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.
SERIES: Some readers were kind enough to point out that there are more than the traditional four elements which were covered in the original Elemental series (Landslide, Watershed and Windshear). This story is the fourth extension of the Elemental series following Veneer, Stainless and Obsidian.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
WARNING: Heterosex contact ahead.
Barbara slipped her index finger into the book that was propped on her lap and reached for the ballpoint pen resting on the pad beside her leg. A small movement beside her, Helena moving in the big bed, shifted the covers and sent the writing implement rolling. She snagged the pen and raised it to tap it against her lower lip as she considered what she was learning about mind control.
Clearly, some practice -- ideally with Mike Mandrill -- would be wise, and the redhead jotted a note on the legal pad to pick up a rat from the biology department at school.
After a moment's thought, she added another reminder: she'd need to refresh herself on how to determine the sex of a rat.
There were also drugs to consider to make Mandrill as susceptible as possible, not to mention finding a suitable location to conduct their little experiment. They needed Mandrill at their disposal, however Barbara hoped that they could avoid a complete appearance of having taken him prisoner. Not to mention the fact that bringing him back to the Tower -- or even to Wayne Manor -- might be too blatant a clue, even for him.
After chewing on the end of the pen again, she block-printed a suggestion for herself: Roosevelt Hotel.
Logistics aside, there was the bigger issue of tolerance: everything that she'd read suggested that the more times they attempted to control Mr. Cape, the more likely he'd be able to resist them. It wasn't a certainty, however given the number of variables and unknowns she simply had to plan for the worst case.
In a nutshell, they probably didn't dare risk more than one practice attempt.
Acutely aware that Helena had moved again, presumably in his inch-by-inch progress from his side of the bed toward hers, Barbara glanced over. She found deep blue eyes -- violet, if she were honest with herself -- peering at her from just above the covers folded under Helena's chin. A bit more surprising was the fact that the brunette had managed, over the course of the last five chapters that she'd read, to bring himself within a hairsbreadth of her body.
Clearly, her younger partner had something in mind.
Helena knew what Barbara was working on, but she didn't sound pissed that he'd silently interrupted her. Besides, he thought he'd been pretty patient, getting Babs settled in bed with her research and a cup of herbal tea, snuggling with the Peapod until her little whuffling baby sighs had persuaded him to tuck her into her bassinet, thumbing through a couple of magazines. It was only after he'd heard the big clock hit midnight that he'd tucked under the covers and started working his way over.
The clock had hit one a few minutes before.
Still, unable to pick out inflection one way or the other, Helena weighed the question, an activity that, honestly, wasn't completely easy given how close Barbara was and the way her reading glasses were sliding down her nose and the way her skin smelled so sweet and ...
"Uh, well, I thought that maybe since we're practically engaged and all, we could, uhm, celebrate or something."
He waggled his eyebrows in what he hoped would be an enticing fashion -- or, at least in a way that would make her laugh and close the freakin' book.
One crimson brow moved eloquently upward as Barbara considered her lover's proposition. Briefly, she flirted with the idea of responding with something humorous, a demurral about waiting until the wedding night, to deflect things.
Ultimately, she simply couldn't. It seemed too forced, too awkward.
Clearly, given Helena's professed willingness to settle into his new body, she could stop mollycoddling.
Or, whatever the hell she'd been thinking.
"I'd rather not, Helena."
She'd worked to temper her tone; however, Helena's puzzlement could not be missed.
"You'd... 'rather not'?"
Sighing softly at the tone blanketing the words Helena had quoted back to her, Barbara placed the ballpoint on her bedside table, then she tugged the covers a bit higher around her waist.
"Yes, Helena. I'd prefer not to."
The brunette felt his eyebrows knit together, a far cry from the cute-and-sexy look he'd been trying for a few conversational exchanges back.
Barbara would "rather not". What the fuck did that mean? It wasn't one of her absent-minded "in a few minutes" answers; it wasn't an "I'm sorry but" dodge; it wasn't even an "I've got a headache" ploy.
"Okaaaaay..." he tried, figuring that she'd have to say something.
When she did, he pretty much wished he'd kept his mouth shut.
"I found the condom, Hel."
Barbara determined that she simply was not going to revisit the feelings that had assaulted her when, on a hunt for one of her fuzzy bed socks that had gone missing, she'd come across the spent -- and clearly empty -- condom on the floor on Helena's side of the bed. The sharp edges of those emotions would lend nothing to this conversation.
"You found -- "
Her partner sounded a little breathless. Steadying herself, Barbara marked her place in the text and then set the book and the pad aside.
"Yes, the morning after -- "
Heat flamed in her cheeks, and she searched for the right way to finish. The night that Helena had asked and she had... She couldn't say it, and so Barbara switched gears.
"-- after the other night."
He'd fuckin' known that forgetting to get the damned thing up that night would come back on him. Between getting Red's chair and settling Kat in and hitting the shower, he'd just freaking forgotten to pick it up. When he'd returned to the Tower after his shift the next day, he'd hustled in there, and it had been gone.
Embarrassment be damned, he'd hoped that Alfred had sucked it up in the vacuum.
Since you couldn't put the cat back in the bag, he pushed himself up to a sitting position and ran a hand through his hair. Then he chewed on his lip when some sort of flip answer wanted to come out.
Something in the tight set of Barbara's shoulders -- hell, the way she was looking at the foot of the bed instead of at him -- told him to try something else.
"I'm sorry, Barbara. I forgot to clean it up."
Man, sex hadn't seemed that complicated when he was a woman.
Barbara waited for a long thirty seconds to see if her partner had anything more to offer. When it became obvious that he'd picked up some of her skills in silent waiting, she worked her body around a few degrees so that she could see him without developing an even bigger crick in her neck.
"Your housekeeping skills aren't the issue."
The cold ribbon of steel in her chest softened a tiny bit when Helena, seemingly without realizing what he was doing, moved himself down the bed to make it easier for her to see him. The respite was short-lived.
"So, what's the issue, Red?"
Helena had a pretty good idea of some of his issues about that night. Well, it wasn't even about that night; it had just happened that everything had kind of come together and fallen apart for him that night.
"The issue, Hel?"
The guarded dip of a dark head suggested to Barbara that she'd been doing something very, very wrong. With great care, she removed her glasses and folded them. Equally carefully, she placed them on top of her clock radio, centering them exactly in the middle of the unit.
"The issue, Helena, is that I don't appreciate..."
Here, she stumbled again, working to articulate what had felt like such a... slap when she'd found the wretched condom, the evidence of her partner's missing arousal. The sight of blue eyes, veiled by dark bangs and appearing almost frightened, didn't help.
What had occurred two nights ago?
She'd been loved. She couldn't doubt that.
She'd been made love to. Obviously, the scratchiness in her throat after she'd come back into her body could be evidence enough of that.
She'd been wooed, by Helena's words of his own arousal and desire, into...
"... the one-sidedness of what occurred."
Helena wasn't stupid. He wasn't the one who couldn't find his emotions when they reached up and bit him. Even with testosterone and his own shit clouding things, he knew -- he frikkin' knew -- how huge it was that Barbara had offered him... that the other night. Unable to meet his lover's eyes, he picked at some fuzz on the blanket. He couldn't explain it all, but he had to let her know that he'd been there with her.
"I just.. watching you like that... I couldn't --"
The word rang out, sharp against the stillness of the room. Barbara almost blushed at her outburst, then she recalled herself and let the heat of a different emotion touch her throat and cheeks. From her side of the bed, Katharine fidgeted in her sleep, and they both held their breath until she quieted.
Then, Helena did something really dumb: he got angry although he maintained enough control to keep his voice quiet.
"So what? Didn't you enjoy it?"
Loss and emptiness and not-having clawed at his throat, and, horrified, he heard himself hiss the rest.
"Does it only work when you're the one calling the sho--"
Before he could say anything more, Barbara cut him off.
"That works, Helena," she spoke quietly, every word clipped and cool, "because I'm honestly enjoying the role that I take."
Not oblivious to the liquid brightness in his eyes, she forced herself to soften her tone and reached out to rest her hand on his.
"How did you feel when you were..."
Dear god, she couldn't think it, much less speak it.
"How did it make you feel the other night?"
The expression in her partner's eyes spoke more eloquently than his words.
"What you gave me, Barbara -- "
Cautiously, Helena wrapped his finger's around his lover's hand, trying to find strength.
"-- making you feel so good was... amazing."
This time, the thaw felt a little more permanent. Still, Barbara shook her head.
He wanted to be angry again, but instead Helena felt more like he wanted to cry.
"So, what, there's some kind of orgasm requirement or something, Barbara? You only love me when you can make me come?"
Torn between frustration and amusement, Barbara shook her head and counted to two hundred by primes.
She freed her hand and used it to tip his chin up, smiling at the obstinate defensiveness so clearly etched in his features.
"I love that you love what we are doing, what we're sharing. Together."
Barbara opted not to add the obvious: that Helena climaxed. Always.
"But, it's -- You're into it so much, Barbara."
Green eyes narrowed, then crimson brows knit. It was so far beyond her usual "thinking face" that Barbara could only hope that she didn't freeze with the expression.
The word was decisive to the extreme. Helena's dark brows scoffed for him.
"Rather, Hel, it's not that we engaged in... that."
Pushing aside discomfort that ran through a veritable geographic survey of layers, Barbara captured her partner's hand again and soldiered on.
"It isn't how you touch me, Hel, or what we do, or that you can hold me in different ways now." She took a slow breath and spoke the most important part. "It's that I'm with you, Sweetie."
Heaven knew, there was simply no other way that she would have considered her lover's enticements, a few nights before or any other time.
Seeing disbelief warring with confusion in bright blue eyes, Barbara blew a puff of air through her nose.
"Helena -- "
She caught herself and gentled her tone.
"I feel good when you do."
Okay, Helena could understand that, but he still knew what he'd seen. What Barbara had felt.
"Yeah, but now -- " he waved his free hand vaguely, "it's easier for you to enjoy it."
Even as Barbara shook her head in instinctive denial, she felt her mouth slowly gaping open as realization dawned. Unbidden, the fingers of her free hand rose to the bridge of her nose, squeezing against the building pressure.
She was responsible for this.
Other than their first few fumbling interactions the week before, she'd... she'd been hesitant to push. She'd known that Helena was still dealing with the fallout from an unthinkable violation, finding his way. Essentially, after putting some of the options on the table -- Barbara felt her cheeks flame when she remembered one specific option on the Delphi table -- she'd encouraged him to have his head.
Hollowness worked to consume her, and Barbara ruthlessly shunted it aside for later.
"Helena, you had me treating you --"
That wasn't honest enough for how she'd felt when she'd realized what had transpired, and Barbara knew that Helena deserved at least that much of the truth.
"You had me using you like -- "
It was difficult to say. Accordingly, it came out quite factually.
"--like some sort of human dildo. That is very definitely not what I want."
Helena pretty much knew that it wasn't what he wanted either. Except, he kind of did.
"But, you liked it, Red."
He clenched his jaw, then spoke the rest to their joined hands.
"It made you -- "
He couldn't say the word: "feel"; but he thought she understood.
"Helena, regardless of how we happen to interact on an intimate level, what I like -- "
Barbara shook her head and corrected herself.
"What I love is knowing that we are sharing an experience."
Obviously, she'd need to leave the birds-and-the-bees talk with Katharine to Helena: if she'd been much more clinical, she could apply to take over Ms. Stowe's Phys Ed lectures on human sexuality.
Deciding to make things a little clearer, Barbara shifted closer to her partner.
"And, I'm going to show you just what I mean, Hel."
Abject self-awareness and embarrassment and regret suddenly vanished in the face of other instincts, and Helena jerked his head up to search the redhead's face.
Barbara's smile was full of promise, promises that made Helena ache as she pushed him onto his back and threw back the covers.
"What are you going to...?"
Barbara didn't answer directly, but the sensation of one of her nails dragging down his chest gave Helena a pretty big clue.
"There are some things, Hel, that I've allowed myself to forget recently."
A finger swirled around his navel, and Helena felt his toes curl.
He tried to shift onto his side, but a delicate hand came to rest in the center of his chest, holding him in place.
"Wh-- what's that?"
Helena didn't think the question made much sense, but Babs seemed able to work with it.
"The shape of your body, Hel."
Barbara punctuated the words by snaking a hand down the outside of his thigh, and Helena felt his erection leap to attention when she trailed her fingers up his torso.
"The sensation of your nipples against my palm."
Helena's eyes slammed shut when she feathered her fingers across his chest.
"I'm going to focus on all of the areas I've allowed myself to overlook, Hel."
Now very serious, Barbara waited until violet eyes met hers.
"I'm going to touch you everywhere except here --"
With her fingers ghosting across his hip, Helena bucked and dug his fingers into the sheets.
"Not -- not touching?"
He swallowed roughly when she pulled her shirt over her head. He gasped when she answered.
"Everywhere but, Sweetie."
Somehow, with Barbara naked and eyeing him like he was the main course on the buffet, Helena managed to hold on to his sanity for a few precious seconds.
"Can I, uh, lose the boxers?"
Barbara arched a brow as she eyed the Goofy boxers that Helena had chosen to sleep in. She still didn't understand his choice of cartoon dogs for his sleepwear, however, his request had quite a bit of merit.
"I believe it's a requirement, Hel."
Helena scrabbled out of the stupid boxers when Barbara turned to fish in the drawer of her bedside table.
Man, he hoped she wasn't getting her fuzzy socks.
The sound of the door sliding shut on its plastic glides caused him to reconsider: The fuzzy socks were pretty sexy.
But, none of the three items she had in her hands were socks. One in particular was something he'd never imagined seeing.
Helena had a pretty good idea what the small adjustable leather band was; he just didn't know where Babs would have gotten it.
"It's to help keep you from climaxing, Hel."
"It can do that?"
Doh. So much for his man of the world persona. At least Barbara didn't seem to mind.
When she extended it, Helena glommed onto the fact that she wasn't going to be putting the cock ring on him. By the time he fumbled it on, the clink of steel was raising the fine hair all over his body.
"And now -- "
The police issue cuffs glittered in the dim light of the room, and Helena fought a moan.
"--because I don't want you to have to concentrate on anything but what I'm doing and what you are feeling and how that makes me feel..."
Before she finished, his hands flew to the grab bar at the head of the bed. The contrast of her soft hands with the sharp bite of the metal as she latched the bracelets was amazing.
Still caught up in testing his range of motion -- pretty narrow -- it took Helena a second to identify the third item when Barbara raised it into his range of vision.
A silk scarf.
"Since I don't believe that either of us want Katie to interrupt us, would you like me to gag you, Helena?"
Her voice was so soft. The concern and want were real and almost tangible.
Helena considered the question, searching green eyes before he shook his head in awe.
It was going to be a helluva ride, and something told him that he was going to want to be able to beg for more.
You don't know what you do to me
Everytime you come around
I can't seem to find my way
I'm shifted baby losing ground
It's like I'm spinning all around in circles
Cure me, you're my remedy
It was, Barbara acknowledged, difficult to improve upon an original. In Hollywood, sequels were seldom as good as the first movie; in music, remixes almost invariably failed.
Terminator 2 and The Pet Shop Boys' remix of Willie Nelson's "Always on my Mind" being exceptions that supported the rule, of course.
Resigned to enduring Jessica Simpson's insipid remake of another classic from her younger days and almost resigned to the fact that the melody would now be running through her head for days, Barbara raised her faux-crystal plastic cup and delicately sampled the lukewarm pink punch within.
It hadn't been spiked yet although, perhaps due to some secret formula used in concocting beverages for public school functions, it did taste vaguely like Windex. The observations was, in a manner of speaking, reassuring, providing a certain constancy to at least one aspect of her life.
