Four Days Later
The well known balm of the Twenty-Third Psalm washed over the small crowd assembled at the graveside of Andrew James Wuornecki, the minister's voice deep and soothing.
"The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want."
If anyone noticed the pretty redhead, it was only because of the odd wheelchair she was using. But mostly even that went unseen by the family of the dead nineteen year-old, killed in a freak accident when an abandoned building collapsed around him. They had bigger problems to worry about.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;"
The redhead saw them though. Saw every moment of their pain, the way the dead boy's mother was on the verge of collapse, the younger brother looking lost and hopelessly confused, a father trying so hard to be stoic.
"He leadeth me beside the still waters."
She saw it all and knew their pain was her fault. She'd failed the mission, failed that boy, and failed his two friends who were still recuperating in the hospital.
"He restoreth my soul;"
Except Barbara Gordon sincerely doubted anything could restore her soul. It felt as though it had taken flight sometime back now. Maybe that was why she felt so completely bereft of any remaining ties to the world.
"He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake."
Sitting there under a grey sky that threatened bring rain down on their heads at any moment, she could barely feel anything. Or maybe it was just that she couldn't differentiate feelings anymore. Pain, fear, guilt, anger---they were all bound together in her head until she couldn't tell one from another, so she just ignored them all, shutting down any feeling with the same brutal ferocity with which the Joker�s bullet had shut down the sensations in her lower body.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death."
The valley of the shadow of death. Barbara had to fight a slightly hysterical laugh. How apropos. Sometimes it felt like she'd spent her entire life in the shadow of death. They were old friends. Her childhood had been spent terrorized by a drunken father and ineffectual mother to the degree that their deaths had been almost a relief, the irony that she�d been the only one to survive that hellacious, drunken drive inescapable. Her uncle and adopted father had been constantly threatened and nearly killed more than once during her teen years, and twice she�d nearly paid with her own life as well. Then she�d moved into her own dance with death, risking life and limb to battle the evils that played in the night only to come so close she�d very nearly succumbed. And yet, somehow each time she�d danced just out of death�s boney grasp. How wrong was it that he'd paid a visit to this innocent boy when she was still there without a partner for the dance?
"thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."
There was nothing there to comfort her. This wasn't about comfort. It was about penance, every word from the minister's mouth and every tear from the dead boy's mother another flagellating body blow that felt as though it should leave bloody trails in flesh. "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; "
Her enemies? Oh yeah, that table was well stocked and prepared. She even had the bastard sniffing around, though she'd yet to get him to sit down. Soon though, very soon. She'd set her trap, reinforcing a basement storage area, making sure it connected to the sewer in a way that could be cut off quickly, installing a knockout gas that could be released by remote, and then releasing rats into the sewers directly under the clocktower. Fresh meat. And she'd picked up heat trails that signaled they were drawing him close. He wasn�t quite where she wanted him yet, maybe suspicious, or maybe just wary, but he was working his way closer to where she wanted him. Soon, very soon he�d be right where she wanted him.
"Thou appoinest my head with oil;"
She barely even heard the minister as the next thought went through her brain.
"My cup runneth over. "
Then she�d make sure the bastard never killed another child.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,"
She looked up, hearing the words again, the wry thought running through her brain that if goodness and mercy started now, it would make for a hell of a change. Partly by accident of birth, partly by choice, her entire life had been driven by chaos and cruelty. Maybe it was one of the reasons she tried so desperately to protect the innocents of the world---and the guilty. She didn�t want anyone to have to see and feel the things she�d experienced.
"and dwell in the house of the Lord forever...."
A tiny twitch of fear clenched her stomach.
Very possibly, very soon.
* * * * * *
Helena danced. She barely knew the tunes and didn�t care anyway. She just wanted the music loud and frenetic, so she could keep her body moving and her mind silenced.
Lonely as hell, working too many hours, but at the same time, not enough, she just wanted a little peace. If she could move fast enough and constantly enough, she could almost find some too.
Even as her body moved, drenched in sweat and wild, she couldn�t quite escape the memory of jade eyes and crimson hair, couldn�t quite evade the emotions that still burned in her breast no matter what she did.
God, life sucked.
She never danced with a partner. A few asked, but she deflected them with a kind smile or a cruel laugh depending on their attitude. She strictly danced alone. No one could keep up, and even if they could have, it would have distracted her from her own private race to escape herself.
A partner was the last thing she wanted.
Partners let you down, or conversely, you let them down. Either way, other people were just a recipe for letdown of some kind.They left a person, betrayed them, died on them, or just fled.
She was better off alone.
And if she danced hard enough and fast enough, she could almost believe that particular lie.
* * * * * *
"Good for nothing, bad in bed
Born defeated, died in vain
Superdestructive, you were hooked on pain
And though your music lingers on, all of us are glad you're gone."
Barbara reached out, slapping the switch on the CD player to move to the next song in what she was thinking of as her 'Depression mix.' Soon Jim Morrison's sultry drawl was steaming the air and swirling around her, and she found herself singing along, her own voice a husky contralto that played a surprisingly effective duet with the long dead rock star's.
"People are strange when you're a stranger. Faces look ugly when you're alone. Women seem wicked when you're unwanted. Streets are uneven when you're down." Her head down, she focused on the delicate task of soldering components onto a green custom-etched circuit board. Like the board, most of the components were custom produced by Wayne Labs on just over a twenty-four hour turnaround from her specs. Only the fact that Bruce Wayne had left her with near-total control over his empire---in his daughter�s name, but control nonetheless---had allowed her to exert that kind of pressure and have such custom work done so quickly.
"When you're strange, no one remembers your name. When you're strange...."
Barely noticing as Morisson gave way to Blue Oyster Cult�s �Don�t Fear the Reaper,� she lost all track of the music as she dug deeper into the work, redesigning as she went, not even looking up when Nick Cave took over the airwaves for song after song. Helena would probably have teased her for her hopelessly outdated musical tastes even when it came to death wishes, but she couldn�t let herself think about Helena, because if she let herself go there, she might just consider trying to see the younger woman.
Barbara didn�t even allow herself a tired sigh when she finally set the soldering iron aside, her hands still quick and graceful despite her exhaustion as she hooked the completed board up to the port line trailing from the nearby Delphi station.
For just a moment, she sat frozen, uncertain what to do next, so tired, it was all getting a little hazy in her head. "Right," she muttered at last as she went back over the necessary steps. "Flash the ROM, then install the program." She blinked stinging sweat out of her eyes, then leaned to bring the new wheelchair around. It lurched and jerked in the direction she wanted, but didn�t stop in time, instead over-rotating and taking her past the keyboard. Cursing under her breath, Barbara reached for the joystick, and brought herself back around to where she wanted to be. So much for the gyroscopes doing exactly what she wanted. The damn thing was nowhere near where she needed it to be if she was going to�
She cut that thought off right there. It just meant she was just going to have to make do. Not like it was a new concept in her life, she reminded herself as she killed the frustration threatening to surge over her. She�d been making do for years now.
One more time wouldn�t kill her.
Or maybe it would, she thought with a giddy, near-hysterical giggle. Now if she could just find it in her to care.
Besides the Claw had to be stopped and she was the only one left to do the job. Selina was dead, Bruce had run away, Dick was in Bl�dhaven, Alfred couldn�t, and Helena apparently hated her guts and just wanted out.
That meant she was the only one left.
Also not exactly a new concept in her life.
She�d often found herself the only one left; first when her parents died, then again when Selina had entrusted Helena�s life into her care while Bruce ran along his merry way, and now again. It was getting to be a habit.
Growling softly, Barbara chased that thought away as unproductive. Losing herself in the past wasn�t going to help anything. She had a job to do, and whining about it wasn�t doing anybody any good.
Slender fingers danced over the keyboard in front of her, bringing up the pre-prepared programs. They were ready to load and she�d checked and double-checked everything a dozen times already. Everything was as ready as it was likely to get without considerable time spent testing and debugging. Time she simply didn�t have, and maybe didn�t want. She punched in the proper commands to flash the ROM bios, watching silently as the computer and the board communicated back and forth, her eyelids heavy by the time the procedure had finished. Moving on autopilot, she tested the new setup and found it had worked, then began the more time consuming project of downloading and configuring the program itself. Finally, the whole thing was set to run and load more or less on its own, though she was paranoid enough that she sat right where she was, staring at the rapidly changing numbers on the screen that indicated assorted things happening. She understood them well enough, though as she watched them moving across the screen almost too fast to be seen, even she had a hard time remaining coherent.
There was something oddly peaceful about them. She�d always found a certain elegant appeal to the patterns seemingly random numbers started to generate if you watched them long enough, her brain one that loved the puzzle of finding orders where there was none. The rapidfire pulsing of digits was soothing, hypnotic, lulling her lean her head forward into her hands as her eyelids grew steadily heavier, and the blood seemed to run slower, like half melted lead, in her veins.
The sudden slap to the back of her head brought her back awake almost instantly, her head snapping up, eyes going wide as she spun around, the acrid smell of Jack Daniel�s reaching her nostrils even as she recognized the bleary-eyed figure staring down at her.
A once-handsome wastrel�s mouth turned up in a leering grin that she thought she�d long since forgotten. She�d only seen that look a few times in her life. It had only started to appear at the most drunken intervals a few months before his death.
Not Jim Gordon, the man who lived in her heart, and had given her the only decent hearth and home she�d known as a child, but the man who�d sired her. Roger Gordon. James Gordon�s brother and her biological father.
The man who had done her exactly one favor in her life by getting himself killed on a rain-slicked road one night when the whiskey was running fast and furious in his veins. That he had taken her mother along for the ride---both the one in the car, and the later one in a hearse---probably should have mattered more to her, but then again her mother was little more than a shadow in Barbara�s memories, far too pale a figure to register against the terrorizing force of her father.
She just stared until finally he reached out and slapped the side of her head again, the force of the gesture leaving her hair in disarray. "Aren�t you gonna say �Hi,� honey?" he demanded. "After all, it�s not polite to ignore your old man."
Barbara shook her head, refusing to be baited. Green eyes slid closed, teeth clenching as full lips pursed. "It�s not real," she whispered to herself. "Just a goddamned hallucination." She�d been through plenty of hallucinations before, had talked herself down from some very colorful ones. She knew the drill. She clenched her hands into fists, hoping the pain of nails digging into her palms would offer enough pain to break the cycle.
"Nice digs," her father murmured, driving her to clench her hands until the skin had to be on the verge of breaking and bleeding under the pressure from her nails. "But then that Wayne was a rich guy. Guess you did him a lot favors." He put an obscene spin on the words. "Really personal ones."
Barbara continued shaking her head, whispering, "It�s just a hallucination," over and over like it was a mantra that would protect her from her own insanity. She hadn�t been sleeping well---at all really---since Helena had left. It was just exhaustion and stress catching up with her and playing havoc with her senses. None of it was real.
She heard the sound of paper rattling and risked a look through one, barely slitted eye. Her father had gone straight for the folded newspaper, flicking it open as though he knew exactly what he was looking for. Well, of course he did, she reminded herself. He wasn�t real, just a phantom conjured by a mind that had gone too many hours without sleep. Which in turn meant that he knew all of her weaknesses just like her subconscious did. "Damn, and for his kid too. Never thought that scrawny brat would turn into such a hot piece of ass." A chortling chuckle followed, the vicious sound a cruel reminder of so many times in her childhood when he�d left her confidence shattered with nothing more than that tiny sound.
Barbara shook her head, unable to resist the temptation to buy into the hallucination with the disgusting inference hanging in the air between them. It was just her mind playing with the intrinsic fear she�d long had of her father�s ability to make anything, no matter how pure or innocent, into something ugly. "He was my friend ... and she�s ... she�s family."
He chuckled again, the sound like nails on a blackboard. "Right." He turned, leaned into her space again, hands braced on the arms of her chair, bitter breath burning her face. "Family." He leered openly. "If I known you liked family that way---"
"Shut up!" Barbara growled and shook her head, suddenly out of the chair and in his face, hands digging into his lapels. He grinned just the way he always had when he got a rise out of her. "You just shut up about her!"
He made a kissing face, clearly enjoying her distress. "Oh, come on, Babsy, no need for all the hostility. I can�t blame you for wanting to do a naked tango with her." His eyes ran over her with disdainful intensity. "Even if it�s not like you�d actually feel it or anything."
She closed her eyes tightly, stumbling back into the chair, hands fisting on the arms, words falling from her lips in a desperate litany. "It�s not real. It�s not real. It�s not real...."
"No, it�s not." The lighthearted confirmation came even as a gentle hand landed on her shoulder.
Green eyes snapped open and Barbara stared up into a familiar cerulean gaze, relief sweeping through her. "Helena?" she gasped, not quite believing what she was seeing. "You�re here."
"Of course I�m here," Helena confirmed, a smile twisting full lips as she paced around until she was in front of Barbara. She leaned down, hands braced on the arm of the chair. "I heard a rumor there�s trouble...and whenever there�s trouble, I always know where to find it...wherever you are."
"It�s the Claw," Barbara quickly explained, hands fluttering nervously, so grateful that Helena was there she could barely think straight, but also afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and driving her away again. Given that it seemed to have been battling the Claw that had already sent her away once, Barbara was terrified she�d run again. And if she did.... If she did, Barbara would have to face him on her own. She wasn�t so much scared for herself as that she wouldn�t be able to stop the bastard and the killing wouldn�t end.
"I know," Helena drawled and leaned closer still. "But that�s not important."
"Not...important...." Barbara exhaled in confusion. "But he�s out...killing---"
"Yeah, I got that," Helena assured her, then leaned close enough for her breath to tease Barbara�s ear. "And don�t worry. I�ll kill your little monster for you...the way I always do---"
Barbara shook her head. "No, we don�t kill," she reminded Helena.
Helena shook her head, still smiling at Barbara, while her eyes ran everywhere. "This one deserves to die. You know that as well as I do. As long as he�s alive...other people are going to die." Her lips just barely brushed Barbara�s ear. "And if you�re too much of a coward to do the job, I guess if falls to me...again."
"If I could do it, I would," Barbara insisted defensively. "I was even ready to---"
"To what?" Helena hissed, one hand digging into Barbara�s hair, pulling her head back. And suddenly she pounced, landing in Barbara�s lap, knees on either side of her hips, pinning her in place, one hand still gripping red hair, the other clawed into the back of the chair. "Get out of this chair and face him?" Helena chuckled mockingly and shook her head. "Good one." She leaned down, teeth digging into Barbara�s ear lobe hard enough to draw blood. "But how are you supposed to beat the bad guys when you can�t even feel this?" She dropped her hand from the back of the chair to Barbara�s groin. Barbara heard the sound of a button popping and a zipper sliding and looked down in time to see Helena thrust her hand inside and experience the painful disconnect as she was reminded of the difference between what she could see and what she could feel when it came to her own body.
"Don�t," Barbara pleaded, but Helena laughed at her, thrusting her hand deeper and moving it back and forth, every unfelt caress a punishment laid on Barbara for her failures.
"Can�t fight," Helena whispered near Barbara�s ear, her voice suggestive, her hand still moving and achieving nothing. "Can�t fuck." She straightened, peering down into green eyes with a mocking smile. "Exactly what are you good for again?"
Barbara�s head snapped into the back of her hair, hands clenching on the arms as Helena�s face swam even closer, dominating her vision, her cruel, mocking smile drawing Barbara�s gaze until it seemed as though there was nothing else in the universe. "No," she whispered, her voice broken and pleading. "No, no, no..." She pressed her hands against her ears, desperately trying to block Helena�s laughter out, only it was inside her head, echoing inside her skull, every repetition feeling like a hammer blow. "No, please...stop," she begged, unable to look away from Helena, that beautiful face mocking everything Barbara stood for. And then god apparently decided to take mercy for once in Barbara�s life as Helena seemed to ghost away to be replaced by the darkened interior of the workroom. It took Barbara a moment to realize that it was all nothing but one more nightmare, or maybe more of a hallucination because she wasn�t entirely certain she�d ever truly slept. She had no sensation of snapping awake or opening her eyes, just of one world merging into another.
"Just a dream," Barbara exhaled, staring into the distance, her gaze unfocused. She let her hands fall to her sides, trying to shake it all off as just the tortured imaginings of a mind gone too long without sleep. It didn�t mean anything...nothing. None of it meant anything at all. Just her subconscious playing cruel games.
It meant nothing.
Teeth gritted, she yanked the keyboard over and readjusted the position of the monitor, checking on the program status, relieved to see that it was nearly finished. Just a few more minutes.
Once that was done....
She didn�t finish the thought, instead focusing on the technical details. That was easier and much safer. Just take it one minute at a time, and you can do whatever you need to, she reminded herself.
Finally, the program was finished loading, and she ran the shutdown routine, then unplugged the connections. Finished, she picked the board up, turning it this way and that, studying the circuit board and the delicate components. She swallowed hard. It all came down to whether or not it worked. If she�d done it right, it should. If not.
If not, she�d failed again, and more people would die.
And it would be her fault.
No! She couldn�t let that happen.
Carrying the board, she rolled over to an adjustable height work table, and reached straight for what she needed. No time for delays. Time to suck it up and just keep moving forward. She had no other choice.
Barbara worked fast, ignoring everything but the need to make this work. Instinct told her that she didn�t have much time left.
Not much time at all.
* * * * * *
Alfred Pennyworth was worried. A call to Miss Barbara had resulted in a conversation so short she�d very nearly hung up on him, which wasn�t her normal way of doing things at all. Or at least it hadn�t been prior to Miss Helena�s angry exit from the clocktower, though in the time since it seemed to have become so. She was drawing steadily farther into herself, the look in her eyes frightening him. It reminded him too much of the expression he�d seen when she�d lain in a hospital bed, her life changed forever.
Then there�d been a child who needed her to pull her out of that dangerous place. Miss Barbara had a deep seated sense of responsibility and a need to be needed. It was a core element of her personality. At one time, he�d seriously doubted Master Bruce�s decision to leave and put so much on Miss Barbara�s shoulders. He�d feared he was asking too much of his young prot�g�, especially considering her situation, but with time Alfred had come to understand that it was the only thing that could have saved Miss Barbara. She�d needed to be responsible for Miss Helena, and when the time came, for the rest of New Gotham as well.
It had saved her.
Only now, he feared that the loss of one and the inability to see to the other alone would destroy her.
She�d told him to stay away, begging off on a visit because she insisted she needed some rest after a long night working with Miss Karen.
As awful as it was to contemplate, he wasn�t sure he believed her. Not that he knew why he doubted. Miss Barbara had never been one for lies...at least not for lies uninvolved with her work, but something had him uneasy. She�d told him to stay away, and he was undecided that it was the best thing to do.
Maybe if he just checked by...perhaps to bring some food. She wasn�t eating right, never did if he didn�t see to it. Yes, that was the thing. She couldn�t yell too loudly if he just dropped by with food.
He�d just stop by and make sure she was okay.
That was all.
* * * * * *
Barbara Gordon screamed---howled really---a horrifying, wretched, torn-from-the-throat, animal sound that erupted from her lips the instant she activated the spinal coupler, the pain beyond anything she could have possibly imagined. It tore through her, obliterating every other sensation, every conscious thought, everything but the agony ripping at her nerve endings.
Once she�d thought that even constant pain would be better than the awful numbness of a spinal cord injury.
If she could have formed a coherent thought she�d have realized she was wrong.
She lost her grip on the parallel bars she�d been using to support her weight and her knees buckled almost instantly. She went down, no longer screaming because she was long out of air and couldn�t manage to draw a fresh breath. Normally graceful fingers fumbled in raw panic and missed the control switch in their first pass. She rolled onto her back, mindless tears slipping from her eyes, still fighting with the switch.
And the suddenly a soft click heralded the end of the blazing agony. She saw the instant the coupler ceased functioning in the way her legs went limp, collapsing to the floor even as the pain simply stopped. Or at least the pain in her lower body ended that quickly. Unfortunately, the rest of her body continued to throb with the memory of the mind-numbing agony. Not wanting to the evidence of her latest failure in the form of her unmoving legs, she tipped her head back, staring at the ceiling as she fought to catch her breath.
Oh god, no way could she fight like that. It was just too much. She�d known there�d be pain, but never considered just how much. In arcing a signal over the break in the spinal cord and sending it to long unused nerve endings, she was completely overwhelming her body, and clearly sending a thousand different confused signals. The computer translation system was supposed to sort it all into something her brain could comprehend, but apparently the whole thing was simply too complex so it simply read as pain.
Feeling the heat of tears trailing down her temples into her hair, Barbara reached up and rubbed at the clinging moisture even as she went back over the calculations in her head, hunting for a mistake, something that could be easily corrected, and let her finish what she�d started.
God, she just wanted it over.
Soon enough, she supposed, and reached out, pulling her chair over---her old manual since the new one couldn�t be trusted yet---her movements sluggish, the belt that held the coupler in place cutting into her midsection. Ignoring the minor discomfort, Barbara pulled herself up, muscles pulling taut as she hauled herself bodily into the seat. Her breathing still ragged with pain, she leaned forward, elbows braced on knees that never felt their weight. She massaged her temples slowly, struggling to think through the aftershocks of agony still playing havoc with her body. Part of her was wanting to panic and she had to fight that. Stay calm. Think it through.
Maybe if she�
A warning alarm dinged before she could finish the thought and Barbara twisted, eyes going to a nearby computer monitor even as a message flashed onscreen.
No, no, no. Not now. It was too soon.
She worked the controls on the wheelchair, bringing it around even as she reached for the keyboard with her other hand. A few quick commands and the information she needed came up.
It was the Claw. He was only a short distance from entering the area she�d set up so carefully to trap him, and moving that direction. If he went where she wanted she could throw the switches and lock him in, but that was only half the problem. Once he was in, then would come the game of keeping him that way, and she was far from certain the system she�d put in place would do the job---he�d already broken out of too many traps and prisons for her to have much faith---and even if it did, she�d still have to find a way to transport him safely into police custody. Unfortunately, she was the only one available and with the failure of the spinal coupler, she was in no condition for a fight. Barbara cursed, uttering every foul word she could think of as she continued entering commands, trying to get a bead on something that might let her track him if he got away. Nothing. Among the rats she�d released to draw him, there were several with transmitters surgically hidden just under the skin in hopes he�d devour one and tag himself, but either the bastard was lucky, or he could smell them because every time he caught a tagged animal, the tag abruptly went offline. Deliberately broken or simply crunched between his teeth? She had no way of knowing, and neither thought was terribly comforting.
She watched his heat signature on the monitors. He was moving rather randomly through the lower part of the facility, still making his way in the direction she wanted, but no longer in a straight line. She punched up the cameras in an effort to get a visual. Unfortunately, he seemed to have an almost preternatural sense of being watched. Either that or he was damn lucky. Either way, he darted from point to point, moving too fast for her to catch more than a brief glimpse, only slowing when he could cling to the shadows. She brought up the tracking system which let her see the pattern of movement in the form of dots on a map. It wasn�t as accurate as she would have liked, but by comparing the two sets of data, she was able to form a fairly good picture of what he was doing.
He was exploring, she realized. Maybe learning a new territory? The lower levels of the clocktower were warmer and drier than the sewers. She�d hoped that would be inviting for something like him. But how long would he stay? And would he come back? He wasn�t where she wanted him yet, but the way he was going, he would be soon. No time to debate or call in someone else. She either took the risk or let him go and hoped he came back.
And lived with still more blood on her soul if he didn�t.
Even knowing she was in no shape to face him if it came down to that, she couldn�t risk his getting away. Hell, she�d been ready for this for days now. The fact that she couldn�t play the way she�d hoped didn�t change the fact that she was in the game.
Barbara punched up another set of commands, gaze narrowing faintly as a new screen came online. Her fingers moved quickly over the keyboard, her touch confident. The computer world was her element now, and she danced and played in it just as she had once moved over the rooftops of Gotham City.
And how would she do once she was out of it?
It looked like they were going to find out. Nobody got to walk away from this fight because one way or another she had to stop the Claw.
She punched a final button, locking the main portion of the clocktower down. The final steps would wait until both she and the Claw were in their respective positions, then a last command would lock that up, ensuring that no one came or went without her approval.
A small mobile command unit sat on next to the main monitor and she grabbed it easily strapping the unit to her left arm. A flip up screen would give her any information she needed, while a tiny keyboard gave her access to the Delphi through a wireless transmitter. She punched it online, entering a few commands to check things out and institute a verbal command protocol. From here on out, the Delphi controlled everything coming and going and it would only respond to her verbal commands or the mobile unit.
Her eyes slid back to the table and the other item waiting there. She�d hoped not to need it, but she couldn�t take a chance that the Claw would escape. The weapon was an unfamiliar weight in her hands. Her father�s .45 calibre automatic backup service weapon. She�d fired it before, always with the feeling that the damn thing was going to grind her wrists to powder with every shot. All but the final two cartridges in the last were high velocity loads with dum-dum bullets designed to shatter on impact and do max damage. The last two were more quite a bit more special. Homemade exploding bullets, drilled out and filled with a special component of her own invention that would make damn certain that the Claw didn�t walk away if it came down to it. Together it was more than enough to kill a normal human several times over, but the Claw wasn�t a normal human and she�d already seen how much punishment he could take. She wasn�t even entirely confident even this much could kill him---at least not before he killed her---but it was the best she could do.
Barbara slid the .45 free of the custom made shoulder holster, checked it with automatic skill and chambered a round, the metallic, double snicket sound enough to make her jump. She hated guns, but she was entirely too familiar with their form and function, and she stared at the thing for a long moment, hoping it wouldn�t come to that. Once before she�d accidentally killed someone. This time, if it happened, it would be entirely by design and that thought appalled her. Finally she reholstered it, then checked the spare clips set under the other arm to counterbalance the weight of the heavy weapon. A small shudder of horror slid over her skin as she slid the shoulder rig on, then adjusted the straps.
A quick glance told her the Claw was still checking out the sub-basement, and she tracked him out of the corner of her eye as she finished preparations for the coming battle. Strange as it might seem to most, she was suddenly ultra-calm, her racing pulse quickly slowing to something approaching normal. It had always been like that for her just before a battle. She�d been able to go into a sort of meditative state, simply focusing on the job she had to do.
It was a relief to find that at least one thing hadn�t changed.
And then she was in the elevator, distantly tracking its downward motion as she watched the tiny image of the claw on the mobile computer strapped to her arm. It wasn�t great resolution, but the tiny plasma screen was better than anything commercially available and it let her track him as he sniffed around.
The elevator was nearly at its destination when the Claw finally crossed the threshold she was watching for. She entered a command even as she switched the display to a floorplan view. As the elevator bumped to a halt, the view changed, indicating doors closing in rapid succession.
Reaching for the wheels of the chair, she waited while the elevator doors split and slid apart. A sharp push took her forward just as a muted roar vibrated the walls, echoing up the elevator shaft.
Somebody wasn�t having a good day.
Not now. She couldn�t afford any of this now. The Claw was nearly in her trap, only she was nowhere near ready for the fight.
"I�m from New Orleans...weird shit is nothing new."
When Alfred finds the Clocktower locked up tight, he goes looking for Helena ... not at her apartment, so he goes to allison's place, thinking they're having an affair. Ally figures she's on duty, but he says no, he was just there. Says Helena mentioned hitting a club sometimes when she couldn't sleep. Not sure which one though.
Helena landed lightly, rain streaming down her face and body, washing away some the blood streaming from the woman in her arms.
"Miss Helena." Alfred hurried forward even as the young woman sank to her knees, coiling over and around the precious burden in her arms.
"She tried to take him on alone, Alfred," Helena said, her voice pure anguish, but she wasn't sure he heard her as he turned away, his voice rising to make himself heard the people gathered some distance away.
"GET AN AMBULANCE!!"
Helena distantly noticed that it was the closest to panicked she'd ever heard her father's butler.
Helena slid trembling fingers into sodden hair, silently willing Barbara to move, say something, even moan, but she was utterly still. "Why didn't she come to me ... did she think I wouldn't have helped?" She looked up, her eyes pools of agony. "I never wanted her hurt ... I just ... I wanted ... anything but this." She leaned across the prone woman again, shielding her from some of the rain with her body. She barely felt the weight of the hand that landed on her shoulder as she checked again for a pulse---terrified Barbara had died during the panicked near-flight to the ground---but it was there, thready and weak. She reached down, trying to stanch the blood running freely from Barbara's side with her hand while she leaned on her other elbow, not feeling the way gritty tarmac pressed into her flesh. Barbara's head hung limp, twisted to the side, the cords in her neck pulled taut by the position, long lashes spiked by rainwater where they rested on her cheek. Her lips were parted slightly, and Helena couldn't take her eyes away from the cut that marred the corner of her mouth, the ugly mark surrounded by a purpling bruise. Helena glanced down, her stomach rolling as she took in the sight of torn leather, and even worse, torn flesh. There were other bruises---dozens of them---and more cuts---too many to count---marring soft flesh. She buried her face in the curve of Barbara's shoulder, a sob bubbling up from her chest. "I'm here," she whispered, unknowingly echoing the words she'd first said so many years before when Barbara had been on the verge of death. "And I need you ... please ... don't go." She was surprised when she felt the faintest flicker of tension in the woman lying beneath her as muscles strained violently just to lift a fine-boned hand. Helena's chin came up as Barbara's hand curved to the back of her head, fingers threading into dark hair, her breathing tortured and ragged as she struggled to drag air in past ribs that were cracked and broken.
"It was really you," Barbara said very softly, a frown marring her brow as though she didn't quite believe the woman kneeling above her wasn't just a hallucination. "You came."
Helena cupped her hand along the side of Barbara's face, supporting her when she didn't appear strong enough to hold her head straight. "Of course I did," she said instantly.
"The Claw?" Barbara groaned, her voice an agonized rasp. Drugs and pain had her mind spinning until it was hard to separate reality from fantasy. She honestly didn't know if the memory of toppling the meta was real or not. She wasn't even completely sure it was really Helena there, or just the imaginings of her fevered brain. She'd wanted to see the other woman so desperately before she died, that she could easily envision her brain coming up with a hallucination to match.
"You stopped him," Helena assured her, her touch impossibly gentle as she stroked Barbara's cheek, desperate to reassure herself that the other woman was still warm, still breathing, still alive. "I found you ... after.... I would have come sooner, but I didn't know you needed me." She shook her head, the tightness in her throat making it painfully hard to speak. "I didn't know...."
Unable to hold her arm aloft any longer, Barbara let her hand slip from its place tangled in Helena's hair, her thumb trailing along the younger woman's cheek before her hand spilled back to earth. "Always ..." she groaned almost inaudibly, her eyelids fluttering, eyes threatening to roll back as the pain washed over her in agonizing waves, "...always ... needed ... you...." And then Barbara's world was spinning away. She distantly felt the rain on her face and heard Helena screaming her name, but she'd sunk into blackness by the time the chest compressions started.
"Coffee, Miss?" Alfred asked, his composure remarkably unflappable.
Allison looked over, noted his total calm with a faintly flummoxed look and nodded a little dazedly. "Thanks." She accepted the foam cup, but her hand was shaking so badly she promptly toppled coffee all over her hand. Luckily it was barely lukewarm.
