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.
* * * * * *
Two Months Later
"No," Barbara barked, her voice hard enough to freeze Helena in place. "Your foot position is all wrong," the redhead informed her ward as she brought her wheelchair around and reached up to readjust an outstretched foot. "And you need to pull your hands in closer to your body." She had a collapsible fighting baton in hand and she used it to reach out and lightly tap on the nearest of Helena's upper arms until she pulled her arms back into the proper position.
Teeth gritted in irritation as she held her balance in the strained position, Helena just barely resisted the urge to curse. "I don't see why it's that important," she complained, impatient with the nitpicky perfection Barbara was applying to her martial arts lessons.
"You don't?" the redhead murmured thoughtfully, and leaned back in her chair to peer up. Helena had been chafing at the precision of the lessons for days despite the fact that she was actually doing almost inhumanly well with the exercises. Sounded like it was time for a bit of an object lesson. "Okay," she said, her tone even. "Go through it your way."
Relaxing ever so slightly, Helena dropped her raised foot to the floor, then began the intricate maneuver all over again, her stance loose and far more open than it should have been.
This time Barbara didn't say a word, just raised an eyebrow as Helena added a flourish that sent a spin kick flying harmlessly over her head. Then Helena rolled into the position where Barbara had stopped her before. Suddenly Barbara's baton slashed out, rapping the teen's unprotected inner knee. It didn't do any damage, but for just a second, it was like having a key ligament sliced, and the teenager went down like a marionette with its strings cut. Rolling, she came back up to a crouch, eyes suddenly gleaming.
Barbara faced the look with a wry smile. "That's why," she said practically, ignoring the brief flare of superpowers. "Do it your way, and you're more vulnerable than if you do it mine."
Yellow eyes ghosted back to blue, then a wry smile twisted full lips. "Guess I deserved that," the teenager allowed as she pushed to her feet.
Barbara shrugged, backing the wheelchair a pace or two as she considered her student. "Probably," she agreed before continuing, her tone gently proud, "You're doing really well, Helena ... in fact you're probably learning this stuff faster than anyone I've ever seen in my life ... but you're a long way from being ready to go off on your own." She collapsed the baton, rested it in her lap. "When you know what you're doing, then you can break the rules ... rearrange things and base them more on your personal strengths and weaknesses, but right now, you don't have the experience to do that." She peered up at her young student, pressing her point home. "Successfully breaking the rules requires knowing them in the first place."
Helena chuckled softly. "You just know I like breaking the rules," she drawled, the wisecrack drawing a small smile from her teacher.
"There is that," Barbara allowed, then rolled herself back another foot or two. "But I think that's enough for one day. Time to break."
"For me, maybe," Helena drawled, hands on hips, head cocked to one side. "Now, it's your turn."
"Y'know you're enjoying this little bit of power way too much," Barbara complained.
Helena only grinned. "Got that right," she said agreeably.
Eight weeks into the martial arts and physical therapy sessions and they were both already much improved. The expensive therapist Bruce was paying for still saw Barbara once or twice a week, but Helena was taking over an increasing number of duties overseeing her guardian's PT. Wild as she was when it came to most things, she was unfailingly careful and gentle, never allowing her charge to overtax herself or risk injury when working her upper body, and rigidly careful when doing the forced exercises for her lower body. In some ways it was better for her questionable self-control than the rigid martial arts lessons. For the first time in her life she was completely responsible for someone else's life and health and the enormity of it was enough to make her watch herself very carefully.
Barbara glanced down at her arms, bare in a tank top and noted with some degree of pleasure that she was getting some muscle definition back. It wasn't anything to write home about, but she was definitely losing the weird combination of flabby and Auschwitz survivor that had set in during the months of total inactivity.
"Y'know, I really think I should get to use one of these," Helena teased as she snatched the baton off Barbara's lap and twirled it easily between her fingers.
"Ha-ha," Barbara said pointedly as she grabbed a pair of half gloves and began pulling them on to protect her palms. "Careful or I'll teach you how to use one of those up close and personal," she threatened through a grin.
Helena rolled the collapsed baton between her fingers and considered it. She had no great interest in weapons, if she was honest. She preferred the pure sense of combat that came from turning her body into a weapon. But she could learn it easily. She ran her thumb along the length of cool steel. One more weapon in the arsenal she was building. Her gaze rose, finding the woman watching her so closely, mentally calculating the angles and speeds. So far their sessions had been all technique and position, the only hitting coming with a bag, while any practical sparring came with the teachers from a nearby karate studio where Barbara had studied in the past. "Deal," she said at last, then grinned. "Provided you're my sparring partner."
Barbara yanked the oversize wheelchair wheels a quarter turn, the paraplegic's equivalent of jumping backwards, she mused even as she did it. "I'm not exactly sparring partner material these days," she said, ignoring the tiny clench of excitement in her stomach at the idea even as she dismissed it.
