She wasn't the best student in class, and certainly wasn't the hardest working, or the most attentive. She could be obnoxious, smart mouthed, incredibly sarcastic, and a serious pain in the ass. Which should have left Barbara Gordon wondering why she cared.
Helena Kyle was trouble on two feet; sixteen, smart-mouthed, and probably already smoking, drinking, doing god only knew what other mind-altering substances, not to mention a wide array of boys and girls alike. She was also smart as hell when she deigned to actually pay attention, offering opinions and asking questions that were both thoughtful and unique. In the right mood, she was more than able to argue the finer points of assorted literary philosophies with intelligence and insight to the point that Barbara often found herself in deep discussion with the girl, while the rest of the class was left completely behind. That mind fascinated Barbara and she hated the notion that it might be wasted and slide over into the meaningless sort of existence she could easily see the defiant teen heading for. And things had been getting worse lately, the sarcasm darker, and the edge of anger more finely honed. Barbara was worried. She'd seen it during her own high school years; tough kids getting close to the end of high school, and starting to implode with the fear of what would happen once it was over and they were out there on their own without someone else planning their lives out.
The kid was scared to death and Barbara was scared for her.
Besides, somewhere under the hard-shelled exterior, she was basically a decent kid. Barbara hadn't been sure until she'd accidentally seen her defending Joey Pallas, a quiet, bookish kid who usually got teased unmercifully by the jocks because he was smart, acne-ridden, and the hormones hadn't yet kicked in to give him height, shoulders, or a voice in the lower octaves. Helena had put herself between Joey and Tom Martin, a football linebacker half again her height and better than twice her weight, then gotten pugnaciously in his face and insulted him up one side and down the other until Barbara had been ready to step in, afraid the bigger boy might just lash out physically. She couldn't exactly go all Batgirl on him, but she knew a few more subtle tricks that would have stopped the boy cold. She hadn't needed to step in though. Helena had backed the boy down through sheer force of will, glaring at him until he sneered something about not wasting his time, and slunk off with his friends.
Which had only sealed in the fact Barbara liked the kid in spite of her more annoying traits. The badass thing was mostly an act, but she was afraid that if someone didn't lend a hand, it would eventually become real. Unfortunately, the rest of the teachers didn't think much of Helena, and one or two even seemed to enjoy going out of their ways to make things difficult. None of them were likely to reach out, and god knew, someone needed to.
She supposed the older teachers would have rolled their eyes and attributed her desire to do something to the eagerness of a first year teacher. They did that a lot when she got into one of her moods to try and make things better to the point there were days she seriously considered accepting Bruce's offer to go into the R&D section in his computer company. Except she really, truly loved the kids. The administration and the other teachers made her nuts, but the kids made it all worthwhile.
"Hey, Helena," she called out a moment after the bell rang. "Could you stay for a minute?"
The girl looked up from her backpack, a frown touching gamine features as students streamed out of the room. Since this was last period, she was clearly in a hurry to be anywhere but in school. Besides, it was never good news when she got called to stay after class. She offered a sullen look and shrugged. "Yeah, what?" she demanded shortly, her expression borderline hostile.
Barbara levered herself up so she was sitting on the front of her desk, hands braced on the steel surface next to her hips, legs crossed loosely at the ankles. "Relax," she said and offered a comfortable smile. "I just wanted to talk to you for a moment."
"Yeah?" the girl said cautiously. "What about?"
The last of the other students streamed out, leaving them alone, and the door slid shut, pushed closed by the spring system.
"It's getting toward the end of junior year ... next year things are likely to get pretty crazy. I was wondering if you've got any plans."
"Plans?" the teenager repeated as though Barbara was speaking Greek.
"Yeah ... If you want to go college, it works best if you do some extra studying and hit the SATs early, so you can try for early admissions--"
"College?" Helena said doubtfully when she realized what her teacher was talking about. "Me?" She smirked and shook her head in disbelief. Most of her teachers were already measuring her for prison blues; all too apropos, all things considered.
"College ... you," Barbara confirmed and offered another encouraging smile. "You're more than smart enough, and in spite of your best efforts, your grades are actually pretty good ... and I think you might be surprised to find you actually enjoy it--"
"No thanks," Helena cut in and slung her backpack over one shoulder, her expression closing down even farther. "I'm not really the school type."
Barbara tipped her head to one side as she considered the teenager, well used to dealing with resentful teenagers. Biologically, she knew it was mostly just hormones. Practically speaking, her father had a point when he joked that teenagers should just be left up the trees to swing by their tails."Y'know college isn't like high school--"
"Yeah ... well, it doesn't really matter," the girl cut her off, the corner of her mouth lifting in a hint of a sneer. "I'm sort of destined for the family business."
She didn't sound especially thrilled by the idea, Barbara noted. "Doesn't mean you can't get an education--" she began but Helena cut her off again.
"Look, I don't really have time for this," the girl said impatiently. She pulled up short when she crossed in front of her teacher's desk on her way to leaving and a warm hand shot out, catching her by the forearm.
"If it's about money, I can help you get a scholarship," Barbara offered. "There are a lot of them out there." If nothing else, she knew she could talk Bruce into coming up with the cash. Hell, he'd never even notice the money, and his accountants would treat it like a tax writeoff.
"It's not the money," the girl said instantly and shook her head, her expression unreadable, though Barbara had the oddest sense that something bothering her deeply ... something she almost seemed to want to share. "It's just not an option," she muttered and started to draw back. She was pulled up short again when Barbara tightened her hold fractionally and slid off the desk to her feet.
There was something going on behind those eyes, Barbara realized in a flash, something more than typical teenage worries. For just a moment, she'd caught a glimpse of the weight of the world resting shoulders that were slender to the point of delicacy. "Y'know, sometimes things can seem pretty overwhelming in this life," she murmured, certain something was very wrong, and wanting to help, "but I've found that if you ask for a little help, they can usually be dealt with."
Overbright blue eyes swung back around, gleaming oddly, and reminding Barbara of someone, though she wasn't sure who. "You wanna help me?" Helena growled as though she'd been insulted somehow while a cold wall came up between them. Her lips twisted in a dismissive sneer.
"If I can," the teacher said, ignoring the anger in favor of offering a gently encouraging smile that she hoped would break through the dark hostility.
Again, Barbara thought she caught a glimpse of temptation to open up, but it disappeared behind an angry, resentful barrier. "Well, you can't," the teen snapped and started to pull away again only to be stopped by the hand on her arm.
"Why don't you try me," Barbara murmured, her voice gentle, though her grip had gotten steadily firmer. Something was definitely going on here, and she'd gone from wanting to help the kid get into college to being afraid that there was a serious problem Oh hell, who was she kidding? She'd been afraid of that from the first. The college thing was just a way of finding a reason to talk.
Helena whipped back around, her eyes narrowing faintly, lips compressing into a thin line. Her gaze dropped to the hand on her arm and for the briefest second, Barbara had the odd sensation that her eyes glittered with feral lights. "I'd love to," the teen drawled in a complete change of tactics as she stepped back toward her teacher. Her body language turning aggressive, she invaded Barbara's space, lips twisting into a darkly sensual smile. "You think you're up to it? I can be pretty demanding."
Startled, the redhead stepped back a pace only to come up against her desk as the teenager drew so close they were toe to toe. The last thing she'd expected, or been prepared to deal with, was the raw, sexually charged look that dragged over her from head to toe. It suddenly struck her that there weren't that many years between them, and Helena was far from a child---might even be more experienced than her teacher, given that Barbara had dedicated a lot more hours to studying and patrolling than partying and bar-hopping during her high school and college years. "Helena," she snapped, her tone intended to scare the girl back and introduce a little sanity into the situation. Except that plan backfired as blue eyes flashed angrily and Helena pressed forward even harder as she lifted a hand to Barbara's cheek. The teacher twitched her head back, instantly breaking the tenuous contact, her expression hardening. "Helena, stop it!" She lifted a hand to the teenager's chest, pushing solidly, only to find it was like shoving a brick wall.
"No," the teenager growled, leaned even closer, lips twisted in a sneer. She reached around Barbara, bracing one hand on the edge of the desk and pinning the woman in place as she leaned close, their bodies not quite touching, but so near Barbara could feel the heat of the girl's presence from head to toe. "You must know what all the guys in class want." That raking gaze slid over Barbara again, her smile wolfish. "Is it any wonder a few of us girls wouldn't mind a taste too?"
"Helena," the redhead hissed in warning. "Don't do this." So far, nothing had happened that couldn't be written off as an angry teenager getting a little out of control, but that could quickly change. She didn't want to have to make this official, but if it went too far, she wouldn't have a choice. And the damage if that happened, could be permanent.
"C'mon, Ms. Gordon ... you wanted to help ... why don't you start by telling me if you like a little grrl-power--"
"That's none of your business--" the teacher bit out, but Helena cut her off.
"You wanted to stick your nose in my business ... why don't we start with yours instead," the teenager snarled, leaning even harder, body scraping up against the woman's despite Barbara's best efforts.
Barbara braced herself more firmly, muscles well used to combat pulling taut as she pushed to absolutely no effect. "Stop it," she hissed only to find her wrist grabbed, twisted, and forced down with bruising strength.
"Or maybe you like a little rough play," the girl taunted, her grip too strong for Barbara to wrench her wrist free.
Barbara froze, sheer fury in her eyes as she recognized the threat. So far, she'd held back, but that wasn't going to last much longer. Okay, so the kid was strong, but she knew plenty of ways to neutralize raw strength without doing too much damage. "Back ... off ... now," she snarled, her voice as hard as she could make it. "Before somebody gets hurt."
They were standing on a very high precipice, teetering on the edge, with rocks tumbling at an ever increasing rate. Very soon, the earth beneath their very feet would be gone if something didn't happen.
Move forward and leap into the abyss, destroying both of them, or pull back? Helena searched green eyes, and abruptly retreated a little. "You first," she hissed, the sexually threatening air dissipating, though the anger remained as she regained a measure of control. She opened her fingers, releasing Barbara's wrist and the redhead yanked it back, massaging the bruised joint slowly as they continued to glare at one another.
"I was just trying to help," Barbara whispered, sensing she'd unintentionally made things worse in triggering the girl's anger so violently. That hadn't been her aim at all.
"Yeah, well, don't," Helena muttered as she stepped back a pace, her posture suddenly deflating as though someone had let the air out. Where moments before, she'd seemed hard and threatening, suddenly she appeared very young and frightened. "There's nothing you can do anyway."
She turned to flee, and Barbara didn't know what demon drove her to catch the girl's arm. This time it took almost no pressure to hold her in place, and she remained where she was even when Barbara let go, slender shoulders trembling gently. The teacher tore a page off her desk calender and quickly jotted something down and pressing it into the girl's stiff hand.
"That's my home number," Barbara said softly without trying to force the teen to turn back. "Use it if you need it."
Helena looked back, her expression confused. "I just ... how can you ... I don't understand."
Barbara , but stayed well back, careful not to allow any room for misinterpretation. "Something's wrong, Helena ... I don't know what, but it's obvious you're scared. Just trust me and I'll do anything I can to help."
The girl peered down at the number for a moment, then shoved it into her front pocket. She drew breath, seemed about to say one thing only to run out of words. Finally, she just muttered, "I'm sorry ... I was just...." She trailed off and shook her head. "I wouldn't have ... done anything...."
"I know," Barbara lied, nowhere near as certain as she would have preferred to be. There'd been something dark and hellish in the teenager's eyes for a moment. "We all act like jerks now and then. I'm not going to say it's okay ... but I don't think it's who you are."
Helena looked down, eyes firmly on the floor, looking like she was near tears. "I'm sorry," she said again.
"Call me if you need help," Barbara reiterated, uncertain whether or not to press for more information.
The girl nodded, then finally turned on her heel and slipped out, leaving Barbara staring after her for a long time. She shook her head, trying to figure out what was so familiar about her. She was still leaning against her desk staring idly into space when her cell phone rang. She noted the number on the caller ID and sighed softly. Looked like more trouble was on its way.
* * * * * *
Helena found her mother on the balcony attached to her second floor sitting room, staring out at the sunset as it silhouetted downtown New Gotham, her expression worried, her left forearm still laced into a tight canvas brace that stretched from her knuckles to just below her elbow---a leftover from a recent fight that had gone against her. She glanced back, offering a smile that never quite reached her eyes as her daughter joined her. "How'd school go?"
Helena shrugged, not meeting her mother's eyes and stepped forward to stare out at the city. "Same as always," she muttered with a dismissive shrug.
Blue eyes sharpened, picking up on the mixed signals from her daughter. Selina Kyle's lips pursed. Certain Helena was hiding something from her, she gently pressed, "You sure?"
Helena flashed a quick glance at her mother, taking in her pale beauty and seeming delicacy. Normally light-hearted, and almost childlike, her eyes had taken on a shadowed quality that frightened her daughter. She'd had that look a lot lately, the Joker's efforts to take over the city worrying her more than one might have predicted given her chosen calling as a thief. A blonde brow rose faintly, the look in her eyes turning knowing, leaving Helena to wonder if maybe Ms. Gordon had called and filled her in on the confrontation after class. She didn't think the teacher would do that, but then again, if she did, it was the sort of thing that would infuriate her mom. Selina Kyle might be a thief, but she had her limits, and one of her firm rules was that she never turned on someone who was truly trying to help. A teacher trying to get her daughter into college would be so off limits it wasn't even funny. Added to that, one of the few things guaranteed to set her off was the notion that Helena had used her powers against an innocent bystander without the ability to protect themselves. She could lie, cheat, or steal to her heart's content, and Selina would only grin and critique her technique, but turn her physical strength on someone who didn't deserve it, and she would get the disappointed look and long lecture that most parents would have been giving her on a daily---perhaps even hourly---basis.
For her part, Selina Kyle was content to simply wait, skilled enough at reading her daughter's moods to know something was going on behind intelligent, blue eyes.
It was the knowing stare that did Helena in. She'd never been able to hold up under that look for long. She could lock out or scare off the rest of the world, but her mother had never been overly impressed by her efforts. "It was nothing," she said at last, "just a stupid fight with a teacher."
The dark blonde brow climbed a little higher as Selina continued to wait, certain there was more to the story, her only question a single word, "Who?"
A frown touched her mother's brow. "I thought you liked her." Helena actually had the odd kind word to say about the young teacher, and that was rare. Generally her opinion of her teachers was somewhere below rock bottom and several miles below that. Mind you, having briefly seen the striking young redhead when she was there to speak with the principal about another of Helena's run-ins with her trig teacher, she had to wonder how just much was intellectual fascination and how much originated a bit farther south. Well aware that her daughter fancied girls as much as---and possibly more than---boys, she'd accepted that tendency with the same equanimity she took toward the rest of her personality traits. It was just a part of who Helena was, and certainly nowhere near as worrisome as some of her other tics.
"I do ... most of the time," Helena muttered, a flush sliding over her cheeks as she remembered just how thoroughly she'd lost control of herself. God, she'd wanted to push the other woman down and take until she couldn't take any more. She'd fooled around enough with Janey Colson to have a pretty good idea what she was doing, and she'd been ready to learn anything she didn't know by doing. Only now Ms. Gordon probably hated her guts and thought she was some kind of pervert---maybe she even was. "She just ... she got all pushy ... and started asking questions."
"Like what?" Selina pressed gently, unwilling to be put off with such a vague answer.
"Nothing," Helena said too quickly, then continued in an effort to put her mother off. "It was none of her business anyway."
"Given that you're my daughter, I'd say it's my business," Selina said, her voice just hard enough to let Helena know she was serious this time. "So, I suggest you tell me what happened ... now."
"It wasn't that big a deal," Helena tried again to put her mother off, only Selina was smart enough to know that her daughter's resistance to telling the truth meant it was probably pretty bad.
"Try again," the blonde said very softly, her tone all the more serious for its lack of volume.
Helena swallowed hard, not so much afraid of her mother's wrath as too ashamed to admit the truth. It was so damned hard to disappoint her mother that she hated doing so that much more.
A tight band of worry formed around Selina's chest as she saw her daughter's response. Sexually attracted to the woman, angry, and already badly stressed, she was terrified the girl had done something truly stupid. "Helena, no matter what happened, I love you ... but I need to know."
"She was asking me about next year ... taking the SATs for college and stuff...."
Selina frowned, confused by the anger and resentment in her daughter's voice. "And?" she prompted when the teenager didn't continue.
"And it's none of her business what I do."
"She was asking if you've got plans for college, and that pissed you off?" Selina clarified, faintly bewildered by her daughter's anger. "The last time I checked, I think that's her job."
"Yeah, well, it's not like it's much of an option," the girl bit out and looked away, staring out at the city with furious intensity.
"Of course it's an option," Selina disagreed. "You're smart enough and--"
Helena shook her head wildly. "You need me guarding your back--"
"I can take care of myself quite nicely," her mother disagreed, her voice hardening. She saw Helena draw breath to argue, and continued firmly. "That's not your job."
"With everything that's going on right now ... the Joker--"
"I repeat, I can look after myself." Selina had never lied to her daughter about how she made her living, but she had also been careful to always keep the girl clear of her chosen profession. Helena was getting old enough to realize what that career choice meant and worry, but Selina had no intention of allowing her into the game. She also had no intention of being put off. "Now, what happened?"
The girl looked away, her expression raw with shame. "I just ... I lost my temper a little...."
The band around Selina's chest tightened a notch. Helena wasn't like other kids when she lost her temper, that wild animal part of her wouldn't allow her to be. "Did you hurt her?" she asked on a note of dread. Unfortunately, Helena had inherited the worst aspects of both her mother's and her father's tempers.
A flinch rattled the teen's delicate frame, but she shook her head. "No ... just crowded her a little ... maybe bruised her wrist..." she added when her mother didn't instantly respond. "...made a couple of comments...."
"I want to know exactly what was said," Selina said after a beat. "All of it ... and I mean all of it."
Helena looked up, gnawing on her lower lip. Her mother almost never lost her temper, especially not over the stuff that most of her friends got in trouble for. She could sneak into the movies, steal, lie about her homework, party, stay out late, and pretty much do anything that didn't hurt herself or anybody else with no fear of getting in trouble, but she'd pushed it several notches too far this time.
"Now," Selina insisted.
Selina Kyle seldom lowered the boom on her daughter, but Helena knew better than to defy her mother when she got that tone She swallowed hard, eyes downcast, then quietly related the entire sorry mess, not daring to look up the whole time. When she was done, her mother held out one hand.
"The number," Selina requested quietly, and Helena handed the scrap of paper over. Her mother glanced at it for a long moment, her expression unreadable. "You're lucky she didn't call the cops," she said very softly.
Helena nodded, still not looking up.
"Very lucky," Selina added, her voice dropping low, "since I doubt there's a teacher in the place who wouldn't have cheered her if she had." She was under no illusions about her daughter's popularity with her teachers. She was too much like mother and father both to be very popular with any teacher who didn't love a little insanity in their lives---which left most of them out of the equation. "Instead the woman gives you her home number and tells you to call if you need help." She sighed softly. "And this is after you acted like a jackass when she honestly tried to hold out a hand to help you." Selina shook her head, disgusted with the whole mess. "I don't know whether to give this back to you or not," she admitted.
Helena felt the anger surge in response to the threat. The number was hers. Her mother had no right to keep it. "She gave it to me," she snarled, aware of her mother's startled expression when she looked up, her eyes glossing gold, pupils shifting into a vertical slash. "Now give it back."
Selina Kyle was probably one of the few people alive not to flinch in the face of that angry, threatening glare. She simply stared at her daughter. "I need to know you're not going to misuse this in any way ... that she's safe." She didn't want to think Helena could do something like that, but the hormones were boiling, and she was stressed, angry, and on the edge. She had no intention of allowing a young woman who'd done nothing except try and help her daughter wind up on the receiving end of that dangerous mix of emotions. Not for her sake, and not for Helena's.
"I wouldn't hurt her," Helena snapped instantly, glitter-gold eyes blazing, something resentful, almost possessive, in her expression.
Selena debated for a long moment. "You already did," she pointed out quietly when she finally spoke.
Helena glanced away, guilt burning in her eyes, teeth grinding. "It won't happen again," she growled and didn't retract her extended hand. "But it's mine."
Doubting her decision even as she did so, Selina handed it back after a long moment. "Don't make me regret this," she said quietly as Helena flushed deeply and shoved it back into her front pocket.
The girl looked away for a moment, and Selina was relieved to see her eyes shaded in their normal blue when she looked back. "I won't," she promised, the regret obvious in her expression. "I didn't mean to ... scare her ... or hurt her, I just--"
"You wanted her," Selina said softly, facing reality head on. Anger and hormones had gotten out of control, and Helena need to face that fact.
"I just--" Helena started to deny the charge.
"Don't," her mother snapped, unwilling to accept any lies. She drew a breath and ran a hand over her hair. "You were angry and you used it as an excuse to try and take something you had no right to."
Gripping the balcony rail with white knuckled strength, Helena glared out at the surrounding city. "Aren't we supposed to be thieves?" she muttered defensively.
Selina stiffened in response to that suggestion and shook her head. "Not that kind," she denied, her voice serious and angry. "You can steal things all you want, Helena ... I'm in no position to tell you not to ... but you can't steal people--"
"But you could," Selina's voice was hard and angry enough to make the teenager draw into herself. "You could hurt a woman you genuinely like ... one who's tried to help you." She curved a hand to her daughter's cheek, drawing her head back around when she would have looked away. She softened her tone, wanting Helena to understand and think past the teen angst driving her so hard. "I don't want you to have to live with the guilt that comes when you make a mistake like that ... and, as your mother, I sure as hell don't want someone who cares about you hurt." She knew her daughter well enough to be comfortably certain that would destroy her. Much like her mother, she had a dark side, one she hadn't yet learned to control reliably, but underneath the edge of teenage angst, was a gentleness and decency that often left her at war with herself. "Listen to me," she said gently, speaking to Helena the way she had when the girl was a child and first had to learn some hard lessons about how much stronger she was than her classmates, "You've got hormones rushing and a bad crush...."
Helena tried to look away, but her mother wouldn't allow her to, the matter at hand too important for her to let it drop in deference to her daughter's embarrassment.
"...but what you want, you can't have this time. She's an adult ... and you're still a kid. If she's a decent human being she'll steer clear ... but if she were to pursue you in any way, I would personally beat her within an inch of her life, then make sure she went to prison for a very long time." She wanted to make certain Helena understood the stakes. She wasn't kidding this time. She didn't particularly think this Ms. Gordon had any intentions along those lines, but her daughter was smart and beautiful by any measure of such things, and when she put her mind to it, she could be very charming ... also much like her mother. She didn't know many people who could remain completely distant if that intense sexuality was turned their way ... no matter how good their intentions.
"She's not that much older," the girl denied hotly, unwilling to give up her fantasies so easily.
"Old enough," Selina said firmly. "You're too young ... and nowhere near ready. Understood?"
A muscle flexed along the line of the teenager's jaw, but she had no logical argument for her mother's claim. It was hard to argue when she knew her mom was absolutely right. Besides, it wasn't like Ms. Gordon had leapt into her arms and begged for more ... and she wasn't interested in hurting her, despite what had happened when she briefly lost control. Slender shoulders sagged in defeat. "Understood."
Several minutes of total silence followed as mother and daughter both sank into their own thoughts.
Finally, Helena looked back over at her mother, attempting to bring things back to some level of normalcy as she quietly asked, "How's your arm?"
Selina shrugged, glancing down at the tightly bound injury. She flexed the fingers, wincing at the runners of pain that slid up her forearm. "It's doing better. Be just fine in a few more days."
"Meanwhile Falcone is waiting for delivery," Helena muttered worriedly. "What if he thinks you're not going to and decides to sell you out to the Joker?"
"You let me worry about that," Selina said softly, though her eyes were worried. The Joker was solidifying his hold on the meta population, criminal and otherwise of New Gotham, and in defying him, she'd made herself a target. The fact that her affair with Batman was a not too carefully hidden secret had very likely also made its way to the madman's ears. She glanced at her daughter. She'd managed to shield her so far, but she was terrified things were progressing to a point where that might not be possible. Hell, maybe it was time to cut and run. Except some part of her just couldn't leave town when Bruce was looking at a war in his own backyard. They weren't together---would never be together---but they weren't completely apart either. If nothing else, Helena's existence guaranteed that he'd always have a part of her heart. She suddenly found herself oddly grateful that the young teacher had given Helena her number---which was a silly idea on second thought. The Joker could probably go through the kid like a hot knife through butter. On the other hand, some young teacher just out of grad school wasn't likely to be on his radar, so maybe it wasn't such a bad backup plan if things got too rough. She sighed soft and ran a hand over her hair, wishing the world was rid of power mad lunatics. Not that she was little miss goody two shoes, or anything, but sheez, there was a bit of a difference between stealing the odd something or other, and total world domination. Good Lord, some people really needed to get laid. And not just yes-master-whatever-you-say-master, totally in control, lackey sex either. They needed get down, get dirty, do it till it hurts and you can't move anymore sex. Hell, she could use some of that.
"I could do it," Helena spoke up, breaking into her mother's silent ruminations, her voice rough and a little scared.
"The hell you say," Selina snapped almost instantly. She turned a hard look on her daughter, silently warning her off. "I don't want you involved in this--"
"I'm already involved. If anything happens to you--"
"Nothing's going to happen to me--"
"It already has," the girl disagreed, nodding to indicate her mother's injured arm. "The Joker's thugs could have killed you--"
"But they didn't." Selina slung her uninjured arm around her daughter's shoulders and pulled her into a hard hug. "Everything's going to be all right ... but I need you to worry about school ... and boys or girls, or whatever the hell you want to worry about ... and leave the rest to me." She offered a lopsided grin. "Okay?"
Helena leaned heavily against her mother and slid an arm around her waist, clinging tightly for a moment. "I love you," she whispered without answering the question. She suddenly wished she could be a small child again, unaware of the dangers in the world, and confident that her mother could make everything better as if by magic.
Selina ruffled her daughter's hair tenderly. "It's gonna be all right."
Hours later, after Helena was asleep, she dialed the phone number she'd been given from memory, uncertain exactly what she wanted to say, but wanting to touch base with the young woman who seemed to be interested in helping her daughter.
Three rings and the line opened, but the message was definitely recorded. "Barbara Gordon here, I'm off saving the world right now," Selina rolled her eyes, though a hint of a smile touched her mouth, "or maybe just shopping if Sachs is still open. Wild sex is also an option unless that's you, Dad, and then I'm grocery shopping ... alone ... without makeup ... in baggy clothes." That got a grin from the listening woman. "In any event, I'm not answering the phone, but if you'd like to leave a message, just listen for the sound of the beep and ... well ... you oughta know the drill by now."