Alfred quickly took the cup back, offering a cloth handkerchief as he did so.
"Then again, maybe liquids aren't such a great idea right now," Allison exhaled, then paused, lifting her hand and holding it out flat to note the way it was trembling violently.
"Are you all right, Miss?" the butler asked, his tone kindly.
Still staring at her hand, Allison shrugged. "Little shaky," she admitted, then turned her head to peer at him. "What the hell are they?" she asked after a beat, her expression awestruck, the things she�d seen still topmost in her mind.
He offered a kind smile. "Very special."
"Right." Allison ducked her head to one side, Brown eyes refocusing on the slender figure pacing back and forth near the ICU. "Why is it I have a funny feeling that barely begins to describe it?"
Alfred�s mouth turned up in an enigmatic smile. "Because you�re quite intelligent."
She looked at him again, one eyebrow quirking. "Interesting thing," she said at last. "I keep seeing the Wayne logo on everything...and this morning, I picked up my messages, and they included a job offer to work for the ___________ in Italy...courtesy of a grant from Wayne Industries. I don�t suppose you�d know anything about that?"
White brows rose, and Alfred looked genuinely surprised. "Actually, I wouldn�t," he admitted.
She looked doubtful, not quite believing his denial. "I�m no threat to them," she said at last.
Barbara braces her baton across the Claw's throat, hooks her arms around it and handcuffs her wrists together so that he can't throw her off.
Barbara comes up against something far worse than she's ever faced. Can't track it down, so she gets it to come after her, and locks it into the clocktower, intending to trap it with herself as bait, but it gets through all the defenses she's got in place. Winds up in a hell of a battle, and she's just getting creamed, even though she's fighting very well. The new wheelchair comes into play here. And everything's blowing up. Helena arrives at the clocktower, finds Alfred, and he briefs her, then she runs to Barbara's side. Barbara is damn near killed, Helena winds up performing CPR to get her heart restarted after she's nearly electrocuted. Ultimately carries her down for an ambulance crew. Later goes to her in the hospital, and insists she's realized she can't walk away, but there is some inference that she's doing it as much because she fears Barbara will get herself killed if she doesn't.
Scene a week later in which Helena agrees to continue their work, but also maintains her apartment. She needs time away from things, can't let it get so intense. Needs time off.
It was hard to tell who she hated more; him for wanting her, or her for wanting him to want her.
Merged with the shadows on the ledge outside of Wade Brixton's livingroom, Helena Kyle gritted her teeth as she controlled the urge to go crashing through the picture window to break up the tryst on the verge of going on in front of her.
Sharp ears pricked, easily separating Barbara's breathless voice from the surrounding street sounds as the kiss broke. The window muffled the sound ever so slightly, but inhumanly sharp senses had no trouble making out every word, while sharp eyes narrowed faintly as he curved a hand to a gentle cheek.
"Hear me out, Barbara," the teacher murmured, his voice ragged with denied passion, "I like you ... like being with you." He snatched another quick kiss, and Helena could almost see the heat gathering in his groin.
Horny bastard. Didn't he care that....
She growled low in her throat, the thought forgotten as he continued.
"I want you so much." The hand on the redhead's cheek slid lower, fumbling to caress her breast, his movements clumsy to Helena's eyes. Barbara shouldn't have to put up with being touched like that. Graceful as she was, every caress should compliment that perfect beauty---should be calculated for the maximum effect---not mindlessly grabbing or twisting like she had a set of radio dials.
"How can she want him pawing her like that?" Helena muttered under her breath, silently willing Barbara to shove him back, slap him, throw him out, laugh at him. Something ... anything. His hand shifted, thumb moving, stroking the faint protrusion that Helena tracked with sharp eyes, easily marking it as a perfect nipple.
"Wade..." Barbara said again, sounding much too breathless for Helena's comfort.
"I know that there may be some differences ... but I'm willing to learn ... how to please you."
Mighty big of you, Helena though acidly, her stomach churning angrily.
Helena didn't wait to hear the rest, couldn't afford to allow herself to hear the rest, not when she knew what she wanted to do. She clamped down on that emotional response, just like she'd clamped down on it for years. It was too intense to be safe, and she could never allow herself to endanger Barbara. She'd done that once before and the guilt had almost been more than she could bear. In the end, she just turned and fled, so strong and graceful she almost seemed to fly.
* * * * * *
"Wade," Barbara said more sharply when he didn't take the hint and pushed her would-be lover back, a faint sound drawing her attention toward the window for just a second. Nothing there. Of course there was nothing there, she reminded herself. True, in Gotham, that wasn't quite as certain when one was several stories up as might normally be expected, but still. She turned her attention back to her date. "I'm flattered ... really," she assured him when he threatened to look hurt by the rejection clearly headed his way, "but I'm really not ... not ready." She didn't specify for what exactly, allowing him to make his own assumptions. He flashed a puppy dog look that might have done a better job twisting her heartstrings when she was in college and vulnerable to guilt. "It's just way too soon ... for me ... I mean, I don't--" She had no idea what to say that wouldn't do more to crush his ego than she was capable of. She enjoyed his company, but that was it. He was nice enough, but there was just no spark. She ignored the clench of stomach muscles and the fear that maybe spark simply wasn't an option in her life anymore. Logically, she knew it was stupid, but it had been so long since there'd been anything approaching passion in her life that it frightened her. Other than that brief, post-shooting fling with Dick---which had been more about friendship and comfort than grand passion---there'd been little more than a few dates here and there. Nice enough times, but nothing that went past the mild social demands of dinner and a movie. And she found she was none to eager for things to go past that point in this instance either.
"Sleep around," he finished for her, yanking her attention back to the present. He sighed heavily, then flushed, quickly stammering apologetically. "Of course you don't," he added. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have.... It's just that you're so beautiful ... and it's been a long time since I've connected with anyone this way." He brushed her cheek lightly. "I guess I got a little overeager."
"Yeah," she confirmed, the hand resting on his chest holding him back firmly when he started to lean close again. "And it's getting late. I really should be getting home. We've both got classes tomorrow....."
He stiffened and pulled back, getting the message loud and clear this time. "Right," he sighed, glancing at his watch in an effort to regain a little lost dignity. "Classes."
She nodded, not arguing, then started to lift herself back into her chair. He leaned forward as if to help, but she waved him off. "I can do it."
"Of course you can," he muttered as she efficiently made the shift from couch to chair. Pushing to his feet, embarrassed to feel more clumsy than she appeared, he shoved his hands in his pockets and waited.
Several minutes later, he was watching her drive away into the night with little more than a last kiss on the cheek to reward him for his efforts. Great. That had not been the plan at all, he thought with more than a little disappointment.
After a drive that felt unusually long and slow, Barbara was finally home and locking up. She was still setting the last of the alarms on the million dollar system when she became aware of watching eyes. "Yes?" she asked when she finally turned the chair around and found herself facing a distinctly disapproving look from her newest young ward. "Something wrong?"
A dark blonde brow rose high on Dinah's forehead and she pursed her lips. "Have a good time?" she muttered.
The redhead shrugged, wondering what that look was all about. "It was fine," she answered, her tone noncommital. "You have a good evening?"
"Also fine," the girl answered, still staring at Barbara as though she could see right through her. "So, are you actually interested in this guy?"
Barbara had every reason to say yes. Wade was sweet, thoughtful, good looking. Okay, so his parents loathed her, but that didn't seem to have slowed his pursuit much. When she thought about it, she honestly didn't know. She liked him, but at the same time, there was a side of her that was beginning to suspect she was dating him more because he'd asked. After flying solo for so long, it seemed like she ought to want a man in her life. Maybe she was just saying yes because he fit the bill and flattered her ego. "We've only gone out a few times," she said to avoid actually answering the question.
"Seven times," Dinah corrected, then kept speaking---babbling really---because she would have stopped herself if she'd been thinking more clearly. "And it's nearly one a.m., and--" she added with the prim demeanor of a middle aged mother, only to cut herself off. "Oh no," she decided out loud. "I'm not getting in the middle of this."
Her new guardian stared at her as though she'd grown a second head.
Which might not even be entirely impossible, Dinah mused, what with her being a Meta-Human and all that, though she still wasn't entirely clear what a Meta-Human was. So far, it simply appeared to be a polite way of saying you got to spend a great deal of time either grossed out or hopelessly embarrassed due to the tendency to accidentally go rooting around in people's thoughts. The human mind---Dinah had learned from hard experience---was not a place for the faint-hearted.
"In the middle of what?" Barbara demanded after a beat, offering a mystified shrug as the girl continued to peer at her with a baleful look. Maybe Dinah was just feeling uncertain, thinking that now that she'd finally found a stable home, Wade threatened to upset it in some way. "I had a date. It was no big deal."
"No big..." Dinah repeated. It was her turn to stare as though someone had grown a spare head. She'd met Wade. He was nice, safe, dull, bland, boring, and it was a wonder Barbara managed to stay awake every time he opened his mouth. Excitement Guy he was not. "You can't seriously be interested in him," she said at last, shaking her head, "not when..." she skidded to a quick, verbal halt and shook her head again.
"Not when what?" Barbara shook her head in frustration, suddenly feeling very annoyed with everyone and everything. "First Helena rips my head off for god only knows what, and now I've got you glaring at me for some reason or other ... though I have no idea what it could be." She snorted softly. "Personally, if you have something you want to say, I'd rather you just said it." Why god had insisted on cursing her with teenagers not once, but twice in her life was simply beyond her, particularly since one of them seemed bent on never growing up, and the other one already appeared to consider herself older than Barbara.
Dinah cocked her head to one side, peering at her guardian assessingly. She couldn't help but wonder if she'd always been this thick or if it was a more recent development. Maybe her legs weren't the only thing that had gone numb when she wound up in that chair. "Helena was upset with you earlier?" she said at last.
Barbara resisted the urge to growl and nodded. "She was like a bear with a sore paw," she admitted, feeling vaguely immature as Dinah continued to carefully study her. There was something about the girl that sometimes made her seem wise beyond her years. Not all the time, thankfully, or she'd have been utterly unbearable. Most of the time she was actually a fairly normal teenager, but then there were the other times. The times when she suddenly seemed to turn into someone more on par with Barbara�s father---agewise---than the average teen. Glimpsing people's thoughts would age one she supposed, but some days it left her feeling vaguely defensive, like they'd somehow traded places and Dinah was the adult, while she was back to being a teenager. To say the least, it wasn't a comfortable sensation.
"You do know why, don't you?" Dinah inquired politely.
Barbara threw her hands up again. "Hell, no," she admitted and shook her head. Understand Helena's moods. That would be the day. "She gets moody sometimes ... not surprising considering everything she's seen ... not to mention her basic genetics." The daughter of a perpetually depressed crime fighter, and his manic on-again-off-again, somewhat unstable thief of a girlfriend was not likely to have the most steady moods on the planet. She loved Bruce, had even liked---if that was the right word, which it probably wasn't---Selina Kyle, but she was realistic about their relative stability levels.
Dinah's eyebrow crept a little higher. "Think about it," she said at last. "And then consider why I'd bet serious money that you're the one who gets like a bear with a sore paw every time she has a date."
Barbara pulled up short, her mouth momentarily hanging open. She shook her head again, refusing to consider the entire sentence and instead focusing on, "Helena ... date?" Another sharp head shake dismissed that concept. Helena didn't so much date as venture forth into the wilderness, her idea of a quiet evening leaping out of an airplane with someone and doing god only knew what on the way down. She'd dragged enough of her would-be paramours through Barbara's apartment during the years between moving in and moving out, the only consistent element that tied them together that they were all young, all hard bodied, and all as wild and fast-moving as she could be. Short, tall, male, female, very pale, and very dark. She'd tried a little bit of everything, throwing herself into the scene with a passion that often left Barbara feeling very, very, very old. If she sometimes seemed a bit ... grumpy over the whole thing it was just because....
She didn't---or perhaps couldn't---finish the thought. She allowed a moment for the minor, mental hiccup to pass, then tried again. It was just that....
No, that didn't work either. She just felt that....
No, definitely not that.
She suddenly realized the Dinah was still staring expectantly. "I fail to see what one thing has to do with the other," she said at last. Better just to avoid some subjects altogether.
Dinah rolled her eyes, finally, blessedly, turning back into a teenager. It was a genuine relief for Barbara because she didn't like feeling like the junior partner in all this. "Of course you do," the girl murmured, her tone disapproving. "And I don't even want to know what she'd say if I asked her." She snorted derisively. "God, you are both so dense," she muttered with the air of superiority the world allows only the very young and the very old to enjoy. Without giving Barbara a chance to respond, she flounced back into her new bedroom, pushing the door shut in her wake.
The redhead stared after the teenager for a long moment, shaking her head slowly. "That's it," she muttered at last. "In my next life, I'm just going to have a hamster. Hamsters never play head games ... okay, so they're not the greatest crime fighters ever born, but they never make you feel like you're a few bricks shy of a full load." She made an annoyed sound in the back of her throat, consciously shaking off whatever it was she was feeling, and heading toward her bedroom. She was much too tired to deal with it all. Maybe tomorrow. Or with more luck, she'd be too distracted to deal with it then, and it would just float into the past and be quickly forgotten. Quickly forgotten was a good system. It worked for her. It was simple, cheap, easy to maintain, and allowed things best left alone to remain right where they belonged ... in tight lock boxes buried deep in mental closets. Despite her best efforts, her sleep was restless and uneasy, her normal easy slumber disturbed by sensual dreams she didn't remember but which left her sweaty and aching in ways she'd almost forgotten were even possible.
* * * * * *
Barbara was grateful to find that the next day brought work and copious amounts of it. A seventh death at a local nightspot in just over a week had her full attention when she cranked up the Delphi system---long since discontinued by Wayne Corp, which had moved on to an all new designation and design approach. Which was fine by her, since the current computer bore almost no resemblance to the original. This one was all hers, and beyond a few hardware and software design basics, there was little of the original left anymore. Released publicly, the current Delphi would have smoked everything on the market, and she knew it, and took more than a little pride in it. Aside from building a few components to her specifications, Wayne Corp was out of it. Delphi was the Oracle's baby.
She ran through the night's events, frowning as she came up with new data on a situation she'd been following for several days now. The police were attributing the violent fistfight that had resulted in a young man's death to a new designer drug that was suddenly flooding the Gotham market. Snorted like Cocaine, the finely ground, brackish powder the street dealers called Black Snow caused the instant high of OxyContin, the emotional lightheartedness of heroin, and sadly enough, the frequent violent psychosis of crystal methanphetamine. It was also absolutely legal, just far enough off its parent drugs at a molecular level that the current drug laws didn't cover it. Doubtless, that was an oversight that would be dealt with at some point, but in the meantime, it was killing people. They'd already stopped two shipments of stuff, but it was obviously still getting through, and she was desperate to trace it back to the source.
Using the kind of computer skills that most script kiddies couldn't even begin to dream of, she raided every information source she could think of, slowly building an image of the prey she was stalking, tracking them through computer files the same way she'd once stalked criminals through the streets of Gotham.
She was distantly aware of Helena's presence when the other woman entered, but paid her only scant attention, far more focused on the chase at hand. Besides, she wasn't all that eager to get her head torn off the way she had the day before. Normal Helena was rude. Rude Helena was utterly impossible.
Helena, however, had never been a woman who handled being ignored well at all. She ambled over, all loose limbed, sensual grace as Barbara tracked her out of the corner of one eye. "You have a nice date last night?" she asked, the question too casual by half.
Peering over the top edge of her glasses, Barbara glanced up at the younger woman. "Fine," she answered without thinking about it. She had no intention of telling Helena about the makeout session on the couch or the fact that she'd made a run for cover the moment Wade wanted more and she'd realized that she wasn't in the slightest bit interested.
"Just 'fine?'" the younger woman mused out loud, then leaned down into Barbara's space, forcing the redhead to acknowledge her presence in more than just a vague way. Her gaze slid over the woman in the chair. "Doesn't sound very promising," she taunted.
Barbara shrugged, leaning back into the thick padding at her back, taking back a measure of personal space, which Helena promptly pressed into. "It was fine. We saw a movie and had dinner--"
"And did you have breakfast too?"
Silently cursing her fair skin that showed every faint blush, Barbara narrowed her eyes as she felt her cheeks flame. "Excuse me?" she clipped, trying desperately to cut this off at the pass, whatever this was.
"Breakfast," Helena specified, her attitude lazily taunting, "morning meal, typically--"
"I know what it is," Barbara snapped, annoyed to realize that Rude Helena had decided to make another appearance today, "and I don't see what that has to do with anything." For some reason the notion of denying the inference made her almost as uncomfortable as confirming it would have.
Helena tensed for the briefest second, the reaction appearing and disappearing so fast Barbara wasn't sure she'd actually seen it. "Nothing I guess," she drawled, straightening and releasing her tight hold on Barbara's personal space. "Just curious." Her eyes slid over the sitting woman with the power of an actual touch. "I mean, it's not like you've been a dating fiend since...."
Green eyes rose, a flicker of hurt shining in them. The last thing Barbara needed was to have Helena remind her of all the things she'd lost and all the things she wasn't anymore.
The possibility of inflicting pain on that front pulled Helena up short, forcing her to rein in her jealous anger. They had fought more than a few times over the years, but only once had she struck at that very vulnerable nerve and the memory was still enough to make her flinch with shame. "...since I've known you," she muttered clumsily. Barbara might be remarkably skilled at projecting the image that what had happened to her didn't matter, but the younger woman was smart enough to notice the hints of pain that still slipped through when she wasn't careful. It was easy to forget. She was so damned, determinedly independent, but the hurt was there, and while she could deny it to the world, the younger woman had seen what she'd gone through; the months of surgery and therapy, the agonies of a body nearly destroyed, and the fight to regain some measure of what she'd had.
Barbara turned away, skin flushed, deeply aware of her own inadequacies in a way she would have preferred to ignore despite Helena's last minute bit of kindness. As much as she tried to pretend she was just as capable of taking care of herself as she'd ever been, it was hard to maintain that illusion when she had the perfect specimen of femininity running around; sultry, sexy as hell, and able to kick your ass for sport. Yeah, that was just great for her ego.
Suddenly desperate to change the subject before she made an even bigger ass of herself, Helena stepped around Barbara's wheelchair, peering at the computer screen to distract herself from all the things she wanted to say. She was already in a foul mood and the words hanging on the tip of her tongue were all anger-tinged accusations rife with demands she had no right to make. Let go of that and Barbara would probably think she'd finally lost her mind. Or better yet, she could sweep the other woman up and take possession of her lips the way that hungry, predatory part of her wanted. She tensed, the hunting instinct threatening to kick in, though she tamped it down through hard won experience, quite certain that response would be even less welcome than any words she might unleash. The moment she let go of that it would be all too obvious this wasn't some sudden development, and she couldn't imagine Barbara would welcome the knowledge that her former ward had been in love with her for years, and was rotting with jealousy at the thought that maybe this guy, Wade, might be someone Barbara could really care for. No, she couldn't imagine that would be good news at all. "Looks like somebody's looking to make a real killing ... financially and literally."
Clearing her throat, Barbara turned the chair around, accepting Helena's change of topic with a certain degree of relief. When Helena got into one of her moods, it was usually easier to just keep things to the strictly professional. "Yeah, I can't believe they've already got another shipment--"
"And it looks like you've got the date and time." A predatory smile curved full lips. "Definitely something I should handle." She was going to enjoy cracking a few heads. Maybe that would help work off some stress. Her head came up sharply as a hand landed lightly on her forearm in a gently restraining gesture. Instincts triggered almost instantly, the softest of growls rattling in the back of her throat as she focused on the slender fingers resting lightly on her bare forearm, their flesh pale against her slightly darker complexion. Cat's eye pupils expanded and contracted sharply, her breathing slowing, that strange ultra-calm that came with combat mode swallowing her up. As she stared at Barbara, she saw the delicate pulse hammering at her throat, noted the way her eyes grew black with tension. Her gaze slid up, taking in loose red hair that absolutely begged to have fingers sliding through it, then down to touch on lips that were glossy and faintly parted.
Momentarily caught like a rabbit in the headlights, Barbara froze for the longest second, and when she did finally find the wherewithal to speak, her voice came out breathless and uneven. "No," she said, continuing in a rush when Helena only raised one eyebrow in polite disbelief. "There's something going on here ... and I want to know what it is before we make any more moves."
Helena's second eyebrow joined the first on its journey toward her hairline. "And meanwhile, that garbage will be getting into people's hands," she pointed out, not quite believing what she was hearing.
"But it doesn't do any good if every time we stop one supply line, ten more pop up," Barbara muttered, easily guiding the chair around the other woman. "If you want to kill a hydra, you have to do more than just cut off a few heads. If I can find a way to trace it back to the source, we can stop it altogether."
"Fine," Helena growled, "and while you're doing that, I'll just--"
"No," Barbara said again, her tone even firmer this time.
Full lips pursed defiantly as Helena folded her arms across her chest.
"There's something wrong here," Barbara continued, well aware of the baleful glare focused her way, and hoping she could simply keep her partner from doing something impulsive---not always the easiest of tasks. "I'm not sure what it is, but...." She shook her head, swinging her gaze back to the computer screen. "I found this too easily...."
"Druggies aren't known for being the smartest crooks in the world," Helena pointed out. They were probably as stoned as most of their customers. "All I have to do is--"
"No," Barbara said again, her tone even firmer.
A soft, almost subliminal, growl vibrated up from Helena's throat and she pivoted sharply, stalking away with long strides.
Barbara turned, staring after the younger woman, her eyes following every graceful, loose limbed step. "Have I done something to piss you off?" she asked after a beat.
The question pulled Helena up short as though she'd hit the end of an invisible leash, but she didn't turn back. "Why would you think that?" she asked at last, her voice softening.
"Oh, I dunno," Barbara responded, unable to quite restrain her own sarcastic impulses, "maybe the fact that you just about tore my head off yesterday, and I get the feeling you'd rather be almost anyplace but here today."
Despite her strength and speed, Helena was an almost delicately built woman, and slender shoulders sagged noticeably as a soft sigh echoed through the room. "I'm just ... having ... a bad day," she said haltingly when she finally spoke.
Turning the chair, Barbara rolled forward, reaching out to rest her palm on Helena's arm. The other woman's skin was warm and impossibly soft and she could feel the ripple of tightly corded muscles as they flexed just beneath the surface. Momentarily distracted, it took her a second to restart her thought processes. "Anything you want to talk about?" Time had done a lot to heal Helena's wounds, but the scars were still there, and they sometimes made themselves known at the most unexpected times.
The younger woman looked back, the anger that had hardened her expression softening enough to leave her looking very young. She offered a weak smile. "No," she sighed and did a slow turn, purposely reaching out to catch Barbara's hand as it broke contact with her upper arm. She rubbed her thumb lightly over the rise of her knuckles. "I'm just ... having a ... difficult time with some things."
"If there's anything I can do to help, all you have to do is tell me what it is."
Resisting the temptation to suggest long nights of slow lovemaking, Helena shook her head with a soft sigh. "I know," she admitted, her earlier temper a thing of the past, though depression still had a firm hold. Staring down into worried green eyes, she fought the urge to confess everything. Oh yeah, there was a good idea. She pushed the thought back, straightening her shoulders fractionally. "But, really, it's nothing you need to worry about." She glanced at her watch, noting the time. "In fact, if we're not chasing the bad guys today, there's something I should really get done."
But the Huntress pulled back, breaking physical contact and drawing into herself, her expression a cool mask. "I'll see you later," she said crisply, and disappeared before Barbara could say another word.
The redhead hit a button on her console, bringing up the feeds from the security cameras that covered the entire building, a frown furrowing her brow as she electronically tracked Helena's progress back down to the street. Something was going on there. She didn't know what, though instinct told her that Dinah had a pretty good idea---the advantages of reading minds---not that she was sharing the information. "Oh Hel," she whispered and reached out to brush her finger against the woman's image where it glowed on her screen, "what's going on in your head?" Finally the brunette disappeared off her monitors, leaving Barbara to stew in her own thoughts.
Finally, with a tired sigh, she returned to her work.
* * * * * *A hint of a smile curving crimson lips, Dr. Harleen Quinzel silently watched her young patient, Helena Kyle pace back and forth, her expression troubled and distant. For the hundredth time, she found herself wondering about the thoughts going on behind those striking eyes. There was something about Helena Kyle, something dark and dangerous that teased her love of chaos with the promise of more fun and strife than she'd ever thought possible. One couldn't tell to look at her, but Harley Quinn was quite certain there was something very special about Helena Kyle, something very special indeed. Oh, it wasn't the tragic story. At work and at play, she'd seen and heard plenty of those from patients and victims both, usually while smothering a giggle. At times she found it incredibly trying to have to offer false comforts when they went on and on and on about their oh so dreary problems as though she could possibly care less.
Still, it gave her a chance to sow a little havoc during the down times when running a criminal empire just wasn't practical, so she supposed she really shouldn't complain. Tipping her head to one side, she offered a practiced sympathetic smile. Helena had shown up asking if she could see the doctor despite the lack of an appointment and in the twenty minutes since hadn't said more than two words. This definitely had some promise. "Perhaps it would help if you talked about whatever's obviously bothering you."
The young woman did a slow pivot, the lanky body moving with an eerie kind of grace, her lips twisting in an expression that was more a grimace than a smile. "I doubt it," she sighed with fatalistic acceptance, then shook her head disgustedly. "I shouldn't have come here."
She turned as if to leave, and the doctor had to fight the urge to screech at her to stop. There was such a delightful darkness in the younger woman, and she wanted to probe it and nurse it along, see just how far it could go. Could it overcome that rather distressing softness she often witnessed in the younger woman's eyes, or would she prove to be weak? Instead of screaming, she managed to calmly respond, "If you think that's best, though I was under the impression you wanted help dealing with ... things."
Helena paused, her hand not quite touching the doorknob, then turned back. "It's just that I don't think there's any help for this," she sighed and stuffed her hands in her front pockets.
"Seems a rather hopeless attitude," Quinzel drawled. "If nothing else, perhaps you can come to some peace with whatever's bothering you if you share the..." she paused to consider the appropriate term before finally continuing, "...burden."
That earned an ironic snort of disbelief. "If I haven't managed the trick by now, somehow I doubt I ever will."
"Won't know if you don't try ... or perhaps you're not up to it," Quinzel said, her expression purposely challenging. She'd spent enough time in the young woman's company to know that the way to control her was to trigger her more defiant impulses. She was phenomenally competitive and hated being told what to do. "But perhaps you're not up to it."
Dark emotion flared in the younger woman's eyes. "It just seems kind of pointless," she ground out, "since it won't change anything."
The blonde's head tipped to one side as she considered the other woman, noting the tension and resentment coupled with an undercurrent of sensual heat. Oh, this was delicious. Mind you, Helena constantly broadcast waves at an intensely sexual level, so it was hard to be certain, but then again, she always got a certain look whenever one specific topic came up. Not just sexual, but fraught with the kind of hunger that only came from extended denial. "How's your business partner, Ms. Gordon, doing?"
Corded muscles tensed, and hooded eyes turned flinty. "She's fine," Helena responded too sharply to be believable. "Great, in fact," she added. "Even dating some great," her teeth ground together until they threatened to turn her molars to powder, "new guy."
The resentment and anger were impossible to miss and Quinzel had to force down a laugh. She was so obvious. "That's wonderful," she said sincerely, though her reasons for sounding so happy were far different from what most people's would have been. "I'm sure you must be very happy for her."
"Yeah," Helena growled, "really happy."
So happy she could cheerfully kill something by the look of it. "Still, I'm sensing some stress about your partner," the doctor said smoothly, not acknowledging Helena's obvious upset, allowing the young woman to think she was actually hiding it. "Are things going smoothly on the business front?"
Helena glanced away, eyes narrowing ever so slightly, the gesture a telling giveaway about her emotions. There was trouble on more than one front where Barbara Gordon was concerned. "Not exactly," the brunette muttered. She gnawed on her lower lip while Harley watched carefully, reading the conflict of emotion in the other woman's expression and body language, giving her time, certain that sooner or later she'd have to admit to what was bothering her so much. She was so close to the edge, it didn't take much to tip her over. "We just don't agree on some things," she said at last.
"Really?" Harley drawled, but didn't press. Right now that was only likely to push Helena farther into her shell.
"A ... uh ... uh contract," Helena said uncomfortably, "I wanted to go ahead with it ... pursue it more aggressively ... and Barbara didn't agree." Full lips pursed tightly. "So we're backing off."
"But I thought you were equal partners." Harley purposely tweaked that competitive, independent streak again, and saw Helena's eyes narrow right on schedule.
"We are," the younger woman growled. "It's just that...." She trailed off and shook her head, turning away again. "Some partners are more equal than others."
"Well, of course, having been your guardian, there is a certain parent-child relationship--"
"Barbara is not my mother," Helena snapped, then continued more uncertainly, "She's my ... my business partner."
Quinzel barely kept her glee under control as she saw the anger descend on narrow shoulders like a black cloud. "In which case, it seems as though your opinion should carry as much weight as hers. From what you've said, you're every bit as responsible for the success of things as she is--"
"Yeah, but she's taught me a lot ... has more experience."
"Perhaps," Harleen allowed, "but perhaps you need to prove to her that your judgment deserves respect just as much as hers."
"Maybe," Helena said, turning back again, "but it's not that simple."
Slim shoulders dipped in a diffident shrug. "I don't know all the details, of course, but it sounds to me like it's time for you to establish the fact that you're an equal in this partnership. Go after that contract and prove to her that you were right."
Dark brows drew together into a frown. "I don't know...."
"Of course, if you're not sure about your judgment...."
"It's not that," Helena said quickly.
"Perhaps you're afraid you can't handle it alone."
That got her back up ... exactly as intended. "Oh, I can handle it." The soft hiss escaped full lips. "It's not like it's a huge deal. Just a little tricky ... negotiating."
"There you go. I think you should do what you feel is right, then you can prove it to her ... make her see your point of view." That should cause quite a fight. In her experience, proving someone was wrong was absolutely the worst way to make a point. It pushed people to defend their opinion, often to the point of irrationality. Add the simmering sexual component and she was comfortably certain it would make for quite a dust up. She noted the tension in Helena's muscles, the way her hands fisted tightly at her sides. Drive that passion to anger and it might erupt in all sorts of glorious ways.
Helena considered the suggestion for a moment, suddenly uncertain. "You really think that's a good idea?" she questioned, doubting the suggestion the more she thought about it.
"Definitely," Harleen quickly assured her patient. "You're an equal partner, Helena. Don't you think you deserve to be treated as such?"
"Then it seems to me that it's time for you to stand up for yourself."
Looking mildly uncomfortable, Helena shrugged. "Maybe," she allowed.
"You sound as though you're doubting your judgment. Perhaps Ms. Gordon is right about not moving on this deal--"
"No," Helena ground out, and her eyes flashed with quiet fury. "No, this is important--"
"Then I think you have your answer." A slow smile drew its way across the doctor's full lips.