"You already knocked me off my feet once," Helena drawled. "Or was that just a lucky hit?"
"Hardly," Barbara shot back, affronted by the mere suggestion. "You were still in diapers when I started--"
"Then prove it," Helena challenged her. "You're getting strong enough."
"I'm not sure Brad would approve," Barbara said on an arch note. He was all for very slow advancement, and very careful, non-taxing, gentle exercises. To date, Helena had insisted on sticking to his regimen with absolute rigidity, never deviating and never allowing Barbara to push harder when she didn't want to quit.
As a result they were both getting bored.
Neither one of them had a personality inclined to handle boredom well.
"We don't have to tell him everything," Helena offered, a hint of a smile making her lips twitch.
God, it was tempting, Barbara thought as she stared up at her ward. And the fact that the doctors, her father, Alfred, and all of the other people who loved her and were trying so desperately to protect her until she felt like they were packing her in cotton, would all be appalled only increased the allure.
"Besides," Helena added, suddenly wanting this more than she knew how to express, "you're always trying to get me to control my temper--"
"I'm not sure that comment's a great inducement," Barbara muttered, the comment reminding her that she was still far more vulnerable than she would have liked. Helena's temper tantrums had already trashed two heavy bags. It wouldn't do either of them any good for that to happen while they were sparring and her to wind up hurt. Helena would never forgive herself, and Barbara was human enough to know she might wind up with some serious trust issues.
Helena moved to stand in front of Barbara. "Consider it my motivation to keep things under control." She crouched down, peering up into green eyes, the hunter in her seeing both the temptation and the practical worries. "I'd never hurt you," she assured Barbara, then offered a wry smile. "You have my word."
"We're both going to get in so much trouble if we get caught," Barbara muttered, but she couldn't contain the slow grin that was sneaking through progressively with every passing second.
Full lips twisted in a conspiratorial grin. "That's half the fun," Helena pointed out. Barbara had spent her entire life challenging herself, digging a little deeper, going a little farther, and climbing a little higher. Helena could see her chafing at her limitations more with every passing day that she got a little stronger. She needed this, needed something to push herself. "Unless you're scared of how badly I'd embarrass you just because I'm so damned incredible," she teased, eyes gleaming.
"Oh, you're incredible all right," Barbara murmured, her tone ironic enough to make it both a compliment and a joking insult at the same time.
"Come on," Helena pressed. " Take a chance."
"We're gonna be so busted," Barbara repeated her earlier sentiment.
"Getting busted's for kids," Helena pointed out, knowing just what buttons to push. She'd heard her guardian muttering about how everyone was treating her enough times. "I thought you were an adult."
That earned her a dirty look and a knowing grin. Everyone else pushed, prodded, ordered, and insisted they were doing what was best. Only Helena had figured out all the ways around Barbara's various personality quirks, baiting her, manipulating her, and working every angle with charm and a taunting grin. "You're on," she said after a beat. "We can start tomorrow if you like."
"I like," Helena enthused. "But now it's time for your training."
Barbara groaned, but didn't argue. As difficult as it was to cede control sometimes, at least Helena treated it as a light joke, more likely to tease or wheedle than pressure or get serious. It was an approach that worked well for the redhead, almost, if not quite, allowing her to forget the circumstances of the need.
"Actually," Helena murmured after a brief pause. "You want me to take a shower first?" She wrinkled her nose. "I'm a little on the sweaty side."
Barbara just waved the question off. "I'll be just as bad in a few minutes. The lower body work might be a matter of lying there and having someone else move her limbs, but she was getting strong enough that the upper body workout was getting reasonably strenuous.
"Okay," Helena allowed, "but if you pass out from the fumes, don't blame me."
In the end, they were both sweaty enough that they probably could have killed a goat at fifty paces, Barbara mused as she released herself into a dead hang on a chin up bar ... the last of her upper body routine. Playing therapist was a little less demanding than being the patient, but not enormously so. Probably why Brad had such a well defined set of pecs, she decided.
Helena toed the wheelchair over even as she fitted her hands to Barbara's ribcage, supportively. "Ready to come down?"
Barbara nodded, and let go with one hand, dropping it to Helena's shoulders, supporting most of her own weight with Helena's help. She was just about to lower herself into her chair with the teenager's help, when suddenly agony blazed through the arm still extended over her head as muscles spasmed into a hard, knotted cramp. She heard her own voice, breathy and pained as she uttered a colorful expletive, then Helena gasping her name as strong hands held on more tightly, taking most of her weight when the pain hit and she momentarily forgot to support herself.
"Barbara?" Helena said again.
"Cramp," the redhead gasped, eyes sliding shut. Her hand was clamped on the bar, the muscles in her forearm so knotted she literally couldn't open her fingers.