The woman who spent her spare hours as Catwoman waited for the beep, then worked to sound as normal as possible---not exactly her specialty. "This is Selina Kyle ... Helena's mother. I gather there was a bit of a ... confrontation between the two of you today. I just wanted to let you know that I'm aware of the situation and made sure she knows what she did is wrong. I would like to speak to you though. Please give me a call when you get in. I'll be up all night, so don't worry if it's late." Then she gave her phone number and hung up.
* * * * * *
Hanging in the shadows on the rooftop of a warehouse well above the docks, a slender figure stood poised and perfectly unmoving, silently watching the comings and goings of hard eyed men below. Too many for her to take alone, besides they were all low level thugs, not much worth the effort.
"Batgirl," a familiar voice echoed through the tiny speaker tucked into her ear, "any luck?"
"They're definitely moving," she responded very softly as she tracked the boxes being warehoused, the side of each one stamped with the bright, clown faced logo of a toy company they'd tracked back to the Joker. "We've got a lot of goods coming in, but I haven't seen any sign of his highness."
"See if you can get a look inside those boxes," Batman said softly, "but be careful." They were all spaced around the city, herself, Batman, and Nightwing; hunting for some key to tracking the Joker back to his lair. They knew from the talk on the street that he was planning something big, but so far, hadn't had any luck tracking down the man himself.
"Will do," she murmured, pulling back and merging with the shadows once again as she hurried toward the rear of the building. She quickly climbed down the back wall, slipping in through an open window she'd found earlier, then standing poised on a beam high above the floor until the warehouse emptied out again. The moment they were gone, she dropped lightly to the floor and ducked behind a large pile of boxes, quickly getting out of sight before they returned with the next load of goods. Using a utility knife from her belt, she carefully opened one of the large shipping boxes, frowning when she found nothing but....
She frowned, picking one up and looking it over. Simple, hollow ... a tiny trap door in the bottom. A sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach, she tossed it back in the box, and slashed another box open. This time it was filled with wind up robots of some kind, from two inches to a foot with small claw hands that looked like they could be clamped down.
Given the Joker's deadly sense of humor, she was comfortably certain none of it was nearly as harmless as it was meant to appear, or at least it wouldn't be when Joker was done with it.
"Toys," she answered as she silently moved to check a third box. "They're all full of toys of different kinds. Can't see anything dangerous about them, but...." She trailed off suggestively and Dick Grayson's voice cut in.
"Anybody wanna bet he's got something nasty ... but kinda cute ... in mind?"
"Quiet, Nightwing," Bruce silenced his former partner.
A sudden giggle drove Barbara to dive back down behind the boxes where she crouched in the shadows, silently listening to the footsteps that drew close.
"Mister J is just gonna love this," a female voice proclaimed happily. "All those lovely toys ... causing all that lovely havoc." Another giggle. "Explosions and fire ... and all that beautiful blood."
"What about Batman?"
The footsteps moved on past and Barbara risked a look over the edge of the boxes, frowning as she spotted a slight figure in a harlequin costume. As she looked the harlequin reached out, slamming her flunky into the nearest box and punching him hard in the throat. He went down gagging while his attacker giggled happily.
"The man-bat ... and his little gaggle of batlets are no problem for Mister J ... and if you want to live any longer, you'd be wise not to imply otherwise," she threatened through insane laughter.
The flunky gagged, coughing heavily as he regained his breath, staring up at the strange woman with terror in his eyes.
Definitely not just another flunky, Barbara thought as she reached for one of the devices on her utility belt, a firing unit for a small bug. With any luck, they'd be able to listen in and learn something. She straightened, lifting a hand over the edge of the nearest box to take aim and depressing the end of the small firing tube. The tiny sound the device made was hidden under the noise of crates being moved in. She stayed where she was just long enough to see the bug adhere to one of the points of the harlequin's hat, then ducked back down, heart hammering in her chest as she waited to see if the tiny impact had been noticed. If it had, she might well be in for one hell of a fight. Under the cover of her cape, a hand slipped to her belt to draw a batarang, readying it for use if need be, but the harlequin abruptly skipped on, mumbling happily to herself, while the various thugs hurried after her.
"There was a woman through here," Barbara informed Bruce, "wearing a harlequin costume. I'm guessing she's not low level. I got a bug on her."
"Good work," her mentor came back almost immediately.
"You want me to trash this stuff?" she asked, looking around. A couple of incendiaries from her belt could probably start a fire hot enough to take most of the goods out.
"No ... too much chance of alerting Joker that we're onto him. Get out of there ... go home and get some rest. Tomorrow night's likely to be a long one."
"Will do." She carefully peered over the edge of the nearest box to be certain it was safe to move then quickly slipped out the back, hanging in the shadows as she hurried through the bad neighborhood on her way to the abandoned building where she'd stowed the Batcycle. Sleek, heavy, and high powered, the custom built motorcycle purred to life as she slid aboard and thumbed the id plate. Moments later, she was on the road and moving.
Less than an hour later, Barbara was in her own apartment, any signs of her double life safely scrubbed away, looking like any other young professional coming in after a night on the town.
She sighed softly, definitely feeling the stress and exhaustion of the day, and ruffled her hair. She almost wished Bruce had gone ahead and ordered her to trash the warehouse. Working off a few frustrations by blowing something up was a tempting idea at that point. Too much stress from classes, not to mention the Joker's current efforts at taking over New Gotham and killing them all was definitely starting to get to her. And Dick was probably studying all weekend, so a good, hard sparring session during off hours seemed an unlikely proposition. A slow stretch shook out some of the tension, but she was still keyed up and bouncing on her heels when she noted the blinking light on her answering machine. A couple of hangups, a message from her father touching base, another one from one of the teachers at school asking about an in-service day, and then....
"This is Selina Kyle ... Helena's mother. I gather there was a bit of a ... confrontation between the two of you today. I just wanted to let you know that I'm aware of the situation and made sure she knows what she did is wrong. I would like to speak to you though. Please give me a call when you get in. I'll be up all night, so don't worry if it's late. My number's 555-2121."
Frowning, Barbara replayed the message again, absent-mindedly jotting the number down on a piece of scratch paper. Speaking of the day's stresses. A soft sigh escaped her lips as she considered the scene after classes. Talk about having something blow up in your face. She flashed a worried gaze at the machine and hit play again, listening to the voice on the other end for any signs of extreme stress, more than a little worried about her student despite---or maybe because of---everything that had happened. A shiver slid down her spine as she remembered the look in Helena's eyes, out of control, hellish and hungry. Something was going on there, and she was scared it was a lot more than just teen angst on the loose; even more scared it had something to do with the girl's mother. Somehow, she couldn't imagine the teenager volunteering the details of their confrontation. Then again, Selina Kyle hadn't said exactly what she knew, so it was entirely possible she'd gotten a very watered down version. She glanced at her watch, noting the time. Well past midnight, not the usual time for calling total strangers but the woman had specifically said she'd be up all night. She considered her options, then started dialing. If something really was wrong, the sooner she knew about it, the sooner something could be done. If rang once ... half of once really, as though someone had been waiting next to it and pounced the moment it started to make a sound.
"Hello," low and breathy, the woman's voice reminded Barbara faintly of Kathleen Turner; the vocal equivalent of bedroom eyes. Definitely the same voice from her answering machine, but without the tinny, slightly warbly, please-change-the-tape-soon quality. It suddenly occurred to her that she regularly rode a motorcycle worth more than the house she'd grown up in, wore a utility belt which had probably cost as much as her undergraduate and graduate degrees put together, and she had a ten dollar answering machine from Target. God, her life was weird some days.
"Hi, this is Barbara Gordon. I'm returning a call from Selina Kyle."
"Ms. Gordon, this is Selina Kyle. I appreciate your taking the time."
Barbara found herself wondering about the woman that went with the voice. Was she dark and graceful like her daughter? She wasn't sure why, but instinct told her, no. For reasons she couldn't fathom, a mental image of a Veronica Lake style ice blonde popped into her head. Every bit as sexually charged as her daughter, but more subtle ... and very likely more deadly. And where had that thought come from, she wondered. "No problem. You said you wanted to talk," she said a little cautiously. Despite the way Helena had lost control, she was hesitant to try and get her in too much trouble. Instinct told that was just likely to make things worse.
"My daughter was obviously upset when she got home," Selina murmured. "We talked and ... well ... what happened came out. I just wanted to touch base with you. Make sure you understand that she knows what she did was wrong, and it won't happen again."
"Ah," Barbara said cautiously. "She ... uh ... told you?" She was on the cordless and pacing restlessly, nervous tension winding her up even tighter.
* * * * * *
A faint, wry smile tipped Selina Kyle's lips upward as she heard the younger woman's reticence. Still young enough to hesitate in ratting out a student to a parent ... or maybe just worried about the quality of the parenting. Given some of her lax attitudes by societal standards, she supposed the young woman could be forgiven if she had some doubts. "Yes, Ms. Gordon ... she did. Helena and I are very close." She paused thoughtfully as she considered her child and the bond that had always tied them together. "We understand one another." They weren't identical by any means, but neither was either of them like anyone else in the world.
Again the teacher uttered a noncommital, "Ah."
Smart girl. She knew how to play things close to the vest. Selina suddenly found herself very curious about the latest object of her daughter's affections. Helena's normal tastes ran to very wild, very cocky, very well built, and very likely to wind up working the counter at a Burger King some day. She had no illusions about her daughter's taste in friends, and had long concluded that she'd get eventually bored with the soft-brained hardbodies, and graduate to something a bit more mature. Fine time she'd picked to go that route, she thought with wry affection. "Ms. Gordon," she said after a beat, "I think perhaps this discussion is one that would go more smoothly in person." She wanted a chance to take the measure of the young teacher, and instinct told her the desire was mutual. "I don't suppose you'd have time to meet for a cup of coffee tomorrow?"
There was a brief pause, then an oddly regretful, "I'm afraid I don't, actually."
It was Selina's turn to utter a noncommital, "Ah."
"I do, however, have time right now ... and there are a couple of all night coffee shops I know of."
Something about her tone gave Selina the distinct impression it surprised the woman who'd made the offer as much as it did the woman who heard it. She glanced toward Helena's bedroom, noting the door was closed. Her daughter was used to the fact that she came and went at odd hours. The house was secure---considering what she'd spent on the alarm system, it ought to be---and she'd be safe enough. Actually, she'd be safe enough even if the house wasn't secure. Selina Kyle had made certain her daughter could protect herself. She wasn't a great fighter ... at least not yet, but there weren't many people she couldn't deal with quite effectively. Raw speed, strength, and animal senses had their advantages. "What's the address?" she drawled after a moment's consideration.
* * * * * *
A menu in hand, leaning lazily against the back of the booth, Selina's eyes narrowed faintly, her gaze feline and assessing as she watched as Barbara Gordon enter the small café. Not the proper teacher out to impress the parents tonight, she was dressed in faded jeans, a dark sweatshirt, and a well worn, leather bomber jacket. She was also carrying a sleek, black motorcycle helmet in one hand and the red hair that fell somewhere past her shoulders was caught back in a loose ponytail. The assessing gaze sharpened faintly, taking in a dozen more details as she found herself wondering if the violent red hair came from god or a bottle, then concluded it was either god above, or young Ms. Gordon was wise enough to color her brows as well, because the eyebrow that twitched upward when they made eye contact had a distinctly rusty cast to it. Not at all what Selina had expected---which was rather surprising---and Selina Kyle was seldom surprised. She leaned forward, bracing an elbow on the tabletop as she offered a languid wave with one hand, a hint of a smile touching her lips when Barbara Gordon appeared unsurprised to realize the blonde in the corner was the party she was meeting.
"Ms. Kyle," the younger woman murmured as she slid into the booth.
"Please, it's Selina," came the drawling invitation.
Barbara eyed the stunning blonde leaning comfortably against the cushions, watching her through eyes that were old beyond their years. "Call me Barbara then," she heard herself invite. She'd definitely been on the right track with that mental image of Veronica Lake. Except the 30's sex symbol had nothing on the woman in front of her. She suddenly knew where Helena got that high impact sexuality.
"Barbara," Selina murmured and leaned forward. She waved to a waitress and ordered coffee, and was caught by surprise when her companion ordered a full meal.
"I hope you don't mind," Barbara apologized as it occurred to her that she was probably being rude, "but I didn't have time to eat earlier." And patrolling the city always burned off so many calories that she wound up famished, and tended to start dropping weight if she wasn't careful. "And I hate grocery shopping."
"No problem. Wouldn't want a growing girl to miss her dinner," Selina murmured, her eyes twinkling in a way that made Barbara feel very young. Blue eyes fell on the black helmet just barely visible over the edge of the booth. "I wouldn't have guessed you for a motorcycle rider from my daughter's description," she murmured.
Barbara felt the heat as a flush slid over her cheeks, uncertain whether the comment was a criticism or not. There were plenty of parents who wouldn't approve. They'd consider it much too reckless and likely to encourage their kids along the same path, though, on second thought, she didn't think Selina Kyle looked like someone likely to have a problem with that aspect. She wasn't sure why, but Barbara had a feeling being too reckless wasn't something the blonde would ever find fault with. "I don't usually ride it to work," she admitted, grateful when the waitress returned with her coffee, buying her a moment's time to think. "But it makes it a lot easier to get around in the city."
"Ah," Selina murmured thoughtfully, leaning forward, elbows braced on the tabletop as she contemplated the young woman on the opposite side of the booth over the edge of her mug. She saw green eyes touch on the canvas brace where it peeked out from under the cuff on her sweater and a hint of a frown draw russet brows together. She could almost hear the gears turning in the young teacher's head. "And no, there isn't some boyfriend who beats me or abuses my daughter," she murmured, answering the unasked question before it could even be hinted at. "No girlfriend either."
Green eyes snapped up, and Barbara flushed in embarrassment at having the other woman read her suspicions so easily. "I didn't mean--"
"No, of course not," Selina said, easily over-riding the younger woman's voice. She offered a wry smile. "You're much too polite to suggest such a thing ... much too wise as well, I suspect." She took a sip from her cup and leaned forward a bit, her voice dropping low enough that the younger woman had to lean closer to hear. "And because of that, I'll tell you that I would never allow anyone to hurt my child." Something dark and feral rippled through her eyes, reminding Barbara of that barely glimpsed, and barely controlled, animal fury she'd seen in Helena's eyes. "And the first person who tries will be lucky if they live to regret it." She ran one thumb along the handle on the mug, eyes dropping to watch the swirl of dark coffee, noting her own reflection in the watery, black surface. "My child is everything to me," she added very softly.
Barbara didn't know what to say, the utter resolution of the statement catching her by surprise.
"I've startled you," Selina murmured after a beat, her voice sliding into more normal tones as she pulled back a few inches.
Barbara blinked, staring uncertainly at her coffee. She added a sugar and a couple of packets of creamer that was made of everything but cream to keep her hands busy and buy a moment's time. Still swirling it all together with a spoon, she looked up. "You're not what I expected," she admitted.
"Neither are you." Selina's head tipped to one side ever so slightly as she considered the redhead. "Considering what happened between you and my daughter," she began, "I'm a little surprised you went ahead and gave her your home number."
Green eyes narrowed faintly as it occurred to Barbara that perhaps her gesture hadn't been so innocently read, or that perhaps Helena, in an effort to deflect any questions from her own guilt, had dropped a few hints that it was something other than what it was.
Well used to gauging people's moods and suspicions, Selina saw the worries as they made their way through the younger woman's eyes. She was good at shielding her emotions, but a thief knows how to see past such simple tricks in order to survive. "You needn't worry," she said softly, her tone meant to disarm, even as she quietly explained, "Helena told me the truth ... that you asked her about her plans for next year ... she lost her temper, crowded you ... made some very inappropriate remarks ... and very probably bruised your wrist." Before Barbara could pull her hand back, Selina reached out, catching the joint in question in her good hand, and using the other one to push the cuff on her jacket back just far enough to reveal a red mark that was already starting to turn blue. "My daughter knows better than to lie to me about something this important," she said softly as she eyed the injury, thumb moving along the edge of the mark.
Barbara swallowed hard, eyes falling to the hand gently stroking her bruised wrist. "I probably pressed harder than was wise," she admitted, a hint of a frown touching her brows. She looked up, carefully pulling her arm back. "Something's bothering Helena very deeply ... I thought maybe it was school, but...." She shook her head, her expression serious as she pointedly ignored the older woman's high impact sexuality. "I don't think so." She couldn't decide what to make of Selina Kyle, sensing there was a game being played, but wholly uncertain what it might be and uncomfortable with it. "She was as scared as she was angry," she said pointedly and was relieved when Selina abruptly backed off, a thoughtful frown on her face.
"Yes, well ... I'm afraid she tends to take my problems on her shoulders." Selina sighed softly and peered curiously at Barbara, rather impressed to find herself surprised once again. "And things have been a bit ... difficult ... recently."
"She's a good kid," Barbara said softly, "I'd like to help her, but I don't know what to do."
"Is that why you gave her your home number?" the drawling question was lazily asked, but Barbara could see the bright gleam of interest in crystalline blue eyes.
"Yes," the teacher answered decisively, then added, "she's my student ... nothing more," well aware that her tone slid over into defensive range, but not liking the suspicion in the blonde's eyes.
Selina shrugged, not bothering to deny the implied question that had triggered that response. "She's also quite beautiful ... and at an age that some people find rather appealing." Her tone made her lack of respect for those individuals quite apparent.
"She is beautiful," Barbara confirmed practically. It would be stupid to deny the obvious. "But despite that, she's still a child ... and I prefer my lovers to be of age. I would never touch one of my students, Ms. Kyle," her voice dropped low as she continued with added emphasis, "Never."
Blue eyes slid closed for a moment as Selina heaved a sigh of relief, the younger woman's utter seriousness calming some of her fears. Seeing Barbara Gordon had triggered both some level of relief and fear. Helena had indeed, finally managed to develop an attraction for someone with some maturity---as well as a level of determination that could have made things very difficult if she'd shown any desire to reciprocate the girl's affections. "I'm sorry," she apologized sincerely when she looked up again. She offered a faintly embarrassed smile. "Just being an overprotective mother, I guess," she admitted, the aggressive sensuality settling down into something approaching her normal level---which was still more intense than the average person, but not quite so high tension.
Barbara noted the change with a raised brow, a little annoyed at the game the older woman had tried to play, but fascinated all the same. "I assure you, I don't go around seducing my students," she said in a voice that made the idea sound patently ridiculous.
"All things considered," Selina began a bit carefully, "I'm sure you can understand why I needed to be certain."
Remembering the burning heat of the body pressed against her own and the comments she'd occasionally heard older teacher's make about their students ... no, she really couldn't. Barbara knew plenty of teachers who'd have welcomed, even angled for, that dangerous, angry advance. That didn't mean she wasn't still pretty annoyed at having her personal and professional ethics doubted that way. "Yeah, I guess," she allowed, "but believe me, the only thing I was trying to do was help."
Selina leaned back, a hint of a frown creasing her forehead. "Why?" she asked simply.
The question pulled Barbara up short. So many answers she could give. The formal, proper one that would have included all the things she did for all of her students, but somehow that seemed like a copout and not nearly enough. The one that would have revealed how much she'd admired the girl's brain during those back and forth discussions in class when the rest of the world spiraled away in favor of the trade of ideas between two people who'd ceased to be teacher and student and were simply arguing their points. No, that wasn't the right choice at all, though she was hesitant to let herself consider why. "Joey Pallas," she said at last, looking down at her cup with ferocious intensity, well aware of the eyes watching her and pointedly ignoring them, "he's this scrawny, too smart, too small, too dorky, too sweet kid in one of my classes. A lot of the guys torment the poor kid ... just because they can, I guess." She took a sip from her cup, buying time before continuing, "I was coming around a corner one day and there was Helena, standing between Joey and Tom Martin---a lineman who's probably six-two and two-twenty---she ripped him a new one and backed him off ... to protect a kid everybody else picks on for fun."
A tender smile curved Selina's mouth, her gaze momentarily distant. "That sounds like Helena," she admitted, then peered at the younger woman, her gaze sharpening, taking in all the things Barbara Gordon was desperately trying to hide---especially from herself. The attraction was there, innocent and very probably something that she would never have considered in any remotely sexual way if Helena hadn't so aggressively pointed up that subtle aspect, but definitely there. She suddenly felt a touch of pity for the younger woman and admired the sort of personality that would sublimate any inappropriate feelings into protecting the object of her affections. Selina had seen so many people who wouldn't have even hesitated in taking what her daughter would have been more than willing to offer.
"Yeah," Barbara said softly, still staring at her cup, a hint of a smile curving her lips
"She doesn't like bullies ... and she's not afraid of anyone."
"No ... she's not," Barbara agreed, drawing the words out in a way that unintentionally gave them a double meaning. There was none of the expected fear of teachers there, and that was part of the problem. Helena acted like they were equals, and pressed the issue whenever faced with the idea that maybe they weren't supposed to be. When it came to intellectual arguments the tendency was as refreshing as it was challenging. Sexually, it was another matter altogether.
A blonde brow rose as Selina studied the teacher, realistic enough to note there weren't that many years between her child and this woman. "I meant what I said about what I'd do to anyone who tried to take advantage of my daughter," she said softly, suddenly not quite as certain as she would have liked to be. She understood the hells of temptation too well to think that anyone was completely above them.
Barbara looked up, her expression serious. "So did I. I've seen what playing those kinds of games with students can do to them. I would never risk one of my kids that way."
Selina couldn't help but wonder if the younger woman realized she'd come dangerously close to a tacit admission that there was some degree of temptation there. "Good," she sighed sincerely. Whatever was going on in the other woman's head, she found she did at least believe that her intentions were the best.
A long moment passed while both woman studied their coffee rather intently, then Barbara's food came, stalling any discussions for another moment or two.
Raising an eyebrow, Selina watched as the redhead poured mustard and ketchup on her burger, ketchup on the fries, then dug in with the eagerness of a teenage boy who hadn't eaten in at least an hour. She considered making a comment, then discarded the idea, knowing it was likely to make the other woman even more uncomfortable than she already was. She shook her head, surprised by her own tendency toward kindness where this woman was concerned. Normally making people uncomfortable was her favorite hobby and she suspected it would have been easy and even wicked fun to make that ivory complexion blush bright red. She wasn't quite certain what to make of the fact that it somehow it just felt a little too cruel for her blood.
Barbara looked up abruptly, quickly swallowing a bite of burger as it occurred to her that she was being rude as hell, and very probably hiding from the piercing gaze directed her way. "I ... uh ... sorry," she muttered.
A hint of a smile ghosted across full lips in a way that made the redhead feel only slightly older than her students. "Don't hold back on my account. I'm a bit of a carnivore myself, so I understand."
"It's just that I haven't had anything since lunch," the younger woman felt the need to mutter, "and it's been kind of a long day."
Selina leaned back in her side of the booth, her injured arm draped along the back cushion and gave a languid wave with her other hand. "Go on." A few more wolfing bites went down the hatch, during which Selina was left with the distinct impression the younger woman's brain was actually running faster than her mouth. Impressive feat considering the speed at which she was eating.
"Can I ask you something?" Barbara said at last, looking up from her dinner with a curious expression. She got a lazy nod in return and began carefully. "Something's been going on with Helena recently. Given that it's not school ... and I don't think it's some of the other things I was worried about." As confusing as Selina Kyle's signals were, Barbara was comfortably certain the woman would cut off her own arm before she harmed her child. But something was still wrong. "Do you have any idea what it is?"
Blonde brows drew into a frown, and Selina looked away, suddenly wishing she could dump her own fears as easily as that. It would have been nice to have a confidante---other than her daughter, of course---and with things getting so much dicier, she'd been avoiding telling Helena too much in an effort to protect her. She glanced at the innocent-eyed young woman across the table. Oh yeah, that would probably make her squeal in terror and run like hell. Her head tipped to one side. Or maybe not. She couldn't decide which answer would have been the crueler one. Either way it would have meant involving the poor kid in something she doubtless had no tools for dealing with. "I've had some business difficulties lately," she finally responded with only the faintest pause before the word business, "and I'm afraid Helena tends to take such things much too seriously." She sighed softly. "She tends to feel responsible for the rest of the world." Another soft sigh as it occurred to her that the same trait that had driven Helena to protect a boy she probably didn't even particularly like was also what drove her to sometimes play the role of parent in their relationship. The reminder brought a pair of blue eyes that mirrored her daughter's to mind and the next comment slipped out before she could think better of it. "She's a lot like her father that way."
Barbara knew the instant the words were said that Selina Kyle wished she hadn't spoken, but couldn't resist the urge to ask, "I gather he's not in the picture any more."
Blue eyes rose, their expression hard and soft at the same time, bespeaking old hurts and passions that still flamed painfully bright. "Never was, truth be told ... at least not where my daughter's concerned."
"Oh," Barbara didn't know what to say to that.
After that, the conversation shifted, as though both of them were aware things were fast edging into territory better left alone, moving on to safer matters, like grades, projects, SAT scores, the possibility of a scholarship for Helena if she was interested. On those topics, Selina Kyle seemed remarkably like any other parent, which allowed for a certain comfort zone where Barbara was concerned. There was something about the stunning blonde that made her unlike anyone Barbara had ever encountered---though at times, she had the oddest sense they'd met somewhere before. Which, she had to admit, made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Maybe they'd run into each other at some parent-teacher thing and she'd just forgotten, though she had a hard time envisioning anyone forgetting a meeting with the this woman.
Finally, there was little to do except return to their respective apartments. Still talking quietly, the two women stepped out into the chilly night air, carefully keeping to safe subjects.
The sudden, sharp crack instantly had each woman vying to tackle the other into a shielded corner of the café entry. It was Selina who recognized the problem first and relaxed into the move, allowing the redhead to press her back protectively, rather impressed by her reflexes, though she was ready to shove the younger woman aside, and put up a fight if some thug of Joker's decided to appear out of the night. To the best of her knowledge he didn't know her real identity, but with things getting so nasty, it wasn't possible to be too careful.
A moment passed, then a rustbucket car went coughing past them. Nothing but a backfire both women realized at the same time.
"Quite a set of reflexes," Selina drawled as she allowed Barbara to help her back to her feet.
The redhead shrugged, splitting her attention between the blonde and the quick, suspicious glances she cast toward the street. "Sorry," she apologized. "The danger of having a police commissioner for a father."
A blonde brow rose. "Commissioner Gordon is your father?" Selina murmured thoughtfully as she put the last names together.
