DISCLAIMER: I do not own the characters. They are the property of DC comics and the WB network. I'm just borrowing them for a short period of time.
MUSIC DISCLAIMER: Song lyrics don't belong to me either; no profit gained or infringement intended.
WARNING: This story deals with the subject of sexual violence.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Prologue: A Time to Kill
'Massive internal damage. Blood loss.'
'If there's ever a problem and you need help, you can always call Barbara.'
'Injuries too severe. So sorry.'
'Remember, you can trust her.'
'There was nothing we could do. You can claim the body at the morgue tomorrow.'
Injuries. Blood loss. Barbara. Massive internal damage...
The words, the voices -- a nurse, her mom not too many weeks ago, a doctor -- They were all getting mixed up in her head. It didn't make any sense.
She hurt. God, how she hurt.
They'd just gone to see a play. Her mom said it would help her visualize what Ms. Gordon -- Barbara -- was trying to teach her in English class. And, it had been pretty good -- a lot better than the dry-assed thee's and thou's in the book: the costumes, the sword fight, the hokey stage blood.
The dark-haired teen stared at her hands, clasped tightly between her knees, at the congealing stains from where she couldn't keep the blood from pouring out of her mom after they came out of the theatre and... it happened.
Blood loss. Severe injuries. Barbara. Damage. Nothing they could do.
Helena watched those bloody hands rise from her lap, turning palm up, drawing closer and closer to her face. A foot away and the bloody digits filled her vision. Four inches away and blue eyes could see nothing but red.
She could clearly make out the coppery scent -- Didn't think she'd ever actually smelled copper. Was that really what it smelled like? Maybe blood just smelled like blood.
But, no, this blood held another scent, something more. It was the scent that had comforted her all of her life as her mom held her, made everything okay, loved her.
God, she wanted her mom.
The girl opened her mouth slightly, drawing the essence in, as she lowered her head to bury her face in her hands. Hidden behind blood-stained fingers, cobalt eyes transformed to yellow, pupils narrowing into vertical slits. The brunette tasted the blood on her lips, in her mouth as her jaw trembled violently.
Claim the body. Sorry.
They didn't make sense. They didn't -- couldn't -- mean anything.
Lowering her hands, Helena stared unseeingly through dark, shaggy bangs, licking blood from the corners of her mouth. She panted softly, aware of a rumble emanating from her chest but unable to understand what it meant.
She needed someone who could find out what it all meant. Someone who could tell her.
Lurching to her feet, the teenager made her way down the hall, seeking a pay phone, leaving a bloody trail on the wall with the hand she extended to help keep her upright. She dialed the number from memory, not breathing until the ringing stopped and...
Shit. It was Barbara's machine.
<"Hi. This is Barbara, but I can't take your call right now. I'm probably off saving the world -- or, more likely, buried under a mountain of sophomore essays. You know the drill.">
What...? What was she supposed to say? How could she squeeze everything into a thirty second message?
"Barbara, it's... it's me."
The girl took a shuddering breath.
"I'm at... the hospital. Something happened to my mom. I -- I don't understand. How it..."
The expressive face twisted; the soft voice cracked.
"Where are you?"
Prologue: A Time to Heal
Where on earth could Helena be? The girl should have been home hours ago.
Granted, the two women didn't keep a regular dinner hour -- Barbara snorted; often as not she simply forgot, or didn't care, about eating altogether -- but the teenager was supposed to call if she would be out past dark on school nights. Checking the clock, then returning her gaze to the window, the older woman realized that darkness had fallen well over an hour ago, a fact that had somehow escaped her despite the fact that she'd been staring out -- or, at -- that window for the last few hours.
Barbara just really did not need this today.
The redhead considered that thought momentarily.
Today? Hell, she really didn't need this any day, she determined grimly, then choked back what would have been, she suspected, a rather wild burst of laughter.
Probably wouldn't be taken as a good sign if someone caught her alone in the dark bedroom, laughing maniacally. In her day, she'd helped put away more than one person with those sorts of traits.
Of course, it certainly wasn't "her day" any longer, and, on a good percentage of days, she felt like she was dangerously close to not caring what the hell she did in her solitude.
Why did Helena have to make it even more difficult?
Fidgeting with the brake on her chair, Barbara blew out a noisy breath, exasperated with herself.
It wasn't that the girl actually caused any real trouble. In fact, some days, the brunette almost made it easy to forget that -- in a heartbeat, in the flash of a knife -- Barbara had become responsible for her. Since the older woman had been released from the hospital and fully assumed guardianship of the teen two months ago, it hardly seemed that the girl had spoken more than a few dozen times. Helena moved quietly through Barbara's small apartment, as if walking on egg shells, spending most of her time either shut in her room or sitting in the dormer window in the living room.
Somehow, though, she always seemed to appear instantly if her guardian reached the limits of what she was capable of and needed a lift, or assistance in reaching something, or help with... whatever the redhead was no longer able to handle on her own from the confines of the chair. With her natural genetic gifts, with her enhanced strength and grace, the deceptively delicate teen was easily able to assist the older woman. Afterwards, she always remained nearby watching through wide blue eyes -- wordlessly, cautiously -- until Barbara assured her that she would be able to handle whatever... chore the next portion of her life had become.
So, no, Barbara was forced to admit, her ward really wasn't actively making her life more difficult. However, the situation itself sometimes felt impossibly overwhelming.
Four years of babysitting a young Helena Kyle and, two years later, six months as the young woman's sophomore English teacher had in no way prepared the older woman for the huge responsibilities suddenly thrust upon her by Selina's murder. Under normal circumstances, the situation would have been challenging enough. Newly paralyzed by a psychopathic madman -- on the same night that Helena's mother had been murdered at that madman's order -- Barbara was simply at a loss. Every identity that she had embraced -- world-class gymnast, masked vigilante, kick-ass high school teacher -- had been torn away.
Sighing, the redhead finally released the brake on her chair and moved towards the closed door of her room. Regardless of how she was feeling right now, it was time to put on her "responsible adult" identity and try to locate her errant ward. Of course, if she weren't able to pin her down fairly quickly by calling the few classmates that Helena sometimes claimed to spend time with, the older woman wasn't sure just what recourse she'd have. Cruising the streets in the adapted van didn't seem too promising, and calling on her dad for assistance was even less palatable.
Grimacing, the redhead decided that she'd first check the teen's darkened room in the off chance of determining whether Helena had even come home from school before disappearing. Without much hope for her venture, Barbara quietly opened the teenager's door and stretched up for the light switch, all the while trying to come up with suitably creative invective for the architect who had placed the switches in her apartment just above her reach.
When her fingers finally caught the switch and light filled the room, the older woman's curse -- something having to do with horny toads and warts -- died in her throat.