"Let go and I'll get you down," the teenager promised.
"I can't," Barbara gasped, the cramp sending runners of pain up and down her arm. "Can't open my fingers."
Helena didn't even pause to consider her actions, just yanked Barbara close with one arm, holding her supportively as she reached up with her other hand massaging the charlie-horsed muscles in the redhead's extended forearm until she felt the worst of the cramp start to let go. Then she reached on up, carefully prying knotted fingers from the bar.
There was no sense of falling as Barbara's hand slipped off the bar and she slid downward a few inches before the arm wrapped around her waist caught her weight, pinning her up against the length of Helena's body. Arm still throbbing with agony, she didn't think, just folded it around Helena's shoulders, letting her head fall forward until it was resting in the space between her upper arm and the teenager's neck.
"You okay?" the girl asked, sounding breathless and a little worried, though she made no effort to settle her guardian's slight burden into the wheelchair.
"Yeah," Barbara groaned, wincing as she concentrated on opening her hand and spreading her fingers as far as she could to stretch out the painful cramp.
"Forgot your potassium again, didn't you?" Helena murmured, her breath ruffling the soft red hair that dusted her cheek. She got an affirmative grunt as Barbara continued to fight to break the cramp. "You know you can't afford to do that," she chided. "You can't forget any of that stuff." With her upper body taking so much more of the brunt of her daily life, she'd had several bouts of brutal cramps, and the potassium was an absolute necessity to keep it under control, particularly with the hard exercise sessions sweating it out. "You know how important it is."
"Lecture later," Barbara muttered as it finally let go completely, leaving an exhausted kind of breathlessness in its wake. She sagged as the pain receded, leaning more heavily into the vee of space between her own shoulder and Helena's neck. As much pain as she'd seen in the last year, she would have thought she'd deal with it better, but somehow the unexpected agony had just ripped through all the defense mechanisms she usually used to see her through such things. Or maybe it was just that she'd gotten used to pain in all the other places, but having one of her arms fail her that way---when they were really all she had left---was scary as hell.
Helena let the woman in her arms slide a little lower, trying desperately not to notice the shape and heat of the curves plastered against her own as she did so. Still supporting Barbara with one hand. She lifted the other to cup the back of the woman's head where had settled into the crook of her neck. "You okay?" she asked again, sounding breathless and strangled even to her own ears. Normally, she didn't need her powers to help Barbara during her workouts, but in catching the redhead's entire weight, she'd let them trigger, the hot blooded part of her that gave her strength, speed, and senses beyond the human easily supporting the slender figure draped against the length of her body. Unfortunately, there were some other side effects, like the driving, throbbing desire to conquer and take, the mark of the predator in her blood an inescapable reality.
Barbara suddenly realized she was clinging tightly---too tightly, judging by Helena's constricted voice. "Yeah," she exhaled, and consciously relaxed her death grip on slender shoulders. "Just need a second to catch my breath."
"Take as long as you need," Helena murmured, turning her head ever so slightly, the feel of soft hair against her cheek a startling contrast to the texture of sweaty flesh against her own.
Barbara knew she should ask the teenager to settle her into the wheelchair, but she'd already been on the verge of muscle fatigue and the cramp had just knocked the wind out of her. She didn't feel like she could even lift her head at the exact moment, and Helena didn't seem to mind. "Sorry," she breathed. "Just kind of threw me for a loop."
"Mmhm," Helena murmured, teenage hormones running rampant, leaving her hot and cold and shaking at every level. She wanted. God, how she wanted. She'd thought she knew what desire was; hot groping hands, shaking with teenage hormones, mouths that pressed and clung, healthy, young bodies full of uncommitted lust. It all paled before the emotions and sensations that rushed over the 17 year old. Hot and heady with ideas of permanence, total dedication, and selfless love mixed amid the more wanton aspects. This, she realized in an oddly mature flash of insight was how her age group got into so much trouble. At that precise moment, she'd have done anything Barbara Gordon asked of her, sex, love, marriage, cooking, cleaning, dishes. Hell, she'd have made up with her father if Barbara had asked it of her.
She had it bad.
"Barbara?" the teenager croaked after a beat.
"Sorry," Barbara apologized as it occurred to her that she really should lift her head and get things back under control. It just felt safe and oddly comforting to let go and let someone else worry about things for a moment.
"No hurry," Helena whispered, aware of the way her breath ruffled soft hair. She petted crimson strands with her free hand, her touch incredibly light, sensing the need for comfort emanating from the woman whose body was draped against her own. "No hurry at all." Several more moments passed while the redhead caught her breath, settling against Helena's shoulder with an exhausted sigh, the sense of total trust a more heady aphrodisiac than the teenager could have even begun to guess. Helena turned her head a little farther, lips just barely brushing Barbara's temple, making just enough contact to feel the faint throb of her pulse. "Barbara," she whispered again, the timbre of her voice low, husky, and wholly different this time. She felt the faint tensing of muscles that signaled movement, and then Barbara started to lift her head.
