DISCLAIMER: Birds of Prey and its characters are the property of Miller/Tobin Productions, Warner Brothers, DC comics etc. no infringement intended.
CHALLENGE: Submitted as part of the Cliché Challenge 2007.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
THANKS: To Ann for the beta.
Voices in the Night
The scent of burnt soldering iron released into the atmosphere and was merrily dispersed by a gentle exhale as Barbara inspected her final alteration to the motherboard. The communication system had been working perfectly for months, ever since her last rebuild following Dinah's little telekinetic mishap with the lightning conductor, but her acquisition of a prototype enhancement chip had peeked Barbara's interest, and as soon as sweeps ended for the night, she had indulged herself in a little extracurricular tinkering with the Delphi's systems.
Theoretically, the upgrade would allow her to eavesdrop on people's conversations via their phone - both cellular and cordless - without the need for the instrument in question to be switched on. Which meant it could, literally, give her access to hundreds of thousands of conversations a day, just within New Gotham alone, and break about every phone tapping law in existence; not that she hadn't violated her fair share over the years.
Excited at the prospect, Barbara inserted the board and began the start-up sequence for the new program, her fingers rapidly tapping away at the keys as she installed a myriad of passwords and other electronic locks to keep out unwanted guests. If the chip did work, and at the moment that was still a big 'if', she'd have to find a way to sabotage or discourage the inventor from properly distributing his invention before the 'bad guys' took full advantage of the possibilities.
Aware of Dinah's lurking presence somewhere in the Clocktower, Barbara jacked in the headphones before turning the device to active; the resulting static thundered in her ears until she managed to reduce the reception to a localised point, one she knew would not contain a single phone signal, before consulting the close circuit monitors she had littered around New Gotham to find the perfect test subject.
"...and two large fries."
"That'll be eight forty-seven."
"Babe, can you lend me a buck?"
Perfect reception, she'd even managed to discern the snort of derision coming from the guy's date. Of course, his phone had been active, so it wasn't a true test of the chip's capabilities, but zeroing in on someone with a dead phone was a little harder. She briefly wondered if the chip could be augmented to supply directional information for a tracking device before putting that idea on the back burner to concentrate on the current experiment.
There was one person she knew for certain would have her phone switched off, having been informed at some length about Helena's need to escape the 'constant fucking nagging in my ear'. It was an intrusion, of course, but if Helena really hadn't wanted her to know what she was doing, she'd have switched off her locator as well.
Feeding in Helena's location - an alleyway four blocks from the Clocktower - Barbara tuned in the audio.
"Why don't we go somewhere a little more comfortable?"
That was Helen's voice, Barbara would recognise the sultry Huntress' tones anywhere.
"And why would we want to do that?"
The second voice was unknown but definitely female; the intimacy of her tone left a vile taste in Barbara's mouth, but it was nothing compared to the effects a prolonged period of silence, broken only by the sound of heavy breathing, had on the redhead.
Barbara's hand hovered over the cut-off switch, but she couldn't quite bring herself to end the connection. There was a certain masochistic appeal in listening to Helena charm and seduce another woman; the pain slicing deeper with every overheard moan of appreciation for the ghostly attentions Barbara's memory happily supplied.
"Why don't we go to your place?"
The woman obviously didn't know Helena very well if she thought she'd get an invitation back to her apartment. Barbara knew for a fact, thanks to the sensors she'd insisted they install, that no-one besides Helena and, occasionally, herself had ever set foot inside the cramped little apartment. She didn't know why Helena was so protective of the space, considering she used it as little more than a flophouse, but she knew without a doubt that it was the one place they wouldn't be spending the night.
"Yours is closer."
The unmistakable sound of kissing mingled with the rustle of clothes and prompted an entirely unwelcome warmth to settle at the pit of Barbara's stomach; her overactive imagination providing far too detailed a speculation of exactly how Helena was passing the time than was good for her peace of mind. It wasn't so much the knowledge that Helena was seducing some mystery woman that affected Barbara, but how her traitorous mind insisted on replacing the image of the woman's soon to be ravished skin with her own that caused the distress.
"You don't know that..."
So, they were practically strangers; Barbara was oddly relieved. A fleeting encounter was a lot easier to discard than the sickening flirting she'd overheard months earlier between Helena and the cop; his name no longer mentioned, for fear of triggering Helena's wrath and a prolonged diatribe on the worthlessness of 'fucking men' - Barbara had never been quite sure if she meant men in general, or just those she chose to, well, fuck; although, perhaps her return to the feminine side of the street could be taken as a sign.
"...besides, my husband is probably home."
Barbara's drifting thoughts had almost caused her to miss that juicy little detail, but even if she had, Helena's "You're fucking married?" would have alerted her to the change in atmosphere. Her young protégé might have relocated to the wild side several years before, but somehow that hadn't precluded an almost puritanical approach to the sanctity of marriage; she'd thrown more than one man through a window for propositioning her while hiding his wedding band in his shirt pocket.
