Helena Kyle was twelve years old the night she fell in love.
The night was glossy black, the pavement sheen with the remains of a late evening rain, the streetlights diffuse as they shone through a faint, misty fog. The sort of a night made for predators and pranksters both, it called to mother and child with equal fervor.
Already as strong as an adult and more agile than the cats they always had as pets, Helena was still up long after she should have been asleep. Challenged by her mother's sudden uncharacteristic silence and perfect lightness of foot, she eased from bed and followed after the beautiful and wildly unpredictable woman. She'd learned that when her mother broke her normal patterns, something interesting almost invariably happened. Climbing onto the roof of their apartment building, she easily followed, unseen, in a graceful chase from rooftop to rooftop. Anyone else would have been spotted in moments, but Helena Kyle was an expert at not being seen by her mother. Like any child, she'd learned by trial and error all the ways to avoid parental detection. That her mother was Catwoman might have made the job somewhere trickier, but it didn't alter the normal patterns of life. In fact, it probably intensified them. After all, she was her mother's daughter.
So, when Selina Kyle ended her midnight sojourn at a nearby museum, easily defeating the security system to slip inside, her daughter remained on the roof, watching from behind an air conditioning unit until her mother reappeared.
She'd long known her mother was a thief. There was no father waiting in the wings to financially support them, and her mother had never disappeared on her way to a job the way other parents did. Money came and went, sometimes plentiful, other times nowhere in sight. Then her mother would disappear in the dead of night, the black cat costume she kept hidden in the back of her closet fitting her body like a glove. Sometimes there would only be money, other times beautiful things would decorate the expensive apartment, their images suspiciously similar to the pictures that appeared in the local paper under banner headlines about art thefts. And if anyone ever asked, Selina Kyle always laughed and brushed it off, insisting that the object in question was simply a clever reproduction, and acting complimented that anyone could possibly think she was some kind of adventuresome cat burglar. Only Helena knew her mother well enough to pick up the speculative gleam in her eyes; the one that made the lie obvious and showed the way she was assessing whether or not the listener believed the lie.
That her mother was a thief had never really mattered to Helena. Selina Kyle wasn't like other mothers. She was fun and carefree, beautiful and gentle. She played like a child and never lost her temper with Helena over the sorts of things that invariably made other parents go ballistic, instead laughing when her daughter stole money from her purse or shoplifted from the corner grocery store. Only one thing had ever truly raised her ire -- when Helena had lost her temper and been on the verge of beating Billy McConnell to a pulp. At the school to pick her daughter up, she'd waded through the mob of screaming children and hauled Helena back before she could land a single blow. That Billy McConnell was a much hated bully had been no defense as Selina Kyle had made her swear she'd never hit another child. There would come a day when she would have to make choices about whether or not to hit, but for now, she was to take a blow before throwing one. Helena had cried, screaming that it wasn't fair, and accusing her mother of caring more for Billy than for her, but Selina had been firm. And then, looking at her sobbing daughter, she'd pulled her into her arms, rocking her gently. "You don't understand, honey," she'd whispered at last. "I'm not protecting them. I'm protecting you." She'd kissed her daughter's temple. "Kids like Billy, they're just kids. Bratty and obnoxious, but kids. Most of 'em will outgrow being jackasses ... and you could hurt them. I don't want you to have to live with that. You'll understand some day."
That had been three years before, and Helena already sort of understood. She was stronger than other kids, and could hurt them---badly. As big a jerk as Billy McConnell still was, even he didn't deserve what she could probably do to him.
Well, not much anyway.
She scrambled onto another rooftop, then pulled up short as she abruptly realized they were almost home, and if she wasn't back in her own bed by the time her mom checked in on her, she was gonna be seriously busted. Her mother had accepted that Helena loved heights with an uncanny fervor and felt as safe on the narrowest of ledges as she did on the broadest of sidewalks, but she was firm about getting to sleep at a decent hour on school nights. Other than not beating up the other kids, getting good grades was one of the few rules to hang over Helena's head. Not that school was that hard or anything -- she was as much smarter as stronger than most of the kids she was in classes with -- but when she stayed out all night, she sometimes had a bad habit of sleeping through pre-algebra. She could have stayed awake for it, but she'd never found it all that interesting to begin with, making wakefulness challenging enough at the best of times. She was no good at paying attention to things she didn't enjoy.
