And one superhero was just as good as the last. Maybe better. This one could fly.

She released the oxygen from her lungs, her breath coming out as a ragged sob, then gasped air in again. Even autonomic responses seemed to have shut down, because she could have sworn her heart had stopped beating and it was taking considerable effort to breathe.

"Jesus, I must be tanked," the woman behind Helena muttered, her voice slurring, though Helena barely heard her. "Cause I coulda sworn I just saw a flying woman ... a blonde, flying woman ... very muscular for a fucking angel, but definitely flying ... and that's just not possible." A few soft rustling sounds followed, but Helena's mind was still on what she'd just seen. "Seen some really weird shit in my life ... I mean, it happens if you spend much time in the French Quarter ... but ... no ... I'm jus' drunk ... really fucking drunk ... and never touching that shit again. It was probably the Long Island Iced Tea. Man, those things are lethal...."

Helena couldn't have cared less about the inane, inebriated babble.

Replaced. She'd been fucking replaced.

It was just that easy for Barbara. One hero out, one in.

Helena wanted to scream, rage, cry, stomp over to the clocktower and demand to know how in the hell Barbara could do such a thing. Christ, how could she....

She couldn't even finish the thought. It just hurt too damn much.

"Gonna be seein' pink elephants soon ... maybe hephalumps and woozels. Jesus, now I remember why I don't drink."

The muttered comments brought Helena around, her gaze sharpening as she brought Allison's gently wavering figure into focus as the woman stumbled to her feet, ruffling her hair dazedly. The other woman shook her head slowly, muttering something about not seeing what she thought she'd seen, and how this was worse than Mardi Gras. Her voice was softer than usual, slurred with drink, and a soft southern drawl that wasn't normally there. Helena didn't give a damn about any of it. Her mind was still on the tall blonde who'd flown away from the scene. A low growl escaped full lips, the fury sliding over her in dangerous ways.

Barbara wasn't the only one who could move on. She crossed the distance in a couple of long strides, her every move preternaturally graceful, eyes feral and gleaming. She was an inch or two taller than the other woman, but even if she'd been a half a head shorter, it wouldn't have slowed her. She straight-armed Allison firmly into the alley wall, stepping into her space, brushing impossibly close as she curved one hand to the side of her face and drew her head up. Helena saw a flicker of fear and felt the other woman tense, the reptilian part of her brain sensing that she�d become nothing but prey. Her response only made the hunting instinct more acute. It certainly wasn't about love. Wasn't even about anything as pure as lust. It was pure domination and punishment with sex used as a calculated tool for control. As Helena's lips came down, Allison tried to push her back and pull away, but Helena just crowded her more firmly into the wall, using superior strength and experience to control her quarry with automatic ease.

"No," her prey gasped through the beginnings of the kiss. When it didn't even slow Helena down, Allison pushed even harder, and even succeeded in forcing Helena's shoulders back a little, making her pursuit slightly more difficult.

"Yes," Helena disagreed, easily overwhelming the other woman. In contrast to the overpowering strength, her mouth was perversely gentle, teasing and seducing while her hands fended off any efforts to shove her away. After a moment, she tasted a low groan and pressed harder, her knee grinding, mouth taking command. Another moment passed and she felt taut muscles relax fractionally.

Surrender.

A small, triumphant growl bubbled up from Helena's chest, her hands shifting, confident that she'd won her prize.

Victory didn't last long, and triumph turned a snarl of pure rage as sharp teeth suddenly bit into her tongue, and a panicked shove sent her stumbling backward. Caught by surprise, Helena momentarily staggered, then regained her balance, her eyes wild as she started forward.

"No!" Scared and confused, the word momentarily held the younger woman at bay, but it didn't stop her.

Helena stepped back into the other woman's personal space, grabbing, pulling close. "Just for the record," she purposely repeated Allison's earlier words, hot breath playing over her face, "your first shot's free, second one's highly discounted. Along about number three, I start charging full price." Her pupils were little more than narrow slits, but the world was as sharp and clear to her as it would have been at high noon. She was in a profoundly dangerous place, well past kindness or caring, so thoroughly lost in her rage at Barbara that she didn't care who she hurt so long as she got what she wanted. It wasn't that she wanted to cause physical pain. It was that she longer cared either way, so long as she got what she wanted. She'd already had too many years of denial. That this woman was nothing more than a stand-in for another no longer mattered. "Don't fight me," she said, her tone a sultry command, while her lips were soft, even tender as she trailed them along the curve of Allison's throat, using the knowledge she'd gained during their brief encounters against the inebriated woman. "Not when we both know you want this," she coaxed, her hands moving and doing intense things to the older woman. Nothing like alcohol to lower inhibitions, and she was more than willing to use that advantage.

"Don't," Ally pleaded, squirming uncomfortably, her body hot and uncoordinated. This was all wrong. She could feel the dark emotions pouring off the other woman despite her superficial gentleness, the dual impact of lust and anger leaving her confused and eager to simply escape.

Helena laughed softly, the sound little more than a low rumble. "Why not?" she drawled as though she wasn't on the hunt in an alley at 3am.

Liquid brown eyes tipped up. They were full of pain and accusation despite the arousal that also burned there. "Because you don't care about me," Allison whispered. "You just want someone to hurt as much as you do."

The softly spoken accusation took a moment to work its way through Helena's brain, slithering in past her defenses, forcing her to see what she was doing---and why. It was the second time in minutes that Helena had felt like she'd been hit by a forty pound sledge, and she reacted accordingly. Losing her grip on slender shoulders, she stumbled back a pace, suddenly so uncoordinated, she was close to toppling as she watched the other woman slowly slide down the wall into a sitting position. "I don't..." she tried to deny the drunken charge, but the words wouldn't come. She fought them, tried to tell herself she was just looking for a little oblivion in a strange pair of arms, but what had almost happened wouldn't have been an escape. It would have been something else entirely, something that sickened her.

"Yes, you do," Allison choked, her voice suddenly so thick with tears that it came out raw and tremulous. She shook her head, wondering how the hell she could have gotten herself into this mess, felt more hot tears burning at her eyes and rubbed at them with clenched fists, trying to remove the embarrassing evidence that the other woman had managed to inflict the pain she seemed to thrive on. "I don't know what I ever did to you ... but even that first night ... you wanted to hurt." It was one of the reasons she kept trying to run away, except she'd also found herself playing the proverbial moth to the flame every time those violet eyes swung her way, full of equal measures of pain and pleading, making her feel like she should be doing something---fixing the world and making it better, but she didn't know how. How the hell was anyone supposed to resist the potent combination of beauty and need? And how the hell was anyone supposed to live up to the pedestal she kept the mysterious Barbara on? Her eyes narrowed, resentment of the burden Helena seemed to feel she had a right to inflict burning in her breast. "God, no wonder she runs away from you," she said, her tone sulky, going for the jugular with the sort of cruelty often seen in the very drunk, the lack of inhibitions making it far easier for even the kindest soul to draw blood.

For just a millisecond, the emotional bloodletting very nearly resulted in a far more literal one as Helena's temper came dangerously close to exploding, then the woman on the ground coiled her arms around herself, her body shaking with rough tears. The brunette felt something inside of her snap, the fury draining away in an instant. How many times had she found herself in a similar pose, sobbing her own tears, emotionally shredded, and pushed to the edge. It had never occurred to her that she could do that to someone else, but clearly she had. Fighting a sick well of shame, Helena dropped hands to her sides, narrow shoulders deflating, her stomach suddenly roiling with nausea. Finally, she crouched down, reaching out and cupping one hand to a narrow shoulder. "Shhh," she whispered, using the tone she'd often used when speaking to victims of horrible crimes. "I didn't mean to hurt you," she sighed and eased a little closer. Part of her wanted to just run the way she normally did in the aftermath of crime. The asskicking was easy, but she was always relieved to be away once that part was over. Evil she could deal with---just beat it to hell, and be done with it---but the reality of loss and pain wasn't so easy to fix. She always felt painfully helpless as she watched people begin to realize that their lives had changed for good. She'd been there and done that. Reliving it just hurt too much. "I just...." She sighed again and ruffled her hair, understanding no better than the woman seated on the ground in front of her. She didn't want to look at her actions too closely. When she even came close to it, she didn't come off too well in her own estimation.

"You want me to fall in love with you," Allison accused, drunken logic the only kind that could make any sense of the whole sorry affair. "To break my heart the way she's breaking yours." As the words left her mouth, she paused, staring up at Helena with a vaguely bruised expression as though she either didn't quite believe it herself, or maybe was afraid of another explosion of temper. She shook her head, her expression screwed with inebriated determination. "But I won't let you do that to me ... I won't...."

Helena recoiled from the charge, not liking what it said about her at all. Unfortunately, there was probably some truth to it. She'd made this woman into some kind of twisted stand-in for Barbara and some of the emotions she felt for the redhead had transferred. Not the affection, but the anger, the desire, and the resentment. It made for a potentially dangerous mix.

"Is it something about me that makes people set me up for shit like this?" the mournful question broke in on the younger woman's thoughts, and she looked up to encounter brown eyes that were lost and confused. "I mean, am I that awful a person that I deserve to be the punching bag for everybody's emotional shit?"

There was history there, Helena realized in a blink, cruel, hurtful history---and she'd unintentionally played on it, adding to the pain. She'd never really considered before that people who weren't buried in violence---whether by choice or accident---might be just as emotionally fucked up as the rest of the world. It had always seemed to her that their complaints were just whining. 'Lose a few people you love to violence, then we'll talk,' had always been her attitude. For the first time in a long time, it occurred to her that maybe she was all wrong. The violence might make some things worse, but maybe nobody got off easy. "No," she said at last and reached out, gently brushing a few stray curls off the other woman's forehead. "You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time ... and reminded me too much of the wrong person." She offered a quirky smile, the attempt to lighten the situation probably in poor taste, but then good taste under stress had never been Helena's strong suit. "In a way it's kind of a compliment ... given that I've been in love with her all of my adult life."

The older woman's head cocked to one side, then she shook her head. "That would be more of a comfort if you'd actually had some semblance of an adult life," she sighed and pressed the heels of her hands into her eye sockets as she struggled to get shredded emotions back under control. "God, no more alcohol for me ... ever. It's not worth it."

"But you're back to insulting my age," Helena teased very gently. "You must be doing better."

The crack got a soft sigh in return. "Not insulting," the other woman disagreed quietly, "just being realistic." She pulled her hands up, eyes sliding open as she peered up at Helena. "You're so damn young you don't even know how young you are."

Helena wanted to argue, but then again, maybe there was some truth to the words. God knew, she'd spent most of the previous three weeks feeling just like she had the first time her mother had dropped her off for the first grade. She hadn't known the other children---many of whom did know each other from daycare---hadn't known the routines, the teacher, or anything else. She'd hated the not knowing, the structure, the sense that any moment, she might just screw up and everyone would laugh at her. That every other child in that room had probably been afraid of the same things---or at least of things just as serious to a six year-old---had never really crossed her mind until that very moment. She accepted the tiny flush of maturity with surprising equanimity. "Come on," she said at last, curving one hand lightly to a narrow shoulder. "Time to get you home." Where before this woman had accepted a share of responsibility for Helena, now the younger woman recognized her own obligations. "Can you stand?"

The nod she got in response was slowly given, and Allison staggered faintly as Helena helped her stand, too drunk, worn, and exhausted to maintain much semblance of balance.

"What's your address?" Helena asked and was a little surprised when the other woman didn't argue, simply answered.

"2621 Hamilton."

Which was a healthy four blocks away. No problem for Helena, but Allison was already stumbling. She'd never make it alone on foot---not that Helena had any intention of letting her try---and if they walked together, Helena had a funny feeling she'd be carrying the other woman before they were halfway there. She could do it, but after a night on her feet---her very sore feet, one of several side effects of real life that she'd discovered she was none too fond of---shuffling glasses back and forth, she was in no mood for lugging another hundred pounds down the street. She rested a hand lightly on the other woman's upper back. "Gimme your keys. I'll drive you." She half expected an argument, but Allison simply fished into her front pocket and handed over a heavy key ring. It was as though the brief explosion had wiped them both out so thoroughly that contemplating even the smallest argument was too overwhelming.

Allison waited while Helena unlocked the passenger side, then all but fell into the front seat before folding one forearm across her face and heaving a heavy sigh.

That was the problem with emotional bloodlettings, Helena mused as she slid into the front seat. They were so goddamned exhausting. She felt like she'd gone ten rounds with Superman, and she hadn't even drunk anything. Add alcohol to that kind of turmoil, and it had to be a helluva mess.

The woman tipped her seat back, and moaned very softly as Helena started the car, though she settled down once they were moving. As she pulled to a halt at a stoplight, Helena glanced over and realized that Allison had fallen asleep, or more correctly, passed out. She was snoring very gently and the arm that had been across her face had fallen into her lap. She looked very young and very vulnerable which only made the guilty weight in the pit of Helena's stomach feel that much heavier. She found the building and parked on the street.

Allison never moved.

Helena slid out and opened the passenger side, briefly debating her options when the woman showed no sign of waking. After a moment, she leaned into the car, easing Allison's wallet free and checking the address on her driver's license. Fourth floor. Hopefully the elevators were working because she really didn't feel like lugging a deadweight up four flights of stairs.

She wasn't so lucky, but at least the apartment was easy enough to find---a pleasant little one bedroom with a large livingroom that seemed small between the large computer desk, and wall to wall bookshelves, not to mention stacks of papers piled everywhere. A cat, the smallest, silliest looking tortoise shell Helena had ever seen, was sitting on the arm of the couch, tail curled around its body as it eyed her, looking regal despite the fact that it was mottled and splotched in none too attractive shades of black and orange, and had a bullet-shaped head that was half a size too small for the body that could politely be described as pear shaped. It quirked an eyebrow as Helena carried its mistress into the bedroom.

Helena settled Allison onto the bed, took a moment and pulled her shoes off, but left her otherwise dressed, then tugged the blanket at the foot of the bed up over her unmoving figure. When she looked up again, the cat had entered and hopped up onto the mattress to peer at the unconscious woman, wrinkling its nose when it got a whiff of the scent of alcohol still clinging to her. With that, it turned on its heel and strode out, disapproval etched on every line of its splotched and spattered face.

Helena couldn't help but smile. Typical cat. Homely as hell and yet it was still supremely confident it was the single most beautiful, elegant thing in the universe. Her mother would have approved.

The woman sprawled on the bed stirred gently, mumbling into the pillows as she rolled over.

Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, Helena considered her for a long moment. Allison would probably be okay on her own, but she'd had enough to drink that the younger woman wasn't as sanguine as she would have liked about the idea of leaving her alone. She couldn't help but remember all of those bad videos on teen drinking teachers had made their classes watch in high school. They'd been the sort of thing designed to scare kids away from alcohol, and while she knew they were probably about as factual as Reefer Madness, she also knew that there was very real danger if someone got sick while they were unconscious. Sighing softly, she stayed where she was for a long time, then moved to lean against the doorjamb, then finally peeled off her coat and crashed on the couch where she was still within hearing distance. She'd always been a light sleeper, so she knew she'd hear if there was a problem.

Helena was just drifting when a faint weight hopped up onto her hip, pawing firmly. Smiling she reached out and gently ruffled the animal's fur, enjoying the texture of silky fur and the soft purr that vibrated the small body under her hand. They'd always had cats when she was growing up, and the familiarity of the sensations was oddly comforting, reminding her of better times when she'd been far more certain of herself, and her path. She closed her eyes, summoning an image of her mother's cat, Isis---her fur black as night, while her eyes had gleamed an incredibly bright shade of gold---wending back and forth on her mom's shoulders. Helena hadn't thought about it in ages, but they'd lost her to old age only a couple of months before her mother's death. She could still remember watching her mother cry as she'd held her old friend during those final hours. Helena swallowed hard, remembering her own tears. Isis had been there all of her life. It was the worst loss she'd faced until that time. She'd never dreamed that just a few months later, the losses could be so much worse.