It was a bit unfortunate that the area was in the arena of high school dances.
Due to a certain seniority on the faculty -- not to mention the fact that she'd volunteered the year before -- Barbara had been able to bow out of chaperoning the Senior Prom this year. Regrettably, doing so had left her a sitting duck -- so to speak -- for other events, and she'd been tapped to supervise the Junior Spring Formal.
"Lotta yellow taffeta this year," had been Helena's laconic assessment when they'd arrived.
His face had left little doubt about his aesthetic opinion of the choice, and Barbara had had to agree.
I can't help this craving honey
Everytime you look at me
I am feeling so lost in oblivion
That I can't breathe
It's like I'm moving right along with the beat
Want me, you're my melody
Despite her scant appreciation for the song, Barbara certainly couldn't fault the dancing that accompanied it. Rather, if she were honest with herself, her appreciation was directed toward the appearance of one particular dancer.
Helena had cheerfully agreed to accompany her to the dance and, with minimal prodding on her part, had forsaken his self-proclaimed role of keeping her company and entered the fray on the floor of the school gymnasium. At this point, he was nominally dancing with Gabby... or Dinah... or both of the girls who had, to Barbara's unconcealed surprised, accepted her last minute invitation to the event; however, there was little doubt that Helena was the focus of the dance floor.
The brunette had always moved gracefully; he had no trouble expressing himself physically. This evening, the sleek lines of his body were perfectly accentuated by the weak strobe lights that highlighted the black leather that, well, highlighted him.
Especially, Barbara noted with as clinical an eye as possible, his pants: hugging him like his own skin, they were accentuated by a U-shaped insert at the front and silver lacing at the fly. Every spin that Helena made, every gyration, seemed to draw attention to his hips... his--
Fortuitously, Barbara was distracted from increasingly lascivious and undoubtedly -- for a chaperone -- inappropriate thoughts about wrapping a package in a bow by the arrival of one of her fellow victims. She nodded a greeting to Maggie Moore, a colleague from her own department, and managed another sip of punch.
"He's absolutely breathtaking, isn't he?"
Seized by a fit of coughing, Barbara set her cup on the edge of a chair and blinked her watering eyes.
"I'm sorry, Maggie. What was that?"
The brown ringlets of Maggie's tightly permed hair jiggled when she turned to repeat herself, a smile that seemed almost wistful crossing her cherubic features.
"Hele-- er, Hel is so striking, Barbara."
The redhead painted on a smile and met her colleague's eyes, speaking clearly to be understood through the din of music and laughter.
"Yes, Helena always has been, Maggie."
The comment, one that even Barbara had to admit was atypically bold for her, acted as a conversational lead weight, a veritable turd in the punchbowl of discourse, as it were.
Of course, the year before Maggie had been a bit hesitant about Barbara's choice of a same sex partner. While not overtly disapproving, Maggie had done little to hide her discomfort.
The hell with discomfort, Barbara decided. Broadening her smile, she retrieved her cup and drained the vile liquid in it, wishing -- if only fleetingly -- that it were spiked.
You spin me right round, baby
Right round like a record, baby
Right round round round
You spin me right round, baby
Right round like a record, baby
Right round round round
Pouring a ladle full of something really pink into his cup, Helena looked around the gym to locate his partner. He found her down near the coat area, where most of the kids tried to sneak whatever they were trying to slip past the chaperones. That new English teacher -- Maggie Something-or-other -- was beside her, and Red was smiling like she was chewing on glass or something.
Yep, probably as good a time as any to take a break from the dance floor.
The brunette experimentally sniffed the pink stuff -- nothing that a few shots of Everclear wouldn't perk up -- and raised the cup to his mouth. He also figured that some alcohol might be the only thing that would get him back on the dance floor, what with all of these teenaged girls hanging on him.
Shit, these kids were making Gabby look pretty good by comparison. Hell, even Dinah --
His neurons came to a screeching halt, damned near self-destructed, when it hit Helena just where his thoughts were going because, honestly, that was just about the most disturbing thing that had run through his head in a long time.
And, that long time included waking up a few weeks ago to find himself in possession of a full set of male plumbing.
His state wasn't improved much when the subject of his completely twisted thinking bounced up next to him. In defense, he took another swig of punch.
"Hi Hel. Isn't this kind of neat, being back here after you're not in high school?"
As usual, The Kid was in full-blown babble mode. Helena drank deeper.
"Did you have fun with Gabby?"
And, he almost spewed all over Dinah's tasteful lilac sweater.
Sky blue eyes met his, wide and innocent.
Narrowing his eyes, he wondered just how innocent the blonde really was and how much her telepathic skills had been improving lately.
Still, it wasn't his fault that he'd not just been thinking about her girlfriend but had almost -- well, barely -- thought about...
Slowly, Helena set his cup on the table and managed some sort of lame answer that didn't include the word 'rhythm'.
Maybe guys really couldn't help themselves. It wasn't like he even wanted to be thinking about anyone else: Nobody could hold a candle to the woman he had. A couple nights back, when she'd told him that she'd found the condom, he'd been plenty scared.
Scared enough to say some pretty dumb things. But, Babs had just gotten it.
And then --
Helena felt the smile creep over his face.
Who the hell knew that his knees -- his frikkin' knees -- were an erogenous zone?
Well, apparently Barbara had.
Of course, anywhere she touched him seemed pretty willing to respond, especially after she'd marked him all over his thighs and shoulders and chest with dozens of tiny bite marks.
Shit, Helena had always thought that he was orally fixated, but Barbara had him beat. Especially after she'd gotten to his... pecs. It hadn't compared to before, but, god, the things she'd done had had him begging and pleading and offering her any-fucking-thing if he could just come.
He was still in awe of what she'd done next.
With him whispering his pleas, she'd just pushed herself upright and smiled at him, a little saint, a lot sinner. Then --
Helena wet his lips and moved to the back of the gym figuring that the press of steel from the walls against his face might cool him down because just thinking about what Barbara had done had him about to combust.
She'd offered him her fingers.
She'd danced her fingers over his lips, and even now the tactile memory of that lightly calloused skin was driving him crazy. And, he hadn't had any choice: what she was offering was everything he could ask any more; and he'd sucked her fingers, working to pull her as far into him as he could in the only way he could until she'd pulled away again.
Then... then he'd nearly levitated off the bed when she'd dragged her wet fingers around her own nipples, and her voice, throaty and hot, had caressed his skin.
"See what this does for me, Hel."
When Babs had finally removed the leather band from his aching erection, he'd -- Well, the word 'exploded' didn't seem to give Red her due. Both of them had ended up in the shower.
From the corner of one eye, Barbara watched her lover apparently attempting to meld himself into the far wall of the gym. She had almost decided to abandon her post by the "Corner of Sin" when the arrival of one of her other invited guests stopped her.
"Thanks for inviting us, Ms. Go-- uh, Barbara."
Barbara offered the curly-haired young woman a smile.
"That's not necessary, Gabby. I hope that you're having fun."
Inviting Dinah and Gabby to attend as unofficial chaperones had been a whim, and given that Gabby was only in town for another day, Barbara honestly hadn't expected to be taken up on the offer.
"It's kind of cool catching up with some of the kids from Quiz Bowl and Drama."
Barbara was fixed with a long look, then a wink.
"Plus, I can try to sell some of them on the joys of going to State. I might get a recruiting bonus, you know."
Barbara joined in with Gabby's soft laughter, forcing herself away from questions into how the long-distance relationship that she and Dinah were conducting between State and NGU was faring. Gabby was in town for the study week before finals at her university -- although, from what Barbara had determined, there had been little studying involved -- and Barbara supposed that it was as good a sign as any that the young women were spending the time together.
"It's really wild, the transformation."
Following Gabby's gaze to the opposite wall, Barbara nodded.
As if sensing the scrutiny, her dark-haired partner began to slip through the crowd, clearly intent on making his way over.
"Yeah. Dinah told me about it, but... wow."
Unable to debate the accuracy of that assessment, Barbara hummed a soft agreement.
"Really, Barbara -- "
The young woman laughed softly, seemingly embarrassed, and Barbara raised her brows in encouragement.
"Well, if I weren't with Dinah, Helios might make me turn straight... or at least take a field trip."
A bevy of thoughts and emotions flittered and flapped their way through Barbara at that little confession. Opting to bypass those that had to do with Gabby's potential willingness to cheat on Dinah with her lover, Barbara seized on the most innocuous bit of information.
The sunny voice drew both their attention, and Barbara felt a bit of heat touch her face when Helena sauntered close and bent to buss her cheek.
"Or, it might be."
Barbara painted on a smile.
For some reason, the redhead thought that the shrug that Helena offered was too casual to be unrehearsed.
"Sure, I already answer to Hel, and I won't have to re-monogram my luggage."
She allowed Helena's and Gabby's banter about other possible names to fade to the background as she considered his choice -- and the fact that he was making it.
Helios, if she recalled correctly, was a Greek sun god who had driven his chariot across the daytime sky. Although the name shared an origin not dissimilar to Helena's given name, the two were, literally, almost night and day.
Apart from this child of Selene's namesake -- this being of the night and moon -- selecting a name of light and day, there was the matter of whether he meant it. In the last few days, since her meeting with Mike Mandrill and Helena's suggestion of marriage, Helena had seemed to settle into himself. There had been a little less strutting, a little less frantic energy and... experimentation; in exchange, Helena had become a bit more quiet, more focused on Katie and his classes and, well, her.
While Barbara certainly couldn't claim that she wasn't enjoying the lengthy shoulder massages and slumbrous cuddling and the cups of coffee that she found steaming on her nightstand each morning, she thought that there was something more. Frankly, she still wasn't certain if her partner actually wanted to remain in his current form or if he had decided that it was the only choice. Since she, however, chose not to accept situations with only one option, Barbara had continued to work out a plan for attempting to control Mandrill.
Regrettably, it appeared that their chance of success -- at least without involving Dinah -- were slim. While the exercise became admittedly more academic if Helena were inclined to remain a man, Barbara still had a suspicion that the brunette was tap-dancing around a healthy dose of denial.
"Dance with me, Red?"
Somehow, in the space of a few thoughts, Gabby and Dinah had disappeared, and now Helena was leaning close. Too close.
Working some moisture to her mouth, Barbara shook her head slightly.
Helena's face was already taking on that closed expression that she knew too well, and so Barbara managed to draw out the word and tack on a final consonant.
"--t here, Hel."
It was kind of lame, as saves went, but Helena decided to let it slide. He straightened and stepped back, deliberately refusing to point out to Red that now -- now -- such a dance would be okay.
Hell, the School Board would probably condone it as a shining example of healthy, normal heterosexual modeling: They could be the freaking Ward and June Cleaver for this century.
For some reason, the thought didn't make him particularly happy.
Unable to read -- no, to follow the shifting pattern of emotions filtering across her partner's strong features, Barbara needlessly checked her watch, confirming that her time in the barrel was done. Even if having an infant daughter hadn't completely spared her from these sorts of after-hours events, it had saved her from staying until the witching hour.
Otherwise known as the time for shooing the stragglers out, supervising clean up, and scouring every nook and cranny for students who had passed out or were otherwise engaged in horizontal activities.
Her smile, when she spoke, was very genuine.
"Let's pick up Katie and go home, Hel."
Barbara caught herself and turned to look out the passenger window of the van. Nearing her father's home in the suburbs of the city, at this hour at night, traffic was light, and there were few diversions.
She spoke the name softly, trying out the feel of the syllables in her mouth, weighing its import. A strong hand came to rest on her arm, distracting her from the exercise.
"It can be anything you want, Barbara."
She turned in time to see blue eyes reflecting the shimmer of an overhead street lamp. For one dizzying moment, she questioned the pronoun she'd heard at the beginning of her lover's declaration.
"Are you certain, Hel?"
The words spilled out, barely considered.
"Are you really alright with the way things stand?"
Slowing to make the winding curve into Jim Gordon's cul-de-sac, Helena kept it light.
"Standing with three legs, Red?"
He risked a quick look over and quirked a grin.
"Sure. Why not?"
The brunette dimmed the lights as he pulled into the driveway. Once the van was in park, he doused the lights completely and turned off the engine. For a few minutes, they sat in silence, only the ticking of the engine and the whush-whush of May Parker's sprinklers next door offering any refuge from their thoughts. Finally, Helena gave in.
"Barbara ," he kept his voice low in the confessional of the darkness. "You said that hypnosis wasn't going to give us any real insurance if we tried it, and we both know that involving The K-- Dinah should be a last resort."
Blowing out a heavy breath, he raked a hand through his bangs: He was going have to cut the whole mess off soon.
"I just think that maybe it's time to let it go, Red."
The silence was thick enough to work his nerves a little. Helena knew that Barbara didn't like to give up on a challenge or anything, but she just seemed so damned set on this particular project that he had to wonder. Staring his fears in the eye, Helena unlatched his seat belt and turned to face the redhead.
"It's not so terrible is it? Being with me like this?"
The final question was so soft, so small, that Barbara could almost pretend she hadn't heard it.
Instead, she hoped that the darkness had covered her flinch as reached for her partner's hand. Before she could consciously decide on an answer -- denial or affirmation -- Barbara heard her own voice.
"Never, Hel. Not any any way, shape, or form."
She leaned down and brushed an opened-mouthed kiss to his knuckles.
"As long as I have you with me."
Suddenly, her partner was very, very close, his eyes preternaturally bright in the darkness.
"Same goes for me, Barbara, so we're okay, right?"
She just had time to nod before their mouths met and Helena's hands were buried in her hair, his tongue teasing at her lips, and...
Oh, great galloping buckets of...
Helena's confusion was thick; her own need to giggle nearly overwhelming.
"My dad, Hel," she murmured, reaching behind her seat for her chair. "He's flicking the porch light."
Honestly, she didn't know why her irrepressible partner found the situation so amusing. For that matter, she suspected that she needed to look into just why she found it so embarrassing.
Regardless of their differing reactions, Helena was still chortling when they mounted the porch, and Jim Gordon swung the door open.
"It's okay, Jim," he snickered, not even able to pretend any measure of embarrassment. "She didn't let me get past first base."
Without looking, he could feel the laser-like intensity of the glare that Babs was no doubt aiming at him.
"You'll have to excuse Helena, Dad."
Barbara stretched up to peck her father on the cheek.
"Obviously he got the contents of the good punch bowl tonight."
Steel blue eyes twinkled as a brushy eyebrow corkscrewed.
"Ah, I see. And, how was the punch?"
Their answers came as one, and Jim Gordon pulled a face. Helena tilted his head, realizing that with Jim's lush handlebar mustache, the expression magnified potential similarities to a walrus.
Not that he would ever, ever tell Barbara's father that.
"Well," the senior Gordon laughed as he led them down the vestibule hallway, "it could have been that strange green concoction that comes out for the department at Saint Patrick's Day."
Nodding somberly, Barbara rounded the corner to the living room, musing that -- regardless of the department one worked in -- New Gotham seemed to spare no effort in concocting the most vile forms of what she and her father had come to refer to as Public Servant Punch.
"--Island Punch, with extra rum," Helena was explaining, his voice automatically lowering when he caught sight of the playpen in the corner of the room and its slumbering occupant.
Barbara watched her partner's face transform to something softer, infinitely open, as he stepped to the playpen. Although his approach had been too quiet for Barbara to hear, Katie seemed to sense his arrival, stretching and yawning gummily. Immediately, Helena picked her up, cradling her in his arms and lowering his face to her ear. Barbara couldn't hear anything, but she felt the fine hair at the back of her neck tremble slightly, leading her to suspect that a subvocal communication had transpired.
Her father's voice broke her reverie.
"Well, speaking of liquid refreshment, I think this young lady might not mind a snack."