Helena was already calculating the quickest route to her own bedroom on the west side of the building when a shadow cleaved itself from the surrounding blackness a few yards from her mother. Gasping in surprise, she sank back into her hiding place, muscles tense as she readied to leap to her mother's defense.
"I'll take that now," the voice was low and faintly husky as though the speaker had either run hard or was struggling to control their own excitement. A woman, cloaked and cowled, the only color visible the pale lower half of her face, a splash of red hair dancing on the wind, and a flick of yellow on her chest.
Helena sensed her mother's tension coupled with a sense of surprise that things weren't what she'd expected. Selina Kyle had a love-hate relationship with surprises, hating the notion of being outwitted, but loving the adrenaline that came with having to deal with the unexpected. Her head tipped to one side, the gesture decidedly feline, as she considered the newcomer. "I'd heard there was a baby bat on the loose," she said at last, her tone so subtle that Helena almost wondered if she'd imagined the note of anger threaded through the sarcasm. "Lucky me, I get to meet her."
The child's head tipped forward ever so slightly, sharp ears easily tracking the conversation even at that distance. The faintest rustle of movement drew her gaze and she had to squint to see a black gloved hand stretch away from the black cloak. "The Eye of Ra ... give it back and go home ... no harm, no foul."
"Now, this is interesting," Selina responded, Catwoman's claws showing in her tone. A brittle laugh escaped bright red lips. "And why should I do that?"
"Because if you don't, you'll be arrested for the theft," cold-bloodedly practical, the answer came back almost instantly.
"By you, little bat? I don't think so," the drawled response was so acid it barely sounded like her fun-loving mother.
"Then I suggest you think again because the Eye of Ra will be returned to the museum tonight." The fingers of the outstretched hand flexed, silently making their point. "I'm being nice because of a ... mutual friend ... but it will be returned."
"Oh, I see," her mother drawled in a voice that dripped ice. "Chickened out and sent you in his place, did he?"
The other woman shook her head. "He doesn't know I'm here ... and I don't see any reason to reopen old wounds. Just give back the eye, and everybody can go home happy."
Selina's head cocked to one side, her pose that of someone considering their options, though Helena knew her mother well enough to realize she'd already made up her mind. She experienced a tiny lurch in her chest as she realized the newcomer didn't know that though, and actually believed her mother might be considering giving up. As if. The stranger allowed her guard to drop ever so slightly.
And paid the price for it as Selina Kyle's hand whipped around, the backhand brutal enough to knock the other woman backward off her feet.
The black garbed, red haired woman hit the roof hard, her cloak swirling around her, the heavy fabric a shadowy dervish as she bounded back to her feet almost as quickly as she fell. She had her feet planted and ducked the second blow, then blocked the third, moving almost, but not quite, as fast as her opponent.
Helena tensed, confident in her mother's abilities, but suddenly frightened for the stranger, though she felt a traitor for that thought. Moving almost too fast for even her eyes to track, the two women on the roof below Helena's position traded blows back and forth, fighting with the kind of skill and speed the Hong Kong cinema would have killed to show, the artful swirl of capes and hair only intensifying the sense that it wasn't a real fight, but simply a choreographed show. The girl settled in as she realized the two adults could trade blows this way for a long time. They weren't evenly matched at all levels, but counterbalanced each other's skills. Her mother was stronger and faster, but the stranger was more disciplined and better at predicting her opponent's next move. The balance was perfect enough that neither of them could gain a substantial upper hand.
At least they couldn't until her mother's foot slipped on a rain slicked ledge for the tiniest of moments. She recovered quickly, but it was just enough to give her attacker a momentary advantage. A fist crashed into her mother's jaw, hitting hard and fast and taking her off her feet. She slammed into the roof, her head cracking hard.
Even from a distance, Helena could see her mother's daze in the sluggish way she scrambled trying to regain her feet.
The shadow-woman started forward, her stride determined.
And Helena leapt, clearing the distance between the two buildings with the same ease she might have played hopscotch, almost flying as she crossed the wide open space. Her body lithe and graceful, she hit the ledge and leapt again. Rolling into a kick in the last moment, she slammed into her mother's attacker right between the shoulder-blades.