Now there was a thought likely to cheer her up. Still petting the cat absently with one hand, Helena reached up with the other, wiping away the tears gathered on her lashes and in the corners of her eyes. When she looked up again, it was too find green eyes peering into her own. Confident it belonged anywhere it wished to be, the cat ambled up her chest, still staring into her eyes. Finally it dropped its head to deliver a solid head butt to her chin. The gesture was oddly comforting, though it did little too soothe the complex tumble of emotions spinning through Helena's mind. Under different circumstances, Helena would have been bounding across the rooftops to escape her worries, but at that point, she was just too damned tired. Besides, the blonde was probably still out there ... doing Barbara's bidding. Tall, beautiful, blonde, flying chick. Not exactly someone Helena wanted to run into.

She sniffed back on more tears, scraping them away with a rough hand. She couldn't even figure out who the hell the woman could be. Not a member of the local meta community as far as she knew. In fact, not somebody she'd heard of or seen before. She'd heard rumors about some blonde who could fly up in Metropolis, but by all accounts, she was on the short side, and several descriptions had her bordering on the perky. The woman Helena had seen was definitely not perky.

God, where had Barbara come up with her?

And what else might be between them? Was it all just work, or was there something more?

Helena's stomach coiled tight as that thought slid, unwanted, through her brain. The blond said, 'I'll see you in a little while,' and just what would she be seeing? Barbara at her computer? Or maybe Barbara naked in bed? The image tormented Helena as her brain insisted on summoning it in entirely too much detail. Was she even now sliding under the covers and taking that elegant body in her arms? Had she imagined the note that entered that soft voice that somehow made the brief, overheard conversation with the unseen Oracle seem intimate? She carefully pulled her hand away from the animal sitting comfortably on her chest, a little afraid of her own temper with the thoughts suddenly running through her brain.

No, it couldn't be. She'd only seen Barbara date men, and precious few of those since the unlamented departure of Dick Grayson from her life and bed, none that Helena thought had gotten beyond dinner and a movie. She knew all too well how Barbara seemed to have shut off that part of her life, god knew. It had driven her nuts for years.

Annoyed at being ignored, the cat shifted down to her hip, pummeling hard enough for delicate claws to prick Helena's skin through her jeans. The tiny sting brought her attention back to the present, and she peered down at the animal. "She wouldn't," Helena said very softly, then waited a beat as though she half expected a response. As a child she'd often told Isis her problems, whispering into a warm, pointed ear all the secrets she couldn't tell anyone else. Now that she thought about it, she remembered Barbara asking her not long after they'd moved into the clocktower if Helena would like to have a cat again, and she'd refused. It had just seemed too painful, too much of a reminder of losses, but suddenly she wished she'd taken Barbara up on the offer. She could have used the sounding board during the previous years. And cats had a way of making someone feel listened to. "I love her, y'know," she sighed, feeling better for saying the words aloud. Cooler tempered, she reached down and began scratching behind pointed ears with a light hand.

Apparently satisfied that Helena's hip was sufficiently tenderized, the animal finally settled down, folding its legs beneath its body and staring expectantly up at her.

Her fingers still moving behind pointed ears, Helena sighed softly. "You want the whole story, huh?" The gentle purr that began seemed like an affirmative answer, so she continued quietly, "It's making me crazy," she admitted. She paused a moment, summoning the courage for the next admission. "I almost hurt someone tonight ... just because ... because I was hurting." She caught her lower lip between her teeth, digging in as though the pain might free her from the guilt, and more than that, the fear. "No wonder she runs from me," she whispered, purposely repeating the cruel words Allison had hurled at her, and feeling she deserved the ugly swell of emotion they caused. "Maybe I am some kind of freak."

The cat simply continued to stare.

"It's just that sometimes Barbara looks at me," Helena breathed, eyes sliding closed as she summoned an image of the redhead from better times, "and it's like she has to know what I feel..." her voice softened until it was no more than a delicate breath of sound that was thick with hope in spite of her fear and anger, "and like she feels it too." She paused, then continued, her voice gaining some strength as she explored her own confusion, and the sense of getting mixed signals. "And then it's like she pulls back. Her eyes go blank ... and suddenly everything's all business again." She shifted her hand, rubbing the bullet shaped nose with her thumb. "Sometimes I think I know what she feels ... and then everything changes, and I don't have any idea." The cat leaned into her stroking thumb, its purr gaining in volume. "I dunno," she sighed after a long moment, "maybe I'm just a responsibility that became a handy tool at some point." Helena settled more deeply into the couch cushions, still petting the cat's small head with a gentle hand. "Maybe it's Blondie I should feel sorry for," she mused after a long moment, but she knew even as the words left her mouth that she didn't believe them. As much as she hated it, she was feeling incredibly sorry for herself. She was the one banished from where she most wanted to be. After that, she fell silent, the urge to dump her problems fading away, not because they were any less real, but because she feared that if she started cataloguing them she might never stop. The small creature nestled on her hip finally slid into a restful sleep, and Helena followed a short time later, though her slumber was nowhere near as peaceful.

* * * * * *

Barbara barely resisted the urge to curse as she heard the soft whoosh of a flying body entering the clocktower at considerable speed. She glanced back, stormy gaze landing on the tall figure floating just above the edge of the computer platform.

The blonde was grinning, her head cocked to one side, eyes gleaming, clearly quite satisfied with herself. As she hovered there, she reached up, peeled off the domino mask, and shoved it into a jacket pocket.

"You shouldn't have gone off comm," Barbara clipped and turned back to glare at her computer screen. She heard the soft thump as the other woman landed on the edge of the platform.

"Oh please, it was just some lowlife mugger. I didn't need a voice in my ear to tell me how to deal with him."

No, she didn't, but they were still learning to work together and it was hardly time to go off script. A muscle compressed along the line of Barbara's jaw as she ground her teeth together. "I realize that," she said and turned to stare at the other woman. Her name was Karen Starr, though she went by the code name Power Girl when working. She'd been working the West Coast when she'd come up against a meta who'd drained her powers nearly two years before. She'd eventually healed from the attack, but only very slowly, and not yet completely. She'd been out of the game since, and her powers had only recently hit a level where getting back in was even an option. "But what if something else had happened and I'd needed to contact you?" Which wasn't the entire truth, if Barbara was honest. Karen's powers were mostly back in place, but she wasn't up to full strength, and she was out of practice despite her desperation to get back into the biz. Which was probably why she'd accepted the offer to work with Oracle, sight unseen. Barbara understood that need to play at any cost all too well. Which was one of the things that had her worried. She turned to face the computer monitor again. "You can't just cut off communications on a whim."

"I left the mic on," Karen reminded her as though that made all the difference. A long moment of uncomfortable silence followed and then Barbara heard the echo of footsteps drawing nearer. The response was impatient. Karen tended to be on the impetuous side, and, though she was smart, she had little appreciation for the possible value of intel during combat. "And once I'm in a fight, what good does your talking to me do?"

"Trust me, I've seen it make the difference," Barbara snapped, then added, "The point of two-way communications is that they're two-way. I can spot things and warn you before they become a problem ... not to mention help find ways to trap the target and minimize the threat to civilians."

Karen waved that suggestion off. "There was nothing likely to become a problem and your talking distracts me while I'm fighting. Besides it's not like I needed help to deal with a mugger."

"But you need to get used to getting information during combat," Barbara pointed out, trying to make the other woman see that they needed to get used to working together. "It may keep you or someone else alive."

Blue eyes ran over the woman in the wheelchair, not intentionally dismissive, but very doubtful she could possibly be of any help. Yeah, she was good at spotting trouble and relaying the message, and Karen had found that having that warm voice in her ear was good for entertaining herself during the boring hours that were a natural byproduct of patrolling all night, but other than that, she really didn't see how a woman in a wheelchair---no matter how smart or beautiful---could do her any good once things got physical. "Once you've found him for me, what more help do I need?" she asked, her tone practical.

The redhead glanced back, taking in the breadth of bodybuilder's proportions visible now that the other woman had stripped off her coat. Strong as she was, Barbara knew damn well it might not be enough. She'd seen the damage the Claw had done to the cops, the bullets he'd taken, and what he'd done to the police van, and Karen was neither invulnerable nor as strong as she'd once been. "Don't make the mistake of underestimating what the Claw can do."

Power Girl laughed softly, flexed a muscle and flew straight up several feet. "Now that my powers are back in place, I think I can handle some mindless thug, if need be," she chuckled.

"Dammit, Karen," Barbara bit out, "this isn't a game. We've got one more week to learn to work together before he starts killing again."

Blue eyes rolled and the blonde dropped back to the platform, then folded her arms across her chest, her stance bordering on the pugnacious. "The only problem is that everybody but you figures he's as far from New Gotham as it's possible to get," she pointed out logically. "He's known here. He'd be crazy to stay in the area." Not that she wasn't happy to be there and working, but she just didn't think there was a time crunch. They had time to get to know one another.

"And I pray to god I'm wrong," Barbara said softly, though she wasn't so sure about that. She wouldn't wish that kind of evil on any town, but at least in New Gotham, there was someone trying to prepare to face him, even if the effort was feeling nearly impossible. "But in the meantime, you've been out of the game for quite some time ... and we've never worked together before. If he is here, we don't have much time to get things running smoothly."

"I'm fine now," the blonde bit out, her eyes flashing, not liking the reminder that she might not be up to the game ahead. "And I can take this asshole if need be."

Barbara sighed softly, fighting the urge to remind the other woman that she didn't have the raw power she'd once had. It wasn't something she handled especially well, and they didn't need any more tension in their working relationship. Power Girl had never been one to rely so much on training as brute strength, and Barbara was beginning to worry that maybe their styles were just too different to mesh well. Karen tended to be impetuous and just rush in---not that Barbara wasn't used to dealing with both traits, but Power Girl also didn't listen very well, and that was starting to grate on her nerves. "Maybe, but finding him is going to be tricky ... and I've seen how he fights. Trust me, stopping him will be harder than you seem to think. Helena nearly--"

"I'm not your runaway, trained lap dog," the blonde interrupted, resenting the reminder that she was only there because the other woman had walked away from the job. "I'll do what I have to."

Barbara snorted softly. Karen had been consistently dismissive of Helena, some weird resentment issue she didn't even care to understand, but it was causing definite problems. "We can't afford to assume anything." She turned back to her computer, entering a fresh set of commands that would start a search algorithm for a series of parameters she'd already entered. "I've seen what this bastard can do." A shiver worked its way down her spine as she remembered the images of torn and bloody bodies.

"I told you," Karen reiterated, her tone determined, "I can take him ... not that he's likely to be here. Nobody's seen a hint of the lunatic ... and he'd be crazy to stay in this area. All the headshrinks figure he's a thousand miles from here by now." Okay, so she wasn't the all-knowing Oracle, but she'd checked out all of the articles in the local paper, and they were all certain that with all the cops looking for him, the guy would move on. Since no one had seen hide nor hair of him since his escape, it made sense.

Barbara didn't bother to respond. She'd studied the Crimson Claw's patterns thoroughly enough to be comfortably certain the experts were all wrong. He was lying low, waiting for the full moon---and then he'd strike. And if she couldn't put the operation together, there'd be hell to pay. Except Karen kept going off comm every time she got involved with a suspect, and Barbara had visions of shouting at nothing while the animal was killing.

"Y'know...."

Karen's voice barely registered on Barbara as she saved a file she'd been downloading.

"You worry too much and you work too hard," Karen murmured, her tone conciliatory as she reminded herself that the redhead was just doing what she thought was best even if she was a total control freak. Hell, in some instances, the control freak thing could be definite plus. She drew closer, deliberately inserting herself into Barbara's line of vision as she hitched her hip against her computer station. "Why don't you let me take you out to dinner. I know an all night place that--"

"I ate earlier," Barbara said without looking up. Alfred had been by and she'd had something at his insistence, though her mind had been so thoroughly on other things that she'd barely tasted the food. She opened the downloaded file---one she'd worked hard to hack---and started reading, hooking a finger over her shoulder as she continued in a distant voice, "but if you're hungry, I think Alfred left something in the fridge." He tended to see to such things given that she was more or less useless when it came to the practicalities of looking after herself.

Karen stiffened faintly, though Barbara didn't notice. "Then just get outa this place for a little while. Even you need to lighten up now and then. Mitch's has--"

Green eyes flicked up, then back down. "Greasy burgers, undercooked fries, and cold coffee." It was said in the flat tone of someone who knew the place well. But then she'd eaten there plenty of times, dragged there by Helena after sweeps when the refrigerator was empty and Alfred hadn't been by to do the cooking. "Trust me, what Alfred left in the fridge is better." Whatever it was---and she suddenly couldn't remember---it had to be more edible than what she remembered choking down at Helena's favorite twenty-four hour greasy spoon. The mental image of her former ward wolfing down the most disgusting items on the menu made her chest tighten, just like any thought of Helena brought a fresh rush of pain. She tried to push it aside, the emotions far too intense for her to allow herself to go there. She'd already proven it was just too damn risky.

Despite the danger, her brain couldn't resist the urge to dredge up the subject in order to taunt her with her own failings. She still didn't understand why Helena had run ... or maybe she did. The band that seemed to be perpetually wrapped around her chest tightened another notch, threatening to restrict her ability to breathe. Trapped in the clocktower with a driven, obsessed woman in a wheelchair, Helena had probably been going nuts for a long time, wanting out, but too kind and too responsible to just leave. She tried to pretend she was tougher than she really was, but Barbara knew better. The stress must have built to incredible dimensions for her to have fled the way she had---which explained the rising tension that Barbara had been aware of, but hadn't allowed herself to consider might be more than just youthful defiance. Considering the resentment, rage and frustration that had apparently gathered to cause that storm, it was a wonder she hadn't run even sooner.

Barbara's hand tightened into a fist as she was reminded of the fact that she'd simply ignored what she hadn't wanted to see. And made Helena hate her in the doing. Thinking she was keeping Helena on the straight and narrow, she'd tried to hold her to a life she apparently didn't want, and if the misery she'd seen in blue eyes was any gauge, made everything far worse. She just prayed the younger woman was happier now and on her way to finding what she was looking for in life. She was far from certain that Helena would have believed her, but she only wanted the best for her. If she'd made mistakes in how to pursue that, then they were on her head. No matter how Helena felt about her, she would always love the younger woman as family, and do anything in her power to see that she got what she wanted. Even if that was to be as far away from Barbara as possible.

"Barbara?" Karen's voice, faintly annoyed and impatient broke in on her thoughts. "Barbara?" the blonde said again.

Barbara blinked, glancing over her shoulder as it occurred to her that she'd answered some query in the negative without even being aware of hearing the question or speaking. Apparently another restaurant suggestion, she decided as she noted the other woman's expression. "Sorry," she apologized automatically. "I just ... um ... what did you say?"

Blue eyes narrowed faintly, and Karen took a breath, catching her temper before she continued in a faintly peeved tone. "I said how about the IHOP on fourth?"