Whatever she might or might not have said was cut off by the sound of the knob to the workout room turning, the sound as sharp as a rifle crack to sensitive ears. A protective growl vibrating low in her throat, Helena tightened her grip on the figure pressed so close, head snapping around, cat's eyes gleaming with threatening rage even as she felt Barbara's head lift all the way off her shoulder. If some threat had gotten into the clocktower, they wouldn't enjoy the reception she gave them.
"Hey, Babs, I...." Dick Grayson's voice trailed off into shocked silence as he pushed the door open. "What the hell's going on here?" he snapped in an instant as he directed a hostile, suspicious gaze toward his teenaged stepsister.
Helena felt the tension that immediately rippled through the body in her arms, then Barbara shifted, resting a hand on her shoulder, tugging as though she had a light hand on a set of reins. Her reply to Dick Grayson's suspicious question cool and smooth, though Helena knew her well enough to recognize the undertone of stress in her voice. She doubted the man who'd entered heard it though. "I was working on the bars and had a muscle cramp. Needed a bit of catching, I'm afraid," Barbara explained hastily, leaning back and looking into Helena's eyes, momentarily flustered before she indicated her young ward should settle her into the chair where it had rolled back several inches.
Dick's gaze smoothed out ever so slightly, worry taking the place of some of the suspicion as he hurried forward, steadying the chair and reaching out a proprietary hand to help ease Barbara down.
Helena completely ignored him as she carefully lowered the woman in her arms into the padded surface of the chair. "You okay?" she said again, eyes ghosting back to normal as she forced the animal part of her back into its neat lock box, unwilling to have Dick Grayson see any more of her than was absolutely necessary.
"Yeah," Barbara assured the younger woman as she reached out and settled a hand lightly on her forearm. "Thank you."
"Helena," Dick murmured with a faint tip of his head as he settled his hands on the back of the wheelchair.
"Dick," Helena murmured, rather proud of herself that she managed to put a subtly derisive spin on the single syllable. "Boy Blunder," she added under her breath, her voice too soft to be heard.
Almost too soft to be heard, she realized as she saw green fire erupt in Barbara's eyes. The redhead hated the hostility between the two of them, tried to intercede as best she could, and more often than not finally just had to ignore it on the very rare occasion they were all in the same room.
The problem was Helena didn't like Dick Grayson, and as far as she could tell the sentiment was pretty mutual. She blamed him simply for loving the father she despised, and he blamed her for the way Bruce had fled. Neither of them were terribly rational on the subject, and so the low level battle of insults and glares was a constant. Of course the fact that they were both hunters, both fighters, and they both knew instinctively that the other wanted the same thing probably had something to do with it as well. They would never be friends, never even trust each other, no matter what ties, legal or otherwise, others foisted upon them.
Bracing her hands on the armrests of the chair, Barbara resettled herself, then did a sharp pivot, easily working the wheels of the chair. "So, what brings you here?" she asked the dark haired young man standing a short distance away. He was back to glaring suspiciously, she noted absently, which was pretty much par for the course when those two were anywhere in the same vicinity.
Dick refocused his gaze, looking down at the woman peering up at him. "I need some help," he said a little haltingly as he struggled to bring his mind back to the reason he'd come and away from the default uneasiness that took over whenever he was anywhere near his stepsister.
"Help?" Barbara repeated doubtfully. "From me?"
"Yeah," he crouched down, putting their eyes on level, "I need a little information ... and it's not exactly readily available."
"Meaning?" Barbara questioned, a frown creasing her brows.
"I need somebody to do a little hacking," Dick clarified with a wry smile. They both knew Dick wasn't up to the task. He could turn on his laptop and run a word processor, but that was the limit of his abilities.
Barbara found herself nodding eagerly, more than a little excited to contribute in whatever way she could. "Sure ... let me just grab a quick shower and then I'll take a look."
He rose and nodded. "Thanks." Then was stuck trying to pretend he didn't notice the way the teenager stepped forward and rested a light hand on Barbara's shoulder as she leaned down to speak to her, their voices soft and confidential in a way that left him completely out of the loop, though they were making no effort to keep their voices too low for him to hear, or even to exclude him. He simply wasn't a part of it.
"You need any help?" Helena asked. Water and steam-slick tile made it a lot harder for the redhead to transfer herself in and out of the chair, and she'd fallen or slipped more than once in the intervening months. She was getting better at the painstaking process of moving around---and her increasing upper body strength had made it a lot easier---but she still needed help at times. Helena tracked Dick's expression with her peripheral vision. Besides she wanted him to know just how trusted and integral to her guardian's life she was. He could resent her all he wanted. She wasn't going anywhere.