Not expecting such a fast moving attack from another quarter, the shadow-woman wasn't braced to absorb a blow from behind and it hurtled her off her feet. She tumbled forward, rolled, and couldn't quite catch her balance before careening over the side of the building. At the last possible moment, a gloved hand shot out, grabbing a metal pipe ladder, but slipped on wet steel. Helena regained her feet as the black garbed woman started to fall. That wasn't what the girl had intended at all, and she gasped even as the woman somehow caught the next rung before she could tumble to her death. The soft creak of leather rolling against wet steel reached the child's ears, and she could see the way the black gloved fingers clenched, struggling to maintain a grip on water slicked rebar. It would take only the faintest jar to send her to her death. No, she couldn't let that happen. The child started to lunge forward even as she heard her mother curse and leap after her attacker. A hint of fear touched delicate features, and she felt a moment's terror that her mother intended to send the other woman to her death, and then suddenly Selina was pulling her attacker up, hauling her back onto the roof with a muttered obscenity.
"Honestly, little bat, you're going to have to do better than that if you want to take me down." She snorted softly, then looked up, waving Helena toward the shadows, her eyes flashing angrily.
Oh, she was in for it now, Helena realized as she merged with the shadows at her back.
"It's Bat-girl," the woman sprawled on the roof hissed as she pushed up on her hands. She looked around, hunting for some sign of whoever had hit her from behind, then glared balefully at the woman in front of her when she didn't spot anyone.
"Well, little bat, it was almost Bat-Splat," Selina taunted, her tone all Catwoman through and through. "So I suggest you make like your namesake and fly."
"Don't think so," Batgirl muttered and surged to her feet, leaping over the foot that immediately swung around in a roundhouse kick and shouldering a roll, using momentum to regain her feet.
Totally engrossed in the combat, Helena lost track of her surroundings.
Until a hard hand dug into her collar and she was thrust forward suddenly. She heard a soft snicket and felt something cold and hard press against her temple.
"Not that I don't enjoy a good chick fight as much as the next guy," Marlboro rough, the voice brought both women up short, "but I don't really got time for this. Boss wants the eye."
Catwoman spun, eyes narrowing as they fell on her child where she stood in front of the largest of three massively built men, a gun to her head. "And he'll get it," she snarled, barely leashed anger making her voice throb, "but I expressly said, no guns."
The one with a .45 pressed to Helena's head shrugged and clamped his hand a little harder on a narrow shoulder. "Yeah ... well ... that was assuming no witnesses. Now we got two witnesses ... that means two bullets."
Helena saw the way her mother was gauging the distances and knew she was planning something, then her eyes slid to where Batgirl stood every bit as tense, and she had the oddest sensation she was as determined to save her as her mother was even though she had to know that it was Helena who'd hit her from behind. It certainly hadn't been one of the thugs holding her at gunpoint, and there was no one else there. The problem was neither adult could make a move as long as the gun was pressed against her temple. The two women traded a quick glance, the momentary communication just enough for a silent agreement. They were on the same side now.
Knowing she had to do something, Helena turned her head suddenly, teeth finding her captor's vulnerable wrist and bit down hard enough to draw blood, twisting in closer to her assailant's body so he didn't dare fire for fear of hitting himself. Howling obscenities, he hurled her away from himself, just wanting her teeth out of his flesh. For just a second she was airborne, her flight too wild for her to have any control over where she landed, then she hit rough tarpaper and tumbled. She was still scrambling for her feet when a black gloved hand latched onto her shoulder and she was thrust behind the cover of a heavy, black cloak.
"Now, this does work nicely. Both little victims all in a row."
Helena didn't have time to think as Batgirl spun on one heel, scooping her up in one arm as she kicked off. The child glimpsed something in the woman's other hand and saw her latch it onto the ladder she'd earlier used to catch herself even as she dove over the side of the building.
"Get 'em!" the yell was loud and angry and nearly drowned out by several sharp cracks.