Barbara shook her head, annoyed by the pressure when she thought she'd made it clear that she'd already eaten---though now that she thought about it, she suspected that had been more hours ago than was entirely prudent. But she wasn't interested in getting out anyway, and could always grab something from what Alfred had left. "Really, I've got a lot of work to do ... a new file in that I want to read through, plus a couple of programs running that I need to stay on top of." Hearing an irritated sigh, she flashed a look at the other woman that Helena would have instantly known meant she should back off. Okay, so it probably would have been a temporary retreat and regroup maneuver, and sooner or later---if she really wanted---Helena would have gotten around her foul mood and charmed her into going, the coercion so skillfully applied that she would have found herself agreeing without meaning to, then having a good time in spite of herself. Power Girl, however, wasn't big on subtlety. She was more the brute force type. "I just ... can't." Though, if she was honest, she also didn't really want to. Karen was nice enough, but they had nothing in common beyond the biz, and she wasn't in the mood for trading stories of old glories. Discussing her days as Batgirl just hurt too much, and hearing other people's stories had never interested her much. It always felt too much like guys in a bar discussing their high school football days; all about ego and probably more bullshit than truth to it all. Blue eyes met green, and they stared at one another for a long moment in a silent battle of wills until finally the blonde's cerulean gaze broke away.

"Fine," Karen ground out, finally getting the message. "Then I'll just head out ... make a quick sweep on my way to my hotel."

Barbara nodded, turning back to her computer, already reading the report she'd downloaded. "Remember to keep your comm on until you're in for the night." Already focused on her work, she completely missed the frustrated look the other woman turned her direction, though she registered the soft whoosh of air that meant her lair was her own again.

After waiting a moment, Barbara glanced over her shoulder, making sure she really was alone, then heaved a sigh of relief and leaned back in her chair. No matter that she'd invited the other woman into her territory, it wasn't comfortable having a relative stranger in the clocktower. It just felt wrong. She shook that thought off. Now was not the time to let her hangups about personal space cause problems.

Massaging her temple, she settled in to read the information she'd downloaded, a internal report from New Gotham University's medical school on a new medical technology one of their researchers had been developing. The concept was comparatively simple. Using sensors and electrodes attached to the back, it was designed to bridge the injured area in a damaged spinal cord. The idea had promise, but the oversight committee had opted not to go ahead with any live trials since they considered it too dangerous to implement. Animal trials had shown considerable promise, but nearly half of the subjects had incurred further injuries from the electrical shocks used to transfer of the signals, and several had ultimately died. All of them had apparently been in considerable pain when the device was used, though there were varying theories as to why, ranging from the power of the electrical signal to a natural side effect from stimulating damaged nerve endings, which might well pass with time. To date no one had come up with any solutions or even certain answers, but the general consensus seemed to be that, while research should continue, the technology wasn't currently up to the complex task. Funding was to continue, but at a minimum, and further live animal trials were to cease until it was farther along. Human trials weren't even remotely discussed.

Barbara leaned forward, burying herself in what she was reading, already calculating ways she could improve the design. The idea was brilliant, but whole thing fell apart on the implementation. The kind of electrodes they were using were far too clunky and inefficient, and the software was an utter mess. With just a few changes to the hardware, and completely new software driving it, it might be possible to make it work. Gnawing thoughtfully on her thumbnail, she hit the command to send the entire document to the printer, then continued paging through the report, rapidly committing the contents to a memory so perfect it bordered on a meta talent and mentally redesigning it as she went.

Relieved to have an opportunity to lose herself in the heady flush and rushing flow of ideas, she opened another screen, making notes and calculating the best way to implement her improvements as she went through the research, thoughts coming too fast and furious for her to have the patience to wait until she'd finished reading the document. For the first time since Helena's exit from the clocktower, she felt almost like herself, the high flight of broad-ranging concepts as much her natural element as high rise rooftops had once been.

Lost in the mind-bending game she played as she redesigned the system on the go, Barbara barely noticed the passage of time. She was in her element and it felt good to just let go and soar there.

It wasn't until the soft sound of someone clearing their throat broke in on her wild, mental gymnastics that she even remotely noticed the real world again. Startled, Barbara looked up, refocusing on the worried pair of eyes watching her from behind a pair of thick lenses. "Alfred," she gasped, "you startled me."

The elderly butler arched on eyebrow, his expression openly disapproving. He noted the light pouring into the room through various windows, then looked back at her. "Have you been working all night?"

Barbara blinked, squinting against a bright yellow sunbeam that shot in through the round window along one side of the clocktower. "Uh ... apparently," she admitted, faintly embarrassed under the impact of the look directed her way. Alfred didn't do reproachful quite as well as her father, but he was close.

"Miss Barbara," Alfred chided and shook his head, tempted to reach out and shake the young woman. If he'd thought it might work a little common sense into that brilliant brain, he might have tried. "You simply cannot afford to push yourself until you drop."

Realizing her glasses had picked up enough dust to make the world swim now that she was trying to focus on something other than a computer screen, Barbara peeled them off, buffing the lenses with her shirttail. That it also gave her an excuse to avoid the knowing gaze directed her way was only a pleasant side effect. Or at least that's what she told herself. "I got involved in something," she said in hopes of deflecting Alfred's ire. "Just lost track of the time." She hoped he wouldn't ask. She didn't want to try and explain what she was thinking, well aware that if he knew any of the details, he'd try and talk her out of it.

His heavy sigh indicated that he was well aware she was trying to distract him, but he didn't call her on it, simply shifted topics. "How's the new partnership coming along?" he asked.

Amazing how one question could include so many levels. He was well aware that things hadn't been going smoothly, and she knew perfectly well just how much he disapproved of her refusal to ask Helena to come back at least until the Crimson Claw was recaptured. Speaking of things she was in no hurry to discuss. Nonetheless, she couldn't lie. "It could have gone more smoothly," she admitted.

"In consideration of the lack of time remaining before the next full moon, perhaps it's time to contact--"

"No," she cut him off before he could suggest she call Helena. It wasn't an option, and it was time he accept it. "She wanted out, Alfred, and I won't try and guilt her into coming back."

"But, Miss Barbara, if--"

"No," she said again, her tone sliding over into desperation. He came around the end of the computer station, and she wheeled the chair in a sharp pivot to face him. Deliberately softening her tone in an effort to sound like she was far more in control than she was, Barbara continued, "This story is all over the news, Alfred, and she knows where I am. It's her choice this time ... and I won't ... can't," the illusion that she was handling things slipped as her voice cracked on the last word, "try and force her back into something she hates ... or to work with someone she ... she...." Barbara couldn't finish and trailed off, the overwhelming nature of what she'd been about to say nearly enough to shatter her. If she'd been capable of standing, the sheer enormity of it would have taken her to her knees. She was silent for a long moment, her breath coming in shuddery gasps, then finally she got herself enough under control to add, "I simply won't do it."

Alfred considered pressing the issue, but looking at the crystalline clarity of her profile, seeing the hurt and confusion she was trying so desperately to hide, he accepted that she couldn't do as he suggested. It was simply beyond her to risk another rejection. And if asked, he would have had to admit that he feared for her if she approached Miss Helena and failed to bridge the gap between them. No matter how desperately Miss Barbara tried to project the image that she was completely in control, he could see just how frayed she was around the edges, far more so than at any time since those first awful weeks after the shooting, when her eyes were blank and he could see her floating away despite the medical technology arrayed to save her life. Miss Helena had drawn Miss Barbara back from the brink that time, and he feared she was the only thing that could do so now. Unfortunately, he feared that, where before they'd been able to cling to one another to gain strength, this time no such peace was available for either of them. She was facing the fire, but this time she was on her own. "In which case, perhaps it's time to let the police--"

"No," Barbara said sharply, no doubts in her voice this time. "We've already seen what he'll do to any cops who catch up with him. They don't have power to stop him." She reached up, massaging the back of her neck, suddenly aware of just how stiff and tired she was.

"And if you cannot maintain a cohesive working relationship with Miss Karen?" Alfred enquired practically. He might not have played the games his charges did, but he understood the importance of a solid working relationship, something he did not see developing between the two women. They simply had completely different ways of doing things, and to his eyes, no great impetus to find a way to work around that basic incompatibility.

"It's not that bad," Barbara insisted and leaned back in her chair, hesitant to admit to just how uncomfortable she was with that arrangement. "She's just a little too eager to prove herself ... and doesn't always listen very well...." She fell silent, opting not to detail the blonde's penchant for shutting off the comm and ignoring instructions.

Alfred nodded. He'd been present during enough of their interaction to note that tendency ... among other things. "Are you certain she's the best choice possible?" he asked carefully. Not that the other woman didn't care, and wasn't good at what she did, but he feared the situation was simply too volatile to make for a good working relationship. Karen Starr was smart, but she was also impetuous and temperamental. And while Miss Helena had certainly had her moments in that regard, it was different. Miss Helena and Miss Barbara had built trust between them over time and through the best and worst of experiences. They'd both known when and how they could push things. Personally, they might have hit critical mass, but professionally, they'd worked together as well as anyone he'd ever seen right up to the last moment.

Barbara reached up to massage her temple. No, she wasn't certain. She just didn't see any other option. She couldn't say that to Alfred though. If he realized just how uneasy she was with the current arrangement, he might just go ahead and contact Helena in spite of her instructions. He could be remarkably stubborn that way. "She's strong, damn near invulnerable, and can fly. Can you think of a better choice?" It was an honest enough question. She sure as hell couldn't do the job, and everyone else she'd come up with was either dealing with their own difficulties or simply didn't have the raw power needed. If he could think of anyone else who stood a chance against the bastard, she'd consider it.

Alfred shook his head stiffly. He'd already gone through the options he could think of, even made some calls. Everyone he'd been able to come up with was either insufficient in some respect or unavailable. "No," he admitted. "But I fear that Miss Karen's..." he paused to consider his words before continuing, "motivation for being a part of this effort may not be entirely based on her desire to capture the Crimson Claw."

Barbara nodded. "After being out of it for a couple of years, she's got a lot to prove," she allowed, "but that's not necessarily a bad thing." She'd had a few things to prove along the way---probably still did---and it had been a hell of a motivator at times.

"Yes," Alfred agreed, "there is that," and he knew very well it was no small thing, but he'd seen signs of other motivations as well, ones that worried him because they could only add more difficulties to an already chaotic situation. "But that's not exactly what I was referring to," he continued carefully.

Barbara frowned in confusion as she looked up at him. "What are you talking about?"

Despite the temptation to lay out what seemed obvious to him, but which she was utterly oblivious to, he quickly realized it would do no good. Given the worries already resting on narrow shoulders, perhaps blissful ignorance was better. Certainly it was easier for him than trying to explain that her newest partner appeared to be interested in considerably more than simply crime fighting. And, while he loved Barbara like a daughter, and understood that she was a genius on par with some of the most brilliant minds of the day---no matter how thoroughly she kept that side of her nature hidden from the world---he was comfortably certain she'd never notice if someone didn't point the situation out to her. He wasn't sure whether it was simply her nature, whether winding up in a wheelchair so young had damaged certain aspects of her self-confidence to a degree that she simply avoided the subject altogether, or whether it was something else entirely. Whatever the cause, however, interpersonal relations simply weren't her strong suit. How else to explain any number of things that had conveniently slipped her notice for several years now?

"Nothing," Alfred sighed at last when he realized she was still staring at him with the faintly baffled expression she got at times when the vagaries of human nature defied her neatly delineated understanding of things. There were days he found it hard to believe that someone so brilliant could be so dumb. "As you say, she has a great deal to prove."

Concluding that Alfred had either made or backed off of whatever point he was trying to make, Barbara smothered a yawn and reached over to put the Delphi on automatic. That way it would notify if there was anything she needed to pay attention to, but she could get away from the monitor for a little while. She reached up to massage the back of her neck, encountering muscles that were more akin to airplane cables wrapped in cement than human tissue. "I think," she decided out loud, "that I'm going to get a hot shower."

"And then perhaps some sleep?" Alfred suggested hopefully. She'd been working far too many hours since Miss Helena's exit, pushing herself until he feared for her health. Despite her desire to pretend otherwise, she could no longer afford to simply ignore her body's needs as she once had.

Remembering the nightmares that had tormented her every time she closed her eyes long enough to enter REM sleep, Barbara shook her head. "Probably not," she admitted, finding exhaustion preferable to waking in a cold sweat, a strangled scream on her lips. Half the time she didn't even remember the nightmares beyond a vague sense that she'd been desperately hunting for something she'd lost, and would die without. "I've got some work I want to do in the lab ... and I've got a meeting with Kirk McKenzie from Wayne Medilabs this afternoon."

"The new wheelchair design?" he questioned. She'd been working on it off and on for several years, but had only recently started collaborating with an R&D team at Wayne Labs to bring her ideas to fruition.

She nodded. While she preferred her manual to an electric in some respects, spending her entire life face to belt buckle with the rest of the world had become more than a little tiresome. Besides, the new design would have a few innovations she'd been contemplating for years, but hadn't been able to implement any sooner. The technology simply hadn't allowed for the kind of responsiveness she wanted. "They've almost got the prototype finished, and I need to go over some of the programming specs with him." The programming would be the secret to making the gyroscopes and sensors work together so that she could control the new chair simply by leaning her body. It would still have joystick control---she wasn't eager to advertise the kind of work she was doing, but with luck it would be far more intuitive and allow her to fight if need be, something that was dangerously challenging in a manual. She'd done it a time or two when she'd had to ... and nearly gotten herself killed in the doing, though that had been a far better option than leaving Helena on her own against overwhelming numbers.

Alfred sighed very softly, accepting that she wouldn't take his advice to slow down or care for herself. The most he could do was make sure she had whatever resources she needed. After that, it was up to her at some point. "I'll make sure there's plenty of food prepared ... try and eat some of it this time."

Her back to him now, she waved a hand to indicate she'd heard the comment, but didn't otherwise acknowledge the remark. He watched as she disappeared into the elevator, listened while it ground its way to the upper floor, then tracked her by the faint sound of wheels rolling over various surfaces. He'd taken to keeping a closer than usual eye on her actions and condition since the scene where she'd lost control some weeks before. She was too determined to deny that she needed anyone or anything at any level beyond the obvious. With her secret life so effectively hidden from her father, Master Dick living in Bl�dhaven full time, and her refusal to turn to Miss Helena, that left only Alfred to make certain she didn't harm herself.

It was a responsibility he took seriously.

* * * * * *

Pain, intense, throbbing, and focused in her lower back, dragged Helena Kyle back into the world of the living along with the awareness that her mouth tasted like rancid pondwater, and her deodorant had definitely failed during the night. Faint sounds of movement, then the soft rattle of someone gargling reached her ears as she struggled to remember what had happened the night before and where she was. She experienced the momentary terror that she'd done it again, picked up some stranger who would complicate things even further. No, she realized in an instant, she was on a couch. Probably why her lower back felt like Superman had spent a few hours getting his frustrations out on her spinal column.

Then it all came flooding back---all of her actions and reactions---the whole appalling scene. She felt mildly ill just thinking about it. Learning that Barbara was working with someone else had nearly pushed her over the edge into doing something she'd have spent her life regretting.

The feel of something hot and heavy pressing down on her chest distracted her from her thoughts, and she reached up to push it aside only to get a set of needle-sharp claws across the back of her hand for her efforts.

Helena blinked, still struggling for some semblance of consciousness---she'd never been a quick riser---and found herself facing an annoyed green gaze. The cat sprawled on her chest glared for a moment, then finally concluded she wasn't going to move any more and settled back in, clearly no more ready to face the day than her impromptu mattress.

Then a prickling slide down her neck alerted Helena to the fact that other eyes were watching her, and she looked up to meet the gaze of the woman standing in the hallway that led back into the bedroom. She'd gotten a shower and changed into sweats, but she still looked like hell, her eyes sunken and bleary, expression pursed with post-binge queasiness.