Two pairs of blue eyes turned toward the speaker, and Barbara thought her father preened just a bit.
"I gave her a bottle a few hours ago, but I think she was just humoring her grandpa when she took it."
A soft mewling gurgle seconded the assessment, and Barbara didn't need to look to know that her nursing pads had just gotten soaked.
And, to think, she'd worried about having trouble breast feeding.
Helena saw the hint of pink touching Barbara's cheeks. Stepping close, he sniffed and confirmed it.
"Now seems like a good time, huh, Red?"
He handed over their daughter, who promptly grabbed a fist full of her mother's hair, and then Helena almost stumbled when he felt a large hand clap him on the shoulder.
"Come on, er -- "
Grinning, he turned within Jim's fatherly half-embrace.
"I'm working with the name Helios right now, Jim."
Gun-metal blue eyes raked him from head to toe, and Helena felt his posture improve just a bit.
"Well then, Helios, why don't we step into the den and give our girls some privacy?"
Red's smile seemed a little sympathetic, but Helena didn't blink. It wasn't like he was nervous about sharing time in her dad's study. Really, the last case of honest-to-god, nail-biting, Malox-swallowing nerves he'd had with Jim had been well over a year before when he'd -- well, back then, he'd been a she -- come calling to seek permission to court Barbara.
Now that had been nerve-wracking.
With Jim's nod of encouragement, Helena moved to the small wet bar in the den and poured his host a stiff two fingers of a very respectable twelve-year scotch. He limited himself to just enough to cover the bottom of the heavy glass tumbler. Gliding to the oxblood leather guest chair, he saw that Jim was hovering a hand over his humidor.
"Can I tempt you Helen-er, Helios?"
The brunette gave the glass-topped box a long look, sorely tempted by the mouthwatering display of Macanudos and Gloriettas. He thought he even saw a couple of juicy Cohibas in there, the real ones. Slowly, Helena shook his head, making a mental note to pick up some Drew Estates for Barbara's dad to try.
"Uhm, thanks but -- "
Hearing the weakness in his demurral, he sat back in the chair with a smile and crossed his legs. Instantly, he caught himself and adjusted to rest an ankle atop his knee.
"Thanks, Jim, but I'll pass. Barbara says the smell still makes her nauseous."
He hadn't heard about pregnancy-induced sensitivity to odors lingering months after the birth, but he'd decided to be okay with it. Besides, he picked up plenty of second-hand smoke at the bar.
"You're a strong man," the older man acknowledged with a tilt of his glass.
Helena returned the half-toast and took a minute sip of his scotch, not oblivious to how well a cigar would complement the peaty taste. He also noticed that his host didn't choose a cigar for himself.
"Speaking of strong men, Hel -- "
As segues went, Helena thought that this one could use some polish.
"-- I gather that the chances of getting you returned to your old self aren't looking too promising."
"Truth," he allowed, draining the second, and last, swallow from the glass. "Barbara's still in Never-say-die mode -- "
The two shared a smile before Helena continued.
"But, I don't think she -- "
He stumbled a little and decided not to sugarcoat it.
"I think she's okay with it. "
And people still said that he couldn't do understatement.
"And I'm -- "
Turning the glass in his hands, he watched the refracted light from the desk lamp splay over his lap.
"I'm getting used to it."
He looked up, refusing to flinch at his own admission or under Jim's long, appraising look. Eventually, he was able to relax a tiny bit when he made out a short nod.
"In that case, Son, I have an offer I'd like you to think about."
Under the force of that iron stare, Helena almost blurted out something about his intentions of making an honest woman of Barbara. Fortunately, he held his tongue, then damned near strangled on it when Jim went on.
"I know about your mother's history -- "
The ex-police commissioner held up a hand, palm outward, in what Helena figured was supposed to be a calming motion.
"-- and I'm aware that she had reformed and that you haven't shown any inclination to follow in her footsteps. In fact, I have reason to believe --"
Blue eyes twinkled, and Helena felt his eyebrows inch up a little.
"Well, Helios, let's just say that I'm sure you have skills and abilities, practical experience even, that go beyond tending bar."
Many skills, indeed.
The phrase was one from one of Barbara's favorite guilty pleasure television series. In the silence of the van on the drive back to the Tower, Barbara found herself turning it over in her mind, reflecting on how true Katie's arrival had made it for her. Even one year ago, she would never have believed herself capable of succoring a child, yet here she was, the soft sighs she heard coming from the baby seat that was securely buckled into the back seat reinforcing her confidence in herself. Despite her misgivings, she seemed to be muddling through with Katie and Helena helping her improve her skills.
Motherhood truly was a miracle, and the fact that she -- she -- was a mother was even more so. The few times in the past that she'd bothered to think about such things, she'd always assumed that it would be Helena...
The redhead's mood deflated a few psi's at the direction her thoughts were going, and she focused on her partner at the wheel.
Helena was driving a good ten miles under the posted limit as had become his habit the moment he'd brought the van to the birthing center to ferry her and their daughter home three months before. While he had yet to procure a "Baby On Board" sign, Barbara suspected that -- given his care with Katharine -- it was certainly not out of the question.
As he slowed further for a turn a half a block ahead, she debated informing him that driving too slowly was almost as likely to cause a fender bender as was his former speed demon tendencies. Ultimately, she determined that her partner was simply becoming an amazing father, and she opted for something a bit more banal to break the silence.
"How was your chat with Dad?"
The silence that followed seemed overlong for the simple question. It was, Barbara suspected, indicative of a fair amount of mental debate. Helena finally braked at a stop light and turned to face her, the measured weight of his words confirming her suspicions.
"It was interesting, Babs."
Wishing that she'd gone with her first instinct to discuss driving safety, Barbara spoke softly.
"In what way, Hel?"
She couldn't read her partner's tone when he continued, however the words fell like fire and ash around her.
"He thinks he can get me into the class at the Police Academy this fall."
"Oh hell no!"
Almost twenty-four hours later, the words that Barbara had shouted when he'd revealed Jim's offer were still looping through Helena's brain.
Babs -- calm, cool, rational Barbara, the super-analytical Oracle of Delphi, the doting mother of the infant who had been soundly sleeping about 12 inches behind her -- had shouted. Loud enough to make him miss it when the light had turned green. Loud enough to set Katie to fussing.
Wiping down the counter at work with a bar towel that was probably a half-dozen uses overdue for a meeting with the bleach bucket, Helena felt his hackles rise again at the vehemence... and outrage... and raw pain that had leeched from those three words.
At the same time that he'd noticed that the light was cycling to yellow it had hit him that trying to accelerate through it wasn't his best option, so he'd just turned his focus back to Barbara.
He'd thought it was a pretty reasonable question; the force of the anger behind her answer had set him back.
"I don't want another Dick, Helena."
A smart remark had seemed pretty stupid, so he'd tried for the truth.
"That's not what I'm trying--"
Barbara's harsh exhalation had coincided with the light changing to green, so he'd resumed their journey back to the Tower.
"I know, Hel, and I'm sorry for snapping at you."
From the corner of his eye, he'd seen her pinching at the bridge of her nose.
"You've never shown a bit of interest in something like that before -- "
The explanation had seemed a little weak to him even if it was true, but Helena had just kept his mouth shut.
"And, I don't know what the hell has gotten into Dad to suggest such a thing."
Something in his lover's voice had told Helena that Barbara intended to find out, so he'd decided to spare Jim her wrath.
"He said that, well, now I'm big enough."
He'd kept mum about the other stuff: how Jim had intimated that he knew that Helena had some... law enforcement skills; how he'd talked up the security of the pension and all that.
"A son to follow in his footsteps," had been the last thing Barbara had said on it, and it had hit Helena like a hobnail boot to the gut.
Or, like a transmutation wand to the crotch.
Helena knew he didn't have his partner's amazing memory, but some things he didn't forget. One of those was that, years back, when Babs had first started training him for the streets, she'd hesitantly confided that her dad had always encouraged her to follow in his footsteps. "Just as he would a son," had been the words she'd used. Even if Red hadn't taken the same formal route of law enforcement, back in the day she'd sure done her part to prove that she was every bit as good at catching bad guys as her dad had been.
Helena would have bet donuts to dollars that Jim didn't know what he was doing, but Helena sure knew what the offer meant to all of them.
Tossing the spent towel into the corner, Helena strolled down the bar and smiled amiably at the middle-aged man. He was pretty sure he'd seen him in here a few times before, usually months apart. The cheap rumpled suit screamed business traveler, lending some weight to his suspicions.
"What can I get you?"
He efficiently produced the requested boilermaker, blinking a happy smile when the man told him to keep the change from the twenty he'd slapped down. It was official: his tips really were better now.
Equally official: he seriously needed to donate a chunk of Bruce's money to N.O.W. or something. He was already funneling most of the interest from his trusts into spinal cord research at a couple of medical centers and universities, but, damn, this was important.
"Say, you look like that dark-haired hottie who's usually serving here."
He fixed a bland smile in place when Business thumped his empty shot glass down and expanded on his description by curving his hands in front of his chest. Helena wasn't certain whether he was flattered or pissed off by the sheer size of the attributes that the guy was painting.
"Are you her brother or something?"
Reaching under the bar for a fresh towel, Helena shrugged.
He held himself loose under Business's bleary stare.
"I don't see her around tonight. Where is she?"
His standard line was on the tip of his tongue: "She's around"; but Helena heard the truth spill out.
"She's gone now."
And, five minutes later, barely taking time to clock out, so was he.
It was a spring night, still early enough on a Friday that Babs wouldn't be expecting him home, and he couldn't stay caged up any longer. In the alley behind the bar, Helena debated heading to the rooftops.
Maybe he could let the night air carry him along, clean him. Maybe he could forget everything for a little while and just... fly.
He looked above him, watching the clouds reflecting the pale light of the waning moon, and the urge fled. He thought he needed to stay on the streets, stay with the grime of the city and feel his town's rough edges.
And, in New Gotham, the rough edges were never hard to find. It only took Helena ten minutes before he ran across a half-dozen punks that were shadowing a group of co-eds.
His usual bait-line was on the tip of his tongue -- "Hey, dudes, why don't you try me?" -- when it hit Helena that he might not appeal in the same way. So, he went with a more direct approach, jumping in and starting the pounding. Two simultaneous jabs to the different dudes' throats dropped them; a floating roundhouse kick took out another.
It was too easy. There was no skill when his mass did the work for him. It was just too fuckin' easy to wipe the floor with them.
Helena let one of the three who where still standing tag him on the jaw, relishing the sharp sting of pain and the smell of blood where the asshole's pinkie ring had nicked him.
Who the fuck wore a pinkie ring, anyway?
"My turn now."
Something in his tone seemed to put them off. Maybe it was the growl. Hell, maybe it was the way his eyes had augmented.
Before they could run, he grabbed two by their collars and smacked their heads together. The dull conk was still hanging heavy in the air when they slid bonelessly to the filthy sidewalk.
Since Helena had already picked out the last guy as the leader of their little pack, he took a little more time with him, playing a little at stalking and making the guy scream.
It wasn't, he decided as he wiped his bloody hands on the guy's pant leg, much fun.
He kept walking.
Helena allowed the scuff of his boot heels on the rough concrete to guide him. A couple of times, when he cut through dark alleys or crossed by shadowed storefronts, he heard the whisper of footsteps behind him or the silky hiss of knives being fitted to palms.
The usual hunting noises from the streets of New Gotham.
Nobody made a move on him, and he kept walking.
It was a sense that he'd arrived somewhere, somewhere familiar, that finally stalled his progress. He took in the plain dark door in front of him, the small sign on the side: No Man's Land. Soft light crept out underneath the sill; strains of music from the juke were easily audible, as was the laughter and murmur of voices from inside.
Helena snorted quietly in the solitary darkness, admitting that the sign said it all. He had no desire to rub elbows with the city's metas, and with the strains of Berlin's "The Metro" following, he turned away.
It wasn't where he wanted to be, so he kept walking.
Hundreds or thousands of steps later, he was downtown. He hadn't consciously planned it, but his feet had carried him to the club district that was frequented by his city's non-freaks. And, by the really freakish who came to indulge in any of a number of kinks.
He gave a desultory kick to a green beer bottle, sending it skittering into the gutter, as he weighed which category he fell into. Pulsing bass and the unmistakable musk of sweat and sex drew him to a familiar door and pretty much answered his question.
Chains of Love.
Helena couldn't remember the last time he'd checked on the place that he and Babs had briefly shut down the year before. With the need for places like Chains, not to mention the slap on the wrist that the owner had gotten for butchering Clown Fish in the name of sexual gamesmanship, the joint had opened right up again. Every couple of months, Barbara would remember to have him pop in, just to see if he picked up the odor of Nemo-enhanced love drugs.
Maybe a little recon wouldn't hurt.
His hand hesitated, just for a second, before he grasped the ornate solid chain-link door handle. Shaking it off, Helena stepped inside, immediately enveloped by the flashing lights and the smoke and the pulsing bass of Soft Cell's greatest hit.
Even if the damned song did fall into that category of "Weird Barbara Nostalgia Tunes" Helena had to admit that he liked the original way better than the rap remix.
He took in the dance floor, trying not to wonder why Babs had turned him down for that one fucking dance at the school, trying to focus on the writhing bodies and the leather and latex and metal adorning all of that succulent flesh that was on display. He didn't know quite how long he hovered by the entrance before the door swung open, the stylized door handle catching him square in the kidneys.
"Oo--freakin' -- "
Catching himself, Helena turned, ready to lay into whoever it was that was in such a damned hurry. When he caught sight of the burly -- and scantily clad -- figure barreling through the door, he checked himself, certain that he knew the guy even if he couldn't put his finger on his name.
Apparently the recognition was mutual since the big blonde came to a screeching halt, his face lighting up.
Still working to place him, Helena nodded.
"It's me, George!"
The reminder did the trick, and Helena instantly placed the guy who'd been a major information source on the fish case. Not to mention the guy who'd trapped him -- well, at the time, her -- in a torture chamber so that Clint Williams could introduce Barbara to the joys of Fasma.
And him to the joys of Babs with a whip in her hands.
"Hey," he kept it low key.
Not so George, who grabbed him in an effusive bear hug that left Helena struggling for breath.
"God! You have changed, Girlfriend."
Blue eyes narrowed, and Helena tried to remember if the big guy had been quite as... flamboyant the year before. He held himself steady under a long visual inspection that left him wishing he'd worn his duster.
"I love it. It's so twistedly macho."
Finally, Helena found his tongue.
"So, uh, you're still hanging here?"
That earned him a toothy grin, and Helena wondered if his own teeth had the same eerie whiteness under the black lights.
The deep blue eyes -- had to be contacts -- went hooded and far-away.
"Or, at least I am any time I can get somebody to fasten the hooks to my nipple rings and hoist me up."
Swallowing with difficulty, Helena licked his lips and cast about for some way to respond to that. George spared him the effort.
"So, Huntress, did you come down here for some boy on boy action?"
The brunette worked his jaw. Oblivious to whatever denial or demurral Helena had been struggling for, George threw a meaty arm around his shoulders and leaned in.
"Because, seriously, I can recommend some nice starter studs, or, hey, I've been known to top once in a while myself. But -- "
Honest to god, Helena didn't remember that his former source had been quite so... talkative.
"-- I guess that spicy piece that was leading you around last year could put on a strap-on and do the job just fine."
It took Helena a second to catch up to the verbal onslaught. When he did, he pulled back enough to search the blonde's face.
"What makes you so sure that I'd be the one --"
George's laughter was wry but not unsympathetic, and it cut him off mid-denial.
"Believe me, Girlfriend -- "
A ham of a hand clapped him on the shoulder.