Helena's expression shuttered down as she drew into herself. "Yeah. She's always telling me the most important thing is to do what's right." She wasn't looking at the psychiatrist as she spoke, and seemed to be talking to herself more than the other woman.
Quinzel's silky smile only spread wider. How wonderful to be able to use the other woman's own words to turn her ... friend ... against her, and cause a little trouble. It wasn't quite international crime, but having a day job had its rewards too. She drew breath to toss a few more monkey wrenches into the works, only to come up short as the phone on her desk rang. "I hope you don't mind if I get that. It might be important."
Helena nodded her understanding. "Go ahead."
"Quinzel, here," Harley said as she picked up, and turned away from her patient, shielding the speaker from sensitive ears.
"Boss," the voice was heavy and uncultured, just like the man behind it. He was dumb as a sack of hammers, but there were advantages to men who were big and dumb in her experience. "Just wanted to let you know that everything's in place. The chick that's been interfering with our shipments is gonna have a really bad night tonight."
"Good, good, thank you for letting me know about that. I--" The soft snick of her door clicking shut in the wake of her patient pulled her up short faster than a gunshot would have. Blue eyes narrowed and momentarily flashed fire. Now, that was unfortunate. She'd had so many plans for pushing Helena on other fronts. Ah well, some things just weren't meant to be. With luck, she'd planted enough seeds to make a good bit of trouble.
"Boss?" the man on the phone questioned when she still hadn't spoken after a beat.
"Sorry about that. Slight interruption," she responded smoothly, her attention returning to more important matters. Helena was entertaining, but she was hardly important, just a hobby to keep Harley Quinn busy when she wasn't causing havoc in revenge for the destruction of her beloved Mister J---the Joker as others called him. "So you've got the party ready for tonight?" she drawled, smiling at the thought of what awaited the troublemaker who'd dared interfere with the Black Snow deliveries.
"S'right, Boss," came the Marlboro rough confirmation. "The bitch is due for a really nasty surprise if she shows up tonight."
"Oh, she'll show up," Harley murmured confidently, then allowed herself a small smile, "And when she does, unless I miss my guess, we'll have two problems dealt with."
"Boss?" her flunky sounded confused---not exactly a new state of affairs.
Blue eyes rolled in irritation. Big and dumb had its advantages, but it could be very trying some days to have to keep explaining everything. "The little computer hacker who's been nosing around. I'm quite certain he's working with whoever trashed the last couple of shipments. With any luck, after tonight's little surprise, they'll both be out of our hair." She laughed very softly as she contemplated the likelihood that a nasty bit of murder---or at the very least a good, solid beating---would put a stop to the annoying interference with her plans for total chaos.
"Oh," the dimwit responded, though he proved he didn't get the concept at all when he asked, "So, you really want us to let her go tonight?"
"Yes," she repeated with forced patience, pronouncing each word slowly and carefully as though he might have a hard time comprehending---which he probably did. "I want you to let her go after her little surprise, so that---with any luck at all---she will murder her partner in crime-fighting." She was quite certain it was the same woman who'd interfered with several of her other plans in recent months; quite a remarkable fighter by all accounts. She had no doubt the witch could deal with some anemic little computer hacker; probably scrawny, pale from lack of sunlight, and still nursing a healthy case of acne. Given a good healthy dose of Black Snow, she'd break his neck just for being so damned ugly. That thought made Harley smile, and she almost lost track of her lackey.
"Oh..." he muttered, sounding uncomfortable with the idea.
He paused and she could almost hear him turning the hand crank on the space filler between his ears that was laughingly known as his brain as he struggled to come up with another completely redundant question. "Just follow my instructions," she snapped before he had a chance to speak and annoy her even further. She was intensely relieved to be able to hang up only moments later. Harley massaged her temple slowly. The problem with criminal types was that by and large, a large percentage were just not very bright, and those that were very bright could be very difficult to work with---as in trying-to-kill-their-partners difficult to work with. That sort of thing never fostered close relations, and she supposed she really ought to stop doing it, but it was soooo much fun killing those who were as dark and twisted as she was. It was fun killing the lighthearted and innocent too. Actually, it was just fun killing.
She found herself wondering if Helena could appreciate the joy of snapping some unsuspecting fool's neck. Now, wouldn't that be a wicked sport to teach the beautiful bartender.
She turned a speculative eye toward the door through which her young patient had disappeared. Now there was an interesting thought; turn that lovely underlying darkness to her service. That could be worth looking into. But for now, she had other worries; people to poison, cities to destroy. "A psychopath's work is just never done," she sighed dramatically.
* * * * * *
Moving easily, every footsteps light and perfectly silent, Helena slipped through the dappled shadows on the rooftop of the Someplace Else Bar and Disco. Not that she needed to be particularly silent. The place was busy enough and the music loud enough to have the tarpaper roof beneath her feet vibrating with rhythmic shudders. The Someplace Else dominated one of the piers overhanging Gotham Bay, and the entry area was bright with the glitter of glittered lights where they flashed through the glass brick that fronted the building. Despite the excitement at the entrance to the bar, her interest lay in the back, where the loading dock was accessible to both land and water carried traffic. A narrow driveway allowed just enough room for small trucks to get in, while a small dock floated on the water at sea level, where it could be easily accessed by a steep, switchback ramp.
It was the dock that really held her interest.
The evidence she'd seen on Barbara's computer screen indicated the next shipment of Black Snow was due at the Someplace Else, and since the previous interrupted shipments had come in by water, it only made sense that this one would as well.
As she stalked through the night, just one more silent shadow amid a forest of them, she reached up, idly scratching her ear. A hint of a frown touched her expression as it occurred to her to miss Barbara's voice in her ear. Even though the other woman was rarely with her in person on any kind of mission, her soft comments and efficient guidance were a steadying force that made her feel less alone. Despite the fa�ade she managed to project, it was scary as hell wandering through the dark, looking for fights, and seeking out situations likely to kill a normal human. A little company would have been a welcome distraction, especially since she was starting to have some serious doubts about what she was doing.
It felt wrong somehow, like she was cheating on the other woman. Ironic, considering that she'd never once had that sense during all the mating and dating she'd done during the years she'd known Barbara. Contrary to what some might have expected---that the other lovers were some attempt at purging unrequited love from her soul---in reality every mouth she'd kissed and body she'd touched had done more to confirm the intensity of emotion she felt for the redhead than anything else could have. She'd found plenty of physical pleasure, and, despite what some might have expected, more than a little intellectual spark. She'd even found emotional succor. What she'd never found in the company of anyone but the redhead was the unique connection or the constant desire for more. Other lovers could come and go. She was capable of caring for them when they were around and forgetting them when they weren't. They never got past the outer wall she used to keep the world out.
Only Barbara did that.
She sighed softly, then mentally chastised herself for momentarily losing track of her surroundings. That sort of thing was dangerous enough when she had backup, but on her own it could easily lead to disaster. She might be a Meta-Human, but the word human was still in there, and she wasn't invulnerable. She could bleed and die just like everyone else, it just took a little more force to make it happen than it did for the average person.
And, boy, wasn't she in a cheerful mood tonight?
She supposed it was her own damn fault. Desperate to hide her own feelings, she'd encouraged Barbara on the whole dating front, and look where that was leading. She'd actually gone out with Captain Bland again ... and again ... and again. And now, maybe she'd even--
She was saved from having to contemplate that particularly distasteful line of thought by the soft purr of a motorboat, just barely audible above the pumping music playing below. Sharp eyes narrowed, superhuman senses ramping up, cat's eye pupils contracting and expanding again as she focused on a fleck of black cutting a sleek wake in the gently shifting waves.
A cigar boat, coming in fast, probably from a heavier transport of some kind either in the bay, or on out to sea. Almost time for the fun to begin, she thought as she pushed down a moment's hesitation. Half a dozen men exited the rear of the bar, their voices a barely discernible murmur underlying the thundering music, far too soft for her to make out any words. Meanwhile, the pilot of the small boat slowed the engine as it drew close to the dock, then killed it and floated in the final distance.
A slow smile curved full lips as Helena contemplated her next move. She was going to enjoy this. Whoever was spreading this poison had created something so tempting to users, and so damned deadly and addictive that it had to be stopped before even more people died. She'd seen the third victim, a young woman whose boyfriend had beaten her death in a parking lot outside another disco, and the image was enough to haunt her nightmares for a long time. She knew just how hard a person had to hit a body to do that much damage, and how much getting hit like that hurt. Anything or anyone that could cause that kind f destruction deserved to be utterly annihilated as far as she was concerned. There were plenty of drugs out there that she didn't much care about, but this one had to be stopped and quickly. Whatever Barbara's fears, she was wrong about delaying any interdiction efforts, and she'd just have to understand that when Helena explained it to her after things were dealt with. Doctor Quinzel was right. It was time she followed her own instincts.
She started forward, bounding easily over the side of the building, body elongating in a graceful stretch as she plummeted straight down. She took the rear man out quickly and silently, lowering him, unconscious, to the ground without alerting the others.
Number two went down just as quickly, but not quite as silently while they were still a few yards from the ramp down to the dock, his soft groan just enough to alert number three, who made more than a little noise as she sent him flying over the side of the pier into the water far below. Huntress was already dealing with four and five when the soft splash made by a body hitting the water reached her ears.
Quick and easy, she thought as the final man hit the cement just above the ramp to the dock. A sensual smile made its way across full lips. She just had enough time to enjoy her moment before the two men with the boat came charging up the ramp. Great fighters they weren't. The first one threw a wild punch that she easily ducked, then left himself open for the hard right jaw that dropped him cold. His partner was a step behind him, which gave the second man just enough time to get a look at the number of bodies laying sprawled on the pavement, then at the slender, almost delicate woman grinning lazily at him. It also gave him an extra second to consider his actions. He needed the time---thought not being his strong suit---though several more seconds might have been better. Still, it was enough to make him reconsider.
He backpedaled fast, scrambling and trying to flee back the way he'd come.
She didn't give him a chance to get more than a few feet. Bounding after him, she took him down with feral ease, a quick clip to the back of the neck all it took to spill him, unmoving, to the ramp. "Night, night, sweet prince," she drawled, then glanced down, head cocking thoughtfully to one side. "Well, you're a frog anyway." She shook her head, grinning at the imagery that popped into her brain. "But don't plan on any kisses. You're really not my type." She vaulted the railing on the ramp and landed lightly on the floating dock, easily maintaining her balance on the gently shifting surface.
There were several heavy, black duffel bags stacked in the rear of the long, slender boat and she reached for the top one. Thankfully the stuff broke down when it hit water, so it would be easy enough to destroy. Yanking a zipper open, she stared at the neatly packed plastic bags of black powder. A quick slash with the sharp edge of a batarang slashed through several layers of plastic in one fell swoop, exposing the powder to the elements, and she flung the first duffel over the side. The second went down just as quickly. She flicked a gaze up toward the top of the pier where the men she'd dispatched were still unmoving. Barbara had been wrong to be so worried. This was one of the easier times she'd had on a mission. She grabbed for the third duffel, sliding the zipper and slashing the plastic bags inside. Maybe too easy, she thought as she remembered her partner's edginess. As the thought occurred to her, a frisson of tension worked its way down her spine.
Unfortunately, the sudden caution came a beat too late as the tiny charge buried in the third duffel bag abruptly exploded, the pressure sensitive points that activated the detonator setting it off with just enough power to send black powder swirling.
Suddenly caught in a charcoal sandstorm, Helena had the presence of mind to try and hold her breath, instinctively knowing that getting the drug into her system was the point of the trap. They didn't want to catch her, or kill her---at least not immediately---they wanted to send her away as a goddamned engine of destruction. Unfortunately, the powder was impossibly fine ground, clinging to her skin and lashes, filling her nose and dusting her hair. Momentarily disoriented, she spun unsteadily on the gently rocking dock. The water. It would wash the dust away. She dove, hitting the water in a far clumsier than normal arc, the sea water rinsing black powder from her hair and skin.
But not from her nasal passages where just enough flakes to cause madness still clung.
She went deep, momentarily disoriented before righting herself and swimming for the surface. As her head broke the surface of the water, she gasped in air, and within a second felt the first rush sweep over her.
* * * * * *
So exhausted her vision was starting to blur, Barbara slipped her glasses off and pinched the bridge of her nose, massaging slowly as she wondered if there was enough Advil in the world to cut the headache that was starting to develop just behind her frontal lobe. She worked her neck slowly, then peered past her massaging fingers at the faint blur of the computer screen, still able to read the rows of neat text, if not as clearly without her glasses. Unfortunately, her glasses didn't seem to help much. None of it made any sense. She'd skipped her way through at least a two dozen different systems in tracking the data stream and every time she thought maybe she was getting a handle on it, it just took her back someplace she'd already been. The damn trail was a nightmare study in circumnavigation, like the twisted ramblings of a total lunatic. The twisted part was that by making absolutely no sense whatsoever, it was remarkably successful at making it impossible to follow the circuitous cyber route back to its originating point. One of the basics of computers is that they generally have a distinct logic pattern. Ignore or destroy that pattern and it became nearly impossible to find anything among the terrabytes of information available with just a few mouse clicks.
Cursing softly, she threw off her exhaustion and slipped her glasses back on. Time to get back to work. Unfortunately, several more attempts to find what she was looking for produced exactly the same result.
Namely, zip, zero, nada, bupkiss.
She cursed again in a futile effort to let off tension and because she suddenly felt the need for the comfort of a human voice, even if it was only her own. Dinah had gone to bed, and Helena had disappeared, either working, partying, or just in one of her leave-me-the-hell-alone moods. She sighed softly, missing the other woman's company, even if it usually meant that any given task took at least twice as long as it would have otherwise. Helena had a knack for teasing her out of her serious moods and lessening the sense of failure when she couldn't work any virtual miracles. Or maybe it was just that she never let her concentrate long enough for the headache, neckache, or depression to successfully take hold.
She was still tightly focused on the computer monitor when a muted swirl of sound, like a bird in the moving through the gears of the huge clock, reached her ears. A frisson of unease worked its way down her upper spine as she searched the darkness for some sign of what had made the small sound. Several long, silent moments passed, their impact feeling more like hours than a small collection of seconds. Nothing. No sound or movement greeted her searching gaze.
"You're finally losing it, Gordon," she muttered disgustedly after she'd waited long enough to conclude she was imagining things. Forcing down the sudden bout of nervousness, she returned her attention to the data on the computer screen, only to look up again and turn the chair as a soft whoosh swirled the air around her. Again nothing. Shaking her head, she turned back, and nearly did something very out of character and squealed as a graceful shadow moved a few feet away, the lanky frame taking a moment to resolve itself into a familiar figure. "Helena ... Jesus, you scared the hell out of me," Barbara gasped as she recognized the younger woman.
"Sorry," the low drawl reached Barbara's ears even as the younger woman slid back a pace, her dark hair and clothes allowing her to merge with the shadows that dominated the room. The computer specialist preferred to keep things dark when she was working. It made it easier to read the many monitors spaced around her command console. "I wasn't sure you'd still be working."
Russet brows drew together in a worried frown, something about the younger woman's tone making Barbara edgy. "I'm still trying to track down the origin of that drug shipment."
"Any luck?" the younger woman asked almost too casually.
Barbara shook her head, unhappy with the lack of results. "I keep thinking I'm making progress ... only to wind up right back where I started." She snorted softly. "It's like trying to do a system's analysis on something designed by a madman."
"Ah." The single, softly uttered syllable was little more than a soft gust of air, then Helena continued, her voice still soft and silky, but with a hidden kind of power it was impossible to ignore. "A madman ... I'd think you know all about those."
Her frown deepening, Barbara shook her head. "Not really," she said cautiously, uncertain how to read the younger woman's mood.
"You fought the Joker," Helena pointed out, the automatic bitterness present, just as it always was when she mentioned her mother's killer, but alongside something else more subtle and just a little unnerving. "I'd think that would train a person to deal with madness."
Caught by surprise, the words momentarily dried up, and Barbara could only stare at the other woman. "Not really," she said at last, more emotionally shaken than she cared to admit by the mention of the man who'd ordered the murder of Helena's mother and laughed while putting her in the wheelchair, "considering I didn't do it very successfully."
"No," Helena murmured, her eyes trailing over the chair in a deliberately casual glance, "I guess you didn't."
Even though she shouldn't have, Barbara felt a mixture of hurt and shame at the younger woman's dismissive tone. That failure to stop Joker had cost them all, and it still weighed heavily on her soul. She saw a faint hint of movement and realized Helena had turned away and was moving idly among the shadowed edges of the room.
"Do you remember that first night?" Soft and silky, the question caught Barbara by surprise.
"First night?" the redhead questioned, uncertain exactly what Helena was referring to. They'd had a lot of firsts in the last few years. Then gold eyes swung her way, silently challenging her to see the truth.
"That night," Helena drawled, "the night we both found out the truth ... alter egos and all those good things."
Barbara's throat bobbed gently as she swallowed hard. "You mean about my being Batgirl and--"
"And," Helena interrupted without raising her voice, then sharpened her gaze until it gleamed in the faint light. "We ... fought."
Slim shoulders ducked in the faintest of shrugs. They'd never really talked about it ... not the fight, and not the heated way Helena had touched and wanted to touch, the subject too far too uncomfortable for either of them once they'd become guardian and ward. Besides, it wasn't like it had been anything more than a teenage crush, and doubtless if there'd been anything left after that, the realities of a woman in a wheelchair had long since killed it off. The way Helena had gone through lovers---like most people went through potato chips---in the intervening years proved that much. "Of course I remember it," she said softly without adding that she usually did her best not to think about it. During the years when she'd been in a position of authority over the younger woman, that night had been the last thing she wanted to consider for too many reasons to contemplate.
A beat, then Helena's voice came back, soft and just a little bitter sounding. "Of course you do," she said as if to remind herself. "Eidetic memory ... you never forget a thing, do you?"
No, Barbara didn't. At least not without considerable effort. She could put things back, avoid them, pretend to forget, deny, and obfuscate, but genuine lack of memory. No, that was the sort of peace she was denied. Though ironically enough, photographic memory had little if anything to do with her reasons for remembering this particular event. "No," she murmured at last. More than once she'd wished she could forget, just live in the present, and have no past.
Helena made a loose gesture to the Delphi system, pacing away from Barbara with long, loose limbed strides. "Of course not ... that's what makes all this possible ... your brain ... my brawn--"
"You're not just brawn," Barbara denied the inference, not liking the notion that Helena might think of herself as nothing but the muscle in their partnership.
Helena's head whipped around. "No," she agreed, "I'm not ... just like you're not just brain."
There was an accusation in those eyes, one Barbara didn't understand at all. "No," she allowed a little hesitantly. True enough she could fight when she had to, but the limitations were real enough. "But I'm not likely to be out looking for trouble anytime soon."
"Looking for trouble," Helena exhaled on a soft laugh as though she got a joke that no one else could see. "I do that, don't I?"
"Sometimes," Barbara murmured, relieved to hear the soft laughter, and hoping the odd mood was lightening up.
"That's what I was doing that night ... looking for trouble." She peered at Barbara again. "Finding it."
It was Barbara who looked away this time, suddenly self-conscious and uneasy. Then again, maybe she'd been too hasty in thinking the strange mood was letting go. "We did kind of beat on each other a bit."
"That too," Helena drawled, something in her voice reminding Barbara of things she was better off forgetting.
Assuming she could just learn how. Maybe there was some kind of self-help program. Forgetfulness for Eidetics. She reached up, massaging her temple. Definitely getting too tired. She was still struggling not to think about the undertone in Helena's voice when the younger woman continued.
"I stayed that night, you know ... and snuck out most of that week ... hiding on the rooftops to watch for you." She shook her head, something rich and longing in her voice. "You were so incredible like that."
Another shiver made its way down Barbara's spine, starting between her shoulderblades, then fading into nothingness as it worked its way past the damaged point in her back. "I didn't...." She remembered the sense of being followed or watched a few times, but.... "I didn't know."
"No, of course not," Helena murmured, and turned back, a flash of light glittering momentarily in her eyes. "That was part of the game ... that you didn't know." Barbara could just make out the twisted smile that curved the other woman's lips. "That's always been part of the game ... never letting you see the truth." Her head cocked to one side and she folded her arms across her chest, leaving the redhead with the oddest sensation that she was being assessed ... hunted. Was this what the criminals felt like when that sharp, feline gaze turned their way, she wondered.
"The game?" Barbara questioned, not understanding at all.
"The one I've played for years," Helena answered, her tone quickly sliding from taunting to bitter. "The one where I pretend not to want all the things I want ... not to be what I am. The one where I pretend I'm the perfect little superhero ... not my mother's daughter."
The hurt and resentment in her voice were enough to make Barbara flinch. There'd been a time when she'd had to virtually lock Helena up to keep her off the streets in an effort to hunt down anything left of the Joker's organization, but later, she had to admit, she'd pressed the younger woman to this path. It was a decision she often doubted, but the younger woman had shown no inclination toward college or any other more serious pursuits, too wild and undisciplined to handle that sort of commitment. Not that she was stupid---realistically, she probably had the equivalent of several degrees in connection with the training she got as a matter of course working with Barbara, but staying quiet for classes and studying were simply beyond her self-control. Aside from the brief time they'd spent totally apart, Barbara had pushed so hard because she'd been terrified that with nothing else to fill her time, Helena might just follow her mother's path just to have something to do. She'd always known she couldn't allow that to happen. Being on opposite sides of the law was an idea she simply could not accept.
"What, nothing to say?" Helena demanded, acid leaking into her tone.
Uncertain how to respond, Barbara only shrugged helplessly. "What do you want me to say?" she sighed, not wanting to argue about decisions she'd made that she still considered to be for the best.
Her response earned a soft snort of dark laughter. "Nothing that's likely come from your lips."
"You're not your mother," Barbara pointed out after a beat, feeling it was important to make that point. Selina Kyle might have left her mark on her daughter, but despite that, Helena didn't have her basic amorality. She'd seen it time and time again. The daughter cared in ways her mother hadn't been capable of doing. Not that Selina had been cruel or brutal ... simply greedy. For those she loved nothing was too good. The rest of the world was on its own.
"Not my father either," Helena snapped almost before Barbara had finished speaking.
The redhead flinched as though struck, the reminder of just how much her partner resented the man who'd been her mentor hurting more than she liked. "No," she allowed after a beat. "Not him either." She looked down at her tightly twined hands where they rested in her lap, noting the tension in the cords stretched across her knuckles. A moment's silence and she looked up again, her tone hesitant. "It's just that...." She trailed off as she realized that Helena wasn't where she had been any longer.
"Was he your lover?" the question came just off her left shoulder, so close Helena's breath ruffled her hair and teased her ear, but by the time Barbara turned, she was alone again.
"Never," she answered the surrounding shadows, uncertain why it was no important she deny the notion with so much force. She turned her chair, searching for some sign of the other woman, only to gasp when she found her standing less than a foot away. She instinctively pressed back into the thick padding at her back as Helena casually leaned forward, bracing her hands on the armrests as she searched emerald green eyes.
"And what about my mother?" the brunette demanded, her gaze intense and demanding.
Barbara somehow managed to flush and pale at the same time, caught so totally off guard that her stiff head shake and muttered, "No," weren't the most believable denials she'd ever made.
Helena leaned in a little closer, hunting. "But she wanted you," she drawled, remembering the look in her mother's eyes after that first meeting. And how many times had Selina Kyle kept her claws off anything she wanted?
"It doesn't matter," Barbara denied, trying to escape the subject with a determination that bordered on panic.
"Like hell it doesn't," Helena disagreed, the denial a verbal whip it came so fast and sharp. She leaned even closer, her lips near Barbara's ear, refusing to back off when a hand rose to her shoulder. "Did she strip your clothes off a piece at a time ... kissing each bit of newly bared skin?" She'd never let herself face that fear, knowing that her mother might have taken this woman to her bed, and now she couldn't think of anything else. It left her with images of naked bodies twined and moving, her mother taking all the things she knew Helena wanted. It made her want to hate Selina Kyle ... and that only made her hate herself. Logically, she knew it was the drugs bringing longstanding subconscious fears to the fore and she should let it go. Unfortunately, she wasn't the most logically driven creature at the best of times ... and this was far from the best of times. "Did she make you cry out ... was she inside of you--"
"No," Barbara hissed angrily, leaving no doubt about her honesty this time.
"Good," Helena growled very softly, leaning closer in spite of the forearm braced across her chest and pushing hard. She searched Barbara's eyes, seeing something she didn't like at all, and felt the dangerous fury start to rise. "But there was something ... what?"
Barbara couldn't help but flush under the knowing gaze directed her way. "Nothing," she insisted, but couldn't hold to the lie as those eyes continued to search her own. She deflated ever so slightly. "... worth mentioning. One kiss ... nothing more ... it was just a stupid ... we were...." She shook her head helplessly. "It didn't mean anything to either of us."
Again that all-seeing gaze hunted Barbara's face with an intensity that made it seem as though she could slip inside any time she wished and knew it. Whatever she saw, it chased the dangerous fury back a little. Finally, she lifted a hand, brushing a few strands of stray hair off of Barbara's cheek, her touch so soft when contrasted with the tone she'd used. Her other hand shifted, stroking Barbara's knuckles lightly. "It wouldn't be right if it had." She reached up, pointedly peeled the arm braced across her chest away and pushed it down, then leaned so close Barbara could see her own reflection in ebony pupils.
Momentarily lost in that swirling gaze, the redhead couldn't think and didn't resist the pressure that pushed her arm out of the way. Something was very, very wrong, and she tensed as the smallest of growls and shifting cat's eyes warned her to be careful. Helena knew better than to use her powers that way, and hadn't done so in years. To do so now meant she was dangerously close to losing all control. "What's going on?"
"You know," Helena drawled in that sexy, don't-fuck-with-me way of hers, and drew her fingers back from Barbara's temple to trail them along her cheek and then her jawline.
The redhead shook her head, barely resisting the urge to twitch away from the lightly caressing fingers. "No ... I don't. Tell me--"
"I tell you all the time," the younger woman snapped, anger flashing in her eyes, "but you never hear." She leaned closer, purposely invading Barbara's personal space, something snapping inside her head, as though she'd been debating something and made a decision. "And suddenly it's all so clear." Her gaze was scorching, sliding over soft curves, then rising to hold the redhead's eyes. "That's what it does ... lets you put everything together ... and see the truth...."
Staring up into the other woman's hypnotic gaze, Barbara could barely breathe, her chest suddenly tight as a hot sensation slid over her skin. "I don't understand," she husked, barely able to force the words past the tightness in her throat.
The brunette leaned a little closer, her lips almost but not quite making contact, until for the briefest moment, Barbara thought Helena meant to kiss her. Ignoring Barbara's confusion, she returned to the earlier topic. "That kiss," she breathed, "was it meaningless because it was her ... or because it wasn't me?"
Her breath catching painfully, Barbara reared back and shook her head, any response trapped in her throat.
Helena only smiled as if she already knew the answer, then she spoke again, hot breath playing over Barbara's face. "Do you have any idea what the Joker stole from me that night?"
"I know that losing your mother was--" Barbara began, grateful for any subject change, even one as difficult as that, but the brunette cut her off angrily.
"Not just that," Helena all but shouted, her breath coming rough and unsteady, hot emotion burning in her eyes. She whirled away, nearly disappearing into the shadows at the edge of the room. "I lost everything that night." She turned back toward Barbara, her eyes catching a gleam of light and reflecting it back with animalish ferocity---like a lion at the edge of the fire---leaving Barbara with the intense sensation that she was being stalked by a phenomenally skilled predator. "I saw what happened to her ... heard what happened to you...." Her eyes slipped closed for a moment and she rocked very gently on her heels as though being struck by invisible fists. "Do you know what that was like?" she demanded, her voice sliding over into rage when she opened her eyes. She leaned down, hands braced on the arms of the wheelchair, muscles taut and corded from the tips of her fingers to her shoulders. "To have her die at the same time you...." She couldn't finish and reached up, unable to control the desire to touch, to cup her palm along the side of Barbara's face. "You were all red when they brought you in ... I couldn't do anything ... couldn't go anywhere, so I just waited ... for you to die too."
"I know," Barbara whispered placatingly, frightened for the younger woman, though she didn't allow herself to be frightened of her. Dealing with Helena was often a study in not allowing herself to react the way instinct might guide her. Helena was stronger than she had ever been; stronger, faster, and dangerous in a way few people could ever be. She had her father's basic instinct to help people, but also her mother's wildness and unpredictability, coupled with a history of hurt and pain that would make plenty of people basket cases. She'd always known the younger woman could be dangerous if handled badly, but thus far, she'd never had cause to fear that lethal power might be turned her way. "And I know how awful that was ... if there was anything I could do--"
"Anything?" Helena murmured, drawing the word out and somehow adding extra syllables, subtly inferring things Barbara had no intention of considering. Helena saw the other woman start to retreat emotionally if not physically, and frustration drove her to shake the chair. "I nearly lost you that day ... only I didn't ... but then again I did." She made an angry, frustrated sound in the back of her throat. It was hard to think right now. Hard to ignore the boiling in her blood, even though she was so damned used to ignoring the steady drumbeat that wanted her to act in all the ways she wasn't supposed to. Hard not to act the way nature had intended her to and simply take. "And now you offer me anything.... Do you really mean that?"
Nodding, Barbara clamped down on her uneasiness, struggling to keep it under wraps. "Anything," she said a little cautiously. "I know that when your mother died, you lost more than just her ... you lost an entire way of life, but--"
"No," Helena growled, furious that Barbara couldn't see the obvious truth. She appeared to turn from flesh to fast moving shadow in an instant, strong arms flashing out, sweeping Barbara up before she could draw breath to offer a protest. For an instant, they were eye to eye, so close a few fluttery strands of red and chestnut hair blended in the small space between them. Gleaming eyes broke from Barbara's, sliding down the lithe form that had once danced the rooftops with a grace and skill denied all but a very few humans. The reality was that Helena could only do her one better because of a genetic trick of fate, not because of advanced skill. The predatory gaze slid lower, touching on legs that hung limp where they folded over her forearm. "He didn't just take my mother, he took you ... changed everything ... made it so...." She spoke very softly, her voice shifting from angry to infinitely sad, then, in an instant later, sorrow shifted to resentment. "Maybe Wade doesn't care," she hissed, glaring at Barbara. "After all, he can still have his pleasure ... but I do ... I care more than...." She didn't finish, instead, choking to a halt, barely able to live with the pain of what had been done to the woman in her arms, and what had been stolen from both of them.
"Helena," Barbara whispered very softly, not understanding what was going on. She could see the wheels spinning in the mind behind overbright eyes, but had no way of knowing where this sudden angst was coming from. It had been years since she'd seen the younger woman so torn up, and it seemed obvious something had changed. "Talk to me."
"I went to the Someplace Else tonight--"
Barbara gasped softly, worry deepening to fear, not for herself but for the young woman holding her so easily. She suddenly had a very bad feeling she knew what had triggered the bout of strange behavior.
"--You were right. It was a trap--"
"But you got away," the redhead whispered hopefully, praying that her suspicions were wrong.