Allison eyed the cat peacefully draped across Helena's chest. "Traitor," she muttered very softly, then looked up at the young woman holding the backstabbing beast. "She doesn't even like me half the time," she complained.

"My mom was good with cats." Helena offered a faintly embarrassed shrug as the creature passed out on her chest began purring noisily. "Guess I kind of inherited the ... whatever it is."

"Wonderful," Allison sighed and reached up to fingercomb damp hair back from her eyes. "Is there anyone who doesn't instantly succumb to your charms?" she demanded sarcastically.

Helena matched the sarcasm with her own ironic smile. "The one person I wish would," she shot back.

"Touch�," Allison muttered, then pulled away from the hallway wall where she'd leaned when the world started to spin dizzily. Arms folded loosely across her chest in a subconsciously defensive gesture, she studied her guest for a long moment, carefully debating several responses before settling on the bland, "So, what do you like in your omelet?"

Confusion casting a pall over her expression, it took Helena a moment to decode the question, and when she did, arched brows drew into a frown. "Why are you always feeding me?" she asked after a beat.

She earned a shrug in response. "My mother's genes at work. She was always one to believe that when in doubt, feed someone ... and besides, I figure it's better than your usual solution." No question what Helena's solution had been, and it didn't involve food---at least it wasn't a requirement. Allison started toward the kitchen, only faintly unstable on her feet.

Not quite knowing what to say to that, Helena just scooped the cat off her chest and scrambled for her feet, while ignoring the annoyed swat that left faint red scratches on her forearm. Her first impulse was to refuse the food and leave, but her stomach growled just in time to point out that she was in no position to be picky, especially since her own refrigerator was empty except for a very moldy avocado. She still wasn't sure why she'd bought the thing since she didn't actually like them. Some weird flashback to Barbara's preference for natural, even healthy food on the rare occasion that she noticed such things. "Whatever you've got on hand, I guess," she said aloud. "I'm easygoing."

That earned her a look, but the other woman didn't argue, simply entered the kitchen and began digging through things.

Fifteen minutes later, Helena was wolfing down a plateful of food, relieved to have avoided any great need to talk so far. A post mortem on the previous night's traumas was something she'd just as soon avoid. She glanced up, noted she was being watched and opted to eat a little faster. Maybe if she got it down quickly enough, she could beat a hasty retreat and avoid the need to talk about things altogether.

She wasn't to be so lucky.

"I wanted to thank you for getting me home last night," Allison said at last, offering an embarrassed, uncomfortable smile when Helena glanced up. Her gaze dropped to take in her shifting surface of her coffee. In deference to the barnstormer style barrel rolls her stomach insisted on performing, she wasn't eating. "I ... um ... don't usually drink like that ... and I guess I didn't handle it very well."

Helena shrugged, but kept eating. Eating was good. Talking was bad. If she was eating hopefully she could keep the talking to a minimum. "I figured it was the least I could do," she muttered between bites. "Y'know ... after everything that happened." She tamped down the urge to curse herself for not making a run for it before the other woman got up. That would have been much easier and safer. She should have just stayed on her feet until she was sure the other woman was okay, then slipped out instead of crashing on the couch. Except her feet had been killing her and she'd been too damn tired. And ... well ... she hadn't really wanted to be alone after seeing the blonde and hearing her talk to Oracle. Even drunk, unconscious company was better than nothing, and the cat had been there to listen and....

Shit. She should have just run for it when she had the chance.

"Ah," the other woman exhaled, still studying her coffee as though it contained the secrets of the universe. "I ... uh ... what exactly did happen?" she asked at last and risked a quick look up, her expression a mask of confusion, brows drawn into a frown, lower lip caught between her teeth.

Caught by surprise, Helena flashed a rabbit in the headlights look. What happened? Nothing she wanted to talk about, that was for sure. "Ummm," she exhaled, drawing the uncertain sound out. "What do you remember?" she asked at last. There. The ball was in Allison's court now.

Allison's expression was a study in someone who didn't want to answer a particular question. Her brows twitched, her mouth worked, a tiny tic jerked the muscles under one eye, and her throat muscles worked convulsively. One hand released one half of the two-handed death grip she had on her coffee cup, then rose to her temple. "I ... uh ... it's kinda fuzzy," she admitted uncomfortably, then added, "but there seems to be a vague memory of...."

She trailed off and Helena braced herself to be blasted for her lousy behavior. She was caught by surprise when the other woman continued haltingly.

"This is nuts, but ... well ... I coulda sworn I saw ... well ... an angel, I guess." The loose hand waved in a nervous gesture. "Y'know ... beautiful ... blonde ... all in white...." Allison flinched as she added with a little, fluttery hand motion, her voice very nearly cracking mid-word, "Flying."

Helena just stared. Given everything that had happened, she didn't know whether to be relieved or annoyed that that was the memory that stuck out. She had mixed emotions where Blondie was concerned. Well, no, actually they weren't mixed now that she thought about it. She pretty much just hated her.

Allison read the staring as disbelief and continued in a rush. "Obviously, I don't hold my liquor very well." She reached up, massaging her temple as she glared at the surface of the table and continued in halting syllables. "Though I've gotta say that I've never had hallucinations before ... so ... well, I'm really not insane or anything ... I don't think."

Helena froze, staring at the other woman's downbent head with something akin to guilt, unhappy with the notion of lying, and in a position where the truth wasn't exactly an option either. She sighed softly, tried to think of something clever to say to sidestep the whole issue. Except she just wasn't up to clever at that point. She paused long enough that Allison spoke up instead.

"Well, obviously, I didn't live through a twentieth century rendition of The Annunciation, so ... well ... you can understand if I don't really trust what little I remember." There was an implied question in the admission that warned Helena the other woman wasn't going to let go of her curiosity.

Stick as close to the truth as possible, Helena decided. "You closed the place out ... and were pretty tanked," she admitted. "Tried to drive home--"

"Oh Jesus," Allison moaned, shielding her face with one hand, utterly mortified by her behavior.

"I took your keys away," Helena quickly assured her.

"Thank you," the two words were softly uttered, nearly inaudible, but genuinely grateful.

"We argued," Helena continued, which was more or less the truth. Okay, so the argument had come after the attempted mugging and Blondie's entrance and exit, but hopefully it wouldn't be necessary to go into that part of the story.

The news only increased the mortification. "Wonderful," Allison exhaled. "I'm not just an irresponsible drunk, I'm a nasty one."

It would be so easy, Helena realized in a rush, to just leave it alone like that. The other woman didn't remember enough to know one way or another, and seeing an 'angel' meant she'd doubt any memories she might regain anyway. Sweep it under the rug and Helena could almost pretend she hadn't behaved like a complete and total utter lout. So easy. Just pretend she hadn't lost control. She could even play the victim. The other woman was ripe for that sort of manipulation, and had a soft nature that would easily fall into the trap Helena knew how to set as much from instinct as experience. She'd seen her mother play people that way so many times, knew exactly how easy it was to do---and how effective. Do it right, and as far as the world would know, she'd be absolved of any responsibility. Do it right, and she could almost pretend it was all true. Almost pretend she hadn't nearly....

She couldn't finish the thought.

Almost, but not quite.

Helena reached up, scraping overlong bangs out of her eyes on the journey to massaging her throbbing temple. "No," she said very softly. "You weren't nasty." She looked up, genuine contrition in her eyes. "I was."

Dark brows drew into a frown while brown eyes rose to consider the young woman with silent intensity.

Helena almost wished the other woman would speak, snap somehow, and give her an excuse to show some aggrieved outrage. Maybe that would make things easier. Not better, but easier. If she lost her temper, she could do something reprehensible and rationalize it away. She could still retrieve that self-interested amorality, and do the easy thing. She waited a long moment. No such luck. Finally, she cleared her throat and spoke carefully. "I got some news ... was in a bad space ... and...." She trailed off, pushing the plate away as her stomach rolled. She tossed her fork down and hid her face in her hands, her voice muffled as she forced herself to continue. "You accused me of wanting you to hurt as much as I do," she said at last, surprised to find how much more real it seemed after she said the words aloud. She suddenly found herself wondering if this was what growing up was all about, not flinching away from the worst damn thing a person could think of themselves. "And you were right."

"I ... see...." The soft exhalation had a strangled quality as though speaking presented a particular challenge to the woman on the other side of the table.

Helena didn't look up. "I acted like a total jerk ... and you should probably throw me the hell out and bar the door." She dropped a hand enough to claw at the tears that were suddenly burning her eyes and blurring what little she could see of the world ... mostly her own palms at that point. God, why the hell had she ever thought that Barbara could want her anyway? She was a thug. And a whiny thug at that. Hell, Barbara was probably relieved to be rid of her. She knew she would be. The blonde was probably sweet and thoughtful, and never had temper tantrums. She sniffed loudly, self pity nearly overwhelming her. Hell, Barbara was probably better off working with the other woman. She was probably all the things Helena wasn't.

And she could fly.

"Helena?"

Helena looked up, realized she was being stared at, and fought the urge to just crumple. She was scum, pure and simple scum. "I'd have left last night," she added in a rush, not wanting the other woman to think she was trying to move in on her, or stalk her in some way, which she suddenly wouldn't blame her in the least for thinking, "but you were in no shape to be left alone ... but I swear I ... I slept on the couch and didn't even try to--"

"Here, take this," the surprisingly dispassionate command broke in on Helena's raggedly uttered commentary as a handful of paper napkins were shoved into her hand to serve as makeshift tissues. "And don't worry about it."

Slim hands dropped and watery blue eyes rose. "But ... I...." Helena trailed off, unable to finish cataloguing her own evils.

Allison cocked her head to one side. "Well, I don't seem to have suffered any grave injuries ... and admitting the truth counts for something." She ran her thumb along the top edge of her coffee mug. "And it sounds like maybe it was harder on you than it was on me."

"I acted like an animal," Helena said aloud, sickened by her behavior. She'd been out to do exactly what the other woman accused her of---causing pain simply because she hurt so much. Some superhero she was. "I grabbed you ... nearly hurt you...."

Allison sighed, then took a long drink from her mug, buying time to think things through with a brain that was working at a decidedly slower clip than normal. Staring into the swirling dark surface of her coffee, she struggled to remember, but it was just too muddled, the images a confusing melange, none of which made any sense worth mentioning. Oh, and then there was the angel. She cringed, concluding there were some definite drawbacks to growing up Catholic. It caught up with one at the strangest times no matter how lapsed a body might be. "Maybe ... but you didn't ... so maybe not," she said at last, her tone a little uncertain as she tried to decide if she was turning into one of those women she rather despised who kept forgiving lovers and boyfriends after blows that led to seemingly-sincere apologies. No, she decided at last, at least not yet. No bruises, and it wasn't like they were suddenly entangled in some sick romance for all of the physical passion that had started the strange relationship. She wasn't even sure how to qualify it. It wasn't love, not close enough for friendship, though there was a strange attraction there. Or maybe it was just that Helena had such a fierce, near irresistible kind of charisma---along with a welling pit of need, that everyone who ventured anywhere near her was drawn in in spite of themselves. The younger woman was in a space where she needed someone, only she didn't have the someone she needed. Somehow, Allison mused, she'd been elected as the fill-in candidate. It had put them into some weird, swirling sort of contact that she couldn't ever quite get out of. Rather like quicksand, but much better looking. She reached up, massaged her temple. Or maybe she just needed to get laid more often so she could resist when too-gorgeous-to-be-real women came on to her. Not that that was likely to happen again anytime soon. "Look," she said at last, "everybody has acted like an asshole somewhere in their life ... me included. Apparently you had one of those moments last night. Can't say I'm thrilled ... though I'd probably be more upset if I actually remembered," she admitted with a touch of wry humor. She simply didn't have a nature that could maintain much anger over acts she couldn't recall.

Helena was still considering some kind of response when a tortoise shell bundle landed lightly on the table, a tiny paw swiping out to grab a bite of egg and bacon before Helena could stop her. Blue eyes narrowed and Helena leaned down, peering at the animal closely as it appeared to grin at her while it chewed. The noisy sound of purring quickly reached her ears. "Con artist," she muttered under her breath, but couldn't hold back a watery smile, some of the tension broken by the animal's sudden appearance. Green eyes peered at her, distracting her just long enough for the cat to grab another pawful of food, while Helena had the definite sense that she was being snickered at. Oh yeah, her mother definitely would have approved.

"Besides, Peeps likes you ... and her judgment is generally better than mine." Arched brows rose high. "She never did take to my ex."

"Peeps?" Helena questioned on a curious note, relieved to have a more neutral subject to focus on.

A fond smile curving her lips, Allison reached out, ruffling the cat's fur with a gentle hand before scooping her up off the table, ignoring the squirming that followed as she snuggled the animal close. "She was really tiny ... a few weeks old is all ... and I guess somebody threw her away."

Helena dug another piece of bacon out of the omelet and tossed it within the feline's reach, smiling as a paw squirmed free of Allison's loose hold and snagged it.

"A couple of boys had found her and were ... well ... being adolescent boys. She was just covered in yellow paint when I rescued her. She looked like a very bedraggled marshmallow peep ... y'know, those nasty things you can get at Easter. It just kinda stuck." She ducked her chin to press a light kiss on a furry forehead. "So now she rules the roost with an iron paw."

"I noticed that," Helena drawled, feeling better now that things had lightened up a little, giving a bit of peace. She should have known it wouldn't last long.

Allison leaned back to peer at Helena. "So, can I ask you a question?" she said at last.

Helena looked up, a deer in the headlights look in her eyes. Truth be told, she'd have preferred having her fingernails pulled out one by one. She wasn't big on answering questions, especially ones she was comfortably certain would be profoundly uncomfortable."I guess," she said hesitantly. All things considered, a refusal seemed churlish at best, and in spite of her best efforts to ignore them, her mother and Barbara had managed to beat a few manners into her ... damn them. As far as she was concerned, life was much simpler when she felt free to be rude.

"Why didn't you just let me think that whatever happened was all my fault?"

Helena was still mulling over the question less than an hour later as she ambled in the direction of her apartment. She hadn't been able to answer it, had just sat there, her mouth open and working but no sound coming out---the proverbial fish out of water. She'd barely said another word during the minutes that followed and was relieved when she finally found herself ushered to the front door and gently but firmly shooed out so Allison could go back to bed with the added excuse that she needed the sleep as she had something to do later. The more likely explanation seemed to be simply that she wanted to get rid of the younger woman. Helena found herself perversely relieved that there was no doubt on either of their parts that no invitation would be forthcoming and none requested either. Rebound sex clearly didn't work worth a damn, and besides, she needed some time to think and regain her equilibrium, and some space to figure out what she was feeling. Naked gymnastics might provide a bit of relief from the immediate need to think, but of late, they'd developed the annoying habit of causing complications she could do without.

Better to keep moving and try and figure out what was going on in her own head.

She couldn't stop thinking about Barbara and the blonde---or her own actions. All three were bound up together in her mind, leaving her feeling battered and confused, and at the same time oddly relieved. She'd come so close to doing something she would have loathed---several somethings actually---and managed to pull back before the situation got completely out of control. For all of her sins, it wasn't as bad as it could have been, and she had a strange sense of avoiding a dangerous trap.

She shook her head slowly, watching her own feet as they ate up the distance in long, loose limbed strides. Once upon a time she would have lied without blinking, the casual amorality of youth something she would have taken for granted. She saw the turn onto her street and bypassed it, knowing she'd feel better if she kept moving than she would have trapped in the close confines of her tiny apartment. Were it night, she would have made her way to the nearest rooftop, flying above the mundane city streets as she contemplated her own thoughts, but maybe it was better this way. Her old stomping grounds had become uncomfortable, even oppressive since her exit from the clocktower, feeling lonely for the first time since she could remember. As many hours as she'd spent on her own up there, she'd never really felt that way, her link to Barbara making the other woman an ongoing presence whether they were actually talking or not. Before she'd always known that all she had to do was say something and Barbara's voice would be there in her ear to chase away any loneliness. Now she really was all alone.