"-- from one bottom to another, I know what you need."
Funny that, Helena realized: he wasn't so sure himself what he needed. Nevertheless, he allowed his new best friend to guide him to the bar.
"So, can I get you something? Or -- "
A strong finger, surprisingly light and delicate in its movements, stroked down the center of his chest before coming to a halt at the waist of Helena's pants.
Helpless against his biology, Helena felt his cock stir, and he looked out onto the dance floor. It was all bodies in motion, sex and submission, domination and control.
A regular fuckin' Petri dish of every twisted perversion that he could name. And probably a good number that he couldn't.
Automatically, he downed the double vodka that had appeared in his hand. With something akin to resignation, he admitted that he didn't want any of it. With something very close to nausea, he wondered if he even really wanted Barbara's--
"So, what can I get you, Huntress?"
Intensely grateful that the big blonde had stopped that line of thinking, Helena turned back to the bar and motioned for a refill.
"A fairy godmother would be about right, George."
The words were out before he'd thought. They didn't seem to faze his companion a bit.
"Now you're talking, Girlfriend. Let's see if we can find someone with the right sized wand."
After so many years together -- first as teacher and student, then as guardian and ward, then as mentor and protege, then as friends, and then as so much more -- Barbara was infinitely grateful that she and Helena had passed a point of fury and explosion in their lives. Whereas early altercations had tended to end in shouting and cold silences and later disagreements had deteriorated into glacial distances, they now seemed to have reached a point of understanding. While they certainly fought and stepped -- or rolled -- on each other's toes and engaged in all of the typically human behaviors that occurred between two people who spent so much time together, the events were short-lived, ending quietly rather than with drama.
A case in point was her own mini-meltdown two nights before, when Helena had mentioned her father's offer about the academy. After worrying at her behavior for the remainder of the drive home -- and a good portion of the night -- Barbara had finally decided that her reaction had to do with a good case of Only Child Syndrome mixed, perhaps, with just a touch of Control Fiend.
Heaven knew, after the events of the last week or, specifically, the last weekend, she'd certainly been feeling vulnerable enough for some tendencies to kick into overdrive.
Having reached some peace with her dreadful behavior, she'd prodded Helena awake and offered an explanation and another apology. His somewhat bleary response had been sweetly typical.
"No sweat, Red. I'm not much for paramilitary organizations anyway."
Their soft laughter had easily given way to low murmurs and then to Helena's soft moans as Barbara had touched him, her mouth and tongue and lips no longer needed for a verbal apology.
In the dim mid-morning light that was softly illuminating the bedroom, Barbara worked a series of tiny isometric stretches under the covers. She took care not to disturb her still-sleeping partner, relishing that it was after eight in the morning on a Saturday and the entire family was still cocooned in the bedroom. She relished even more that Helena, for the first time since the transformation, had returned to the sleeping position that had been most common before the change: he was curled against her side, tucked under her right arm. His soft exhalations warmed her breast, and one hand was burrowed under her sleep shirt, kneading softly against her side.
A cautious bit of shifting in the grip of her human octopus confirmed that, as had been the case every morning since they'd had their discussion on Monday night, Helena was relaxed against her.
Allowing her eyes to drift shut, the redhead felt her lips twist in a smile when her lover turned minutely in the half-circle of her arm, burying his nose in her armpit. The gesture was familiar and just a bit ticklish and, she grasped on a warm swell of affection, something more.
Intimacy truly was about so much more than the obvious.
With Barbara's warmth and scent blanketing him so intimately, Helena slowly came back to himself. He knew that it was late -- well, kind of late, even for a Saturday -- for Red to be lounging in bed, and so he burrowed closer, drawing in the sweet musky scent of her.
God, he loved this. He'd always loved being close to Barbara like this, and he worked to relax, to allow her to fill his senses with everything that was familiar and right in his world.
In the face of everything, Barbara had remained a constant. She'd accepted him, embraced him even, and helped him come to grips with himself.
The soft rumble emanating from his chest bled away, and Helena squeezed his eyes tight against a feeling of betrayal and loss.
It wasn't-- it wasn't her fault.
Seizing on the words like a lifeline, he turned to her chest, mouthing the butter-soft cotton of her sleep jersey. He felt her stiffen a little and knew she was awake, but he didn't open his eyes. Instead he focused on being close to her, her hip in his lap, their legs tangled together.
No. Body's. Fault.
The words spun through his mind, shifting into a refrain that had been spiraling through his head since his last stop of the night before.
Here we go round...
Here we go round...
At five o'clock in the morning.
Beside him, Barbara bit at her lower lip, struggling to maintain the sanctity of the silence. Helena's mouth was moving against her sleep shirt, warm breath heating her breast. The action was less overtly arousing than... sweet, and she raised her free hand to rest it on his shoulder, torn between sensuality and innocence.
Her decision was made when the movement of his jaw against the swell of her breast become more deliberate, when she detected just a bit of wet heat -- and teeth -- through her shirt. The hand that had been kneading softly against her abdomen clenched beside her torso, and Barbara captured it in hers, moving it to her other breast.
"Hel -- "
Pushing up onto his elbow, Helena heard a soft whimper. He thought it might have come from him.
It didn't matter. All that mattered was beside him.
With infinite gentleness, he cupped the breast beneath his hand. His need to be slow, to be careful, was tested when Barbara arched her back up from the mattress, so he used the motion as an opportunity to slip his left hand under her back and to begin a slow massage of the muscles under her shoulder blades. Only then did he allow himself to lower his head, to brush his jaw over the heavy flesh that he'd been mouthing.
Her nipple was ripe against his cheek, and he pressed harder, afraid to use his mouth or his teeth, even through the thin barrier of the tee shirt.
But, god, how he wanted...
Still working a minute massage against his lover's upper back, he pulled his other hand free of her breast and slid it down her torso, past the waist of her boxers, cupping her vulva through the fabric.
She couldn't feel it, he knew that. But, he could, and he increased the pressure of his fingers against her shoulders, the stubble on his chin tugging against her shirt. He felt his jaw begin to move, a tiny, repetitive shaking that set his teeth to chattering, and he heard Barbara's heart rate pick up just a little as he caressed the nipple under soft fabric with his lips.
With an odd clarity, he grasped just why men were so hung up on women's breasts: they didn't have them. Then clarity fled when a series of strobe light images seared his mind's eye: the two of them on their sides, with him holding Barbara from behind. He could see one of his hands kneading her breasts, rough and demanding, as she pushed back against him; his other hand was between her legs, taking... thrusting...
The image shattered when he realized that it was he -- his old body, his real body, in front, being taken. The lingering fragments shredded him as he could see -- almost feel -- Barbara's hand delving between his legs, touching him so deeply, possessing him in a way that was no longer open to him.
Carefully, he moved his hand from between Barbara's legs, resting it on her waist, where she could feel.
No. Body's. Fault.
And those words from the night before danced again through his aural memory.
Between the motion
And the act...
For Thine is the Kingdom
Barbara couldn't miss the change in her partner. One moment, he'd been moving almost frantically against her, soft panting underscoring the shaking of tightly torqued muscles. A single heartbeat later, he was still against her, his silence profound.
Yet... yet, he was still there, and she could feel his heart pounding against her where their bodies pressed together.
She also felt it when his hand -- the hand that had not been performing a miracle mini-massage against her back, the hand that she hadn't been able to feel -- came to rest on her waist.
The heat of shame mixed with the arousal that had been suffusing her upper body, and the redhead bit at the inside of her cheek. Mustering her courage, she trailed her hand down his bicep, tracing the corded muscles of his forearm, braiding her fingers with his where they trembled against the elastic of her boxers.
Heaven knew, she hadn't been able to surpass her own fears this last week; she hadn't been able to let go in the same way. Although her lover hadn't asked, had given no indication that he wanted anything more than her hands and, the night before, her mouth, perhaps it was time to try again.
"Hel," she moved their joined hands to her thigh. "Want to help me out here?"
Somehow, Helena swallowed the strangled noise that wanted to escape him as his ardor, almost impossibly, cooled in the face of Barbara's question.
God, she was asking him to help her. She was fuckin' asking him to... handle her, something that he knew she hated. She was offering him everything.
Shamed, he shifted to rest himself lightly over her, brushing her mouth with a tender kiss.
"I love you so much, Barbara."
Barbara searched her lover's face, unable to see his eyes under the curtain of his lashes. Moving her hands to his back, she absently traced the knobby ridges of his spine with her fingers, feeling the gooseflesh rise on his skin.
"You were out late," she finally tried.
She knew that Helena had come in well after she'd turned in at two in the morning. When she'd groggily pulled Katie into bed at six for her pre-breakfast, Helena had been there, spooning her loosely. When she'd returned their sated daughter to her bassinet after almost an hour of slumbrous feeding, Helena had finally stirred just enough to work himself into the circle of her arm and hold her close.
"I -- "
The brunette's voice was raspy with sleep.
"-- went prowling."
Gently, Barbara traced the almost-healed nick on his jaw, easily recognizing the signs of a scuffle.
"Did you find what you were looking for, Hel?"
Helena gave the question its due. True, once he'd realized that George was taking him way too metaphorically, he'd ditched Chains of Love in a hurry. For some goddamned reason, he'd ended up at the other club that had been a focus of their investigation the year before: The Speak Easy. For almost two hours, he'd hung out at the poetry bar, nursing a never-ending shot of tequila and listening to the angst crowd reciting poetry.
Mercifully, he seemed to have hit the club on a night when they were reading published works instead of the kind of gawd-awful dreck that he'd encountered the year before. And, while Yeats and Eliot hadn't done much for his mood, at least he hadn't had sex throwing itself at him.
For the first time since waking up, Helena met Barbara's eyes.
"I came back to find you."
For a moment, Barbara struggled for breath, for reason, then she pressed a lingering kiss to her partner's jaw.
Yet, she couldn't deny that, as touching as the word were, they weren't necessarily an answer.
Loathe to press further, she moved enough to capture his mouth, teasing her tongue against his lips. His ragged gasp was enough, and she allowed herself to be drawn into the kiss.
A low groan, the awareness of his hips rocking against hers, drew her from the leisurely tangle, and she trailed a hand across his flank.
"Hel, do you -- "
Unaccountably hesitant, the redhead searched for a way to ask.
"Sweetheart, would you like -- "
God, what did he want?
Helena couldn't find the words to answer, only the words that taunted him.
Or, maybe, just the damned lines from that poem, the one that had stuck with him all the way home last night; that section that he'd had to look up on the Delphi and print out; the page that he'd stared at on the balcony as the stars had twinkled merrily above him.
Between the emotion
And the response...
Life is very long
"I just -- " he shut his eyes, and buried his face in against his partner's shoulder. "I just want to feel you against me."
No longer open to Helena's scrutiny, Barbara allowed her brows to knit as she worked her way through a maze of emotions that she'd simply been dropped into. She palmed his shoulders, unnerved by his absolute stillness, and reached a decision.
"Turn over, Hel."
Although Barbara readily admitted that she wasn't the sharpest tack in the big box of empathy and emotion, she had learned a few things from Helena. One of those, one very important thing, was that -- for Helena -- the physical was inexorably linked to the emotional.
A dark head rose slowly, puzzlement painted in broad strokes across strong features.
Fashioning a smile from the tattered reserves of her courage, she rubbed his back, then gave him a small push.
"On your stomach, Sweetie."
Typically, Helena was moving himself into position before Barbara had finished speaking. Her heart skipping a beat or two, Barbara shed her shirt, then turned and moved behind him, sliding her arms around his chest. Resting her body on his back, she kissed down the hollow of his neck, then moved her hand down to cup the sweet, heavy softness between his legs. Although Helena's breathless, helpless sound of surprise made it difficult, Barbara didn't linger, instead returning her focus to his back and shoulders.
Helena had to stop, to wet his lips.
Those clever, wicked hands moved between his torso and the mattress, teasing at his belly. Warm air ghosted his shoulders.
"The other night, Hel, I missed your back."
He felt the muscles in Barbara's arms tense, and his lover pushed herself a little lower on his back. Satin lips blessed the broad expanse between his shoulders; full breasts pressed against his lower back, the drag of pebbled nipples on his skin almost painful.
"How does this feel, Sweetheart?"
The question itself was a tease. Barbara had to know how much her voice turned him on.
"Like I'm gonna poke a hole in the mattress," he managed on a breathy exhalation.
He felt the curl of Barbara's lips against his side just before the snap of the elastic of his boxers against his waist.
"Lose these, Hel."
Somehow, he managed it without rolling Barbara off him. Helena thought that the eager assistance of slim fingers might have had something to do with the feat. Then, there wasn't anything to think about, just sensation: the press of her breasts against his ass; her tongue washing the small of his back; her fingers insinuating under his chest again to scrape his nipples.
God, it was Barbara and it was amazing and she was touching him and holding him and it felt so goddamned perfect.
Arching into the contact, Helena lost himself in the blanket of soft skin and enticing touch. He gave himself to her quiet murmurs of appreciation and love and the press of diamond peaks driving his hips forward until all he wanted was to spread his legs and push back... to take her inside... to be possessed... to be filled as the person that had been created for her.
Only for her.
The blood pounded through him. He heard his own soft moans muffled against the pillow.
Without thought, one knee was already pulling up under his body, readying, when the weight of reality came crashing down, leaving him hollow and breathless.
It took the redhead a moment to process her lover's words. Even as she questioned what she'd heard, she couldn't doubt the message of his body.
Beneath her, Helena grew rigid and still.
It was no more than a whisper. It carried the impact of a gunshot.
Her stomach clenching, Barbara pushed herself to the side, barely able to catch her partner's arm with one hand when he turned away, curling into himself.
Cursing her limitations, she pushed herself up the bed and wrapped her arms around him from behind.
His muscles hummed, tight as violin strings, under her hands.
"Sweetheart, what is it? What did --"
Cloaked in Barbara's arms, the press of bare flesh -- bare, womanly flesh -- against his skin an agony, Helena roughly shook his head from side to side. Unable to stand the fear and self-recrimination in her voice, he reached back to find Barbara's hand and brought it to his chest -- his goddamned firm, hard pecs -- and ground their joined hands over his heart.
"I don't -- "
Baffled, terrified, Barbara struggled to make sense of his words. His voice grew muffled when he shook free and slid from the bed, snagging his boxers on the way.
"-- Want -- "
By the time she sat up, Helena was already at the door to the bedroom, fisting his arms into the shirt he'd worn the night before.
"I'm sorry, Barbara."
God, he hated the confusion and hurt in her face, emotions that he'd put there.
"I just.. I just can't right now."
Helena was halfway down the hall, buttoning the shirt that reeked of stale cigarette smoke and alcohol, before his fingers recognized the folded piece of printer paper that he'd stuffed in the pocket early that morning. Grimacing, he yanked it out and unfolded it, the words in stark san serif type as real as they'd been the night before.
Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
For Thine is
For Thine is the
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Although their entire interaction had been almost deathly quiet, the noise of Helena's sudden departure managed to awaken Katie. Despite an overwhelming desire to fling herself into her chair and follow Helena, Barbara took their daughter's quiet fussing as a sign: they all needed some time.
"Shh, Kitten," she worked herself back to her side of the bed and carefully lifted the infant from her bassinet. "First things first, right?"
Katharine seemed to agree, instantly burrowing to her chest. Moments later, a surprisingly expressive "mmfff", followed by an eloquent butt of the tiny red head against her breast, reminded Barbara that she needed to relax just a bit.
"Sorry, Kate," she whispered, reclining against the pillows at the head of the bed and forcing herself not to think about what had just transpired with Helena.