"Yeah, that's dad." Barbara nodded, still checking the street at random intervals. Even knowing it had likely been nothing the car backfiring, things were tense enough to make a touch of paranoia seem like a wise idea. Not that she thought the Joker was likely to try something on a quiet, late night street---he liked to make more of a splash---but there were any number of criminals out there who might be on the prowl at this hour.
"Then you must know Bruce Wayne," Selina murmured, his name coming out after the slightest of pauses, the memories still intense enough to make her flinch. Dumb question. The kid probably barely knew who he was. Selina cursed herself for looking like some desperate groupie.
Barbara looked a little startled. "Since he and dad are friends, I've met Mr. Wayne a time or two," she said cautiously. She was always careful to refer to Bruce in the same distant way she referred to all of Jim Gordon's many friends and acquaintances. "Why?"
Too studied, too casual, too, too rehearsed, Selina diagnosed as she listened to the softly spoken reply. She was startled to realize this young woman knew Bruce and knew him well. Lover? No, Selina knew what kind of lover Bruce Wayne was. Had the younger woman been involved with him, she sincerely doubted there'd have been even the most subtle flicker of heat directed toward her daughter. No, Barbara Gordon had the innocent eyes of someone who'd never been with a demanding lover, probably just college boys who always said please and thank you, and had to ask afterward if she'd enjoyed herself. But she knew him all the same, and not just as a friend of her father's, or there wouldn't have been the attempted denial. Which left what? Her eyes went to the distinctive shock of titian hair, then studied the strong lower jaw, and locked the familiar voice into place in her head, as she added two and two together and came up with four. "Just curious," she drawled, consciously fighting the urge to offer up a caustic chuckle, the irony of her daughter developing a crush on her own father's baby-bat protégé almost too funny for words. It was in her to question whether there was some chance that Bruce or this woman had discovered the truth and was looking for proof, but, no, Barbara Gordon wasn't that good an actor. She didn't have a clue. "After all, he's all over the news ... New Gotham's most good looking, rich, eligible bachelor."
Slender shoulders relaxed inside the bomber jacket. "I guess," Barbara admitted, though she had to fight the urge to roll her eyes, thinking of Bruce as anything but a nagging, big-brother figure nearly impossible. She knew he was good looking, rich, all those good things, but ... well ... he was just Bruce. Brilliant, impossible, nagging, annoying, perpetually depressed Bruce, who would probably lose track of anything that didn't happen while he was in a bat costume if he didn't have Alfred looking after him. He was beyond obsessive about some things, completely and totally clueless about others. "I don't really know him that well."
And then Selina couldn't resist. After all, she'd been good during the entire meeting ... or at least, she'd mostly been good ... good for her anyway ... but ... well, the mention of Bruce, the obvious lie ... not to mention the realization that less than a year before she'd been trading blows with the woman in front of her, egged her on. She'd never been good at being good anyway. "So, are the rumors that he's gay true?" she asked too innocently. "I mean, to hit that age and never be married...." She offered a suggestive smile and saw Barbara Gordon's mouth drop open right on cue.
"I ... uh ... I don't..." the younger woman babbled helplessly. It was hard to catch Barbara by surprise, but damned if Selina Kyle hadn't managed the trick. Bruce? Gay? It was one question she'd never even remotely contemplated. "Ummmmm," she exhaled at last. Her brain was still misfiring at several levels when Selina crowded in close, not rough or angry like her daughter, but with the same predatory sexuality that chased Barbara back until her shoulderblades hit the brick wall of the café.
"Relax, Ms. Gordon ... Barbara ... I'm only joking," Selina exhaled, her perfume rich and faintly intoxicating. She knew the other woman was aware of it by the way her pupils expanded until there was little more than a narrow emerald ring around them. Lucky for her that outside of a bit of experimentation, Selina preferred to play with boy toys. Her eyes slid down, taking in fit curves as she remembered the way the younger woman had fought---hard, sweaty, passionate. She suspected Barbara Gordon would make love the same way, which meant she was luckier still that Selina had no intention of poaching on her daughter's territory. Not that Helena was allowed into that section of the playground just yet, but instinct told her the day would come, and things could very uncomfortable if they started sharing toys. It was tempting though; might not have even been possible if the young woman in front of her wasn't the sort who threw herself heart and soul into everything she did. That sort of wholesale offering made a body vulnerable and Selina was wise enough to know that what would simply be play for her could easily break two hearts, neither of them her own. "You shouldn't take things quite so seriously." Oh yes, Bruce had picked a no-nonsense one to inherit his mantle; sober, but smart and determined, and with the skills to protect those she cared for. Her expression suddenly serious, perhaps even a little regretful, Selina drew back a pace, graciously exiting the other woman's space without being asked to. If things with the Joker blew up, Barbara Gordon would have both the tools to protect Helena and the contacts with Bruce Wayne to make certain his daughter wasn't treated like a goldigger or a threat to the Wayne empire.
Barbara scraped her bangs back from her forehead, startled to realize her hand was shaking ever so slightly. "I just ... uh ... I know there are always tabloids out looking for stories about him," she explained away the momentary paralysis.
Selina's mouth twisted in a feline smile. "Well, I assure you, selling a story about Bruce Wayne to the tabloids is the last thing on my mind," she murmured, already running over the options, a little surprised to realize she wasn't nearly as surprised by the plan forming in her brain as she probably ought to have been. She looked down for a moment, calculating her approach and putting the words together. It wasn't the sort of thing to be done carelessly, but then again, Selina had never been one to debate things too long. "Actually, Bruce Wayne is the last thing on my mind, period," she said, dropping the seductive air, her tone suddenly businesslike. "I like you, Ms. Gordon ... and I admire your determination to protect your students."
Barbara stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets, going from being embarrassed for one reason to being embarrassed for a totally different one at whiplash inducing velocity. Being around Selina Kyle was an experience and a half, and she was suddenly starting to understand her student a whole lot better. "Thanks," she muttered, "I'm just trying to do my best."
"No doubt," Selina said agreeably. "Actually, on that front, I'd like to ask a favor of you." She didn't wait for Barbara to comment before she continued, "as a single mother, I've made certain that my daughter has all of the legal protections in place were something to happen to me ... but I'm afraid it's a bit impersonal. All lawyers and fiduciaries ... no one really knows her or could even begin to understand her."
Barbara frowned, not understanding where this was leading.
"I'd like to send you copies of some documents regarding my daughter ... for safe keeping ... and so that I know if something were to happen, there's someone out there who has more reason to care for her well being than just being paid to do so." She saw Barbara start to draw breath and held up a hand to silence her. "Hear me out before you answer. I'd have to ask you not to open them unless something happens to me ... and it would mean adding your name to the official list of who's to be notified in the event of an ... accident." For the first time that evening, she wasn't playing even a hint of a game. "This isn't a small request, so don't answer lightly."
Caught totally flat-footed, Barbara was struck dumb for a long moment. She had the urge to slap her forehead in an effort to kick start her brain, so off balance it was hard to think. Common sense told her to run like hell, that this strange LSD experience of a woman and her daughter were dangerously likely to complicate a life already overburdened by hidden levels, secret identities, and lunatic enemies. Which was why it was so strange when she opened her mouth and heard herself responding, "If you think it's the right thing." Where the hell had that come from?
"Amazingly enough I do ... though I'm hoping you won't get the joke anytime soon." Shaking her head, Selina glanced upward, frowning ever so slightly when she thought she saw movement among the shadows. No, nothing, she decided a second or two later.
"Joke?" Barbara questioned. There were so many things going on just under the surface of this conversation that she barely knew where to start. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope and being asked to figure out the original pattern. She shook her head as if that might rattle the dash of hard information she had into some kind of reliable picture. It didn't do a bit of good.
"Never mind," Selina brushed the question aside with a wry smile. "It's not important."
For reasons she couldn't put her finger on, Barbara was comfortably certain that wasn't just a lie, but a bald faced one, though she didn't bother challenging it. There was no way in hell she was going to win an argument with Selina Kyle anyway. "Look, if there's anything I can do, I'd be happy to," she said at last, a little surprised by how honest the words were.
"You understand that I'm serious when I ask not to look at any of it unless something happens?"
In for a penny, in for a pound, Barbara thought as she nodded her assent. She didn't understand the reasons for the request, but it was obvious it was intensely important to the other woman. "I understand."
"I'll have everything messengered to you in the next day or two," Selina said without preamble. With the decision made, she wasn't one to waste time. Even as she did it she wondered at her own choice in playing the high wire. Maybe there really was some part of her that was hoping Bruce would find out. Not that she had any illusions that they'd suddenly turn into some happy little family unit, but she had no doubt he'd do anything in his power to protect and care for his child. With everything else going on, maybe it was time. She let that thought trail off as she abruptly became aware of the fact that the redhead was staring at her. "I appreciate this, Miss Gordon ... more than I can say." She stared at Barbara for a long moment, then stepped a little closer, breathing in the soft scent of sweat and perfume that still clung to the other woman. It was a pity, really. It would have been entertaining. "Though I do find myself feeling rather disappointed since, like you, I never play those kinds of games with children."
That ice blue gaze raked over Barbara, making it clear that the child in question wasn't some high school kid inclined toward panic attacks over acne or homework. She swallowed hard, feeling very young indeed, uncertain whether to be grateful or let down. She didn't have a chance to decide before Selina Kyle ambled away into the night, disappearing into the shadows around the parking lot to the side of the building. The soft purr of a car engine greeted her ears only a moment later, and there was no doubt in her mind just who the black Jaguar that pulled out belonged to. She supposed that answered the question of whether or not Helena would need a scholarship if she wanted to go to college. The insurance payments alone on that beast were probably more than she made from teaching in a month. "Well, at least now I know where Helena gets it," she muttered to herself, still thinking of the stripper-on-a-catwalk sway of Selina Kyle's hips as she sauntered away.
Moments later, Barbara slid onto her bike, helmet in place, and roared away. Pouring on the speed, she opted to take the long way home, circling the city several times at speeds far faster than was even remotely prudent.
* * * * * *
Selina was surprised to find Helena up and looking worried when she entered their apartment. Wide-eyed, her daughter spun toward her with a relieved, and somehow vaguely guilty expression. It occurred to Selina to ask, but after the day she'd had, she wasn't up to it. Helena knew her limits, and she knew the consequences if she pushed them too hard. Hopefully, it was nothing more serious than staying up too late or going for a midnight walkabout up the side of the nearest high rise. Having a child like Helena meant changing a few priorities.
"Mom," the girl said quickly as she caught her breath, "I was worried when I woke and realized you'd gone out."
Selina shrugged, ignoring the implied criticism. "I left you a note," she pointed out practically.
"All it said was that you'd be back later," the teenager countered.
Slim shoulders dipped in another ironic shrug. "And I am," she responded coolly, not particularly in the mood for one of their role reversing discussions where Helena suddenly turned into the parent and she became the child for the duration. "I had something I needed to do."
"A meeting ... with your teacher of all people."
"What?" Helena croaked, and magically turned back into a teenager again; an embarrassed, humiliated, hopelessly mortified teenager who profoundly wished she'd been hatched instead of born. "You met with my teacher?" she said, wondering if there was any chance at all her mother meant Mrs. Latham, her trig teacher. She didn't really care what Mrs. Latham thought of her and it was pretty mutual, so there really wasn't much damage her mom could do on that front. "Which one?"
Selina almost laughed at the sudden change. Well, that was one way to overcome Helena's maternal instincts. She could probably blackmail the girl into line just by threatening to introduce herself to everyone she'd ever had a crush on. "Barbara Gordon," she responded smoothly.
"Barbara ... Gordon?" Helena croaked, mortification turning to outright horror. Of course that was who her mother meant. She'd known it from the start, but had allowed herself a moment's hope that it was someone else. She was just going to have to die now. No question about it. Going back to school wasn't an option and her mother would never let her drop out. Death it was. "Ms. Gordon ... as in the teacher from today's little ... incident ... Ms. Gordon?" she repeated, momentarily clinging to the tiniest of hopes that maybe Ms. Gordon's first name was Clarice or something like that, and maybe Mrs. Latham had divorced and remarried someone named Gordon in the span of an afternoon. No such luck.
"Yes," Selina responded pointedly. "I was quite impressed with Barbara."
Helena swallowed hard, not liking the look in her mother's eyes at all, nor the way she used what was apparently her teacher's first name so comfortably. "You ... you were?" she exhaled as though she'd been struck, knowing her mother's nature well enough to be worried. Selina wasn't usually one to go chasing after women, but Helena could easily see her mother being drawn to the multitude of layers and secrets the teacher possessed, not unlike the way a wild animal might be drawn to something pretty and shiny. And like a cat in the wild, she might play with her prey for a time, but the game would leave the toy badly clawed, perhaps even destroyed. She loved her mother deeply, but she was under no illusions about some facets of her personality. For the first time in her life, she found herself caring about the aftermath and the effect that overwhelming personality could have on others.
"Relax, little hunter," Selina's voice slid over her daughter, drawing Helena's head back up as she realized her mother had risen and drawn close. "She's claws-off territory," she murmured, reaching out to stroke Helena's cheek affectionately, "...for both of us." The brittle smile she would have shown most people softened and turned gentle. "I wouldn't do that to you," she assured her daughter, conveniently ignoring the moment's temptation to do just that.
Delicate shoulders slumped in relief. "It's just that...." Another shrug finished the sentence when she ran out of words.
"I know," Selina sighed. "And truthfully, I found myself wishing you were older or she was younger." She slid an arm around her daughter's shoulders, tugging her into a hug. "You finally managed to work up a bit of good taste, kiddo." Her expression turned sympathetic, all too aware of the hormones and passions driving her daughter. "But for the moment ... well ... it's just not the right time." She ruffled dark hair gently and offered tender smile. "However, she and I did discuss some serious things ... things that affect you...."
Helena frowned, uneasy with the direction the conversation was taking. "What?"
Selina released the hug, turning to face her daughter head on and resting her hands lightly on her shoulders. "I want you to memorize the number she gave you ... and use it if anything happens."
The teenager's frown deepened. That wasn't what she was expecting at all. "I don't understand."
"Sometimes you meet people you can trust, Helena. It doesn't happen often ... and it shouldn't be taken lightly. You can trust her ... and if anything happens, I want you to. She'll make sure you're okay if necessary."
Frightened by her mother's seriousness, Helena shook her head unsteadily. "What are you--"
"It's nothing specific," Selina broke in, seeing the teenager's growing panic, "just making sure you're protected ... that there's someone out there other than me who cares about you." She ruffled dark hair tenderly, then leaned forward until their foreheads were just touching. "You're everything to me, y'know ... the one thing I got wholly and completely right in this life ... and I need to make certain that you'll be okay no matter what."
The teenager peered up at her mother, staring deep and trying to see if she was telling the truth. Things had been getting so crazy that it was hard to be certain. "Promise me you'll be careful."
"Always, baby," Selina assured her daughter, then kissed her lightly on the forehead before drawing back. She offered a lopsided smile, suddenly looking even younger than most of Helena's schoolmates. She'd always had that ability, to be as much a friend as a parent, and Helena loved her desperately for it. All her growing up years, Selina had never been afraid to simply play like a child. When other parents had been standing on the sidelines, she'd been on the swings and slides along with the kids. And, while Helena knew perfectly well that others would fault her parenting methods, she'd never cared. The fact that her mother suddenly felt the need to act like a sober, reasonable adult frightened her more than she knew how to express. "It's gonna be all right. I promise." She gave her daughter a small push toward her room. "Now, off to bed with you." She saw Helena draw breath to argue and held up a hand to forestall the argument. "At least let me pretend I'm the adult in this relationship for a little while, 'kay?"
Well aware of her mother's eyes tracking her, Helena nodded and disappeared into her bedroom, though she was certain her mother wouldn't getting any sleep tonight. After her door was closed, she tugged open her closet, eyeing the black cat costume stolen from the back of her mother's closet while she was out. Just as well. No sleeping tonight meant her mom would probably sleep hard the next night. That was her usual pattern, and Saturdays were bad for thieves. Too many people home or on the streets. Helena pushed the door closed again. Well, it might not be ideal, but it was the only choice she had.
* * * * * *
Barbara had it in her to wonder about the insanity of being her age on a Saturday night, reasonably attractive, intelligent, with a modicum of social graces and patrolling the New Gotham skyline in a bat costume. She wondered what all those teachers who'd written such glowing reports about how well she followed the rules and played with others would think of this particular development. Probably not much, she decided with a grin, enjoying the knowledge that she wasn't quite the sweet and simple, good little girl so many people had always assumed. Moving gracefully, she straightened out of a crouched position, leaning into the wind that swept up the side of the high rise where she was comfortably perched at least 50 stories above the busy New Gotham streets. The breeze was chill on the exposed portion of her face and lifted her hair and cape behind her. For a moment, it felt like she was flying.
"Batgirl, any sign of movement?" Bruce's voice echoed over the receiver in her ear. God, she was looking forward to the time when the current madness ended and she could be alone on the prowl again. Not that she didn't love the guys, but there were days when it felt good to just be alone and on the move. Bruce was right, of course, that they all needed to take extra precautions for the moment, but it was going to be nice to get rid of both erstwhile brothers.
"Nothing unusual," she responded, her voice little more than a faint whisper. There was no one around to hear, but places like this always seemed to call for a measure of quiet, as though they might be haunted and speaking any louder could waken the dead. Or maybe it was just that speaking normally in full costume felt hideously ridiculous, she thought with a wry smile, like Hamlet's father appearing up on the castle walls and popping chewing gum. It just didn't fit somehow.
"Well, stay alert and keep to your check in times. You too, Nightwing," Bruce added, his tone making it clear that he was well aware that both of his young charges were on the line.
"Sure thing, Batman," Dick's voice came online almost immediately, his tone thick with humor. "By the way, there's nothing evil or foul going on at the campus girl's dorm."
Bruce's long suffering sigh was punctuated by Dick's soft snicker and brought a smile to the young woman's lips. It was a game they both played with Bruce at times, teasing him in an effort to push that dark edge back an inch or two. Sometimes, she thought he even kind of liked it, that maybe it let him go of the dark demons driving him if only for a few minutes.
"All right, guys," she broke in before they could really get the game going. "Going offline for a little while now." Unfortunately, the batteries on her two-way had a limited lifespan and she didn't feel like having to change them out for a fresh pair on the rooftop of some office building while the winds were whipping and making it hellishly difficult. The next time she had a little time, she wanted to look at the problem and see if there wasn't something that could be done to come up with a better system. If they were all going to be spending so much time wirelessly yoked together, it would be nice to have something that did the job a bit better.
"Be careful," Bruce warned her.
"Yeah, Babs," Dick added, not even noticing he'd used her old nickname instead of her code name, his tone part energetic little brother, part eager, would-be lover. She wondered how fast the cocky tone would melt away when Bruce started lecturing him on his mistake in using her name. Hopefully, she'd be offline by then and wouldn't have to listen. She got enough lectures of her own from her mentor. She didn't need to go listening in on Dick's as well. "Wouldn't want to have to come running to the rescue." Which was a total lie. He'd love it and crow about it for weeks.
She nodded distantly, already measuring the distance to the next building and calculating her next move. "You too, guys," she murmured, then thumbed the switch off, silencing their voices, grateful for a chance to be alone for a little while. On second thought, maybe she'd leave things on the transceiver just the way they were.
Drawing a climbing hook from her belt, Barbara pulled out enough line, looping it with the automatic skill borne of experience, then flung the hook even as she made a well-calculated, madman's leap. The wind caught her hair and cape, and for a moment, she was in total freefall, nearly flying as she gained momentum. The familiar moment of terror that she'd wind up as nothing more than a greasy spot on the pavement far below triggered a heady adrenaline rush, and then the hook rolled around its target and caught. Less than a second passed, then the line snapped taut and she rolled her legs around, swinging into the desired arc. The few seconds of wild flight ended in a light landing on the building across, then she snapped the line with practiced ease to disengage the hook, trusting the automatic retraction system to recoil the thin metal thread in its neat little case on her belt. The next few buildings were so closely spaced that she barely had to plan her path. A few climbing pitons installed months before made it easy enough to ascend where necessary, and the leaps required from point to point were small enough that she could just let go and treat the whole thing like the world's biggest tumbling run. After weeks of stress and fear, it almost felt like a night off. It wasn't so much that burning the candle at both ends was getting to her as the tight structure was starting to make her strain around the edges.
Soon she flung the hook again, losing herself in the wild flight that followed, aware of everything that slid past her, but a part of none of it. It was like hacking, which was one of those weird little personality quirks that not even Dick and Bruce seemed to understand, thinking that her love of computers was simply a techhead, geek thing, instead of the art of mental gymnastics that it really entailed. When she was flying like this or buried in a computer system, moving as gracefully through the virtual world as she moved over the New Gotham skyline, she could let go and be someone else---maybe even something else---for just a little while. It was an exhilarating kind of freedom for a police commissioner's daughter who'd spent most of her life constantly aware of the rules of decorum and the price to others if she dared breach those razor sharp societal demands. She landed again, did another tumbling run, then abruptly pulled up short.
A spot of illumination above the Gotham Museum of Art and Antiquities, caught her eye; a penlight or mini-mag by the look of it.
Now, this was new. She paused, perfectly unmoving, a shadowy statue, simply watching.
The light was coming from a ventilation port in one of the huge air conditioning units on the roof---not in use yet, since the spring temperatures still hadn't dropped much from late winter.
One eyebrow rose behind the cover of the heavy black cowl. Not the easiest way of staging a break in, but by the look of it, definitely what she was looking at. She heard a few faint rustling sounds, then a noisy clatter followed by a soft curse. A short run and a powerful launch carried her the distance needed, though she stretched out the leap with a tight tuck and roll, not unfolding out into her landing position until the last second. Well padded, non-skid boots handled the landing as quietly as possible, but there was an audible thud, soft though it was.
The rattling in the AC unit abruptly stopped. Obviously, the rattler had heard her landing. Barbara stepped back into the shadows, easily melding with them; for all practical purposes disappearing. A much softer shuffle this time and then one of the vent panels bent away from the AC unit and the top few inches of a black masked head slipped out.
A wry smile twisted Batgirl's mouth as she watched the performance. Definitely not a pro even if they were wearing what bore a strong resemblance to Catwoman's mask. Catwoman wouldn't have been caught dead making that much noise. The black mask disappeared back inside the vent and Barbara heard a muttered flood of obscenities followed by a rattle that was louder than all the rest and then a sharp ripping sound. Something was definitely getting the worst of the experience. Lips twitching into a grin, she moved forward, standing calmly beside the vent. This was going to be fun. Suddenly a hand thrust itself out through the bend in the vent, black gloved fingers clutching a huge, rough cut ruby that was easily recognizable as the Eye of Ra; a gem pulled from the death mask of a mummy believed to have been Imhotep himself. There were some poor fools who even seemed to believe it had some kind of supernatural powers. Or maybe it was going to be a bit too easy to be much fun. Definitely a beginner in the breaking and entering sweepstakes. She wondered if the would-be thief had ever done this sort of thing before because even most newbies knew to keep the item being stolen close at hand ... or at least in view. Reaching out, she simply snatched the jewel free and danced back several paces.
"What the..." muffled, pissed off, and definitely female, the voice echoed inside the air conditioning unit along with a whole raft of rattling and shuffling sounds.
Grinning, Barbara stepped back another pace, melting into the shadows as she watched a slender, Catwoman wannabe---down to the haphazard stitching on the costume---scramble free of the AC unit and stare down at the roof, obviously thinking she'd dropped the jewel, only to find that it was nowhere to be found. Barbara nearly broke into laughter, and was more than a little tempted to just let the thief go, especially when she actually stuck her head back through the vent, clearly thinking maybe it had fallen inside. Confused body language was all the rage when the thief straightened and it clearly wasn't there either. Just a kid, judging by the way she didn't fill out what was probably a rented costume. Barbara noted the rip over one calf and shook her head. That explained the ripping sound. Still unused to that sort of thing, the poor kid had probably gotten caught on something on the way up.
And then suddenly tension rippled through the lean body and she spun. "Who's there?" No doubt or uncertainty in her voice this time, she scanned the rooftop for a second pausing when she lined up with the shadowed corner where Barbara stood. It was a moonless night, and Barbara was comfortably certain she couldn't be seen, but the thief definitely knew she was there. Maybe not such a beginner ... or maybe just not the average thief.
No use playing hide and seek any longer. "Looking for this?" Barbara drawled as she stepped out of the shadows, seeming to split away from them, cloak floating around her with uncanny grace, one hand held out to reveal the gently glittering, blood red stone.
Helena felt her pulse kick into high gear, a bolt of fear and excitement ripping through her. Batgirl. Her mom had fought her a couple of times ... even picked up a few bruises. Maybe Helena couldn't kick Joker's ass, but she could exact a little revenge on this woman. "Give it back," she snarled.
Barbara offered a wry smile and shook her head. "I don't think so." She nodded to indicate the tear in the Catwoman costume. "By the way, most costume shops charge pretty major fees if you bring things back in that condition." The thief snarled a furious curse and lunged, moving fast, but not especially knowingly. Barbara ducked the wild swing aimed for her face with an easy economy of movement, slamming an elbow into the thief's back as she stumbled on past to send her crashing hard to the floor of the roof.
Cursing, Helena stumbled, hit the rooftop and tumbled. She rolled and was on her feet in a blink, but not before Batgirl had done a slow turn to face her. The superhero flashed a superior, I'm-better-than-you-are smile that did nothing to improve the teenager's mood, and pointedly tucked the jewel into a pouch on her belt. "Word of advice," Batgirl said calmly, "it's generally not a good idea to swing that wildly at someone who probably knows a whole lot more about fighting than you do. Oh, and if I were you, I wouldn't let the real Catwoman catch me doing the bad knockoff impression. She will kick your ass for fun if she does." The smile broadened several notches. "She's not as friendly as I am."
Helena caught herself, not lunging the way she wanted, instead simply watching the other woman, her breath coming slow and ragged. This woman wasn't like the dumb, brawler, high school boys she'd beaten up a time or two before for making crude comments about friends or beating up on kids smaller than themselves. She actually knew what she was doing and wasn't fighting angry. She was either going to have to take Batgirl down and get the jewel off her belt or intimidate her into giving it up."How can you be so sure I'm not Catwoman?" she snarled, glaring angrily and trying to decide the best way to get what she wanted, and hoping against hope the other woman would run scared.
The question earned a soft laugh. "Oh, it's not hard. The last time I ran into Catwoman, she threw me off a building, shoved my head through a plate glass window, and nearly broke my arm ... and that was just while we were saying 'Hello.' So far, your performance has been less impressive."