A crowd was definitely better, she decided. The rooftops were too much of a reminder of everything she'd lost. And with the blonde in the picture, maybe she really had lost it. She'd thought that the whole thing was probably just temporary---that she and Barbara would come to peace, and she'd be back on the job. But now?

Maybe not. That thought left her heartsick and queasy, and she had to run away from it. It just hurt too much to contemplate, and threatened to put her back in that dangerous place where she'd been the night before. She couldn't afford that emotional instability so she pushed her mind onto other pathways.

Ducking around a portly man who was busy staring at her chest, Helena lengthened her stride, thoughts trailing away to consider her own actions in admitting the truth. Okay, so she'd screwed up, but she'd also done something right in taking responsibility for her own actions when she hadn't had to. She finally got it ... why it was better to just go ahead and cop to something. It didn't change that original sin, but at least there wasn't any additional guilt or mistakes to the tally that way. And she would have felt guilt if she'd left the other woman thinking she'd somehow been in the wrong. She accepted that now.

She finally got it. All those years of everyone trying to beat it into her, and it was like someone had turned on a lightbulb---right over her thick skull. She was mildly appalled never to have seen it before.

Barbara would be so proud when she....

Helena's stomach sank as the brief thought trailed away unfinished, the urge to share even her smallest triumphs with Barbara so instinctive that it swept through her before she could quash it. Suddenly feeling alone again, she thrust her hands into her pants pockets and hurried her stride, ignoring the speculative gazes cast her way, too used to them to notice or care. Men and women had been staring at her with hunger in their eyes since she was old enough to remember. As a result, she'd long since become inured to it. Objectively speaking, she knew she was beautiful. It was even handy now and then when she wanted something---or someone---but otherwise it had long since ceased to impress her. Besides, the truth of that matter was that it had never gotten her anything she really wanted. Her looks couldn't bring her mother back, allow Barbara to walk again, or even make Barbara fall in love with her. Given those limitations, being leered at by all and sundry didn't strike her as that great an asset.

She sighed softly, wondering how she'd moved from one subject to the other. Probably to escape musing about Barbara, she decided. She'd come up with all sorts of mental gymnastics to try and escape thinking about the other woman. They didn't work, but she tried all the same. Now musing on her own hopelessness, she wandered a little farther until it finally occurred to her that her feet hurt like hell, she was dead tired, and still had an early afternoon shift ahead of her. A hint of smile touched her lips as it occurred to her that was something else being on her own had taught her ... the practical reality that sleep was sometimes a necessity ... even for her. Exhaling a soft sigh, she turned in the direction of her apartment. It wasn't exactly home, but the bed was reasonably comfortable and at least now it had sheets.

* * * * * *

Her body beyond exhausted, upper back and shoulders turned to cement by tension, eyes barely able to focus, Barbara turned to glare at the Delphi as a piercing whine erupted from the speakers. Reaching down to manipulate the wheels on her chair, she did a turn that wasn't as tight as her usual ones, her arm muscles protesting the effort. Maybe an electric wheelchair wouldn't be so bad after all, even if it did still have a few bugs---the gyroscopes that should have allowed her to control it without a joystick still not nearly as sensitive as she'd hoped. The prototype for the new chair was back with R&D at Wayne Medilabs and she found herself wishing she'd kept it instead. She'd spent several hours with Kirk McKenzie going over the new design, but she was beginning to think she'd have to wait for the next level of technology before it worked the way she wanted. It was better than the commercial models she'd tested, but the gyroscopes were still too slow and unreliable. She was afraid she was either going to be stuck with the manual or a joystick for awhile yet. Her biceps knotted, agony throbbing on the left side as it threatened to cramp, she pushed herself up the ramp that led to the Delphi platform. The joystick was looking better and better.

She hit a hotkey on the keyboard as she approached the proper station, watching as one of the Delphi's automatic search routines came up. "You may be getting a little too anal, Gordon," she muttered when she realized it was a listing from City Animal Control on pets that had gone missing over the last several weeks. Obviously the Delphi had hit the database as part of its automatic routine, since it was in the city computer network. Smothering a yawn, she brought up a control panel and took that d-base off the list of those to be checked during its standard routine. She had quite enough problems to deal with. Adding lost pets to the list of things to be investigated wasn't an option. She punched another button, sending the report into the netherworld of the Delphi's trash bin where it would be autodeleted in two weeks if she didn't get around to doing it manually. She was about to go do just that when Alfred's voice broke in.

"Miss Barbara," his tone was firmly chiding, and she glanced over her shoulder with a guilty look.

"I was just heading for bed, Alfred," she said to deflect any criticism before he could get it out, though his disapproving sigh formed the background music for her defensive insistence.

A white eyebrow quirked, plainly expressing his doubts, though he didn't argue. He'd long since learned that arguing with her was generally a relatively ineffective strategy. She could be remarkably stubborn. "What a wonderful ... and unique..." he added, his tone sweetly sarcastic, "...idea."

"Disapproval heard and noted," Barbara murmured, her tone a sad mix of tart and hurt. She really didn't need Alfred beating on her when she was quite good enough at it herself. She put the Delphi back on automatic monitoring. The alarm would let her know if there was a problem she needed to pay attention to. In the meantime, maybe she was finally exhausted enough to get a few hours of sleep uninterrupted by earth-shattering nightmares. She yanked on the wheels to pull herself away from the computer station, only to pull up short as a gentle hand landed on her shoulder.

"Miss Barbara," Alfred watched her chin come around, noting the hurt she was trying so hard to hide, "it's not disapproval," he said softly, his tone meant to soothe away some of her demons, "simply worry. You've been pushing yourself much too hard."

Green eyes swung away, refusing to focus on the elderly butler for fear of giving way to his caring concern. "I'm fine, Alfred, really." She looked up then, pasting a false and wavering smile in place. "You worry too much."

A soft sigh escaped his lips. "I hope you're right," he admitted, then pulled his hand back, offering an encouraging smile as he urged her on her way. "Now off to bed with you."

Muscles quivering with the effort required, Barbara wheeled herself onto the elevator.

As he watched her go, Alfred was tempted to tender an offer to help, but he knew perfectly well she wouldn't allow it. As tired as she was, her independence was still too much of a driving force for her to accept anymore aid than was absolutely necessary. Sometimes her determination frightened him a little ... or perhaps a lot. He feared the limits to which it might push her, feared that without the one person who'd so often been able to reach past that stubborn wall, she might get herself badly hurt one day.

And what he really feared was that it might be one day all too soon.

 

* * * * * *

A satisfied, feline smile made its way across Helena's mouth as she lugged a fresh container of beer mugs up to the bar, and Bill Chambers gave her a wide berth. She'd had to threaten him again when she got into work, but after a small application of force, he was being a remarkably good boy---and his wrist wasn't so badly sprained that he couldn't work. Occasionally he glared her way, but a narrow-eyed look settled him down again.

Helena, meanwhile, was feeling almost like herself. Okay, so it wasn't exactly the same as foiling a plot to rule the world, but evil was evil---even when it was pocket sized---and defeating a bit of evil felt damn good. As a result, she was feeling relatively satisfied with her own sweet self. Okay, so her feet hurt, and her job and apartment both sucked, and she was lonely most of the time, and she couldn't stop thinking about a certain blonde and a certain redhead, but at least she didn't have to put up with being leered at and 'accidentally' groped by a slug. Maybe it wasn't much of improvement now that she thought about it, but considering how lousy her life had been of late, she'd take anything she could get.

Now if she could just stop remembering bigger evils defeated along the way---and the woman who'd trained and aided her in combating them. Or the fact that she'd apparently been replaced.

By a large, muscular blonde.

Who could fly.

And maybe she was better off if she just stopped thinking about that. Or maybe stopped thinking entirely. It wasn't like it was much of a requirement in her current life anyway and thinking invariably seemed to lead to thoughts of Barbara, and thoughts of Barbara invariably led to thoughts of the blonde and what seemed like a betrayal.

Straightening her shoulders, she redoubled her efforts to concentrate on her work. Handling dirty glasses and cleaning tables didn't exactly require a lot of brainpower, but it kept her busy. She bussed a couple of tables and was starting on a third when a light tap on her shoulder jerked her out of a particularly satisfying fantasy that involved knocking the blonde competition silly and carrying Barbara off for a long talk wherein she was suave, sophisticated, knew all the right things to say, and soon had the redhead admitting she'd loved her for years. The part about knocking the blonde into next Wednesday was a new innovation borne of necessity, but the rest of it was an old favorite. In the fantasy she always knew exactly what to say and how to say it, and Barbara was always grateful to hear everything Helena had to say because she felt the same way. It was one of the ways she could reliably tell it was a total work of fiction. Sighing softly, she let go of the illusive, near-palpable sensation of Barbara's lips touching her own. She did a slow turn, one eyebrow rising high on her forehead when she realized who'd tapped her shoulder, more than a little surprised. "I didn't expect to see you anytime soon."

Allison Robicheau offered an strained expression that was made up of equal parts embarrassment and discomfort. "Yeah ... me neither," she admitted breathlessly, glanced around herself then looked at Helena again, offering a smile that was too broad and visibly forced. With a few hours of sleep, she looked mildly human, but the ravages of the previous night's binge were still there in the form of dark circles under her eyes, and a definite green cast to her complexion. "But I have a little problem and I'm kind of hoping you can help."

"Ok-ay," Helena said cautiously, uncertain whether or not she really wanted to know. She couldn't envision this woman asking her to kick anyone's ass, and she wasn't sure what other kind of help she might be able to offer.

No missing the reluctant note in the young woman's voice. "It's nothing too awful," Allison assured her in a rush. "Well ... it's just...." She fell silent for a beat, then did a complete about face. "What are you doing tonight?" The stiff, too broad smile was suddenly back in place.

Oh yeah, that was believable. Helena's frown only deepened. "I'm off at four, so probably my laundry," she admitted, uncertain where this was headed, and edgy with it as a result. Life had taught her not to trust the unpredictable, especially in light of the fact that it usually tried to kill her. Her laundry might be boring as hell, and clearly she'd missed inheriting the crucial folding gene other women seemed to have, but it rarely attempted to eat her.

"Ah." Allison paused, swallowed hard, and started again. "I don't suppose you'd be up for an art exhibition?" she exhaled in a rush, bracing as though she expected Helena to either laugh or start swinging. "They're VIP tickets and everything."

The younger woman just stared for a long moment, her brain on the fritz. "Ummm," she exhaled at last, then shook her head. After everything that had happened, she'd finally figured out that the other woman had been right to back away from the weird, needy relationship that had sort of half sprung up between them so she was having a hard time figuring out how VIP tickets figured into things. "I don't think you and I dating would be wise," she said at last. She'd learned a few things of late, one of them that being with someone just to avoid being alone was a bad idea.

"Not dating," the other woman said very quickly, and shook her head. "No dating ... no dating at all ... at least not as far as you and I would be concerned...." She trailed off, looked uncomfortable and stood staring at the floor between her feet like a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar before hesitantly adding, "...though if others were to think it was a date, I might not be entirely averse...."

Helena noted that Chambers was giving her a dirty look, but a hard glare stopped him in his tracks. She transferred her attention back to the woman in front of her. "I don't understand," she admitted. Dating, but not dating. That made no sense. Though not dating seemed the saner choice. Where they were concerned, dating would just be a euphemism for other things, and she'd finally figured out that was a bad idea so dating would just be backsliding.

Allison was bouncing on the balls of her feet, clearly keyed up, though she kept trying to hide it. "It's a university thing. I have to make an appearance ... and it's one of those, you don't go alone things ... and the person who was supposed to go with me bailed. There's supposed to be a large exhibition of Chinese antiquities on loan from the Shanghai Cultural Museum," she sweetened the pot as she looked up with a hopeful smile. "I thought you might enjoy that."

It was definitely tempting. Helena had inherited her mother's love of Chinese antiquities, or maybe it was just that seeing them offered a reminder of better times. But still....

"There's also free food and an open bar ... though some of us would probably be wise to ignore that second one," Allison added somehow managing to offer both the none-too-convincing manic grim, and a wince at the same time.

She was trying way too hard, Helena decided, and way too tense. Helena knew she wasn't always spot on when it came to human relations, but after years of dealing with criminals of every kind and stamp, she knew when someone wasn't being honest with her. "What's this really about?"

The too bright smile didn't slip. "It's just one of those university things ... and showing up alone is always fodder for gossip ... and a certain amount of rather cruel laughter." Allison eyed Helena, flushing with embarrassment. "An attractive date would be ... well ... a plus."

Dark brows shot up as Helena digested that. "In other words, you're looking to impress." Okay, this was starting to make more sense. It wasn't the first time she'd had someone want to date her to impress others. Once upon a time she'd actually found the concept rather flattering. She was over that phase of her life. Now she just found it rather silly.

"More depress than impress," Allison sighed and Helena had the distinct feeling she was about to go off on another tangent before she caught herself and added, "but basically ... yes." She shrugged a little helplessly.

"In which case I think I should probably bow out," Helena said with some regret. She would have liked to see the Chinese antiquities, but getting involved in someone else's emotional difficulties seemed unwise when she was already sinking under the weight of her own.

"Oh," Allison's shoulders deflated and she sighed softly. "I wonder if they'd believe I was too sick to go," she mused out loud, ignoring Helena for a moment, "maybe stomach flu or food poisoning ... twenty four hour flu...." She looked up at Helena. "Which one would you be more likely to believe?"

"Why don't you just go alone?" Helena suggested practically. Okay, so that sort of panicky, can't-go-alone thing was to be expected in high school, but this woman ought to be well past that stage given that Helena already was.

That earned an ironic, dismissive little titter of laughter. "Oh no ... that would be." Allison stood shaking her head, rejecting that notion entirely. "Very bad." She noted Helena staring at her with a doubtful look and made a stammering effort to explain, "Okay, truth," she muttered through it gritted teeth. "It's just that my ex is going to be there ... and ... well ... she's ... really ... really ... and I never seem to be able to say no ... and being the kind of person she is ... she'll probably ask ... and then ... and I just ... I just don't want to get back into that game."

Dark eyebrows climbed even higher. "You mean you're looking for a chaperon?" she asked a little doubtfully as the truth sank in.

"Preferably an attractive one wearing something slinky," Allison admitted through a world class flinch. She gnawed on her lower lip. "I figure you have the really attractive part down pat ... and you do kind of owe me a favor ... if you look at things a certain way." She looked down at her feet again. "And I really can't do this alone." Her shoulders sagged, leaving her looking rather bedraggled.

A soft sigh escaped Helena's lips. Apparently Peeps wasn't the only one who knew how to do a bit of manipulating. "So what would this entail?" she asked at last, the pathetic look on the other woman's face forcing her to entertain the notion of doing as asked. She knew what it was like to want someone so much and need a little protection from ones own inability to say no.

Allison brightened a bit, correctly reading that Helena was softening up a bit toward the idea. "Just dress nice ... enjoy yourself ... possibly offer some intelligent commentary on Chinese sculpture---you're very capable of that." Helena had proven as much during their discussions---the ones that occurred before things devolved into more intimate activities. "And keep me from doing something intensely stupid ... like going home with my ex." She made a small annoyed sound. "She's just ... she's very ... and I ... and if we're both...." Her shoulders deflated and her gaze fell back to the floor. "And it would be bad."