Somehow, possibly by focusing on how it was possible to think about not thinking about a specific subject, the redhead did relax, and Katharine's agitation rapidly disappeared. Pointedly, Barbara concentrated on her daughter's tiny noises of satisfaction, on blue eyes that were so much like Helena's, on Katharine's face which displayed much of the same fixed concentration and pleasure that Helena did when...
Come to think of it, she hadn't seen that face on Helena for several weeks.
At that realization, a host of emotions attempted to make themselves known. Some were easy to identify, such as confusion and concern about what had led to this perhaps-inevitable place in Helena's adaptation. Others were more opaque, relating largely, Barbara surmised, to her own responses. The remainder were terrifyingly clear, veritable boogeymen of fear and trepidation.
How could she --
A high pitched rumble, Katie's purr, pulled the redhead from increasingly dark thoughts. With their daughter in her arms, she simply couldn't hold on to the bleak emotions. The child was too real a reminder of the wonder and goodness that she and Helena had in their lives.
When they finally emerged from the bedroom, Barbara found her partner parked on the couch, his attention fixed on the big screen.
Spongebob Squarepants, if she weren't mistaken.
Barbara moved to one side of the sofa and took in her lover. He was still in his boxers and the half-buttoned shirt that he'd grabbed during his hasty retreat. A mixing bowl that was filled with milk rested in his lap, and the brunette was chasing a few sugar-shellaced bits of puffed cereal around with a soup spoon. However, the instant that she reached for the buckles on the snugli, Helena moved his bowl to the coffee table and turned to accept Katharine from her.
Helena bounced his daughter in his arms, then blew a noisy raspberry against her tummy, taking the opportunity to inhale her sweet scent and the hint of milk that flavored her breath. When her coos quieted, he settled her in his lap and finally met the green eyes that were fixed on him.
"I'm sorry about earlier--"
Barbara's raised hand cut him off.
"Sweetheart, there's nothing to apologize for."
Barbara's smile was small, but it was a sufficient grace. Helena chewed at his bottom lip for a moment, then ducked his head in acknowledgment.
"I, uh, made coffee," he offered.
This time, Barbara's smile was a lot fuller, but Helena didn't have time to bask or even relax a little because he saw what Katie had her eye on: a tempting bowl of sugared milk sitting just a little too close to the edge of the coffee table.
He kind of thought that the shiny silver handle of the spoon that was peeking out of the bowl was pretty tempting, too.
"Hey, Kitty. You stick to your mom's milk for now, huh?"
He swung his feet to the floor and looked deeply into his daughter's eyes.
"When the time's right, I'll show you all the best sugar, starting with Cocoa Puffs and moving right into Poptarts and Swiss Cake Rolls."
Still smiling, Barbara entered the kitchen, deliberately tuning out her partner's plan to induce Type II Diabetes in their daughter before the girl turned three. As promised, the coffee pot was half-full -- just enough for the one oversized cup that she allowed herself each morning in deference to Katharine's caffeine levels. After filling her mug, the redhead turned toward the refrigerator, deciding to give in to the need to indulge herself with a little creamer, when she froze.
The sound of Helena's voice still carried from the living room: he seemed to be giving Katie a pep-talk of some sort. The steam rose from her mug, carrying with it the familiar rich aroma of morning. The nasal tones of Spongebob almost completed the picture of a happy, normal, family Saturday morning.
Except, Barbara sighed heavily, for the fact that they were far from a normal family.
Carefully, she set her mug on the counter and swung open the refrigerator door. For a long half-minute, she remained still, bathed in the yellow light of the small appliance bulb as she forced herself to complete the thought.
They were even further from the happiness that the domestic scene seemed to paint.
Reaching inside, she snagged a bottle of water, raising it to her face and rolling the green glass across her forehead. She was under no illusion that it would hold at bay the headache that had been clamoring to escape since Helena had bolted from the bedroom almost an hour before; however, perhaps the coolness would help in steeling herself for something that, frankly, she preferred not to face.
No way through it but to do it.
Eyeing the interior of the fridge again, Barbara returned the bottle, foregoing the creamer.
She'd need her coffee straight-up this morning.
Accordingly, Barbara decided to take her time. She retrieved her mug and moved to the kitchen table. The morning paper was neatly positioned next to her spot, just like any other morning, and she methodically worked her way through it as she sipped her coffee. She'd performed the ritual thousands of times and so had it perfectly timed, finishing her coffee just as she pencilled in the final number in the expert-level Sudoku puzzle.
As the redhead folded back the pages of the final section of the paper to leave the comics displayed by Helena's place setting, a muffled clatter from the living room finally drew her attention. She shut her eyes for a moment, working to center herself despite the growing clatter of wood, the clink of metal, and... muttering.
Obviously, it was time to move things along.
By the time she rinsed her cup out and up-ended it on the dish towel on the counter next to the sink, the clatter had faded to an occasional clack. The sound of Helena's voice remained a low hum, and Barbara's curiosity grew as she crossed the threshold from the kitchen to the living room.
What she found left her dumbstruck and simply... heartwarmed.
"Okay, Katie, do you still have that L-shaped thingie? Cuz I think that might fit here..."
Her partner was seated camp-style on the floor, sounding like he was puzzled out of his wits. Their three month old daughter was propped in a cocoon of pillows beside him. Around them both was strewn an impossible number of wooden slats and plastic coasters and metal fittings. Behind Helena was the cardboard box, now empty, that Helena had hauled up a few nights before.
The box had contained all of the myriad pieces now cluttering the floor, the pieces that would make up Katharine's crib.
Since she had grown fond of the oddly shaped bassinet that Helena had fashioned from a mold that he had made of her abdomen late in the pregnancy, Barbara wasn't eager to see Katie transition to a bigger bed. In addition, Helena was already beginning to make noises about reclaiming the bassinet, removing the wheeled legs, and displaying the cast of her very pregnant abdomen somewhere in the Tower.
Despite all of his earnest arguments -- including those suggesting that he could paint the entire monstrosity "flesh colored" and highlight her belly button -- Barbara was still not persuaded of the artistic merits of the endeavor.
Her own preferences notwithstanding, their daughter had decided to continue growing, and even Barbara had to admit that the bassinet was noticeably cramped for the child. However, when Helena and she had decided that a crib was in order and Helena had appeared at the Tower with the crib they picked out online, Barbara hadn't expected to see this.
Watching Helena put together the crib was something akin to an exercise in torture. Usually so graceful and fluid, he was now visibly awkward, reminding Barbara again of why -- when there was something to assemble that involved instructions longer than "Insert two batteries" -- the power screwdriver invariably came to rest in her hands.
"Lessee," the brunette's voice was distracted as he picked through a huge pile of hardware. "Socket sleeve... socket sleeve... What the heck does that look like?"
Since Katharine appeared to be engaged with chewing on a thick wad of paper that Barbara surmised to be the assembly instructions, she didn't answer. With some effort, Barbara kept her own mouth shut as well.
"Now, pay attention, Kitty -- "
Intrigued, Barbara moved closer, hoping that her presence wouldn't break the moment. She saw her partner hold up a handful of lock washers for their daughter's inspection.
"Now, all of these are extras. It's always good to have extras."
Somehow, Barbara doubted that; however, Katie gurgled her enthusiastic agreement and tried to grab the shiny rings.
"Nah, you keep reading the directions for me while I screw this dohickey in."
Very aware of Barbara's presence, Helena kept his eyes on the huge-assed screw that he was guessing held the headboard in place. Of course, from what he could figure out from the instructions, he might well be jamming the damned thing into the hole for the wheel.
"Easy to assemble, my ass," he muttered.
He heard Barbara's sympathetic hum and painted on a bright and happy smile. Then he made the mistake of looking up to show her that he was doing just fine, thank you very much.
His lacerated finger flew to his mouth; the screwdriver that had gouged the two inch gash in his index finger fell to the floor.
"Sunnuva -- "
Bright blue eyes under tiny crimson lashes were fixed intently on him, and Helena just managed to circumvent his natural tendencies.
Before Babs could get to him, he coiled to his feet and scooped up his helper.
"C'mon, Kitty. Let me show you how your mom taught me to do a field dressing with a paper towel."
Incongruously, Barbara felt a smile touch her lips at the memory of that particular bit of instruction from so many years before. When she heard the faucet in the kitchen come on, accompanied by a stream of barely disguised foul language, she slipped from her chair to the floor and retrieved the rather gummy instructions that Katharine had been safeguarding.
Perhaps she could lend a bit of assistance in this little project as she worked up her courage to tackle more weighty matters.
Barbara had just determined that Helena had been attempting to install the fittings for the gate side of the crib on the back side when she heard her two intrepid do-it-yourselfers returning. She couldn't hold back her smile when she saw that Katharine had one chubby hand firmly wrapped around the damp paper towel that was covering Helena's finger.
"Do you need a bandage, Hel?"
Before answering, the brunette resettled their daughter in her nest of pillows; then he lowered himself to the floor beside her and began unwinding the makeshift bandage.
"Nah. You know my metahealing. It's probably already scabbing up--?"
When his voice rose a good half-octave on the final word, Barbara leaned over and inspected the injury.
Rather, she realized with a startled blink, what was left of it. Helena's finger was all but healed.
Two sets of eyes -- one green, one deep blue -- turned to the infant who was busy shredding one of the pages of instructions for assembling her new bed.
Helena decided to shrug it off and reached for the screwdriver that he'd dropped.
"At least this testosterone stuff is good for something, huh?"
Naturally, Babs didn't let him get away with it.
"What do you mean, Hel?"
Her question had come a little too fast, and Helena knew that she wasn't talking about quick-healing boo-boos. Still, he gave it a good try at keeping things casual.
"Well, it sure didn't give me any -- "
He tapped the handle of the screwdriver against his sternum and waggled his eyebrows.
"-- manly tool skills, did it?"
For a few cowardly, craven, selfish seconds, Barbara flirted with letting her partner get away with it. She knew that she could laugh with him, offer to help him finish the crib, perhaps even find out where on earth all of those so-called "extra" lock washers belonged. They could proceed through the morning as if there was nothing more to say.
She couldn't do it. She owed Helena more than that.
"I don't need for you to have manly tool skills, Sweetheart."
She retrieved the screwdriver from his suddenly lax fingers and set to work removing the plastic glides from the back of the crib. As she'd hoped, he took the opening she'd provided.
"Just other manly skills, huh?"
Judging by the way the screwdriver wanted to slip, Barbara thought that the screw might be stripped. She set the tool beside her and sucked in a slow breath, recognizing that, finally, they had reached the Rubicon. Casting her die, she reached for her lover's hand and met his eyes.
"Just you, Helena."
Helena dropped his gaze to their joined hands, hearing nothing but gentle acceptance in his partner's words. Still, something within him curled tight, and he gently extricated his hand and reached for one of the washers that were piled near the tools.
He knew what he knew.
He clenched his jaw against the words and tossed the washer from hand to hand. Finally, the weight of Barbara's patience wore through him.
"This body can be pretty handy, Red," he managed with a twist of his mouth, "except for putting cribs together."
To his relief, she selected another screwdriver and started attacking that screw that he'd gotten part way in.
"In what ways, Hel?"
Although her eyes were firmly fixed on her work, Helena didn't think for a second that Babs was missing anything. Crossing his legs camp-style, he snagged a bolt and started working the washer onto it.
"Well, it's pretty good for fighting crime."
From the corner of his eye, he saw that gorgeous mane of red hair nod, and his confidence notched up just a little.
"And, it gives us a family that doesn't raise any eyebrows for Kat."
He felt her stiffen at that, but she didn't deny the truth of it.
"And, I'm -- well, it just takes some getting used to and--"
Very calmly, very carefully, Barbara set the screwdriver down.
It was that or hurling it across the room.
"Don't bullshit me, Helena."
His surprise at her words bordered on shock, but Barbara couldn't back down.
"Just," she gentled her tone, "don't."
When the brunette answered her, Barbara thought that he was very near tears.
"It's not so bad, Barbara."
Sighing, she resisted her urge to massage her temples or shout or simply... accept what he said. Barbara knew that Helena put up a great front, and he was so very good at being a man because, well, honestly because he was Helena. And her Helena was amazing.
Still, she knew what she knew.
"It doesn't seem like it from my side of the bed, Sweetheart."
The words stung, leaving Helena feeling vulnerable in a way that didn't feel good at all. He dropped the washer and bolt to the carpet quietly.
"I don't want to get D into this, Red, and -- "
The rest dissolved into a mumble. Based on the color pinking the tips of his ears, Barbara had a pretty good idea of what he'd said; however, she needed to hear it.
She looked at him, and he met her stare defiantly.
She continued to look at him.
"You like this body, Barbara!"
And then her strong, kick-ass partner was curled forward, hugging his knees, the words spilling out as Barbara worked to bridge the few feet of carpet that separated them.
"You like it and it's great for sweeps and for a normal family and for-- for--"
Finally close enough, she silenced him by bringing his chin up from his chest with her fingers. With her thumb, she tenderly stroked his lower lip.
"Hel, when have we ever done things the easy way?"
Helena almost laughed when he heard her. Then, he almost cried. Instead, he searched his partner's eyes, unable to believe what she was saying, what she was telling him.
And, because he couldn't just let her forget herself, he had to spell it out. He knew Barbara was a Very Brilliant Person, but sometimes she got so hung up on everyone else that she forgot herself.
"Baby," he pressed a kiss to her thumb. "You've never reacted like this. This body is made for you."
Okay, it sounded a little vain when he said it, but that didn't make it not true.
He knew what he knew.
But, when Babs answered him, Helena realized that he'd forgotten something: his partner was always one step ahead.
"We can take a mold, Hel."
Peering through his lashes, he saw green eyes twinkling impishly and one slender hand waving toward Katharine's bassinet.
"Clearly, you've demonstrated a facility with plaster of paris and latex."
The laughter didn't last long, but it was enough to let them both breathe a little.
At least it was until Barbara leaned close -- so close -- and Helena couldn't look away and couldn't make himself not hear what she was saying.
"What. Do. You. Want?"
It all came tumbling in on him then, and there was no way he could hide -- if he even had been hiding. Watching his fists clench in his lap, Helena ground out part of it.
"I want my body back."
Barbara wasn't surprised, although her heart stutter-stepped in reaction. However, when Helena looked up, his eyes open and beseeching, his voice only a raw whisper, she thought her heart simply broke.
"I want to be yours again."
Oh, god, what he was asking of her... It wasn't fair at all.
She worked her jaw, wishing for a way to reassure him, to give him what he needed. Ultimately, she recognized that words were futile for what they both needed.
Accordingly, Barbara squared her shoulders and nodded briskly. She spoke factually, needing them both to face it.
"It might not work, Hel."
From the outset, she'd been resigned to pursuing a solution although it had seemed like a long shot at best. Quite honestly, she'd been relieved when she'd seen Helena beginning to come to terms with the transformation.
Clearly, her reaction had been premature.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right, Barbara?"
For a few moments, Barbara focused on the dark brow that had risen almost playfully. When she lowered her gaze to his eyes, her voice was all business.
"It could turn out badly."
She waited as he turned the words around in his mind, his expressive features hiding little.
"You mean I could end up a frog or a glass figurine to go by the gargoyles on the balco--"
"You could die, Helena."
It was strange, she mused, how words that she'd wanted to shout and scream had come out so calmly. Helena remained equally calm, his blue eyes meeting hers unflinchingly.
The complete seriousness in her lover's gaze could not be doubted, nor could the pain in his eyes.
"I know, Barbara."
Barbara somehow managed to suck in a breath that did very little to bring oxygen to her starving heart. She thought to speak, to find some way to respond, then stopped herself.
What was there to say?
Nodding once, she began the process of reclaiming her chair so that she could move to the Delphi and begin to devise a way to save her partner... or to kill him.
"You're too kind, Alfred."