A darkly sensual smile played over soft lips. "Just like they wanted me to ... with just enough of their poison in my blood to change the world."
"Oh God," the words were out of Barbara's mouth before she could call them back.
"Not exactly," Helena whispered as she felt her control slip another notch. She shifted the arm behind Barbara's shoulders, cupping the back of her head in a strong hand, fingers working into silky hair and tugging her head back.
For the span of a heartbeat, they stared into each other's eyes and then suddenly Barbara felt the heat of those perfect lips against her own, moving hungrily and demanding a response. She gasped into the kiss and Helena drank the tiny sound in, using the opportunity to deepen the kiss, her tongue darting out to tease faintly parted lips. It was hot, intense, erotic, not some simple gesture of affection, but rather a desperate expression of raw desire, and for the first time since a hail of gunfire had damn near destroyed her life, Barbara Gordon's breath caught, goosbumps rising on her skin, her heart thudding hard and fast against the restraint of her ribcage. A tiny triumphant growl vibrated up from Helena's throat, causing a delicate sensation where their mouths were so closely wedded, while her pupils contracted and expanded ever so slightly, that primal part of her nature fully in control of the situation. Despite the startling flare of physical response, it was a stark reminder that whatever was happening, it couldn't be allowed to continue. Helena wasn't in her right mind, and none of this was real. Lifting a hand, Barbara rested it on Helena's upper chest, abruptly realizing that the other woman's clothes were cool and faintly damp as she pushed firmly.
"Don't," Barbara gasped when she pulled away and Helena started to lean in again, unwilling to have the kiss broken so soon.
Full lips hung open for a beat, and Barbara could feel Helena's chest rising and falling with her heaving breaths. "God, I wanted you that night ... sometimes I wish I'd just gone ahead and...." She didn't finish the thought, instead shifting gears. "Sometimes it feels like I've wanted you all of my life." Her gaze slid down, touching on soft curves. "And I don't think I can hold off taking what I want any longer." Those gleaming eyes swung back up, and Barbara thought she heard the softest of feral growls, the sound registering at a near-subsonic level. "I'm still my mother's daughter, after all...." Her mother's only mistake had been in thinking there were limitations to the law of the jungle she'd lived by. Helena saw now that it had been a pointless conceit. Better to take than destroy herself with want. She leaned in, intent on her prey, but Barbara's hand tensed, pressing harder as she leaned back as far as the hand behind her head would allow.
"This is just the drugs," the redhead said quickly, "It's not real--" It couldn't be real.
"It's real," Helena snarled, not allowing that excuse to dissuade her at all. Barbara might not be willing to see things, but she did ... far more clearly now than ever before in her life. She knew what she wanted---what they both needed---and she wasn't going to be put off or ignore those desires any longer. Things had already been delayed too long by circumstances beyond their control. It was time to knock the barriers away the way they should have that first night. "It's everything else that isn't."
"You can't want--" Barbara started to deny what she was seeing, but Helena cut her off impatiently.
"Can't want what," Helena demanded, her eyes nearly glowing with hunger, "to make love to you until we're both sweaty and exhausted?" She barely took the time to draw breath before answering her own question, "Just like I've wanted every day since I was sixteen and walked into your class. Just like I've wanted every minute since that mask came off and I saw who you really were. Want to make love to you?" Another soft growl rattled her throat. "I promise you ... I can ... I do ... and I will." She kissed the woman in her arms again, not breaking away until Barbara yanked her head back, her eyes wide and disbelieving.
"All right, then it would be wrong," Barbara snapped as she caught her breath, still not quite believing any of this was really happening. "I don't want this ... and it would be rape--"
The knowledge of the heated kiss they'd just shared gleaming in her eyes, Helena shook her head. "Oh no, I promise you, it won't be that." Even at the worst moment that first night, there'd been something there ... something intense and frightening for both of them ... something they'd avoided and refused to see, Helena realized now with the odd clarity the drug seemed to provide. Allison Robicheau had tried to tell her, but she hadn't understood, too young and emotional to understand what the older woman was trying to tell her. That Barbara's innate rejection was evidence of a desire she couldn't accept, not a lack of love. "In fact, it'll be everything but that." She kissed Barbara again, soft and quick this time, the gentleness a burning contrast to the other kisses, then headed for the lookout under the clock, her strides long and determined, easily ignoring the redhead's struggles..
"No! You can't!" the shout came from the slight, blonde figure that stepped from the living area, still shaking off the daze of sleep.
Helena did a slow turn, one eyebrow arching high as she laid eyes on Barbara's newest ward. "Go to bed, little girl," she commanded, her tone low and raw. Being stopped by one slightly annoying teenager was not in her plans.
Dinah shook her head, moving surprisingly quickly to put herself between the brunette and the door to the overlook. "Don't do this," she pleaded breathlessly, still shaking her head back and forth as though that simple action could somehow change something. "It's not ... not the way."
Barbara frowned as it occurred to her that Dinah understood what was going on better than she did.
"Get out of the way," Helena said very softly, a dangerous kind of tension entering her muscles. She had no intention of being denied. "Before you get hurt," she added, eyes narrowing as she glared at the teen, pointedly warning her off. If she thought she had any business in this, she was sadly mistaken.
Barbara stared up at the younger woman, frightened of her for the first time, not for herself but for the girl blocking their way. Helena could be unpredictable at the best of times, but right now she might well become deadly, and Dinah had no chance of protecting herself against the kind of assault Helena was capable of launching. "Dinah, go," she ordered firmly.
Helena looked down, her gaze meeting Barbara's, the child blocking her way momentarily forgotten. "That's right, Dinah," she drawled without looking up, "go ... get out of the way ... leave the adults alone ... to play." Her hot breath played over Barbara's face and she leaned closer, her eyes heavy lidded and slumbrous, her intentions clear. "This isn't a game for the kiddies."
"I'm not a kid," Dinah shot back, her voice high pitched and reedy with fear. "And, if you do this, you ... you could destroy everything." She didn't want to lose the only home she'd ever had where she felt completely accepted, and the discord this would bring on had the capacity to tear them all to shreds before it was done.
Those strange, cat's eyes tipped upward, focusing on the teen. "Maybe," Helena allowed, "but I can't seem to do anything else. Now ... get ... out ... of ... my ... way," she said, pronouncing each word slowly and carefully.
"Dinah," Barbara added, her own voice a little shaky, "do as she says." She just wanted the girl out of the line of fire. Helena was on edge and she couldn't forget what the Black Snow had done to so many of its other victims. So far, she hadn't turned violent, but she was close. And if she did have a psychotic break of some kind, they might all wind up in pieces before she came down from it. Tenuous as Helena's control was, she still had some, but that could easily shift if she was pressed too hard. Barbara couldn't help but think of the people already dead at the hands of people they knew and trusted---individuals without violent or criminal histories. Ironically, Helena's experience with controlling her wild side was probably a help in this situation, but she was under no illusions that the other woman's control was hanging on by anything but a very slender thread.
The girl stiffened, feet braced as though she intended to try physically stop what was happening.
Helena already had some problems trusting the girl. In her current condition, she might just do something she'd regret later. "Now," Barbara snapped and turned a hard look on the teen.
Ready to stand her ground, Dinah shook her head.
"I'll be okay," Barbara insisted. "Just stay out of it." She had to trust that the relationship she'd built with Helena would keep her safe. In any event, there was nothing Dinah could do either way, and she wanted her clear of the situation.
"That's right," Helena murmured, using that silky, threatening tone that made it painfully clear that while Barbara might be safe, Dinah wasn't necessarily. "You really don't want to get between me and anything I want right now."
A long moment passed and then the teen finally stepped aside, accepting there was nothing she could do to physically intercede. She still had a certain gift of insight though, and she made one last try. "Don't you see," she said, staring hard at Helena, "You're risking everything by doing it this way." She stared deeply into the brunette's eyes, silently willing her to see the truth. "It's real ... but you have to do it the right way."
A moment passed, just long enough to give Barbara a brief surge of hope that Dinah was getting through to the brunette, then Helena abruptly shook her head. "No ... no more waiting ... no more wondering ... no more watching him get what I...." she whispered, her voice gaining in intensity if not volume as she hissed, "No, no, no." She turned a fierce look on her former guardian, then suddenly she was moving, racing on feet that barely seemed to contact the floor when she wanted. With Barbara still held high in her arms, she bounded onto the balcony, hitting the floor once, and then the railing. On feet as sure as a cat's, she kicked off, leaping with inhuman grace and control.
Barbara had to fight a scream, suddenly clinging desperately to the neck of the woman she'd been fighting only moments before. She hadn't done this sort of thing in years and never as a passenger. It suddenly occurred to her that it was a hell of a lot more frightening when she had time to think about just how high up they were.
Helena rolled in mid-air, completely in control, and landed lightly on a nearby rooftop several stories below her takeoff point. She stood for a long moment, head tipped back, seeming to absorb some of the cool breeze that ruffled her already disarrayed hair. Outside, where there were no walls to close in on her, she almost felt human. Almost. She looked down, taking in features she had long since memorized. "I won't hurt you," she whispered, not liking the fear she saw and determined to wash it away, though she had no intention of giving ground. "You know that."
Seeing some semblance of calm descend over the other woman, Barbara could only pray that the drug was losing its vicious hold. "Then take me back. You know it's for the best."
Helena shook her head, denying the request. She'd already pulled back so many times. She couldn't do it any longer. This time she wasn't going to be the good girl doing what society and everyone else expected of her. This time she was going to have what should have been hers years before. "Not this time," she exhaled, then looked back up, tracing the Gotham skyline as she considered her next course of action. Not too many options. Alfred would be checking her apartment, maybe even calling in reinforcements. Wouldn't that be just perfect if she went home and found him there waiting for them. In her current mood, she might just kill Dick Grayson, and she was still just sane enough to know that would never forgiven, so home was out. She couldn't exactly check into a hotel, and any old rooftop wouldn't do.
"Helena--" Barbara began, but the younger woman cut her off.
"No." She looked down again and, for just a second, her expression softened, making her look young and a little frightened of the course she'd chosen. "I'm sorry, Barbara, but I can't do it anymore ... can't pretend we're just friends ... or that the thought of Wade touching you doesn't make me want to tear him limb from limb, then drag you away and not stop making love to you until neither of us can move." She shook her head. "You'll see that I'm right before we're done," she said softly, her tone rife with the natural arrogance of a successful predator. She didn't give Barbara a chance to respond, simply took off again, breaking into a run and leaping from roof's edge to roof's edge, barely seeming to notice the added weight in her arms as she danced a playful minuet across the skyline of New Gotham.
Clinging so tightly her arm muscles were threatening to cramp, Barbara could only hold on during the wild ride, no longer used to that sort of high flying journey. Helena had carried her before, but never like this, on mad leaps and rolling dives that were only one small step short of flying. Oddly, after the first few minutes of total terror passed without any plunging, fatal dives, or life-ending splats, she began to settle in. It wasn't exactly relaxing, but it was less nerve wracking than being stalked by a wild-eyed Huntress. And the mad race seemed to be calming Helena, burning off whatever dark sprites were driving her, or at least putting their energy to another cause. Barbara craned her head, peering at the world that rushed by at a phenomenal rate, startled by the surge of exhilaration that swept through her. She'd almost forgotten what such total freedom could be like, the feel of the wind rushing over hair and skin while the world was little more than a pale dot far below. As they swept through the night dark city, she could almost forget more serious concerns.
Almost. She looked up at the younger woman. Completely focused on the wild dance among the high rises, Helena's expression was almost carefree; nothing like the edgy, dangerous woman who'd stalked Barbara in the clocktower before covering her mouth in a demanding kiss like nothing she'd ever experienced, or the sad, resolute figure who'd refused any thoughts of returning her to the clocktower. Tempted to shy away from those memories, the steady tingling in her lips was a palpable reminder that it really had happened. It had to have been driven by the drugs. It was the only scenario that made any sense. Other than the lightest of flirtation, far milder than Helena's default, sexual mode, the younger woman hadn't shown any interest in her since the shooting. Which was totally normal. Teenage crushes seldom last ... thank god. She could never have dealt with that sort of pressure in addition to everything else. When Helena had first come to live with her, there'd been an almost parent-child aspect to their relationship through sheer force of necessity, and even the faintest thought along those lines was completely forbidden, trapped in a neat lock box, the same way any possible attraction to her students had always been locked away. Besides, she couldn't imagine someone as wildly physical as Helena being even the slightest bit interested in a lover who would never be able keep up with her aggressive sexuality ... at least not any more.
And what the hell was she doing contemplating these things anyway?
Helena shifted her hold ever so slightly, rebalancing the woman in her arms as she suddenly ran up the side of a sheer stone wall. The move threw them closer together, drawing the redhead's attention to warmth and shape of the younger woman's body and the strength of the arms holding her so safe and so close.
Oh yeah, that was why.
After being momentarily lost in her own thoughts, she abruptly realized they'd come to a halt on a high ledge overlooking the city, and Helena was peering down at her, sharply cut features deep in shadow. "We're here," the younger woman whispered, her voice so soft it nearly floated away on the faint breeze.
The nervous edge returning in a rush, Barbara frowned, searching Helena's face a little desperately. "Where?" "That would be telling." Without further word, Helena simply stepped off the edge of the building and plummeted straight down.
This time Barbara did scream, though it was more of a gasp that gained in volume as they fell. She ran out of air just about the time they landed on a narrow balustrade. Helena paused for the briefest second, eerily sure-footed even on such a delicate rail, then stepped down onto the wide, marble tiled balcony. Broad French doors led into the high rise apartment and they easily pushed open when she nudged them aside with one foot. The lock was meant to keep the doors closed in a high wind, not to keep out a determined, super-strong meta-human.
"Hel, what's--" Barbara started to ask, but Helena shushed her.
"Shhh ... quiet," the younger woman breathed, and stepped inside.
Uncertain where they were or what might be waiting for them, Barbara fell silent, craning her neck to search their surroundings. High ceilings and pale walls greeted her eyes along with furniture shrouded in white sheets, creating a shadowy, unreal world of irregular shapes and splashes of colored light reflected from the world below.
The bed, a huge, four poster, was covered as well, but it was easy to make out the size and random lumps where large pillows jumbled about. The only shape in the room that didn't appear completely odd or random, it stood out even in shades of shadowed white on white.
"Inviting, isn't it?" Helena breathed, leaning so close her breath ruffled the hair that fell over Barbara's ear. "Someplace a body could get lost for a long time."
A tiny shudder of awareness slid through Barbara as sharp incisors closed on her earlobe, pressuring, scraping lightly, then slid along a sensitive cord in her neck.
"Someplace you and I will get lost for a long time," Helena promised, her voice all raw sexuality and erotic intention as she moved easily amid the shrouded furniture, her stride comfortable and graceful.
No question about her objectives. The urge to demand to know what she was doing was entirely moot, so Barbara didn't bother. "You can't do this," she hissed, cutting straight to the heart of the matter.
"Yes, I can," Helena shot back. She was tired of playing by the rules when it never seemed to get her anywhere. It was only when she broke the rules that things seemed to go right. Her whole life was about breaking rules. It was her raison d'etre, and it was only where Barbara was concerned that she'd pushed that impulse aside. Which was undoubtedly why their relationship was feeling like such a damned failure. Time to change that and do things her way. She lowered Barbara's legs so they were dangling against her body, her touch automatically careful despite the drugs running rampant in her system. Easily supporting Barbara's weight with one arm, she used her free hand to stroke a pale cheek very lightly. "And before I'm done you'll be grateful."
"No, I--" Barbara's denial was swallowed up by the soft lips that covered her mouth, then drunk in by the tongue that pressed for entrance and began exploring with rough strokes. She tried to pull her head back, but Helena wouldn't allow it, pressing her advantage, following and demanding more until the world was swirling around her, and low groans were bubbling up from her throat.
Yanking the sheet and the thick comforter beneath back with her free hand, Helena didn't pause before hooking her hand under Barbara's knees again, her touch gentle as she settled her into the strange bed.
"Helena," Barbara whispered, trying one more time.
"No talking," the brunette growled as she came down over her the woman she'd loved all of her adult life, straddling slim hips on her knees, hands braced on the mattress just above her shoulders. "Tired of talking."
And then she was kissing again, her mouth so hot Barbara was amazed her lips weren't burned by the desperate, erotic contact. It seared through to her soul, wicked, appealing, drawing her in, not letting go.
"Talking doesn't do this," Helena groaned, ignoring the hands that rose to push her back as she trailed her mouth down Barbara's throat and cupped the underside of her breast with gentle fingers. She turned her hand enough to brush caresses over the tip of a firm breast, stroking, her touch light and feathery, stroking it the way she'd always dreamt of doing until she felt the nipple respond, swelling and tightening. "Or this."
"This isn't right," Barbara groaned, but her body was responding to the light touch, pleasure coalescing and sliding over nerve endings too long denied. No, this couldn't be happening. She couldn't be responding to Helena's drug-driven lovemaking. But there had always been a part of her that had gloried in darkness, drawn to it even as she fought it, and feared it. Darkness had always held the deepest, most secret parts of her in its thrall, and Helena was a child of darkness, borne to it, bred to it, and wedded to it by choice. That darkness called to Barbara and she could feel her body reacting in ways she'd long feared were no longer possible, drawn to the dark promise, the wicked thrill of pleasure, the completely forbidden bonding of flesh and bone that would come if she gave way ... and very probably even if she didn't.
"Maybe," Helena allowed, "Maybe not ... but we both need it ... and I can't fight it any longer." She ducked her head again, lips finding the delicate arch of Barbara's throat, moving softly, teeth and tongue grazing velvety flesh. Even with her mind spinning with drugs, she knew all the reasons Barbara would give for not going forward and didn't want to hear them. She'd played them all in her mind over and over for years until she probably knew them better than the woman lying beneath her. They were all moot now. She should have seen it sooner, but she'd been too tied into Barbara's view of the world ... her good, safe, sane, daylight view of the world, the one she tried to pretend she really wanted. Except Helena knew the truth, knew about the wicked grin a black garbed woman had once given in contemplation of a fight that had become equal parts the need to win and the need to conquer. Barbara might deny it was there, but Helena could see it, feel it, hear it ... and soon enough, taste it. No, this was for the best. Time to stop running away from reality, even if that meant behaving like the thief she'd been raised to become. "And I don't think you want me to."
"Y-you're wrong," Barbara swore, but the faint quaver in her voice gave her away.
Helena's lips twisted in a grin, signaling that she'd heard the tiny quiver of sound and was well aware of its importance. "No," the younger woman whispered, her eyes gleaming. "Not wrong ... not waiting any longer." And then she was plundering soft lips once again. Strong hands came up, pressing at her shoulders, fighting her, their power drawing an approving growl even as she caught slender wrists and pressed them to the mattress. The kiss, wild and uncontrolled, went on until they were both breathless and trembling, then finally, Helena released slender wrists and reared up on her knees. She wrenched her coat off, hurling it aside, careless of where it landed, then came back down, drawing her body against the redhead's, moving slowly in a full body thrust that dragged breasts and bellies together, scraping slowly with only thin cloth between them. The hunter in her looked down, saw the faint gleam of sweat starting to rise on pale flesh, the catch and press of harsh breathing, the taut rise of swollen nipples ... and smiled.
Barbara's breath caught as she saw that look, the flex and play of vertical pupils and the bright gold of those striking eyes signaling the rise of powers that meant Helena could easily counter any physical resistance she might offer. She'd been sliding in and out of Huntress mode, out of control in a way Barbara hadn't seen since the earliest days of her training. Even with every functioning nerve ending in her body vibrating at the terrahertz level, she had to try to stop this one more time, make one more stab at using logic to counter the madness rapidly infecting them both. "Helena ... think. You were exposed to a drug that causes breaks with reality." Her captor was silent, leaning into the hands braced on her shoulders, but not forcing the issue as she simply watched, sharp eyes taking in every detail. "Don't you think it's possible that's what's causing this sudden ... belief ... that you want me ... when everyone you've ... dated," Barbara suddenly couldn't force herself to admit Helena had probably slept with all of those hardbodies who'd wandered in and out of her life. That was the sort of thought that madness is made of. "...was as different from me as it's possible to be--"
"You think I couldn't want you?" Helena whispered on a thick note of disbelief that trailed into dark laughter when she thought about the fact that most of her adult life had been dedicated to wanting this woman. "You're wrong," she added, sounding angry and shifted slender wrists into one powerful hand, keeping Barbara pinned down, but freeing one hand. "So wrong. I wanted you the first time I walked into your class ... the first time we fought ... and I've wanted you every day and night since." Her gaze sharpened. "I've always wanted you ... always loved you. You've been friend, partner, confidante ... everything except a lover ... and I've wanted that all along." She trailed her fingers down Barbara's arms, stroking graceful runs of muscle. "...and every other body I've touched just confirmed that it was you I really wanted." Her fingers trailed lower, finding the top button on Barbara's blouse and easing it free, eyes gleaming as soft flesh was revealed to eyes hungry to see more. "I kept hoping one of them would be the real thing ... because I knew you'd never ... never allow yourself to see me as anything but a child ... or a business partner." She shook her head, helpless before the emotions she'd carried for so long. She leaned forward, pressing Barbara back into the pillows, her expression hungry and intense. "But I'm not a child--"
"No, of course--" Barbara found whatever denial she'd been about to issue swallowed up by silky, demanding lips as Helena moved over her, taut, smoothly muscled arms and thighs easily supporting her own weight. Barbara pushed hard now, but Helena caught slender wrists and pressed them into the mattress above her head. With more upper body strength than the average woman---and god knew she'd put the effort into getting that way---Barbara nonetheless had no chance against the sheer overwhelming strength of the Huntress.
Overbright and ferally focused, Helena's eyes remained locked on her prisoner as she pushed up on her hands. Her breathing, Barbara noted, was slow and measured, her touch absolutely rock steady, like a predator ready to pounce. Then, suddenly, she leaned back down, her lips just barely brushing Barbara's ear. "Do you know how I was conceived?" she asked, her breath ruffling fluttery, red hair. She trailed soft kisses along the curve of Barbara's jaw, nipped the point of her chin, moving along when the other woman tried to turn her head away. "They fought," she found a delicate ear again, nipping lightly, "and then they made love." In an instant, she reclaimed soft lips, drinking in the other woman's sweet breath as she drove her tongue inside to play with Barbara's in a sensual power struggle, easily riding with her captive's struggles. "The idea excites you, doesn't it?" she hissed the moment their lips parted.
Barbara shook her head wildly, but her pulse was racing, her breath coming in ragged pants, her body more alive than it had felt in years. The idea of being with Helena was like flying on a wire high over the city. Fast, rushing, exciting ... dangerous, but with a promise of incredible pleasure ... or a very long fall before winding up as a greasy spot on pavement. "No," she denied the charge even though her eyes gleamed with the flush of combat.
"Liar," Helena growled softly, the sound low and husky, then stole another kiss. "You were excited that night ... even if you didn't want to be." Cupid's bow lips twisted in a knowing smile as she remembered the way they'd fought ... the energy that had sparked between them. "Is that why my mother was able to kiss you ... I got you all worked up ... and you needed to burn off a little energy--"
"No--" Barbara insisted, the entire idea far too frightening for her to contemplate, when it would have meant--
"Yes," Helena insisted. "You were excited every time you put on that costume, weren't you? But you were more excited when you fought me. You loved it ... the wildness of it ... the letting go--"
"No," Barbara insisted, but the denial rang hollow. When she considered what she'd done as Batgirl, it was usually from a point of logic---she'd had a gift and wanted to use it to help people---but the reality was that she'd loved that release from the ordered structure of her normal life. There'd been a wild kind of pleasure in those days, a sense of total freedom that nothing in her life before or since had managed to equal. And that mad fight with the Catwoman knockoff---with Helena---painful and frightening as it had been had excited in a way few things had ... right up until that moment of discovery ... and guilt.
"Yes," Helena disagreed, her eyes turbulent with the flow of heady emotion. Leaning down, she brushed a light kiss over Barbara's lips, then caught a full lower lip between her teeth in a dragging caress. She shifted, careful not to put too much weight on the slender wrists pressed firmly into the mattress as she stroked sculpted cheekbones with her other hand. "You wouldn't have become Batgirl if part of you didn't love it." It was all so clear now that she looked at it a different way. She'd always thought of Barbara as so straight-laced and proper, but it was just an illusion. Underneath, she was as wild as any of them. She had to be, or she would never have done the things she'd done, or clung to the game after everything she'd lost. Helena let her hand trail lower, stroking the graceful arch of the redhead's throat.
"I-I just wanted to help people," Barbara whispered, her voice a ragged shadow of itself, achingly aware of every tiny bit of contact between Helena's fingers and her skin. She arched her upper back and twisted her hands, desperately trying to gain her freedom, only to have her efforts contained all too easily.
Her expression light with a feral kind of joy, Helena tightened her grip, enjoying the sensual battle between them. She shook her head, silently denying Barbara's claim. It all made sense now. "It doesn't take black capes and form fitting neoprene to do that," she drawled as her fingers slid lower until she encountered soft fabric. She eased a button free. "No ... that sort of thing takes," she leaned down, tongue playing in the shell of a delicate ear before she whispered, "a little bit of kink in your soul."
Barbara gasped, the softly spoken words sending a shudder through her. "No ... I...." Her voice faded off into an unsteady moan as lips trailed along the line of her jaw, stroking and teasing like the soft and warmest of brands to mark her skin.
Helena slipped another button free of its silky prison while her teeth brushed soft skin. "Do you have any idea how often I fantasize about you that way ... all in black ... controlled, but with that wild edge underneath the restrained image you try so hard to project." She heard Barbara moan softly and tasted the tiny goosebumps that rose on her skin."Sometimes, I close my eyes and imagine that none of it ever happened ... that you're still Batgirl ... and I'm the thief my mother would have trained me to be." Another freed button allowed Barbara's blouse to part over her stomach. "Sometimes we fight ... and then make love ... sometimes we make love and then fight." Her lips trailed down, teeth toying with a sensitive cord in Barbara's throat, then pushed up to stare down into pale eyes with hypnotic intensity. "Sometimes we're perfectly matched, and other times one or the other wins, then can't resist the urge to take the ultimate trophy of war...." She moaned very softly as she admitted to the dark fantasy, her eyes gleaming with the memory of the haunting, erotic images that had played through her mind.
Barbara groaned, upper back arching, back and shoulder muscles flexing, somewhere between appalled and excited by the way her body was reacting to the whispered scenario. At some level it hurt because it was something that could never be, but at the same time, Helena had never seen her the way so many did---as weak or disabled---and despite the dangerous game being played between them, she didn't feel that way even now. Helena wasn't treating her like some fragile doll to be stored away from the world, or like a bird with a broken wing to be cared for and coddled, but as a desirable, potential lover. It was more exciting than she could have ever allowed herself to contemplate. Frightened by the ongoing influx of lust and emotion, she struggled wildly and tried to remind herself of all the reasons it couldn't be allowed to happen.
Except none of them seemed to matter when Helena's mouth devoured hers in a hungry kiss. After a long moment that left both captor and captive trembling with barely restrained passion, Helena broke the kiss, her voice a demanding rumble. "That's it ... fight me ... we both enjoy the struggle." She offered a wicked smile and freed the final button on Barbara's blouse, allowing the soft fabric to part ever so slightly, muscles flexing to absorb the wild struggles that followed. "You are so beautiful like this," she groaned, lowering her head to dip her tongue into the hollow at the base of Barbara's throat. "Eyes sparkling, muscles working ... adrenaline rushing." She offered another wicked grin. "You like the fight." And then a soft laugh. "You liked it that night ... in fact you loved it. We both did."
Barbara wanted to deny it, but her brain was running with fantasies, the arousal nothing like anything she'd ever experienced at a physical or mental level. It wasn't the hot coalescence of sensation that had once signaled desire, but rather a wider spread of need ... as though every inch of flesh had become an erogenous zone in place of all the places where sensation was no longer an option. She trembled violently, her world view turned upside down by her response to the sexy, challenging smile that danced on her former ward's lips. Making love to Dick had been tender and pleasant, but little more than that, though the doctor had assured her it was still too soon to be certain that she wouldn't regain more sensation. And after that brief bit of comfort had slipped away, she'd found that Wade and every other man she'd dated just made her painfully aware of her losses. Dick had tried to help heal them, Wade was willing to overlook them, only Helena made her forget them ... or maybe made them unimportant ... or perhaps even turned them into gains. That smile turned her brain to such total mush, she wasn't entirely certain.
"You were like that ... that first night I saw you." Helena brushed the blouse aside, thumb stroking the pale scars on Barbara's abdomen and chest; the faded remnants of Joker's attack. "Having fun ... enjoying the fight." Then suddenly, she let go of imprisoned wrists and slid down, her lips finding faintly ridged tissue, her tongue stroking very softly, making it clear she found every inch of this woman's body beautiful. "You saved me that night ... made me see so many things ... what I did and didn't want to be," she groaned, smiling against warm, velvet flesh as strong hands dug into her hair. Focused and intense, her gaze rose, clashing with blazing, green eyes. "And I became yours." Holding the other woman's gaze, she pressed the softest of kisses to the base of Barbara's sternum.
Barbara shook her head slowly, delicate tremors sliding through her upper body, the darkness that had always lurked in the hidden corners of her soul screaming at her to surrender for once, let go and be who and what she wanted instead of the carefully controlled image she projected. Unable to resist the urge to touch, a slender hand found Helena's cheek, knuckles brushing her jaw, stroking her lips, then strong fingers slid back into her hair.
Wicked and knowing, Helena's answering smile was that of a confident hunter bringing its prey to ground. Convinced the battle was won, she didn't allow Barbara time to think, instead ducking her head, lips and teeth sliding over the silky flesh that overlaid firm muscle. The delicate strip of fabric that held Barbara's bra together in front snapped easily under preternaturally strong fingers, then she buried her face in firm breasts, tasting and teasing, barely aware of the fingernails that dug into her shoulders and tore at the spiderweb thin fabric of her blouse. "That's it," she praised, teeth teasing faintly puckered, coral flesh, "fight for my touch now." The fingers stroking Barbara's stomach danced lower, scraping the top button on her jeans before moving to ease it free.
"No!" Barbara exploded suddenly, back arching at the shoulders, hands pushing at Helena's upper chest, panic tearing through her as Helena's fingers threatened to slide into all the areas where she couldn't feel. Suddenly she was poised above a high cliff with the rocks trickling away under her feet. She couldn't ... it was ... no.
Agonizingly aroused, drugs playing havoc with her thought processes, Helena growled low in her throat, the animal in her bent on satisfaction. She caught slender wrists and thrust them back into the mattress, bearing down with her weight as she plundered soft lips. Continuing struggles drove her to shift her hold, freeing one hand to drop back to Barbara's waistband, tearing at the button she'd carefully slipped free only a moment before. Another growl escaped her lips as Barbara worked a hand free, then started shoving at Helena's shoulder, powerful muscles fighting her with raw desperation. It was the Huntress who countered the move, pinning her prisoner with brutal efficiency, but not before sharp nails dug in while trying to shove her back, the dig hard enough to draw a soft grunt of pain.