Barbara's search for her overdue charge was over before it began. The dark-haired teen was in her room, and -- if the backpack spilled carelessly by the bedroom door were any indication -- she had been there since slipping in from school hours ago. The girl was seated on the end of her bed, head bowed, hands clasped between her knees, body rigid.
'Posed' was the first word that flashed through her guardian's mind.
No, she immediately corrected her first impression. Poised. Helena looked poised. Waiting for... what?
Barbara smiled softly as blue eyes peeked shyly through dark lashes, as even white teeth bit one corner of a lush lower lip. Since she had been unjustly maligning the young woman, assuming the worst of her presumed absence, the redhead decided that -- at the very least -- an apology for barging into the girl's room was in order.
"I'm sorry, Helena. I didn't realize -- "
The brunette spoke at the same time.
"Uh, sorry. I didn't hear you. Do you need -- "
The words were spoken so softly that it took the older woman a moment to decipher, then comprehend them. When she did, she instinctively jerked the wheels of her chair slightly, blinking against the meaning suggested by the words, by Helena's posture.
The girl had been waiting alright... for Barbara. To be summoned for help, or to be called for dinner, or... to be needed or wanted... or noticed.
The redhead closed her eyes for a moment and pursed her lips, attempting to identify, to organize, to compartmentalize the emotions sweeping through her.
It was too much. How could she have been so...
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Time enough to deal with her reaction -- reactions -- later, the older woman decided. She opened her eyes, just in time to catch a smooth movement as the teenager shifted something from her right hand to her left and casually -- too damned casually -- straightened the left cuff of her long sleeved tee a bit.
Anger replaced other emotions instantly. The redhead gave her chair wheels a sharp push, coming to a halt with her knees inches from the teenager.
So help her, if the girl was using drugs, Barbara vowed that she'd be redoubling her PT so that she could kick her ass as soon as possible. Or, she allowed with a frustrated sigh, she could just ask her charge to share.
Ignoring the brunette's slight flinch, the older woman extended her right hand, palm up and pinned her ward with a look that she had perfected over eight years of dealing with petty criminals and during three years of handling students scarcely younger than herself in the classroom.
The dark head dropped lower before Helena slowly raised her left hand, tension evidenced by the trembling of her arm and the whiteness of the tightly clenched knuckles. She hesitated for a split second -- the incongruous thought flitted through Barbara's mind that she might need to practice The Look in a mirror now -- and then dropped something into her guardian's hand and slowly lowered her arm.
Emerald eyes blinked once, then widened in surprise.
Lying in the palm of the older woman's hand was a pendant: a silver cat's claw, razor sharp, embedded with a small diamond. Barbara had seen the item numerous times, but always before it had been clasped around Selina Kyle's neck.
She looked up to find blue eyes -- wet with unshed tears -- fixed miserably on the pendant. The teenager's jaw was trembling as she bit at her lower lip hard enough to draw pinpoints of blood.
The anguished whisper filled the older woman with shame. Once again, she'd needlessly assumed the worst about her charge.
Barbara extended her hand, turning it slightly, as she murmured, "Yes. Yes, it is. I'm sorry, Helena. I didn't know --"
Helena closed her left hand reverently around the item, looking through her bangs to offer a tiny smile. The look was so hesitant, so heartbreakingly grateful, that Barbara almost missed something else.
The pieces clicked into place, and the redhead gently grasped the teenager's wrist, turning Helena's forearm with one hand as she reached out to push up her sleeve with the other. The trail of cuts -- deep and methodical, in all stages of healing -- filled Barbara with an absolute fury at herself for the self-pity which had blinded her so to Helena's pain. Simultaneously, she experienced an overwhelming, aching tenderness for the young woman.
Reaching out, she cupped the young woman's jaw and coaxed blue eyes towards her.
"Not like this, Sweetheart."
The endearment flowed from her mouth, from her heart, easily, naturally.
"Don't... Believe me, I do understand, but don't remember her like this, Helena. Don't do this."
Prologue: A Time to Embrace
Helena couldn't remember ever taking a punch like that.
Of course, since she'd broken Frank's nose first, he had been pretty out of control. Still, she didn't feel one bit sorry. He shouldn't have called her -- that.
Slipping silently through the dormer window and navigating unerringly through the darkened apartment, the teen touched her tongue to the inside of her cheek, tasting blood.
She hated the taste, the feel, of blood in her mouth.
After shutting the bathroom door, she turned on the light and stared at her reflection in the mirror.
A scrape over one eye -- that should be gone by morning, considering how fast she healed. Her shirt was ruined. And, yeah, there was gonna be a beaut of a bruise on her cheek. No way Barbara wouldn't notice that.
The redhead was probably going to get that sad, disappointed look. Again.
Helena hated it when she made the older woman get that look.
The brunette stared at her reflection again, looking past the scrapes and bruises, trying to see herself. Not the shaggy hair or blue eyes or dark brows -- one just slightly higher than the other, giving her a perpetually amused or disbelieving or angry look. Not the too-skinny body -- she'd lost some weight a few months ago -- or the hips that were almost boyishly slender, or the small breasts that had been getting her attention -- and trouble -- in the last few years.
No, all of that was just... window dressing.
She wanted to see what was behind the curtain. She wanted to see Helena Kyle.
What did that mean, 'Helena Kyle'? Did the words say anything about who she was?
Her mom used to call her "Kitten", especially when she was young and her mom tucked her in, patting and soothing her, but the teenager sure didn't see anything soft or cuddly or playful in the mirror.
Later, when she'd grown up, started itching and hungering for things she couldn't even name, her mom had called her "Little Hunter", told her to be patient, that her time would come. Watching her eyes augment to yellow slits, Helena figured that she could see some of the "hunter" thing, but she sure didn't know when her time was going to come.
Before... before everything happened, the yearbooks had always called her "popular", "friendly". That sure wasn't her now. That stuff just wasn't important.
Now, they -- kids like Frank -- they looked at her and called her other things: Perve, Sicko, Animal. Drawing back her upper lip in a snarl, the brunette thought they might be right.
But, Barbara. Well, the redhead called her "Sweetheart". She always said it like she meant it, too. And, the funny thing was, when Helena was around the other woman, she could feel that raw, throbbing pounding in her chest gentle and start to beat like a normal person.
Shedding her torn shirt, the teen wadded it up and tossed it in the wastebasket, then ducked over the sink to wash her face. She flicked off the light before cracking the door and slipping down the hall to her room, where she shed her shoes and jeans and flopped on top of her covers. She wanted to go raid the fridge, watch some TV, but -- if there was any chance that Barbara was sleeping -- she didn't want to disturb her. Aside from the fact that it would tip her guardian off to the fact that Helena had broken curfew again, the brunette knew how much trouble the older woman had sleeping.