Amazing how so many words could make so little sense, Helena thought. "And you're still in love with her," she said with sudden understanding. Oh, how she knew that look, that I'm-in-love-in-spite-of-my-best-efforts look. She saw it every morning in the mirror.

Allison instantly bristled. "In love?" she demanded, "with that two-faced, backstabbing, heartless, unethical, cheating, louse of a ... Unfortunately, yes," she admitted, barely breaking stride. She sighed heavily. "And if I go alone, she'll crook her little finger ... and I'll ... I'll be a putz and do what she wants ... and the next thing you know my research will be appearing under her name in better peer reviewed publications nationwide ... and, while the sex will be great, my career will be stalled, I'll have no self-respect left, and sooner or later I'll catch her with someone else." That too was reeled off without pause.

A moment of silence followed as Helena filled in the blanks. "Ouch," she said at last. Whatever her failings, at least Barbara would never do that to someone. In fact, Helena sometimes wondered if her personal ethics were a part of the problem between them. Actually, she kind of hoped they were. That would mean that maybe Barbara did feel the way she wanted her to, but was just hiding it for moral reasons. She experienced a moment of self disgust, faintly appalled by the fact that everything always came back to her former guardian in her head. "Sounds like it was pretty rough."

That got a disgusted snort. "You have no idea." Allison shook her head in a wave of self loathing "But maybe now you can understand why I don't want to face going alone ... and if the person I'm with could be ... y'know ... smart ... knowledgeable about the subject ... and perhaps ... above average on the attractiveness scale ... it would ... well...." She made a vague gesture with one hand as she hunted for the right way to phrase it.

"Twist the knife?" Helena offered through a wry smile.

"Yeah ... and that would be really good." Allison reached up to run a hand over her hair as she exhaled a disgusted snort. "I know I probably sound like the single biggest loser who ever lived, but--"

"Okay," Helena said before she could get any farther.

The other froze, trying to decode the timing of the answer. "Okay, I'm the single biggest loser ever, or--"

"Okay, I'll go," Helena said through a soft laugh. It seemed like the least she could do for the other woman, and besides, she understood what it was like to feel for someone when you didn't want to. "I'm a little short on clothes though ... not sure I have anything appropriate." Her wardrobe tended more toward dance club stylish than than university classy. She might not always be the swiftest on the uptake, but she was comfortably certain the two dress styles were quite different.

"I'm sure I've got something that'll work," Allison assured her. Her position required a certain wardrobe and they weren't too different size-wise. "Just come by my place, and we'll come up with something."

"Just tell me the time then..." Helena said after a beat.

Hours later, Helena flopped down, upper body elongating to fill one end of Allison�s couch, while she hooked her crossed feet over the edge of the narrow coffee table. She draped an arm behind her head, grinning happily as she considered the evening�s performance. And what a performance it had been. She�d been quick on her feet, witty, knowledgeable about the artwork, classy to the core, and yet seriously hot to judge by the appreciative gazes that had followed her everywhere. She had, in short, been the perfect date for an intelligent, attractive partner to show off at a professional function.

Barbara would have been proud.

The thought went through her head before she could stop it, along with the thought that she'd been someone Barbara could be proud to have on her arm. It was the first time she could recall ever feeling that way, the first time she'd felt like an adult rather than an overgrown teenager. Her grin broadened a notch. Beat that, Blondie. She supposed that thought should have brought her down, since Blondie was the one with Barbara and she was the one out in the cold, but she was feeling too good to let depression catch up with her. For just a little while, it felt good to imagine she was someone Barbara might want to be with. Peeps hopped onto her lap and started kneading her upper thigh and Helena ruffled her fur gently. Still grinning, she looked up to find dark eyes watching her closely.

Allison was half sitting, half leaning against her desk, her expression unreadable, arms loosely folded across her chest, simply watching Helena. It suddenly occurred to the younger woman that Allison had been quiet all during the drive back. And now that she thought about it, since some point during the opening. Probably taking seeing the ex hard, she decided on a wave of understanding. God knew, she'd been there. Just looking at Barbara tended to reduce her to mush and leave her on the verge of sinking to her knees. She offered what she hoped was a sympathetic smile. Allison never had said which one of the other guests was her ex, so Helena had spent a certain amount of time trying to figure it out. "It was the short brunette in the blue, wasn't it?" she asked, curiosity overcoming any sense that maybe the question wouldn't be welcome. A couple of rum and cokes probably also had something to do with it. "Your ex, I mean," she clarified as it occurred to her that question wasn't entirely self-explanatory.

Allison shook her head, still watching Helena with that same unreadable expression. "No," she murmured, "actually it was the tall blonde in red...."

Helena thought about it for a moment. "You mean the teacher?" she said at last.

"Professor actually," Allison corrected, her tone flat and uninviting, making it apparent she wasn't really in the mood to discuss it.

A little buzzed and curious, Helena wasn't in the mood to get a hint with anything less than a two by four applied to her cranium with considerable force. "The pretentious one, who kept explaining Chinese history to me ... and staring down my dress?"

"That's her," Allison said softly.

Helena let out a low whistle. Nice looking, but definitely on the pushy side---and that leer of hers had been a little overboard even by club standards. "You were dating a teacher?" she asked, not quite certain she'd heard right. She'd known a couple of girls in high school who'd managed that trick, and actually hadn't thought much of it. Then again, maybe college was different.

The other woman shrugged. "Not one of my better moments," she allowed, and tipped her head forward, her eyes shaded from view as she appeared to stare at the floor around her feet. "It's getting pretty late," she said at last, then looked up, her expression clear and nearly blank. "So maybe you ought to go ahead and get changed, and I'll take you home."

"Oh," Helena exhaled, remembering that they'd come back here so she could change back into her own clothes. The dress---black, silk, pleasantly slinky, and cut just low enough to be suggestive without being tacky---was borrowed. "I don't suppose I could talk you into feeding me first?" she asked a little hopefully. "My refrigerator's kinda bare, and their version of hors d'oeuvres left something be desired." Like calories. A daub of cream cheese on a celery stalk wasn't Helena's idea of food. She hadn't eaten in hours and there'd been a definite promise of food. She preferred steak, or burgers at the very least. Something solid and meaty anyway. She came from a long line of carnivores and had no intention of breaking the tradition.

"I really don't--"

Helena pasted on her most adorable, puppy dog look. "C'mon," she pleaded, "it's the least you can do after I protected you from the big bad blonde."

Allison ruffled her hair and shook her head. "I really don't think--" she began again, but Helena interrupted her.

"C'mon," Helena offered a winsome smile and dropped her feet to the floor as she scooped up Peeps, swung herself around, and stood. Her stomach growled right on cue. Peeps offered a glare, directed at Helena's midsection, grring softly in response, then squirmed free and leapt to the floor."I'm starving here," Helena pointed out, "and you're always pointing out how young I am ... still a growing girl."

Brown eyes slid closed, and Allison reached up, massaging her forehead just above the bridge of her nose. "I just think..." she began only to run out of words. She tried again. "This isn't a good time."

Right, bad time, Helena thought as it occurred to her that she was being completely insensitive. The blonde had been with someone, though it hadn't stopped her from trolling. Helena knew how she'd feel if she had to spend an evening making nice while Barbara was obviously there with a date and still hunting to boot. Hell, just knowing Barbara was working with someone else was damn near enough to make her crazy. She drew closer, curved a gentle hand to a slender shoulder, and spoke, her voice low and sympathetic. "I know," she exhaled, "and I'm sorry." She shook her head. "I didn't think. You must be hurting." The hand on Allison's shoulder rose to stroke her cheek lightly, the gesture intended to be comforting.

Allison jerked her head back, breaking the tenuous contact, a sound that was somewhere between a sigh and a hiss escaping her lips. "Don't."

Startled, Helena let her hand drop to her side. "I'm sorry," she quickly apologized. Knowing how prickly she could get when life seemed out of control, she had a pretty good idea how the other woman was feeling. "But I know how you feel ... and I just ... I'm sorry you're hurting." She'd enjoyed the evening, coming out of it feeling better about herself. It left her wanting to help.

Allison straightened away from the desk and carefully stepped around Helena. "I know," she said softly. She held up a hand in a loose gesture without looking back. "Thank you for tonight--" she added after a beat.

Helena couldn't help but grin as she remembered her performance. "I was pretty fantastic, wasn't I?" she enthused before the other woman had a chance to continue. "I had 'em eating out of the palm of my hand. Blondie was probably ready to explode." She'd taken a strong dislike to pushy blondes of late. Putting one in her place felt entirely too good. And she was glad for the chance to help the other woman. It didn't exactly make up for her lousy behavior, but maybe evened up the tally just a bit.

"You were great ... I'm sure Elaine was rotting with jealousy," Allison sighed and ruffled her hair. "But I really think it's time for you to go home."

Helena thought about how she'd feel if their positions were reversed. She'd have the badass mask in place, hating the world, even thinking that she wanted to be completely alone. Except it wouldn't be real. The previous three weeks had taught her that she wasn't quite as antisocial as she'd thought. There'd been times when the walls had closed in until she was going slightly mad. She'd hit the dance clubs more than once just to somewhere with people, even if the crowds often left her feeling even more isolated. Okay, so she had a somewhat squirrelly past with this woman, but the evening had already proven they could just be friends. And it seemed like they could both use a friend at that moment. "Why don't we go get a bite to eat," she invited, purposely keeping her voice light, thinking that maybe some mindless company would be good for the other woman. "There are a couple of all-night places pretty close."

Allison didn't look back, but one hand rose, waving the idea aside. "Really, I'm dead on my feet, and I just don't ... I don't think it's a good idea...." She grabbed her purse off the shelf where she'd tossed it on entering, fumbling around in the hunt for her car keys. "We should go."

Helena crossed the distance between them in a couple of long strides, reaching out to rest her hand on a slender shoulder. "Y'know, you don't have to pretend it didn't hurt ... seeing her with someone else." A soft bark of grim laughter escaped her lips. "Especially to me." She knew that sort of pain all too well. "Believe me, I know what it's like."

Allison didn't turn, just shook her head, her voice strained, but firm. "No ... no, you don't," she insisted without further explanation. "And now, why don't we just--"

"It doesn't help to pretend you're not feeling what you're feeling," Helena interrupted, stepping to the side to block the other woman's way, her expression serious. "God knows I've tried ... and I'm still...." She sputtered to a halt as she mentally finished the sentence, 'I'm still ass deep in love with Barbara.'

"In love with Barbara," Allison finished the sentence where Helena hadn't spoken aloud, her tone practical. "Yes ... I realize that. You're also wrong," she said coolly, resting one hand lightly on Helena's shoulder to urge her aside. "Sometimes denial is a much needed defense." She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, then pasted a blank smile in place. "Now shall we go?"

"I'm just trying to help," Helena said a little defensively, her feet firmly planted, unwilling to move. "I don't understand why--"

She just wasn't going to let it go. Allison hissed a disgusted curse under her breath, then interrupted. "Because of this," she growled, one hand coming up to hook behind Helena's neck. A solid tug brought the taller woman's head down and then their lips met.

Caught by surprise, Helena froze for a moment, startled by the softness of the mouth moving against her own. Even though they'd kissed before, that had been different, all about the physicality of the moment, two bodies enjoying sensation and nothing more. This was....

...nothing like that....

Her brain seized up, turned what she was feeling over and around and looked at it from all angles before coming up with an answer.

This was the kind of kiss she'd long dreamt of sharing with Barbara.

God no.

Jerking her mouth free, Helena stumbled back a pace and shook her head, trying to deny what every instinct was telling her. "No," she said insistently, "You don't ... I didn't ... didn't mean to--"

"I know," Allison broke in, saving Helena from having to finish the stammered apology. She offered a wry smile. "If you'd meant to, you couldn't have." She sighed heavily and ruffled her hair, pulling away and hitching her hip against the desk. "Funny how life works that way."

Helena just shook her head. "But you didn't ... I mean, you don't...." Faintly bewildered and feeling guilty because it seemed as though she'd put someone else in the same hell in which she existed. "I'm sorry," she breathed.

Allison waved the apology off. "Don't be," she exhaled, then offered another wry smile, feeling oddly lighter hearted for the tacit admission. "At least I wasn't the least bit tempted by Elaine tonight." She offered a slightly maudlin laugh, the dark humor of the situation clubbing her upside the head.

Helena flinched. Only a day before, she might have been tempted to use the realization against the other woman to gain a little much needed comfort for herself. But now they were kinda like friends. Just the vague thought of inflicting that kind of emotional pain made her stomach churn. "But this wasn't supposed to be...."

"Yeah ... but things don't always work out the way we plan in this life." Allison sighed and ruffled her hair again. "Anyway, under the circumstances, I think you'll understand why I really need to call a halt to this."

"B-but you--"

"I have a little crush, that's all," Allison cut her off firmly. "One could that could probably become something more, but I have no intention of allowing that to happen." She took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders and put on her resolve face.

Helena's total lack of understanding of that statement showed in her dumbfounded expression. She was normally so totally overwhelmed by her emotions that the notion of containing or controlling them was completely alien.

Pure shortsighted stupidity, Allison decided after mentally asking herself how she'd gotten herself into this one. She should have followed her initial instincts to run like hell, but no, she'd let the notion of facing Elaine alone panic her and gone running to the one person she could think of who actually beat her ex out on the whole attractiveness scale, and could keep up on the intellectual one. God, what a dumbass thing to do. On the verge of sinking into vivid blue eyes, Allison experienced a moment's sympathy for the guilt she saw there. It drove her to catch slender hands in her own, well aware that the light contact made her pulse leap almost painfully. Pushing that very physical reaction down, she struggled to engage teacher-mode. That seemed safer somehow. "Listen, this isn't something you should feel guilty about," she began carefully, trying to restructure the lecture she'd given students who'd decided they were passionately in love so that it applied to the crushee instead of the crushor. It was harder than she might have expected and she fell silent for a long moment as she considered several approaches and quickly discarded them all. "Truthfully, I really didn't intend you to figure it out," she admitted at last when she couldn't come up with a sufficiently facile explanation. Embarrassed heat warmed her cheekbones. "And it's nothing serious. It's just...." She fell silent again, then peered up at Helena, who seemed to have been struck completely dumb. "You know you're gorgeous, right?" It seemed obvious, but then again, people could be remarkably thick when it came to their own appeal.

The question got a small shrug that said yes, but also acknowledged that admitting so was too arrogant for the circumstances, even for Helena.

"And you're smart as hell--"

"No." Helena didn't have to think about that one. She'd known plenty of people who were wickedly smart---her mom and Barbara chief among them---but she knew better than to think she was in that category. An evening of showing off an unusual information supply didn't make her smart. It made her trainable.

A hint of a smile curved Allison's mouth. Most people doubted either looks or intellect. No question which weakness plagued the younger woman. "Yes," she disagreed quietly, but firmly. She saw Helena draw breath to argue and laid her fingers over soft lips. "Don't bother denying it ... you are. Trust me, if you were stupid, we wouldn't be having this conversation." She'd never found stupidity the least bit appealing. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly and looked down at the slender hands caught in her own. "You're also damn nice when you drop the don't-give-a-fuck act."

That last made Helena look away, eyes focused anywhere but on the woman studying her so closely. She couldn't help but remember the drunken accusations from the night before. Had it only been twenty-four hours since the ugly scene? Somehow it seemed like at least a lifetime, maybe two or three. "No, I'm not," she whispered, her voice close to breaking. Had she done it intentionally, even if subconsciously? Had she set to play with the other woman's emotions? She didn't think so, but she was nowhere near as certain as she would have preferred.