Barbara accepted the cup and saucer that her old friend extended, gratefully inhaling the distinctive scent of Earl Grey.
"I would have come to get this in just a minute," she tacked on.
Bruce's former butler, Barbara's long-time confidant, inclined his head a few degrees toward the Delphi.
"I'm sure that you would have, Miss Barbara; however, I am under the impression that you prefer your afternoon tea to be hot or, at least, warm."
It took the redhead a moment to grasp his meaning, then she pulled a face.
"Point," she laughed, willing to admit her own tendency to lose track of time -- and almost all else -- when she was engrossed.
Alfred didn't join in her laughter, but Barbara detected a twinkle in his eyes as she sipped from her cup. Oddly, the brew seemed bitter to her.
Perhaps it had over-steeped while she'd been caught up in her abstraction.
She settled the delicate china on the left side of her keyboard and then turned to face her companion.
"I hate this, Alfred."
It wasn't until the words were out that Barbara realized that they might be open to misinterpretation.
"Not the tea -- "
The gentle understanding in his eyes cut short the awkward explanation, and Barbara slumped against the back of her chair and cast her gaze skyward.
"I simply hate it," she added for emphasis, completely indifferent to any childish petulance that laced the words.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Alfred take a measured step closer. In front of her, balanced atop her primary monitor, she saw the Princess Fiona bobbin' head nodding in sympathetic agreement as well.
Naturally, that reminded her that there was yet another member in this little party, and Barbara dropped her chin to her chest and stared at the large white rat that was occupying the cage she'd placed on the lab counter to the side of the Delphi. When she'd made a trip in to school to collect him from the Biology Department this morning, she'd found the exercise completely unsettling: something about the Sunday morning stillness of the school had been too reminiscent of cloistered churches and silent tombs.
Nevertheless, the moment that she'd selected her quarry and pulled him from the communal cage, Barbara had found herself grinning when she'd realized that she could check two items from the list she'd started many days before: clearly, given the prominence of the male rat's secondary sex characteristics, she'd forgotten how easy it was to sex a rat.
Helena's assessment, when she'd returned to the Tower with her little potential test subject, had been less reserved: "Whoa. Look at the set on him!", and he'd promptly bestowed the moniker "Studs" on their temporary guest.
Katie's response had been even more enthusiastic: the infant had taken one look at the rodent and burst into bubbly giggles. Before Helena had gotten the girl down for her afternoon nap, he'd spent a full hour helping her gently touch Studs and guiding the rat as he'd tickled Katharine with his whiskers. Although Barbara could only guess what the combined attentions of the two had done for Studs' nerves, the volume of the combined purring that had issued from the couch during the introduction had certainly done little to help Barbara concentrate on her work.
The meaning behind it had been even more unsettling for her. Although she'd come to realize how much Helena loathed his new body, Barbara still found herself rattled that he was willing to risk... everything to undo the transformation.
The night before, cuddled beside him on the couch as he'd focused on a bit of cinematic dreck involving a clan of atomically mutated people in the New Mexico hills, Barbara had worked up her courage and broached the subject.
"What about Katie, Hel?"
He hadn't pretended not to understand, however the response that had come forth had done little for Barbara's state of mind.
"You won't let anything bad happen, Red."
After a long afternoon of weighing the odds and the options, of facing the reality that she would have to pull Dinah into the equation to give them a fighting chance, Barbara had snapped.
"That's not fair at all, Helena!"
Her lover's contrition had been immediate -- and genuine, and Barbara had instantly regretted her outburst.
"I'm sorry, Barbara. It wasn't."
He'd muted the television and turned to face her, forcing her to see his sincerity.
"It isn't fair, Red."
She'd cupped his face, the beard shadow raspy and oddly real against her palm.
"I understand how much you hate this, Hel," she'd conceded, "but are you certain that you're willing to..."
Lord, it had been so difficult to think the words, much less speak them.
"...to leave Katie?"
She'd not been able to factor herself into the equation, and Helena hadn't pushed. Rather, he'd pulled her hand into his, tracing the lines of her palm with his index finger.
"You remember a while back we had a talk about you maybe not trusting me not to mess up and get dead?"
Since Barbara knew that such thoughts -- if not actual conversations -- had scarcely been unusual over the course of their partnership, she'd blinked her puzzlement.
"It was around the time that The Joker, uh, died."
Helena's prompt had brought the entire conversation back to her. She had allowed her gaze to drift upward, her eyes to track to the gears of the big clock to her left, as her infallible memory had rewound the conversation they'd had a year before.
>>"Hel, in the life we lead, there's always a chance...a very good chance that something could go wrong. I've known that since before you went on the streets."<<
The conversation had been in response to her fears for Helena's safety after their terrifying ordeal at the hands of her old nemesis. On this night, facing another frightening possibility of something happening to her partner, Barbara had had no choice but to remember the reassurance that she'd offered then.
>>"That reality is something that I can handle because I trust your abilities, your skill."<<
And, if she'd recalled correctly, she'd also attributed some of her trust to their luck, their strange luck that threw all manner of terrors and challenges at them but which, ultimately, never failed them.
The night before, with her lover waiting patiently, she'd grasped his meaning, and she'd had to nod her acceptance that, every time they ran a sweep, they were relying on luck and skill and ability. Nevertheless, the remainder of that conversation from the year before hadn't escaped her.
>>"I think what truly terrifies me, Sweetheart, is that I don't trust myself to deal with what I'd do if something did happen."<<
It was, Barbara had to admit as she reached for her tea, simply something she couldn't afford to consider further.
For the umpteenth time since Helena had disappeared into the bedroom to nap on the big bed with Katharine, Barbara checked the small window that was open on a secondary monitor. The steadiness of the the blinking yellow light, the GPS locator indicating Mike Mandrill's location, was depressing in the extreme.
Why couldn't the man have fled the city after their meeting? Why couldn't he have discovered the tiny locator embedded in his palm and disposed of it? Why couldn't he have done something other than continuing to call the throwaway cell number that they'd given him, inquiring with witless regularity about when he might get his wand back?
How would she find the will to tell the man, the next time he called, that it would be soon? How would she find the strength to ask Dinah to go against everything that the young woman had been taught not to do? How would she find the courage to let Helena go?
"Does it ever get easier?"
Barbara was unaware that she'd murmured her question aloud until Alfred responded.
"The relationship between a mentor and a protege is a complex one, Miss Barbara."
Suspecting that her smile was distinctly on the wan side, the redhead simply lifted her eyebrows in supplication.
"Indeed," the elderly man continued. "I distinctly recall the first time that Master Bruce sent you out on your own in search of Catwoman."
Barbara wanted to protest that Selina had never posed quite the same threat: dangerous, yes, but she'd never been a killer. Alfred beat her to it.
"Or, more to the point perhaps, the first time he sent you out knowing that, despite your scruples, you might have to kill."
Nodding slowly, Barbara balanced the saucer in one hand and rotated the cup ninety degrees, positioning the delicate handle in the twelve o'clock position.
"Is that right, Alfred? Fair?"
She ran her index finger around the rim of the cup, then turned the handle to point to the six o'clock position.
"Is it right to ask Dinah to invade a man's mind and attempt to take control of his will?"
She saw him open his mouth and hastened to clarify the source of her dilemma.
"Is it fair to ask that of Dinah?"
Granted, as odious and horrid as Mike Mandrill was, she didn't like using any human in the manner that she was planning; however, her entire loyalty lay with Helena and Dinah.
"It is a difficult decision, Miss Barbara, but if I may ask...?"
Somehow, rather than irking her, Alfred's measured formality was soothing. Barbara set her tea next to her mouse pad and nodded her encouragement.
"In that case, Miss Barbara, I must ask you to consider whether it is fair to Miss Dinah not to ask."
The question was so utterly, practically, perfectly logical that Barbara could only stare at her old friend. He, not surprisingly, seemed to misread her expression.
"What would you do if you had the metal abilities of Miss Dinah? Or," he continued very precisely, "what would Master Helena do if his position were reversed with Miss Dinah?"
There was no way to misunderstand.
"I see your point, Alfred," she managed. "Thank you."
They owed it to Dinah to ask, to allow her to make her own choice.
Alfred's nod as he stepped forward to retrieve the barely touched tea was not unkind.
"If you'll excuse me, I'll check on dinner. I expect that Miss Dinah should be arriving soon."
Sunday was, of course, not Dinah's usual night to come for dinner and time with them; however, the teen had almost jumped at the offer when Barbara had called her that morning. And, when she did arrive, asking for her help turned out to be far less painful than Barbara had feared.
"Well, finally!" was the blonde's first response.
While Barbara gaped and Alfred looked just the tiniest bit smug and Helena held a serving spoon of asparagus suspended above his plate, Dinah's sunny smile simply illuminated the dining room.
"Of course I want to do anything that I can to help you. I mean, I've been waiting to see if you wanted m--ffff!"
The verbose agreement had been cut short by Helena's bounding around the table, seizing the young woman in an effusive hug, and planting an enthusiastic kiss on her lips.
Barbara didn't know which of the four of them was more surprised by the kiss; however, it seemed that Dinah recovered first.
So to speak.
"ACK! Yuck! Stubble!"
Some pointed wiping of hands across mouths commenced, and Barbara touched her napkin to her lips at the twin exclamations involving the words "gross" and something that sounded like "spit". Although it did not escape her notice that the focus of Dinah's dismay was the specific tactile content of the kiss, she pointedly opted not to focus on it.
Not so Helena.
"Hey, you liked it plenty when I kissed you when I didn't remember who I was last fall."
Dinah's squeal of protest, in combination with the rising pitch of her voice, completely embodied the concept of "affronted teen".
"No way, Hel! I was just trying to help you get your memory back."
Although Helena was already returning to his seat, he didn't miss a beat.
Of course, Barbara mused as she raised her water glass to her lips, her partner had never been slow on his feet.
"Yeah, by horrifying me into awareness."
"Oh, right, just make me want to help yo--"
Barbara decided that they'd had their fun.
She waited for the two to settle themselves, not fooled for a second by the abashed dip of a dark head, then she worked to gather the tattered threads of their conversation.
"Are you certain that you're willing to try this, Dinah?"
The alacrity of the young woman's nod was as gratifying as her earlier verbal response, however Barbara thought she detected a trace of hesitance.
"What is it, Honey?"
Aware that Helena had become very still beside her, Barbara placed her fork on the edge of her plate and waited patiently.
She didn't have to wait long.
"It's okay, really, Barbara."
The blonde pushed a lock of hair behind one ear, and Barbara acknowledged that, one day, she was simply going to have to tell Dinah how telling the gesture was.
"It's just, well -- "
Sky blue eyes met hers, wide and innocent.
"-- I've never really tried to control anyone."
Ready to accept the words at face value, Barbara detected a hint of pink in her current ward's cheeks.
Speaking of "tells".
The redhead cocked an eyebrow. Her lover wasn't quite as patient.
"Yeah, right, D. Spill."
The pink turned into a bright red.
"Well, there was this time in Junior High, and I thought I could get Davy Machiono to pick me for his volleyball team during gym, but I guess it didn't work or maybe I'm not powerfu--"
Barbara decided to put an end to Dinah's self doubt.
Not to mention the warbling meander down memory lane.
"I doubt that it will be a problem, Dinah. Don't forget that your skills have progressed quite a bit, and we'll be using sodium thiopental to make Mr. Mandrill more open to suggestion."
Silence ruled the room for a few beats, leading the redhead to suspect that her attempt at a pep talk had missed the mark. However, when Helena jumped in, her doubts vanished as the smile bloomed on Dinah's face.
"No sweat, D. You can practice on me."
Helena really didn't mind the slap of the leather against his knuckles. The sting from the blows that he was firing against the heavy bag gave him something concrete to focus on, something to concentrate on instead of his own nerves.
Bouncing on the balls of his feet, the brunette ducked his head and wiped the sweat from his forehead against his shoulder. He managed the movement so smoothly that he caught the bag with another flurry of punches when it swung back from arcing from his last volley. Before the bag could do a full spin, he danced to the other side and landed a noisy sidekick.
Didn't know where all the energy was coming from. After the workout he'd put in with Dinah after her classes this afternoon, he should have been collapsed on the couch or something. Hell, after all the practice he'd been letting the Kid do on controlling his mind for the last three days, he shouldn't have been quite so keyed up about the upcoming meeting with Mr. Cape either, but it didn't seem like anybody had bothered to tell his nerves that.
That was the day that Barbara had circled on the calendar, the day that Red had decided they should try to get his body back. She'd given a whole lot of rational, linear Babs-speak about why Friday was good -- beginning of a long weekend, semester exams finished, yadda yadda yadda -- but all Helena knew was that it was taking a long time to arrive.
Still, he and D had been practicing her stuff, and he figured that things were pretty much ironed out. At least, he thought he had everything pretty well laid out in his own head.
It was Wednesday, and he was ready, dammit.
Another flurry of blows didn't do much to settle his restless energy, but the sound of the door to the training room clicking open ended his virtual bloodbath.
"I'm sure that if you'll just give the bag a chance to catch its breath, Sweetie, it will tell you where you left the remote."
Helena allowed the bag to glance off his side and looked over his shoulder, needlessly confirming that it was Barbara coming in instead of Dinah.
He thought he was pretty glad about that.
When he saw that she was dressed in her workout gear, those baggy heather-grey sweats that Babs had worn forever and a form-fitting wife-beater tee, his heart rate picked up, and he decided that he was really glad.
Still, he was surprised he hadn't heard her come up from work.
"Is D still playing on the Delphi?"
With the ease of long practice, Barbara positioned her chair at the end of the parallel bars and pulled herself up. She gave a small straight-armed swing, then allowed herself to drop, catching her weight under her arms on the twin beams.
"With Katharine," she confirmed.
Grimacing against the strain, the redhead decided not to share her recurrent nightmare that -- given the amount of time she spent on someone's lap in front of the computer -- Katie would be hacking into the Delphi before she was toilet-trained.
Or weaned, for that matter.
Helena's soft snort of laughter carried easily through the room, and Barbara met his eyes as she levered herself up again to carry her weight on her hands and wrists. Pointedly, she refused to look down, to track the position of her legs and feet.
"You think the Peapod's ever going to learn to write, or is it gonna be all typing?"
Carefully, Barbara walked herself down the length of the bars, stopping when she reached the end. She took the opportunity to catch her breath before tackling the tricky turn for the trip back.
"By the time she's in kindergarten, Hel, all children will probably just be transmitting their thoughts to a central teaching computer."
Bracing herself, the redhead pulled her left hand from the bar, twisting her body and carrying her weight on one hand long enough to make the ninety degree turn to the right bar. She gave herself one slow exhalation, then repeated the move with her right hand, effectively completing her one-eighty.
A year before, she'd had little difficulty managing an occasional flip; however, she was still rebuilding some muscle after the pregnancy. Thus, despite the horrid awkwardness of her current technique, she forced herself to endure.
Attempting to overreach and show off and landing face-first on the mat was simply not on her list of things to do.
When she reached the starting end of the bars, Helena was waiting by her chair, one of the worn cotton towels that they kept in the training room draped around his neck. His fingers almost itched to sweep his partner into his arms and cover the last few feet for her, but he knew exactly what sort of reaction that would get him. Instead, he popped the cap on his water bottle, extending it in invitation when Barbara dropped into her chair.
The smile that he received when Barbara accepted the bottle stole his breath.
"God, you're gorgeous."
It was out before he thought better of it.
Of course, in the soft track pants that he was wearing, there really wasn't any way to hide his reaction.
Suspecting that the heat that touched her cheeks had little to do with her little exercise on the bars, Barbara took a long swallow from the water bottle. By the time she passed it back to her partner, she was able to manage a serene smile.