Forty minutes later, any hopes that she'd had for a peaceful night for the other woman dissolved when she heard the soft cries from down the hall. The girl thought she could count, on one hand, the number of nightmare-free nights that Barbara had had since... since everything happened.
Helena padded down the hall and soundlessly entered the redhead's room. With her enhanced vision, the girl could clearly see the covers tangled around her guardian's chest as she wrestled with her nightmares. The blankets were still incongruously tidy around the woman's motionless lower body. Helena saw the sweat dotting the older woman's forehead and chest as she moaned the same word she always did.
Helena awakened from a lot of her own nightmares with that same word in her mouth. For the first few months after she'd moved in with the redhead, she'd lie in the dark, panting, hearing the blood rushing through her. Trying hard not to remember other blood which had poured over her. Trying not to hear Barbara's pained cries of that same word from down the hall.
In the last couple of months, after the older woman had surprised her in her room one night, things started to change a little. It was like they'd both understood something, found something.
Barbara stopped spending almost every minute shut behind her door. Helena began hitting the deli on the way home from school each day, forcing herself to eat, cajoling her guardian to do so as she dredged up some story or another from the day to coax a smile from the redhead.
At night, when she awoke from another nightmare, the girl had taken to sneaking into the older woman's room to curl up near the door. The sound of Barbara's breathing, the very scent of the other woman, managed to push the bloody images away. And, when the redhead cried out, Helena was right there; she'd glide to the bed to brush her fingers lightly through sweat-dampened hair, to straighten tangled covers, to press a soft kiss to a forehead furrowed in pain. Then, when the other woman's breathing finally evened out again, Helena could return to her spot by the door, secure.
This night, the teenager hadn't been at her post when Barbara's nightmare started, and she hadn't been able to get to the woman as quickly. Brushing a lock of crimson hair from the smooth plane of her guardian's cheek, the girl froze when green eyes flew open and the redhead gasped.
She was so fucking stupid, missing curfew, getting to Barbara too late, scaring her.
"It's -- it's just me," the brunette whispered. "I'm sorry -- You were, uhm, I was just checking on you."
The older woman released a long breath, then raised a hand to tangle her fingers with those still frozen near her face.
"It's all right, Sweetie."
The voice was quiet, still rough from sleep, but so gentle. That beautiful face turned slightly, and Helena felt the softest of kisses pressed to her knuckles.
"I appreciate it, Helena. Really. I know that you... check on me quite a few nights."
A lengthy silence followed that reassurance. Helena figured that the redhead was thinking. As for her, well, something about the feel of those soft lips on her fingers had just taken away the teen's power of speech... or movement... or, well, breathing.
The girl finally remembered to suck in a lung full of oxygen just as the older woman released her hand and folded back the covers on the other side, patting the bed lightly.
"Why don't you get in, Helena? You -- I -- I think we'll both sleep better tonight."
Blue eyes blinked. Barbara just didn't... wasn't... She just didn't do the touchy-feely stuff. Hell, Helena couldn't remember the last time that the redhead had hugged her. Maybe the last time she'd done the babysitting thing, before heading off to grad school.
Deciding not to give the older woman time to reconsider, Helena slid soundlessly under the covers, lying rigidly on her back, staring at the spackle patterns on the dark ceiling, trying not to breath too loudly. Only when she heard the older woman's breathing even out did she turn on her side, gazing at the other woman's profile. Slowly, inch-by-inch, her body seemed to move itself across the big bed until her head rested on the pillow next to Barbara's and her arm draped itself lightly over the other woman's waist.
Breathing deeply the scent of her guardian's shampoo, feeling the comforting rise and fall of the older woman's abdomen, Helena dropped into a dreamless slumber.
Prologue: A Time to Refrain from Embracing
Barbara Gordon regarded the piece of latex in her hands. For so long, it had made up such a big part of her hopes and dreams. It was ironic, perhaps even fitting, that it was also responsible for the loss of these dreams, for the nightmares that nibbled around every moment of what her life had become now.
"Barbara? Where are you?"
Emerald eyes flashed in anger.
Couldn't she have a minute? Just a minute to herself? A minute to remember what she had been... never could be again?
"Hey, Barbara -- You in here?"
Tucking the cowled mask back into the drawer, the redhead just had time to straighten before the door to her room cracked slightly and a pair of startling blue eyes peeked in.
"Oh, uh. Sorry." The dark head ducked apologetically. "You didn't..."
The older woman sighed soundlessly and forced her irritation aside.
It wasn't Helena's fault. The girl didn't know about her guardian's none-too-uplifting trips down memory lane. And, she certainly didn't know about some of the avenues and alleyways, involving masks and dark justice, which branched off that lane.
"It's all right, Helena. Come in."
Barbara offered an encouraging smile to the girl as she took a half-step into the bedroom.
"I was just putting away some laundry. Thought I might weed out a few things that don't... fit any longer."
The teenager gnawed at her lower lip before blue eyes peered shyly through dark lashes.
No doubt about it: the girl was going to be a heart breaker. Rather, the older woman realized, given the frequency of her ward's late night outings, she probably already was breaking hearts.
"Hey, it's only been a year. You're already putting some weight back on, getting your muscle tone back."
Barbara detected the uncertainty before the girl added teasingly, "Not that I don't think that your wardrobe could use a serious overhaul..."
The redhead laughed softly, noting how good it felt to laugh again, even if it was at the expense of her own fashion sense.
It felt even better, she acknowledged, to see Helena finally trying to find a little humor in life again.
"And I should take fashion advice from someone who thinks that clothes only come in one color?"
The older woman kept her tone light. The brunette was clearly trying so hard to help keep her guardian's spirits up.
"Black is very versatile, Barbara."
"Funereal -- "
The silence that greeted the word was absolutely leaden.
The redhead desperately wished that she could reel the word back in. For someone who supposedly had such a very, very high IQ, sometimes she could be about as bright as a small appliance light bulb.
She decided to take a try at some humor herself.
"Besides, I'm really going for something more colorful, perhaps something that can get me in to that open audition for Riverdance next week?"
The attempt seemed to do -- not the trick -- but some sort of trick. The teen looked a little less pained.
"Well, at least, your paraplegic humor is getting better, Barbara."
The girl traced a finger against the door frame, then inquired softly, "Are you ready to do your PT now or -- "
Barbara neatly cut her off.
"I thought we might forego today, Helena. Perhaps you want to hit the arcade, catch up with some of your friends?"
The girl had been amazingly responsible since she'd taken on her guardian's daily physical therapy sessions two months ago. And, while Barbara certainly found the sessions with Helena a great deal more palatable than they had been under her previous less-than-sensitive therapists, it simply wasn't right for the girl to put her life on hold every day. The teenager needed a life apart from caring for a guardian who relied on her as much -- or more than -- the teen needed her.