Their arcing flight lurched once, the delicate steel line attaching them to the ladder absorbing the punch, and then they were flying in a downward arc. Helena screamed, though it would have been fun if someone wasn't shooting at them. The wild swing took them right over the balcony just off Selina's bedroom, and Batgirl released the belt clip on her line, dropping clumsily to the tiled floor. Letting go of Helena, she yanked her under the cover of the door jamb as a face appeared on the wall above them. Slamming her forearm into the glass, she shattered it, then reached through and unlatched the door, glancing down at the girl and hissing, "Run."
Suddenly realizing there was something warm and sticky on her arm, Helena looked down and saw a splash of red, then up and realized it was coming from the woman who'd saved her. Her costume was torn over her left shoulder, allowing a trickle of crimson to trail away from the wound. "I'm sorry," she whispered without thinking, "I didn't mean for you to fall off the building."
Green eyes widened ever so slightly as suspicions were confirmed, but Batgirl didn't waste time. "Go," she hissed when Helena still hadn't moved. She shoved the child inside, spinning back just as a heavy figure came careening down on the line still clipped to the ladder.
He landed heavily, his movements controlled if not graceful, and Helena saw the weapon in his hand come up. Too far away to do anything else, and slowed by the bullet already in her arm, Batgirl spun toward Helena, putting herself between the child and the shooter and pushing the girl along. The child's head tipped up, her gaze meeting the frightened eyes behind the black mask even as a sharp crack echoed through the room, momentarily leaving her deaf. The black garbed woman stumbled but didn't go down, teeth gritted with the effort required to stay on her feet. She thrust Helena toward the bedroom door when the girl stood paralyzed, her voice little more than a gasp, "Run." That she fully expected another shot to tear through her body was obvious.
Helena couldn't move, frozen not by fear for herself but by the fear that the woman who'd just saved her life was going to die protecting her. A beat passed while they both expected to hear another sharp crack, but there was only a dull thump.
"Now this really sucks," Selina Kyle's voice, wry and annoyed echoed faintly as she stepped almost daintily over the man now lying limp on the floor of her balcony. She'd arrived and knocked their attacker unconscious during the brief moment between the first shot and the expected second one. "Looks like I'm going to have to be nice to you now," she drawled. She saw her daughter glance upward and offered a confident smile. "Especially since I just blew one hell of a contract."
"The others?" Batgirl croaked, turning to face Catwoman and leaning heavily against the wall, her blood leaving dark smears on crisp, white paint.
"They won't be bothering anyone," Selina assured her opponent as she hurried forward, catching her nemesis under the armpits when she would have collapsed.
Batgirl sagged, blood running from twin wounds in thin trickles, very little of it escaping the confines of the heavy costume. "Just give back the damned Eye," she groaned.
"You certainly do have a one track mind," Selina muttered and hauled the redhead over to her bed, dumping her onto it with considerable gentleness. "Just like him," she added through clenched teeth.
Emerald green eyes swung toward the intently watching child. "The girl ... who ... is she?"
"My niece," Selina lied without batting an eyelash, though she flashed a hard look toward her daughter, silently warning her not to argue. "She's a bit too much for my sister to handle, so I've been looking after her."
The wounded woman's gaze swung back to touch on Selina, narrowing suspiciously as she struggled to make sense of the answer. "You have a sister?" she mumbled at last.
Selina smirked, anger making her eyes flash. "Contrary to what some people might think, I wasn't hatched out of thin air." She yanked a steel case from under the bed and flipped it open, grabbing for a pair of blunt ended cut-all scissors. In consideration of her own tendency to get beat up on the job, she had the first aid kit to end all first aid kits. Noting the bright green gaze directed her way, she snorted softly.
The woman on the bed tipped her head up, frowning dazedly, struggling to understand the strange undercurrents of emotion directed her way. "You're jealous," she muttered at last, sounding amazed by the discovery.
"Imagine that," Catwoman muttered, though her touch was gentle as she carefully cut away the injured woman's costume at the shoulder, leaning forward to peer at the wound. "You're running around in his costume ... and surprised I'm jealous." She growled a low curse, her attitude completely confusing her silently watching daughter. Something had shaken Selina, and not just the attack, Helena realized with startling insight.
Batgirl was still watching, clear green eyes shadowed by pain. "We ... we're not ... not... involved..." she croaked at last, then ran out of strength, her head falling back, face twisted by pain.