"I believe, Hel, that you just like to see me sweat."
To his credit, the brunette didn't even try to dodge the playful accusation.
"You betcha, Red."
His easy grin was hard to resist, and so when he turned to set the water bottle on the free weight bench, Barbara dropped her tone a half-octave.
"Why don't we get sweaty together, Hel?"
When he came back around, Barbara thought that his expression lay somewhere between endearingly hopeful and stereotypically leering.
Inclining her head toward the rack on the wall, Barbara reached under the arms of her chairs for the batons she kept concealed.
"Grab a staff, Helena."
A smile that was unequivocally predatory coursed across her partner's features. Noting that he was selecting a staff that was slightly heavier than his usual, Barbara tapped her batons together, weighing her options.
She certainly had no problem with using the long poles from time to time: indeed, she made a point of remaining conversant with the weapon. However, with her waist-height worldview, the length of the staff made sparring... unwieldy. Nevertheless, with Helena's increased height and upper body mass, in combination with a larger staff, perhaps a bit of reach could be beneficial.
With Helena returning, casually twirling his weapon in a figure eight, Barbara decided that it was too late to change her mind. The batons extended with twin flicks of her wrists, the ssshhhuuu-snick of each weapon locking into place a clear signal.
Without further word or gesture, they were on.
There were, of course, no rules to their sparring since, in a fight on the street, such courtesies were laughable.
Barbara saw Helena's first strike for what it was: a feint to get her to bring both of her batons into play. Almost casually, she batted away the end of his staff, keeping her right hand near the wheel of her chair. Accordingly, when the brunette followed through on the swing by jumping behind her, she was able to rotate smoothly and parry the swing that was directed toward her back.
The redhead showed her teeth, smiling sweetly.
"Are you slowing down, Hel?"
"Do you need me to?"
The question was punctuated by the clack of the wooden staff meeting the metal of her baton.
Barbara shook her head, pleased that her partner hadn't risen to the bait: in the early years of their training sessions, her young protege had been quick to fall for such tactics and to allow temper to rule, making it too easy for Barbara to score. Now, after years of practice and bruises and hard lessons, Helena was circling warily, clearly hunting for an opening. Warily following him with minute turns of her chair, Barbara considered going on the offensive, perhaps releasing one of her batons and then moving in to strike while he dodged the projectile.
A movement of Helena's staff, almost a blur, ended that idea.
The tip of the weapon was coming down, but Barbara calculated that it wasn't aimed at her. Rather, the staff seemed directed at the side of her chair... or the wheel? Clasping the rim of the wheel between her fingers and the baton that was still in her palm, the redhead followed the trajectory, unable to believe that Helena was trying an old, old tactic.
Frankly, she thought that he'd learned years ago not to go for the wheels of her chair: it was simply too easy for her to perform a quick pop-wheelie that captured the end of her partner's staff in the spokes and neatly wrested the weapon from Helena's hands.
Not to mention, as often as not, also delivering a blow that left her protege with a black eye or a knot to the jaw.
In the instant before she yanked back on the wheel, Barbara saw the brunette rise on the balls of his feet and the tactic clicked: Helena wasn't attacking directly; he was planting the end of his staff in the mat preparatory to vaulting over her and striking from the other side while she was distracted with her chair.
In a movement so smooth that she almost wondered if they had practiced and choreographed this play, Barbara released the rim, allowed her hand to drop, and used gravity's momentum to carry her baton against the end of the staff just as it came to rest on the mat. The timing was perfect, knocking Helena's makeshift vault pole askew in the instant that he began his jump.
As graceful as he was, he didn't fall. However, to Barbara's gratification, there was a flurry of scrabbling for footing that allowed her to tag him sharply on the hip with her other baton.
"Sunnuva -- "
"Sorry, Sweetie," she managed with a laugh.
When he joined in, she relaxed her guard for a bit, and he ruefully inspected the staff in his hands as if it were to blame for his bobble.
"Guess I'll keep my feet on the ground, huh?"
Beckoning with one baton in a "come hither" fashion, Barbara threw him a wink.
"Probably wise, Hel."
When he ducked his head, peering from under bangs that he'd never cut, Barbara had to work hard not to fall for the patented hangdog grin. Instead, she touched her baton to the tip of his staff and nodded briskly, and they fell into a less aggressive play, focusing on technique and finesse rather than brute force and surprise.
For a good eight minutes or more, only the clatter of their weapons and an occasional gulping breath filled the room. Helena kept his feet cemented to one spot on the mat, his eyes fixed on Barbara's, his staff almost moving by itself as he thrust and parried. However, probably inevitably, when his partner faltered for just a split second and he saw her pull in a deep breath, his focus wavered.
There was this bead of sweat making its way down her throat, down her chest, ready to hit the scooped neckline of her sleeveless tee. It wasn't like it was going to be alone there: there was this dark, wet patch where the sweat had pooled on the chest of her tee, and the thin fabric was plastered to her skin and...
Licking his lips, Helena barely blocked a healthy blow aimed at his knee.
He so needed to think about something other than sinking his face into Red's decolletage.
"I kissed Dinah."
Busy rolling his eyes at himself -- Why the fuck had he thought that would be a better thing to think about? -- Helena allowed Barbara to tag him on the wrist.
Obviously, Red wasn't getting distracted. Still, since he had brought it up, Helena figured that he should clear the air.
"No," he shook his head and countered her jab to his solar plexus by swinging his staff straight up. "I mean again."
Furrowing her brow, the redhead neatly blocked a sweep from the side.
"Right. Last fall and then again on Sund--"
"No, this afternoon."
Helena's almost casual upswing caught the baton in her right hand and flipped it out of her fingers. Without thought, Barbara managed to pluck the compact weapon from the air before it could spin away.
"Pardon me, Helena?"
She saw the overhead swing coming and raised the batons, crossing her wrists and catching the heavier weapon in the X formed by her rods. For two struggling breaths, she carried the strain in the tendons of her wrists, then she slid one baton along the length of the staff and rapped Helena sharply on the knuckles.
Sucking air through is teeth -- damn, that smarted -- Helena yanked his staff free and brought it to his chest.
"Uh, yeah, earlier today when we were doing the mind control practice, and she wanted to work on making me do something I wouldn't..."
For some reason, Helena thought his voice was getting tinier and tinier. Mercifully, Barbara spared him the humiliation of going totally falsetto.
"And having you kiss her is what she picked?"
Since the depth of color in her partner's face -- and neck -- and ears was answer enough, Barbara didn't wait for a response. Likewise, she chose not to mention that those sorts of... events seemed to occur when Helena wasn't herself.
Two more days, and they could put it all behind them.
The thought somehow managed to kickstart the flagging muscles in Barbara's arms and upper body, and she feinted for Helena's jaw. When he raised his staff, she reversed her swing and struck him sharply at the back of his knee.
The opening was brief, an almost undetectable quiver of his quadriceps, but Barbara knew her partner well enough to seize it. She pushed herself from her chair, locking her arms around his waist and allowing gravity to take them to the mat.
Holy horny toads.
Helena forced his muscles to relax as he fell, feeling the bite of his own staff scoring the edge of his mouth. Still, with his partner covering him from the waist down, worrying about a little scratch was the farthest thing from his mind.
"Do you surrender, Helena?"
The energy in the room shifted as Barbara pushed up on her arms and worked her way up his torso. Pinned, fixed by green eyes that seemed overbright, Helena swallowed roughly.
"Always to you, Barbara."
Red lashes drifted shut for a slow moment, and Barbara allowed the words to work through her. When she opened her eyes, her gaze fixed on the full lips below her and the smear of blood where the staff had nicked him. Slowly, she lowered herself a few inches and washed the crimson with her mouth.
The soft, helpless noise that he made was her undoing.
Without lifting her body, she slid down his torso a few inches and buried her face against his neck. The scent of his sweat was musky and sweet; the faint rasp of rough hair against her skin, a delicious tease.
Deliberately, she nibbled around the collar of his tee and worked her hand between them. When he bucked under her, she used the momentum to bring herself upright again. Balancing herself with one hand on his shoulder, she grasped the ribbed collar of his shirt with the other and twisted, pulling back.
The rip of the fabric, followed by the cool air of the room hitting his chest, set Helena on fire. The hunger he saw in Barbara's eyes just about caused him to explode.
"Bar -- "
He had to stop and remember to breathe before he caught her hand and brought it to his mouth.
"Barbara, I can stay this wa--"
Her hand flexed within his and a lightly calloused finger came to his lips silencing anything further.
Speechless, Barbara managed to shake her head in denial, unable to find a way to respond to the offer.
Dear god. Helena had let her know that he'd rather risk dying than remain in this body. How could she even consider what he was suggesting?
A caged bird might be safe, it might be a thing of beauty and enjoyment for its owner, but it couldn't truly soar.
"I want you back, Helena."
She felt more than saw the almost infinitesimal nod against her hand.
It was enough, and so Barbara inhaled slowly and deliberately worked to change the mood.
"However, right now, Sweetheart - "
She worked her hand free and rested it on his other shoulder, counterbalancing her weight.
"--at this instant, I need to be close to you."
Determined to wait as long as it took, Barbara only had to school herself to patience for a few seconds until his eyes found hers.
"To you, Helena."
The thrust of his hips under her suggested that the strategy had been effective. Helena's lazy smile added weight to that conclusion.
"Top or bottom, Ma'am?"
Sparing a moment to swat her younger partner for his choice of language, Barbara arched a brow.
It was all he needed.
Barbara was all he needed.
Coiling beneath her, Helena effortlessly shifted them, coming to rest above his lover. Not giving the redhead a chance to catch her breath, he caught her mouth with his while his hands worked restlessly against the barriers of her clothing.
"Hel -- yes."
He captured the rest of the breathy sigh before releasing her mouth and beginning a hot wet trail of kisses along her jaw and down her throat. Groaning softly into her neck, he felt his arousal pulse fervently in his groin as she raked her nails down his back.
"God, Baby, I'm not gonna last long if you keep that u--P."
With Barbara's hands pushing his track pants out of the way, Helena lowered his face to the crook of her neck, his lips and tongue working to consume her. A groan tore from his throat when her hand brushed him, setting his cock to twitching.
"Help me -- "
Barbara's voice was rough, hot breath panting against his chest.
"-- get my sweats off, Hel."
Somehow, he held it together long enough until he found himself holding himself above her. Barbara's eyes were so dark, fathomless blackness surrounded by the thinnest band of green. One hand resting lightly at the juncture of her thighs, he searched her eyes, her face, and found nothing but want.
Clever fingers covered him, and Helena's arms almost gave out. Gritting his teeth, he braced himself above his partner, moaning softly as she guided him to her.
She was so frikkin' wet and ready and he could feel the heat against him and --
Her hands already locked around the small of Helena's back, Barbara didn't allow him to pull away. Instead, she gulped oxygen and searched for sanity.
His eyes, still gold, were apologetic.
"Uh, just let me -- " A strong hand gestured toward the other end of the Tower, toward the bedroom Barbara assumed. "-- get some protection."
It took no effort at all to formulate a response.
"Forget them, Hel."
She almost smiled at the frank confusion in his eyes.
Instead, Barbara captured her lover's jaw between her hands and pulled him close. Just before their mouths met and words were lost, she managed to whisper a response.
"No condom this time."
This time at least, there would be no barriers.
Hey, little sister, what have you done?
Hey, little sister, who's the only one?
Hey, little sister, who's your superman?
Hey, little sister, who's the one you want?
Hey, little sister, shot gun!
"Tell me again why I agreed to this lame-assed plan, Helena?"
Helena briefly looked away from the road and flashed his companion a smile that he hoped was equally apologetic and charming. In what he recognized as a rare fit of self-restraint, he decided to keep to himself the observation about how Dinah's choir-girl persona just seemed to disappear when she wasn't around Barbara.
"We're only kicking things off a few hours early, Dinah."
Returning his attention to driving, the brunette ducked a little to peer under the visor and verify the street address on the building that he'd just cruised by. There was no way to miss the sarcasm dripping off Dinah's response.
"Right. Because we don't want Barbara with us."
"That's exactly right."
Honest to god, he thought that they'd covered this pretty clearly during the private planning sessions that he and Dinah had had during the week. After their first practice in getting Dinah to work on controlling his mind, there hadn't been much point in keeping the idea to himself anyway. It had only taken one more go-round of letting D make him quack like a duck and promise to loan her various items from his feminine wardrobe and... well, whatever before he'd pitched the idea to her.
The Kid had still been nervous -- scared stiff, more like -- about whether she'd be able to control someone other than Helena. He'd set her straight on that PDQ: "Hey, compared to Mandrill, Dinah, I'm a regular Robert Oppenheimer. You're not gonna have any trouble handling his brain."
Still, here they were four days later, and his partner was having a case of nerves. And -- he caught the way his companion and co-conspirator sort of sank back against the passenger side door -- he'd just fuckin' yelled at her.
Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
"Right," he repeated more gently. "In case something goes wrong."
It was true enough: Helena knew how frikkin' terrified Babs was about this whole operation. There wasn't any need for her to be present if something happened.
"Well, where's the rat then?"
He pulled into the alley behind the warehouse where Mike Mandrill had promised to meet them -- the little creep had been too damned eager when Helena had said they'd be bringing the wand -- and slowed to a crawl while he hunted for the most likely spot to park the van.
The irony that this was the same place where it had all started for him over a month before wasn't lost on him.
Man, he hated irony.
"I'm the rat, D."
Occupied with parallel parking between two dumpsters and running a checklist of all of the gear they were bringing and filtering out the blare of the radio, Helena admitted that he probably hadn't given a lot of thought to his answer. The indignant squeak from the passenger seat suggested that he needed to pay a little more attention to the conversation.
"We never talked about skipping the test run, Helena! You know how important Barbara said that it might be."
It was pure outraged teenager, and Helena waited until he put the vehicle in park before turning and facing his companion.
"She also said that we'd probably only have two tries, Dinah."
He saw the next question taking shape in her eyes before the words filled the hollow of the van.
"What's that got to do with anything?"
Hey, little sister, what have you done?
Hey, little sister, who's the only one?
I've been away for so long
I've been away for so long
I let you go for so long
Hunting for some way to explain, Helena puffed out his cheeks and exhaled. Then, he drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, keeping time with Billy Idol while the conversation that he'd had with Barbara late Sunday night rewound itself in his head.
Dinah and Alfred had left a couple of hours before, and he and Babs had been snuggled under the covers. She'd been pouring through a big, thick book about drugs and anesthetics he thought, and he'd been inspecting his nails.
"You know that the wand could heal your spine."
It had been kind of funny: he'd been sitting there, just sort of thinking about what shade -- or shades -- he was going to paint his nails first, and he'd heard the words come out of his mouth.
Neither of them had laughed.
He'd held his breath until Barbara had marked her place in the book and looked over. Her gaze had been level, but Helena had noticed that she hadn't had as much success with her voice.
"I know, Hel."
Three little words, and suddenly he'd had a pretty good hunch that the idea had already crossed her big brain one or two hundred times.
"Then, let's do it."
Those gorgeous green eyes had widened, the only hint that he might have hit a nerve, so he'd tried to press the advantage.
He'd waved at himself and ab-so-fucking-lutely put everything he had into sounding convincing.
"This, well, it works okay, and with you on your feet, we could be on the streets together. We'd be unbeatable."
It had been what he figured to be the best shot: appealing to her sense of duty and her weird love for this sick city. In return, she'd pursed her lips a little, and something inside of him had twitched at the thought that she might be considering it.
"Is that what you want, Helena?"
Her voice had been controlled, and he'd known.
"Do you want to use what might be our only shot so that I can --"
She hadn't finished the sentence. Helena had thought that, maybe, she hadn't been able.