Barbara shook her head. "I'll be fine," she assured the girl, well aware of the subtle game of one-upsmanship and choosing to ignore it. She freed the workout gloves and pulled them off. "If you two could try not to kill each other while I'm gone, it would be appreciated," she murmured as she rolled away. "I hate cleaning up bloodstains." She'd found a certain amount of mockery at least muted their desire for open combat. Not for the first time, she had several unkind thoughts about Bruce and the way his sudden exit had dumped it all in her lap.
Man and girl both watched the redhead make her exit, then turned to face one another.
Folding her arms across her chest, Helena struck a cocky pose and arched one eyebrow in a sarcastic, to-hell-with-the-world expression. "Go ahead, big brother," she jeered, knowing full well he considered her anything but a sister, "I can tell you're just aching to say something."
Teeth grinding together so hard it was a wonder he had any molars left, Dick eyed the teenager glaring defiantly up at him. Posed like that, eyes gleaming with a kind of confidence most women twice her age couldn't carry off, she looked so much like her mother---despite the darker coloring---that he could almost forget the Selina Kyle---Catwoman---was dead and buried for more than a year now. "What the hell was that?" he demanded without preamble, sensing things moving just beneath the surface and not liking any of them, though he couldn't decide what they meant. The only thing he could come up with was so patently ridiculous that he knew that wasn't it, but damned if he knew what it was.
Full lips twisted in a mocking sneer. "Barbara's exercise session," Helena responded, and carefully didn't put any spin on it this time, not even to tweak Dick. She knew how the woman would feel if she did that, and no way in hell would she taint the time they spent together that way. Especially not those moments when Barbara had hung in her arms, trusting her utterly and completely. She wouldn't fail that faith the way Bruce Wayne had failed her mother. "She's supposed to have them, y'know."
"Yeah," Dick shot back, folding his own arms and glaring, "under the care of a therapist." He cast a disparaging eye over the teenager's slight frame. "You don't exactly qualify."
"Actually, I do," Helena disagreed, saw him draw breath to argue and held up a hand. Like him or not, he cared about Barbara and there were things he had a right to know because otherwise he might just get involved and muck everything up. She couldn't let that happen now that they were making some serious gains. "She wasn't using the therapist ... she was ducking the appointments and--"
"Then why the hell didn't someone call me or her father to make certain--"
"What?" Helena broke in angrily. "Make certain that you both treated her like she's five years old and can't make any decisions for herself?"
Dick winced. "We don't--"
"Yes, you do," Helena snapped, then caught her temper before she could lose it. "I talked to the therapist and he agreed to teach me if she'd agree to it ... which she did," she added pointedly, noting the way that particular piece of news went over like a lead weight. "She doesn't avoid her sessions anymore, and she still sees Carlson at least once a week ... more when she's adding things to her routine. Which you would have known if you called or stopped by more than every few months."
His teeth ground even harder, this time from guilt not anger. He'd been out day and night trying to take up the slack from Batman's disappearance while trying to keep up his classes and everything else, but he knew he could have---should have---made time. It just hurt so damn much he could hardly think every time he saw Barbara in that damn chair and there was nothing he could do to change it.
"She's actually making some progress now," Helena added, daring him to find fault.
Teeth digging into the flesh of his inner cheek, he managed a nod, indicating he'd heard her. "How much?" he whispered, his voice ragged.
Seeing the guilt and barely controlled agony in his eyes, Helena felt a touch of pity. Part of her blamed him just like she blamed her father, but at least he'd stayed and tried to help what he could. And he cared for Barbara. That alone earned him a few points in her book. "She's getting more flexibility, and building some upper body strength. At first, she had an awful time with transfers ... into or out of the wheelchair," she translated her automatic use the therapist's terms, so used to them she didn't think about it any more, "but she's getting a lot better at it ... hasn't had a slip or a fall in a couple of weeks."
His eyes slid closed and he turned away, the reality of her condition almost too much for him to deal with. He was used to a woman who'd leapt from rooftop to rooftop with all the ease in the world, not one who needed a chair to get around and risked being a danger to herself in the shower.
"And that whole thing at the pizza parlor ... that was her," Helena added, the words directed at his stiff back. "She kicked their asses and left 'em bloody. I just did the mopping up." She started toward the door, suddenly feeling in need of a shower of her own. "You oughta at least respect that."
"You think I don't respect her?" Dick demanded as the meaning behind those words struck him.
Helena did a slow turn back. "No, I don't. Ever since the shooting, you treat her like a child. You claim to be a friend, but you don't come around ... and you have no idea of the sheer, balls-to-the-wall courage that it takes for her to get through every day," she accused him angrily. God knew, she didn't want him there, but she also knew that it had hurt Barbara more than once that he so rarely stopped by---only when he needed her to make some computer miracle happen for him---so she hated him for the slight.