A beat passed while Selina stared at her unexpected patient. "Mm, I should have guessed as much," she muttered at last, going from jealous to practical in an instant. "Somehow I don't see him all that crazy about..." she started to use one verb only to glance at her daughter and change her mind and go with something far more innocuous, "...dating someone in this biz...." The heavy sheers cut easily through fabric and rubber. "Especially not someone with a tendency to step into the line of fire."
"Couldn't let him ... shoot the girl," the whispered words barely escaped soft lips. She glanced over at Helena, her expression confused as she struggled to piece things together, her mental functions suddenly far slower than normal. "Even if she was on your side."
"Now that sounds like him," Selina muttered, an oddly affectionate note threading through her tone.
The woman bleeding on her bed didn't even try to answer this time, her concentration taken up by the pain rattling through her at every level.
Selina glanced at her daughter, a frown creasing her brow as she noted the way Helena was watching the injured woman, rarity of rarities, her entire focus on the prone figure. Normally, her daughter concentrated on a dozen things at once, the artfully agile brain she'd been born with too easily bored to stick to one thing at a time. But this time she was absolutely focused, her gaze unwavering. The woman on the bed groaned softly, wincing as she moved ever so slightly, and Helena flinched with her. Uncertain what to make of what she was seeing and with no time to dissect its meaning, Selina returned her attention back to the woman possibly bleeding to death on her bed, using the cut-all scissors to hack away at thick neoprene. Dammit, she didn't need this, didn't need it at all. He'd never believe she hadn't been the one to kill the wench if she went off and died. And besides, in saving Helena, she'd put Selina in her debt.
She swallowed a frustrated curse, and continued to hack at the heavy costume, forcing her thoughts back to the task at hand. The costume was designed to blunt the blows delivered by fists and feet, while still allowing a maximum of movement. It had never been meant to deflect bullets. She peeled the chestplate back, paling as pooled blood, no longer contained by the latex foam, escaped and flooded over flesh and fabric. It was even worse than she'd realized. "Jesus." She looked up into frightened eyes. "You need a hospital." She reached for the black cowl, cursing when her unwanted patient yanked her head back. "I don't think you want me taking you in like this," she muttered. "Though why the hell I should care...." She looked at her daughter, a hint of a frown touching her brow as the words trailed off. That was why she had no choice but to care. "Helena toss me that bathrobe," she ordered, snapping the child out of her near-hypnotic state as she nodded to indicate a nearby chair, the back hidden by dark velour fabric. "Then get my car keys." Without waiting to see if her orders were obeyed, she began cutting through fabric and foam to remove the rest of the black costume as quickly as she was able.
By the time Helena returned, the black cowl was gone, revealing soft features and fluttery red hair. Her mother was cupping her antagonist's face in one hand, her face pale. "Not much more than a kid," she muttered unhappily. "What the hell was he thinking letting you out on a school night."
Her daughter could only stare, held prisoner by features that seemed more perfect than an angel's. As if drawn by that thought, green eyes struggled open, staring not at Selina, but at Helena, sliding over her and checking her condition. In that instant, the child who could never sit still couldn't move. Then her mother slid an arm around the redhead's waist, tugging her upright enough to tug the robe around her. Helena suddenly realized the her mother had pulled on a black trenchcoat and pulled off her mask.
"Can you stand at all?" Selina asked.
"...do what I have to," the other woman groaned, leaning heavily on her enemy as she found her feet. She stumbled and would have gone down if not for the support. Helena abruptly rushed forward, catching the woman's arm on the side opposite her mother, while Selina pulled a slender arm across her shoulders.
"I don't doubt," Selina muttered, once again noting the way her daughter watched their patient, her small hands carefully supportive. "Though I can't help but think you'd be better off taking up intramural sports after you get out of the hospital...."
"Very funny," Batgirl groaned, sounding annoyed at the implication.
Selina shook her head disgustedly. "If there's any humor in this situation," she disagreed dryly, "I sure as hell can't find it."
By the time they reached a nearby hospital, the redhead was unconscious, her condition dire enough that the doctors scarcely noticed the woman who'd brought her in, or the child staring longingly after her. They had other matters to worry about.