There were so many ways to fill in the end, the meaning: "walk" didn't do it justice at all; "feel again", again, wasn't enough; "be free of the goddamned chair" was asking her to be selfish; even "be whole again" wasn't right either.
He'd heard his answer before he'd known he had it.
"Barbara, I want you to be able to be everything you want."
Even as he'd seen her shake her head, she'd reached for his hand and traced his knuckles with her thumb. For a few moments, he'd marveled at the fingers that were his, that were so similar to what his should be.
"And I, Sweetheart, don't want you to give up your one chance to be able to be the person you are."
Take me back home
There is nothin' fair in this world
There is nothin' safe in this world
And there's nothin' sure in this world
And there's nothin' pure in this world
Look for something left in this world
"Because, D," he turned enough to face her, "we might have two chances, and I'll be damned if I waste one on a rat."
He forced himself to wait while pale blue eyes searched his face. Finally, Dinah seemed to find whatever she was looking for and nodded slowly.
The smile that he managed felt pretty... tight, but his companion's answering grin made up for it. It followed him as he reached behind the front seats and snagged the gear bag and started pawing through it one more time.
The wand. Duh.
Sodium pentathol, just to make Mikey more cooperative.
Field medical bag, because what good superhero left home without one?
Some rope and handcuffs, to keep Mandrill under wraps while Helena was getting worked over.
Helena's hand froze for an instant over the last bundle in the bag: another set of ropes and padded cuffs. Those were for him: If the first transformation was typical, he wasn't so sure that he'd be able to keep himself still while Dinah dealt with Mandrill.
Sucking it up, he flipped the canvas flap back down on the bag and looked over to his partner.
"Okay, D, one more time: What's the drill?"
There was a flicker of impatience that crossed her features, then Helena got to feeling proud when the Kid pushed it away and nodded.
"We show Mr. Cape, uhm, Mr. Mandrill the wand and persuade him to let us restrain him."
The two shared a smirk over the teen's wording, then Dinah tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and picked up steam.
"Then you get him to do some transformations of inanimate objects while I try to, uh -- "
"Make like a wallflower," the brunette supplied.
This would give Dinah a chance to work on sneaking into his head and she could use the practice to see if she could block the effects of the wand with a TK bubble.
Just in case.
Pointedly, Helena chose not to think about just why they might need Dinah to throw a TK shield between the wand and his body.
Dinah's nodding got him back to the conversation.
"Right. And, then we get you in position for him and then ... "
Helena fashioned a smile of some sort.
"Yeah, D. Then, it's showtime."
The van seemed to get awfully quiet for a second or two before Billy's final chorus blasted through the speakers, shaking Helena from his inertia and undoubtedly cementing the lyrics that would be running through his head during the ordeal.
He just hoped that it wasn't the last song he ever heard.
Pushing that cheerful thought away, he hefted the gear bag and reached for the ignition key.
"C'mon, Dinah. Let's get this over with."
It's a nice day for a white wedding
It's a nice day to start again.
It's a nice day for a white wedding
It's a nice day to start again
"Oh, fuck, Barbara. I'm sorry."
Since words were utterly, completely, beyond her at the moment, the redhead raised one hand, bracketing her temples between her thumb and second finger.
Surely Helena couldn't believe that an apology would...
She caught herself and roughly shook her head as she lowered her hand.
What was done, was done.
"I didn't mean to ass it up so ba--"
She couldn't let her partner finish.
"Stop, Hel." She raised her hand again, this time palm out. "What's done is done."
Throughout her day at school, the final day of the semester and the school year, Barbara had battled a sense of unease. Through the classes and the hours, she'd been possessed by the same restless energy that had consumed her in the training room two days before -- on steroids.
It should have been easy enough to chalk it up to the high-octane energy of her students as they went through the motions of the day. It was logical enough to attribute it to the plans that she and Helena and Dinah had for the evening. It was even possible to consider that it stemmed from her own misgivings about returning Helena to a female form.
Yet... Yet, none of those very reasonable explanations had satisfied her.
After a day that had seemed interminable, after accepting textbook check-ins from class after class, after enjoying her usual noon visit from Helena and Katie, after submitting her final semester grades, Barbara had still not been at peace with her day. She had, bluntly, not felt ready for the ordeal that her partner -- her partners, she had to acknowledge, since Dinah was very much a factor -- and she were about to face.
In her years in the business, the cyber-vigilante had learned through hard experience that ignoring that sort of trepedation was unwise. Nevertheless, she'd made her way home, automatically stopping to top off the tank in the Hummer and unsuccessfully attempting to focus on the odd grinding in the transmission when she shifted gears in lieu of fretting over the indefinable.
The minute she'd pulled into the parking garage at the Tower, she'd known that her intuition had been dead on, and, not for the first time, she'd vowed not to ignore it in the future.
"I knew we shouldn't have -- "
Again, this time with a shake of her head, Barbara halted her partner's self-castigation.
"Ultimately, Hel, I gave the go-ahead."
She simply wouldn't have Helena or Dinah taking responsibility for a situation that she'd initially suggested, then planned. Granted, the fact that they'd set things off without her was...
Again, Barbara shook her head, then raised her hand to apply pressure to the bridge of her nose.
She didn't have the luxury to indulge in her own pique, and if she were honest with herself, her presence would have been no guarantee that things would have been different.
Even if her initial planning had been predicated on the assumption that she would be present and, hopefully, spare her partners this fallout.
The redhead inhaled slowly, putting behind her for the moment the adrenaline that had coursed through her when she'd pulled into the parking garage and realized that something was very, very wrong. The sight of the van parked haphazardly across two spaces, the driver's side door not fully latched, had been indication enough. When she'd found a few spatters of blood staining the inside of the elevator, cold terror had battled icy fury.
Alfred had been in the living area to greet her, Katie in his arms working at a bottle.
"They are in Miss Dinah's room," had been all she'd heard. The trip down the short hallway had seemed to take a lifetime, and then she'd pushed open the door and crossed the threshold on the whisper. In the darkness of the bedroom that they all still considered to be Dinah's despite the fact that the young woman had barely stayed there in two semesters, Barbara had found them huddled together on the twin bed.
It had taken her a moment to adjust to the darkness, to pick out and separate the entwined forms. At the same time that she'd realized that Helena had been curled protectively around Dinah, a dark head had risen and golden eyes had found hers.
"Can you help her?"
The hoarse whisper had galvanized her, and she'd moved next to the bed. Helena had untangled from around the blonde and slipped from the room, and Barbara had finally realized that Dinah was awake, tears casting silver trails down her cheeks. Until she'd touched the young woman's cheek gently and wide blue eyes had finally turned to her, she'd been less certain that Dinah was aware.
The sensation of her youngest partner flying into her arms, her shoulders shuddering under her hands, had made it clear that Dinah was all-too-aware.
"I didn't want-- I couldn't have you there, Barbara. To see."
Dropping her hand to the arm of her chair, Barbara flexed her fingers against the metal. Helena's admission was much like what Dinah had supplied before Barbara had finally left her room not too many minutes before, and truthfully, she understood why Helena hadn't wanted her present.
"What about Studs? Our test subject?"
Helena thought that Barbara's voice was deceptively level: that calm-before-all-hell-broke-loose tone she sometimes got. Clearly, the truth was the only way to go.
"I wanted to save a try."
Yeah. Like that was gonna happen.
Barbara weighed the words, taking in her partner's appearance. Helena was huddled on one end of the couch, hair still damp from the shower that Barbara had heard running while she'd been with Dinah, blue eyes wide and sorrowful. Sighing soundlessly, the redhead nodded.
It was said that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. The nobility of Helena's -- and Dinah's -- intentions seemed clear; what was uncertain was just how far down the road they'd progressed. Since Alfred had departed at some point during the time she'd been with Dinah and Katie was snoozing in her crib in the master bedroom, it was time to start connecting the points on the map.
"Tell me what happened, Hel."
The brunette plucked at the neck of the tee shirt that was still clinging to damp skin.
"Everything was pretty much according to plan, Barbara."
And, it had been: They'd run the scenario, getting Mikey to do his transformations on some coffee mugs and one of the doors in the warehouse. Dinah had stayed in the background, doing her thing, proving that she could throw a TK bubble around the wand and cut off its effects. So, feeling probably as scared as it was possible for a person to feel without actually wetting their pants, Helena had given the go-ahead.
"He started changing me back, and Dinah was in his head just sort of... monitoring him -- "
Even strapped into a chair and trying to figure out if the tingling ache in his feet as the wand did its thing was a good thing or not, Helena had seen Mandrill's expression change: something crafty and evil had shifted into his eyes. Dinah's eyes had gotten huge and scared.
"Well -- "
Unable to miss the rapid blinking of deep blue eyes, Barbara moved a bit closer and rested her hand on a shorts-clad thigh. She heard the brunette draw in a steadying breath.
"--That's when the battle really started, I guess."
Helena didn't think there was any reason to go into how it had felt, being strapped in and helpless while the body that was and wasn't right had been hit by the force of the wand. The tingling and aches and wrenching agony of the transformation and the terror over just what Mandrill might be trying for this time weren't... well, relevant.
It was more than enough to remember that it had hurt, but what had hurt worse was seeing Dinah's face during the silent battle of wills with Mike: her determination, her fear, her -- horror over what she was having to do to the guy.
"Dinah was having to fight hard to keep him from whatever it was he wanted to do to me," was what came out.
Barbara nodded once and straightened, fisting her hands in her lap. She could understand why her partner was omitting some of the details that Dinah had tearfully shared: That Mike had been shouting and begging for Dinah to stop, to get out of his head; that Helena had been writhing against the torment of limbs and flesh being rearranged and had still been begging Dinah not to stop; that, finally, Mandrill had stopped fighting, and blood had leaked from his nose and ears and the corners of his eyes.
It was blood that Dinah had tried to stop, blood that still stained her hands and the inside of the van and the elevator and, Barbara had to admit, Dinah's soul.
The situation had been unbearable for both of her charges. Barbara had suspected that it would be so; she'd hoped that by being present, she could have mitigated at least some of the difficulties that Dinah had been forced to face. While it was true that the young woman had practiced controlling Helena, invading a willing mind was a far cry from what she'd apparently had to do with Mandrill.
Musings about might making right were mercifully put on the back burner when Helena, ducking down to peer through dark lashes, spoke again.
"And, I'm not sorry that he went through that."
The words were enough by themselves; however, defiance colored every one of them.
"He deserved to feel what it's like to be -- "
When Helena visibly cast about for a suitable word to complete the thought, Barbara found herself leaning in in expectation, opening her mouth to fill in the blank.
"-- used," was the word that Helena found.
'Violated', Barbara's mind supplied at the same time.
"I just wish that the Kid hadn't been the one who had to..."
Neither of them finished that thought, and for a long ninety seconds only the ticking of the big clock filled the room. Eventually, Helena shifted on the couch and met Barbara's gaze full on.
"Well, when Mandrill collapsed, I cut myself loose and got Dinah back here."
Typically, her partner left out the portions that involved staying by Dinah's side and attempting to solace the young woman until Barbara had returned from work. Knowing that Helena had certainly had a great deal to face in addition to Dinah's trauma, she decided that it was time to focus on the other member of their family. Accordingly, she raised her hand and brought it to her lover's cheek.
To her surprise -- perhaps a trick of the light -- her hand appeared to be trembling.
To her further surprise, she found herself struck by the absence of stubble on Helena's jaw, the sensation of smooth, satin skin under her palm almost feeling abnormal.
Not for the first time, Barbara acknowledged that humans truly were infinitely adaptable, able to learn to accept or even embrace almost any reality.
"Helena, how are you doing?"
The brunette felt her stomach flip-flop, as much at the tender touch as the warm concern lacing Barbara's tone. She had no doubt that, later, there'd probably be more hell to pay about heading off without Babs, but -- for now -- her partner was letting her know what was really important.
"Uhm, okay, I guess."
She shrugged her shoulders, a little surprised to realize that, physically, it was true. Still, since she'd hadn't had the benefit of getting roughed up by a half-dozen goons this time before -- and during -- the transformation, she really didn't seem to hurt as much.
"A little stiff," she quirked her lips and waved at her upper body as Babs withdrew her hand. "Shedding all over the place."
Right on cue, those expressive red eyebrows arched, and Helena threw her partner a wink.
"I have to warn you, there's a lot of hair in the shower."
Barbara's smile was really... tight, but at least it was a smile.
"A bit of a clog, Hel?"
The brunette pulled a long face.
"Serious Liquid Plumber time, Red."
Barbara thought her laughter was a little high-pitched, verging on the jagged edge of tears. It was probably not surprising: since exiting the elevator two hours before, terror and horror and elation had all waged battle with profound sorrow and rage and gratitude. Heaven knew when the messy emotional din would sort itself out.
"Is D going to be okay?"
The hesitant question reminded Barbara that she had more important things to focus on than her own reactions.
Biting back any quick answers, any easy reassurances, the redhead considered the time that she'd spent with Dinah in the last few hours. It was difficult to distance herself from the power of the young woman's response to what she'd done -- what she'd been forced to do in order to protect and, ultimately, heal Helena; however, Barbara focused on what she and Dinah had discussed in the darkened bedroom: difficult choices and responsibility and sacrifice.
She squared her shoulders and managed a small smile.
"I believe she will be, Hel."
There were, simply put, some hard lessons that all of them had been forced to absorb in the process of growing up, and, more to the point, in growing up as the protectors of their city... and each other. As much as Barbara wished that she could shoulder the pain of some hard truths, she knew that her charges had to forge their own paths, stumbles and all.
She saw the unwillingness to accept her reassurance in expressive gamine features, and for one wild instant, she lost the threads of the conversation as she exulted over the return of those familiar features. Helena's halting words forced her to re-gather her focus.
"Maybe if we'd started with the rat and Dinah had had more time to get control over him?"
"I suspect," Barbara spoke slowly, working out the possibilities, "that in that case, we'd simply have a transgendered rat and that you would still be..."
Her throat felt thick, and so the redhead swallowed before she could finish.
"I don't think we'd have you back, Hel."
It was, Barbara recognized, very much what she'd ultimately said to Dinah: in the end, they did have their Helena back. Questions about ends-and-means notwithstanding, Dinah's own shock and guilt not to be dismissed, even whatever temporary psychological and possible physical damage that Mr. Cape might have suffered considered, they had accomplished their goal.
"Still, Barbara, I hate that I caused Dinah -- "
Barbara was having none of it.
"Ultimately, Hel," she fixed the younger woman with a long look, making certain that she had her partner's full attention. "It was my call."
Helena's nod was slow in coming, but it did finally come. Although Barbara knew that the fallout from this episode in their lives would be slow to settle, Helena's acceptance was, for now, enough.
Leaning in, she snagged both of her partner's hands and tugged. Instantly, the young woman was in her lap, seemingly determined to squeeze the air from her lungs.
Barbara didn't care a bit.
For minutes, she returned the embrace, still stunned by the different mass and shape of the person in her arms.
This was Helena. The person before had been Helena. The person before that had been Helena.
She loved them all.
Refusing to think further on metaphysical conundrums, she feathered her hands lightly across the deceptively delicate form in her lap, taking in the slenderness of Helena's shoulders, the missing bulk in her biceps, the subtle flare of her hips --
The cataloging came to an end when Helena shifted in her arms and warm breath tickled Barbara's ear.
"Relax, it's all here, Red. Everything's where it's supposed to be."
Barbara forgot to breathe at the words, holding herself fixed as her partner's head came to rest on her shoulder. Eventually, she forced herself to remember her thoughts from a moment before: whatever the fallout, for now, it was enough.
More than enough.
As Helena had just said, it was true: for now everything was where it was supposed to be.
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