The next growl was less about desire and more about control, the drugs in Helena's blood still prevalent enough to trigger those darker, territorial passions. She shoved firmly, increasing the pressure when Barbara pushed back, lowered her head and licked, then bit down when the fighting didn't cease. No blood, but she felt the wince of pain that made the body beneath her own tremble, and drew a soft cry.
It was the sound more than the pained flinch that cut through the dark lust like a knife. Not easily in some hot knife through butter fashion; more like a dull paring knife through tough gristle. But it cut. What the hell was she doing? Helena frowned, struggling to understand it, Barbara's pained cry still echoing in her ears.
Gasping for air as though she hadn't taken a breath in minutes, Helena pushed back on her hands, muscles fighting themselves as she stared down into green eyes that gleamed with fear of her for the first time in all the years she'd known Barbara.
That sharpened the knife a little, allowing her to push back a few more inches and release the wrists trapped within her hold, though the look in her eyes warned the woman beneath her not to push her newfound freedom too far. Helena could feel the rage hammering at the back of her skull, desperately trying to get out just as desperately as she was fighting to contain it. She'd held it at bay this far because she was used to containing such things, but that didn't mean it couldn't explode the way it had in the others. She reminded herself of the things she�d seen. The things this drug had made people do. God, she wouldn�t---couldn�t---allow herself to get lost in that rage. She held Barbara's gaze, silently pleading for the same love and support that had sustained her so many times in the past because she knew in a burst of insight that if she didn't control what was happening to her she was going to wind up hurting the one person she'd never thought she could truly harm.
"Helena?" Barbara's voice was soft and coaxing, but she didn't move a muscle.
Helena took another gasping breath, fighting herself as fiercely as she'd ever combated any enemy. "It's in me," she gasped, fingers digging into the mattress to keep from grabbing the woman she'd wanted for too many years to count. "... using everything I've ever thought and felt ... trying to...." She trailed off, dipping her head as she struggled to push everything down but her love for Barbara. Hold onto that, she told herself over and over again.
"Helena?" Barbara whispered again, her voice faintly tremulous, but no longer sick with fear.
"I won't hurt you," Helena growled not at Barbara, but at herself, the anger directed inward this time while muscles quivered all over her body in random flickers of movement.
Barbara stared helplessly at the top of Helena's downbent head, afraid to move for fear of triggering another round of the dangerous struggles between them, but wanting to offer some kind of comfort. Whatever the drugs were doing to Helena, it was clearly a torment, playing with her very sense of reality. "I know that, Helena," she whispered after a beat, then very carefully reached out, just barely stroking the overlong bangs that fell across the younger woman's brow.
A low growl was the only response, but this time the timbre was pained rather than enraged.
"I know you'd never hurt me," Barbara reiterated, purposely firming her voice, hoping that her confidence would help Helena fight whatever was tearing at her.
The younger woman's chin rose, her eyes still feral, but soft with emotion and glossy from tears. She shook her head slowly. "Never," she whispered very softly, her voice throbbing with barely controlled passions. "I've loved you since I was sixteen." She released her tight grip on the sheets to lift one hand, fingers playing over Barbara's mouth, silencing her before she could speak. "Don't" Helena said sharply, but without anger, "don't tell me it's just the drugs." She pushed up, taking her weight on her other hand as she stared down into green eyes, then let her eyes move on. "I know what I feel...." She leaned closer, her breath playing over Barbara's face, lips almost, but not quite, touching. "...what I've always felt." She kept searching Barbara's face, struggling to understand. "Sometimes I...." the words faded before she could finish the thought. Helena's hand slid down, stroking Barbara's hip, her tone mournful. "After you were shot, I knew what it did to you ... saw how hard you fought." She glanced down, then looked up again. "It only made me love you more."
"I knew this was your cage," Helena over-rode her former guardian, staring down at her own hand where it played along the curve of Barbara's thigh. "...your own body ... and the only key I could give you was fighting for you." She searched green eyes desperately. "It was the only thing I could do for you."
Barbara's mouth worked for a moment, her entire focus on the woman above her. "I-I didn't..." she stammered uncertainly, trailing off as Helena stroked a few strands of hair back from her temple.
"You almost got yourself killed when I left," Helena groaned, then dipped her chin, resting her forehead against Barbara's, the memory of a bloody, rainy night a running torment in her mind. "You were so still that night ... I thought you were dead." Hot tears choked her voice and burned behind tightly closed eyelids. "That's when I knew ... I knew ... I couldn't stay away ... that no matter what, being with you was better than being without you." Her eyes slid closed again, her voice little more than a ragged whisper. "I was terrified that you'd get yourself killed if I didn't ... and I couldn't have survived that...."
Her chest so tight she could barely breathe, Barbara swallowed hard, fighting for air even as her brain threatened to completely shut down. "I didn't know," she exhaled when she finally managed to speak.
"Do you love me?" Helena whispered, everything else forgotten in an instant.
Russet brows drew together as Barbara answered without hesitation. "Of course I do." Gentle fingers brushed dark hair back from Helena's brow. She didn't know that it was the right thing to say under the circumstances, but there was no other answer. "We're family."
"Then love me," Helena whispered as she trailed the hand on Barbara's thigh around to her bare stomach, stroking lightly, then leaned down, her mouth incredibly gentle when they found velvety lips.
It was the very lack of demand that did Barbara in, the tenderness so incredibly touching that she didn't have it in her to push the younger woman back. A part of her was screaming that it was inappropriate, that she had no business letting this go on, but another part was drawn to the sweet and worshipful lover who dusted butterfly kisses around the shape of her mouth and down her chin. That silky mouth returned to her own, the kisses drawing out for long minutes while graceful hands explored bare flesh. Finally, agile fingers returned to Barbara's waistband, the gentle rasping made as she eased the zipper down nearly blending into the ragged timbre of their breathing.
An all new tension entered the prone woman almost immediately, and the fingers digging into narrow shoulders abruptly went back to pushing them away.
Helena looked up, the territorial streak reasserting itself in an instant, ready to press the issue and stake her claim. "What?" At first impatient, her voice softened when she saw the fear in green eyes, then the instinct to conquer gave way to the instinct to comfort and protect. Barbara was hers now, no question of that in her mind. She had no intention of stopping, but she could take her time.
Sculpted abdominals concaved with tension as Helena continued working the zipper on Barbara's jeans down, then eased graceful fingers under the worn fabric. Barbara's eyes slid closed, passion receding and reality returning in a dizzying rush as what she could see and what she could feel stopped working in tandem. If she opened her eyes, she knew she'd see Helena's fingers, but without any accompanying sensation. Suddenly uncertain, scared, and feeling hopelessly inferior, this seemed like a bad idea for a whole new set of reasons. Before she'd been worried about protecting Helena and their friendship, but suddenly she was afraid of confirming the aching fear that some things really were lost to her forever.
"Barbara?" Helena's voice was tender and incredibly gentle as she slid back up, lying alongside her, lithe body plastered against Barbara's side. "Talk to me." She didn't just want the physical, she wanted everything.
Ironic how their roles had reversed so abruptly. "I don't know..." Barbara admitted, her voice husky and unsteady. The whole thing had turned into some kind of dark fantasy, only now the fantasy had given way to reality. "I mean ... I don't know if I ... can ... I can't feel ... and you deserve--"
"I deserve someone I love," Helena overrode the frightened confession, then kissed Barbara slowly, her fingers still warm against pale skin.
"You don't understand," the redhead croaked after a moment and looked up at the younger woman, expecting to see her come to her senses at any moment, and run screaming from the room. "This is probably as much as...." The threat of tears making her voice harsh and tight, she closed her eyes again, not wanting to see the pity that would undoubtedly follow. She'd seen it in Dick's eyes even as he'd tried to please her, half in love with her the way he'd been for years, but also enough of a friend to care for her hurt and want to make it better. The doctor's assurances that it was too soon after the shooting to be certain of anything had done little to help, and she'd found herself shying away when she started to see pity in the faces of the other men she'd dated. They'd been nice enough, but that look would invariably appear sooner or later, and always left her with a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach, uninterested in taking things any farther.
"And you're scared you can't orgasm," Helena finished for her.
Unbelievably shaken by the matter-of-fact, almost clinical, proclamation, Barbara simply nodded, her eyes tightly shut, tears spiking her lashes.
"You're wrong," Helena breathed, then spread her hand, cupping silky flesh. "Sexual pleasure isn't here," she added, lifting Barbara's hips ever so slightly off the sheets, forcing her to acknowledge the possessive hold, uncertain whether the accompanying rush of pleasure was real or just the product of a passion-fevered brain. She brushed silky red hair back, then stroked Barbara's temple lightly. "It's here ... in your head." She rolled on top of the other woman, straddling slim hips, her hand still cupping silky flesh. "And here," she caught a slender hand and pulled it to her own breast, forcing Barbara to feel the unsteady throb of her heart, "in me." Helena was breathing raggedly now, no longer the calm, controlled hunter. She dragged Barbara's hand down to the base of her shirt where it rode an inch or two above the waistband of her pants. "Take it off ... touch me...."
The softly whispered combination of plea and command somehow shattered the terror, and Barbara suddenly found herself grabbing desperately at the lightweight fabric and peeling it off over Helena's head as the brunette ducked down to make it easier. Their lips met as if by accident, and then Barbara was reaching for flesh instead of fabric, fingers fitting themselves to shoulders that were reed thin, but supple and powerful. A hand fitted itself to her waist, while another reached for one of hers, twining fingers together and pushing her arm down into the mattress, returning to the sensual combat that aroused them both so much. Biceps and triceps rippling with effort, she pushed back with one arm even as she pulled Helena closer with other.
"That's right," the Huntress growled against soft skin as she broke the kiss to trail her lips over Barbara's upper chest. "Keep your mind on the fight," she said, knowingly repeating the advice she'd gotten so many times during combat training. Sharp incisors nipped a coral tipped breast, the intensity of sensation driving Barbara's head back into the pillows, her back arching at the shoulders as a soft cry escaped her lips. The sound gained in volume as Helena's lips played lower on her body, nipping licking softly, ranging over this new and much desired landscape.
Her senses swirling in ways she wouldn't have thought possible, Barbara yanked her hand free of the clutching grip imprisoning her arm against the mattress and trailed it down, blindly finding the top button on Helena's pants. The butter soft, black leather resisted, but she yanked it free, grinning her own triumph when the younger woman pushed up on one hand, her eyes glazed, lips pulled back from clenched teeth in a soft, aroused snarl. Another button came free and the Huntress trembled at the soft creak of leather, watching Barbara with feral lust. Her hand clenched convulsively on Barbara's waist as the third button came free, then slid up to cover her breast, thumb rubbing slowly over the nipple, fingers closing possessively as the fourth made its escape. Her eyes held Barbara's for a long moment, then she ducked her head, mouthing soft flesh hungrily, the wild animal part of her nature taking control again and desperate for more.
Helena looked up a few seconds later when Barbara's hand still hadn't moved. "Do it," she growled, her gaze hot enough to kindle fire.
A fire likely to singe them both, Barbara thought even as she thrust her hand under the tight leather.
A spasm ripped through Helena almost instantly, not orgasm, but something very close to it, and her hips bucked against slender fingers while she sucked in air through tightly clenched teeth. Her eyes, Barbara couldn't help but notice, were wild, bright, and swirling with color, the vertical pupils that signaled her powers, little more than narrow slits.
Hips bearing down hard on stroking fingers, the brunette ducked her head, mouth and hands wild as they ranged over Barbara's skin, the pleasure and knowledge of who was touching her driving her passion in ways nothing ever had before. Sometimes she bit softly, other times the warmth and faint sandpapery roughness of her tongue stroked, sometimes teasing, sometimes grating. Blunted nails dug into her back, leaving shallow furrows in soft flesh and driving her to intensify the rugged caresses until she could feel Barbara trembling. Or at least she thought that was what she was feeling. It was hard to be certain of anything past her own harsh shudders. Shaking uncontrollably, she pushed up just long enough to peer into green eyes, needing to know if she was right. One look was all it took to tell her she was. Her irises little more than a narrow ring of smoky green around her pupils, Barbara's expression was all raw emotion, too complicated to be easily read or understood, but full of need and desire, not regret or anger. Less than a second passed, and then Helena buried her face in sweet flesh, mouth ranging over taut breasts, then along the smooth slope of a slender shoulder.
Still clinging desperately, Barbara turned her head toward Helena, and suddenly mouths met again, tongues dueling while hands stroked, then clung during the final moments.
No longer the localized rush of sensation, the tidal wave of heat that slid over Barbara Gordon's nerve endings was everywhere at once, making her skin flush and prickle and driving her to clutch Helena even tighter as their mouths moved together in an intimate melding of flesh and desire. It had never occurred to her that orgasm could be such a total experience, tearing through every functioning nerve ending in her body until she was close to blacking out.
Her own body convulsing under waves of thick pleasure, Helena gasped a whimpery plea into the mouth bound to her own. If this wasn't real, she never wanted to wake up. It lasted long seconds, pleasure hanging poised and moving over her at the same time, until finally, she collapsed against the woman pressed so close. Some of the madness seared away, she stared at Barbara, resting her head lightly on a narrow shoulder as their lips parted. A beat passed and she reached up, brushing disarrayed hair back from an ivory cheek. "I love you," Helena exhaled, her voice so soft she was uncertain the other woman heard her. Fingers slipped from the confines of her body, then left a damp trail on her abdomen as they rose to encircle her waist.
Barbara swallowed hard, lost in the emotion reflected in eyes now shaded in human colors. "Helena," she whispered raggedly. Her other hand shifted to brush dark hair back from the other woman's face, the gesture tender, the feel of soft hair and flesh leaving her fingertips tingling. "I...I don't know ... what to say," she admitted. It had never occurred to her, and there was a part of her that was still afraid it was just the drugs talking, but at the same time, the barely audible declaration brought a swell of emotion, the import of which she was helpless to ignore. She'd never allowed herself to even remotely contemplate Helena in a sexual way, drawing a line in the sand that she could not allow herself to cross. It suddenly occurred to her that she'd had to be so rigid because at some level, there was a part of her that had been attracted to the younger woman for a long time ... maybe from the first moment she'd sauntered into class all those years before. If this was just a drug driven fantasy, she couldn't help but wonder how they were both going to deal with it. Helena had the excuse of the drugs in her bloodstream. She had nothing to protect her.
"It's real," Helena whispered, drawing Barbara's attention back to the present. She kissed her former guardian very softly. "Sometimes it feels like I've loved you my entire life." Another soft kiss followed, and then another....
And soon they were making love again, the poison in Helena's system burning itself out in the sweat and grind of physical passion until finally she was trembling violently and barely able to move. Moaning low in her throat, she nuzzled into the curve of Barbara's neck, barely able to think or move. "I don't understand any of this," she admitted in the aftermath, uncertain whether the previous hours had been real or simply a particularly intense dream. She'd had so many dreams about Barbara over the years that it was hard to separate reality and fantasy. A little confused and even frightened by the mental haze, she pressed a little closer, in the curious position of being the one in need of comfort now.
Unable to ignore the silent request for solace, Barbara turned toward Helena, wrapping a gentle arm around the younger woman and cuddling her close as she tenderly petted dark hair back from her brow. "Shhhh, it's all right. Just close your eyes and rest." A delicate hand moved restlessly at the curve of her waist as though Helena couldn't quite resist the urge to touch even now. As she continued to slowly smooth soft hair back from Helena's brow, Barbara found herself grateful she hadn't known of the younger woman's feelings---assuming they were real---any sooner. Offered that kind of temptation, barraged by the smoldering looks and high tension sexuality the brunette directed at nearly everyone around her, she was far from certain she could have resisted.
Helena coiled tighter against Barbara's side, suddenly shivering as though chilled. "Have I screwed everything up?" she whispered at last in a little girl's voice. Reality was swirling, leaving her uncertain, but too exhausted to put it all together. Instinct told her she'd done something she shouldn't have, but the tactile reality of the body pressed so close to her own coupled with the satiation that left her limp had her uncertain what that could be.
Fingertips still sifting rhythmically through chestnut silk, Barbara shook her head. "No."
"I love you," Helena mumbled again, her eyelids suddenly to heavy for her to keep them open.
"I know," the redhead whispered, then warm lips dusted Helena's forehead. "I love you too."
Feeling Helena relax, Barbara simply held the younger woman close, fingers still stroking her hair soothingly. It occurred to her that her mind should have been a whirling dervish of thoughts and fears, but somehow, it was just blank. Completely overloaded, she mused on her own thoughtlessness, or maybe totally short circuited. Mumbling softly, Helena snuggled a little closer, her warm breath playing over Barbara's neck and shoulder, one hand idly stroking her stomach. Not quite asleep, but not far from it.
"Don't ever leave me," the younger woman breathed after a long time.
"I won't," Barbara sighed, and hooked a finger under Helena's chin, drawing her head up to share the softest of kisses, "I promise."
That seemed to satisfy Helena because she relaxed against Barbara's side, soon sliding into a sleep so deep it bordered on unconsciousness.
Barbara held her for a long time, silently standing guard and watching the woman in her arms sleep, certain that was the best thing for her now. Eventually she too slid into exhausted slumber.
* * * * * *
The return to consciousness came with the knowledge of a lusciously warm body pressed incredibly close and the conversely painful throbbing in the region facetiously known as her brain. Helena groaned very softly, wondering what the hell she'd done this time, then cautiously opened her eyes slowly, squinting until she was certain the room was still dark. Pale shapes and unfamiliar walls greeted her eyes and it took her a moment to realize where she was. The apartment belonged to another bartender and her husband. They were in Barbados for a couple of months, and had given her a key and asked her to look in on the place. Okay, that was the easy part. Now for the hard part. Summoning her courage, she looked down at the body twined gracefully with her own. She didn't know what to feel when she realized it really was her---Barbara---soft and sweet, looking young and innocent in sleep. The memories were pretty squirrelly, but that she had dragged Barbara off like some neanderthal, would-be romance-novel-cover, bodice-ripper lover was not in question.
Oh yeah, that was the way to do it. She'd contemplated seducing the other woman at least a dozen times a day since the first time she'd figured out just what the hell sex was, calculated every possible way of going about it, but this had been nowhere on the list. In her fantasies, she'd been suave and sophisticated, romantically sweeping Barbara ... well ... off her feet seemed like a tacky way of phrasing it, but off her wheels just didn't have much resonance.
In any event, she obviously hadn't gone that route.
Instead, those darker fantasies she'd allowed herself to enjoy in the privacy of her bedroom late at night had somehow taken control. At least she'd managed to control the raging fury that had briefly burned in her breast, whatever insanity the drug had sparked diverted, if not destroyed, by the presence of the woman she'd loved for so long. Careful not to wake the sleeping woman, she eased free of her loose hold, finding her feet with light footed grace. She was still wearing a bra, though it was unfastened in front, and she quickly relatched the plastic catch, then reached for her shirt where it had been tossed aside. Her mind blank, though whether it was from the aftermath of the drugs or just emotional shock, she pulled the delicate fabric on over her head, then froze as her fingertips brushed her stomach and encountered the open waistband on her pants. The memory so palpable it was as though graceful fingers were touching her once again, a hot flush slid over her skin, while her brow knit with confusion.
"At some point ... I was as much a part of what happened as you were," Barbara's sleep-husky voice confirmed.
Helena whirled, her breath catching, easily making out the woman now sitting up in bed, one hand braced on the mattress behind her, the other positioned to keep the quilt up around her bare breasts. Outside, it was still dark, but sensitive eyes could make out the first blush of dawn in the light that spilled in through the balcony doors, just enough to give a glint of color to glossy red hair. She swallowed hard, drinking in the sight of the other woman during that first shocked second before she dropped her eyes to stare at the floor with laser-like intensity. Fumbling hands quickly refastened the front of her pants, then she flashed a quick glance at the balcony as though it might offer some small hope of escape from the responsibility for her own actions.
"Running away won't solve anything," Barbara warned her.
No, it wouldn't. Helena had learned enough to know that much. It was still a tempting option. "If it weren't for the fact that I'd probably bounce, I'd jump," she admitted, her tone a whip of verbal self-flagellation.
"Don't say that," Barbara responded instantly, her voice heart-meltingly soft, promising a kind of forgiveness Helena knew perfectly well she didn't deserve.
"I hurt you," the brunette exhaled, "the one person I should never...." She trailed off and stood shaking her head helplessly."I had no right," she whispered at last, then looked up, her voice ragged with tears and cracking randomly as she continued, "I am so sorry."
Still leaning heavily on one hand, Barbara reached out with the other, though she was careful to keep the comforter pinned in place under her upper arm. "C'mere," she said softly.
Helena shook her head, and backed up a step, every move unusually clumsy. She didn't deserve the caring in the other woman's eyes, didn't deserve the warmth of her touch, or the forgiveness she could see coming. "If you want, I'll go away ... and not come back." It ripped her heart out to contemplate it, but as she looked at it, it seemed like the only right thing to do. After what she'd done, she deserved to be banished from the presence of the only person alive who'd been unfailingly kind to her and never once let her down.
"Come here," Barbara said more firmly, her voice taking on a note of command.
Shaking her head, Helena only backed up another step. "I can't ... I mean, I don't...." Her shoulders sagged and she sighed heavily.
"Helena ... please--"
"Don't," the younger woman hissed, unshed tears leaving her eyes edged silver. "Don't be kind to me ... not after...." she couldn't finish and fell silent once again.
"Not after what?" Barbara demanded, her voice somehow soft and hard at the same time. "Not after you..." she paused for less than a second, the brief verbal slowdown more of a glitch really, "you gave me back a part of myself I thought I'd lost?" It was a painfully difficult admission to make at so many levels that she couldn't find the breath to continue.
"I didn't give," Helena disagreed, her voice a tight rasp, "I took."
Barbara winced, but didn't argue, at least not directly. "Not in the end--"
"I pinned you down--"
"And we both enjoyed it," Barbara cut the younger woman off. It would have been so easy to pretend it was otherwise, to simply lay blame at Helena's feet and absolve herself of any responsibility for what had happened, but she couldn't do that and live with herself. It was a lie that would destroy them both. "We ... both ... enjoyed what happened."
"Barbara...." Helena croaked. She didn't dare hope, couldn't afford to allow herself to go there and have her heart broken. She closed her eyes for the briefest second, dredging up any memories she could summon of the hours since she'd grabbed Barbara out of the clocktower. Mental images of being held close, whispered words, and eager caresses sent a flare of heat over her skin, but she couldn't be certain what was real and what wasn't. The memories were too close to the fantasies she'd nursed in the most private reaches of her brain for her to be at all confident of her view of things.
"What you said last night," Barbara pressed, "I need to know if it's true."
Helena searched the jumbled profusion of memories. She vaguely remembered saying all sorts of things, none of them remotely comforting. Things like, "I want you," and, "I love you," and, oh yeah, let's not forget a couple of fairly kinky sex fantasies. The brunette swallowed hard and seriously considered finding the nearest hole and crawling in. Or maybe she could dig one. What the hell good was being a Meta-Human if she couldn't dig a convenient hole when she could really use one?
"Helena," Barbara started fumbling with the comforter again---anything to distract herself and keep her fingers busy, "you know what I'm talking about." She had to. No one could whisper those words in that way and not remember, but suddenly Barbara wished she'd kept her mouth shut and resisted the urge to ask because there was always the chance of hearing an answer she didn't want to. Actually, considering that she wasn't even entirely sure what answer she wanted to hear, she wasn't sure there was a good---or anyway, a comfortable---scenario. And besides, maybe it really had been just the drugs, and now Helena was regretting what had happened between them with the same fervor she did everything else. God, this was just a bad idea.
"Yeah," Helena admitted, the single word nearly paralyzing the woman on the bed.
The longest couple of seconds of Barbara Gordon's entire life decided to inflict themselves on her, leaving her poised and uncertain while Helena debated whether or not to continue. Yeah, I know what you're talking about, yeah, it's the truth, or just yeah, I can't think of anything else to say, Barbara wondered.
"I guess you deserve your pound of flesh," the brunette sighed, shoulders hunching as though she could draw inside herself and somehow cease to be. She would have paid big money---as in, finally accepting her "grand inheritance" from Bruce Wayne---to have avoided what she had to say next. "I said 'I love you,'" she admitted, her voice soft and a little frightened, "and I meant it." Oddly enough though, once the words were out, it was almost a relief to say them without anything but her own emotions driving her. Like the pain of removing a sliver of glass, it hurt like hell, but at the same time, once it was done she felt so much better. "I'm in love with you ... and I have been for a long time."
Barbara stared at Helena for a long moment, head tipping to one side, silently assessing the state of the other woman's sobriety, and uncertain whether to be relieved or worried when she had to conclude that she was as sober as a judge.
Helena, meanwhile, stared down at her feet, outlining the pattern in expensive tile with the toe of her boot as it occurred to her that she hadn't even managed to get her shoes off before falling asleep on top of Barbara. Oh yeah, that should charm her. There were bad jokes about men doing that during assorted wars and police actions and they weren't polite at all. "Well?" she whispered after a long moment of uncomfortable silence. "You can go ahead and laugh now ... or tell me to go to hell." Maybe it would be for the best if Barbara did one, the other, or both, Helena thought. She was no good at relationships anyway, too mentally and emotionally screwed up to make them work for very long. Of course, she'd never really cared about most of the relationships in her life, and the reason for that was lying on the bed a few feet away, a blanket just barely hiding the soft curves that suddenly insisted on replaying themselves in her brain. Play, stop, rewind, play, stop, rewind, play, stop, rewind. If the memory was a videotape, it would wear out in short order.
Barbara was silent for another long moment as she formulated her response, struggling to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of her emotions in a way that might make sense, have nice smooth edges, no extra pieces, and didn't require a hammer to make some notches fit the accompanying grooves. Unfortunately, it was like trying to make sense of those round, ten thousand piece puzzles where the picture was a plate of spaghetti. In short, familiar landmarks were few and far between. "This isn't easy to say..." she began at last, clearly choosing her words very carefully.
Oh God, Helena thought as she realized what was coming. A gentle letdown, no banishment, but rather lovingly mature forgiveness that would leave her hating herself even more than she already did. She already knew the speech Barbara was doubtless mentally preparing as she slipped a hand into her coat pocket to retrieve a small backup transceiver that she always carried. It was just the drugs, Barbara would begin before segueing into an explanation of all the reasons why Helena wasn't responsible for her own actions. She would kind, firm, logical, and sympathetic.
And she would drop Helena like a hot rock.
The brunette looked up, unable to tear her eyes from the sight of soft flesh, her body suddenly throbbing under a fresh wave of desire. It had been so easy the night before ... would be so easy to again slide into the bed ... and into soft arms. She felt the feral quickening, the change in her blood as the animal part of her nature came to the fore. And if Barbara resisted, it would be so easy to press the issue and take what she wanted. She already knew the other woman would enjoy it before she was finished.
Barbara stared firmly at her hand, not daring to look up and face the woman standing a few feet away as she continued, her tone ultra-calm, "because--I've always been very careful to clearly delineate what behavior was appropriate where you were concerned ... and what wasn't," she added with extra emphasis. She dropped the outstretched hand into her lap, playing idly with the comforter, and momentarily distracted herself by wondering how the hell Helena had come up with this place. Then again, considering some of the brunette's contacts, maybe she was better off not knowing. Unfortunately, that idle speculation was nowhere near enough to remove the weight from her shoulders.
The softly spoken words snapped Helena back to the present, and a shudder of horror slid through her as she realized what she'd been contemplating. She couldn't take it. Even knowing that what Barbara was about to do what she felt was for the best, she wasn't ready to hear the words---not with her body still humming in the aftermath of their lovemaking, and demanding she take all over again---take and not stop taking until they were both sated and limp.
No, she couldn't do what nature was screaming for her to do and go back to that bed and make love to the woman tangled in the sheets until she saw that they belonged together. After what she'd already done, that would destroy everything. She saw Barbara take a deep breath, nerving herself up to continue, and let the transceiver fly.
"You were only sixteen," Barbara whispered, barely able to get the confession out, "I had no business being attracted to you." She looked up when a soft whoosh of air was the only sound to greet the softly uttered words. It took her a moment to realize that the fluttering curtains were moving that way in the wake of Helena's rapid exit, apparently made a second before her tortured admission. "Helena?" she exhaled, not quite believing the other woman had left her alone. A beat passed while she searched the room, half expecting to find the other woman hiding in some dark corner, but nothing. She was alone.
No, not alone. Instinct told her the other woman was close. Nowhere visible and she wouldn't be fooled by any false screams or faked emergencies, but if something happened, she'd be there. Noting the dropped transceiver, she reached for it and activated the homing signal she knew would contact the Delphi system. By now, Dinah and Alfred were probably getting desperate. It wouldn't take long for someone to arrive.
On the building across the street, Helena crouched amid the shadows, sharp eyes tracking everything going on in the room where Barbara remained. She couldn't stay, but neither could she leave, at least not until she knew Barbara was safe. Whatever her sins, she wouldn't take any chances with the other woman's life, so she remained right where she was until Alfred arrived, her gaze hungry and longing, a wolf just past the edge of a campfire, wanting to come in, but too wild to take the risk.
* * * * * *
Leaning back against the headrest in the passenger's seat of Bruce Wayne's limo, Barbara closed her eyes tightly, then wondered if that was such a good idea when her always busy mind insisted on replaying every minute of the last several hours. That did nothing to help straighten out her already scrambled thoughts, and she snapped her eyes open again, concentrating on the passing streetlights and the early morning colors. At least Alfred had gone into discreet butler mode and hadn't asked what had happened. Of course, he wasn't a stupid man and Dinah had undoubtedly told him everything she'd seen---and hadn't seen, but knew anyway---so he probably had a pretty good idea.
They pulled up a light and he glanced over at her, his expression worried, but he didn't say anything.
"She was drugged," she felt the need to explain, wanting him to understand that whatever Dinah had told him, it wasn't a worst case scenario. "And what you may be thinking ... it wasn't that."
He nodded, his expression a carefully schooled look of dispassionate interest. Nothing phased Alfred. Well, of course not, she mused. Considering the things he'd been through with Bruce, if he was that easily bothered, he'd have run screaming long years before. "I would think that Ms. Helena's responses could get rather dicey under those circumstances," he said after a beat, "especially given the depth of her feelings for you."
Barbara stared at the elderly butler as what he was saying struck her. "You ... you knew?" she whispered after a second, while she found herself replaying Dinah's words and realized the teen had seen it as well. Was there anyone other than herself who hadn't put two and two together, she wondered.
The butler offered the tiniest of shrugs, his expression sympathetic. "It was rather apparent on occasion ... at least to me." He spent his life watching others, picking up on the subtle cues that most people missed. He might not have Dinah's psychic abilities, but he'd spent a lifetime moving unnoticed through rooms full of people who often forgot he wasn't simply a part of the furnishings. That sort of access to human interaction allows a person to develop a unique view of to events and emotions.