The answer caught Helena by surprise. Technically, she knew her mother could do all those things, but it was a side of her she'd never seen in person. "She really did all that?" she asked a little uncertainly.
"Yeah." Barbara shrugged. "She did." It had been one of those nights, and she'd been between Catwoman and something she wanted. Truth be told, there'd been something perversely enjoyable about the whole thing; neither of them trying for blood, just trading blows and matching techniques. In the end, it had pretty much been a draw with the thief getting about half the items she'd been trying to steal and Barbara managing to save the other half. They'd both been bruised to hell and limping, and more or less accepted it was time to call it an evening. Taking it any farther would have gotten one or the other badly hurt, and neither one was all that eager for that to happen. She shook her head as it occurred to her that going up against Catwoman was sort of the superhero equivalent of pro-wrestling. Yeah, it really hurt when you hit the mat, and it looked good, but there was a certain pre-scripted quality to things. "Actually, I think she rather enjoyed herself." Full lips twisted in a wry smile and she flinched with remembered pain as she remembered the other woman's grin at one particular point. "Especially taking out that window." Then green eyes sharpened. "Which is why you should go home and take up a life of honest toil. You're outa your league. Quit while you're behind."
Teeth gritted against the condescending note in the other woman's voice, Helena shook her head. She needed to get that jewel. Then her mom could finish off that damn contract, and lie low for awhile. "I can't," she said very softly, her voice little more than a low growl. "Which is why it would be in your best interest to just give it back to me."
Barbara shook her head, almost admiring the determination even as she rejected that notion. "I'm afraid that would sorta negate the whole superhero concept," she explained patiently, her tone gentle all things considered. "Go home," she advised seriously. It was probably just some kid trying to live up to a stupid dare or somesuch act of idiocy. She could make an arrest and drop her for the cops, but if some over-eager prosecutor got hold of the case, the kid might just wind up getting convicted for all of Catwoman's crimes just so a lawyer could make a name for himself. "Before you get hurt."
"I can't," Helena repeated, "and you'll be the one getting hurt if you're not careful." She'd felt the other woman's strength in the blow that had slammed into her back. Even if she was holding back, it hadn't been enough to do more than startle her. Batgirl might be strong, but it was pure human kind of strength, and Helena had more than enough power to deal with that.
"Now don't go making threats you can't carry out," Batgirl chastised.
Helena didn't waste time on further chitchat, not when it was obvious the only way she was going to get what she needed was to fight. She simply leapt, moving so fast she was little more than a blur.
Barbara fell back on one foot, bracing herself when she realized she couldn't duck anywhere near fast enough this time, and twisted at the last moment. The contact was hard enough to leave her seeing stars, and then the Catwoman wannabe was rolling over her shoulder, momentum carrying on a wild tumble across the rooftop. She spun even as her attacker found her feet and lunged again. No time for anything fancy this time as the kid came at her again. She blocked the first couple of blows, though it was like having ten pound sledges slam into her forearms. The kid might be on the scrawny side, but she was strong as an ox. Time for her to learn that she couldn’t go around hitting people without a few nasty consequences.
Barbara blocked another blow, then did a fast snap kick, rocking her assailant's head back on her shoulders. A second kick to the solar plexus bent the Catwoman wannabe over, then a spinning forearm smash literally took her off her feet, whipping her so fast through the air that the knockoff was momentarily horizontal. Barbara watched her attacker hit the roof with something akin to pity. She'd taken a few beatings like that and knew exactly what it felt like. "Stay down," she advised, already wondering how close it was getting to check-in time.
Helena pushed up on her hands and snapped to her feet, eyes wild, an animal snarl on her lips. Nobody did that to her. Nobody. She leapt again, nearly flying at her enemy, ready to kill she was so angry.
Sometimes all you can do in the superhero game is brace yourself and take the blow. It was a basic axiom, and Barbara Gordon knew it well. And sometimes that blow is about like getting hit with a Mack truck. She also knew that one all too well. Her attacker was coming too fast. No way to duck or dodge and no redirecting the swing this time. All she could do was get hit and do her best to deal with it. The cowl protected her somewhat as knuckles cracked into the side of her face. The plan had been to stand her ground, but as raw power began communicating itself from that fist to her body, she realized that was likely to wind up with her spitting teeth and spending time at the chiropractor's office for months on end. At the last possible moment, she relaxed into the blow, going with the flow as she was hurled off her feet and tossed several yards. She hit tarpaper, skidded, and lay faintly dazed. "Told you to give it back," an angry voice rattled around inside her head, even as a distant part of her brain decided to muse on why that voice sounded vaguely familiar. "Now, I'll just take it." Barbara shook off the haze in an instant and did a fast kick back up to her feet, her gaze hard and blazing. The Catwoman knockoff wasn't the only one pissed off now. She'd spent most of her time sneaking around for weeks. Delivering a good old fashioned beating suddenly sounded like a good idea.
"You really don't know much about me, do you?" Batgirl drawled as she landed on her feet with almost supernatural grace.
Helena swallowed hard, not expecting the woman to be up so fast. The few times she'd hit someone like that before they'd gone down and stayed that way. It had never occurred to her that might not be the result this time. And then suddenly they were circling, and she was staring into green eyes that were intelligent and confident, and beginning to wonder if this was such a good plan. Hell, she was already in too much trouble for ripping her mom's costume. Get herself killed and there was going to be hell to pay. Then a fist cracked into her jaw and she suddenly understood why her mom sometimes came home limping as the blow drove her back a pace and her knee twisted badly. A second blow whipped her head to the side and her twisted knee gave, dropping her to the roof, where a hard fist smashed into her face from the side, nearly dropping her all the way. Dear God, she'd never had any idea how bad it could hurt to get hit. Her mom had taught her a few things about self defense, but never really used her strength, and the fights she'd had in school had, in no way, prepared her for the blast of pain gloved fists were capable of inflicting. She just wanted it to stop, and she lashed out blindly, dropping back on one knee and kicking hard with her other foot on an upward trajectory. She was almost as surprised as her attacker when her booted foot made contact with a solid body.
Get cocky, wind up dead. Yet another powerful axiom.
If she hadn't been well on the way to proving the reality of the saying, Barbara might have even taken the time to agree with the idea. As it was, since she was airborne and flying toward the open space well past the walls of the building, she didn't really have time for anything that coherent. Time to live or die. She had just enough time to spot an access ladder that ran up the side of the building and was more or less along her trajectory, and then she was arcing, stretching and reaching for it. Gloves hands closed on cold steel, gripping with desperate strength. Still moving fast, the rest of her body whipped on past, until it hit the end of its human tether. She yanked herself up short, body flipping end over end, nearly screaming at the stress the maneuver put on her arms. If they weren't disjointed when it was over, she was going to be very lucky. And then she was falling as the momentum of her wild flight gave way and gravity took over. She slammed into the ladder with bone jarring force, lost her grip and dropped straight down several feet before she caught another rung. Great, she was getting her ass kicked by some kid who didn't even know enough to keep from losing the goods. At least when the someone like the Joker or Catwoman took a chunk out of her it wasn't embarrassing.
For her part, Helena stared in horror as the other woman lost her grip and fell out of sight. No. She hadn't meant for that to happen. Killing someone definitely hadn't been part of the plan. Leaping to her feet, she lunged after the other woman, dreading what she expected to find when she looked over. God, her mom was gonna kill her if she'd turned Batgirl into Bat-splat.
She needn't have worried. A black garbed body was coming up fast as she leaned over the side of the building, a solid fist cracking into the side of her face just before Batgirl launched herself straight into the air, flipped easily over Helena, and landed lightly behind her. The girl was still turning when a brutal backhand whipped into her face from the side. She would have lost her balance and fallen, but Batgirl's other hand grabbed her by the shirtfront, hauling her back from the edge, then yanking her into a shoulder throw that hurtled Helena several yards away from the roof's edge. She hit tarpaper and rolled, coming to a halt in a low crouch, eyes blazing and feral, pain and fear forgotten when she saw the look on the other woman's face; no longer a mocking smile, or simply the vague disinterest of someone doing a job, but a taunting, wicked twist of a grin.
"You realize, of course, this means war," Barbara drawled, using bravado, anger, and a line stolen from Bugs Bunny to ignore the fact that she hurt like hell. The Catwoman knockoff just grinned where she crouched on hands and feet, a wild maniacal expression that gave a demonic cast to her features and made her look almost like the real thing.
And then they were clashing again, moving with the sort of speed and grace the Hong Kong cinema spent days and dollars to create on film, all without nets or flying harnesses. Barbara had faced some pretty phenomenal talents in her time, but this one seemed to be learning even as they traded blows, every move a little sharper and cleaner than the last. Not exactly the perfect time to stumble across such an ideal student, she thought as she just barely dodged a fist moving so fast and so close the air wake from its passage set her hair flying. She twisted, hammered her elbow into her attacker's ribs, then caught an arm, intending to flip Junior into a shoulder roll. For just a moment, muscles pulled against each other, each trying for the stronger position, and then Barbara felt her feet lose the ground and she was the one flipped, rolled, and slammed face down into tarpaper. She rolled to avoid a booted foot, did a fast kick up to her feet, blocked another couple of fast moving punches, and found her own blocked as well.
Fun was officially the last thing on her mind.
Barbara needed a little space and a moment to think. Judging by the way her adversary was learning, repeating any move she'd already used was likely to leave her bloody and hurting. Time for a new strategy. She fell back a pace, purposely favoring one leg, and opened herself up on that side, knowing junior would take the bait. Which she did right on schedule. Barbara twisted, trapping an outthrust arm. She knew she couldn't hold on for long. Junior was just too much stronger than she was, but with luck, she wouldn't need long. She snapped her fist back and up into her assailant's jaw, then dropped her grip to the front of her costume, fingers curling into soft leather, and hauled her into a hip throw that rolled into a shoulder throw with an added push off. PussyCat Junior went flying, and Barbara twisted and broke into a run, heading for the high ground. She flung the grappling hook just ahead of her wild launch off the roof of the art museum, making a maneuver she'd practiced at least a dozen times before but never at such breakneck speed. The hook caught even as she hit the retraction control on the line, kicking into the swing as it hauled her upward. Momentum carried her exactly where she wanted to go, and she snapped the line free in the last slice of the arc, flying for a moment before she hit a neighboring roof, rolled and found her feet again. She was just spinning back to check on her opponent when a lean, figure all in black hit the roof only a few feet away. She hadn't expected that. Not at all. Feeling the toll the fight was starting to take on her body, she didn't even try to block the blows, just ducked and dodged as she backpedaled as fast as she could and tried to come up with a new plan, because it was obvious she wasn't going to be gaining any ground anytime soon, and hitting her opponent seemed to have all the effect of slamming her fists into a concrete wall.
A smoke pellet from her belt bought a few seconds and she made a wild leap, hitting a neighboring wall and grabbing for a fire escape ladder she'd used before. She hit badly, off center and only one hand on a rung, feet swinging over thin air twenty stories up.
When she'd been thinking about how much fun a beating might be, it had never occurred to her that she might be the one on the receiving end.
Coughing, her eyes tearing up, Helena stumbled free of the smoke cloud and spotted the slender figure dangling from the fire ladder of a neighboring building. As she watched, she suddenly noted the flaming shock of hair trailing behind the other woman, eyes focusing in on the way it caught on the wind and swirled around her like a second cape. Swinging her other arm into play, Batgirl caught the rung with both hands, then heaved herself up, getting her feet onto the ladder to start a fast moving climb toward the top. A muscle twitched along the line of the teenager's jaw and a soft growl escaped her lips, the feral hunter in her on fire and enjoying the game. This was definitely getting to be fun. After a running start, she bounded high, caught the edge of the low wall around the roof and vaulted over, landing a short distance from the fire ladder.
She was waiting for Batgirl when the other woman clambered over, smiling when she heard the superhero curse softly under her breath, and almost laughing when she saw her glance back and measure the distance before deciding it was too far to jump and survive. "The Eye of Ra ... please," Helena requested, her tone artificially polite as she held out a hand.
Barbara stood perfectly still, her breath coming rough and harsh. Junior might be a newbie at the thieving game, and at the fighting game too, but dear lord, she learned fast. It was like she was only getting smarter and stronger with blow received or delivered. She shook her head slowly, using the break to catch her breath and try and find an answer to her obvious problem; namely if she wasn't careful she was going to wind up dead trying to protect one jewel, and, when it came down to it, it just wasn't worth her life. "Who the hell are you?" she questioned at last.
A wicked twist of a smile curved full lips. "Your worst nightmare," Helena drawled. If Batgirl could go channeling Bugs, then she supposed Sly Stallone ought not be off limits.
She was surprised when Batgirl only shook her head. "Sorry, no ... you've got too good a tan, and I doubt you've got green hair."
"Joker," Helena exhaled her voice honed to a fine edge of hate.
Surprised by the sheer revulsion in the young thief's voice, Barbara frowned behind the mask. "Not a friend of yours, I take it?" she murmured, eager to calm things down if possible.
A slow head shake. "No. In fact, he's why I...." Junior started to say then cut herself off and shook her head.
"Just give me the Eye."
"Problem is, I can't ... it's like a union thing." The next thing Barbara knew, her assailant moved so fast she seemed to shift from flesh to fast moving shadow in an instant, and she was grabbed by the front of her costume. Then the redhead was slamming into one of the air conditioning units spaced around the roof with enough force to leave a Batgirl shaped dent in cheap aluminum grating. She ducked a fist that followed, grinning as it smashed through the grating, momentarily trapping her attacker and giving her a chance to deliver a flurry of blows that would have left most people on their knees and begging for their mommies. PussyCat Jr. only grinned, spat blood, yanked her fist free of the grating, and grabbed Barbara by the front of her costume to pull her away from the grating. Oh, this was gonna hurt. And then she was slamming into the grating again, this time so hard it tore under the impact, shredded aluminum ripping at her hair and mask, one jagged edge slicing through black neoprene near the corner of her eye. It just barely nicked flesh and drew blood, while other jags of torn metal grabbed at other bits of her cowl, nearly dislodging it and pulling up until it was half off and blinding her.
Still gripping Batgirl tightly, Helena ignored the fists and boots that hammered at her, instinctively maintaining her position in a way that didn't allow her prisoner to get enough leverage to do any real damage. Her opponent's mask had slipped, leaving her nearly blind, but she could still twist and squirm, making it impossible to search for where she'd stored the Eye of Ra on her belt. "Stop fighting me," Helena ground out, frustration triggering a fresh wave of anger. Without thinking, she wrenched her opponent free of the clinging shards of grating, careless of the way the ragged jags tore at cape, costume, flesh and hair, then slammed her onto the floor of the roof, moving over her and straddling slender hips. They grappled momentarily, then she managed to catch hold of slender wrists to shove down over Batgirl's head. "Shoulda just handed it over," Helena breathed as she leaned forward, her lips nearly touching her prisoner's, so close, she could smell a hint of perfume---probably shampoo or soap---so sweet smelling it teased her nostrils and made her insides quiver. And suddenly sixteen year-old hormones forgot all about jewels and the Joker, and burned with far darker temptations. She outlined her prisoner's jaw with her lips, almost but not quite making contact with soft flesh, so close she could see every twitch of muscle. It would be so easy. Her teacher might be off limits, but someone who'd just tried to kill her ought not be. "Maybe there's something else you'd like to hand over," she whispered near a pale ear, her voice low and suggestive, the instinct for combat giving way to another kind of instinct altogether.
Helena felt the body beneath her own still, muscles so tense they were quivering gently, but no longer fighting.
The hunter in her liked that feel. The hunter in her wanted more.
Nearly blinded by the blood leaking inside tight neoprene and the shift in her cowl, Barbara felt the shift in her opponent's mood almost instantly. The CatBrat had to be kidding. She could not seriously be making a pass. Yes, actually, she could, Barbara realized as hot breath played over her skin, and the lean body above her own shifted ever so slightly, the move less about pain and more about pleasure this time. Despite the temptation to have a politically correct, screaming shit fit at the little thug, she caught hold her of her temper. People leading with their hormones weren't known for making the wisest decisions. God knew, she'd used it against male opponents a few times in the past. "Maybe," she whispered, her voice soft and inviting.
"You have red hair," a voice husky from exertion and passion breathed as Barbara felt the grip on her transfer from two hands to one, then the movement from the figure above her before warm flesh touched her cheek and newly bared fingertip stroked her hair lightly. "I like red hair." Junior must have used her teeth to yank off a glove during that brief moment.
"I'm not really big on the whole, 'tie me up, tie me down,' concept though," Barbara panted, hoping to gain some measure of freedom.
A soft laugh greeted that proclamation. "Get used to it," Helena murmured. Leaning more heavily on the slender wrists gripped tightly in one hand as she let her other hand float lower, just barely touching perfect curves. "Because no way am I trusting you any more than I have to." At least no more than was necessary to get what she wanted.
Damn, damn, damn. Okay, so that wasn't going to work, Barbara realized, at least not unless she felt like getting naked with CatGirl ... which she wasn't much in the mood for. Time for a more brutal approach. Taking a deep breath to nerve herself up for the pain she knew would follow, she rammed her forehead into her enemy's hard enough to rock her back on her heels, twisted her wrists free to punch and claw blindly at her attacker's face, nearly shredding the oddly stitched leather in the process, then locked her fists together and hammered them into the CatBrat's side as she rolled the opposite direction. Used to fighting in dark places and nightworn spaces, Barbara rolled to one knee, tracking her opponent by sound. The witch obviously assumed that she was helpless if she couldn't see. Bad, bad mistake. Batman had taught her a dozen different ways of fighting if she was disabled in some way. She heard the whistle of the lunge, felt the faint movement of air, and spun into the sound, falling back and kicking up with every last ounce of strength. It was hard enough to send her attacker flying and she knew it. In an instant, Barbara was moving, tearing her mask off over her head with one hand and hurling the grappling hook from her belt with the other. Even made mostly blind, the throw was good, and she saw the hook swirl around a narrow ankle before her attacker disappeared behind the wall of the building in a downward arc. Knowing what was coming, she braced herself, boots digging in during the second or so before the line abruptly pulled taut and she was dragged forward.
Helena didn't mean to scream in terror, but she did anyway, a frightened, teenage shriek escaping her lips during the moment when she found herself plunging straight down toward the tarmac many, many floors below. Fear turned to pain as she was suddenly pulled up short, her left knee and ankle taking the brunt of the force before she was slammed into brick with enough power to leave her gasping in pain. Batgirl's attack had left her mother's mask so shredded that she could barely see and she tore at it, yanking it off, careless of the fact that it meant her enemy could see her face now. She twisted, trying to see something she could grab onto, but there was nothing. She didn't care about the damned Eye anymore, she just wanted to survive.
"Quit moving for god's sake," a voice, breathless and sounding nearly as scared as she felt, called down. And then suddenly she felt herself start to slowly drag upward. She arched out from the wall, trying to get a look, but Batgirl was silhouetted by moonlight, her face no more than a deep shadow surrounded by a titian halo of hair.
It couldn't be. No way in hell, and yet there she was. Barbara shook her head in confusion as she recognized the delicacy of features that turned her way. Helena Kyle? What in the ever-loving hell? Muscles screaming, she braced herself as she felt the retractor reel the line in. It was geared to hold up to four hundred pounds of drag, so she wasn't worried that it would snap or jam, but the hook was nowhere near as firm as she would have liked. She saw the teenager start to squirm again and felt the line shiver. "I said don't move, goddammit," she snapped angrily. "That is unless you want to be introduced to the pavement in a very up close and personal way!" The girl went almost completely dead still, while Barbara watched with something akin to terror, well aware of just how tenuous things were. She'd done what was necessary to survive and protect herself, but that didn't mean she was eager to see the kid wind up badly hurt if not dead. There was a second line on her belt and she drew the hook and flung it, tracking it as it wrapped around a distant piece of piping. She tugged lightly, making sure it was firm enough to keep her from falling, then leaned over the side of the building, grabbing for the body making the slow, upside-down climb in her direction. Her fingers closed on a slender ankle, steadying the line and keeping the girl from swinging, then her other dug into cool leather where it was loose at the hips. Muscles pulling taut, she hauled Helena up in one less-than-graceful move and dumped her on the roof in a heap. A sharp snap and the line steadying her started to retract, while a light toeing motion freed the one around Helena's ankle. "Of all the stupid, idiotic, moronic ... fuckwit," Barbara gasped, so furious she could barely think straight. She saw blue eyes swing her way, then widen in shock, though it was hard to say whether the shock came from finding her teacher in a Batgirl costume or hearing her teacher use the word, 'fuckwit,' it was impossible to say. Students could be unpredictable about these things. "... things to do." She thrust a finger into the girl's face. "Now, I want to know who put you up to this ... and why ... and then I want to know what in the hell you think you were doing."
Mortified color flooding her face, Helena could only stare up at her teacher in shock, any notion of being the cool, sexy, sophisticated thief gone in an instant. "Oh God," she groaned and thrust to her feet. She felt the clamp of cold steel on her bare wrist before she could do more than get onto the narrow ledge that surrounded the roof.
"Oh no you don't," Barbara snarled and latched the other end of the handcuff to her own wrist before she could think better of it. The girl's strength dragging her forward, she stepped onto the ledge, bracing herself as she glared at the teen. "No running away," she snapped impatiently, then nodded to indicate the steep drop to her immediate right. "Not unless you plan on killing us both."
"Unlatch it," Helena demanded through the whip of humiliated tears.
Barbara just shook her head, refusing to even consider letting the teenager flee into the night. "We can either get down or fall down together," she swore. The gentle approach hadn't worked so far, so maybe a little tough love would. Of course, it meant she was stuck trusting the kid really didn't have any suicidal tendencies. Bruce would be so pissed off if she got herself killed before his big showdown with Joker.
"Not this time, Helena," Barbara said, softening her tone, silently willing the girl to give in. "It's either the roof or the street, but either way, we're going together."
Frightened blue eyes stared at her through a gloss of tears. "Are you crazy?" Helena demanded, the whole thing too confusing for words. Batgirl was Ms. Gordon ... Barbara Gordon? Just hearing her first name had done enough to blow the teen's mind. Now she was supposed to deal with the fact that she was some kind of mysterious, caped crimefighter. That just wasn't normal. Teacher's weren't supposed to be real people with lives, homes, pets, or secret identities.
Her teacher only stared at her, a challenging look in her eyes. "I teach high school by day and run around in a bat costume by night. You do the math," she bit out.
That did kinda answer the whole was she or wasn't she question. Even Helena was experienced enough to know that no sane person would teach high school. A long moment passed and she glanced over the side of the building, momentarily a little dizzy as it struck her just how high up they were. "I... I don't wanna die," she whispered ... which was really kind of a shame, because when her mom found out about this, she was soooo dead.
"Thank god," Barbara muttered under her breath, and hopped down, dragging the girl along with a solid yank on their bound wrists. "Because I haven't even started grading papers ... and I don't even want to think about Batman's reaction if I get myself killed by some high school kid."
Embarrassed beyond measure, Helena just sank deeper into herself, praying against all hope that maybe this was nothing more than some late night Cheetos infested nightmare. It wasn't happening. It couldn't be happening. She felt lightheaded and was surprised when Ms. Gordon shoved her head down.
"Head between your knees and breathe deeply," her teacher advised even as she pulled some magic trick and separated their wrists. Just about the time the world started to clear a little she pushed Helena in a sitting position with a solid shove. "Everything ... now," the woman snapped.
Barbara was amazed, to put it mildly, by the way discovery seemed to wilt the teenager. "I...I can't," she whispered, her voice thick with tears. "God, this is such a mess."
"Ya think?" the redhead demanded with uncharacteristic sarcasm as she crouched down and peered at the girl, mentally struggling to integrate the wild-eyed fighter with the frightened child she was looking at now. "What the hell's going on?" she asked at last, her voice softening as she watched the girl rub at messy tears. Helena just shook her head and wouldn't look at Barbara, until finally the teacher reached out, tucking a finger under her chin and drawing her head up. "Helena, talk to me." The kid she knew was wild, yes, but not a damn thief or rapist. Something was going on.
Another rough head shake as Helena twitched free of the light contact. "Just call the cops or whatever you're going to do." Everything was coming apart and it was all her fault. She just didn't really care what happened anymore. She heard a soft sigh and felt a hand land lightly on her upthrust knee.
"I'm not going to call the police," Ms. Gordon murmured, sounding as tired and beaten as Helena felt. "I'm not sure what I am going to do, but not that."
Helena looked up then, her expression resentful and accusing. Well, of course she wasn't going to call the cops. She was sitting there in a Batgirl costume. Couldn't blow her own secret identity. It wasn't like she really cared. After what had just happened, how could she? "Right ... you're Batgirl," she muttered. "Can't have that hitting the papers."
Barbara flinched at the reminder of harsh reality. "I admit I'd rather not," she allowed, then shook her head. "But that's not why I'm not calling the cops. I think you're a decent kid, Helena ... despite everything ... and I'm not interested in destroying you." And locking this one up would destroy her. Barbara was certain of it. Helena Kyle wouldn't survive being forced into any kind of structured mold. She'd either beat herself bloody against the bars of any cage, or, like any wild animal, curl into herself and slip away.
Lower lip quivering despite her best efforts, Helena looked up, flinching when she saw the stream of blood still trickling away from the small wound on near her teacher's right eye and the bruising starting to discolor her jaw. She felt her stomach muscles clench painfully as it struck her that she'd done that. In fact, she'd nearly killed the other woman. With masks and costumes on, it had all seemed like a game, one she could lose herself in and let go completely, not something that could have real world results. She'd just wanted to win, not consider the possible ramifications. Suddenly it was very, very real. "I'm so sorry," she whispered as she lost herself in green eyes the way she had from the first moment she stepped into the woman's class. Without thinking, she reached out, fingers trembling faintly as they touched warm, wet blood.
It occurred to Barbara that she should pull back, but she wanted the teen to understand what she'd done, and, as she watched her stare at the crimson now coating two fingertips, she thought maybe the message got through. "If some security guard or maintenance man had stumbled across you ... and you'd lost control the way you did with me, they'd probably be dead," her voice soft even if the message was hard, "...and you'd be a murderer."
The teenager shook her head. "I didn't mean to--"
"It wouldn't matter then," Barbara broke in, her voice harder this time. "Once somebody dies, it changes everything."