Mentally shaking her head, Barbara wondered if the word 'dysfunctional' even began to describe it.
This time, the shake of a red head was quite visible.
" 'Nuh uh'?" Barbara mimicked as one crimson brow quirked and she smiled in spite of herself.
Helena, playful, could simply cut through the worst of the redhead's moods.
"Nuh. Uh." Helena repeated, enunciating clearly. "I don't want to forget the steps, and you know it's helping."
Bowing to the inevitable, the older woman moved to the corner of the living room where a low training table and a weight bench had been wedged.
They really needed more space, she reflected as Helena casually -- unobtrusively -- helped her position herself on the table.
The redhead tugged her shirt down to cover the still-livid scars on her stomach and then lay passively, observing slender hands manipulating her legs through a range of motions which would, hopefully, slow muscle deterioration. In all honesty, she had to agree with her ward that she was regaining some of her strength in her upper body and muscle tone all over. Apparently, the combination of semi-regular meals and Helena's refusal to let her skip the daily sessions was a good one.
Barbara smiled fondly at that thought and observed the young woman -- the fluidity and gentleness of the girl's touch, the look of concentration as the brunette followed the sequence of movements. Focusing on the gamine features a little more closely, the older woman noticed a faint puffiness, the beginning of discoloration on the girl's jaw.
The redhead sighed. Blue eyes darted to the older woman's face and, reading the emotion there, became shuttered.
"What was it about this time, Helena?"
The terse response was barely more than an angry growl.
Barbara hadn't quite pulled out The Look yet, but she was definitely getting close.
The dark head jerked away, leaving the girl's guardian with a glimpse of glowering features.
"Just drop it, okay? I fucked up. Again. I'm sorry. End of story."
The older woman drew in a quick breath.
Had the teen's eyes just changed? Helena's movements with the redhead's left leg were still gentle, but they were considerably less fluid.
As if sensing the other woman's discomfort, the brunette carefully settled the other woman's leg on the table and took two measured steps back. She kept her eyes averted.
Barbara pushed up on her elbows, frustrated by how difficult that movement still was, and inquired, "Are you, Helena?"
In response to the wrinkled brows, she elaborated.
"Are you sorry?"
The girl blew out an angry breath and rubbed her eyes before fixing deep blue on emerald.
"Yeah. No. I don't know."
Having long ago recognized the wisdom behind the "silence is golden" homily, Barbara remained quiet, waiting.
It didn't take long.
"They were picking on this dorky freshman. And, yeah, I guess I'm sorry I broke Harvey's wrist, but he had it coming, dammit!"
The redhead blinked and pushed herself more upright. She pinched the bridge of her nose, attempting to stave off the pounding pressure building behind her temples.
Not good. Not good at all. She'd definitely be getting another call from the school. How much longer could she smooth things over for the girl, make excuses about grief and the healing process?
Barbara attempted to mask her dismay... and pride... and fear. The "Guardianship For Dummies" handbook certainly didn't cover this. Thank heavens she'd already had a good indication of Helena's particular... talents when she'd agreed to Selina's request to be named guardian in her will.
The silence extended as the older woman considered the oddly appealing mix of sweetness and anger, selfishness and thoughtfulness, childlike playfulness and dark broodiness that made up her young ward. As she reflected, Helena's expressive face visibly transformed from defiant to shamed to frustrated sadness.
Finally, Barbara spoke, wondering what she could say this time that might get through to the girl.
"Sweetheart, while it sounds like your heart was in the right place, you simply cannot keep doing this. Aside from the fact that you're dangerously close to being expelled -- "
Registering the distinct lack of displeasure that met these words, the redhead interrupted herself to elaborate.
"Hel, if you're expelled, the system is going to take a long, hard look at how well I'm doing as your guardian."
Ignoring the fact that she had some serious doubts of her own, the older woman plunged ahead.
"They could decide that I'm not the best choice for you. They could... relocate you to a more... formal environment."
The teen's startled blinking suggested that she had gotten the message, and so Barbara returned to her earlier point.
"Apart from that, Hel, you must learn to control yourself. With your -- gifts, your strength and power, you simply cannot give in to that part of you which is so out of control."
The girl set her jaw and glared at the wall, muttering, "Yeah, yeah. 'Great power. Great responsibility.' Blah, blah, blah."
With some difficulty, the redhead quashed an instinct to snap at the headstrong teenager. Now was simply not the time to have her father's lecture about showing proper respect to a parent come pouring out of her mouth.
Instead, she purposely gentled her tone.
"Helena, this is important. You can't go through life on anger and intimidation. And, you certainly don't want to make a mistake and hurt someone. You can learn to control this... this part of you. To channel it."
Barbara smiled softly.
"And, Sweetheart, it's also okay to let the rest of the world see the other side of you, the side that I'm sometimes allowed to see. The side I'd like to share more often."
Blue eyes peered at her, the expression disbelieving but achingly eager-to-please.
"You really think I can -- can do that? You know, learn how to -- " A slender hand fluttered.
A ninety-eight pound weight lifted fractionally from the older woman's chest.
"Sure do, Helena," she responded lightly. "In fact, I have some experience with learning to control my temper, being a redhead and all. I might be able to teach you a thing or two about keeping your head in a tough situation."
The girl blinked at the teasing challenge. Exhaled.
"Yeah. That'd -- that'd be good."
Helena smiled cheekily as she resumed the physio routine, and, suddenly, she was just another teenager.
"But, uh, tonight? I was kind of hoping that you could help me with my computer homework? You know that stuff is like Greek to me. Still don't think the damned things are good for anything..."
Prologue: A Time to Hate
Now that was one huge motherfucking computer.
The way Barbara's eyes had lit up, it must be a pretty major deal, too. Something from Wayne Industries, some sort of super-duper prototype called a... Delta, no, Delphi.
Barbara looked like she'd been handed the keys to the candy shop and an oversized shopping cart.
Of course -- naturally -- it had to be Dick -- the young woman's mind laced the name with venom -- who had managed to get it for the redhead.
The way the other woman's eyes had lit up at Dick seemed like a pretty big deal, too. No way she could ever rate a look like that. Hell, most of the time, it was a red letter day if she could just avoid pounding some jerk at school, if she could avoid her guardian's puzzled, disappointed looks, if she could miss the lectures about how she needed to be responsible with her "gifts".
Gifts. Yeah, right.
Turning into an animal. All rage and instinct. Not to mention the power to make shit happen.
And what did Barbara want her to do? She kept telling Helena that she needed to temper it; kept saying that she didn't have to give into it.
The teen didn't know if that was true, if she really didn't have to let that side of herself take over. But she did know that, when she just let loose, just lost herself in the power and rage, she sure as hell forgot to feel empty inside.