"Has it been going on a long time?" she asked, needing his insight and objective view of the situation to fill out the image her own limited perspective painted.
"Since before she came to live with you, I think," he answered honestly.
"And what do I feel?" she asked before she could think better of it. It seemed insane to be asking someone else about her own emotions, but at that point, she was so confused, it seemed as good an option as any. She still wasn't entirely certain what speech she'd been about to give Helena before she fled; the one society dictated she should give, or the one the part of her that had thrilled to Helena's lovemaking wanted to give.
"You are quite in love with her, I think."
The sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach made the sharp denial she ought to give nearly impossible. "How can I be the last one to even suspect?" she asked, honestly confused by the whole damn situation.
"It was something you could never allow yourself to consider as long as you were her guardian ... and long past that," he said practically, then continued, choosing his words carefully, "and I don't think you feel ... worthy...."
His gaze dropped to her legs, the silent reminder bringing a flush to her cheeks. There was probably more truth than she would have liked to the gentle accusation. "I don't know that it's so much not feeling worthy," she sighed after a long moment's contemplation, "as being realistic." Her eyes slid closed again, and damned if the replay didn't start right on schedule. Despite the distracting imagery, she forged ahead. "You know Helena. Can you honestly see her being satisfied with...." She fell silent for a long moment before continuing, her tone as practical as she could make it in spite of the hurt and exhaustion, "with someone who can't keep up with her physically?" A deep flush slid over her cheeks as the older man peered at her, seeing far too much for her comfort.
Finally, he raised one eyebrow, ignoring the honking behind him in favor of the troubled young woman in the passenger's seat. "I realize I'm an old man, and very probably not someone you think understands such things," he said at last, the utter banality of his tone somehow making the words that much more embarrassing, "but it appeared to me as though you kept up quite well."
Time to flame out, crash, and burn, Barbara thought as her eyes dropped firmly to her lap. She could almost hear the whooshing sound as she plummeted straight down into the ground and exploded. She wondered if Alfred had done this to Bruce when he was still in town. That would almost be adequate revenge for the way he'd bailed and dumped everything in her lap all those years before. "Guy behind us is honking," she muttered and hooked a thumb over her shoulder. Maybe a devout prayer to the patron saint of people who really should keep their mouths shut would save her.
"Yes, I know," the elderly butler admitted, his tone artfully bland. "This seemed more important."
The car didn't move, while the honking from behind them gained in frequency until the guy was just laying on the horn.
Barbara risked a quick look at Alfred, quickly concluding he was prepared to sit there all night if need be. Not necessarily the best plan in light of the mad honker behind them and the realities of road rage in the modern age. God, only Alfred could be so utterly unimpressed by this entire mess. Flashing another surreptitious glance his way, she found herself wondering what he was waiting to hear. "If it were anyone else, maybe it could...." She didn't finish and a moment passed before she continued. "But Helena? I just don't see how."
"I think you rather underestimate the young lady," Alfred said without haste. "She has more depth than that."
He was right about that much, and she was being unfair if she too quickly categorized the younger woman as nothing more than a pretty face out for the same. Helena was smart as hell, and despite her ever-present efforts to pretend otherwise, she honestly cared for people. Certainly, the depths of their friendship had often been a revelation, her total and unwavering loyalty more than a little amazing given her background and her resentment of Barbara's ties to her father. "Maybe," she admitted after a beat, her voice barely audible above the mix of horn and shouts. "I don't know.... I need to think."
"Indeed ... I'd say you do."
Barbara glanced back, noting that the horn was being joined in chorus by angry shouts. "I ... uh ... think maybe we should be moving along."
Alfred glanced back and offered a rather droll smile. "Of course, Miss Barbara." Without another glance at the car behind them, he accelerated the limo smoothly.
"Is Dinah okay?" Barbara asked several minutes later.
"She called me the moment you and Miss Helena ... left. She was worried and quite frightened. She calmed a great deal once we knew where you were, and that you were all right."
"God, I don't know how to explain any of this to her," Barbara sighed.
"I doubt that will be necessary. She appears to understand the situation quite well." Alfred glanced at the redhead. "Perhaps better than either of you."
"I'm not sure how hard that is," Barbara sighed and sagged into the seat. "Since I'm not sure either of us understands it at all." The rest of the drive took place in silence. There didn't seem to be much else to say.
* * * * * *
"Vodka on the rocks," Helena said softly as she slid into a seat at the bar in No Man's Land. The private, all meta bar wasn't someplace she normally hung out, but if Barbara came here looking for her, she'd get a warning, and no one would give out any information. The guy behind the bar was new---the unintentional reminder of Frosty and his untimely death only deepened her depression---and looked at her assessingly. Gibson might skate the edge of some laws, but not the ones regarding the drinking age. "I'm over twenty-one," she muttered, wondering if she was going to have to produce an I.D. before she was allowed to get tanked. Could get tricky given that she didn't exactly carry a wallet when she was off doing the whole crimefighting gig.
"I'll vouch for her," a familiar voice assured the bartender before he could draw breath to question her claim.
Helena barely resisted the urge to growl and hunched her shoulders while she glared at the glossy surface of the bar. "Gibson," she muttered, hoping he'd take the hint from her tone, and get lost. She really wasn't in the mood for the full force of his relentlessly upbeat good humor.
"This makes two visits in under a year," the bar owner said cheerfully, not getting the hint at all as he slid onto the neighboring stool. "I can't decide whether this means Armageddon or the second coming of Elvis is upon us," he mused out loud.
Despite her firm determination not to, Helena glanced over. Dammit, she didn't want to smile. She wanted to be all deep and depressed, but the grin the gamine bar owner was offering was making it really difficult to maintain her grim mood. "Not today, Gibson," she muttered and offered a glower guaranteed to drive off all but the most determined of souls. If Gibson noticed, he didn't show it, and he had to have noticed, because Gibson noticed everything. His damn, stinking power was the ability to remember absolutely everything, and he picked up on even the tiniest, seemingly most inconsequential details.
"Should we schedule for Thursday, then?" he questioned. He mimed taking an invisible date book out of his breast pocket. "One appointment for the delectable Huntress and...." He trailed off, brows knitting into a frown as a faint scent teased his nostrils, a gentler perfume underlying the sweet conglomeration of smells that always clung to Helena. For once it actually took him an extra second to locate and tie the memory to what he was smelling, and when he did he found himself doubting his powers for the first time in a long time. No, that just couldn't ... be. His brows shot up, and any clever rejoinders disappeared in a puff of disbelief as a deep flush made its way over his face.
Helena could almost see the line of red advancing over his skin like in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon as he put two and two together and, unfortunately, came up with four. She'd almost forgotten that in addition to that damn memory, he had a sense of smell that put the average bloodhound to shame. Not a meta talent or anything like that, just an unfortunate trick of fate that, when combined with his memory, made for some really annoying and embarrassing conclusions. He knew her perfume, and he'd met Barbara enough times to recognize hers as well. And, despite his more annoying habits, she was comfortably certain he wasn't a virgin, so he had to recognize the smell of sweat and sex that doubtless still clung to her skin. "Whatever you're thinking of saying, don't," she snarled, her look warning him off the subject.
Gibson gulped, his adam's apple bobbing almost comically. "It's just that...." He trailed off, pulling at his collar nervously as her look sharpened. He'd long had a bit of a crush on Helena, but was realistic enough to know he didn't have a shot in hell. He even knew the stunning brunette ran about sixty-forty in favor of the female side of the male to female ratio when it came to her sexual interests. He just somehow couldn't even begin to imagine her with Barbara Gordon, nope, nuh uh, not never. It was just ... no, he couldn't even find the words to begin to describe it, he decided, his expression vaguely bewildered. "She's--"
"Don't!" Helena snarled before he could get any farther.
Seriously doubting the wisdom of sitting down in the first place, Gibson fell silent and simply watched the young woman carefully. When her drink came, he signaled for one of his own, but was wise enough to keep his mouth shut for once, and simply sat waiting for her to open up in her own time. His drink came, a few customers came and went. He was a patient man. Well, not really, but he was capable of faking it when he was curious enough.
"Y'know, you're really irritating," she muttered at last. She flashed a quick glance his way. "I don't want to talk about this."
He continued to simply watch her, smart enough to realize that offering an opinion or asking a question was tantamount to suicide, but too nosy to simply walk away.
She took a sip from her drink, then lowered the glass back to the bar, gently swirling the liquid inside around and silently watching condensation form on the glass. "You know anything about this Black Snow stuff that's making the rounds?" she asked after a long beat
He frowned, clearly startled by the abrupt change in undiscussed topics. "Coupla thugs tried to bring it in here," he said, then offered a wicked smile. "They were dissuaded from the idea that this would be a good market for their product." He didn't keep any enforcers on his payroll, but if there were one or two people who were better than the average bear at helping keep the place so that it ran to his specifications ... well, employee loyalty was an important factor in a business' success.
"It's been making people psychotic ... driving them to kill..." she whispered, elbows braced on the bartop, shoulders hunched.
Gibson tensed, unable to read her tone and suddenly uneasy. "That's why I absolutely wouldn't risk letting it in here." Add that kind of psychosis to the wide range of powers and sensitivities of the Meta community, and he was terrified of what might happen; death, destruction, severely lowered monthly profits, and much higher than average repair bills. Not good. Not good at all.
"Wise choice," Helena whispered, her gaze distant. She was quiet for a long moment, and then quietly added, "I got hit with it last night...." She ran her finger through gathering condensation, leaving a silvery trail on her glass. "Did something I shouldn't have...."
Unease turned to outright terror and drove him to pick his words very carefully so that they came out very slowly with pauses between each syllable. "What did you do?"
"I didn't kill anyone if that's what you're thinking."
It was, and he was relieved to hear she hadn't.
"But I ... lost control ... dragged Barbara off like some goddamned neanderthal...." Again she trailed off and again he simply waited until the silence stretched too thin for her to bear it any longer. "I made love to her," Helena confessed at last. "Or maybe I raped her ... I'm not really sure." It wasn't murder, but it was bad enough. She took another swallow of vodka, then peered at the glass, the idle thought that maybe this wasn't the best time to be drinking running through her brain.
"Jesus," Gibson exhaled, dragging the word out until it lasted at least four syllables. He didn't much like Barbara Gordon. Nothing personal in it. He didn't much like any human. But at the same time, he knew she'd done right by Helena, and on the occasions she'd had anything to do with the Meta community had managed not to act like a jerk. As pureblood humans went, she was almost ... well ... human in his mind. "She okay?" he asked after a beat.
She considered the question for a moment. "Physically? Yeah. Mentally?" A long pause followed. "I don't really know ... didn't stay long."
"You ran like hell," Gibson said on a sudden note of understanding. He'd known Huntress long enough to recognize her M.O. She was somewhat infamous for dropping lovers at a rather ridiculous rate, bailing out the moment things looked even mildly serious.
"Yeah," she admitted, then looked at him, her expression one that would haunt him for a long time. "Except this time, I wanted to stay...." She knew her reputation and what he was probably thinking, that she'd made like a bunny because of avoidance of emotional commitment issues ... just like she normally did.
"She throw you out?" he asked gently, ready to build up a head of righteous anger on his friend's behalf. After all, Helena had been under the influence of a nasty drug, and she'd done a hell of a lot of good over the years, and if Barbara Gordon was any kind of friend--
"Actually, she asked me to stay," Helena sighed, neatly deflating the argument he was developing on her behalf.
"So, why didn't you?" he asked without pausing to consider his words.
"She was getting ready to give me one of those, 'I care for you, but it can't be,' speeches." She took another swallow of vodka, feeling it burn as it slid down her throat.
"Oh," he said simply.
Somehow that tiny exhalation drove her more than pointed questions would have. "I love her, Gibson ... and I've blown it ... maybe hurt her." She ran a hand over her hair. "And even with all of that, there was a part of me that wanted to climb back into bed with her, and take whatever the hell I wanted, consequences be damned." She shook her head. Maybe she should just be locked up and kept away from the real world, so she couldn't hurt the people she cared for.
"So, you ran to protect her," Gibson accurately diagnosed. As thoroughly boneheaded as Helena's actions had been, he could see her thinking that way. Sometimes she had a real tendency toward martyrdom.
"I guess." She took another swallow of the vodka, wondering why in the hell she'd ordered the stuff in the first place, given that she didn't really like alcohol.
"You never were very good with plans," he concluded, ignoring the annoyed glare directed his way.
She glared at her glass again, using the tip of one finger to swirl an ice cube around. "You have a better one?"
"Tell her you love her, apologize on bended knee ... maybe send flowers and candy ... and if that fails, rebound into a wild, passionate affair with me." The suggestion was lightly made, his tone joking, but she knew damn well that given half a chance he'd be naked and leaping on top of her even if it meant doing it right there on the bar. She liked Gibson, but he wasn't always the most subtle guy around.
"Seriously," she growled, pointedly killing any hopes with one word.
He sighed heavily and his shoulders slumped. Shot down again. Not that he'd really expected anything else, but it was still less than pleasant. "Seriously?" he repeated the single word. "Talk to her ... work it out. If she's who you've always claimed she is ... you can get past whatever happened ... and if something more is meant to be, it will be."
Staring straight ahead, Helena took another sip of alcohol, tempted to argue against herself, but not in the mood to hear Gibson say good things about her. She had a real bout of self-hate going and his relentlessly cheerful view of life, and particularly herself only made it feel that much worse. She went back into grim, silent, introspective predator mode. Not for nothing was she the daughter of Batman, though she would have punched anyone who made the comparison at that point. "So, the Black Snow," she said, changing the subject with grim determination, "do you have any idea who might be behind the operation?"
He shook his head. "You know I stay away from that kind of thing. Made it plain they're not welcome here, and what they do in human bars is none of my business."
She turned a hard look his way. "People are dying ... who knows whether they're human or meta. Now, if you know anything, I want to know what it is."
"That type plays nasty--"
"I play nastier," she shot back, lips pulling back from her teeth in a subtle snarl. "This one's personal, Gibson. They poisoned me ... tried to send me back home to kill people I care for. Now, tell me."
"I don't know much of anything ... but the first time they were into the bar, I overhead one of the men mention needing to get back before they pulled anchor."
"And they were shipping it into the Someplace Else by boat," she murmured as she started putting two and two together. "They're on a ship ... probably cooking it there." It made sense. That would allow them to move around and stay one step ahead of any pursuers.
He took a sip from his own glass as he considered her over the rim. "You think if you take care of this, it'll prove something to her?" he asked quietly.
"Maybe," she admitted, then turned a piercing gaze his direction, "but mostly it's just that they need to be stopped."
Suddenly uncomfortable under the impact of that piercing stare, he ducked his head, staring at his own drink. "Still don't get why you care so much about them," he grumbled. He was stuck living in a world dominated by humans who considered him to be a freak. He saw no reason to get emotionally involved in their problems. If they wanted to poison each other and kill each other off, it wasn't his problem.
"My father was human," Helena said softly, not that Bruce Wayne had much to do with her feelings, being that he was far from her favorite person in the world. "Barbara's human ... and a lot of other decent people are human ... plus I've known plenty of metas who were scum. Hell, you saw one killing his own just a few weeks ago." She ran the tip of her thumb round and round the rim of her glass. "In my experience, there are more important things than whether you're human or meta."
"I suppose," he muttered, though he still had his doubts. Another long moment of thoughtful silence followed, while they both contemplated their respective situations, then, finally, Gibson cleared his throat. "I could probably make some calls ... check around a little ... maybe come up with something that would help you find them."
She turned a faint, grateful smile his way. "Thanks. I'll take any help I can get."
"It may take me awhile," he added, suddenly nervous about what he was getting himself into. Instinct told him he could make some very dangerous enemies if he wasn't careful ... but he'd always liked and respected Helena, and he knew she'd put her butt on the line whether he helped or not. It was just that maybe he could help her to avoid getting it shot off if he lent a hand. "I don't want these guys getting suspicious."
"I'll take anything I can get." She turned a wolfish look his direction. "I want these bastards ... and I want them badly ... but I'll make sure nobody knows where the information came from."
He nodded, accepting her word at face value. "Check in with me tomorrow morning." He looked around uneasily, double checking to making certain no one was listening in. "And don't trust anyone with this ... not anyone."
"You have my word."
"I'll do what I can," he promised.
"Thanks," she murmured, sliding back into her laconic mode. She leaned forward on her elbows again, seriously contemplating her drink. She shouldn't have ordered one. Should have just gone with a soft drink and left it at that. The alcohol was sitting there burning a hole in her stomach, and doing nothing good for her mood.
"Is there anything else I can do?" Gibson questioned, worried for the young woman sitting at the bar. She was hiding her dejection and terror as best she could, but he could see it behind the harsh face she endeavored to show the world. "Rumor has it I'm a pretty good listener."
Helena shook her head, then slowly pushed the drink away, watching the damp trail it left on the glossy surface of the bar. "Thanks for the offer, but right now, I'm not sure a bar is really where I belong."
"Fine, I'll take you to dinner. I think there's a Mickey D's around here somewhere."
The offer got a wry smile. "Thanks, Gibson, but I think I need to be alone." Her decision made, she slid to her feet. Before she could pull away, he rested a hand lightly on her forearm.
"Talk to her ... for both your sakes."
She nodded, but didn't answer, simply stepped away and left without another word.
* * * * * *
"Have you heard from her?" were the first words out of Dinah's mouth when she got back from classes.
Too exhausted and emotionally wrung out to face a day of high school students, Barbara had called in sick and gone back to bed. On waking, she'd tried to call Helena several times, both by phone and by the two-way radio she carried at all times. No answer, so she'd tried to lose herself in digging through computer records in an effort to find some clue to stopping the Black Snow. Except she kept taking breaks where she found herself dialing the other woman's number and looking up hopefully every time she heard the slightest sound that might signal her return. Worried, upset, nervous, scared, and pissed off, she was uncertain whether how much of the anger might be the product of what happened between them and what might be the product of the way Helena was leaving her to sweat. She didn't know how she'd respond if the woman walked in the door right then; grab, shake her, and yell loud enough to bring down the roof, or grab her and kiss till they both fell over from lack of oxygen. She abruptly realized Dinah was still staring expectantly at her. "No ... nothing," she muttered, hoping the girl hadn't noticed her brief bout of bemusement. Or better yet, would just forget the whole subject. Discussing the situation with Helena was simply not something she had even the remotest desire to do. She would have preferred it if the teen were blissfully unaware of things. Unfortunately that wasn't to be, so, barring total ignorance, she'd have preferred total silence.
She wasn't so lucky as Dinah continued, apparently dealing with her worries by going into babble mode. "She's probably off being all broody and guilty ... doing her 'I'm bad, nobody could love me,' routine." She pursed her lips in annoyance. She hadn't lived there long, but she was good at picking up on certain patterns and had developed an almost sibling sort of relationship with Helena---complete with a certain amount of rivalry and bickering. "God, I can't believe she is so dense. I mean it's obvious that...." She abruptly fell silent as she realized her guardian was staring at her with a look of horror that bordered on pleading. Babble mode. Definitely babble mode. And on the verge of spilling way too much information. Way too much. Dinah offered a sickly smile. "... that someone should have sewn my mouth shut a long time ago," she offered through a wince.
Barbara sighed, guiding the chair back around to peer at the computer monitors, hoping that maybe they would offer some peace and escape from all the insanity. "Helena will show up when she's damn well ready." It didn't require psychic powers to hear the irritation in her voice ... or the worry.
An uncomfortable moment of silence passed, then Dinah drew closer, peering past Barbara's shoulders at the computer monitor. "Any luck tracking the drug thing?" she asked.
"No ... one or two leads, but nothing that's panned out."
"Oh." Dinah continued to stare at the monitor. Nothing like having absolutely nothing to say, or at least nothing anybody wanted to hear.
Barbara's fingers flowed over the keyboard, the mindless motion of typing almost hypnotic. "There's really not much you can do here," she murmured, wishing Dinah would go do some homework or something. Normally, she didn't mind having someone watch her work. In fact, she often enjoyed having Helena lean over her shoulder, offering the odd commentary, her dry sense of humor a welcome relief from the often stressful precision of successful hacking. However, after everything that had happened, having the teenager tracking her every move was more than a little nerve wracking
"Oh," Dinah exhaled, well aware her new guardian was trying to get rid of her. She swallowed hard, looking uncomfortable. "I guess I should...." Without thinking, she rested her hand lightly on Barbara's shoulder only to yank it back as if burned, the flood of emotion nearly enough to drop her to her knees. Wavering gently on her feet, she lifted one hand to her temple, almost but not quite making contact. She saw Barbara's head turn at the shoulders, then the wheelchair come around, but she was still processing the influx of feelings she'd picked up on. Nothing too explicit or intimate, thank god, but pretty overwhelming all the same. And here she'd thought of Helena as the explosive one and Barbara as so much calmer and more controlled. Pure illusion, she realized in an instant as she struggled to sift through the tidal wave.
"Are you all right?" Barbara asked worriedly.
The teenager blinked, returning to the present. "Yeah..." she exhaled, staring at the redhead with wide eyes. "It's just...." She would have preferred to shoot herself than utter the words that came next, but still caught in the daze, she couldn't hold them back. "You love her that much...."
Barbara paled, clutching the armrests tightly as she stared at the teen with something akin to horror. Having Dinah rooting through her thoughts was only slightly more desirable than being dragged over carpet tacks and dipped in rubbing alcohol.
"How did you manage to hide the truth ... from everyone ... even yourself ... for so long?" Dinah questioned, still staggered by what she'd unintentionally tapped into.
"I don't ... I mean I...." Barbara shook her head a little helplessly. "I haven't...." Except she had, she realized as she felt her stomach muscles knot and twist with tension. The girl continued to stare at her with that same stunned, disbelieving look. "I don't know," she admitted at last, unable to offer a comforting lie in the face of the expression directed her way.
"You have to tell her," Dinah insisted, her eyes wide and a little desperate.
"It's not that simple," Barbara tried to explain, though she didn't really understand it herself. "Our relationship ... it's complicated--" They were both screwed up people. It was a screwed up situation with a screwed up history. There were no easy answers as far as she could tell.
"No, it's not," the teenager disagreed. "She's in love with you---you're in love with her. How much simpler can it get?" Before she'd known there was something there, attraction, desire, caring; all things easily read at a superficial level. Normally, she was careful and didn't let herself go any deeper than that. Only the intensity of emotion had pushed the knowledge into her brain.
"Dinah--" Barbara began, but again the teenager interrupted.
"You have to tell her the truth."
Barbara pulled up short, gnawing on her lip for a moment before quietly responding, "I will." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before continuing. "But first, she has to come home." She nodded to indicate the backpack hooked over the teen's shoulder. "Now, why don't you go ahead and get your homework done." As hints went, it wasn't even remotely subtle.
Dinah nodded and turned away, taking several steps toward her room before turning back. "She'll be back," she assured Barbara as she separated that fear from the others. "She won't be able to stay away."
Barbara could only hope the teenager was right.
* * * * * *
Harley Quinn couldn't help but grin as she read the report of the action at the Someplace Else. And now a shipment had gone through with no problems whatsoever. Really, this was quite perfect. She just hoped whoever the blasted woman who kept interfering with her work was, she was rotting in the tattered, disemboweled remains of everyone and everything she'd ever cared for.
That sort of thing always tended to bother the heroic type.
She didn't really know why, since it sounded like good fun to her, but maybe they just couldn't handle getting blood stains out of all that leather. Really, just a little soda water worked wonders. One would think they'd have learned that by now, but apparently not.
She chuckled softly as she dug out a patient file. Time to get back to her hobby. Sometimes destroying lives one at a time was nearly as rewarding as doing so in bulk.
* * * * * *
Insert Scene late night, Barbara calls Helena's place. Helena hears the answering machine message and nearly picks up but then runs scared. Meanwhile, Barbara calls Dick and asks if he's heard from Helena, winds up with him telling her Helen's had feelings for her for years.
* * * * * *
It took three days for Gibson to get the information Helena needed. Three days which she spent wandering, avoiding her apartment, ducking her work schedule, and trying not to think about the sound of Barbara's voice on her answering machine when she called in to pick up her messages. There'd been several recordings, each one sounding more stressed than the last. She knew she was hurting the other woman, she just wasn't sure what else to do. She needed to think, only thinking was damn near impossible with the shattered memories of everything that had happened with Barbara randomly relooping in her brain, constantly in her thoughts, keeping her senses and hormones on edge, but too jumbled to allow her to assemble a reliable version of what had happened.
Standing on a pier overlooking Gotham Bay, a gentle wind in her hair, the scent of the ocean in the air, the faint glitter of starlight on the surface of the water, she could almost forget the fear that had haunted her for the last few days; that she would no longer be welcome in the other woman's life. Another moment or two passed, and then she peered down at the choker and earrings resting in her palm. No chickening out. Time to go ahead and do it. She only had a few more minutes before Gibson's contact picked her up. She had to do this. Hands trembling ever so slightly, she fastened the choker around her neck, settling the mic at the base of her throat, then slipped on each of the bat shaped earrings. Deep breath, release tension as she exhaled. Deep breath, release tension as she exhaled. She could do this.
A quick click activated the linkup, even though she knew she was being unrealistic to think that Barbara might be sitting up waiting for some communication from her end. Hell, she was going to be lucky if the other woman was still speaking to her. "Oracle ... this is--"
"He---Huntress,"Barbara's voice came back almost immediately, shaken enough that she'd started to use Helena's name instead of Huntress.
Helena couldn't think for a moment as the pier seemed to drop out from under her. Not angry or resentful, Barbara's voice sounded breathy and a little scared ... but hopeful. Hopeful was good. She'd been kind of praying for hopeful actually.
"Are you okay?"
The brunette's hand rose, fingers barely stroking the choker that held the throat mic in place. "I'm fine," she answered automatically, then saw the absurdity of the claim. "Maybe not fine," she admitted, "but I'll be okay. I'm more worried about you." Her fingers stilled, eyes sliding closed, her breathing heavier. "How are you?"
"I'm okay ... just worried about you," Barbara stammered, her soft voice a verbal caress that sent a shiver down Helena's spine. "I kept trying to call ... checking places I know you go when you're ... upset...."
"I know ... and I'm sorry I scared you," the younger woman apologized sincerely. "I just needed time ... to deal with what I've done. I haven't been in a good space and I couldn't risk doing more damage. Hurting you ... I don't know if I can ever forgive myself."
"Just come home," Barbara pleaded, her voice rough and unsteady enough that Helena was certain she was fighting tears.
"I will," Helena promised, "soon ... but there's something I have to do first."
"I stayed close the other night ... made sure you were okay until Alfred got there." It was suddenly very important to Helena that Barbara understand that she hadn't really left her alone in a strange place when she was that vulnerable. She'd stayed within sight and could have been there within a second if there'd been a problem.
"I know," Barbara whispered, her absolute confidence warming the younger woman. "I could feel you ... knew you were near."
Helena's eyes tipped skyward, silently tracking an airplane flying overhead, concentrating on anything but the question she had to ask, though the possible answers terrified her. "I have to know," she whispered, her voice threatening to catch on every other syllable, "what happened the other night ... was it rape ... or did you really touch me willingly? And don't lie," she added, afraid Barbara might try to protect her from her own actions.
She heard the tiny rushing sound as Barbara sucked in air, momentarily surprised. "It wasn't rape ... you have my word."
Slender shoulders sagged with relief as Helena truly breathed for the first time in days. "I was afraid I imagined ... that part," she admitted, "afraid I just wanted it to be true too badly." If Barbara really had turned to her, she could almost forgive herself ... almost believe that maybe the other woman could forgive her.
"No," Barbara whispered, her voice ragged, the admission clearly difficult, "I wanted you."
Then Helena couldn't breathe again, the impact of the softly spoken words acting like a sharp blow to the solar plexus. "Why?" she whispered at last, the words coming more easily this way. It was a question she didn't think she could have asked if she'd had to face Barbara.
A long moment of silence followed, leaving Helena to wonder if Barbara was searching for a way to word the truth or for a convenient lie. "There are too many reasons ... and this isn't exactly a good time...." Barbara trailed into silence that lasted another second or two before she quietly said, "You've just always treated me like ... me ... not ... not like a broken toy with flaws you were graciously willing to overlook ... and when you looked at me ... I just felt ... desirable ... beautiful...."
Helena winced, hurting for the other woman. "You are incredibly desirable ... and I've never thought of you as broken."
"You don't know how special that is...."
Tipping her head back down, Helena sighed heavily. "You're what's special. Sometimes it feels like I've wanted you since I knew what wanting is." Her fingers continued stroking the choker very lightly. "Loved you since I've known what loving is." Then sharp ears pricked as she heard the soft chop of the small fishing boat coming in to take her out to the drug ship ... or rather past it, just close enough to get aboard without drawing attention. "It's almost time," she said softly, "I need you to do something for me."
Barbara easily picked up on the change in her voice. "What are you up to?"
"Making sure the bastards who sandbagged me don't get a chance to hurt anyone else."
"Where are you?" It was easy to hear the changeover from personal to professional mode in Barbara's voice, along with the background noise of graceful fingers on a keyboard and the occasional gentle squeak of a wheel.
"Gotham Bay," Helena said quickly, going into professional mode. "I'm going to need you to get the Coast Guard out here when I give you the signal--"
"They're using a ship in the bay as a mobile lab ... cooking the stuff out there, then moving it in by small boat."
"Pull back, and I'll--"
"They're in close to ready for another delivery, Oracle. Once that's done, they'll pull out and be that much harder to find--"
"Okay, fine then, we'll--"
"I'm going now," Helena said, her tone allowing no room for argument. "If you don't hear from me in thirty minutes--"
"Leave the transceiver on," Barbara broke in, a note of pleading underlying the command, then turning to near begging as she added, "Don't cut me out ... please. We're still partners."
After a moment's debate, Helena nodded. "All right ... but I need to be quiet now...." She saw the boat pull up and headed down the short flight of stairs that took her to the waterline. A quick signal from the figure behind the wheel---some friend of Gibson's who was apparently totally trusted---and she hopped aboard, ducking low out of sight and clinging to a side rail. She could have swum out to the small ship---a rusted out cargo hauler that appeared to have seen better decades---but it was far enough that it would have left her cold and winded. Better to get there fresh and ready to kick ass. Instinct told her that, whatever it looked like from the outside, that was pure illusion, and she might well be facing a stiff fight. She wanted her revenge for what they'd tried to make her do ... and even more revenge for what they had made her do. "Oracle," she whispered after they'd been moving for several minutes, her voice soft and sepulchral.
"I love you."
A moment's silence followed, and then Barbara's voice came back, very soft and a little uncertain. "I know--"
Helena didn't give her time to say anymore, afraid of what she might or might not hear. "Time to move," she hissed.
"Huntress ... be careful."
Barbara's voice rang in Helena's ear even as she made her leap, leaving the small fishing trawler behind to keep on its way, totally unnoticed. She hit the starboard gunwale toward the bow, and hung there for a long moment, waiting to see if anyone had noticed, but the ship was quiet. Nothing moving on deck. She allowed a moment to pass, then did a quick vault up over the side, landing lightly on deck and quickly merging with the shadows. "I'm aboard," she whispered just loudly enough to make herself heard by the woman on the other end.