Helena nodded. Her mom had said the same thing a time or two, making a point that it was why she never tried for a killing stroke on anyone trying to stop her. Thieves and murderers, yes, they deserved what they got as far as Selina Kyle was concerned, but never the assorted heroes, cops, and security guards whose only sin was getting in her way. Knock 'em around a bit, sure, but never kill. "I'm sorry," she whispered again, staring down at the dark splotch of blood as she rubbed it between thumb and forefinger. A moment passed and then she looked up, her heart in her eyes. "I never meant to hurt you ... not tonight ... not...." She trailed off, unable to reference the ugly scene after class the previous day. "I just ... lost ... control."
"I know," Barbara sighed, putting the kid out of her misery, though she had to wonder why she felt the need all things considered. Maybe it was the genuine regret in blue eyes, or maybe it was just that she understood all too well the desire to completely let go. "But with your abilities," and God knew, Barbara wanted to know more about those, and where the hell they came from because, untrained as she was, the teen was frighteningly powerful, "you can't afford to do that."
A slender hand floated out, catching another drop of blood. She'd struck people before, even caused a bloody nose or two, but this was on a completely different scale ... and it had never been anyone she liked, or who was trying to do the right thing.
"Why did you want the Eye?" the gentle question broke in on the girl's thoughts, and she looked up.
"I need it," was the only answer Helena could give that wouldn't risk revealing her mother's identity.
Russet brows drew together in a frown. "Don't tell me you actually believe that mystical crap that it has magic powers," she demanded with considerable doubt, unable to believe the girl was that gullible.
"No," Helena said instantly, though it occurred to her a beat too late that she should have gone with that story. Lord knew, there were plenty of kids at the school who'd seen The Craft one too many times and actually thought maybe they could summon arcane forces to do their bidding. Yeah, right. "I just---I can't explain," she muttered, hoping to wave the subject aside.
"Well, you'd better try," Barbara said softly. She peered at the kid, thinking of the hatred of the Joker. Had he somehow found out about her abilities and put her up to serving him? That could explain the recent stress and fear. With that kind of pressure bearing down on her, what teenager wouldn't start to crack around the edges?
"I can't," the girl said again, her voice cracking mid-word.
Pressure wasn't going to work, Barbara realized, at least not that kind of pressure. She took a breath, considering the situation carefully. "Is it the Joker?" she questioned. Most kids her age barely knew who he was and yet there'd been hate in the teenager's eyes at his mention. He'd spent enough years in Arkham that most of her students had just been children when he went in, and they didn't seem to understand the adult terror running around the town since his most recent escape some months before. Truth be told, she didn't even have that much experience against the madman. She'd helped out a few times but it was Batman who had all the experience where the clown prince was concerned. He'd been caught quickly before, but this time he'd managed to put together a hell of a machine, and it was bearing down on all of them.
Helena's head snapped up, her eyes scared. She didn't know what to say, how to explain it in a way that wouldn't risk her mom's safety and freedom. "Kind of," she whispered at last.
"That sick bastard," Barbara breathed so softly her voice was barely audible, hands clenching and unclenching at her sides. "He threatened you?"
Helena couldn't answer the question directly. It wasn't like Joker had grabbed her personally and threatened her, but at the same time, if her mom didn't hand the stolen gem over to Guy Falcone, one of her less desirable customers, Helena was terrified the SOB would sell her out. "If I don't get the Eye, my mom could be in danger."
Which left Barbara in an awful quandary, uncertain how to protect the girl or her mother with everything going bad, but well aware that if the Joker was threatening them, then it would never stop just because she did what he wanted. If anything, it would only get worse. "Listen, I've got friends ... we can help protect you and your mom--"
"No," Helena cut Barbara off, panicked at the idea of more people knowing. She knew her mom had fought Batman in the past; a lot from what she knew, and he might just recognize her. She shook her head and started to push to her feet. "If you aren't going to help me, I've got to--"
"Sit down," Barbara ordered and pushed Helena back down. "I didn't say I won't help you ... but, Helena, if you give the Joker what he wants, then he'll just want more. You'll never be free--"
"You don't understand," the girl began, but Barbara cut her off again.
"Believe me, I know how his type works. And with what you can do," she reached out, bringing the girl's head back up when she would have looked away, "with what you can do," she repeated with added emphasis, "he'd be more than eager to get you under his control. You're not a bad kid, but I'd be very afraid for you." She brushed loose hair back from the girl's temple. "He knows how to twist people ... how to make them as crazy as he is ... and he glories in it." And an angry teenager with the kind of physical ability Helena possessed would be child's play for him. If he got his claws well and truly into Helena Kyle, he might just manage to turn her into his own image ... and perhaps he might even make her more deadly that he'd ever been.
A shiver made its way down Helena's spine. Her mother had said much the same in refusing to serve the clown prince of darkness.
"Because he wouldn't stop until he destroyed every last good and decent thing in you," Barbara added, her voice low and sepulchral. "Caring ... kindness ... the ability to love ... all gone."
"I wouldn't..." Helena started to deny the charge, but the words wouldn't come when she looked at the blood still leaking from the cut on her teacher's temple. She'd lost all control, wanting to hurt and destroy ... and maybe someone or something could make her do those things. Except the Joker didn't even know she existed ... and it was all a bunch of lies. And suddenly the lies seemed nearly as bad as the fight. "Look, I just--"
A soft sound interrupted whatever she was going to say, leaving Helena uncertain whether to be disappointed or relieved.
Barbara reached for the two-way receiver that was still miraculously hooked to her ear, flipping it back on. "Batgirl here," she said quickly, and stood, stepping away from the girl, while keeping an eye on her.
Bruce's voice came back almost instantly. "You missed your check in time."
Barbara shrugged. "I ran into a bit of trouble--" she began hesitantly.
"Joker?" her mentor demanded, his tone all business.
"No," she said quickly, "it wasn't anything I couldn't handle. I'll explain later."
"Where are you?"
"Just east of the Art Museum. What's up?" She knew his tone well enough to realize something was on for the night.
"Nightwing ran into a group of Joker's thugs ... and the fight's moving." As he spoke, she could hear the rumble of the Batmobile purring in the background. "They're beating him up pretty bad and he needs help ... he's leading them right to us. Coming in from the campus on main. They should hit your position in the next few minutes."
Barbara reached for one of the pouches on her belt. She carried a spare mask tucked in there. Lighter then her regular one, and almost no physical protection, it would at least keep her identity hidden. "I'm on and moving in the next few seconds," she said quickly, then tabbed the send switch off so he couldn't hear her side of the conversation. She refocused on Helena. "You've gotta go ... now."
The girl frowned, understanding that she'd only heard half of a conversation of some importance. "What is it?"
"There's a fight headed this way ... due in the next few minutes ... with some of Joker's thugs." She tugged the mask into place, pulling her hair back so it wouldn't get in her eyes. "It's likely to get nasty ... and you don't belong here."
The girl's face hardened. "I can help."
"No ... you can't. Go home," Barbara said firmly and turned away, trotting to the edge of the roof and silently searching the night. She looked back, her expression serious. "Look, we'll talk tomorrow ... I'll help you figure something out, but for now, go home ... and stay out of the way." Much as she would have liked to, she couldn't stay and look after the girl, or make sure she got back all right. Of course, with her abilities, the kid could probably take pretty effective care of herself. The best thing she could do for Helena was make sure she didn't get caught in the middle of what could easily turn into a bloodbath.
"Batgirl, I'm bringing 'em home ... and would really like to know if you're there," Dick panted over the receiver, sounding breathy and mildly panicked.
She tabbed the two-way back on. "On my way," then glanced back at the girl. "I've got to go ... but you get home and stay safe. You're a special kid ... and we'll figure something out." No time for any more than that. She drew a hook from her belt, flinging it into the night, before launching herself after it, the leap far more controlled than it might have appeared to a stray onlooker. The hook latched, and the line pulled taut, and then she was swinging toward the fight headed her way.
Helena lunged forward to the edge of the rooftop, not moving, watching closely as the battle tumbled her way. She knew Ms. Gordon had been right and she should move on, but she couldn't. She had to see, had to watch. She couldn't take her eyes from the fight, and when it moved on, she leapt onto another rooftop, tracking it, her eyes barely leaving the slender figure fighting wildly amid a crush of clown-suited thugs. Only in Gotham City would a fight like this be considered just another Saturday night.
Fast moving and brutal, the combat shifted, colorful men and women scattering like tenpins when the sleek black shadow of the Batmobile roared into the fight. Suddenly smoke and flashbangs were bursting all around the vehicle. Helena caught a glimpse of a hatch on the passenger side sliding open, then Ms. Gordon bounded inside, escaping the bitter smoke. In moments, the street was empty except for the strange car and a black clad man who leapt over to Batgirl's side of the car as the hatch slid open again. From that distance, Helena could hear the affectionate timbre in their voices if not the actual words. And then she didn't want to watch anymore, and she spun, disappearing into the night.
* * * * * *
Uncertain whether it was a bit of sound or a flick of movement that drew her attention, Barbara pushed up in the passenger seat of the Batmobile, frowning when she thought she spotted a hint of motion on a nearby rooftop. Squinting, she blinked back some of the tears Batman's smoke bombs had caused and wiped at her eyes with a gloved hand. Her regular mask had built in protections that could be slid into place, but the backup didn't, which left her coughing and stinging.
"You don't look so good," Dick teased with a grin that was probably meant to be seductive.
She gestured to her temple. "My regular cowl had a bad night," she answered without elaborating.
His head tipped to one side, his expression curious, but she waved it off. "You okay?"
He nodded, then leaned around to speak to Bruce. "You get the 'em tagged?" he questioned.
Bruce was studying a radar like readout full of tiny red dots on his dashboard. At the question, he looked up, a wolfish smile on his lips. "All we need to do now is keep tracking and triangulate with the signal we're getting from the bug Batgirl got onto Harley Quinn." They'd at least heard enough from the harlequin's rantings to get a name. Now they just needed a location.
"Gotta love technology," the younger man said through a grin, then laughed softly. "Well, I'd better get back to the campus ... gotta make sure the coeds are safe." With that, he disappeared back into the high rises that were a nightly playground for all of them."
"You need a lift back to your cycle?" Bruce questioned, and Barbara nodded, sliding down into the passenger seat and sliding the hatch shut.
"That'd be great," she murmured, her voice little more than an exhausted sigh. Even her bruises had bruises.
He glanced over as he drove, his face a carved granite statue. "So what happened?" The question was asked in a deceptively uninterested tone. Except she knew Bruce Wayne well enough to know there was no such thing as making conversation when he was around. Every question had a purpose and every answer was neatly recorded by a brain that never missed any details.
"Long story," she murmured, hoping to put him off. She should have known better.
"It's just it's pretty obvious you were in a fight before you even got to this one," he commented, still focused on his driving.
She looked over and sighed. "It involves one of my students, Bruce ... I can't really tell you anymore than that ... at least not yet."
He glanced over, jaw firming. "They saw your face?"
She considered lying, then decided that wouldn't help anything. "Yeah." A moment passed, then she began carefully, "Look, it's my problem to deal with."
He looked over, considered pressing, then decided against it. She had an instinct for people that he'd learned to trust. He wasn't comfortable with the situation, but he’d learned that her judgement of people was solid. "You'll let me know if you need help."
She offered a reassuring smile. "I promise."
They both fell silent, and a few minutes later, she was on the powerful Batcycle as it roared to life, a fast moving, black shadow, her mind on a young woman who needed her help rather than the very deadly fight headed her way.
* * * * * *
Helena slipped the latch on the back door and entered the living room on light feet, only to pull up short as a silent figure cleaved itself from the shadows before she could go more than a few feet.
"Explain," her mother said softly, her voice the ultra calm of someone who is deeply, meaningfully pissed off and determined not to explode.
"Now," Selina Kyle rapped out in a voice that brooked no argument.
Helena swallowed hard, suddenly very aware of the fact that she was wearing the remains of her mom's backup costume under a black duster. "I-I just couldn't sleep," she said quickly. "Just went for a little walk."
"And the reason you're wearing my costume under that coat?" Selina demanded, her eyes flashing furiously.
The teenager froze for a second, completely and totally paralyzed by the look in her mother's eyes.
"Let me guess," Selina filled in when Helena didn't answer, "you went to steal the Eye."
Lie, Helena thought as she hunted for some kind of story that would satisfy her mother. She came up blank, barely able to think straight. "Yeah," she said at last.
"What happened?" Selina demanded.
Stuffing her hands in her pockets, Helena stared at the tile floor beneath her feet, hands in her pockets, manner nervous. "Batgirl showed up while I was coming out."
The girl looked up. "She's Ms. Gordon, Mom. Batgirl is my teacher."
"And you know that, how?" Selina bit out impatiently.
"We fought ... and her mask ripped ... mine---I mean yours---too."
"She saw your face then?"
The teen nodded. "And she thinks I did it because the Joker's blackmailing me."
Selina uttered a soft curse. "Go to bed," she ordered.
"But, Mom, I--"
"Go to bed, now."
Helena went, but not before she looked back and saw her mom's unmoving silhouette standing in the middle of the sumptuously appointed living room, looking very worried indeed.
* * * * * *
Her hands dangling in twin bowls of ice water and Epsom Salts, Barbara leaned back in the easy chair in her still dark livingroom, too tired to even get completely out of costume, though she'd stripped off the cape, cowl, and chestpiece. After nights like this, she seriously doubted her sanity. Actually, she was way past the doubting her sanity phase. She was insane. It was that simple. Oddly enough, that conclusion made things simpler, negating the need to sit and debate her own actions, and allowing her to simply lean back, close her eyes, and relax for a few minutes. Or at least she could relax her body. Her mind didn't get the concept and was busy spinning and replaying the night's events, taking the pieces of the puzzle and putting them back together in spite of her best efforts not to.
She wasn't sure how much time passed before she heard the soft click of a lock being slipped, then the soft whish of the sliding glass door that led onto her balcony being moved on the runner track. She barely had to move to spot the black shadow that entered noiselessly ... on ... well ... little cat feet. A wry smile curved full lips at that thought. "Catwoman," she drawled and had the pleasure of seeing the silhouette stiffen in surprise. If she was right, it wasn't the first time she'd surprised the cat burglar in the last few days, and she experienced a certain sense of triumph at the idea. It almost made up for getting her head shoved through plate glass. Almost.
"I didn't really expect you to be awake," low and smoky, the villainess' voice wrapped around Barbara.
The woman in the chair shrugged and made no effort to rise. "Too tired to sleep," she responded and heard a soft, been-there-done-that sigh of understanding. "So, is this going to be an attempted murder, a peace negotiation," she asked, "or just a beating that falls somewhere in between?"
"Aren't there any other options?" the sweet, acid voice with its promise of heaven and hell all wrapped together in one very neat package asked quietly as the silhouette drew nearer.
"I don't know," Barbara admitted. "You tell me, Ms. Kyle."
"I told you," the shadow flicked on a nearby light, even that soft illumination enough to leave Barbara momentarily squinting, "call me Selina." As she spoke, she peeled off the cat mask, with its strange stitching, and offered a feline smile.
"Or maybe I can just call the police," Barbara responded as she stared up at the blonde, noting how she filled out all the curves her daughter hadn't.
The answering smile was confident that wasn't likely to happen. "We both know you won't do that Ms. Gordon ... Barbara," the way she said the redhead's name sent an unwanted ripple of awareness though the younger woman, reminding her that she was exhausted, but still keyed up. It happened sometimes, the fight leaving her breathless and excited even though she was bruised and bloodied. Not necessarily the best way to go into this confrontation. "And you needn't worry ... I'm not here to hurt you."
"Then why are you here?" Barbara demanded, much too impatient for any games the other woman felt like playing.
"It's about my daughter--"
"Did you send her there?" the question came fast, hard, and furious. Barbara hadn't had time to think about it before, but sitting there in the dark, it had all started to shake into place, and she'd realized just who Selina Kyle had to be, her memory too perfect to miss details like hair color, sexy drawls, and costumes far too well made to be Halloween plastic. She didn't want to think the woman she'd spoken to could do that to her daughter, but Catwoman's sense of right and wrong was so twisted that who knew what she was capable of. And if she had, Barbara had no intention of simply standing on the sidelines.
"No," the reply was instant and passionate. "I didn't know what she was planning until I realized she'd stolen one of my costumes." Selina shook her head, her expression serious. "I would never send my daughter in on something like that ... never."
"And the bit about Joker threatening you?"
Selina sighed. They each wanted something, and for once she was going to have to play along. "Only indirectly. Guy Falcone is a client ... paid to have me steal the Eye. I got hurt the other night, and a few things were delayed. Helena's convinced if I don't make delivery, he'll sell me out to Joker."
"She's probably right," Barbara pointed out practically. Guy Falcone had stepped into the crime lord shoes left open when most of the Hawke family was imprisoned and the son of a bitch was just as nasty as his boss had ever been.
"Probably," Selina allowed, "which is why I had planned a quick slip in, slip out gig tomorrow toward closing time at the museum." She knew exactly how to play those games, get in and get out without being noticed. She flexed her hand, free of the restraining brace now. One of the handier facets of her unusual genetic chemistry. She healed fast. "Unfortunately, I'm guessing that's now impossible."
"To say the least," Barbara agreed.
"My turn," Selina murmured, taking back some sense of power in the discussion. "Knowing what you know now, do you still care what happens to my daughter? Are you still willing to help her?" It was the only question that really mattered to her.
No pause, no debate. Even knowing she should run like hell, Barbara simply said, "Yes."
Selina didn't pause either, simply thrust a manila folder she'd hand clutched behind her back forward. "Then you'll need this."
Pulling her hands from the ice, Barbara dried them on a towel draped over the arm of the chair, then accepted the folder, squinting to bring things into focus as she read since it wasn't exactly the time to go shuffling through her things in search of a pair of reading glasses. As she realized what she was looking at, she shook her head slowly, then finally tipped her head up, staring at the woman standing over her with a disbelieving expression. "You can't seriously think I'll keep quiet about this?" she rasped after a beat.
"I can and I do," Selina countered without pause. She saw the younger woman shake her head again, her eyes sparking with anger, and leaned down, hands braced on the armrests of her chair, staring deeply into eyes that glowed emerald with barely restrained anger. "You'll do it because it's best for Helena."
"What?" Barbara snapped, furious at that. "Best to deny her any chance at knowing her father?"
Not answering the question directly, Selina let her gaze slide down over the younger woman's frame, taking in the way she way half lying in the chair, visibly sore and stiff, then looked up again, eyeing the red marks along the line of her jaw. A moment passed and she caught a slender hand in her own, noting the bruises and swelling across the knuckles. "You're what ... twenty-four---twenty-five at most---and you've been around quite a few years now. How old were you when you first put on that costume?" she asked quietly.
Barbara looked away, getting the point and not liking it in the least. "Seventeen," she admitted through clenched teeth.
"An age when you should have been worrying about what to wear to the prom--"
"You weren't old enough to choose," Selina cut the younger woman off in a hard voice. She let go of the hand caught in her own, returning her palm to the armrest. "I won't have that for my daughter--"
"That doesn't mean--" Barbara started to argue, but Selina cut her off again.
"You've seen what she can do. Do you honestly think he could resist the urge to remake her in his image?"
Barbara flinched. As driven as Bruce could be, she couldn't honestly answer. "That's not fair," she whispered after a beat.
Selina lifted hand, fingers just barely brushing at the flaked blood where the grating had nicked her temple. "I don't want this for my daughter--"
"No," Barbara shot back, feeling crowded and uncomfortable. "You'd rather she was a thief."
"Wrong," Selina bit out, blue eyes blazing, "I don't care which team she plays for ... so long as she isn't pressured into the game before she's old enough to decide for herself." She gripped the armrests more tightly when Barbara tried to stare her down. "I want her to have a chance to be a child ... to make mistakes where life and death aren't on the line ... to have a little fun." She tucked a finger under Barbara's chin, drawing her head up when she would have looked away. "Do you even remember what fun is, little girl?" Her touch turned oddly gentle, fingers almost stroking, her voice dropping low. "Or is the closest you come just being grateful you're still alive when you get home each night?"
"That's none of your business," Barbara muttered, wondering how it was she kept finding herself being crowded by mother and daughter both.
"I'm trusting you with the most important thing in my life," Selina said very softly, leaning close enough that her breath played over soft skin as she spoke. "That makes everything about you my business."
Barbara shook her head, pressing deeper into the chair as she tried to subtly twitch free of gently stroking fingers. "What you're asking me to do ... it's not right."
A slow smile spread over full lips. "And do you always see everything in such black and white terms, Ms. Gordon ... Barbara? Always follow the rules?" Then before Barbara could answer, Selina tipped her head up, peering at the small wound near the teacher's eye. "That should be treated."
"It's nothing," the redhead dismissed the injury. "I'll clean it later."
"You have to be careful with facial wounds," Selina murmured, ignoring the comment. She noted the peroxide and gauze pads laid out in an open first aid kit on a nearby end table and reached for what she needed with the practiced air of someone who'd done this many times before. "They scar so easily," she added as she began carefully cleaning away dried blood, her touch as gentle as it had been when she'd cleaned Helena's scraped knees when she was a child. She looked down, her gaze seductive.
"You're asking me to betray a man who's taught me everything," Barbara whispered, caught and held by the trap of those eyes, but unwilling to sell her soul the way Selina Kyle seemed to want. "...who's saved my life a dozen times over--"
"And asked you to risk it a thousand times more than that," Selina broke in, her tone soft and reasonable. She turned the damp pad, carefully washing away more blood. "The problem is," she explained in that same soft, compelling tone, "Helena and I ... we're not and black and white people ... we're shades of grey people." She tossed the pad carelessly aside and slid her finger under Barbara's chin, drawing her head up when she would have looked away, leaning close, her breath warm on soft skin. "I can't be what either side wants ... and neither can she. Bruce will never understand that ... but maybe you can."
"I can't do what you're asking," the younger woman whispered, her eyes sliding closed, blood thundering in her ears, so totally overwhelmed she didn't know what to do.
Selina knew she should back off and start offering serious, logical arguments like the ones she'd practiced on the way over, except she'd always found something frighteningly appealing about stuck-in-the-mud heroes. Most women were attracted to the bad boys while she'd never been able to resist the good ones. Fucked up, mind you, but always painfully, achingly, desperately good. Barbara Gordon might not be a boy, but she definitely had the desperately good thing happening. Probably the fucked up thing too. Unfucked-up people did not run around in bat costumes in the dead of night. If they wanted to fight crime, they became cops or lawyers. If they just wanted to help people, there were a whole myriad of career choices. Hell, just being a teacher qualified without cracking a sweat. She stared down into eyes so soft they made her heart break just a little. "All right," she exhaled, drawing even closer, playing tag with soft lips that just barely evaded her own as they both shifted this way and that, almost, but never quite touching, like positively charged magnets brought too close. "What say we make a deal ... short term ... to be renegotiated later?"
Barbara swallowed hard, unable to believe she was contemplating agreeing to anything Catwoman wanted. "What?" she asked, her voice a low, croaking whisper.
"You don't tell him for now ... not while this crap with Joker's going on--"
"Dammit," Barbara hissed. "How can you expect me to trust you?"
Closer, just a little closer, Selina thought. The hand at Barbara's temple brushed over silky hair, while she lifted the other one, almost but not quite touching the arch of the redhead's throat, the heat of her fingers searing soft skin even through the thin, black neoprene that ended just below Barbara's jaw. "I'm trusting you with the only thing I ever really cared about other than him ... the only thing I've ever loved other than him." It was a reminder that she shouldn't be doing this, shouldn't be risking hurting them both; her daughter and this woman who cared for her. The right thing to do was pull away, and let jangled hormones cool, but Selina Kyle had never been good at doing the right thing. The hand at Barbara's throat slid lower, actually made contact, brushing her upper chest. "Bring this up now ... and you could endanger them both."
Barbara whimpered low in her throat, her body reacting to the hands touching her and the mouth not touching her. God, she should have just responded to one of Dick's myriad of passes. Maybe then she wouldn't be keyed up, hormonal, and on the verge of being seduced by Catwoman. She stared up at the woman through a haze of lust. Then again, maybe there was no inoculation against that kind of raw, sexual appeal. Selina Kyle could probably make a eunuch beg for more.
"He'd be distracted ... and she'd become a target." Selina's lips finally made contact, just barely brushing Barbara's cheek. "I know you don't want either of them hurt."
"Of course not," Barbara croaked. Catwoman---Selina Kyle---was using sex. Maybe not cold bloodedly, but using it all the same, and Barbara didn't care as her body flooded with heat and need. Then, suddenly soft lips were covering her own, a rough tongue pressing for entrance to wrestle demandingly, while strong fingers slid into her hair and stroked her breasts and belly. It wasn't exactly lust, but it sure as hell wasn't love. It was need. Hot, coursing, thick, completely insane. Need. She whimpered low in her throat, knowing she shouldn't be doing this, even as her hands rose, cupping the underside of firm breasts, stroking slowly, then sliding along the curve of a slender waist. God in heaven, she had no right doing this, especially when--
"No," Selina ground out, her voice a throaty growl that sent a shiver down Barbara's spine as she abruptly broke the kiss, her breath coming in harsh, ragged pants. Reaching down, she pressed eager hands from her body. "No," "This isn't what I need from you," she hissed, sounding as though she was fighting her own impulses as hard as she was pushing Barbara's hands aside. "I need something more important. I need to know my daughter's safe ... protected."
Barbara tipped her head back, body screaming in spite of its exhaustion, emotions and hormones ramped up and wanting more. God, what the hell was wrong with her? She wasn't in love with this woman, wasn't in love with anyone. Hell, she barely had any idea what the word meant. She didn't like her, had fought her to a near standstill on more than one occasion. It was just that Barbara had always had a secret hidden attraction to the darker things in life, and she was so much like--
"I need your word," Selina whispered, her voice dropping low, softening to a pleading whisper. "You'll let her choose ... that she won't just be tool ... but a human being ... cared for ... loved." It was important. Selina didn't completely understand why. It was like some kind of damn premonition ... or maybe just the fear of a woman seeing her daughter approaching adulthood and all things she could possibly want or become ... but it was suddenly incredibly important to her to know that this woman would support and care for her daughter.
Barbara stared up into vivid blue eyes, seeing the rim of silver tears dusting dark lashes. "I promise," she whispered. "And I won't ... won't tell Bruce until the madness with Joker is over." She looked down, shifting her hands to her lap as though it was that easy to pretend they hadn't just been touching perfect curves. Selina was right about that much. Telling Bruce the truth in the middle of this war was only likely to distract him at a time none of them could afford to be at less than their best. And it could easily make Helena a target. "But after that, all bets are off. He has a right to know ... they both do."