Sometimes, Helena really missed having her mom to talk to. She was the only one who had any idea what it was like -- that feeling like the undertow was sucking her in until she couldn't breathe the air any more and drowning started feeling pretty damned good.
But, Barbara kept asking her, encouraging her. So, she kept trying to swim against the current.
God, she tried. She really did.
But it was just so hard, and she felt like a piece of her broke a little inside every time she failed and saw the disappointment in soft green eyes. Every time she exploded and saw the redhead flinch a little, afraid of her.
The young woman really couldn't understand that. Didn't Barbara know that she'd never, ever, hurt her? That she'd do anything for the older woman. Abso-freaking-lutely anything.
Seemed like the redhead actually wanted her to do less. She'd cut back their PT sessions to twice a week. She kept pushing the teen to go hang out with kids from school. Like hitting the arcade for laser tag or sneaking under the bleachers for some tonsil hockey could hold a candle to spending time with Barbara.
Why didn't Barbara get it?
Even now, the only person that Helena wanted to spend time with was directing the installation of some T-something line and making goo-goo eyes at Dick Fucking Grayson.
God, she wanted to tear his throat out... or go bang her head against the wall in her room until she was bloody and numb.
But, Helena did neither. Instead, she continued to watch from the shadows of the balcony of the apartment they'd moved to last fall.
A change, Barbara had said, to mark the beginning of the teen's last year of high school and of the redhead's return to teaching. Helena thought that her guardian mostly wanted to escape the dark pall of their old place, the memories of pain-filled hours and days and months of hurting and healing.
And, Barbara had been right. The change had been good.
Whether it was the new place or getting back out into the world, the older woman's mood sure had improved. When the redhead laughed, the smile reached her eyes now. And, the brunette knew that her guardian wasn't having nearly as many nightmares. That was a good thing -- even if it did mean that Helena didn't have as many chances to curl up with the other woman at night -- holding her gently, breathing in her scent, aching for... something.
Even if Barbara was trying to cut back on Helena's... responsibilities to her, at least they were spending time together doing other things since moving to this apartment.
Almost every Friday night, they celebrated the end of another school week by hanging out with a pile of junk food and a stack of bad movies. It was awesome the way Red could watch a movie just once and then quote the dialogue chapter and verse. Well, maybe, a little creepy, too.
Sometimes, Barbara would come out with the teen on weekends and hit the arcade, although the younger woman had learned early on never to play head-to-head against the other woman. While the teen's phenomenal reflexes allowed her to win the first couple of rounds, the other woman's amazing mind just learned the routines too fast to lose after that.
Barbara was even teaching her some judo-type stuff -- Helena didn't know where the high school teacher had picked up that knowledge. The redhead said it would help the girl learn more discipline, some control. The brunette wasn't so sure about that, but -- hell -- anything that could teach her new ways to kick ass was alright by her.
So, yeah. Aside from the older woman's ongoing campaign to pimp her out to the Clearasil crowd, things had been pretty good. Helena was six weeks away from graduating and shaking the dust of high school off; the teen sometimes thought that, maybe, she could learn to control that raging, broken side of herself, that she could become someone who didn't keep disappointing the redhead; and Barbara was finally treating her less like someone that she had to be totally responsible for and more like a... person.
Yeah. Barbara had been right about the change of scenery.
Considering that she was only eight years older than Helena, Barbara sure was smart. She just seemed to know everything.
The teenager replayed that thought again, snorting softly.
Not hardly everything. The older woman sure didn't seem to have a clue about what Helena was feeling.
But, looking down -- eyes glittering yellow -- as Dick leaned way too close to the redhead's chair and casually rested a hand on her shoulder, the young woman figured that was probably a good thing. No way Barbara needed to know about the jagged shards of loss and rage that were tearing into her ward like shattered glass.
Growling softly, the teen stalked to the hallway window and headed out. Didn't look like Barbara was gonna be overly concerned about Helena's 'control issues' for a while.
It was time to find some trouble.
Prologue: A Time to Love
Considering the number of classes that Helena had blown off and the number of "incidents" she'd been involved in during the last month, Barbara found it somewhat miraculous that the girl had not been expelled. Somehow, the teen had had the wherewithal to complete her most important assignments and charm her teachers into overlooking her absences, and she had kept most of her fights off school grounds. And, so, here they were tonight, at New Gotham's best French restaurant, in celebration of Helena's graduation.
Mercifully, even the commencement had gone smoothly.
Aside from a particularly inspired message that the brunette had taped to her mortarboard -- which her guardian had promptly removed -- Helena had endured the pomp and circumstance gracefully, accepting her diploma politely and tossing said mortarboard into the air with two hundred other exuberant young adults.
Barbara hadn't missed the pain in those stunning blue eyes as the girl watched her classmates embracing their parents after the ceremony, nor had she overlooked the somewhat forced note of cheer in the husky voice as they departed for the restaurant.
Some wounds, the redhead mused over a spoonful of soup, probably never healed completely.
"So, yeah, if Jenny Gartner hadn't gotten a case of nerves or conscience or something, the entire second row was going to moon the stage at the end."
Well aware of which row her young charge had been sitting in, the older woman teased, "And, you weren't able to rally the troops to the cause despite the protests of one person, Hel?"
"Ya gotta pick your battles, Red."
Blue eyes twinkled mischievously over the rim of a wine glass.
"Besides, none of us knew that 'String Bean' Wilson was gonna get put in our row at the last minute. I mean, thinking about seeing his skinny butt kind of took the fun out of it, you know?"
Barbara suppressed a self-satisfied smirk. Apparently her premonition about shaking up the seating arrangements at the last minute had been right on target.
"Speaking of fun, Helena, I'm still not sure why you aren't out with your cohorts. Isn't there some huge party at Cheryl Avery's house? With her parents out of town, it sounded like the place to be."
Green eyes watched blue widen slightly in surprise.
Granted, Helena hadn't included the information about Cheryl's parents when she'd mentioned the party, but the redhead did keep her ears open around school. Still, even without the incentive of a chaperone-free party, Barbara really had thought that the brunette would want to attend the get-together. She was well aware of the fact that the two young women had been spending quite a bit of time together, locked behind bedroom doors, supposedly studying.
The girl -- young woman, Barbara corrected herself -- seemed to have moved past her surprise and was smiling winningly.
"I can find sex, booze, and rock and roll any old time. A chance for a swanky dinner out, just the two of us, now that's the place to be."
Trust Helena to drop a casual revelation about sordid activities and then follow it up with something so charming.
Not that Barbara was oblivious to the fact that her ward walked on the wild side; however, since the girl had managed to stay out of jail, hadn't gotten pregnant, and even approximated making curfew most nights, the redhead had chosen not to make an issue out of it. Forbearance notwithstanding, after almost two and a half years as the teen's guardian, Barbara was sometimes surprised that she didn't have any gray showing yet.