"What are you doing?"
The smile that erupted on Barbara's face would have shocked her in its intensity, but she was too busy listening to the sound of clothes being straightened to worry about the inappropriateness of her own relief.
The audio went quiet, prompting Barbara to check Helena's position on the monitor, the little red dot that signified the younger woman fleeing across the screen at an enviable speed. Right towards the Clocktower.
As if she'd been burnt, Barbara flung off the headphones and bunny-hopped her wheelchair backwards in her haste to put some distance between herself and her crime. Not that Helena would know what she'd been doing, the system looked exactly the same as it always did during one of Barbara's little tinkering sessions, but the redhead knew, and that was enough to set off her previously subsumed guilt.
"Don't tell me that thing bites now, too?"
"Hel!" The name came out more as a curse as Barbara tried valiantly to corral her rampaging heart and remove the 'I've just been caught' blush from her cheeks. "I thought you were going home?"
Helena's shrug lacked its usual insolent charm, and Barbara realised that the other woman was probably fighting an unhealthy case of frustration; pretty similar to Barbara's own after having listened in on the night's activities. She was just surprised that Helena hadn't gone on to one of her usual haunts to find someone else to ease away her pent up energy, rather than travel back to the Clocktower for an uncommunicative lurk.
"Is there something you need?"
There was a hard edge of sarcasm to Helena's voice as she said, "You have no idea."
Of course, Barbara knew exactly what she needed, but that was the one thing she could never offer. 'God,' she thought, her stomach churning, 'I hope she didn't come here looking for Dinah.'
"Were you looking for Dinah?"
"She's almost eighteen, that's hardly a child," Barbara corrected, even though she was hard pressed to think of the young blonde as anything other than a child herself. She was just grateful that Helena still felt the same, not that she'd ever divulge that particular piece of information to either of them. "So, are you here to see me?"
Helena's shrug was even less fluid than the one before. "Who says I'm here to see anyone?"
Barbara was too keyed up to play whipping-boy to one of Helena's moods, especially when it was the other woman's fault she felt so off-kilter. "What do you want, Helena?" she asked, the frosty tone prompting a raised brow from her friend.
"Who says I want anything?"
The urge to bend Helena over her knee and tan her backside vividly crossed Barbara's mind, but when it mingled with her earlier thoughts, it brought forth ideas she really didn't want to think about, causing her to snap at her friend. "I say!" She wheeled herself to within inches of Helena, the sudden fury taking them both by surprise. "Just because your latest little toy let you down, doesn't mean you can come in here and pull another of your brooding routines." She jerked the wheelchair forward. "I'm sick of it."
"Barbara?" The wheelchair's foot-plate was digging into Helena's skin, but she refused to squirm away from the onslaught and give Barbara an advantage. "What little toy?" she asked, her hands braced against the arms of Barbara's chair, effectively locking them in a fighting embrace. "What do you know?"
Barbara's eyes flickered towards the Delphi. "Nothing." Her fingers tightened around the wheelchair's controls. "Do what you like," she said, putting the chair into reverse. "I'm going to bed."
"Running away? How very bat of you." Scorn dripped from Helena's tongue and prompted a wince of shame from her partner. The line they worked so hard not to cross was looming before them like a chasm, waiting to devour their friendship once and for all. "But then, you were always more like him than I was."
"Don't what? Don't tell the truth? Don't feel betrayed?"
"I never betrayed you!" Barbara never for a moment thought of her earlier eavesdropping as a betrayal, but it was only through a fortified layer of justification that she was able to deny the betrayal in some of her other deeds. "We couldn't go on..." Her refusal to talk about that particular aspect of their past stilled her words, just as it always did, but somehow she just couldn't let it go. "We made the right decision."
"You made it, you mean."
It had been the right thing to do, Barbara was certain. They couldn't have continued the way they'd been going; it was too risky, too disruptive. She had seen the changes in Helena; the carelessness that crept in when her mind began to wander the imaginary pathways of a future that was suddenly anything but bleak. It was too dangerous. The hope and, dare she say it, love would have been their undoing.
"Fine," she said, banishing the memory of the mystery woman's voice; the hundreds of voices that would come after hers, each ravenous for the one thing she would not allow herself to share; Helena's love. "I made the decision." She backed away. "And it was the right one."
Turning her chair, she fought down her body's rising need, along with the tears that she'd always refused to let fall. She couldn't afford to be that weak. Their lives were about more than their own happiness, and even if Helena fought against that truth, Barbara had long since learnt to treasure it. So, there would be no more eavesdropping on what she could no longer have, and no more yearning for what might have been. The past was dead, and it would not be revived.
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