He fell back a step under the short barrage of angry words. "You're wrong," he said very softly. "And if that's what she thinks, then she's wrong ... and I may have screwed up on the communications end of things ... but believe me, I know who the braver person is here." He took a breath, eyes sliding closed for just a moment as he gathered himself. "You don't know what it's like," he said at last, "seeing her wind up as the one made to suffer." He shook his head, swallowing hard against the threat of tears, unwilling to humiliate himself that way in front of this teenage girl who hated him and everything he loved except the woman in the nearby room. "If I could take her place, I would ... a thousand times over ... but I can't. I can't do a goddamned thing for her, except occasionally ask for help when she can give it." He ran a hand over his hair, ruffling the expensively cut dark strands. "I can't even do as much as you can," he said before Helena could comment, then straightened his shoulders. "Let her know I'll be waiting downstairs when she gets out," he ground out and fled.
Helena stared after him for a long moment, then finally went off to her own room.
* * * * * *
"Sorry, Dick, I just can't get in," Barbara sighed as she pushed the keyboard back, then reached down and backed her chair up a few inches. He was sitting nearby, leaned forward, elbows on his knees. She glanced at her desktop, the newest and shiniest that Bruce's money could buy, but not nearly as much computing power as she needed for what he was asking of her. "I don't have enough power."
"Could the Delphi system do it?" he asked, his attention still focused on the monitor.
She looked askance at him, one eyebrow climbing high on her forehead. "Sure ... but I don't think the guys down in R and D are likely to do this kind of work for you." He looked at her, his expression thoughtful, and she felt the need to explain, "They tend to be averse to the whole concept of being asked to commit crimes ... particularly felonies."
"But you could do it with the Delphi?" he asked as he pinned a hard gaze on his old friend.
"Sure with access to the Delphi I could do it ... but I don't have access ... and, considering that it's Wayne Software's most tightly kept secret, I doubt I'm likely to get access." Technically, she wasn't even supposed to know it existed, and neither was Dick. The damn thing was supposedly revolutionary at both the hardware and software level, certainly not the sort of toy either of them was going to get to play with, no matter how badly her palms might sweat at the idea of such an opportunity. She could go rampant through some of the computer division's equipment and software, but there were pretty severe limitations on how much she could pull.
"Right," he exhaled distantly.
"What's this all about, Dick?" she asked. She hadn't asked before, trusting his judgment about what he needed, but there'd been an underlying edge to his behavior since he'd arrived, and it wasn't just about his steady-state clash with Helena (who'd opted to express her displeasure with Dick's presence by disappearing into her room and playing her stereo as loud as possible, leaving Barbara to thank god for the thick stone walls that surrounded them---they at least blunted the noise).
"Falcone," Dick answered, his tone grim, "he's back in town."
Barbara lost all color and flashed a panicked look toward the second floor overlook, making sure there was no chance that Helena had heard. "What?" she hissed, leaning closer and keeping her voice low.
Dick drew breath to answer and she held up a hand.
"Keep your voice down," Barbara warned him, and flashed another nervous glance toward the mezzanine. "I don't want Helena to know." The girl was still convinced that Guy Falcone was the one who'd betrayed her mother, and very probably Barbara as well. If she found out where he was, she might just decide to do something stupid ... like kill him.
"He's hooked up with some of Hawke's old machine ... and somebody else, but I can't find out who. Looks like they're running drugs this time." His fingers were loosely laced together, and he ducked his head to stare down at them. Like Helena, he was comfortably certain that Falcone was the one who'd sold Barbara and Selina out. No way he believed the common rumors that Barbara had been shot because of her father or Selina because of rumored business ties to the mob. Both attacks had come courtesy of the Joker to prove to Batman he could destroy the things his enemy cared for most in the world. And the only one who could possibly have found out about those ties was Guy Falcone. Dick wanted the bastard and wanted him badly.
Barbara leaned back in her chair, studying her old friend, the memory of all the times they'd sparred, fought, and played together. In many ways, Dick was the little brother she'd never had, and she loved him like family. Which was why she knew what he was thinking. "Don't do this because of me," she said after a beat.
"I'm not," he lied without looking up. "Like I said, they're running drugs ... heroine mostly, but also ecstacy and a couple of other designer products."
She could see the hate and rage in the line of tension in his body. She knew him well enough to know exactly what he wanted. "We don't kill," Barbara said almost inaudibly. It was an important line in the sand for her, one that could cost them all everything the moment they went over it. That was the day they stopped being just vigilantes, and became their own private star chamber. On that day the fight would cease to be about justice and become about revenge.
He finally looked up at her, the muscles compressing along the line of his jaw. "Don't worry," he said softly. "I might want to, but I won't."