* * * * * *
Barbara leaned forward, nervous sweat forming a river down the center of her back, the headset she'd switched to in order to monitor Helena's progress turned up all the way so she could pick out every possible detail. Fingers flying over the keyboard, she started hacking into an international ship registry. "Do you know the name of the ship?" she whispered even as she heard a dull thud on the other end, followed by a tiny strangled cry and another soft thud.
"One down," Helena whispered. "And it's the Narraganset Dream."
Barbara ran through ship names as rapidly as possible until she found what she was looking for. "Found it. She's registered out of Liberia ... big surprise." Liberian registry was a common way of avoiding the stricter laws in other western nations. "Decommissioned for several years ... put back into service a year ago by a Swedish company." She turned entered info into another computer, hoping to pull up data. "They've put a lot of money into her."
"Oh, you're not kidding," Helena exhaled, sounding faintly awestruck, her voice almost inaudible. "She looks like a rustbucket from the outside, but I'm looking down on a clean room."
Then Barbara heard a man's voice over the headset, too faint and muffled to be intelligible. A hard sharp slap quickly followed, the sound of hits, feet shuffling, then finally a solid crash.
"Looks like this is about to get exciting."
"Please, God, be careful," Barbara pleaded, her voice so soft she doubted Helena heard her, especially given the sounds of combat ringing in her ear.
* * * * * *
Punch, kick, roll, flying roundhouse. Helena kept moving, running through a list of moves, kicking, hitting, punching, the speed and force behind the blows enough to send men flying. She took the armed guards down first, holding back enough to refrain from killing them, but no more than that. Facing overwhelming numbers in the tight corridors, she'd been forced to retreat back to the upper deck where at least three of her attackers had already hit the water. She didn't check to see if they could swim. She was too busy beating the living hell out of their colleagues. A fast moving blur, she gained ground fast, moving back inside, fighting through the narrow passageways, close to being overwhelmed a time or too, the close quarters restricting her normal fighting style.
Suddenly she broke back onto the high mezzanine that overlooked the clean room and vaulted over a narrow rail to drop straight down. She broke through the glass ceiling in a shower of glittering shards, caught the man who lunged at her by the front of his white clean suit and hurled him through one of the glass walls, then ducked a punch from another man, came up and slammed a fist into his ribs. He was thrown off his feet, hit a shelf full of lab equipment, then tumbled to the floor in a jumble of breaking glass. More bodies came lunging at her and she threw them all aside with equal ease. A few moments of blurred fighting, then suddenly, she was standing at one end of the room, sprawled men and women struggling to their feet all around.
"You all might want to run for it about now," she warned them as she spun the valve on an oxygen tank. She saw knowledge enter their eyes and offered a wicked grin. Suddenly, the men and women who'd been lunging at her were scrambling for their feet and running the opposite direction. Helena spun the valve on another of the oxygen canisters, then another. There were open fires burning now, heat from the cookers that distilled and dehydrated the drug mixture catching flammable chemicals, and sending bright blue flames shooting over the counters and floor. That should do away with their production capabilities. Somebody had spent big money on this ship. With any luck, a loss this large would cost them the business.
"They've got a wireless uplink to an intranet in the Netherlands," Barbara informed her over the 2-way.
"So?" Helena questioned as she bounded up through the hole she'd left in the glass, pausing at the mezzanine to look back down on the burning, melting mess below. Definitely some nice work there.
"So, they're trying to ship your picture from the security cameras back to whoever's in charge and they probably have copies of the recipe all over the place," Barbara explained and Helena could hear the rapid-fire tapping as she massaged the system into doing what she wanted. "Along with god only knows what else."
"I'm guessing that won't be a problem in short order," Helena drawled, knowing the other woman computer skills
were likely to make merry hell of their opponents' plans. Barbara was nearly as much of a hunter with a computer as she was in real life.
"Not if I can help it," the other woman confirmed, sounding a little more relaxed as they both slid into their familiar roles, working together smoothly as partners. "Blocked the uplink on those files, and I figure a tapeworm should solve the other problem." Once loosed on her target's computer system, the program would work its way through everything it could link to, devouring any relevant information it came across. If she couldn't access their records, she'd make damn sure they couldn't either. "There we go. It'll chow through every system they're connected to ... if it hits the internet, it could survive in the wild for years ... make sure they never get a chance to use it again."
Helena grinned, knowing the other woman had just sicced one of her nastier little virtual surprises on the enemy. It was no guarantee, but with luck, it would do the trick. "Probably a good time to send the coast guard. They're gonna need to pick up the crew."
"Done," Barbara confirmed, her tone smooth and confident. Then suddenly Helena felt a shift, even though the other woman didn't say a word for a moment. "What the..." The soft exhalation confirmed her certainty that something had gone wrong. Before she had a chance to ask, Barbara bit out, "Get out of there, Huntress, now!"
"Move! There's a computer controlled self-destruct." As if to confirm the diagnosis, Helena heard some kind of distant klaxon in the direction of the engine room. "And it's counting down."
Helena didn't pause to ask any more questions, just broke into a run, long legs eating up the distance as she rushed down narrow companionways and up steep flights of stairs.
"You've only got a few seconds," Barbara whispered, her voice tight and scared.
Helena was in the final companionway when the first explosion rocked the ship, sending hard shudders through aging steel. They might have redone the inside, but the bulkheads were still the original make. Crystallized, badly rusted steel wasn't likely to hold long under any heavy stresses. She cursed, nearly stumbling as the deck beneath her feet trembled, making it hard to maintain her balance. Another leap and she hit the cold night air just as a wave of heat rushed forward from the rear. The deck was rapidly emptying, men and women screaming as they dove over the sides of the ship and hit the water below. Helena glanced back, the reason a reflected glow in her eyes as flames exploded and leapt over the rear deck, the fuel supplies for the engines feeding a leap of fire.
Another explosion sent a column of flame straight up, the hammering sound followed by a rush of air that Barbara had to hear.
"It's blowing," Helena snapped as she ran for the prow. The explosions were becoming rolling cracks of thunder that fed one into another.
* * * * * *
"Oh God," Barbara groaned. "Move it," she hissed, every explosion she could hear over the headphones making her rock in her chair as though they were rattling the floor beneath her. She heard a hard gasp and a muttered curse, the scream and crack of metal being torn apart by forces to great to be resisted. "Huntress, please...."
"M'okay," Helena muttered, but she didn't sound so good.
"Dammit, please get out of there."
"I'm trying," Helena assured her, her voice rising above a deafening flood of sounds. "It's just a little tricky at the moment. The deck's not doing so good."
"Goddamnit," Barbara whispered, struggling with the system to find some way to shut down the fuel lines that were feeding the flames and destroying the evidence. She winced as she heard the sounds of rushing fire, broken by what sounded like frequent cracks of thunder. "I love you," she hissed, then lost any sounds of Helena in a roar that left her half deafened. "Huntress!!" she shouted, "HUNTRESS!!" She pounded the console helplessly as the computer readouts all went blank. "Huntress, goddammit, do you hear me, I LOVE YOU!!" Tears filled her eyes as the sounds of all hell breaking loose were suddenly lost in a rush of something she didn't recognize. "Please, don't you do this to me ... dammit ... I need you!"
A splash, then the harsh sound of breathing. "Did you just say you love me?"
"Huntress," Barbara exhaled, so torn she nearly used Helena's real name. "Are you all right?"
"Hit the water kinda hard," the other woman coughed, and Barbara could hear the sound of waves breaking over her along with distant explosions somewhere in the background. "But I'm okay. Did you really say you love me?" she repeated the question.
"I think I singed my favorite coat," Helena muttered, gulped and coughed water, then added, "And you just said you love me."
"I love you," Barbara confirmed, a tiny burst of hysterical laughter escaping her lips.
"Now, just to be clear," Helena began, "are we talking 'You're my best friend in the whole world,' love, or hot, monkey sex love?"
* * * * * * *
Rethink some of the dialogue? Maybe too suggestive at this stage?????
Treading water to keep herself afloat, the fires of hell literally reflected in her eyes as the drug ship continued to explode and burn, Helena spat water as she waited for some kind of answer, a mental image of the other woman playing in her mind's eye.
"Are there any other choices?" Barbara asked, her voice riding somewhere between laughter and irritation. Helena could almost see the expression on her face; prim bordering on prudish, though her eyes would be alight and gleaming.
Helena glanced around, noting the distant figure of a Coast Guard cutter headed their way, while her clothes were threatening to drag her under the rocking waves. Not a lotta time for long drawn out discussions. Besides, there were some aspects to her personality that were pretty much unavoidable. If Barbara was serious about what she was saying, she was going to have to get used to dealing with that. "No, just those two ... best friend ... hot monkey sex."
This time the other woman did laugh very softly, though it was a stressed, I-can't-believe-this-is-happening sort of giggle. "Then I guess it's the hot, monkey sex option," she murmured, her tone so evocative that Helena could easily imagine the flush of red coloring pale cheeks. There was something about a blushing redhead that was just way too cute for words.
"Anything I can think of to say right now would sound hopelessly arrogant," Helena admitted, "so I'm gonna settle for, 'I'll be home as fast as I can.'"
"I'll leave the light on,"Barbara whispered, the sexy-soft promise sending a bolt of heat through Helena.
"The one in the bedroom?" the Huntress questioned, the sharp-eyed predator in her making itself known.
Barbara gasped again, paused a moment, then answered, the words the carefully measured rhythm of someone controlling themselves carefully. "The one in the bedroom," she confirmed, her husky voice the stuff of Helena's every erotic dream.
Helena gulped, swallowed seawater, and wound up coughing heavily, her arms flailing in the rippling water.
"Huntress?"Barbara snapped worriedly.
"M'okay," Helena coughed, "but I think I'd better start swimming ... before you kill me."
* * * * * *
Barbara was amazed by the flush of heat that slid through her veins, the sensual quality of Helena's tone impossible to miss. Nothing and no one before or since the shooting had created this thick, molten lead feeling in her body. Dear Lord, how could she be feeling this way when Helena was still out there in the water and still in danger? "Be careful," she pleaded, knowing the younger woman's tendency toward taking risks.
"Believe me," Helena groaned, "I don't plan on drowning before I see you again." Husky and raw, the softly spoken words became an erotic promise. "I'll be there soon." Then her signal was swallowed up by the sound of water noises, the chop and splash of a body moving, then the soft whishing sound as Helena went under and swam hard.
Barbara leaned back, scared for the other woman, scared of her own emotions, scared of what was going to happen and what it could mean for the future, and just scared. It was like the first time she'd leapt off a high rise, trusting her skills as a gymnast and a spiderweb thin, metal line to keep her from plunging to her death. She'd survived that insane leap. She just hoped she could survive this.
* * * * * *
Before long, Helena stood on shore, her sodden hair and clothes draining water onto the beach as she stared back at the bay, where the Coast Guard was busy picking up survivors. The drug ship was listing toward the rear. It wouldn't stay afloat much longer. A wry smile twisted her lips. She supposed she should be worried about whether there'd been any losses, but she just couldn't work up the interest to care. The bastards had been spreading pain and death as best they could. They had a lot better chance than any of their victims, and if their masters hadn't arranged for the self-destruct, they'd have been fine for certain. She knew Barbara would probably be slightly appalled by her attitude, but as a hunter, there were limits to how much she was capable of caring about her enemy's fate, especially given what they'd done to her ... and tried to make her do to those she cared for.
With one last glance, she broke into a run and soon she was moving amid the high rises that felt like her second home, nearly flying, her hair and clothes drying on the wind that rushed by, eager to be going home for the first time in days.
* * * * * *
A prickling of hair at the nape of her neck warned Barbara that she was no longer alone, and she started to bring her chair around only to have a silky-soft voice stop her hand at the controls.
Goosebumps instantly rose on the redhead's arms and she experienced a wave of tension, wondering if there was any risk Helena had been exposed once again.
A warm hand landed on her shoulder, heated breath playing over the side of her neck as Helena leaned close. "I didn't get drugged again," she whispered as if reading Barbara's mind. The hand on her shoulder slid down and around her upper chest as the Huntress leaned closer. "It's just easier ... to talk to you this way." Helena spread her hand over Barbara's upper chest, sensitive fingers and palm picking up the hard thrum of the other woman's heartbeat. "Sometimes I don't think very clearly when I'm looking into your eyes." She slid her other hand up and into red hair, finding the back of Barbara's neck and massaging lightly before working her fingers through silky strands. "And I need to be certain that anything that happens from this point forward is what you want ... not something you think you should do for some reason."
A soft, dark laugh escaped Barbara's lips. "Believe me," she exhaled, incredibly aware of the warmth and shape of the woman pressed so close, "It's not that ... even now I don't know if this is right--"
"I'm not a child," Helena nuzzled silky hair, her breath playing over perfect skin. "And you're not taking advantage." Unable to resist temptation, she just barely brushed her lips against Barbara's throat. "The other night, you had no choice. Now you do."
"You're wrong," Barbara whispered, leaning back into the body nudged against her shoulder. "I could have stopped you ... you made me choose ... and by then, I ... needed you."
Helena froze, the soft words bringing up a memory of Barbara's surrender and her own triumph. "Do you want this?" She had to make certain this time. If one mistake was to be forgiven, she couldn't risk making a second.
Helena's too, too confident and comfortable: need to spend more time on their first encounter
Barbara shook the women holding her off, and turned the chair around to face Helena, her eyes clear as she stared up at the other woman. "I want you," she exhaled, then reached out, catching the front of the damp leather coat and tugging Helena down until she could stroke the line of her jaw. "I don't know if I should ... but for three days, I haven't been able to think of anything but how I feel about you ... and how I've been hiding from the truth." She paused swallowing hard, wondering if she was going to hell for this one, a part of her still afraid that the responsible thing to do would be to give Helena a gentle lecture about how it couldn't be and send her on her way. A gentle hand stroked her cheek, then slid down the length of her throat. Whether for better or worse, she wasn't that strong.
Break here and continue scene with them talking things out as needed
* * * * * *
Shift gears go to intro to lovemaking...or delete this entirely, but it has some good character points.
"I meant what I said before ... I'm in love with you." Hearing Helena in trouble and terrified the worst had happened had only driven that point home. Long, slender hands rose, framing her face neatly, gleaming eyes searching her expression. "Even Alfred says it's true," the redhead added with an uncertain smile.
That brought a grin, and Helena couldn't hold back a soft chuckle. "Well, it must be true then since Alfred is never wrong about anything." Tipping her head to one side, she leaned forward, closing the remaining distance between them, her lips soft and giving as they found Barbara's. Strong arms wound their way around her neck, and slender fingers wended into the hair at the nape of her neck as the kiss went on. When the kiss finally broke, she braced her hands on the armrests of the wheelchair, a bemused, disbelieving smile curving her lips as she contemplated simply picking Barbara up and going straight to bed. However, more practical matters interceded as it occurred to her that the acrid smell of oil smoke and seawater clung to her clothes and hair. That was not the way she wanted to do this. "I ... uh ... I still need that shower," she gasped, her breath coming rough and unsteady.
Barbara gnawed on her lower lip, looking uncertain and even a little scared.
Still leaning heavily on the armrests, Helena simply waited, her eyes moving over graceful features like an actual caress.
"I don't suppose you could ... uh ... use some company?" the redhead whispered after a long moment of painful embarrassment, then went up in flames the instant the words were out of her mouth. Hard to believe she'd once dated, had lovers, and actually had a modicum of interpersonal social skills. Maybe she really should get away from the computer more often---and not just to teach classes to hyperactive teens whose idea of clever comebacks relied heavily on the letters f and u.
Helena tucked a finger under Barbara's chin when the redhead would have looked away, drawing her attention back up until their gazes locked. "I'd be grateful ... but if you want to wait," she offered, loathe to admit she was slightly torn between desire and the fear that she might fail to please the other woman. This had all been easier when it was either more theoretical, or she was so stoned she barely knew her own name. "Well, I just want ... whatever's best for you."
A soft smile touched full lips as it struck Barbara that Helena was just as nervous as she was. The knowledge gave her a jolt of courage. "What if you're what's best for me?"
The younger woman swallowed hard, the blood rushing away from her brain at an amazing rate, senses suddenly vibrating eagerly. She leaned closer, brushing Barbara's lips with her own, just barely breaking contact to whisper, "Then I guess I want you to have me."
"I can live with that."
"I hoped you could."
Minutes later, Helena was in the bathroom, the air rapidly turning steamy, incredibly aware of the eyes watching her closely as she threw off her coat and kicked out of her boots. Damp leather pants quickly followed, and then she caught the bottom edge of her blouse, peeling it off over her head and tossing it aside. "You like what you see?" she drawled as she did a slow turn to face the other woman. She'd undressed in front of other lovers, enjoyed the feeling of having hungry eyes track her every movement, but this was a thousand times better. She was suddenly profoundly grateful for a body she objectively knew made others sweat with desire. She'd never quite understood it when peering at herself in the mirror, finding her own frame too thin, her breasts too small, and arms and stomach too corded for her preference, but she'd used that blind, near worship others felt for her physical-self enough times to be quite confident of its effect.
Barbara blinked, nodded slowly, then snapped her mouth shut as she realized it was hanging open. "Has your innate shyness ever caused a problem?" she drawled as she caught her breath, her tone wry.
Grinning wickedly, Helena drew one fingertip up the center of her torso, then hooked it under the center catch on her bra. "Not so's you'd notice," she admitted and tugged just hard enough to pop the latch. Her grin broadened, eyes gleaming as she saw the way Barbara's gaze sharpened when she shrugged out of the delicate strip of fabric and let it float lazily to the floor. "You're starting to sweat, Gordon," she teased knowingly.
Barbara leaned back in the chair, hands white knuckled on the armrests. "You were born completely without modesty, weren't you?"
The finger that had just unlatched her bra drew a lazy line between her breasts, then trailed down the centerline of her abdomen until she reached her underwear where they rode low on her hips. "Completely and totally," Helena admitted, letting her finger meander along the edge of delicate, black silk. "Complaining?"
Barbara took a deep breath, shaking her head a little dazedly. "No," she exhaled, her eyes trailing along after that wandering finger, heat flooding her veins as she found herself imagining her own fingers following a similar journey. Dear Lord in heaven, how had she managed to ignore this tidal wave of need the other woman engendered for so long? If anyone ever questioned her self-control again, she was going to have to hit them. "Just a little ... ahm...." She abruptly ran out of words as the ambling finger eased just under the edge of slick, ebony fabric, slowly sliding back and forth, brushing flesh and cloth and drawing Barbara's eyes to follow. Her eyes rose abruptly, locking with Helena's as she felt sweat start to bead on her skin. "You're enjoying this," she accused.
"Been dreaming about seducing you for years," Helena admitted, vibrating with pleasure as she watched emerald eyes devour every inch of exposed flesh. She suddenly crossed the distance between them in a flash, leaning down, her hands braced on the armrests of Barbara's chair, eyes gleaming with barely contained hunger. "But now, I think you're a little overdressed for the festivities." She reached for the top button on Barbara's blouse, only to come up short as a fine-boned hand wrapped around her wrist, stopping her progress. She looked down to find Barbara smiling nervously.
"I was born with modesty ... and some degree of shyness to boot," the redhead gasped, suddenly feeling painfully self-conscious. She'd run around in her share of skin tight leather, wore tank tops that left very little to the imagination without thinking about it, and had needed Helena's help on one or two occasions over the years when she was less than entirely attired ... and, of course, there was that little making love incident ... but it wasn't the same thing ... nope, not the same thing at all. This was total, voluntary, intimate, sexually oriented, no-drugs-involved nudity they were talking about. Not the same thing at all.
Helena pulled her hand back, turning it inside Barbara's loose grasp and lifting the other woman's hand to press soft kisses across the back of her knuckles. "You're incredibly beautiful," she whispered, letting her eyes trail down, hot desire showing in her eyes, "and I want very much to see you ... touch you." She took a deep breath, silencing the hunter inside. "But if you don't want this ... or you're not ready--"
"I didn't say that," Barbara interrupted, an ironic smile touching her lips. "Some things just aren't quite as ... easy ... for me as they are for you." She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath to calm shaking nerves. "I haven't done this in awhile." Reaching up with her free hand, she eased the top button on her blouse free. "I may have forgotten a few things."
A predator's eyes tracked Barbara's progress as she freed each button in its turn. "Trust me, it's like riding a bicycle. You never forget ... and if you do ... well, I'd be happy to serve as your training wheels."
"I'm good with wheels," the redhead murmured, a blush crawling over her skin, her hands shaking ever so slightly as she leaned forward and shrugged out of her blouse. She looked up when gentle fingers brushed the line of her jaw, drawing her head up, then slid back down to open the front catch on her bra.
"You're beautiful," Helena repeated as she fanned her fingers along the slope of slender shoulders, brushing delicate straps aside, so the fabric fell away and cool air kissed gently rounded breasts. "Every inch of you." She brushed her thumb along the line of Barbara's clavicle. "I used to sit in your class and dream up scenarios where I got you naked." Full lips twisted into a grin. "And that night, I think some part of me knew it was you ... triggered all those adolescent hormones." She grinned in hopes of negating some of the other woman's apparent discomfort. "How many people remember their first date that well?" she teased, grinning when Barbara blushed beet red right on cue.
"That was no date," the redhead bristled. "You may not be a child now, but you were then."
Helena just offered a slow smile, determined to confront the other woman's obvious discomfort with some aspects of their relationship. She leaned down, drawing Barbara's hands up and around her shoulders. "And now I'm your lover," she said very softly, laying it all on the line. She felt strong hands twine in her hair, clinging tightly.
"Yes," Barbara said very softly, her voice barely audible. Gentle fingers trailed down the length of her arms, the delicate caresses raising goosebumps on her flesh, then she gasped sharply as those same hands curved to the underside of her breasts, lifting, massaging gently, thumbs moving over her nipples.
"You were never a mother figure to me," Helena added, fingers still moving slowly, squeezing, rubbing, stroking. "I was sixteen when I came to live with you ... old enough to know I wanted you ... and old enough that if I'd had a chance I would have leapt into bed with you--"
"That would've been wrong," Barbara instantly interrupted, falling silent as Helena snaked a hand up between their bodies to rest a single finger on soft lips.
"You're right," the younger woman agreed. "It would've been. I needed to grow up ... to be absolutely certain this is where I want to be." Barbara wasn't the only one who'd spent the time apart doing some serious thinking. Helena had gone over all the options in her head, playing the worst case scenarios while she was in the pits of depression, and the best of them after Barbara's voice on her answering machine had given her an unexpected measure of hope. "And it is," she added, suddenly grateful that she'd run all of those scenarios with the same brutal efficiency she practiced her combat skills. Because otherwise, she'd have been completely lost, so distracted by the feel of warm flesh that she'd have probably just stood there babbling like an idiot. Somehow, she seriously doubted that would have impressed Barbara. Barbara was not a babbler, and generally tolerated them almost as well as Helena did, which was to say, not at all. "Is it where you want to be?"
Green eyes slid closed, momentarily blocking out Helena's hypnotic gaze. It was still possible to put a stop to things, to run away and go back to pretending she didn't feel this hot, molten desire for the other woman. In some ways it would be simpler, certainly it would be safer.
"Is it?" Helena pressed, her soft voice reaching deep into that private place where Barbara briefly hid herself away.
The woman who had once leapt among the high rises dressed all in black and a swirling cape summoned the courage to look inside herself and face reality, the truth comforting and frightening at the same time. "More than I've ever wanted anything in my life," she admitted as she opened her eyes to face a relieved smile from the woman holding her so tenderly.
"Then hold on," Helena murmured, hands sliding down to curve supportively to Barbara's waist, but allowing the other woman to hold herself in place as she slowly straightened and lifted her out of the chair.
With her arms wound tightly around Helena's neck, their bodies pressed achingly close, it was almost like she was standing again and Barbara couldn't find the breath to speak for a moment. Thumbs stroked at the curve of her waist while Helena easily supported her weight, her strength more than up to the task.
"Feels nice, doesn't it?" Helena whispered breathlessly, her hands shaking ever so slightly.
Barbara nodded. "More than nice." Soft lips found hers, kissing hungrily, then Helena pulled back ever so slightly, close enough that her breath was still warm on soft skin.
"You okay to hold yourself for a moment?" the younger woman questioned.
Barbara nodded, muscles quivering gently as the hands at her waist slipped down to the waistband on her slacks.
A flash of memory played in Helena's mind; that bolt of fear and uncertainty the first time they'd made love. "It's okay," she whispered very softly. "There's nothing to be frightened of in this."
The redhead nodded unsteadily, stomach muscles pulling taut as she felt the top button slip free, and heard the soft rasp of a zipper. "Why do I feel like a virgin quivering in stark terror?" she muttered on a self-deprecating note.
Helena offered a teasing smile. "Because you had the good sense not to sleep with a bland-o-rama like Wade." She kissed Barbara softly and eased the zipper all the way down, just barely brushing the soft flesh revealed to her touch. "And instead held out for me." The arrogance in the statement was only partially joking. Truth be told, there was a certain feral satisfaction in knowing she was the first one to please the other woman like this in so long. She wasn't particularly proud of that fact, given some of her own proclivities, but she was honest enough to accept it was true. She was a hunter, a predator, and she wanted her mate to be hers alone. Mate, she thought even as the word went through her head, can you get any more primitive? She could she realized an instant later as a she slid her hands inside the waistband of Barbara's pants, hands skimming along the curve of her hips. Her pulse suddenly roaring in her chest, her eyes flickered and a soft growl vibrated low in her throat. For the first time in years, it took considerable effort to force down that wild, uncontrollable part of herself. She felt Barbara tense. "Don't worry," she assured the other woman, "I don't bite."
"Not even if you're asked nicely?" the redhead shot back, pleasantly surprised at her own temerity. She was getting her feet back under her. Okay, so her hands were shaking and her heart felt like it was about to explode out of her chest with sheer terror, but she was coming along. At which point a very crude joke struck her and she just about fell apart giggling. Dear Lord, her sense of humor was even coming back, and at the worst of times too. She'd nearly avoided losing her original virginity to Jimmy Halliday because of her bizarre tendency to find humor in the strangest things at the strangest times. Men, she'd learned that day, did not particularly enjoy that aspect of her personality. It tended to be hard on their egos---quite deflating in fact---and she'd learned to subdue it the hard way. She suddenly found herself wondering what Helena would think of it.
She didn't have to wonder for long as a dark eyebrow quirked high on the younger woman's forehead. "Care to let me in on the joke?" she drawled, lips playing peekaboo with a come and go smile.
"Just a stupid pun," Barbara was amazed to hear herself admit.
"I like stupid puns ... smart ones too," Helena murmured, suddenly unbelievably curious. Normally, the redhead showed such a controlled face to the world---hiding not only the hurt and darkness away from prying eyes, but often the humor and quirky view of life. "Why don't you share." She wanted to know every thought moving behind Barbara's eyes; every thought, every emotion, every single idea she'd ever had.
A deep flush colored high cheekbones. "I ... uh ... just had the stray thought that ... well ... my sense of humor was ... er ... coming along ... and then ... well ... y'know...." She offered weak, embarrassed smile. "I warned you it was a bad pun."
Helena filled in the obvious blanks without any help, and looked up one eyebrow arching neatly. "I thought you were a good girl who didn't know about such things, Ms. Gordon," she drawled, her eyes full of wicked lights.
Unable to shrug as long as she was supporting her weight that way, Barbara tipped her head to one side in a similar gesture. "I may feel like a virgin ... doesn't mean I am one."
Helena's answering laugh was soft and throaty, the sound enough to send a shiver through the woman in her arms. "Such a bad girl," she murmured, then leaned in close, her voice a husky whisper. "I think you should know that I'm happy to bite you anytime you ask." To prove her point, she leaned in, teeth brushing the curve of Barbara's throat, nipping just hard enough to leave a faint red mark that was already fading away in a second or two. Again the cat's eye shift made her eyes flicker as she momentarily lost control, then she thrust hard with her hands, shoving soft fabric over the curve of slender hips until it slithered to the floor under its own weight. "Anyplace you ask," she added.
Caught and held by that feral gaze, Barbara swallowed hard. To anyone else, that look would have seemed as dangerous as it was sultry, but she'd never been afraid of Helena in these moments. At some level, she always knew that the other woman would never hurt her, that the power she wielded so easily would always be used in her favor.
Fascinated by the shift and play of emotion in pale eyes, Helena continued to stroke the smooth line of slim hips, enjoying the feel of soft flesh under her hands, then slid her hands on down, cupping them behind warm thighs. Muscles pulling taut, she drew Barbara's thighs up and around her own hips, thumbs stroking lightly even though she knew perfectly well Barbara couldn't feel the gentle caress. Thick clouds of steam were boiling out of the shower, turning the large, custom equipped bathroom into a foggy, private world.
"Time for that shower, I think," the redhead whispered at last. "Before we disappear in a cloud of steam."
Muscles quivering gently, the desire to claim what was hers a hard driving beat in her blood, Helena nodded. "Past time," she husked, any attempt at humor or flirtation suddenly fading away. No more time for games. Claiming soft lips, she made her way to the shower, staggering, not because of undue weight, but the emotional enormity of what was happening. The sudden flood of hot water pouring over both of them did nothing but ramp up the reaction of already buzzing nerve endings.
Barbara groaned low in her throat, head tipping back on her shoulders, tile slick against her against her back as Helena pressed her against the wall, using it to stabilize their position. Letting go of the younger woman's shoulder, she grabbed for one of the bars spaced around the stall to help her lever her body in and out. Using her knee, Helena bumped the specially designed seat her lover normally used, folding it up against the wall, then leaned into the other woman, trailing one hand up, fingers curling into silky underwear.
A single wrench tore it free, shredding the delicate fabric along the seam lines without shifting her hand enough to lose her hold on Barbara's thigh.
She felt Barbara tremble, then suddenly the redhead let go of the stabilizing bar, the move momentarily unbalancing them, forcing Helena to lean more heavily against the wall, muscles working to regain her balance. She was still adjusting her position when a hand slipped between their bodies, stroking her stomach lightly, teasing, then trailing lower, the intensity of resulting sensation threatening to spill her to her knees. "Barbara," she groaned, her voice turning from command to plea mid-syllable as fingers caressed soft flesh along the waistband of her underwear. Then those fingers were curling into soft fabric and starting to pull, the move translating into rough pressure along a whole series of erogenous zones. Whimpering, Helena bucked, her fingers clenching on soft flesh, air hissing through tightly clenched teeth.
Water slashed across them both, slicking her hair and pouring down her back, but she barely noticed as she buried her face in a warm shoulder. Her entire existence coalesced into her awareness of the body clutched to her own. She closed her lips on the graceful curve of Barbara's collarbone and strong hands clamped down convulsively on slender thighs. Most people would have missed the tiny twitch of muscle and faint crawl of flesh, the responses so slight, even she thought she'd imagined them for a moment, but she was a hunter by nature and training, well schooled to pick up on the smallest details when running her prey to ground. She straightened, peering at Barbara as she put two and two together. "You felt that," Helena whispered, awed by the unexpected discovery. She continued moving her fingers, stroking firmly, and felt that tiny quiver a second time. "But I thought...."