Selina didn't bother to argue. That was the problem with the good ones. They could be pushed only so far before it became a choice between accepting their limits or breaking them completely. She studied the younger woman for a long moment. She could break her so easily. She was ripe, vulnerable to the wicked appeal mother and daughter shared, though for the first time in her life, Selina realized, she was the one who would have been the stand-in for what a lover really wanted if she did so. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. Not at all. Finally, she straightened, her voice a husky whisper, "We'll see." She turned to leave, her gait smooth and comfortable.
"Wait," Barbara said very softly and the other woman turned back just in time to catch the glittering crimson crystal that arced her way. She frowned as she stared at it, then at the young woman sitting a short distance away.
"I didn't have time to put it back," Barbara admitted. "Damn thing's a ridiculous pain in the ass for the museum ... all those would-be masters of the arcane arts always trying to steal it. More trouble than it's worth. Should keep Falcone off your back for a little while."
A wry smile twisted Selina's lips. She was impressed. That was more surprises in just two days than most people managed in an entire lifetime where she was concerned. "You are an enigma, Ms. Gordon."
Barbara shrugged. "Nah, the popularity of pro-wrestling is an enigma. I'm just mildly mysterious."
Selina laughed very softly. "How did he accidently let one with a sense of humor through?" she asked idly, fighting the temptation to cross the distance between them and find out the answer to that question and more in the most personal way imaginable.
"I don't tell Bruce all my secrets," Barbara murmured.
Selina Kyle's, "I'm sure you don't," was still floating on the air when the woman disappeared back out the way she'd come. As the blonde disappeared back into the night where they were all so at home, Barbara leaned her head back, her body still trembling, uncertain whether to be deeply disappointed or profoundly relieved.
Less than a week later, everything would be smashed, almost beyond repair.
Only just in from another grueling night, Barbara had barely had time to grab a quick shower and wash some of the smoke from her hair and skin. They'd stopped the worst of Joker's plot, destroying thousands of booby trapped toys that would have been spread to children around the city, and breaking up the worst of his gang. Most of them were in chains now, though Harley Quinn had somehow slipped the noose, either before or after her beloved Mister J, no one really knew, and the big man himself was still on the loose. But they'd stripped him of his criminal machine. And Batman would find the lunatic sooner or later. He was driven. Joker wouldn't remain free for long.
She ran a hand over water slicked hair. Which meant she had serious matters to consider. She'd taken the week off from teaching as things got steadily more insane, but she was going to have to face the whole situation with Helena very soon.
Bruce had a right to know. And so did Helena.
Maybe if they all sat down together--
Oh hell, who was she kidding? Bruce and Selina Kyle weren't 'let's sit down and talk this out,' people. They were kick your ass for business, fun, and pleasure people.
And she was standing right in the middle of the whole mess. If Bruce ever spoke to her again once he realized what she'd avoided telling him, it would be a minor miracle.
And then there was Selina Kyle. A shiver made its way over her skin as she remembered that last scene between them. God, that was so fucked up. She was supposed to be a reasonable, rational adult. What the hell had she been thinking? Well, not so much thinking as--
It was just that the woman put out sexuality waves at a frequency that pretty much blanketed the entire spectrum. She could probably make rocks stand at attention and beg for more. That thought made Barbara feel a little better and eased some of the attendant guilt that seemed to pop up whenever she considered that little scene. Though why in the hell she should be feeling guilty was quite beyond her. Or at least, why should be feeling guilty for the sexual part of things ... when nothing had happened, and she hadn't been the one making the pass anyway.
Dear lord, could her life get any weirder?
It suddenly occurred to her that she most of a bottle of good scotch her dad liked on hand. She'd never been a fan of hard liquor, but suddenly the notion of getting completely and totally tanked had a great deal of appeal. Maybe she could finally sleep the rest of the night through without being wakened by vaguely disturbing, unremembered dreams. And maybe she could ignore the fact that it felt like every single square inch of her body had been stomped on by jackbooted thugs in clown suits. And why did it happen to feel that way? Oh yeah, because it had been.
She sighed, reached for the scotch, where it was tucked in a cupboard and froze as the phone rang. God, if it was Bruce wanting her to go back out and help hunt for the Joker, she was going to kill him. A part of her was tempted to just let it ring and monitor the answering machine, but she was too responsible for that sort of behavior, so she picked up.
The caller didn't give her time to speak, before a voice came on, hysteria making her nearly incomprehensible. "My mom ... he stabbed her ... please ... you've gotta come."
It took Barbara just a moment to recognize the thick, tear-ridden voice as Helena Kyle's. Fear a sudden knot in her stomach, she tried to keep her voice calm. "Helena, I need you to calm down ... and tell me what's happened," Barbara said as soothingly as possible, her own aches and pains suddenly forgotten.
"My mom," the teenager repeated, barely managing to speak, "we were going to dinner ... just to get out ... and some guy stepped out of the shadows. He stabbed her--"
One of Joker's thugs, Barbara knew instinctively. Dear God, Helena.... If Joker knew about Selina.... "Where are you?" she demanded, afraid that the girl would become his next target. She grabbed for the folder Selina had left. It effectively gave her custody of the girl if anything happened. Might need that.
"Gotham General's Emergency Ward," the girl answered, calming slightly. "She wasn't moving ... and there was so much blood."
"Okay, I'm going to get there as fast as I can ... but in the meantime, I want you to make sure and stay where there are a lot of people ... don't go anywhere alone." She grabbed clean clothes and threw them across her bed, already calculating the drive time, and figuring she could take the kid straight to Wayne Manor, lock down the hospital, protect Selina until she was well again. It was going to be okay.
"Okay," Helena murmured, sounding very young and dazed.
"Just sit tight, I'm just going to--"
"Wait, there's the doctor that was looking after my mom."
The sudden knocking at the front door brought her head around. Probably Bruce or Dick, she thought as she remembered the time. Good. She'd planned on calling Bruce on the way to the hospital, but if he was here, it was that much the better. What she had to say wasn't exactly the sort of thing one broke over the phone if humanly possible.
"I'll be there as fast as I can," Barbara assured the girl.
"Oh god, oh god, oh god ... no, no, no...." But Helena wasn't hearing her anymore, and it distantly registered that things were very bad even as Barbara swung the door wide.
Her hair still slicked back from the shower, and wearing little more than a robe, it didn't occur to her just how vulnerable she was until it was too late. She recognized the ghostly pale features and bright green hair almost immediately, but there was no time to slam the door shut before he opened fire. She went down, blood pooling in the carpet where she fell, one hand gripping her midsection as the world spun away. The phone hit the floor near her ear, and she could hear someone screaming, "Ms. Gordon, Ms. Gordon," over and over, the sound soft and tinny. Dazed eyes watched as the Joker stepped forward another pace, and she heard the second shot as though through a thick haze.
"Knock knock, who's there...." the Joker giggled, then her eyes were rolling back as the world was swept away in a blissfully numbing wave of black.
* * * * * *
It couldn't be real. None of it could be real, Helena thought as she sat in the waiting room of the hospital, aware of the doctor and nurse standing over her, offering comfort in their pathetic way, not understanding at all despite what they kept telling her about how they knew what she was going through.
They didn't know. Couldn't know. She still had her mom's blood all over her clothes from trying to staunch the brutal wound in her chest. Only her mom was dead now. Selina Kyle, so achingly alive for every moment of her existence was no more. The girl stared at the cell phone clenched in her hand, the case cracked from the pressure she'd put on it. It was dead now too.
And maybe Ms. Gordon too.
Helena knew what gunshots sounded like even over a bad cell phone connection.
Knew now that her mother had been murdered because of her father ... that Bruce Wayne and Batman were one and the same, and that was where the other half of her DNA had come from.
That information and a last avowal of love were all she had left of her mother's final moments.
Except for the blood.
It was still damp and warm, congealing, but not yet dry, and she rubbed at it as though she could make it go away. Make it all go away. She looked up as a man entered, tall, lean, but hard muscled, with hair as dark as her own, and eyes just as blue.
Hard not to recognize the most famous man in New Gotham City, even when he looked like he'd just been drug behind a truck for a few miles. She watched as he rushed to the Emergency Room desk, grabbing the first person he found. "I just got a call. A friend of mine's being brought in ... Barbara Gordon. Is there any news on her condition?"
Used to dealing with panicked family members, the nurse was professional, but uninterested. "I'm afraid I don't have any information--"
"I paid for this goddamned hospital, so I suggest you get some," Bruce Wayne snarled, his eyes wild.
Helena could almost admire that, might have even respected it if he wasn't the reason her mother was dead now. She didn't really even know what she was doing when she rose, completely ignoring the grief counselors babbling at her. She didn't need counseling about her grief. It was doing just fine without any counseling, thank you very much. He was still demanding answers, she noted distantly as she moved to stand at his side, impossibly slight, unnoticed, and yet to anyone who cared to see, the resemblance was there in the wildness that glittered in twin sets of blue eyes.
"Kill him," Helena said suddenly, her voice sounding cold and dead even to her own ears. She was aware of Bruce Wayne looking at her, suspicion in his eyes.
"Do I know you?" her father asked.
It almost made Helena want to laugh. Not a sane laugh either. She was seriously contemplating insanity, just letting go and drawing blood from anyone and everyone within reach. But first from this man. "Know me?" she whispered, "No. You don't know me ... Daddy."
"Excuse me." His frown deepened and she saw him back up a step and check out the area as though he was afraid she might just attack and start shredding people. And maybe that wasn't so unrealistic, Helena thought as she clenched her hands at her sides, a wild fury bubbling up in her chest.
"My mother ... Selina Kyle...." She saw recognition in his eyes ... then the calculating look as he guessed her age and did the math. "She's dead ... because of you...." She found she rather enjoyed the look of horror in his eyes as she made her dead-calm pronouncements. She was hurting him and it felt good. He deserved to hurt. He'd loved her mother and failed her in the end. And now she was dead to punish him ... only he was still alive, and it was so goddamned unfair and wrong.
It was like a rubber band in her head snapped, and suddenly she was beating on him, pounding on that broad chest, hammering until he had to be in agony, wanting him to hit back, but he just stood there, taking it as she cried and screamed and demanded he kill the bastards who'd killed her mother.
It was the sound of the main doors of the E.R. opening, and his croaked, "Barbara," that brought her head up.
Red. It struck her in an instant that all she could see was red. Red hair, red soaked bandages, red coated EMTs. Barbara Gordon---neck braced and backboarded, bagged, with someone else pumping air into her lungs, while every exhalation spattered a fine mist of blood around the tube down her throat, her chest and stomach covered in pressure bandages---was a symphony in red.
Helena almost threw up. The doctors were rushing, seeming to move in slow motion in their panic, shouting out about probable lung, kidney, and spinal damage, while one of the EMTs called out that they'd lost a pulse twice during transport.
"Kill him," she said very softly as she looked away from the sickening sight and at her father.
She saw the hate and the hurt in his eyes, but he shook his head. "I can't."
"Then I don't ever want to see you again," Helena whispered and walked away as though he'd never existed. She'd already sat one death watch that night. Time to go sit another.
Except Barbara Gordon didn't die that night, or the next one either. She hovered close to it while people came and went, some powerful, some not, some Helena recognized, some she didn't. The young man she'd seen teasing the redhead came constantly, but never for long, always leaving, returning to the hunt. Sometimes he looked at her like he wanted to speak to her, but he never did. Commissioner Gordon, a man she'd seen only on TV came and stayed, except on TV he'd looked young, bullish, and hard despite the shock of white hair. In person, waiting for his daughter to die, he looked old and frail. Helena felt for him, she really did. When she thought about it, it occurred to her that maybe the only thing worse than what she'd gone through was what he was going through. Sometimes she thought about trying to speak to him, offer her sympathies somehow, but there weren't words, or at least she didn't have them, so she didn't try. She just stayed. It wasn't like she had anyplace else to go. Home wouldn't be home anymore without Selina Kyle. By day three she'd stolen a set of surgical scrubs and found a doctor's shower that was usually empty late at night. A few kicks in the right place on a nearby vending machine released various sweets that tasted like cardboard when she got tired of the pain of a growling stomach.
And if people looked at her strangely, she didn't care.
The only thing she had left to care about was the woman lying in intensive care.
She couldn't even go out and start hunting Joker. The headlines in the paper said it all. The Clown Prince of Darkness had been captured and returned to Arkham Asylum by Batman.
By her father.
Tied up in a neat bundle, very much alive, and locked away where she couldn't even kill him.
At least he didn't return, though she overheard the nurses talking about how closely he'd been tracking the attempted assassination of the police commissioner's daughter. A few even mooned over him and wondered if maybe he and Barbara Gordon were lovers. One particularly crude sort mused on whether or not she might angle for a date if the redhead didn't pull through. Helena almost killed her for that.
She wasn't sure exactly when, somewhere between days five and ten of the agonizing waiting, she looked up to find an elderly man standing in front of her, smiling very gently. She simply stared suspiciously, wondering if he was going to be another of the idiots who seemed bent on trying to talk into going home, or at least going somewhere else. She'd learned to tune them out, just like she tuned out the ever-present grief counselors.
"I am Alfred Pennyworth," he said when she didn't speak.
The suspicious glare didn't let up a whit.
"Do you mind if I sit, Miss Helena? You and I have things to discuss."
She wondered if he was another of the CPS people, come to tell her that she was supposed to be put into foster care. She'd already threatened to break one into little pieces and feed him to the koi in the fishpool at the zoo, and that one had been young and fit. This geezer didn't look like he'd take much pressure before he broke.
He was carrying a manila folder, she noticed. A manila folder spattered with a few flakes of something dark brown. She didn't have to ask if it was dried blood. The only question was whose. When she didn't answer, he simply sat, either taking her silence for assent or considering what he had to say too important to be put off so easily.
"Your mother apparently gave this to Miss Barbara a short time before..." he paused, looking like he'd enjoy a good cry. Helena sympathized, but she was way past crying. There weren't enough tears in the world. "Before your mother's death." He silently handed it over. "It makes provisions for you ... for Miss Barbara to get custody as well as fiduciary control over any monies inherited until you're of age."
Helena blinked, tempted to shrug, unimpressed. She knew for a fact there weren't any monies. The house was nothing but a giant mortgage due and her mother'd never even heard of the concept of a savings account as far as she knew. They'd always lived well, but on incoming cash, not investments or savings. "Yeah, well, not like it matters," she muttered. "Ms. Gordon's not likely to survive ... and I don't have any money."
"Actually, you have nearly unlimited money," Alfred disagreed quietly and handed her another sheet of paper.
Helena stared at it, not understanding.
"Everything that once belonged to Bruce Wayne is now legally yours," the old man said softly.
Bewildered, the teen stared up at him in confusion. "I don't want it," was all she could think of to say. "I just want...." She shook her head, not finishing. There was nothing left that she wanted, except maybe some peace. "When Ms. Gordon..." she started to say, then trailed off, not wanting to say the words even though her plan was comparatively simple. Once Ms. Gordon died, then she'd take off. She didn't know where she'd go or what she'd do, but she'd go. Until then, she owed the woman something. She didn't even quite know what. She just knew she couldn't leave. "Then I'll go."
Alfred was silent for a long moment. "She could well die," he allowed after some consideration. "But it's also possible she might not." He ignored Helena's soft, disbelieving snort. "And if she survives," he continued, "she's going to need a great deal of help."
"Fine then," Helena snarled, "if it's my money, pay for the best nurses and doctors in the country." She'd take Bruce Wayne's money for that. Not for anything else, but since it was his fault, he could try and make up for it by at least paying for the best.
"That has already been arranged for," Alfred said softly, neatly deflating her rage. "I meant another kind of help."
The girl stared up at him, back to not understanding.
"Her injuries," the old man said very softly, "even if she survives ... are not the sort one can ever completely heal from."
Helena remembered the whispered words she'd overheard, and what she knew of such things. "Her back," she said very softly.
Alfred nodded. "Her spinal cord was badly damaged. She will not walk again."
Helena experienced a resurgence of the nausea she'd been too numb to feel for days. It wasn't right. For someone who'd done the things Barbara Gordon had done that would be worse than prison. And it meant she really was on her own. If she even lived, the woman her mother had left in charge of her life would be struggling with her own survival far too hard to have anything left for a kid, particularly one who was too damn much trouble in the first place. "I'm sorry," she choked. "I-I won't bother her ... I-I'll stay away--" The last thing she wanted was to make things harder for the woman.
"You misunderstand me," Alfred said and rested a weathered hand over hers. "I meant that she needs your help ... someone who needs her."
A frown darkened the girl's expression as she considered that.
"She's had a few moments of consciousness," Alfred explained quietly, his eyes sad. "And is aware of her condition." He didn't add that having seen the look in the young woman's eyes, he feared she would simply let go and slip away. Her hold on life was tenuous at best, and her determination could well make the difference in her survival. "She needs a reason to fight ... something she's responsible for."
"Me," Helena said at last, understanding what he was saying. A personality as determined to do for others as Ms. Gordon was likely to give up if she thought she was looking at a life of dependence and helplessness.
The old man smiled ever so slightly and rested a hand on a narrow shoulder. "Would you like to see her?"
The teenager nodded slowly, then stood and followed the old man past the others; the friends and schoolmates, the reporters on deathwatch.
She was lying perfectly still, her hair cut shorter and braided back out of the way, her body locked into a gimbaled frame designed to protect her spine from further injury while allowing the doctors access to the brutal wounds on her back and chest. For just a moment, Helena couldn't move, then she stepped forward, pausing to glance back. "Can I?"
He nodded. "Very gently. She mustn't be moved."
The girl nodded, Alfred Pennyworth forgotten. A tender hand brushed a few loose strands of red hair back from the edge of the oxygen mask and breathing tube that covered the lower half of Barbara's face. "I'm here," she whispered, and saw the faint flick of closed eyelids. Helena leaned closer, her voice soft and pleading. "And I need you ... please ... don't go."
The faint flick turned to a struggle that ultimately revealed emerald eyes, their expression dazed by drugs and circumstances, but aware enough to recognize Helena.
"Please," Helena begged. She saw the tiny red mark at Barbara's temple, the healing wound that she'd inflicted and she suddenly wondered if Alfred was wrong, and the other woman would send her away, leaving her with nothing and no one. "Please," she whispered again, "I need you."
The nod was so faint she might have imagined it, then green eyes slid closed again, but it was enough. Helena buried her face in the padding near Barbara's shoulder, her entire body convulsing with harsh sobs. Lost in her own grief, she never heard the man who'd brought her slip back out the doors.
"Master Bruce?" Alfred addressed the man watching the scene through the clear glass of the intensive care unit.
The big man glanced at the man who was more friend and family than employee, his expression as though carved from stone. "She won't stay if I'm here," he said with more understanding than he would have liked. His own parents had been murdered in front of him. He knew too well the sort of demons that kind of trauma spawned. "And they need each other ... more than either of them needs me." He cast a gaze back toward the hospital room, amazed to find that he could almost envy the woman inside despite what had happened to her. She already had the one thing he suspected he would never be able to earn; his daughter's love. "Barbara can help her more than I can." He was too broken inside to know how to find a way through the hate directed his way, and too angry at her mother for all the years lost to them all. Hell, he couldn't even forgive Selina for dying. How was he supposed to help his child when he couldn't even help himself?
"Assuming she lives," the old man pointed out realistically. The prognosis still wasn't especially good. It might well be months before anything was certain.
He looked back toward the sobbing teenager bent over the badly injured woman. "She will now," he sighed with an odd kind of confidence before he turned back to the old man, trusting him as he had very few people in his life. "I'll leave you with my Power of Attorney ... but Dick and Barbara both have their trust funds, and I'll inform the lawyers to make certain you all have anything you need." He ran a hand over his hair, ruffling it in an exhausted gesture. "The house ... everything ... it's all hers anytime she wants it."
"She won't take it ... not now."
A muscle clenched along the line of Bruce Wayne's jaw. "I know," he admitted. "But it's still her right."
And then he left.
* * * * * *
One Year Later
Biceps and triceps knotted painfully tight, sweat beading and streaming over her skin, Barbara slowly pushed up, her full weight resting on her arms where she hung in a high u-bar in the remodeled training room of the loft apartment of the Wayne Enterprises clocktower. Teeth tightly clenched, she slowly lowered herself, pushed up again. It was the sort of exercise she could have done by the hour only a year before and now she was doing well to get in ten lifts before she completely collapsed. Months of recovery, surgery, more recovery, more surgery, more recovery, and ... oh yeah ... a little matter of a paralyzed lower body ... all of which had left her weak as a kitten and hating it. She lowered herself slowly, arms bending at the elbow and rotating backward. Well, now that her survival appeared to be little in question, she had no intention of being any more dependant than was absolutely necessary. Up again ... slowly ... painfully.
Helena stood off the side, unnoticed by the woman doing the slow, torturous exercises, following every movement. She'd read every damn book, pamphlet, and matchbook on Barbara's condition, spoken to the doctors whenever she could get the chance without Barbara knowing, and had carefully tracked every step in her recovery. She knew damn well what Barbara refused to admit to herself; that she was pushing it too hard, and in so doing, risking hurting herself. The damage to her spine had been low on her back, but massive, and several other organs hadn't gotten off lightly. She could get her upper body back into shape, but everything Helena had gleaned was very explicit about the fact that it needed to be done slowly and carefully. The worst of the damage had healed, yes, but she wasn't going to be back to fighting shape quickly, and Helena was perfectly aware that her doctor had specifically told her to lay off any exercise not specifically moderated by the physiotherapist. Except Barbara wasn't listening, and just barely tolerated the physiotherapist anyway. She saw the woman start to push up again, also saw the moment muscle fatigue set in and she just started to collapse straight downward.
And then suddenly Helena was there, arms sliding around a slender waist, sweat from Barbara's bare arms leaving damp trails on her skin as she cushioned the redhead's collapse into her wheelchair where it sat under the u-bar. "Easy," Helena whispered, incredibly aware of the frailty of a body that had lost nearly all of its conditioning during months of excruciatingly slow recuperation.
Barbara's hands were still on the bar, over her head now, and she looked away. She swallowed hard and looked like she was about to cry.
"You okay?" Helena asked worriedly. The last damn thing Barbara was supposed to do was go banging her back around, and the girl felt a blaze of anger that she'd take a risk like that before the doctors had okayed it.
"Fine," the redhead snapped, then tipped her head against the back of the wheelchair, eyes sliding shut. "Just fine," she added, her voice softer now, fighting the depression without much success.
Her arms still a steadying influence around the woman, Helena sighed softly, admiring the stubbornness, but also frustrated beyond belief. "Yeah, I can tell," she murmured, and felt gloved hands fit themselves to her shoulders as Barbara adjusted her position in the chair. She stilled, allowing the gesture when she'd have scared off anyone else who got that close with a look. "But," she added, her tone dry enough to parch the Atlantic Ocean. "D'you think you could watch the boneheaded maneuvers. You're kind of horning in on my act."
Barbara leaned back in the wheelchair, releasing her hold on Helena's shoulders as one eyebrow climbed ceilingward. "Excuse me?"
"Adolescent and stupid. Isn't that how the teachers at school usually describe me?"
"I don't believe any of them have ever described you as stupid," Barbara corrected, rather proud of herself that she managed a faint smile, "just some of your actions."
"Clearly, you never talked to Ms. Latham," Helena drawled, and was rewarded when the faint smile turned to a wry grin. Thankfully Barbara didn't like Dragonlady Latham much better than any of her students. The woman was older than Croesus, and only slightly friendlier than Genghis Khan.
"Margaret Latham thinks everyone is stupid," Barbara sighed, sounding annoyed, probably chafing at yet another restriction put on her life. She was nowhere near ready to get back into a teaching schedule and Helena knew that was bothering her along with everything else. Actually, the problem was quite simply that Barbara Gordon was finally getting well enough to be bored. "When I had her, she routinely suggested that perhaps my parents had been a little too closely related in the gene pool."
Helena's mouth dropped open. Barbara was the single smartest person she'd ever known. "You're kidding me, right?"
Barbara shook her head, grateful for a bit of distraction from her hopeless performance on the bar as she loosened the wrist straps that held the protective half gloves in place and stripped them off. "Not at all." She snorted softly as she remembered how she'd hated the woman when she'd been one of her students. It had almost been a suitable revenge to become a fellow teacher who could drop subtle insults in the teacher's lounge without fear of reprisal. "She's a lousy teacher and a lousier human being. They should have forced her to retire years ago. The only good news is that she's gotta be getting close to forced retirement."
"Unfortunately, I think gorgons live forever," Helena drawled, grinning as Barbara looked up, a surprised look on her face. "So, I was listening when you were lecturing me on the Greek stuff." Actually, she'd been hanging on every word while Barbara explained the Greek mythology that Helena's English teacher had managed to somehow dullify with every single word he spoke. The teachers had been a lot easier on her since her mother's death---some weird, don't pick on the orphan rule, she supposed---but she didn't find most of their droning lectures any more interesting than she ever had. "Actually, it helps a lot when you explain most stuff." The redhead had been tutoring her, and even managed to make most of the material from her classes more interesting. "You're smarter than any of my teachers ... which is why it's so dumb that you're being such an idiot about taking care of yourself." She saw the surprise on Barbara's face at the lecture, but Helena had given her mother plenty of lectures over the years. She was good at those moments of role reversal when she had to be.
Full lips pursed in annoyance, and Barbara looked away while Helena silently challenged her to argue. "I'm---I'm taking care of myself," she stammered haltingly.
"By ducking your physio appointments, and overdoing it in here?" Helena demanded, her tone arch.
Barbara didn't have a good reply for that, so she just shrugged.
Helena crouched down, peering up at the woman, her fears in her eyes. Barbara was literally all she had left in the world, and the notion of anything happening to her was more frightening than she could contemplate. "Barbara ... I can't even begin to guess how hard this is for you ... but the only way you're going to get better is if you do it the right way ... otherwise you could hurt yourself."
Barbara closed her eyes, blocking the world out for a moment. Logically, she knew Helena was right, that she needed to slow down, listen to the doctors, and take it one step at a time. But she'd never taken anything slowly in her life, and she wasn't sure she could do it this time. She could feel Helena waiting for some kind of reply, the silent pressure to answer honestly bearing down on her in ways even her father couldn't manage. Maybe it was because she was responsible for the girl, but Helena was the one person who always got through the grief and anger. "You just don't..." she began, only to have her voice fade away on her when she didn't know what to say.
"I know it must be hard for you to have to rely on someone else," Helena said when Barbara didn't continue.