A long moment of tense silence passed between them, the sort of shared emotion that can only happen between two people who know each other all too well. Finally, Barbara heaved a sigh and sat back in her chair. "I'll see if I can pull some kind of miracle out of hat," she said after a beat. "Their password encryption is a monster, but maybe I can come up with a way around it."
He nodded, then leaned forward, offering the same lopsided smile he'd used on her since his teens. "Feel good to get your feet a little wet?" he asked, the soft words underlaid by a measure of uncertainty. Sometimes he wondered if maybe it was more of a bother than a pleasure when he asked for favors like this one.
Slim shoulders dipped in a hint of a shrug. "Sure. At least I can be a little bit of use," she murmured, her attention returning to the screen, her gaze already sliding over into distantly thoughtful when a gentle hand curved to her cheek, drawing her head back around.
Dick's eyes were serious and more than a little sad when their gazes met. She saw his adam's apple bob as he swallowed hard. "Babs..." he began only to trail off, taking a moment to compose himself before beginning again, "You're a lot more than just a little bit of you. You make the world a better place just by being in it." She drew breath to speak, but he brushed his thumb over her lips, silencing the words before they could be spoken. "Helena seems to think maybe you think I don't respect ... or value you because of ... of what happened." He looked down for a moment, unable to bear the pressure of the clear gaze directed his way. "That's not true ... if there's anyone I can't respect, it's myself."
She frowned in confusion.
"I wasn't there," he choked, his voice threatening to disappear, unwanted tears in his eyes. "The bastard hurt you ... and I was in goddamn bar somewhere trying to pick up some blonde coed." He shook his head, a disgusted sneer twisting his mouth. "Big time stud, right? And meanwhile, someone I ... you ... nearly died."
"Dick," Barbara said very softly, pitying him for the guilt clearly ripping him apart, "you didn't know what was going to happen, none of us did." She shook her head. "Bruce would have been there, you would have been there, my father would have been there ... hell Alfred would have been there ... and I certainly wouldn't have answered the door in nothing but a robe." Another fatalistic head shake. "I chose a hobby in which shit happens ... and that's just the way it is."
"But I should have been there," he said very softly, tipping his head up to stare at her with a kind of longing she'd often caught bits and pieces of in the past, glowing in his eyes. Completely unshielded for once, the intensity of it caught her by surprise. "I've loved you since I was fifteen years old ... and I made a joke of it, backed off because I was afraid ... afraid of making a fool of myself, I guess ... and I figured I had all the time in the world ... could have my fun for a few years, then get serious with you." He reached out again, stroking her cheek lightly with the pad of a faintly callused thumb. "Maybe if I'd stopped worrying so damn much about my ego and being a player, I'd have been there ... maybe I'd have been the one who answered the goddamned door."
"Dick, you can't--"
His thumb brushed her lips again and he hushed her. "Yes, I can," he disagreed, his tone sad and a little bitter as he added, "It should have been me."
She just sat there shaking her head. "No, Dick ... no. I hate this ... but I wouldn't trade places ... certainly wouldn't see a friend in this situation." She couldn't imagine what it would do to him to find himself trapped this way.
"I know," he whispered. "That's one of the reasons I've always loved you." And then his mouth was brushing hers, tender, caring, worshiping, while a gentle hand rose to stroke red silk back from her cheek. After months of wondering if anyone could or would again look at her with desire in their eyes, it felt good to hear the softly spoken words, to feel his mouth against hers and taste the way his breathing grew rougher and more unsteady with every passing moment. And then she was reaching up, sliding her fingers into hair that was black as a raven's wing, tugging him closer, her mouth opening under his. It felt good to quiet her doubts about herself in the desire he so clearly felt, to feel like she could be wanted and needed again ... could be beautiful and desired.
So much so that when he moved to pull back, she used the hand on the back of his neck to tug him close again, leaning into the arms that slid behind her back and under her knees to lift her against a broad chest.
Involved in one another, neither of them noticed the slight figure huddled at the edge of the mezzanine and she disappeared into the shadows just ahead of Dick's slow, measured pace up the stairs.
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Helena stared at the closed door to Barbara's bedroom with something akin to hate. And then she moving, bounding down onto the lower level, then out into the night air, to leap from the lookout into the night, almost hoping she might fall and not have to face seeing him ... seeing them ... in the morning ... together. Somehow a cheery discussion of just whose bed he'd slept in and whether it was just right over her morning cornflakes wasn't a conversation she wanted to have.
She needn't have worried about that particular scenario at least.
She got back just before dawn---just as Barbara was shooing Dick out. Standing on the second floor, well in the shadows, she watched them, every whispered word like knives on flesh even though she couldn't actually hear what was being said. Just the intimate tone of voice was enough to slice deep, especially when it was so painfully obvious what had happened. She wanted to scream and rail against the wrongness of it.