As a result, Selina simply slipped out the way they'd come, though she had to hook a hand around her daughter's shoulders and all but drag the child with her. As she climbed into her car, she looked over at her daughter, who sat staring into the distance, her gaze focused and intense in a way she'd never seen before, her young face set and looking older than Selina had ever seen. It frightened her a little, pointing out that Helena wasn't like other children, and wouldn't be a child for much longer. She sighed softly, seeing a time on the horizon when she wouldn't be able to protect her child any longer. Finally, she reached out, patting a delicate hand comfortingly, sensing a level of emotional involvement she didn't understand, but somehow knew it was important she respect. "She's got a good chance," she murmured. "We got her here quickly, and she's young and strong."
Serious eyes swung her way. "You and she were fighting before ... I attacked her ... but she saved me," she said very softly, struggling to understand a kind of self sacrifice that was near unimaginable to any child.
Selina nodded, swallowing hard as the gravity of it all struck her. "There are people like that in the world." She offered a small shrug, not really understanding it any better than her daughter. She'd never really lost the natural greed and self-centeredness of childhood, breaking out of it only where her daughter was concerned.
A moment passed and Helena simply nodded, then leaned back in the passenger's seat, sinking into herself. Eager to be clear of the place before someone started asking uncomfortable questions, Selina pulled her car out of the parking lot and away into the night.
The headline the next day about the police commissioner's daughter being shot during a mugging gone bad wasn't the sort of thing one could miss, just like the color shots of the pretty redhead as a high school gymnast that were broadcast on the evening news. Selena was aware that her daughter was almost hypnotized by the steady influx of images, her attention completely absorbed by every scrap of information. She considered asking, only to conclude she wasn't sure she wanted to know, or maybe it was just that she didn't think her daughter knew the answer any better than she did ... at least not yet. Might as well leave the child with whatever innocence she had left for as long as possible.
Hearrived four days later, looking as tall and good as he always had, seemingly in control, though his eyes betrayed a shakiness that caught her by surprise. She considered throwing him out, but that was only likely to raise even more suspicions, so she faced him with little more than bravado and a smile, carefully not letting on that a part of her melted just at the sight of him. God, it was so unfair ... wanting so much what she could never have. They might not always be on opposite sides, but they'd never be on the same one.
"I just wanted to say thank you," he said very softly, his voice gravelly from lack of sleep. "Barbara regained consciousness ... told me what happened. She owes you her life."
Selina nodded, glad he hadn't tried to pretend that Batgirl and Barbara Gordon weren't one and the same. In this instance, the truth was better than a poor lie. She offered a calculated shrug. "It was either that or watch her bleed to death, and I already had plans for the evening." She did not want him to know just how much she owed the young woman lying in a hospital bed. She started to turn away, but a heavy hand curved to her forearm, stopping her mid-step.
"I know you're also the one who handed over Bruno Turturro and his brothers." The world was a better place with those three off the streets, though he still didn't know who they'd been working for and wasn't even entirely certain they knew.
"I don't like killers much," she allowed, neither confirming nor denying the charge. She'd gotten back and cleaned up that particular bit of bad judgment in a way that guaranteed they didn't finger her for anything, not when they were so scared of their boss. One threat to turn them back over to him had shut them up faster than bullets might have and with far fewer questions from authorities. It wasn't wise to play dangerous games with the Joker.
Bruce sighed very softly, their history making it impossible to say so many things ... but equally impossible not to think them. "There's one other thing," he said very softly.
"Of course there is," she muttered, wishing she could cut this conversation short, but recognizing that he wouldn't be easily deterred, and trying would only ramp up his suspicions.
"Barbara said there was a child ... she thought about twelve or thirteen..." he trailed off as though waiting for some panicked confession, but she just peered up at him for a moment, then shrugged.
"My niece," she repeated the lie she'd told Batgirl. "She was visiting. Poor kid had the shit scared out of her."
He frowned uncertainly, clearly disturbed by his own thoughts, and uncertain whether or not to believe her. Selina Kyle lied so very well, and the child Barbara had described could easily be theirs. "You never mentioned any family," he said at last.