Hard? No, it was way past hard. All the definitions in her life had shifted. Hard had gone from meaning a challenging class to referring to accepting the fact that she was looking at a life where her legs were nothing but useless lumps of clay. Damn-near-impossible now covered the harsh reality that to keep her muscles even remotely stretched out and in any kind of shape, she had to trust someone else to handle her lower body while she just lay there and tolerated it. She knew it needed to be done, and Brad Carlson, the physiotherapist was perfectly polite, kind, and supportive. It wasn't his fault she knew perfectly well how it made her feel, and she wasn't up to just, 'lying back and enjoying it.' "I hate it," she whispered at last, her voice a ragged whisper. "God, some days I wish--"
"No!" Helena broke in before Barbara could finish, instinctively knowing what she was going to say, and unable to bear hearing the words. She pushed up from her crouch, half standing to lean over the woman in the wheelchair, her hands braced on the armrests, anger in her eyes. "No," she said again, her voice softer now, but no less intense. "You've got people here who love you and need you ... and ... don't you understand that it's a gift that you're at least alive?"
Guilt suddenly glittered in green eyes at that unintentional reminder that Helena's mother hadn't been so lucky. "I'm sorry," she whispered as she reached out to gently ruffle dark hair, the gesture affectionate. "Guess I'm just not in a good space today." She sighed, tipping her head back as she contemplated the ceiling tiles. Courtesy of the physio sessions she knew every single damn mark and faint discoloration since she was stuck just lying there uselessly while--
"Brad called," Helena broke in on her thoughts. "Wanted to reschedule your session for tomorrow, since you cancelled today's." She didn't even try to keep the disapproval out of her voice, and was rather pleased when she saw a hint of a flush color her guardian's cheeks.
"I'll call him later," Barbara said without looking at Helena, not wanting her to see the words for the lie they probably were. Even knowing she should call, even with the intent that she would call, she just wasn't sure she could bring herself to do it, especially since so far she'd been notoriously unsuccessful on that front. For the most part, the calls she'd made to his office had been to cancel appointments, not make them.
"Right," the brunette murmured knowingly. She recognized that tone all too well. She ought to, since she'd used it enough times in her life. "I spoke to him for a few minutes," she continued, her tone casually light. She saw Barbara's flush deepen, muscles clenching along the line of her jaw, resentment glittering in eyes that wouldn't look Helena's way. It left the teenager wonder if this was what dealing with a teenager was like. If it was, it was wonder anyone was willing to put up with her age group. "I wanted to discuss something with him before I brought it up with you."
"What?" Barbara ground out, not liking this at all. Everyone seemed to think they had a right to make decisions for her now. It was bad enough when it was her father, Alfred, Dick, and Bruce. At least they were adults. But damned if she was going to have Helena start treating her like a slightly slow child who needed to be constantly looked after and handheld to get through life.
"I asked him if he could teach me how to do your therapy ... the basic stuff to keep your leg muscles in condition ... and how to help with the workouts you should be doing for your upper body."
Barbara's jaw dropped. She'd expected some agreement that only Helena could cancel appointments, cutting off one more bit of control she had over her life, not this. "What?" she said again, her tone wholly different this time.
"He says he could do most of it in a couple of hours ... then oversee it a few times to make sure I was doing it right. He'd still have to do some things, but it wouldn't need to be nearly as often." The girl looked down, hands shifting from the armrests to Barbara's knees as she slid back down into a crouch. "I just figured ... y'know ... maybe it would easier for you to ... to deal with it ... if it was me instead of some strange guy ... and besides...." She looked up, her expression almost pleading. "I want to help ... if I can." She just wanted to do anything in her power to make it better, but suddenly she was doubting her wisdom for even making the offer. Given some of the things that had happened between them before the shooting, her help might well make the other woman even more uncomfortable and that wasn't what she wanted at all. "I'm sorry if it's a stupid idea ... I just thought maybe...." She fell silent, not knowing what else to say.
Barbara was silent for a long moment as she stared at the teenager's downbent head, then at the hands fitted lightly to her knees. Just the thought of it seemed to relax some of the awful tension that always knotted in her chest and stomach when she contemplated the sessions where she felt so completely powerless over her own body. For the first time she didn't have a sense of being locked in a cage that was just steadily growing smaller around her while water came up through the bottom bars, threatening to strangle off her air. Actually, now that she thought about it, she'd been through that exact scenario in real life, and it had been nowhere near as unpleasant as her PT. But she couldn't ask the teenager to take over that sort of responsibility when she already had more than enough of her own concerns. No, she was just going to have to tough it out and do what she had to. And why was it that decision make it feel like the water was sliding up over her head and she only had one last gasp of air before she started the slow motion drowning that would follow? "I-I appreciate the offer, but I know how busy you are--"
"Hey, I'm not too busy to help a friend," Helena corrected, then offered a lopsided smile. "Besides, you can use the time to tutor me in ... well ... whatever I need tutoring in at any given point in time." Barbara had apparently made it her life's work to see that Helena graduated from high school ... and they were still arguing about the merits of college.
That actually got a hint of a smile from the woman in the wheelchair. "Don't think it would get you out of your homework."
"Curses, foiled again," Helena responded, careful to keep her tone as light as she could make it.
A long moment of total silence followed. "Are you sure?" Barbara asked at last.
The young woman nodded, her expression serious. "You've done so much to help me. Let me repay you just a little bit."
It was the wrong thing to say judging by the way Barbara flinched. "You don't owe me anything," she said tersely, her expression suddenly unreadable.
Helena resisted the urge to scream, and instead continued calmly. "I owe you everything," she disagreed, a flicker of hurting slipping through the cracks in her armor. "You're the closest thing to family I've got left ... and you're the only person who completely accepts me." Everyone else was always trying to change her. Her teachers wanted the perfect student, the counselors Barbara insisted she see, the well-adjusted intellectual, her schoolfriends, the absolute wildchild. Only Barbara seemed to accept that she was all of those things and none of them at the same time. She looked down for a second, then back up again. "Y'know, my mom used to say that sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone is to trust them enough to let them help you."
"I trust you," Barbara said, her tone softening, well aware that trust wasn't just an issue for Helena, it was the issue.
"Then let me do this for you ... please." Helena knew damn well that Barbara would just go on cancelling appointments if she didn't, and the ones she did make would be pure torture. Helena had watched enough times to see the frustrated misery in her eyes. Even her therapist had thought the change might be a good idea, sensitive enough to realize that his patient hated every last moment of every session. That kind of utter torture wasn't likely to make for great improvements.
A long moment passed, then the woman in the chair nodded. "Okay," Barbara exhaled at last, unable to resist the driving power of her own fears and Helena's pleading.
The younger woman grinned. "Okay, then." She rose easily. "I'll just go call and set things up." There wasn't much to be done since she and the therapist had already come up with what they both thought was a pretty solid plan, but she needed to confirm things. She looked around the darkened interior of the expensive gym---her father's money at work. "Then why don't we get the hell out of this place." Barbara had opted to move into the strange clocktower apartment Bruce Wayne kept after leaving the hospital because it had the high tech equipment that would make it easier for her to get around, and generally Helena liked it. There were no bad memories to taint the place, and she'd never complained about anything high. The higher the better as far as she was concerned. But the thick stone masonry, with its tiny windows and dark interiors could leave her feeling a little claustrophobic now and then. Besides, Barbara hadn't been out in days, and a little escape would be good for her. "Go to dinner someplace and have a little stupid fun."
"I appreciate the thought, but I'm sure you'd rather go have fun with your friends," Barbara waved the idea aside despite the temptation to agree. The teenager had already agreed to go above and beyond the call of duty. No use pushing it.
"You're my friend," Helena said softly. "Besides, I was thinking Marvin's MouseHouse," Barbara's look of horror was almost comical, "and you're the only one I know who can afford their prices," she explained, intentionally making a joke of the thing. In reality, she wouldn't be caught dead in that place amid the kiddy birthday parties, multi-hued wallpaper, and singing waiters. Still, it was fun to tease.
"You mean the place with all the singing, animatronic animals?" Barbara asked, her mind boggling at the concept of her leather clad ward with her James Dean sneer hanging out in the midst of that particular den of juvenile iniquity. That was just scary.
"Yeah, that's the one," Helena continued the game with a teasing smile. "I figured you might like the--"
"Careful, or I'll call your bluff," Barbara cut her off, well aware that Helena was making a joke---very probably at her expense, though it didn't annoy her in the least. Actually it felt good to have someone lighten up a bit. Everyone else was always so goddamned serious around her. Then she grinned. "Actually, now that I think about it, I think it could make an enjoyable field trip ... make for a chance to explain the basics of robotics and how it applies to your physics class."
Helena's mouth fell open. She had to be kidding. "I was just joking," she said quickly. "Actually, I was thinking of Mario's." They had the best pizza in town, a couple of video games, and outdoor seating on a little porch that was empty. Helena liked the porch, all lit with candles in wine bottles encrusted with layers of multi-colored wax. It had been her mom's favorite place and she still loved it.
"No ... no," Barbara waved that idea aside, enjoying a little bit of victory, even if the notion of being surrounded by screaming children was already giving her a headache and they hadn't even left yet. "I think Marvin's will do quite nicely." She fully expected Helena to have a fit, and was grinning, thoroughly enjoying the little bit of push and pull between them. Everyone else acted like her brain had gone the way of her legs, and it felt good to be teased and tease back a little.
Helena saw the gleam in bright green eyes, and realized that Barbara was playing with her, which only triggered an innately competitive streak that had gotten her in trouble more than once. Instead of arguing, she did the one thing she knew the redhead wouldn't expect. "Okay, I just need to call Brad, and change clothes ... and then we can go." She eyed the redhead in her sweats and tank top, damp bangs falling across her forehead. "You might want to get a shower first though," she teased.
Barbara wrinkled her nose as it occurred to her that she was pretty odorous. "Yeah ... a shower ... definitely a must before I do anything else." Then she grinned and shook her head. "Are we seriously going to Marvin's?"
"Well, since you're not gonna back down, and neither am I," Helena mused out loud, "I think so."
Barbara shook her head again. "Remind me to let you know when I figure out which one of us was hoist by our own petard this time."
"The curse of being too competitive," Helena mused out loud, then her expression became more serious. "You need any help?" She knew Barbara had fallen a couple of times during the transfer from her chair to the modified shower stall. She was still learning a host of new skills, and after the way she'd collapsed during her workout, Helena wasn't certain she'd be okay on her own.
Eyes falling away, the redhead shook her head. "I'm okay to do it. I need to get better at all this transferring myself around crap anyway."
"Okay," Helena murmured, then gestured toward the door. "Just ... ahm ... y'know ... call out if you need anything," she added, babbling ever so slightly as it occurred to her that she wouldn't mind if Barbara needed help, not at all. God, she was such a perve.
Barbara offered a faint smile, but didn't answer directly. "I shouldn't be too long," she murmured and reached down, hands curling around the oversized wheelchair wheels, backing herself up before doing a neat spin, and heading toward her bathroom.
Helena stared after Barbara for a long moment, a bemused expression on her face, then finally shook her head and started toward the phones. What the hell had she been thinking in suggesting Marvin's, even as a joke? Of course, she could view it as a good thing since it looked like Barbara was starting to get her sense of humor back. And it suddenly occurred to her that she'd finally completely quit thinking of her as Ms. Gordon. And now they were gonna go hang out at a kid's pizza palace. Her life had definitely entered the Twilight Zone somewhere along the way. Or given the identities of her mother and father, maybe she'd been born there---probably conceived there as well. Oh well, at least Marvin's had a decent game room.
They also had really lousy pizza, the sort apparently made from cardboard, canned tomato sauce, and melted rubber. Helena didn't even want to think about what the pepperoni had been in its previous life. And then there were the kids, dozens of them making enough noise to represent hundreds, while animatronic animals on the walls overhead, stuffed in all the corners, and at the end of every table, sang badly and danced and bobbed their heads in jerky motions that had nothing to do with the beat of the music. To Helena's eyes, they also managed to look mildly panicked every time a kid came too close. She couldn't blame them. Once brightly colored fake fur was spattered in tomato sauce, congealed cheese substitute, and bubblegum. It had never occurred to her that she could feel sorry for semi-animated, stuffed toys, but she did.
They'd both managed to choke down about a half a slice each when they looked at each other, mutual grins splitting at the same moment.
"What say we call it a draw?" Helena offered through a conspiratorial smile. "We could still hit Mario's and get some real food. You know, the edible kind."
Wincing, Barbara peered down at her slice, then up at Helena. "It is pretty bad, isn't it?"
"Bad? This is way worse than bad," Helena assured her. "This is the gastronomical equivalent of slow torture."
A rusty eyebrow climbed high on Barbara's forehead and she peered at Helena with a faintly quizzical look. "Gastronomical?"
"Hey, I know a few big words."
A grin played about the redhead's lips. "Then why do you use so many that consist of only four letters?"
"Most of the people I know don't know what you're talking about when they get much longer," Helena explained with an easy grin.
Hard to argue that, Barbara thought and tossed her slice down. Helena's taste in friends could be a bit ... well ... less than intelligent; very buff physically, but inclined to be on the scrawny side mentally. "Come on, let's get out of here," she said after the shortest of moments. They'd paid for the pizza when it was ordered, and no way in hell was there going to be a tip, so there was nothing to slow their exit.
At least there wasn't until they passed the game room and Helena happened to glance inside. There were a myriad of the usual games, a row of skeeball courts, and even on lone pool table clearly intended for parents to use as an escape from the noise and their kids. There was quite a crowd, Helena noted, then suddenly grinned. "StarBlaster," the brunette proclaimed, one arm rising to point excitedly at what looked vaguely like an airplane cockpit if you got into it from the side. She bounded over, grinning happily and stuck her head inside. "Twin StarBlaster. This is so cool. Most places don't even have a single seater."
That was when Barbara realized the cockpit was a double wide, with two side by side seats. There were kids swirling all over the various games, but leaving this one alone, she realized, then she noted the price tag, two-fifty per seat per game. No wonder the kids were sticking to the quarter and fifty cent machines. "I thought we were--" she started to say as she rolled over, but Helena cut her off excitedly.
"This thing is supposed to be so cool." She slid into the nearest seat. "It, like, moves while you're flying ... and shakes if you get hit and stuff."
A smile made its way over the redhead's mouth. Amazing how Helena could go from seeming like a relatively mature adult to a kid in a matter of seconds.
"And you're supposed to be able to play together or as opponents on the twin seater." As an idea struck her, Helena looked down, checking out the floor and noting the lack of foot pedals. She'd been pretty sure she'd read it was all in the joystick and control panel, but wanted to make sure before she said, "I'll take ya on."
That actually made the redhead laugh. "I really don't think--"
Helena made a clucking chicken sound.
"I'm not chicken. I just--"
More clucking sounds had Barbara pursing her lips, then digging out her wallet. She shoved a twenty at Helena with a single muttered word. "Tokens."
By the time Helena returned with tokens in hand, Barbara had used the ceiling rails on the cockpit and hefted herself into one of the seats and was reading the directions. Helena didn't bother to follow suit, just climbed in and started shoving tokens in.
"Sure you want to do this?" Barbara questioned, an odd smile on her face.
"Oh yeah," Helena assured her. "So are we a team, or enemies?"
"You pick," the redhead allowed.
"How about two of each," Helena offered and got a nod of agreement.
"I can't believe I'm agreeing to blow twenty bucks on a video game," Barbara muttered under her breath, but Helena noticed she was grinning.
"Team play first," Helena said and they both punched the right buttons on their consoles. In seconds the screens on both games were swirling with stars coming at them, then enemy ships moving. The first time she pulled back on the stick and felt the unit rattle around her as though an engine were accelerating, Barbara raised an eyebrow, though she noted out of the corner of her eye that Helena was having a ball. The faux cockpits didn't tilt or rotate more than a couple of inches, but they did shake and rattle with every virtual shot they took.
Inhumanly quick reflexes, sharp vision, and phenomenal hand-eye coordination allowed Helena to win the first game hands down. Playing as a team, they managed to get through the third level, but then Barbara ran out of ships, and was forced to watch while her ward played another couple of levels all alone.
Helena handily won the second game as well though Barbara did considerably better than she did the first time through, so by the third, Helena looked a little hesitant to go with her original plan about playing against one another. She wasn't interested in slaughtering the other woman. "Look, we could go on with the team play thing," she offered a little uncertainly.
Barbara shook her head. "Nah, I think we should definitely try it both ways." She grinned, eyes gleaming in a way that sent a tiny shiver down the younger woman's spine.
"Okay, but don't come whining to me when I blow you out of the sky," Helena teased.
She got an enigmatic smile in return.
Confident, she started the game.
And lost her first ship in a matter of moments. A muttered, "What the hell?" quickly followed as she suddenly found herself just barely able to duck and dodge a brutal round of strafing fire from the woman in the neighboring cockpit. She ducked, dived, spun and tried to fire. But mostly, she just blew up. Ship number three didn't fare much better. And she cursed as she realized this time she was the one reduced to simply watching as Barbara proceeded to blow her way through the enemy ships at a rate that was slightly obscene, her hands quick and confident on the controls, moving as though she knew where the enemy was going to appear before they did.
Which, unless she was mistaken, Helena realized at some point, Barbara did. "You just targeted that spot before that ship even appeared," she said suspiciously.
Barbara nodded. "I ported the code on this game into my computer two weeks ago ... it's a Wayne Corp design and I wanted to take a look." She'd taken to wandering through lines of code to keep herself entertained when she couldn't sleep or things got too oppressive. It kept her mind busy, and challenged her to envision what simple words and numbers would look like when it was all put together.
Helena flinched as Barbara plowed her way through a whole raft of enemy ships. "So ... what ... you let me win the first two games?" she demanded on an affronted note.
Barbara grinned and shook her head, but didn't take her eyes from the screen. "Took me that long to figure out the pattern and relate it to the code. Had plenty of time to watch while you were playing." She flicked a tiny glance toward Helena. "Figured out your basic strategy while I was watching too." Which explained how she'd been able to wipe Helena out so quickly.
Helena folded her arms across her chest, cursed, and seriously considered pouting. "How?" she demanded, frowning as she watched what appeared completely random to her.
"Eidetic memory," the redhead answered, still shooting, though she was starting to take some hits as the game got faster with each level.
"Eidetic ... basically photographic, though it's a bit more complicated than that." Barbara rolled her ship to the side, but couldn't move quite fast enough, and the artificial cockpit rattled around her as she took heavy fire. "But I've got one hell of a memory for anything visual." The first ship finally bit the dust, and she moved on to the second by starting a fast strafing run on a starbase that appeared out of nowhere. "Plus I'm really good at patterns," she explained as she neatly took out all of the firing positions and shuttle bays in one pass. "Really good ... just took me awhile to spot how the algorithm was applied in this case." A slow grin made its way over her mouth as she took a shot that would have made Luke Skywalker proud, destroying the base before she pulled back on the controls and surfed back into deep space.
"This is just perverse," Helena muttered under her breath, not liking getting beaten at all. She was seriously considering some possible distraction techniques that might work when fate came up with something far better than she ever could have.
At least four of them in fast succession.
The brunette didn't even pause to consider her actions, just dove across the woman in the neighboring cubicle, a snarl on her lips, her pose protective.
"Everybody down!" Raucous and angry, the voice rose above the sudden screams of frightened children and parents. A shotgun blast into the ceiling froze everyone in place. "I said, everybody down!"
Then suddenly children and adults both were hitting the ground, hands over their ears, utterly terrified. There were at least three of them from what Helena could see---all dressed in ratty clothes and wearing matching, cheesy Nixon masks---plus she thought there had to be a fourth manning the front door to make sure no one escaped. Might also be a fifth manning the kitchen exit. She was still crouched half on top of and half in front of Barbara inside the confines of the cockpit. A soft growl vibrated in the back of her throat, but she didn't move. They were all armed by the look of it, and there could be a dozen dead before she could do a thing.
"Hey ... you!" one of them growled as he noticed her. "Boss said on ground." He waved a .45 in her face as he drew near, then grabbed her by the scruff and hauled her out to dump her unceremoniously to the floor. She felt the feral rage start to rise in response to the manhandling, but held her temper, well aware that Barbara was in the line of fire. "You too, bitch," the thief snarled and waved the gun at Barbara, who held up her hands.
"I can't," the redhead said quickly, then gestured to her chair where it had been knocked aside. "The chair ... it's mine."
He looked from her to the chair, then shook his head as he reached for her. "Don't care, bitch. On the floor." He grabbed her shirtfront and started to yank hard, only to come up short as one of his colleagues broke in.
"Now, now," the newcomer stepped over Helena and brushed his comrade's hand off Barbara. "Let's not get all politically incorrect on the lady," he said in what was clearly intended to be a mockery of suave sophistication. Clearly, this guy regarded himself as the smart one. He leaned down, invading Barbara's space, and Helena couldn't see the way he looked at her, but she could sense it; hard, ugly, threatening. She wanted him dead even before he abruptly grabbed Barbara by the shirtfront with one hand, while he hauled the wheelchair over with the other.
Suddenly knowing exactly what he intended, Barbara did her best to catch and stabilize herself as he slung her from the video game platform into her chair, but she still cracked hard into one of the armrests, and had the wind knocked out of her. And then he was leaning into her space, his breath sour where it escaped the mouth hole on the mask, his eyes raking over her. She felt warm steel against her throat and smelled the acrid stench of burned gunpowder floating up from the recently fired barrel of a sawed-off, double barrel, 16 gauge shotgun. He'd fired one shot, most likely had one left. A 16 gauge might not have the power of a 12, but it would take her head off effectively enough at that range. She just stared up at him, not speaking, assessing him with skills built over years of dealing with sleazeballs who got drunk on even the tiniest bit of power. Violent, bitter, probably hopped up on something. He trailed the barrel of the shotgun down her throat until it rested against her sternum. He wanted her to break and panic, she realized. Like hell.
"I recognize you," he said very softly, the words intended for her ears alone, though she knew Helena had heard by the way she tensed. "Police commissioner's daughter...." His gaze dropped, sliding over her body with threatening hunger. "...got herself shot by the Joker." She could see the faint movement of his mouth behind the mask as he smiled. The shotgun barrel dropped lower on her torso until he stopped at her midsection. "Musta been right about there."
"It was actually a little lower ... but that's close enough." She refused to be cowed even though she knew it wasn't necessarily the smartest course of action.
The smile turned to a sneer and he dropped the barrel of the weapon lower. She didn't feel where it stopped this time, but didn't have to look down to calculate its position by the angle of his arm.
"So, you feel anything there?"
"No." Flat, hard, unafraid, her answer almost challenged him to lash out.
He was like most of his kind, she realized as the sneer twitched, and he straightened away from her chair---basically a coward. "Too bad, coulda been fun listening to you scream. Your daddy put me 'n' a lotta my friends away over the years."
Helena heard the softly spoken words, every muscle in her body tense with raw hate. She knew they had guns, knew they would probably use them with all the ease in the world, and the only thing holding her back was still the reality that one of those guns was positioned to kill Barbara. She knew what would happen if she even moved. The thing was if he made even the slightest effort to follow through on his implied threat, she was going to kill him. She didn't care if she died doing it. She was going to kill him if it took the rest of her life.
And then he was turning away, waving the gun, scaring off anyone who might have been thinking they could take him while he was distracted by a potential victim. "Now, listen up, it's gonna play out like this. You give, we take. Hold back ... die!"
And then his buddies were raiding the cash registers, stealing wallets, grabbing jewelry, and even stealing any expensive looking watches, while he stood watching it all.
Unnoticed, Helena eased over, so she was on the floor next to the wheelchair. "You okay?" she whispered, though she continued to track the action.
"Yeah," the answer was a little breathless but calm.
"Maybe we should--" Helena started to suggest, but Barbara cut her off.
"No," Barbara kept her voice low, but her tone was firm. "With any luck, they're just after the money. Once they've got that, hopefully they'll go." Even in her Batgirl days, she'd have hung back on this one. The thieves were too well armed and too widely spaced. No way for one or even two people to hit them all at once. Try anything and people would die. The only calculation was how high the body count would rise.
Helena had her doubts. Their leader kept looking over at Barbara, checking her out---thinking. She could almost see his thoughts, and they made her feel in dire need of a shower. It wasn't the sex in his eyes that made her stomach turn, it was the cruelty, as pure and malicious as anything she'd ever seen. Even the bastard who'd murdered her mother hadn't looked like that. For him it had just been a job. For this asshole, it would be pure pleasure. She felt the surge of power as the feral urge slid over her, half pushed up on her hands, only to freeze as a warm hand landed lightly on her shoulder, restraining the impulse with absolutely no force.
"No," the single word was so softly spoken, Helena almost didn't hear. "That's what he wants ... an excuse." She knew the type and knew perfectly well what he wanted. She'd spent too much of her life as a target because of her father's career and her own hobbies not to know the pattern. "Don't give it to him."
Eyes still gleaming, Helena nonetheless flattened back down onto the floor, but her lips pulled away from her clenched teeth in a soft snarl. She'd hold back ... for now.
Barbara glanced down at the teen, her expression worried. Helena was so close to the edge, her anger triggered in dangerous ways, but she didn't have the fighting skills to back it up. Yes, she'd learned as she went the night they'd fought---and learned quickly---but this situation was too tight to allow for that kind of on-the-job training, and she didn't have any practical experience dealing with this sort of situation. With her abilities, Helena would probably survive if she lost control, but others were not likely to be nearly as lucky. The crush of bodies was too close, the thieves too on edge. Then she felt her pulse kick into overdrive as she realized the leader was watching her again. She saw a glimpse of movement through the mouth hole, then his eyes dropped to touch on the crouched teen. This was bad. He now had another weapon. The question was, would he use it?
She didn't have to wait long to find out.
Finished gathering up the cash, wallets, and anything else of value, one of the thieves checked in the back, then came out again and spoke to their leader. The one in charge raised the shotgun, waving it threateningly. "Okay, people, what's going to happen now is that you're going rise as you're told to do so, then you'll proceed my friends into the back, where there's a storage room. We're gonna lock the door and leave ... and you will stay there until the police come and release you. Do as you're told, and you won't get hurt." As he finished his speech, he turned his head to glare at Barbara his mouth twitching behind the hole in his mask.
"I don't like that," Helena hissed. She'd seen the quick look and had a very bad feeling about what it might mean.
"Just do what they tell you for the moment," Barbara said softly as the thieves began moving people into the back in groups. Farthest from the rear area, the people in the game room were the last group, and as the three junior partners began yanking frightened children and parents to their feet and shoving them toward the back, Barbara thought maybe they'd managed to duck the worst of it. With luck the thugs would take the money and run.
She should have known her luck was nowhere near that good.