"Phantom sensation," Barbara whispered, her voice rough with arousal. "I have some feeling in my upper thighs ... just not much. It's not like there's a dotted line ... feel everything on one side, nothing on the other."
"I know," Helena whispered, then clarified, "I mean I read that that's not that uncommon." Suddenly she was desperate to know more, to find the limits of what the other woman could feel; trace every inch of her body and find every tiny flicker of response. The curiosity in Barbara's eyes was easily read and she quickly explained. "I dreamed of being here ... read everything I could find ... the internet was a huge help." Before that she'd been stuck with any dry hospital pamphlets she could beg, borrow, or steal without explaining too much.
The confession caught Barbara by surprise and she could only stare up at Helena through a hazy curtain of water droplets. Helena ... researched something ... about her? "Helena?"
"I told you," the brunette said softly, her voice just loud enough to rise above the sounds of the shower, "I've wanted you for a long time." They kissed slowly, bodies twining together as their mouths imitated the need coursing through their bodies. "Tell me," she whispered when their lips parted.
"There's not much ... and it's pretty random ... here and there ... like I said, mostly my upper thighs."
"We'll find every inch ... every millimeter," Helena promised, "explore ... touch." She kissed Barbara again. Much as she would have liked to start that experiment right then and there, the scent of seawater and smoke still hung on her hair and skin along with a grimy layer of half burned fuel oil. "But first, I think I should go for cleanliness."
"Rumor has it, it stands next to godliness," Barbara panted.
"There is nothing godly about me," Helena said, shifting her hands to completely support the redhead's body. Devilish maybe, but never godly.
Spreading her hands along the width of corded shoulders, Barbara shook her head. "Not sure I agree ... you feel pretty heavenly to me."
"Mmmm, no, that sounds more like you," Helena disagreed as she leaned forward to trail soft kisses along the line of Barbara's shoulders. "I could use some help with the soap," she invited, her eyes gleaming a wicked, bright gold. "My hands seem to be kinda busy."
Barbara shifted her hold, freeing one hand and reaching for the soap to glide it over silky-wet flesh, spreading sweet smelling lather and washing away the remains of combat. Gentle hands stroked slender shoulders, taut breasts, trailed down the faint track of a straight spine, and followed the curve of a slender waist.
Sensation swirling at dizzying levels, Helena leaned into the smooth caresses, then did something she honestly couldn't recall doing with any other lover, her head tipping back on her shoulders as she begged. "Please."
Barbara was more than happy to comply, the feel of water slicked hair and flesh the stuff of erotic fantasies.
By the time the last of the conditioner was rinsed from her hair, Helena was trembling hard, her entire body one giant erogenous zone. Barely able to stay on her feet, she leaned into Barbara where the woman's back was braced against the wall, burying her face in a slender shoulder, her whole body heaving in time with her ragged, gasping breaths. She was close, so damn close she could barely concentrate past the hard driving need. She tasted the hollow at the base of Barbara's throat, tongue swiping up a few droplets of water caught there, and moaned low in her throat as her hips bucked uncontrollably, blindly seeking more. A strong hand dug into short, dark hair, pulling her head up until their lips met in a sharp-edged kiss.
Helena knew she should pull back and slow down, but her body was having none of that plan, too worked up to control the raw need burning through her. But when gentle fingers trailed down her abdomen and slipped between their bodies, she yanked her head back, mouth hanging open as she broke the kiss. A shudder rippled through her on the first stroke, drawing a tiny, needy cry. Despite the mind-bending pleasure, she managed to shake her head. "No ... I want ... to be ... with you...." She wanted to please Barbara, take all the time in the world making love to her, not simply worry about her own pleasure.
"Shhhh," the other woman soothed, stroking Helena's brow tenderly with her other hand. "You need this," she whispered understandingly, fascinated by the flex and play of her lover's expressions---she paused to mentally savor the word. She could see the ache in Helena's eyes, feel it in the convulsing tension in her muscles. She was so wound up, arousal was hitting the level of pain. "And I need to do it for you." Needed to prove to herself that she was as much a part of this as the woman holding her.
Helena shook her head, resisting the sweetness of the offer even as her body instinctively moved against stroking fingers, eager to deepen the caresses. "Want ... to ... please you," she gasped.
Barbara kissed the younger woman softly, tongues brushing, drinking in gasping breaths. "This pleases me," she assured her. She stroked more firmly, the slick thrust drawing a whimper. Helena's eyes were shifting randomly from human to wild, cat's eye colors, her control slipping, soft growls vibrating low in her throat. Instead of being frightening, there was a surging sense of power in knowing she caused such an intense reaction in her lover, the feral part of Helena's nature incredibly sensual. "Knowing what I do to you ... pleases me." Still stroking silky flesh, she curved her other hand around the back of Helena's neck, biceps pulling taut as she dragged her closer, her own breath catching as their upper bodies ground together. "I want to be inside of you," she growled near a delicate ear.
Helena's response was a barely intelligible, "Yes." Normally, it didn't particularly thrill her, but with Barbara the sheer intimacy of being so closely bonded only served to sharpen the finely honed edge of desperation burning in her veins. The first thrust sent a spasm through her entire body, driving her to rock into her lover.
"That's it," Barbara hissed in Helena's ear, blunted nails leaving shallow furrows in her shoulder. "Move with me."
Hard muscle rippled, dragging Barbara closer as Helena thrust blindly, wanting more contact, more penetration, more of everything. She found Barbara's mouth with her own, tongue driving inside and tangling with her lover's as she leaned more heavily into her body, hips driving to meet slim fingers. She'd wanted to be the tender lover, holding herself back and putting Barbara's pleasure ahead of her own, but at that point, waiting was no longer an option. "Please," she whimpered through the kiss, amazed by the thick pleasure rushing over her skin like St. Elmo's Fire. And she'd thought she knew everything about sex already. Suddenly, she realized she didn't know a damn thing. But she was learning.
"Yes," Barbara praised, her voice rasping and husky, the muscles in her arms flexing as she thrust her fingers deeper. She heard Helena moan, felt the clinging muscles clench on invading fingers, and added another, purposely intensifying the connection and making her own mark. If she'd been capable of thought, she'd have been amazed to find herself feeling every bit as possessive as the woman making love to her.
Helena growled low in her throat, lips pulling back from her teeth in a feral snarl while her eyes seemed to shift colors and pupil shape almost randomly. It was, Barbara knew, the sort of loss of control she would never have allowed anyone else to see. It made her far too vulnerable. Her fingers tightened in short dark hair hard enough that it would have been painful under different circumstances. At that point, it was anything but. Then Helena's mouth was slashing across her own, the time for words a thing of the past. Lips met and meshed, tongues writhing in imitation of their bodies.
The hands cupped under Barbara's thighs controlled much of the rhythm, but the redhead was far from a passive bystander, strong enough to use her upper body to her advantage, while the muscles in her entire right arm worked with the force of the game played between them.
Finally with the woman she'd loved for so long and used to lovers who were either too gentle for her tastes, or bought into the whole black leather insouciance and were interested in games far rougher than she preferred, Helena was in heaven. A slightly rough-edged, fast moving heaven, but heaven all the same. And then a new kind of tension rippled through already taut muscle and over smooth skin. Like a cat stretching itself in the sun, she thrust a final time, the motion almost leisurely compared with her frantic efforts only moments before, then held on tight, her body pressed against Barbara's with almost bruising force. Impossible to describe, the riot of sensation that followed---hot, cold, soft, hard, electric, and soothing--- was everything at once as it tore through Helena with earth shattering force, turning her world inside out until it felt like every single nerve ending in her body was exposed to the open air. She was desperate for the apex of the orgasm pulsing through her and at the same time, never wanted it to end. As hard tremors of sensation continued to pulsate from head to toe, she broke the kiss, burying her face in the curve of Barbara's neck. Muscles quivering in the aftermath, she had the presence of mind to realize she wasn't going to be able to support the other woman's weight much longer, and managed to knock the seat back into place as she sank to her knees, settling Barbara onto the padded surface.
Catching the railing along the left side of the stall, the redhead steadied herself with one hand while the other one combed near-black hair back from Helena's brow. There was a secondary control for the water within easy reach, and she shut it off, then leaned back against the wall of the shower, tile slick against her shoulderblades.
Her body limp with satiation, Helena slumped back on her calves, her head sinking into her lover's lap, cheek resting on warm thighs, arms wrapped loosely around slim hips, so content she was close to purring. Gentle fingers slipped through her hair, stroking the sodden strands back from her face as she calmed, her breathing and heartrate slowing to something approaching normal. Nothing had gone as she'd meant for it too, and she felt a flow of shame that she'd been unable to put Barbara's pleasure ahead of her own. She started to lift her head. "Barbara, I--"
"Shhh," the other woman hushed, fingers spreading against silky hair, using just enough pressure to keep Helena right where she was. "Just relax."
It was easier to apologize when she wasn't looking at the other woman anyway, Helena mused. "It's just that I wanted to make love to you ... show you that what happened the other night isn't what I want ... that I can put your enjoyment above my own."
"You think I didn't enjoy what just happened?" Barbara sighed, still petting Helena's hair tenderly.
"I just wanted to prove to you that I'm not some out-of-control rapist ... so instead--"
"Instead you gave me the gift of being able to please you," Barbara interrupted, her fingers stilling. "Making love to you like that ... it was incredible." She tucked a finger under her lover's chin, drawing her head up until their eyes met. "Thank you."
Caught and held captive by the swirl of emotions in clear green eyes, Helena stared for a long moment, then abruptly looked away, blinking her eyes rapidly in an effort to clear the tears suddenly filling her eyes. Surprised by the rapid tumble of emotions, she found herself faintly embarrassed by the depth of her own feelings. She was the Huntress, hot blooded when she chased her prey, but otherwise floating above things, never deeply involved. Not anymore. She ducked her head, pressing her lips to the warm flesh just above Barbara's knee, unable to resist the temptation to slide a little higher and brush a light kiss over a silky inner thigh. She froze as the sudden tension of the fingers in her hair communicated itself to her, then started to look up only to have Barbara's hand remain firm, not allowing her to move easily. "Barbara?" she whispered worriedly.
"I felt that," the other woman whispered, her voice breathy and shocked sounding.
Shaking slender fingers off, Helena pushed the issue and looked up. "You said you have some feeling...."
Barbara looked down, blinking as she refocused on the woman kneeling before her. "You don't understand," she exhaled, "I felt your breath ... I mean...." She trailed off, blushing violently until Helena suddenly understood what she was saying. "I felt it."
"You mean...." She didn't finish the question, but the look in her eyes made the meaning clear.
Barbara swallowed hard and nodded. "I've never ... nothing since ... just nothing," she explained, the words coming in halting half syllables. "But I felt something," she finished unsteadily.
Staring up at Barbara, her heart in her eyes, Helena drew a hand down from her hip, trailing it along the outer curve of her thigh, then over the top. "You felt something?" she breathed, her voice a bare whisper, as though she was afraid anything louder would break some kind of magic spell.
"I haven't since ... nothing since the shooting." Barbara swallowed hard, the ever tightening band around her throat making it hard to speak.
Holding her lover's gaze, Helena slid a hand up, stroking Barbara's stomach lightly, watching the flex and play of well-toned muscle, then moving on to brush her thumb over a puckered nipple. "What about that little fling you had with Dick Grayson?" she asked, and even managed to keep her voice on an even keel considering the gut-rotting, brain-ripping jealousy that little affair had caused her seventeen year-old self.
Barbara shook her head, not holding back. "No," she admitted. "But the doctors felt it might just be too soon ... my body was still healing."
Helena almost felt sorry for the Boy Blunder when she heard that piece of news. She couldn't imagine the hell of loving someone, knowing they didn't love you, and being unable to even offer that slight comfort. No wonder the poor guy had left so abruptly. She felt enough pity that she even seriously considered no longer thinking of him as the Boy Blunder. Then again, he'd seen Barbara naked. Boy Blunder it was.
"You were scared then, weren't you?" she whispered in a burst of insight.
"Of course I was." Being touched for the first time since the shooting, letting someone else see scars that hadn't faded yet, and expecting them to find her appealing. Yeah, there was a bit of ... stark ... raving ... terror ... that went with that sort of thing.
"And you weren't aroused?"
"No." Fear could be a very arousing emotion in some circumstances, but not that one. She'd appreciated the warmth and comfort, but that had done little to blunt the embarrassment that bordered on horror when Dick had seen the evidence of the Joker's attack and looked physically ill. Logically, she knew it was because she'd been hurt, and he hated it and felt totally helpless. Illogically, it had left her feeling shattered and ugly.
The hand on Barbara's breast skimmed back down, just barely making contact, the caress feather light at first, then growing firmer as she slid lower. Finally, she stroked a smooth inner thigh, her eyes gleaming triumphantly when Barbara's breath caught, a tiny cry escaping her parted lips. "Makes all the difference in the world," she drawled and carefully separated Barbara's knees.
"Yes," Barbara croaked, barely able to get the single word out, uncertain how much of the eroticism was from the actual touch of flesh on flesh and how much was from the sight of Helena touching her so intimately. Those hands slid higher on her inner thighs, and she gasped, sucking in air, so shaken she might have tumbled if not for her white knuckled grip on the railing at her side.
Helena arched up and forward, pressing the softest of kisses to her lover's abdomen, her lips just barely touching. "There's nothing to be afraid of now," she whispered, her breath ghosting over soft flesh. She felt a gentle hand in her hair, pulling her head up.
The redhead's chin dipped in a nod of agreement, though there was still a trace of fear in her eyes.
"You're beautiful and I've wanted to be here for years." Helena smiled gently, surprised to find she understood better than she would have predicted. Her scars might not be as visible, but they were there, and she was often scared of what others would think of them. "You already know that your body can still respond," she soothed, then offered a wicked grin. "This is just one more thing to add to the mix." As she spoke, she continued the slow caresses, working her way higher.
Nodding unsteadily, Barbara let her eyes slide closed.
"No," Helena whispered and trailed a hand up her lover's torso, the caress once again incredibly light, but still enough to draw the redhead's attention. "I want you to watch ... to see me ... touching you."
Green eyes slid open again, staring down at her. "Yes." The word just barely escaped Barbara's lips. Then the featherlight caresses began, sliding over her upper body, touching her in all the places where sensation flowered at normal levels, purposely keeping the contact incredibly subtle so that any sensations in areas where such things were so much trickier would seem that much more intense.
Then Helena leaned forward, lips dusting Barbara's inner thigh, the caress subtle, but at the same time so erotic that Barbara couldn't tell whether the trickles of sensation were real or a product of her own mind. At some level, she wasn't even sure it mattered. The arousal it produced was real enough either way. Then gentle fingers moved to explore intimate flesh, and the redhead sucked in air through clenched teeth, torn between arousal and fear that the sensations that she'd felt elsewhere---faint as they were---would abruptly ghost away to nothingness the way they had in the past when things became more intimate. The genuine caring in familiar eyes chased away some of the demons, while softly whispered words did away with the rest.
"It's okay." Incredibly gentle in her first explorations, Helena was lightheaded with the reality of who she was with and what was happening. "I'm here with you." Her fingers slid over flesh that was silky soft, red curls brushing her knuckles as she gently explored this new terrain, sensitive to every response from her lover, but it was a delicate kiss that brought a soft moan and caused the fingers in her hair to clamp down. Her gaze slid up the length of her lover's body, taking in the way green eyes rolled back and Barbara's head started to tip back on her shoulders. "No," she whispered, fingers still moving ever so slightly. "Stay with me." Then soft kisses and slow licks joined soft caresses as she searched out each millimeter of flesh that responded to her touch, gauging Barbara's responses by every tiny sound and quake of muscle, then applying what she learned.
"God," the redhead gasped, amazed by the fragile streamers of sensation, all the more intense for the years without them. Muscles rippled up and down her arm as she tightened her grip on the balance rail, teeth close to chattering, her breath coming in ragged gasps. "Helena..." she pleaded, fingers moving restlessly in short, dark hair.
"I know," the younger woman exhaled between caresses. "I'm here with you." She trailed a hand up over a smooth thigh, then on up Barbara's side, once again barely making contact, fingertips moving, ranging over velvety flesh, brushing delicate caresses over ribs, stomach, breasts. The light stroking ended as Barbara's hand found hers, fingers twining together, and holding on tightly. "Talk to me," Helena begged between soft caresses. "Tell me everything."
Barbara stared down at Helena. She had to be kidding. Put together a coherent sentence. Hell, just coming up with an intelligible word was a challenge she wasn't sure she was up to. Seeing the pleading look in her lover's eyes, she tried anyway. "It's ... incredible. Been so long ... and it's you I'm with ... and it's so ... perfect...."
"More," Helena growled, her own body flaring back to life. She could see, hear, and feel so much, but she wanted to know every thought, every feeling, every single bit of information, relevant or otherwise. "Tell me ... what you can feel ... when it's most intense...."
Barbara nodded, her body fighting the commands from her brain. "There," she panted as Helena hit a spot that was more sensitive than the others.
Helena repeated the caress, her gaze rising to take in the other woman's reaction. "Right there?" she whispered, a grin sneaking through as she watched Barbara's teeth dig into her lower lip, her eyes taking on a glazed look the younger woman recognized. She was getting close.
A high pitched whimper on her lips, Barbara nodded.
"What about here?" Helena demanded as she stroked another sensitive point she'd found.
"Yes," the redhead yelped, fingers clamping down so hard on Helena's hand that the sound of knuckles popping echoed through the stall.
Helena never noticed, too involved in the task before her to care about the tiny stab of pain. As she pulled her fingers back, her tongue took their place in toying with the painstakingly researched erogenous zones. "Keep telling me," she commanded between strokes. "I want to hear it all."
"There," Barbara hissed after a beat. "Just like that."
Helena untangled their hands, arching into the fingers that found her hair as she went back to caressing Barbara's body with featherlight strokes, just barely making contact to avoid overwhelming her awareness of other, more intimate contact.
Her breath coming rough and unsteady, Barbara couldn't take her eyes from the sight of Helena making love to her, the intensity of the sight almost as erotic as the flickering waves of pleasure that radiated outward from the eager caresses. "That's it," she groaned as it all began to coalesce, the luscious sparks of pure ecstacy coming from what seemed like every inch of her body blending together. The hand in Helena's hair slid on, stroking her shoulders and down the length of her arm, brushing the back of the hand caressing her upper body so tenderly. "I love you," she whispered. And then sensation began to break, washing over her in a mind-bending rush of pleasure that filled every inch of flesh that still had the capacity to feel. Orgasm, overwhelming and hot, burned through her in a way she'd almost forgotten was even possible. Or maybe she'd never known before. Certainly nothing in her past had prepared her for this level of sheer passion, the emotional connection deepening the physical in ways she'd heard about, but never guessed were real. The knowledge that it was Helena touching her, inside of her, far more erotic than the actual caresses. She was still shuddering in the aftermath when Helena slid up and pulled her into a protective hug.
"That's it, beautiful," the younger woman whispered near a delicate ear as Barbara nuzzled into her chest. Her touch tender, she smoothed wet crimson silk back from Barbara's cheek, absorbing the gentle tremors still rattling through her lover. Her lover, she repeated the word mentally and pressed a soft kiss to Barbara's temple. A few stray tears had escaped green eyes and clung to thick lashes and Helena gently kissed them away. "God, I love you," she murmured against soft skin.
Barbara tipped her head up, a soft smile curving her lips, her expression a little dazed, her breathing still rougher than normal. "Some part of me keeps expecting to wake up," she admitted, still not quite able to believe everything that had happened in the span of a few days.
Full lips tipped upward in a teasing grin. "You will," Helena murmured between kisses, "tomorrow ... in your own bed ... nestled safely in my arms."
The redhead slid her arms up and around her lover's neck. "Sounds like a plan to me," she drawled as their mouths met again.
* * * * * *
The name on the door of the tastefully decorated office read Dr. Harleen Quinzel, or it did until a furious shriek shattered the glass and sent it spilling to the floor.
"That bitch," Harley Quinn snarled as she drew another breath, pacing the floor of her office in quick strides. "That bitch, that bitch, that bitch." She stopped abruptly and did a slow pivot to turn a malevolent gaze in the direction of her flunkie. "Tell me they at least got her picture."
He swallowed hard, pulling nervously at his collar, dumb as a sack of hammers, but still smart enough to know just what a poor performance review meant in her organization. "The company you hired to do the modifications..." he began only to trail off.
"Yes?" she prompted, her tone icy.
"They ... uh ... they got hacked ... totally shut down."
"No pictures," he said, wincing at the sheer rage in her eyes. She drew close and he leaned back, utterly terrified.
Then just as suddenly as she'd appeared ready to kill him, her expression shifted and mocking laughter echoed through the room. "And no cyber signature on our hacker ... no more Black Snow formula because he introduced a virus into the system." She laughed again, apparently seeing the humor in the situation. "And destroyed the records of the Swiss bank account numbers, so not even any cash profit...."
Her flunky heaved a sigh, relieved to see her anger drain away. Everything was gonna be fine now.
He was still mid-thought when she broke his neck.
Harley Quinn stared down at the dying man, her head tipped to one side, a gamine smile on her lips. "It really is so hard to get good help in this business." She sighed theatrically and straightened, ignoring his death throes. Folding her arms across her chest, she peered out at the night-dark world below, silently imagining what it would look like with the fires of hell burning on every street corner. Oh, what a beautiful sight that would be. "I wonder if young Helena would like a job?" she mused out loud. "With any luck at all, at least one of my plans went right and she's out of work by now."
* * * * * * *
Three Days Later
Hidden in one of the several niches near the top of the clocktower that towered over New Gotham, two bodies lay twined together, their breathing rough from shared kisses, easy smiles trading back and forth. Leaning back against the wall at her back, her shoulder nudged against a small window, Helena tugged Barbara a little more firmly against her chest, grinning as the redhead tipped her head back and rested it in the curve of her shoulder.
"I can't believe I let you bring me up here," the other woman murmured, though she sounded incredibly contented to Helena's ears.
Helena laughed softly and slid the hand resting lightly on her lover's hip under the waistband of her sweater, spreading her fingers against her stomach. "You love it and you know it," she teased.
"Mmmm, it'll do," Barbara murmured with pretended insouciance while she reached back with one hand and stroked Helena's thigh slowly. She was silent for a long moment, then cleared her throat before beginning. "I saw Wade today."
Corded muscles tensed, and Helena's eyes flashed. "What happened?" she asked, careful to keep her voice perfectly level, though Barbara heard the stress in her tone.
"He asked me out," Barbara said, her tone flat.
The corner of Helena's lip rose in a hint of a sneer, but she managed to contain the insults sitting on the tip of her tongue. Captain Bland was the kindest thought she had where he was concerned.
"I told him that I'm seeing someone ... and it's serious."
Helena's half-formed angry growl turned to a satisfied purr as her hands tightened possessively on the body cuddled so close. "Good," she murmured, dipping her head to trail her lips along the back of Barbara's neck. "Because I don't share well at all."
"You also don't play well with others," Barbara drawled. It would be very easy to get annoyed with the other woman's tone, but she was too used to Helena's vagaries to let it bother her. She glanced back at the woman holding her. "All things considered it's a wonder you got past kindergarten."
Dark brows rose as Helena pasted on her most disbelieving look. "I play well with others," she disagreed, then offered a winsome smile. "Well, I play well with you anyway." She pressed a firm kiss onto soft lips. "I think that's all that's really important, don't you?"
A dark auburn brow rose in an expressive arch. "How did your sparring session with Dinah go today?"
A soft sigh escaped full lips. So that's where that topic was leading. "She's still avoiding any physical contact ... makes that whole sparring concept a little ... challenging."
Barbara continued to stare at her until Helena flushed ever so slightly.
"Apparently I'm broadcasting at a wavelength she finds a little overwhelming," the brunette sighed. Living with a telepath had some very uncomfortable side effects if you wanted to maintain a private life. Another look from the redhead only deepened her flush. "I'm working on it," she muttered defensively, then offered a rakish grin. "I think it's all this pent up sexual frustration." She slid the hand on Barbara's stomach a little higher, exploring soft expanses of flesh. "I know a way of working it off if you're interested." She grinned. "You wanna fool around?"
The redhead shook her head, amazed by the younger woman's stamina. So far, she'd proven to be a remarkably caring and tender lover, but also utterly insatiable. "Up here?" she questioned.
Helena's grin broadened. "Well, it's not like the kid's gonna walk in on us ... unlike one or two other places I could name ... like your bedroom." Dinah might be a telepath, but she couldn't fly. Thankfully, she couldn't even jump real high.
"She thought there was a problem--"
"Guess she can be forgiven for that, what with all the screaming," Helena drawled knowingly, enjoying the way Barbara blushed right on cue. God, she loved redheads ... or at least this one.
"She won't do it again," Barbara muttered, not wanting to think about that particular moment.
"Mmmm," Helena sighed and nibbled on a delicate earlobe. "Then there's the fact that it would just be plain, old fashioned fun."
"We're outside," Barbara said doubtfully.
Helena's grin only broadened, while her hands expanded their territorial meandering. "It's not like somebody's just going to wander by."
"In this town, don't be so sure," Barbara shot back.
Helena drew breath to argue, then tipped her head to one side. "Point," she allowed, then grinned again. "But who cares?" She kissed the side of Barbara's neck, nibbling softly. "Let 'em cop a view ... we'll probably melt their eyeballs."
"Not sure I could live with that on my conscience," Barbara teased, deliberately delaying any thoughts of making love. Waiting tended to make things that much more intense.
A pouty sigh escaped Helena's lips. "You're gonna make this difficult, aren't you?" she complained.
"Mmm, it's my life's work," Barbara confirmed, fingers still stroking Helena's thigh lightly. "Besides, I honestly cannot believe you want to ... to--"
"Do the nasty?" Helena offered helpfully and earned a dirty look for her efforts.
"Here," Barbara finished primly.
Graceful fingers continued to stroke Barbara's stomach lightly, enjoying the flex and play of muscle. "I'll have you know I spent some of the more entertaining moments of my teen years up here," Helena informed her lover with a taunting grin.
Russet brows rose in a doubtful arch. "Here?" Barbara repeated in her patented, 'I find that very hard to believe,' voice.
"Mmm," Helena confirmed and reached up to rap the window at her side lightly with her knuckles. "You do know where we are, don't you?"
Barbara hadn't given it much thought, out of practice at calculating her position in relation to the surface landmarks of high rises. She twisted to peer past Helena's shoulder, looking through the window and down until she encountered a familiar sight. "You didn't," she hissed.
"Mmm," Helena murmured through a grin. "Used to spend hours up here." She received a solid punch in the ribs for that comment.
"That's my bedroom," the redhead accused, eyes flashing green fire.
Wincing ever so slightly---Barbara could throw a pretty solid punch when she was of a mind---Helena offered a placating grin. "I never saw anything." A grin snuck through despite her best efforts. "Well, not much anyway."
"Helena," the redhead's voice took on a warning note. She didn't appreciate any reminders that things hadn't been quite as innocent as she'd believed back then.
Suitably chastised, or at least making a firm effort to look that way, Helena held up a hand. "It's not what you're thinking ... or even what I was implying...." Mostly. Her expression turned serious. "When I first moved in ... sometimes I couldn't sleep...." She trailed off for a moment, her eyes sad as she remembered the months of tortured dreams and sleepless nights. "I just didn't want to be alone at night sometimes." She ruffled Barbara's hair gently, holding her close. "So I'd just come up ... open the window a little ... it helped just knowing you were close when things started closing in."
"You could have come in and talked to me."
Helena shook her head decisively, remembering the moody, unstable teen she'd been---not that she was any great shakes as an adult, but she'd at least acquired a modicum of self-control along the way ... a small modicum, it was true, but a modicum all the same. "I'd have done something stupid." Maybe not at first, when she'd been so lost and hurt and Barbara had still been alternating between therapy and additional surgery, but later, when they'd both had some healing time and really begun to bond, it would have been so easy to make a truly boneheaded pass. By then she'd been more than sexually aware enough to know what she'd wanted ... and neither of them had been ready to deal with the consequences of their feelings. It would have left them both feeling guilty, uncomfortable, and ashamed. The act itself would probably have been lots of fun, she fully admitted, but the fallout would have been deadly. She kissed her lover tenderly. "It was better I stayed outside."
Barbara reached up, stroking Helena's lower lip lightly, her expression understanding. "And now you don't have to stay outside anymore," she murmured, mouth softening and opening under the lips that came down on hers. The kiss lasted long, breathless minutes.
"You sure you don't wanna fool around?" Helena panted when they came up for air.
"Talk me into it," Barbara challenged, her eyes gleaming.
A dark brow rose high on Helena's forehead. "I always did like a challenge," she murmured, eyes glinting.
"So the rumors tell me," Barbara shot back, "though I've yet to hear any reasons for going along with your plans." She offered a taunting smile.
Helena pulled her a little closer to whisper in her ear, the soft words and promises drawing a blush on the fair-skinned redhead.
"Not ... bad," Barbara croaked, her head already starting to spin. Amazing how just a few carefully worded suggestions could have such an affect. "But ... I--"
Helena offered a few more whispered suggestions until Barbara finally turned to peer at her, her expression not quite believing.
"You can actually..." the redhead panted after a beat, her eyes glazed, breath coming in short, shallow breaths.
She got a wicked grin and a slow nod in answer.
Russet brows shot up, and Barbara couldn't breathe for just a moment. "I ... uh ... have to admit," her voice threatened to crack, but she got it under control, "as reasons go, that's not half bad."
Helena's grin only widened, as she pulled her lover closer, hands already spreading under the softness of her sweater. "I thought you might like it," she murmured against soft flesh as she trailed her lips down the arch of Barbara's throat.
"Mmm, you've yet to prove that, m'love," Barbara teased and suddenly found herself tumbled onto her back, her gleaming eyed lover arching over her.
"Then I guess I'll just have to get to work," the soft drawling comment was made against velvety flesh even as agile hands began shifting the sweater higher. She felt hands slide into her hair, pulling her closer, the cool wind at her back as her own clothes were pulled and twisted in all directions. "What do you think?" she questioned some minutes later, trembling with the awareness of the body pressed so close, her coat a protective tent around them as bare flesh moved against bare flesh.
Her eyes glazed with passion, Barbara spread her hands against Helena's back, fingers digging in a little harder. "I think," she whispered, holding her lover's gaze with raw passion, "that we're both exactly where we belong."
"Took long enough," Helena whispered, arching into the hand that rose to stroke her cheek and smooth disarrayed hair back from her temple.
A poignant smile curved lips that were soft and swollen from shared kisses. "It was worth the wait."
"Definitely," Helena breathed as she lost herself in all the pleasures she'd waited half her life for, more content than she'd known was possible.
Ultimately, her mother had been right that some things couldn't be stolen, but thankfully they could be given freely.
Bring in Bruce at the very end ... making it apparent he's been watching over them all this time.