Helena swallowed a bite of lamb and touched a napkin to her lips before lowering her head slightly to peek through her lashes. She seemed to have interpreted the older woman's silence for disbelief.
"Honest, Barbara. It's just, well, we don't get to spend a lot of time together much any more. Just you and me. I mean, it's like you're always playing with that computer, or," a slim hand nervously toyed with a water goblet, "or Di-- doing other stuff."
The older woman tried to hide a guilty flinch.
It was true that she'd been quite wrapped up in the Delphi in the last few weeks, learning the in's and out's of the system, tweaking the code, doing some light hacking and investigation for Dick. It just felt so good to be useful again. She couldn't fight crime physically, but, in cyber-space, the redhead could make a difference. The realization had been thrilling.
So, yes, perhaps she had been neglecting the young woman a bit, but Helena had been making herself pretty scarce in the last month or so, as well. Honestly, some days the teen seemed to breeze through the apartment only to exchange clothes which had been ripped in a fight for apparel which had been artfully torn prior to purchase. Or, the redhead reflected, to trade insults with Dick.
Green eyes blinked slowly.
Of course. Dick.
The sudden change in Helena's behavior had neatly coincided with the change in Barbara's relationship with her old friend. How could she have not seen it, understood what was going on? Not only was the teen grappling with the usual pre-graduation jitters and worries about life after high school, but she was feeling displaced in her own home.
The redhead fought a blush, resisting the urge to bang her head against the expensive linen tablecloth.
It wasn't as if the young woman really had anything to worry about, Barbara admitted. This, this -- she cast about for a word, finally settling on 'fling' -- had been a deluded mistake from the beginning.
After years of flirting as the two patrolled the streets of New Gotham, after almost two and a half years of feeling like nobody would ever look at her again, Barbara just hadn't been able to say no when Dick had come on to her like gangbusters six weeks ago. The young man had been so sweet, his desire so open and apparent, and for several heady moments, the redhead had allowed herself to hope, to believe that it would be enough.
The letdown -- her absolute lack of response -- had been almost too bitter to handle. She'd ended up choking back tears, a reaction she'd tried to mask as pleasure.
Still, having someone beside her at night, someone to touch -- and to please, had seemed like it might be enough.
Barbara was honest enough to admit that she'd been deluding herself about that as well.
Dick was sweet and thoughtful and giving, but their relationship simply worked much better on a... professional level. The redhead suspected that Dick shared that sentiment, but neither of them was quite ready to face the fallout from that particular conversation just yet.
She gave the relationship -- the romantic relationship -- another month.
In the meantime, there was Helena.
The brunette was beginning to look absolutely mortified. Something in the older woman's expression as she'd mentally dissected her behavior of the last few weeks seemed to have given the young woman the wrong impression.
"Uh, I didn't mean it to sound like that, Barbara. I mean, if anyone, you're entitled -- "
Reaching across the small table, the redhead placed her hand over nervously fidgeting fingers.
"Hel, it's fine. And, truthfully, I'm the one who's sorry."
Dark brows furrowed, puzzlement clear in those expressive blue eyes.
"I have been neglecting you -- us. The Delphi has been such a treat, a real chance to make a difference again."
Puzzlement was being edged out by frank confusion. Perhaps the time was approaching for a chat with the young woman about some of her guardian's former activities. However, at this moment, there were other things which needed to be said.
"And, I know that having Dick around so much has been..."
The redhead looked at the ceiling, disappointed not to find a teleprompter. Emotional conversations were really, really not her milieu.
"... has been difficult. Er, different."
"No, he's, uh, a really, uhm, nice guy, Barbara."
Helena had yet to learn how to lie convincingly.
"I shouldn't be so hard on him, and, uhm, y'know, he makes you happy and all..."
Smiling fondly, rubbing her thumb against the back of Helena's slim hand, Barbara softly interrupted the young woman's painfully awkward protests.
"Dick is a nice man, Helena, and this," she waved her free hand vaguely, again trying not to blush, "has been nice."
Russet brows furrowed briefly as something about damning with faint praise scratched against Barbara's conscious.
"Good," she added more decisively. "It's been good. Frankly, it's something that I think I needed after..."
The older woman's expression hardened briefly as she glanced at her chair. She released a slow breath and softened her gaze.
"However, my relationship with Dick -- or with anyone -- will never come between us, Helena. I should have talked with you before now, let you know. Nobody could ever replace you, Sweetie. And, I never, never, want you to feel uncomfortable in our home. We're family, Hel, and..."
Barbara Gordon smiled softly and prepared herself to say something that she seldom expressed in words.
"And, I love you. Don't ever forget that."
Although the brunette didn't speak, her response was eloquence itself.
She turned her hand under Barbara's and gently drew the other woman's hand up as she leaned forward to breathe a tender kiss to long fingers. With a soft squeeze, she released the older woman's hand and flashed a half-grin before picking up her utensils and attacking her entree again.
"So what's this 'making a difference' thing with the Delphi, Barbara? What are you hatching?"
The redhead smiled and drew in a deep breath.
"Let me tell you a little about some of my, er, nocturnal activities of a few years ago, Hel."
Prologue: A Time to Break Down
"I love the nightlife..."
A deceptively small fist impacted the would-be mugger's cheek leaving a red mark that would soon blossom into a full-blown bruise.
"I love to boogie..."
A sweeping kick dropped him like a sack of cement.
"I got to get out and shake my groove thing...."
Helena fastened a pair of riot cuffs to the moaning man's wrists, and cheerfully bounded up a fire escape towards the rooftops of New Gotham. The night was moonless, and, decked out completely in black leather, the young woman was little more than a shadow in the skyscape.
<"I'm not sure that's how the lyrics go, Huntress.">
The brunette deliberately ignored the realities of Barbara's infallible eidetic memory -- Trivial Pursuit was just not fun with the older woman -- and teased, "Who's watched 'Love At First Bite' more times, Oracle? You or me?"
The rich sound of Barbara's laughter through the earpiece flooded the brunette with warmth. A throbbing beat began in her abdomen, radiating outward.
God, the redhead was gonna kill her with desire one day.
<"I notified the police about the location of your last package, Huntress. Things are pretty quiet tonight; do you want to come in?">
The throaty voice filtering through the comm set was so warm, inviting. It shot another bolt of arousal directly to the brunette's core, and she bent at the waist, suppressing a gasp.
Fuck yeah, she wanted to come in -- her mind painted the words with irony and longing -- but not like the older woman meant.
This unrequited lusting after her best friend and former guardian was really hell sometimes.
Pushing away the frustrated anger coursing through her, the young woman's reply was smooth, almost purring.
"Not just yet, Oracle. I think I'll, y'know, cat around a little first. Going off comms now."