As if reading her mind, though it was more a trick of reading the emotions rushing through clear blue eyes, Allison tucked a finger under Helena's chin to draw her head back around. "Yes ... you are ... and, no, you didn't do it intentionally." She sighed softly. "And it's really not a serious problem ... just one of those things it's best to be aware of."

"I don't understand," Helena admitted. She could only imagine her agony if their positions were reversed. Her experience of unrequited love was all tumbling emotion, desperate desire, and raw nerve endings. She couldn't believe anyone going through that could be so calm.

Allison exhaled a small sigh and massaged the back of her neck. "No, I guess you don't," she allowed, and sighed again as she considered the problem for a long moment before continuing. "When I was eighteen," she said at last, "I was in the first of two car accidents in just a couple of months--"

"I don't see what--"

"Just bear with," Allison interrupted before continuing, "I was coming up on an intersection ... the light had been green for awhile and turned yellow just as I hit the crosswalk. Couldn't stop in time, so I accelerated ... only somebody saw the light turn and gunned out to make a left in front of me ... the next thing you know, BAM ... I started out headed east, next thing I knew I was headed south." She made a whipping hand gesture, miming the car getting flung around.

Helena just shook her head, not understanding at all.

Allison paused to take a breath, then continued, "The second time, I was sitting at a red light, looked in my rear view mirror and saw a Chevy Citation bearing down on me. I remembering thinking, 'She's gonna hit me,' and then thinking, 'Nobody'd be that stupid,' as I looked forward again. Maybe a second later, crash ... bang. Straight into my rear bumper--"

"Is this going to relate somehow--" Helena demanded at last, totally lost.

"Yes," Allison assured her. "See ... with that first accident, I can't help but wonder if maybe I could have avoided it. I drove too fast back then, and if a light had been green a long time, I usually hit the accelerator instead of the brakes. That accident was an object lesson. Now I watch well ahead ... tap my brakes if the light's been green awhile...."

Helena supposed she ought to get some deep meaning out of the story, but it wasn't coming.

"I'm tapping my brakes," Allison said to give her a clue. "Slowing things down ... avoiding an accident."

Helena finally got it, or at least understood what the other woman was saying, though it still made no sense in a way. "How can you...." In her experience, emotions didn't work that way.

The older woman shrugged. "Because sometimes you can see things coming ... and sometimes they just crash into you leaving you no choice but to ride them out. It's just as true about love as cars." Her mouth twisted into a fond smile. "Guess what kind of accident you had."

"Do you always compare love to car accidents?" Helena asked to avoid answering the question.

The question earned a soft , ironic chuckle. "In my experience, they're often rather similar in nature ... unexpected and usually ill-timed, jarring, sometimes all too destructive, leave you aching and dizzy, often with long-term side effects."

Which pretty much described how Helena had been feeling for years. She looked away again. "What if you don't want to be in any accidents?" she whispered, her voice a tight rasp.

"You'd lose out on all sorts of great anecdotes." There was a touch of humor to the response, and then Allison's voice grew more serious. "And it'd be pretty damn lonely too." She reached out, stroking Helena's cheek lightly before she could think better of it, then yanked her hand back and dropped it to her side. For all of the sadness in those remarkable eyes, she found herself envying the younger woman. Painful as it obviously was, there was a fierce kind of beauty to the depth of emotion visible in every line of lush features. "And I don't think you really want to lose what you feel for her," she observed, her tone gentle.

Helena's stomach knotted and twisted at the mere thought of not having the emotional center that had become so integral to her life. No, she didn't want to lose that. Not really. In spite of everything, she loved Barbara. Always had. Always would. If everything they'd already been through hadn't dented it, it seemed unlikely anything would.

Except apparently Barbara wasn't similarly encumbered by emotion, Helena reminded herself as Blondie's face flashed before her eyes. Barbara had already found a replacement at the professional level, and she knew better than anyone that was what really mattered to the redhead. Gut twisting jealousy twined through her as she remembered the flying blonde. Wow, and she'd been doing so well in dealing with that development---okay, so not really, but she was trying to pretend. "It doesn't matter," she whispered hopelessly, her mood slamming right back into the pavement at bone crushing velocity, reminding her that no matter what kind of performance she�d given Blondie was the one with Barbara, and she was the one out in the cold. "It's totally one-sided." She swallowed hard, fighting the impulse to just dissolve into a puddle right then and there. "She doesn't...." Her throat closed up. Finishing that sentence was not going to be possible. She tried again. "She's-she's with someone else now--"

A confused frown sketched its way across Allison's expression. "But I thought you two weren't--" she began hesitantly.

Helena broke in, her tone shifting from agony to bitterness in a blink. "I mean professionally," she growled and spun away, a little afraid of the rush of hot emotion. The biz had stood in for other things between she and Barbara for so long that the jealousy was just as real---and nearly as violent---as it would have been if they'd been in a sexual relationship and she'd known for a fact Barbara was sleeping with the blonde. "We had a sort of ... business I guess you could call it ... together," she said without further explanation. Business was as good a description as any, she supposed. God knew, there was no other way to account for the last several years of her life. And then the anger dissipated almost as quickly as it had appeared and agony rushed in to fill the vacuum. "She's found a new partner ... someone better than me." Her shoulders slumped as she made the final admission, the pain of it almost more than she could bear. She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder, the weight and warmth of Allison's forehead against her upper back, and turned, wrapping her arms around the other woman and holding on tightly, desperate to feel just a little less alone.

They held one another for a long time, the need for human companionship outweighing all other considerations. Finally Helena pulled back ever so slightly, staring down into brown eyes, suddenly very aware of the body pressed against her own. They'd already spent two nights together---naked skin to naked skin. And there was emotion too---on both sides. Barbara had moved on. Maybe it was time she consider trying to do the same. This woman was interesting, articulate, maybe not the drop dead gorgeous that Barbara was, but more than passing attractive. She was also kind, and more than that, she actually wanted Helena. That last thought had a heady appeal. It would be nice to be the one who was wanted for once---to be the object of fantasy and adoration instead of the one lost in the hopeless need for something she couldn't have. Not that she'd never been wanted---but never by anyone she cared much about or respected much.

She sighed softly.

The problem was she couldn't inflict that kind of hurt on someone she genuinely liked. And, while she didn't understand the concept of being able to control one�s emotions, maybe such a thing was possible, and maybe she'd really screw things up if she wasn�t careful.

Cupping slim shoulders in her hands, Helena rose up on tiptoe to press a light kiss to Allison's forehead."I should go," she said when she sank back down onto her heels.

Helena saw the moment's debate in expressive brown eyes, and then Allison nodded, pulling her hands back to link her fingers together at the small of her back. "Thank you," she exhaled, the words a tacit acknowledgment that she probably wouldn't have refused even though she knew it wouldn't have been for the best.

"Take care," Helena said softly, the smile she offered a little regretful. She shoved her hands in her pants pockets, staring down at her feet for a long moment as she tried to come up with something else to say. Unfortunately, her normally glib tongue failed her completely. One liners were easy when she was dealing with assorted street thugs and villains, but whenever things mattered, finding the words got a lot harder. "Take care," she sighed at last, then quietly slipped out.

Leaning against the closed down, Allison waited a long moment, then reached up to ruffle her hair, eyes rolling ceilingward as if to ask god why. "Oh, you are so gonna kick yourself for not grabbing what you could in a few years." She thought about that, considered the woman who'd just left and sighed again. "Oh hell, who are you kidding? You're gonna regret it in morning ... or even sooner...." Then she trudged off to bed.

* * * * * *

One night, Barbara mused, sometimes that's all it takes. One night for the world to change. She supposed for someone somewhere that change could be a good thing. In her experience though, it usually meant the world had just gone to shit again. A whoosh of air ruffled her hair, and she looked up as a Karen swooped in and landed a short distance away on the clocktower balcony.

She was still drawing breath to speak when Karen spoke all too quickly. "This isn't my fault."

Barbara peeled off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose. "It doesn't matter," she sighed, more tired than angry at that point. She just felt like someone had been pounding on her, could almost feel the individual bruises from the impact of imaginary fists.

Power Girl shook her head, still lost in her own guilt and frustration. "I told you that stupid earphone distracts me," she insisted defensively.

"I said, it doesn't matter," Barbara said softly, then shook her head, swallowing hard as she struggled against hot tears. "It's over." Gripping the wheels of her chair, she pulled it around and turned to go back inside.

"NO!" Karen snarled, grabbing for the chair in a muscular hand to yank it back around. "You told me to trap that bastard in there--"

"And if you'd kept the comm on, you'd have heard me tell you when those kids went in ... dammit. I spotted them on the gas station's security camera ... and maybe...." Barbara shook her head, not finishing the sentence. It wouldn't do any good anyway, the blame game never did. She knocked the other woman's hand off her chair. "It doesn't matter. What's done is done." She jerked back on the wheels, then circled around the other woman, shoving hard to send the chair back inside.

"Like hell it doesn't matter," the blonde snarled as she took off after Barbara. She kicked off, flying directly over the other woman's head and coming down in front of her. "Those kids weren't supposed to be there." Her voice cracked under the impact of her desperation.

Karen shook her head slowly, still struggling to process what had happened. Nothing was supposed to go wrong. It was just supposed to have been an easy pickup---a meta with the ability to use some kind of sonic blast waves not so different from the Black Canary, but a lot wider in scope and destructive power. Dumped by his girlfriend, he'd been in the process of dismantling the office building where she worked, so Karen had drawn him off, guided by the voice in her ear, until she got him away from the fleeing crowds. She'd thought it was safe enough to shut off the distracting comm units since she was into the fight.

She'd never guessed that some kids might run into the abandoned building where she'd drawn the distraught man in hopes that the thick walls would contain his powers until she could deal with him. Barbara had chosen the building because it was built from thick, cement block, and not likely to come down around their ears, but his sonic powers had turned the place into a warzone of flying brick and mortar turned to shrapnel. She wasn't invulnerable, but she was tough as hell and her target was as well---apparently a mutation to deal with the demands placed on his body by his sonic abilities.

The teenagers who'd hidden in the building weren't so lucky.

They were just soft, human flesh, and brittle, human bone, both prone to break and tear under the impact of pulverized brick and concrete when hurtled with the force of heavy calibre bullets. She hadn't even managed to catch the poor bastard who'd started it all. He'd escaped into the night while she was trying to get the kids out.

Feeling as though someone had been pounding on her with her batons, Barbara ran her bangs back from her forehead, winding up by massaging her temple. "It doesn't matter," she sighed again, her voice thick with regret and exhaustion. "If it helps to blame me, fine, blame me." It wouldn't change anything either way. One teenager was still dead and two more were badly injured ... all because of a bad judgment call on her part---though it was impossible to say whether her mistake came in suggesting Karen try and contain her target in the abandoned building, or in trying to work with the woman when it seemed obvious in hindsight that the effort had been doomed from the start. She yanked back on the wheels of her chair and again went around the blonde, pushing herself up the ramp to the computer station to stare blankly at the readouts still playing over the various monitors. Might as well shut it all down for all the good it had done. "It doesn't matter anyway," she said again, feeling as though her brain was trapped in some kind of loop where the same words, or very nearly the same words kept coming out of her mouth. "It's over."

"So you're just right back on the job?" Karen's disbelieving demand broke in on Barbara's paralyzed staring. She vaulted over a workstation to land on the computer platform behind Barbara, grabbed a shoulder and yanked so hard she nearly upended the wheelchair. "It's all the mission for you, isn't it? Nothing else matters."

Barbara just stared. It wasn't that nothing else mattered ... but rather that nothing mattered.

Karen leaned down into the other woman's space, her guilt driving her to strike out. "You're all soft eyes ... like you have a heart... you make people think you care." She shook her head. "But you don't really ... you're all business. Do you even have a soul or just a computer chip?"

Barbara wasn't even angry anymore. She wasn't anything except numb. "It's over," she said at last, the other woman's furious accusations barely registering.

Karen's mouth twisted into a sneer. "One mission over. On to the next ... and screw the body count--"

"No," Barbara exhaled, barely looking at Karen, her gaze instead focused on random point in the distance. "I mean it's over," she explained, her voice dead to any emotion, words faintly slurred as though she was coming off a two day bender. She shook her head slowly, barely functioning, her voice still hoarse from all the screaming at the monitor as she'd watched all hell break out while she was unable to do a thing to change it. "Your hotel's credited through the week ... and if you need longer, that's fine. Just tell the desk clerks. I'll see to a first class plane ticket whenever and wherever you want. You'll be paid through the month." She reeled off the practical matters as though reading from a bulleted list, then reached down, fingers curling around the wheels of her chair, to yank herself backward.

Power Girl froze, her mouth momentarily hanging open. When she finally snapped it shut, she reared back, swallowing hard and staring at the redhead with a look of disbelief. "What are you gonna do, just get in another cape to do your dirty work?"

Barbara shook her head, wheeling the chair back around to glare at the computer equipment arrayed around her on all sides. "This isn't working," she exhaled, ignoring the question. She drew a deep breath, letting it out on a ragged shudder, a vision of her life without the daily fight against the dark things in the world stretching away in front of her. Even the news that she was paralyzed hadn't seemed this bad. At least then, there'd been a morphine drip to dull the pain.

"Screw you," angry and defensive, the insult hung in the air for a long moment. "I did my job. It's not my fault." Karen stood braced, wanting some kind of confrontation, anything that might take some of the weight of guilt off her shoulders.

Finally, Barbara brought the chair around, staring at the other woman, totally bereft of words. She truly didn't know what to say. She just wanted Karen to go. She supposed she should have been offering moral support, some kind of comfort, because she knew all too well the kind of hell the blonde was experiencing. Unfortunately, she just wasn't up to the task. She was too busy being trapped in her own hell. She'd brought the other woman aboard, chosen to send her into a dangerous situation, and directed her into that building. Whatever Karen's mistakes, as the one who'd put things together, it ultimately fell on Barbara's head.

"This isn't my fault," the blonde said again, clearly wanting a fight.

Barbara just offered a helpless shrug. "No ... it's not," she sighed, offering whatever absolution she could.

Unfortunately, Power Girl was too bound into her own guilt to accept the pass being offered. "Oh, no," she snarled. "Don't take that tone with me ... like you're just agreeing to keep me happy." She was so tied up her voice threatened to crack. "I did what you told me," she insisted as though that made all the difference.

Not knowing what to say, Barbara offered another helpless shrug. "Fine ... it's my fault then." She ran a hand through her hair, her own voice threatening to break. "Does it really matter though?" she demanded. "Assigning blame won't change anything. Won't change what happened to those kids...." Her voice choked off and she couldn't continue. She let her eyes drop, staring at her hands as she moved them to rest in her lap. "I don't blame you ... this just ... isn't ... working," she said haltingly. Maybe now Power Girl would go and the clocktower would be her own again. Though maybe it didn't matter anymore. It wasn't like she had any work to do.

"Screw you," Karen said again, then a noisy whoosh of air brought Barbara's chin up just in time to catch a last glimpse of a muscular figure disappearing through the door to the balcony, flying at full speed.

Realizing she'd mishandled the whole thing, Barbara massaged her temples, rubbing in slow, concentric circles, trying to relieve the violent headache throbbing there. It was just that she had no idea what to say to the other woman, had never known. The only thing they had in common was a desire to do something right for the world, and even there, their methods didn't overlap very well. Still, anger and bitterness between them wouldn't do anyone any good. She'd have to call her later and try and make peace. Leaning back in her chair, she stared blankly at the ceiling, noting how the world swam. Definitely too tired. She could barely think straight, or maybe more correctly couldn't think straight.

She stayed where she was for a long time, just staring at nothing and everything.