"Well, hell, Bruce, believe it or not, I didn't just pop into existence out of thin air," she snapped and found she didn't have to fake the impatience. He took everything so very seriously, as though there was no past and no future and no life beyond swirling capes and black neoprene. If she'd ever had any doubts that she'd done the right thing, that reminder erased them. Raised his way, Helena would never be allowed to be a child. "Besides, if it were what you're suspecting, don't you think I'd be ensconced in stately Wayne Manor, spending the stately Wayne millions?"
The uncertainty didn't leave his expression. "I don't know," he admitted after a long moment. Certainly Selina loved money, but what she really loved was the chase and the game. He hadn't had more than a few minutes sleep in days, exhaustion leaving normally sharp thought processes so scrambled he honestly didn't know what the woman in front of him would do. "Is she mine?" he asked at last, cutting straight to the chase with the same uncanny knack that had left her emotionally devastated once before.
Showing no sign that the question had shaken her to the core, she shook her head. "No ... whoever she is, she's not yours."
His eyes slid closed, the sense that she'd hurt him almost driving her to take back the lie.
Almost but not quite. "Get out of here, Bruce," she sighed, suddenly exhausted by it all, "before we hurt each other any more than we already have."
He stepped back toward the door, pausing to turn back as his hand closed on the knob. "I wish..." he said very softly, the sadness in his eyes even deeper than his usual level of perpetual depression, "things were different."
An ironic smile twisted full lips. "Don't we all," she admitted, "but you're you, and I'm me ... and while the twain may have met ... it wasn't meant to be."
"If you need anything...."
The smile only broadened a notch. "I won't call you."
He swallowed hard, accepting the rejection, and knowing she was probably right. Want--- even love--- each other they might, but they'd always been bad for one another. "Take care of yourself."
Selina watched him pull the door open and start to step out, and she didn't know what demon drove her to speak. "You take care of your little prot�g�," she admonished him. "Teach her to duck when someone's shooting at her ... after all, I might not be there to save her life next time."
He turned back, frowning, clearly thinking she assumed they were more than simply two people who shared similar costumes. "She's not..." he began only to trail off. "She's a good kid ... nothing more."
"I know," she admitted. "And because she's a good kid, you should make sure she's got the tools to stay alive."
His head hanging, he simply nodded. A moment passed and she had the sense that he was waiting and hoping. When she didn't speak, he finally stepped out and pulled the door closed in his wake.
Selina simply stood, staring after him, for a long moment until a frisson of awareness slid down her spine. She glanced over her shoulder, frowning as she saw the small face peering around a corner. "Helena," she exhaled.
That the man who'd just left was very probably her father was quite obvious to Helena Kyle, that he'd hurt her mother was also obvious, that he was somehow tied to Barbara Gordon was just confusing. She peered up at her mother, ready to leap to her defense and silently begging for an explanation.
"Sometimes we can't have what we most want," Selina whispered at last, offering the only explanation she had, though she didn't understand it any better than her child. "Even the best thief has to accept that some things can't be stolen." She saw the look in her daughter's eyes and her expression became forbidding. "Stay away from them ... both of them," she warned, her tone deadly serious. This wasn't a game, and she wanted to make sure her daughter understood that. "I know you ... play ... in places you shouldn't," she said with forced calm. Normally Helena's tendency to light out of her bedroom window and make for the highest, most dangerous spot she could think of made her rather proud. She genuinely like her daughter's wildness, enjoyed her company, and loved the fact that she was the most alive person Selina had ever known. However, on this occasion, it was a goddamned pain in the ass. "But from now on out you stay close to home ... and away from them. Understood?"
The child nodded.
"Promise me," Selina Kyle demanded, sensing that her daughter had no intention of following this rule. She had so few that she barely understood the concept. For the first time she found herself wishing she'd been a little stricter along the way, not that she fooled herself that it would have worked. Helena was like her. Giving her rules only increased her desire to break them.
"I promise," the child murmured after a long moment, her expression serious. She was lying, of course, and later, she would find ways to catch glimpses of the object of her youthful passion, twining their lives together in a way that none of them could escape in the years that followed.
After that first fateful night, people would come and go and secrets too long kept would threaten them all. Death would come for one, loss of a part of herself for another, and a kind of madness for the man that originally bound them all together.
Only one thing would remain utterly constant and unchanging.
Helena Kyle was twelve years old the night she fell in love.