With that, she deactivated the small unit and leapt to the next rooftop, exulting in the feel of the wind against her face, in her own effortless movements and power.
Her mom had sure been right that there was a time for everything. Dogs might have their day, but the nights -- well, they belonged to her.
In the last three years, since Barbara had dropped her Batgirl bombshell and her plans for fighting crime in cyberspace, the young woman had undergone a transformation. She had trained and worked, disciplining herself and absorbing every bit of wisdom that she could from her mentor, embracing her role as the physical side in their partnership to help free New Gotham from crime.
Despite some decidedly rocky first efforts, the young woman had taken to the role naturally, almost effortlessly. It was almost the perfect vocation for her.
Aside from allowing the brunette to channel some of her more violent tendencies in a socially acceptable manner, the partnership had served to strengthen the ties between Helena and her former guardian. Every moment that the young woman was sweeping the streets, every battle she waged, Barbara was constantly with her. Guiding her, encouraging her, filling her.
Just... not enough. Not the way Helena craved.
Around the time that Barbara's role as her guardian ended when she turned nineteen, Helena had figured it out.
She'd added it all up -- that nameless ache that consumed her when the two women shared a bed after the nightmares that still frequented them, that hopeless rage and loss she felt when the redhead dated anyone, that angry hurting animal inside her which made her want to lash out and which was magically tamed when Barbara looked at her just so -- all of that and more. She'd added it up and come up with an answer so simple and so overwhelming that she'd been staggered.
For almost two years, the brunette had puzzled over the fact that the older woman just didn't seem to have a clue. Helena had flirted and dropped hints. She'd delicately sounded the other woman out, trying to gauge just how Barbara felt about her... or could feel about her. A few months ago, she'd even screwed up her courage and skirted the topic of her feelings with the older woman.
The redhead had been kind -- stammering something about powerful urgess in the younger woman, allowing that her former ward's feelings weren't altogether unexpected given their close relationship -- but her discomfort had been evident. A discomfort which had bordered on panic.
So, Helena had pushed her hungry ache aside, had laughed and said something about hormones and pheromones and the full moon. She had turned her feelings into a joke, watching the redhead relax, and vowed to be more careful. Nothing -- nothing -- was worth jeopardizing her relationship with Barbara over.
Since then, she'd spent time leaning over the redhead's shoulder at the Delphi, trying to absorb the woman's words as the other woman's scent and voice and movements inflamed Helena's senses, and it was all she could do not to drop to her knees and worship the woman from head to toe. Since then, she'd continued to share the sofa with the other woman, cuddling companionably and trying to watch movies on the big screen, as her body burned -- literally aching -- for the other woman to notice her, to touch her the way she wanted to touch the redhead. She had continued methodically to work through all of Barbara's physio exercises twice each week as her hands itched to touch the skin that was separated from her by the thin fabric of the other woman's workout pants.
At the end of each night -- or, at least the nights that Helena was able to make herself return to the clock tower apartment they'd located their base of operations in -- Helena brushed Barbara's cheek with a soft kiss. And she wished -- she wanted, with a helpless, almost physical, pain -- to find the courage to turn her head just a bit. She hungered to taste those red, red lips -- if only once. And then, she retired to her own solitary room to shift restlessly under the covers, body wire-tight, unable even to solace the need coursing through her with her own hand.
If it had just been sex, the young woman thought she could have dealt with it, gotten over it. There were plenty of fish in the sea. But, it was more than that, so much more. It was a prickling, itching need for connection, an empty aching hope of completion, a wild almost-unstoppable urge to share herself completely with the other woman.
Standing on the ledge bordering the twenty-five story rooftop of an office building, the brunette threw her arms out and her head back. Out here, in the dark with no voice in her ear, she could forget for a moment the woman she saw every day but who didn't -- or wouldn't -- see her. She could lose herself in the space inside herself and become... emptiness and night.
Blowing out a harsh breath, steeling herself for what she knew she had to do, Helena turned towards the clock tower.
She couldn't maintain that calm void in herself when she was around the redhead. She couldn't stand the feeling of being half-full that being with Barbara created in her. And, she sure as hell couldn't force the older woman to feel the way that she did.
Turning that last thought around in her mind for the millionth time, the brunette snorted.
She never -- she had never -- had a chance. How could she compare to the eminently studly Dick Grayson or any of the other safe and responsible and normal people that the older woman occasionally dated? She wasn't about planning and normalcy and control; she was all go-with-it and hunting and wildness.
Even though she had a suspicion that it just wasn't in her at the molecular level or something, she'd tried, she kept trying, to be... better. And the wanting, the trying and failing, the sense of Barbara's disappointment or anger or fear, was driving her crazy.
Helena thought it might be time to try emptiness, full-time, for a while.
Time to suck it up. Time to change.
The young woman landed soundlessly on the balcony, then deliberately rustled her duster on the way inside. The redhead was renown for the depths of her concentration and the lengths of her jumps in the wheelchair when startled.
"Helena. You're back early."
God, the woman was so fucking gorgeous. Helena had to fight for breath, fight the urge to forget her resolve.
She shucked her duster and approached the Delphi, leaning against the desk.
"Kinda need to talk to you about something."
A raised russet brow and a soft smile encouraged the young woman to continue.
Keep it short. Keep it simple.
"Uh, yeah... Uhm..."
Swallowing, Helena ran a hand through artfully disheveled hair and said what she had to.
"I'm moving out."
Prologue: A Time to Build Up
Barbara had thought that being shot by the Joker was a horrible blow. She now knew that it had been a pittance, a slap across the cheek. It couldn't begin to compare with how she'd felt when Helena had blurted out that she was leaving.
After almost six years of sharing a home -- a life -- with the younger woman, the redhead was in no way prepared for the sudden announcement. The words had carried the force of a physical blow, leaving the older woman gasping and breathless.
Helena's stammered explanations about time for a change, a need for some space and independence had all been valid enough, the older woman acknowledged. However, they simply didn't ring true. The pain in those blue eyes, the difficulty the brunette had had in making eye contact, her disturbing succinctness, the fact that the woman -- who lived by the credo of playing things by ear -- had already made her plans... These all had suggested that Helena's problem rested less on the changing needs of a young adult and more on her dissatisfaction with her current living arrangements. The young woman wasn't moving towards something new in her life; she was running from something in her current situation.
The very next day, after the young woman had cleaned out her room and departed for the apartment she'd already rented over the bar where she was working, Barbara had felt emptier, more depressed, than she could recall. Even after the shooting, which had been admittedly a damned bleak period, there had been something which had kept her from drowning in anger and self-pity. The something, the someone, of course, had been Helena: Helena, who had been hurting so terribly and had yet always remained gentle with her new guardian; Helena, who had drawn the older woman out of herself and forced her to care; Helena, who had needed her and somehow, inexorably, had caused Barbara to need her.