The sound of the Delphi alarm dinged her eardrums. It wasn't particularly loud, but she'd chosen the frequency to be as annoying and impossible to ignore as possible. Unfortunately, she'd done her job too well. Nothing much she could do about the problem---whatever it was---but she saw no reason to sit there suffering through the piercing sound. Maybe it was time to just shut the Delphi down and stop tormenting herself with all the problems she couldn't do anything about. It would take hours to back up the last of her work, but at least it would give her something to do. She gave the wheels of the chair a solid push, rolling up the short ramp to the platform. She moved to the primary station, flicking the alarm off with a keystroke, then pulled up the alarm screen, a frown darkening her expression as she pulled up the report from the Delphi. "Dammit," she muttered to herself, "it shouldn't be...." She trailed off, her frown deepening as she continued to stare. Her eyes flicking back and forth, she scrolled through the data on the screen, then abruptly started typing, pulling up a previous report, then entering a new search parameter. As the data came up, she started cross-matching, putting the picture together in her head. Suddenly, everything but what she was looking at was forgotten.

It took hours of combing through reams of data, forcing her to work until her eyes were blurry and every muscle in her body ached with fatigue. So great was Barbara's concentration that she barely noticed. Besides next to some of the things she'd been though, a little eye strain and back pain were nothing.

Finally, she had what she wanted---a pattern that made a sick, twisted kind of sense. He had to eat. She'd assumed he'd been hitting the garbage bins, but no, on second thought that didn't make sense. Considering that he thought he was some kind of werewolf, he'd want his dinner warm and bloody. Her stomach rolled in response to the thought and she breathed deeply to control her gag reflex.

Staring at the compiled data, she barely resisted the urge to slap her forehead. She should have realized that the Delphi wouldn't have kicked out the animal control report if it weren't well out of the norm and not simply a perfectly normal peak in the statistics. She'd programmed the system to track spikes and valleys and discard any minor activity within the norm---and harming animals was one of the early signs of various psychotic pathologies. Dammit, she'd missed the obvious, and nearly lost a chance at tracking the Claw.

She now knew there'd been a massive increase in missing animal reports in the area where she'd located him the first time, another increase during the previous month in an area where she was certain he'd been. Strange to realize that tracking him came down to missing pet reports: mostly dogs, but a few cats. Often literally yanked from their owner's control, snatched while on the leash, though no one had seen anything worth mentioning. Some had insisted it was a man that had stolen their pet though no one had seen more than a shadowy figure. Others claimed they'd heard an animal and seen a glitter of eyes.

Now she was looking at evidence of another similar spike in the area around the clocktower. Coincidence? Maybe, but then again, maybe not. According to the little she knew he had some pretty inhuman senses to go with his physical strength and sharp claws. He'd fought Helena---probably had a good idea of her scent and it was all over the area. It could be drawing him since she'd already beaten him once. Then again, it might be that he was using the sewers to hide and move around. The old system was a rat's nest in this area, with old and new tunnels, discarded sections and long forgotten areas. There were even bits of access into the old city. It was one of reasons for choosing to locate the clocktower there. The design had utilized a lot of that forgotten space for hidden facilities. Perhaps the Claw had discovered the maze and was using it for his lair. God knew, he couldn't move among normal society, not now. His picture had been everywhere for the first week after his escape and was still shown fairly regularly. And he wasn't someone who could easily blend.

If he was using those underground tunnels, then maybe that gave them an advantage---a way of laying a trap. Though the entrances were well barricaded, the clocktower had full access to the sewers.

A cold sweat prickled on Barbara's skin as the truth sank in. He really was still there---the Crimson Claw---she hadn't even realized just how much she'd secretly hoped he had moved on until that very moment. All of which meant she had a huge problem on her hands. Even if Karen would agree to work with her, they didn't trust each other, and in a situation like this, that could easily lead to disaster. She couldn't risk having the Claw escape, or having someone else stumble into the middle of the fight. She leaned back in her chair, gnawing on her thumbnail as she stared at the monitor, her brain threatening to shut down as she contemplated the obvious reality.

She had to call Helena. Like it or not, even knowing the younger woman would probably only hate her more if she did, she had to at least try. Huntress had already beaten the bastard once. And, while she might be furious over being drawn back into a game she'd clearly chosen to leave, Helena was also responsible enough and decent enough that she would almost certainly come back.

At least for a little while.

Tension coiling and spinning tighter in her chest, Barbara looked over at the phone sitting within reach on her desk. She had the number, had in fact committed it to memory the first instant she looked it up. She knew she should just go ahead and do it---call---and yet her hand remained where it was, clutching the armrest on her chair tightly---the exact same way it had several other times in the past three weeks when the loneliness had been nearly unbearable and she'd contemplated trying to mend the break between them. It was no point of pride that she'd chickened out every single time, not wanting to put herself or Helena through another humiliating rejection.

Barbara was still trying to work up the courage to pick up the phone and dial when the sound of the elevator provided her with a welcome distraction.

For the briefest second, she experienced a surge of hope that it was Helena. So many times the younger woman had appeared when there was trouble even without being summoned, as though she instinctively knew when Barbara needed her.

Then Alfred stepped off the elevator, the morning newspaper tucked under his arm, his expression courteously bland. "Miss Barbara," he said in acknowledgment when he saw her sitting there, staring at the elevator door.

Barbara felt her stomach spiral downward as disappointment sent the adrenaline rushing on by and left her quaking gently. "Alfred," she said softly, hands fluttering a little uselessly in an effort to cover her stress. "I ... uh...." She looked over, a hint of a frown touching her brow as she noted she was seeing yet another sunrise without having becoming acquainted with her bed at any time since sunset. "...uh ... didn't see the notice that you entered the clocktower." She offered an embarrassed shrug. "Kind of involved in...something," she said without explaining further. She knew what Alfred would say once he knew what had happened the night before---from the problems with Karen to her discoveries about the Claw---and she wasn't ready to face his gentle, but tenacious pressure. "Guess I'm not awake yet," she added, studiously ignoring his doubtful look. "Got up early to get some things done."

Alfred's soft sigh said very clearly that he wasn't buying that excuse. "I'll start breakfast," he said after a beat, his tone quietly practical. He laid the newspaper on the desk in front of her, then turned toward the kitchen without further word.

Barbara sighed heavily, quite well aware that she'd just been reprimanded. Alfred was phenomenally talented at gentle castigation, all without speaking a word. Unable to face the notion of calling Helena with the butler there, perhaps listening in, and ready to witness her total breakdown if she failed, she grabbed for the paper, flicking it open and pretending to read.

Well aware that his young charge was lying, Alfred Pennyworth restrained the urge to cluck disapprovingly and hurried into the kitchen, bustling about, preparing Miss Barbara's breakfast. He glanced out to check on her several times, noting that with a raised brow, that she appeared to be reading the morning paper with great intensity, far more than it likely deserved given that the most exciting headline he'd seen during the journey to the top of the clocktower had involved the budget fight currently going on in the state senate. Hardly exciting reading, but Miss Barbara was staring at something as though it contained the secrets of the universe, her focus so intense he half expected her gaze to burn a hole in the newsprint. It looked to him like she was staring at the same page several minutes later when he took her breakfast out, so intent she didn't hear him return. He drew close enough to peer past her shoulder, then felt his stomach sink when he realized what she'd found to stare at with such rapt attention.

A picture of Miss Helena.

Alfred scanned what he could see of the text over her shoulder. Some sort of fundraiser at the university. No question why the editor had chosen that particular picture. Miss Helena was quite stunning, quite certain to draw a second look to the accompanying article---as well as the man she was speaking to in the picture, a local politician, the newspaper was supporting. The young woman was laughing, her head back, eyes sparkling....

...one hand resting possessively on the lower back of the woman standing next to her, who was smiling and peering up at Helena with a look that was more than fond.

He easily recognized her as the woman who'd been in Miss Helena's apartment that first day after her exit.

This did not bode well.

As he watched, Miss Barbara reached out to trail her index finger along the line of Miss Helena's face, then abruptly pulled her hand back when she realized he was there. She slanted a quick look over her shoulder, then carefully folded the paper and set it aside, her stiff shoulders betraying just how aware she was of his close perusal. She waited a beat, then finally brought the chair around and looked up at him, correctly reading the recognition in his eyes. Her head swung around, gaze touching on the paper for a brief second before returning to pin him in place. "The woman in the picture with Helena," she said at last, "you know who she is." It wasn't a question.

Alfred would genuinely have preferred to avoid this particular line of inquiry, but he'd long since formed the firm rule never to lie to his employers. On the other hand, a bit of misdirection wasn't completely out of the question. "Miss Barbara, perhaps I should--"

"Who is she?" the redhead asked, her voice flat, the words coming out clipped and impatient. She wouldn't be distracted this time.

Taking a deep breath, the old man looked down at the floor for a long moment, very aware of the eyes watching him so closely. "She was with Miss Helena the night I went to see her." He looked up just in time to catch an impression of the anguish in jade eyes before it was hidden away behind an impassive expression.

"What do you know about her?" Miss Barbara questioned, her voice so tightly leashed it hurt to hear it.

"Miss Barbara, I don't--"

"I know you, Alfred," the young woman cut him off. "You checked her out," she added with absolute certainty. And, yes, he had. He considered it one of his duties to make certain his young charges didn't trip into anything unprepared. "Now what do you know?"

A soft sigh of surrender escaped his lips. "Her name is Allison Robicheau ... born in Metairie Louisiana ... her father's a high school teacher, her mother works in a bank. Good grades all through school, never been in trouble, and is a doctoral candidate at the university ... graduating at the end of this semester ... with several job offers both in the states and abroad."

Miss Barbara's head bobbed in a stiff nod. "Thank you," she rasped, her voice little above a whisper. She glared at her hands where they rested in her lap for a long moment, then looked up at him, her expression all the more pathetic for the walls that she'd put in place. "Not someone who'd hurt Helena, then?"

He couldn't lie. "I don't believe so, Miss Barbara."

She nodded. "Good." Green eyes slid closed for a long moment, and then she straightened herself, took a breath, and looked up at him. "Actually, Alfred, why don't you go ahead and head out for the day."

He drew breath to argue, but she forestalled him with a raised hand.

"I've got a couple of projects I'm working on ... a meeting about the new chair design ... and some things to go over with Karen later--"

Alfred tensed. "The Crimson Claw?" he demanded instantly, still certain they should have been contacting Miss Helena---who was undoubtedly being as stubborn and difficult about the situation as Miss Barbara.

She shook her head, her expression almost too clear. Probably her way of dealing with the news about Miss Helena, he decided, certain she was far more upset than she was letting on. "No ... I'm beginning to think he's left the area. It's just to go over some information on a mugger hitting in the midtown area." She reached up to massage the back of her neck. "That's not until this afternoon though. In the meantime, I think I'm going to go back to bed. I didn't sleep very well last night, and I could use a little more rest."

Suspicious, Alfred peered more closely at the young woman, not quite believing her, but also knowing how little she'd been sleeping of late. Perhaps, the news about Miss Helena had been the final straw. "If you'd like you could go on to bed, and I'll just go ahead and prepare the day's meals," he offered, hesitant to leave.

She shook her head. "You know I never sleep well unless the clocktower's quiet," she said by way of disagreement.

No, she didn't. In truth, she'd long been prone to restless sleep and vicious nightmares. And, god knew, she needed rest. She'd been pushing herself much too hard for months. A few hours of deep sleep would be the best thing for her. He was still doubtful though. Something in her attitude, or perhaps just the knowledge of what she'd seen leaving him very worried. His eyes flicked over to touch on the folded newspaper. "Perhaps I should--"

"Really, Alfred," she broke in before he got any farther, "I'm fine." She followed the line of his gaze, her expression unreadable "Believe it or not, I'm glad for her. If she's happy, that's all that matters." She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, then peered up at him with a clear look. "She wanted to move on with her life. I hope she has ... with someone who makes her happy."

He didn't believe her in the least, but he also understood that she needed the lie to survive. He was still trying to come up with an appropriate reply when she continued.

"I'm dead tired." She pointedly smothered a yawn. "Shouldn't have gotten up so early," she added, continuing the charade that she'd been to bed already. "So I'm just going to crash." She pulled on the wheels of the chair, backing it up. "You can let yourself out and set the security, right?"

Of course he could set the security system. It was a rather silly question asked to make the point that she wanted him to leave. He took a breath, then asked very seriously, "Are you certain you're going to be all right alone?" He hoped he could trust her innate honesty to make her answer truthfully. He knew from experience that there were times she was best left alone to lick her wounds and heal before she faced others, and other times when she needed human company in spite of herself. Unfortunately, it could be difficult to tell which approach was best at any given time.

Barbara offered a wan smile. "I'm not at my best," she admitted. Certain that being too brave would only trigger his most protective instincts, she didn't try to completely hide her emotional response. "Which is one of the reasons I really just want to close up shop and sleep for awhile." She purposely allowed just the right amount of exhaustion and genuine depression through to make him think she wasn't hiding anything. One thing she'd learned in playing so many games and hiding so many secrets was to stick as close as possible to the truth. Frightening as it was to contemplate, she was a master liar. It occurred to her that Alfred should have known her well enough to remember that simple fact, but then no one wants to think someone they care for and trust is being less than truthful. She'd used that basic truth plenty of times before---during all the years when she'd kept her secret life as Batgirl from her father. "I'll call you later," she assured the elderly butler to ease his worries.

Alfred took a breath, silently debating. Finally, he nodded. "You do that," he said in a tone that indicated that if she didn't, he'd be breaking down the door.

"I will, I promise," she assured him.

Ten minutes later, the elevator doors finally closed on the butler's worried visage, and Barbara heaved a sigh of relief, slumping in her chair, wondering at her sanity for being so relieved at his exit, given what she was considering. She brought the chair around, quickly wheeling up the platform to the Delphi station. A quick flick on the keys kicked it out of standby and brought up all screens. She entered a series of commands, bringing the sub-basements's security system online. Normally it simply ran according to a set of parameters, only notifying her if someone or something tried to break in. It paid scant attention to minor movement though. There was simply too much activity between the rats, water dripping in through the rain sewers, and the homeless hiding to get away from the weather. Time to start paying attention.

To so many things.

She brought up the work she'd been doing on the spinal coupler, and sent a note to Wayne Labs to return the chair, with the excuse that she wanted to run some additional tests.

The weight of what she was contemplating suddenly wearing down on her, she considered calling Helena one more time.

Then her eyes fell on the folded newspaper. Without planning to, she reached out, flicked it open, and then went straight to the page with Helena's picture. Green eyes softened as she stared at the young woman's image, and a hint of a smile touched her lips. She reached out, fingers trailing along the frozen line of Helena's lips, turned upward in a lighthearted smile. It had been so long since she'd seen the younger woman like that, looking so relaxed and happy, her eyes alight. Her gaze moved on to the woman standing next to Helena, noting the way her former partner's hand was resting comfortably on the other woman's waist, and the half smile that curved the unknown woman's lips.

Alfred had said she was okay, and that was a relief.

Barbara repeated that thought in an effort to convince herself.

Helena was happy, that was all that mattered she reminded herself. She'd be okay now. Helena would be okay.

She punched up the design for the spinal coupler, a dark frown creasing her brow, then glanced back at the image of the young woman who had become so much a part of her existence.

Helena would be okay. That was what really mattered.

She turned her gaze back to the monitor, struggling to focus on the problem at hand. Helena had found a new life and she wouldn't interfere with that. Time to find another way. Her gaze flicked over to the picture one more time.

Maybe it was for the best this way.

* * * * * *

Continue to the Spoilers for Acts VIII and IX
Act VIII is somewhat scant and still very much in progress while IX is nearly finished, but needs some changes.
 (IX is the final part)


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