Prodded in the side by a hard boot, Helena rose, keeping her hands in the air as she was shoved toward the knot of people being herded toward the back. Barbara started to wheel to follow them only to pull up short as the leader blocked her way with the barrel of his shotgun.
"Not you, copgirl." His gaze slid over her. "I figure the commissioner's daughter oughta get to see all the party." She could see far too much of his sneering smile. "As the guest of honor."
"No," Helena hissed, spinning back and shoving the hand that grabbed for her aside. She ignored the gun shoved in her face, glaring at the man taunting Barbara as she shook her head. "I'm not leaving her."
Stomach knotted with fear, Barbara shook her head, willing the teenager to shut up. "Helena ... no," she hissed, terrified this show of defiance was only likely to get them both killed.
"Now, now," the one in charge sneered, "if she wants to join the party, why not?" He nodded to his lackeys, and they let Helena go, two of them continuing to herd the rest of their prisoners toward the back, while a third stood with a gun on the young woman.
"Party?" the one behind Helena, a monster of a man who was better than a foot taller than the girl, questioned.
The leader nodded and grinned. "Partay."
Helena was more than smart enough to know that it wasn't a good sign when the next thing he did was tear his mask off over his head. She didn't know quite what she expected to see, but it wasn't a guy who looked painfully average. Aside from a hint of a broken nose, he didn't look like the monster he was, just the guy next door. At least that was how he appeared until you looked a little more closely and saw the evil intent glittering in his eyes. She would have started forward, but she suddenly found herself bound up in a full nelson by the man mountain. His boss grinned.
"Not your day, is it, little girl?" the leader laughed, then grinned. "Don't worry, you'll get your chance." He looked back over at Barbara. "You'll both have all the fun you can handle before we're through."
Helena would have broken---possibly even ripped off--- the arms of the man holding if not for the gun resting so cruelly against Barbara's chest. She didn't bother to respond to the taunt, just glared at the man attacking her guardian, silently envisioning all the things she was going to do to him before this was over. When it came to the subject of revenge, she was her mother's daughter all over. And if he so much as touched Barbara, she was going to make sure it took a long time for him to die. Her father might have prevented her from avenging her mother's death, but nothing would stop her from this particular bit of revenge.
The other two returned, then their boss grinned, nudging Barbara's cheek with the shotgun as he told his buddies, "Got a celebrity here ... the good Commissioner Gordon's brat ... I figure we oughta all have a little fun, considering all the fun her father's had with us." And then suddenly, he was grabbing Barbara's shirtfront, hauling her up and back so fast her wheelchair tipped and was sent spinning to the floor. Her hands came up, automatically grabbing his wrist as she momentarily dangled helpless from his grip, and then she cried out as he slammed her hard into the top of the pool table.
Rage as pure anything she'd ever felt burning through her, Helena almost lost all control, holding back with everything in her heart and soul. That goddamned gun was still pressed against Barbara's belly and she couldn't take the risk. Couldn't lose one more person she loved. A tiny, wounded-animal whimper escaped her lips and she heard a chuckle from the man holding her and felt his breath on the back of her neck.
"Don't worry, you'll get your chance," her captor sneered.
She couldn't have cared less what he said. Didn't give a damn what he intended to do to her. The only thing she cared about was the bastard attacking her guardian. He bounded onto the table, straddling Barbara's hips, the gun playing over her body, while she lay perfectly still.
"Good girl ... maybe you'll even like it," the leader jeered.
Barbara just stared up at him, amazed by her own calm, utterly confident that he'd make a mistake. This wasn't going to happen. She'd been through enough, seen enough, and suffered enough, and damned if four thugs barely smart enough to tie their own shoelaces were going to get away with what they were planning. She caught a flick of a black shadow struggling not to struggle out of the corner of her eye. And damned if she'd see Helena put through another brutal trauma in her life. The girl had been through enough, and she simply wouldn't let it happen again. That odd sense of total calm was good for her. It gave her the confidence to think and feel like her old self and not the wheelchair bound weakling she'd been feeling like of late.
Apparently taking her total stillness for fear-driven paralysis, he laid the shotgun down near his calf, well out of her reach with a muttered, "Gonna need both hands for this."
She tracked the others out of the corner of her eye, noting they'd shoved their guns in their belts or jackets, obviously thinking they were going to have other things to do with their hands. That was going to make things a lot easier. And then hot, whiskey-laden breath was flooding her senses as he leaned down.
"I laughed the day I heard the Joker nearly blew away Gordon's daughter ... only sad part was the fact that you lived through it." He grinned, then leaned closer, nuzzling her cheek. "Now, I'm glad, cos this is gonna be so much fun."
Every muscle in her body spring steel taut, Helena could only stare, her teeth grinding against each other, lips pulled back in an inhuman snarl. They were dead. Every last one of them. She watched the bastard lean forward on his hands, his mouth sliding along Barbara's cheek toward her lips. And she couldn't do it anymore.
"I doubt that," Barbara whispered near her assailant's ear. And then her hand clamped down, and she was pleased to see his eyes bulge.
Any thought of control lost, Helena's eyes shifted in an instant as she let go of her powers completely for the first time in months, jerking her arms hard against the imprisoning hold pinning them over her head. She was rewarded by the pleasant sound of snapping bone and a human scream.
Make that two human screams.
Helena's head came back up, her focus returning to the scene on the pool table even as she shook one arm loose, flipped her attacker over her shoulder and hammered him into the ground.
Maintaining the brutal grip on her attacker's groin, Barbara rabbit punched his throat with her other hand, and his ragged scream turned into a gagging cough. A second quick punch to his solar plexus drove the air from his lungs.
Torn between the unexpected battles suddenly occurring on both fronts, the other two thugs both stood somewhat uncertainly for a moment, then finally responded to their leader's gagging shouts for help and lunged toward the table.
They didn't expect a paralyzed woman to be tearing a hole through their buddy, and certainly didn't expect the way she grabbed the pool cue that had been lying on the table, rolling it and breaking it across the back of her attacker. It snapped in the middle and she caught the end that went flying, slamming it into her assailant's side to topple him off to the floor. He hit with a crashing thud and gagging curse. His pals didn't fare a whole lot better as she snapped the first of the makeshift weapons into a hand that was reaching for the gun tucked into a dirty leather belt. Judging by the sound, she guessed she broke at least three metacarpals with that swing. She rolled up on one elbow, legs not working, and stomach muscles not yet strong enough to pull herself fully into a sitting position. Not exactly the ideal fighting position, but that was nothing new. She'd been tied, trapped, injured, and pinned into bad positions in the past more times than she could count, and still managed to fight her way free. She swung again, shortened her weapon by at least another six inches and sent the thug crashing to the floor, his temple a bloody mess of flesh and shattered wood chips. The other one was still coming though, and Helena was still busy with the big one. Barbara was on her own this time. Nothing new. Junior grade thug number two caught the half a pool cue swinging for his fist---apparently this one was mildly trainable---so she twisted, shifting her line of attack just the way she'd been taught, rolling up on one elbow as she brought her other arm around, and slammed the heavier half of the cue into a vulnerable spot in his knee. He lost his grip on the cue, and suddenly it was spinning in Barbara's hands, the battle not so different from one of the scenarios Bruce had forced her to run through at least a dozen times. More smashed metacarpals, a hard, punching blow to the sternum, and a crashing slam into his temple sent him to the floor in a moaning heap with his friend. Pushing up on her hand, she grabbed for the discarded shotgun, swinging it around to bring it to bear on the two moaning men.
Slamming a last, brutal punch into her attacker so he finally went down, Helena looked up and heard a warning scream rip from her throat as she saw the leader stagger to his feet and reach into his jacket, the pistol he drew so black it seemed to absorb every last bit of light in the room. Barbara was concentrated on bringing the pistol-gripped shotgun to bear and hadn't realized her first attacker was coming at her from behind. She wouldn't be able to act in time.
And then Helena was flying, soaring over Barbara's head and easily clearing at least fifteen feet before she dropped down on the would-be killer. One hand forced the gun back so that when it exploded, the bullet tore harmlessly through a nearby wall, the other broke his jaw with a brutal backhand. She stripped the weapon out of fingers that broke under the pressure from her tight grip, then started hitting. She vaguely felt the pain of the first blows in her knuckles, well aware that she wasn't doing it the way her mother had taught her in the informal self-defense lessons she'd given. She had no thought for protecting her hands. If every last knuckle shattered while she was pulping the bastard's face, that was fine by her.
"Helena!" Barbara shouted, unable to do any more than that, afraid of splitting her concentration too much for fear one of the others would get it in their heads to start fighting again. She had no way of knowing if he'd reloaded and the shotgun had two shots left or only one, and didn't want to find out the hard way. "HELENA!" she shouted again, "You're killing him!"
Which was fine by the brunette. As far as she was concerned this asshole dead would only make for an improvement in the earth's atmosphere, since he wouldn't be taking up precious air that might be better used. She hit him again, felt several key facial bones give way and smiled.
"HELENA!!!" Barbara tried again. The others were getting restless. Sensing they had an advantage, hands were starting to sneak toward dropped, discarded, or hidden weapons. "I need you here!"
That was the key that brought the younger woman's head around, eyes narrowing as she recognized her guardian's situation. She rose easily, letting go of the limp and moaning figure clutched tightly in one hand, barely aware she'd had a grip on his throat so tight she'd been on the verge of crushing his windpipe.
He tumbled to the floor, his breathing ragged and wet sounding, and lay there moaning.
"You okay?" she asked Barbara as she stalked around the end of the pool table and quickly retrieved the dropped weapons, her look all but daring one the of the others to make a move. She wouldn't mind a chance to beat any of them to within an inch of their lives ... or farther. They glanced at what they could see of their fallen leader between the legs of the pool table and sank back down, not offering a peep.
"I'll live," the redhead muttered, and then the faintest hint of a smile touched her mouth as if she realized that, for the first time in months, it felt like she really would.
The sudden appearance of a happy birthday party of five brought her head up.
The sound of children's laughter instantly drained away as the newcomers got a look at the strange tableau. "Marjorie, get the kids out of here," the man, a somewhat scrawny figure in chinos and an izod shirt ordered as he pressed the woman and three children back.
"Call nine-one-one," Barbara ordered without wavering.
One of the thugs seemed to think it might be a chance to make a run for it. Helena disabused him of the notion with a solid kick to the face. He went back down in a groaning heap, clutching his bloody mouth and whimpering.
That was how the police found them less than fifteen minutes later. As she watched the cops take charge of the thieves, Helena moved to Barbara's chair, carefully righting it. "You need help?" she asked as she watched the redhead consider her problem. With no easy way to get from where she was to the chair, she was finally forced to nod.
"Yeah, I think so." It was a bit of a letdown after the victory of pounding back a few bad guys, but not enough to destroy the triumphant mood.
Barely noticing the added weight, Helena slipped a hand behind Barbara's back and one under her knees, easily Lifting her. Nothing fancy, she reminded herself as she noted the speculative gazes cast their way, and simply scooped the redhead down into her chair, trying to look like it took some effort as she moved.
"Need help there?" a cop offered, but she waved him off, instead leaning down to peer into green eyes.
"You were incredible, you know."
A flush of color slid over high cheekbones. "Just trying to survive," Barbara muttered, amazed to find herself mildly embarrassed by the whole thing.
"Incredible," Helena repeated, and couldn't contain a proud grin. "But next time, we're going to Mario's."
After that, the usual questions were asked, interviews made and statements taken. For the first time since discovering her father was the infamous Batman, Helena managed to find some use for his existence as Barbara told a story of the way he'd rescued them and she'd found herself nodding in confirmation to every fictional word. There was no one to argue, and no doubt in anyone's mind that one paraplegic woman and a teenaged girl hadn't done that much damage to four armed, men who had rap sheets listing crimes from murder to rape, no matter what those men might try to claim. Besides, there might not have been any other witnesses to the pitched battle in the game room, but there were plenty of witnesses locked in a storage room, all of them eager to see their attackers put away for a long time.
All things considered, they were going away for a long time. Everybody knew it, so there really wasn't a whole lot more to worry about. Given that one of the victims was also the commissioner's daughter, the cops weren't in a hurry to press anything, and the two women found themselves being released remarkably quickly.
* * * * * *
Barbara leaned back in her chair, her expression thoughtful, aware of, but barely seeing the city lights of the city below the towering clocktower that had become her home. There were bruises, and her body ached in ways she hadn't expected it to ever ache again. Funny to feel mildly nostalgic for the bumps and bruises of combat, but in an odd way they felt almost good. Made her feel more alive than she had in months. Good enough that even Helena's nagging that she really needed to see her specialist to make sure her back hadn't suffered any additional damage from the manhandling didn't annoy her too much.
"Hey there," Helena's voice, cheerful and still heady with the triumph of successful combat broke in on the older woman's thoughts as she bounded onto the lookout, bearing at flat square box in one hand and a pair of amber bottles in the other. "Mario heard there was trouble." At Barbara's arch look she grinned. "Possibly because I called and told him." Actually, the owner of Mario's was named George which Helena knew that perfectly well, just like she knew he never delivered, and had lusted after every reasonably attractive woman who'd entered his restaurant for years. Clearly she'd used that last fact to overcome the middle one. She considered asking, then decided she didn't really want to know the details. "Anyway, he sent a care package to look after his two most gorgeous customers."
"Beer?" Barbara questioned as she noted the bottles in hand. Given that Helena couldn't legally drink, and she wasn't supposed to have anything with the medications she was still on, that was going to be a nogo if the answer was yes, no matter how hard Helena might try to wheedle her into allowing it. It was a discussion they'd had before.
Helena settled the pizza box on one of the wide stone pillars that made up the wall around the lookout. "Root beer," she corrected as she turned a bottle so that Barbara could see the entire label, then glanced at it herself. "Who knew there were fancy micro-brand sodas ... he offered wine or beer, but I turned him down, so Mario sent it over with his best wishes." She set the bottles down with the pizza and bounded back inside with a muttered, "Along with something else." She appeared a moment later carrying a wax encrusted wine bottle with a candle sticking out of the neck.
Her deeper thoughts forgotten for the moment, Barbara laughed softly as the teenager grinned happily.
"I have no idea why, but I love these things," Helena said as she set it on the floor near Barbara's chair, knowing it wouldn't stay lit where it was windier on the wall, then retrieved a lighter from her pocket and quickly lit the candle. A moment later, she was scrambling for a seat on another of the broad stone pillars, wholly confident even though they were dozens of stories above the ground. She exhaled a happy sigh, content to have the wind ruffle her hair and enjoy the total exhilaration that came from victory. "The good guys won one tonight," she mused as she twisted the lid off her root beer. It felt good to win, felt good to know they'd been threatened and come through.
"Yeah, they did," Barbara agreed and followed suit.
The teenager grabbed a slice from the box. "You were incredible," she enthused, eyes shining with pure adoration. "Those guys so didn't expect you to kick their asses." She laughed around a huge bite. "Man you've gotta teach me how to do that." She mimed Barbara spinning the broken ends of the pool cue to take down her opponents.
Barbara's gaze dropped to touch on the teenager's tightly bandaged hands. No broken bones, but they were badly cut and bruised, and the man she'd attacked had suffered several breaks, including his jaw, both cheekbones, nose, and a shattered eye socket. Plus, she didn't even know how many ribs the girl had cracked or broken. Enraged, her strength had gotten away from her at every level. One or two more blows and she'd have killed him. As it was, there would doubtless need to be reconstructive surgery. She just hoped her lies would hold. The last thing she wanted was the police looking too closely at the girl. "We'll see," she exhaled noncommitally, hesitant to teach even more dangerous skills until she was far more certain Helena could handle the challenge of controlling her desire to overuse them.
"God, you were just incredible," Helena said again, too hyped up to notice the hesitance in Barbara's tone.
"Not really ... they weren't much," the redhead disagreed.
"Not much?" the teenager repeated on a disbelieving note. "They were nasty," she disagreed. "And you kicked their asses."
"Kicked their asses," Helena interrupted as she bounded off her stone perch and leaned down into Barbara's space, grinning a little maniacally. "You mopped the floor with those idiots. Totally trashed them." She took a bite from her pizza and did a little pirouette. "And it was sooo totally cool." She looked all of about twelve in her enjoyment of the beating their attackers had taken.
"I did what was ... necessary," Barbara said quietly, tamping down her own exhilaration, uncomfortable with the notion of taking quite so much joy in hurting another human being, no matter how much they might deserve it.
"Necessary-schmecessary," Helena laughed, then grabbed a piece of pizza and shoved it at Barbara with the muttered command, "Eat." She grinned and danced back a pace, on the verge of exploding she was in such a good mood, probably the best mood she'd been in since all hell broke loose. The sadness, hurt, and pain were still there, hidden under layers of agony, but for once she didn't feel them, and she just wanted to enjoy it. "Incredible," she said again, eyes gleaming as they fastened on the redhead. "Just incredible." It occurred to Helena even as she said it that she was allowing way too much of her emotional fervor to show. It was just that it felt so damn good to win one after so many losing battles, and Barbara had been so damned incredible even if she didn't want to admit it. She leapt onto the stone gargoyle that protected the left side of the balcony, arms flung wide as she tipped her head back and leaned into the wind, feeling more alive and better than she had in at least a year.
"Helena," Barbara's voice was tense as the teenager danced lightly over the uneven, curving surface of the gargoye's head, only a few inches or a minor slip from plunging to a very quick and sudden end. Utterly confident of her own abilities, it never occurred to the teenager that any danger even existed. A wry smile twisted the woman's mouth, and she had it in her to wonder if this was what she'd put her father through when she'd hurtled into any number of hobbies likely to get her hurt or killed. Dear God, it was a wonder he hadn't had her locked in a nunnery. She might be tempted with Helena, except she feared the girl would have far too much fun corrupting the nuns.
"And tomorrow," Helena added, breaking in on Barbara's thoughts as she easily leapt from the gargoyle's head to the stone floor of the balcony, "we'll start with your therapy ... and all will be right with the world."
Barbara recognized the girl's mood all too well. She'd been there enough times. A combination of adrenaline and survivor's euphoria that created an intense high. Even knowing it wasn't likely to last---it never did in her experience---it was kind of nice to see after months of pain and suffering. The poor kid had been through so much; her mother's murder, the awful way she'd discovered the truth about her father, then having her custody shifted to someone on the verge of death. For once she found she didn't even mind the idea of therapy too much. "Yeah," she exhaled, then glanced down at the candle, noting the blue wax sliding down over an amalgam of different colors. "So, what's with the fascination with the candles?"
Helena dropped down to sit cross-legged in front of the jerry-rigged candle holder, her head canting to one side as she considered it. "I just always liked them," she murmured thoughtfully, then reached out, flaking off a piece of red wax to reveal a layer of yellow beneath it. "I like the layers ... there's always something new underneath ... and the shapes are pretty. When I was a kid, I'd sit and peel layers off to see what was underneath." She suddenly realized she'd been babbling, she looked up, struggling desperately to put on a look of teenage insouciance when she realized the woman was watching her with a gentle smile. "I was just a kid," she muttered, suddenly self-conscious.
She was startled when Barbara rotated her chair enough to reach down, then used a fingernail to flake off a layer of wax. "Actually, they are kinda neat," she murmured, allowing herself to take a little simple pleasure from something. It had been too long since she'd just enjoyed the little things. Which was scary and more than a little sad now that she thought about it. Once upon a time, she'd been someone who took joy from damn near everything she encountered. She flaked another colored streamer of wax free, noting the pale blue layer underneath. "I'm glad you asked him to send it along."
Helena couldn't take her eyes away from the look in emerald eyes as the woman offered a genuine smile for the first time in ages. Then she smiled back, and it became a chain reaction that left both of them grinning and close to laughter.
"It was pretty incredible, wasn't it?" Barbara said, suddenly, no longer able to contain her own euphoria. There were plenty of things to worry about, but at the same time, she was alive ... and for the first time in much too long, it felt good.
Helena nodded, her grin somehow growing a little wider. "Incredibly incredible," she confirmed. She pushed to her knees at Barbara's feet, peering up at her. "You were amazing. Those guys never even knew what hit 'em."
Barbara shrugged, suddenly unaccountably embarrassed by her own success. "Just a couple of tricks I know," she waved it off.
"No," Helena disagreed, her expression thoughtful. "You knew what you were doing ... stayed calm ... knew how to use any advantage ... and how to create an advantage to use." And then her expression became more serious. "Can you teach me how to do that?"
That knocked the redhead's smile off as she considered the request. "I don't know," she admitted. She knew the moves and the training routines, could hook Helena up with sparring partners, but there was a lot more to it than that. It was a way of thinking ... a way of acting rather than simply reacting, and she wasn't sure someone as impulsive as Helena was overly capable of that mental shift. Her eyes dropped to touch on tightly bandaged hands. And then there were her very real fears about the girl's abilities. She hadn't had a chance to test them the way she would have preferred, but from everything she'd seen, it seemed likely that they increased her already unstable tendencies. "It's a lot of work ... not easy ... and not just about fighting." She watched incredibly slender, fine-boned hands come up to rest lightly on her knees, momentarily distracted by the lack of any accompanying sensation. "And I promised your mother ... that I wouldn't try to push you into anything," she added after a brief verbal pause.
"Look, I'm not talking about becoming some kind of superhero," the girl said quickly. "But if I'd known more maybe I could have stopped those bastards before they...." She dropped her chin, staring at her hands where they stood out against the black fabric of Barbara's pants. The jovial mood dissipated in a matter of moments. "When my mom was killed, I couldn't do anything to stop it ... and tonight ... I didn't know how to fight those assholes." She looked up again. "I just want to know how to make sure the people I care for are never hurt again." She was close to tears as she continued. "When I couldn't do anything to help you...." Her voice choked to a stuttering kind of silence. "I was so scared," she whispered after a moment, eyes sliding closed, shoulders trembling gently.
"We both were," Barbara whispered, settling a hand over Helena's, needing some kind of contact ... something she could actually feel. The girl's hands were warm under her own. "But we're both okay now."
When blue eyes slid open again, they were almost pleading. "Teach me," Helena whispered.
A long moment of total silence passed as Barbara considered her decision. She'd seen so much capacity for good and kindness in the girl, but there was a dangerous edge of anger and violence there, and she wasn't as confident as she would have liked in her ability to blunt it or teach Helena to use it to her advantage. It was a very sharp edge to a very dangerous weapon, and she feared doing more damage than good if she wasn't careful.
"Please," Helena added, her voice soft and serious, blue eyes glinting with a hint of tears.
Then again maybe the sword was going to be that sharp no matter what she did, Barbara thought as she remembered what Helena had done to man who'd attacked her. And maybe she could help build a sheath for it and teach the young woman when to put it away. "All right," she said at last, seriously wondering what the hell she was letting herself in for even as the words left her mouth.
* * * * * *
The nightmares came vicious and brutal that night for Helena. Images of her mother dying interspersed with memories of Barbara drenched in blood. Only this time, she was sprawled on a pool table while a man came down over her, and Helena was pinned helplessly, unable to do anything to stop what happened next. She tried to cry out, scream, and fight, but nothing happened. She was trapped in amber, unable to stop it.
And then she was awake. Drenched in sweat, trembling from head to toe, the ugly images still playing over and over again in her head, her bedroom in the clocktower seeming cold and unfamiliar. For the first time in ages, she found herself longing for the home she hadn't been able to return to since the night her mother died. She'd tried once, but there were too many memories, and she'd wound up fleeing before she even reached the drive. Yanking on her clothes, she didn't even pause, just headed for the lookout. As the teenager stepped into the chill, night air, her eyes rose. She barely paused before leaping and very nearly running up the side of the building.
The niche she landed in was roughly four feet deep, four feet high, and just over three feet wide, the inner barrier an ancient window that slid easily when she crouched down and pushed lightly on it. A bit of DW-40 some months before had helped loosen hinges that tended to creak.
Helena settled in, sitting sideways in the narrow space, back against one wall, shoulder nudged up against the windowframe to her immediate right. Pulling her coat a little tighter around herself to ward off some of the chill, she peered down through the crack in the window, purposely summoning her powers so she could pick out the figure that slept in the darkened bedroom far below her high perch. She'd discovered the window from inside the room when she was helping Alfred get ready for Barbara to be brought home for the first time, then come up here that first night, simply listening to the soft sound of the woman's breathing. Now it was smooth and easy in sleep, but those first weeks, it had often seemed far too strained to the young woman's ears, and she'd often sat listening for each successive breath, terrified of hearing nothing but silence. At some level, she knew she'd been hopelessly paranoid. The doctors wouldn't have allowed Barbara to go home if she hadn't been stable ... and there'd been round the clock nurses for the first weeks, plus therapists, more doctors, all of them dedicated to saving and protecting the young woman's life.
But at some level, Helena had been terrified that if she wasn't close something would happen, and then she'd never forgive herself. It was stupid, and she knew it, but she couldn't change the way she felt. She wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing her arms to stay warm. Barbara Gordon was all she had left, and more than that, Barbara was special.
She was like the wax on the candles Helena loved. Beautiful, colorful, and when you peeled away a layer, you just found more colors and more shapes to catch the attention. It was hard to understand her sometimes ... maybe even most of the time. Barbara was so used to playing games, hiding herself away, and projecting an image, that getting past that outer wall to what she was really thinking or feeling could be a challenge. The problem was Helena liked challenges. Just like she liked the woman who had become her guardian. No, not liked. Loved. She sighed softly, accepting that love was the only word that described the emotions. Before there'd been lust, attraction, fascination, more than a few hormones at work, but in a year's time, that had changed ... begun deepening somewhere along the way. They'd become friends, and while Barbara was still crawling back up from the worst of the injuries, adolescent hormones had even given Helena a bit of a break. Only now she found herself right back where she'd been before ... only ten times as bad. Half the time she felt like a damned pervert for it. Society wasn't want to approve of teenagers lusting after women in wheelchairs ... which sometimes left her feeling like she had some twisted fetish. Except she didn't go around lusting after women in wheelchairs, she went around lusting after Barbara, and if she could have gotten her out of that wheelchair, Helena would have cheerfully given up everything she had, sacrificed several key limbs, and even bowed down and kissed her father's feet.
Remembering the terror of those moments when she'd thought she might just lose the one person she had left in the world, she fought a hard shudder. No, couldn't let that happen. She curled a little tighter into her coat, snuggling down, one ear still cocked to the soft sound of breathing in the room below, feeling safer on that high ledge than she would have almost anywhere else in the world. In fact there was only one place where she would have felt safer, but fate, age, and her the memory of her mother's warnings denied her that comfort. For once, she was willing to take anything she could get.
In minutes, she was asleep.
* * * * * *