But, it seemed that the younger woman didn't need, or want, her former guardian quite so much any longer.
In the first long months after moving out, the young woman had checked in for sweeps each night; however, there was no longer any easy banter, and Barbara's partner seldom came to the clock tower after sweeps for their ritual debriefings. In those awkward first months, the brunette had shown up like clockwork for their twice-weekly training and PT sessions, but she was quiet, withdrawn almost to the point of sullenness. Helena answered direct questions, listened quietly to Barbara's gossip from school, but volunteered nothing -- absolutely nothing.
On more than one occasion after the younger woman departed, the redhead had been reduced to tears, wondering what she had done to alienate her friend so terribly. The woman's absence in the tower was palpable, especially given the energy that always radiated from her. The brunette's silence was deafening, especially given her normal verbosity with the older woman.
Over the empty months, Barbara had posited and dissected theories about what could lie behind Helena's distance. She was willing to allow that some normal growth and separation -- individuation -- might lie behind part of it. Still, a rather charged and awkward conversation the two had had a few months before the young woman's departure continued to haunt the redhead's memories. In due course, she admitted to herself that the issues they'd skirted during that talk were very probably a significant contributing factor in her younger friend's distance. Barbara had initially accepted the brunette's sweetly humorous disclaimers at face value, had believed that the conversation had arisen merely as a passing fancy -- after all, it wasn't as if Helena ever had more than a passing fancy in anyone. She couldn't help but wonder, now, if there had been more to it.
Regardless of the reasons behind the change, Barbara had decided that there was little she could do but wait... and hope that the younger woman would work out whatever she was wrestling with. The older woman could only fight her desire to grab the brunette and simply force her to talk, instead waiting and hoping that Helena would let her back into her life. Barbara could only listen to the clipped responses over the comm set, storing the voice inside her as a comfort -- and agony -- during the long nights alone in the tower when she longed for the soft sounds of her partner moving through the apartment, when she ached for the young woman to pad softly into the bedroom and wrap her in strong arms which kept all nightmares at bay.
Tonight, however, the redhead needed to focus on a living nightmare facing the two crime fighters. Her partner had just finished battling a self-styled ninja who had been leaving a bloody trail throughout New Gotham. Judging from the sounds that had come over the comm set, the villain wielded his dual swords with gusto.
The dark vigilante had, only minutes ago, defeated the criminal and turned him over to the police. Even now, she was making her way to the clock tower to allow Barbara to inspect the injury she'd admitted to sustaining during the fight.
The thump on the balcony announcing Helena's arrival was a bit heavier than normal for the graceful woman, alerting the redhead to the fact that the "little cut" might be a bit more severe than the brunette had claimed. Barbara wheeled over to meet her partner, not bothering to hide her gasp at the quantity of blood covering the other woman's left forearm.
The young woman turned obligingly to the training room's medical area, shucking her duster and struggling to roll up her sleeve. She seemed to note the exasperation in green eyes.
"Hey, you're not cutting this off. It's my favorite shirt and I can probably get this little... nick in it stitched up."
Despite herself, the redhead smiled. Helena really was a clothes horse.
"Just take it off, Sweetheart. It will be impossible to get off after I get a bandage on your arm."
She set about laying out gauze and alcohol and the suture kit, pointedly not drinking in the sight of the tanned flesh revealed by the tank top under Helena's leather shirt. She pointedly also focused only on the six inch gash that she was cleaning instead of the feel of that warm, smooth skin under her hands.
During the preceding months, other than the rather business-like PT sessions, Helena had maintained a distance from the older woman, insuring that there was never physical contact between them. As normally aloof and indifferent as she was to physical contact, Barbara had come to realize how much she had come to depend on the easy contact, the warmth, that she and her younger partner had shared.
The opportunity now to touch freely, if only for a few minutes, even under these circumstances, felt like a blessing.
"Not so little, Hel. I'm glad you didn't just slap a butterfly on it and call it a day."
Concentrating on threading the suture needle, the older woman didn't expect a reply. She narrowly avoided jabbing her gloved finger when she heard the soft voice.
"Yeah, you're probably right. But, good old meta-healing probably would of fixed it up in a day or two."
"Mmm, perhaps," Barbara focused on making small, even stitches, "but a few stitches should keep it from scarring."
"A scar'd serve me right for letting him get past my guard."
Had that been a soft laugh?
Emerald eyes caught blue, and the redhead gestured to a small scar near her right eye.
"Everybody drops their guard sometimes, Helena."
She risked an old joke.
"Even us old fogies from the latex era."
The brunette actually laughed and visibly relaxed, for perhaps the first time in the last six months. Barbara wanted to cry; she'd missed that laughter so much. Instead, she smiled and returned to her stitching.
"Tell me about this mutant ninja, Sweetie..."
Forty minutes later, the brunette was sprawled on the couch, finishing a cup of hot cocoa and completing an amusing blow-by-blow description of her epic battle with the opponent that Barbara would forever remember as Ninja Turtle. It was the most time that Helena had spent in the apartment, aside from training, since moving out, and the older woman was in no hurry for the tale to wind down. Unfortunately, the younger woman appeared ready to leave, standing gracefully as she completed her story.
"So, yeah, he honestly kept yelling 'Ki-ya'. If he hadn't been so intent on showing off his 'Crouching Tiger' moves, he might of even gotten away."
Blue eyes sparkled as the young woman snagged her duster.
"Thanks for patching me up, Red. And, uh, for the cocoa. But, I need to book -- Places to go, people to do. You know, maybe grab a few z's so I'll be fresh for sweeps tomorrow."
"Of course, Helena."
The older woman pushed down her feelings of disappointment, of imminent loss.
"But, let's skip sweeps tomorrow; you can take a... sick day?"
Helena looked puzzled, not surprising given that the last sick day she'd taken had been after a much more horrific battle with a creature known as the Crimson Claw. The young heroine had required three days of downtime before pronouncing herself ready to return to the streets.
The sing-song response was teasing.
"Crime waits for no woman, Barbara. You know that. Neither rain, nor snow, nor your immaculate stitching can keep me from my appointed rounds, right?"
Barbara deliberately held the other woman's gaze.
"I think that, for tomorrow, they can. But, perhaps you could stop by tomorrow night so that I can check on my immaculate stitching?"
Barbara considered, decided to risk it.
"In fact, I seem to recall that Tomb Raider is premiering tomorrow on cable. Since you won't be out pursuing justice for our fair city, perhaps you'd like to..."
The redhead trailed off, bracing herself for some polite brush-off. The reply, when it finally came after a pause long enough to become painful, elated her.
"Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good, Barbara. I'll bring a pizza and you supply the dead bodies."
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