"Look, I'll call you later," Dick whispered, oblivious to the slender figure watching the scene so closely, then reached out, brushing a velvety cheek with tender fingers. "Babs ... please ... I know that it wasn't--"
"We'll talk later," she agreed, looking anywhere but at him.
He sighed softly, then leaned down, his lips brushing her forehead. "I love you ... that's all that matters."
The smile she offered was distinctly forced and wan. "Go on," she whispered. "I really don't want Helena running into you this morning." That would likely bring up a whole series of questions and she wasn't in the space to deal with even more pressures.
He started to say something only to think better of it. "I'll call you," he said again and turned to leave, only to turn back at the last possible moment as a frisson of awareness slid down his spine. Barbara's head was down, so she didn't see, but he couldn't escape the raging impact of eyes that glowed a feral shade of gold, the rage they directed at him enough to make his blood turn cold. Suddenly afraid for the woman who was between them, both figuratively and literally, he almost didn't leave, and then he saw that animal gaze drop to Barbara's downbent head. In an instant that wild expression softened, becoming protective if a little lost, and then those strange eyes swung back to him, the rage gone, replaced by a soul deep hurt.
"Dick, please," Barbara said, careful to keep her voice low so as not to be heard. "I really don't want her to know you were here." That would probably just cause a fight she wasn't up to dealing with, not when she had plenty of worries of her own to deal with.
He looked down, almost told her the truth, then glanced up again and saw the silent plea. He wasn't sure what was going on, but he couldn't betray that begging look. "Yeah," he exhaled. When he looked again, the girl was gone. "We'll talk." And then he was gone.
* * * * * *
Intensely aware of the warmth and softness separated from her hands by only a thin pair of sweats, Helena kept her head down, putting all her concentration to moving slowly and carefully as she bent Barbara's knee back the way Brad Carlson had taught her. The last thing she needed to do was let herself think ... or consider that maybe Dick Grayson---who'd long held a position of loathing in her personal drop-dead-o-meter that came in second only to her father---had touched and stroked the soft flesh she could only imagine. Her gaze rose, touching on the woman's face, relaxed, eyes closed, mouth moving as she lectured on King Lear---Helena's latest, and thankfully, last, assignment in senior English. Helena barely even noticed the quietly spoken words, her mind on other topics. Like, could Barbara feel anything of the hands touching her lower body? Gentle fingers just barely grazed her inner knee, and there was a burning temptation to let her touch slide higher. Would Barbara even know if she brushed a light caress onto her inner thigh?
It wasn't the first time the therapy routine had left her tempted, but it was the first time she seriously considered finding out. It wasn't right. He didn't belong with her ... not when....
She couldn't even finish the thought.
She couldn't even hate him anymore, not since she'd seen that stupid, lovesick, hopelessly-devoted-to-you look in his eyes when he looked at the woman they both loved. She wanted to, but how the hell was she supposed to hate him when she saw the same damn cow-eyed expression on her own face in the mirror every morning? She sighed softly. Great, they'd finally found something they could both relate to and it had to be her.
She slid her hand back to the proper position on Barbara's calf, tamping down any darker thoughts. That wasn't right either.
Except she couldn't stop envisioning his hands on her flesh, stroking touching. He hadn't been back in the two days since, at least she didn't think he had been. She was pretty sure he hadn't come in at night, but he could have been there during the day while she was at school, though she hadn't smelled his cologne. Still, she couldn't imagine someone making love to Barbara and just walking away, so he'd probably been there without her knowing. God knew, if ever made it that far, she'd never leave, just dig in and hold on tight. He couldn't possibly be dumb enough not to do the same thing. She remembered seeing them together, the easy body language between them. Oh yeah, he'd hold on tight, and probably so would she.
Well, yeah, he was only gorgeous, rich, intelligent, only a few years younger than Barbara, the adopted son of the man she worshiped, and then there was that whole crimefighting, superhero, how-perfect-can-one-person-be thing.
On second thought, maybe she did still hate him.
It had her tied up in such tight knots that she'd barely even had time to consider the tiny snippet of conversation she'd overheard before Barbara hushed Dick. Falcone was back in town.
Guy Falcone. The bastard who'd probably sold out her mother ... and Barbara too. The police had found bugs in their home. Somebody'd been listening in, and he was the only one who'd been in a position to guess that Selina Kyle and Catwoman were one and the same. Back in town, and dealing drugs. No surprise there. Shitty bastard. Probably got a kick out of dealing near grade schools.
She had to concentrate to keep her hands firm but gentle as she considered the man who'd sold his soul to the Joker. If she couldn't have the master, maybe she could at least get the slave. Get him and break him, and not stop hitting until he was nothing but pulp.
Batman might have taught his protégés not to kill, but his daughter was not so encumbered with limits when it came to anyone who'd cost them all so much.
"Helena ... Helena?"
The girl blinked, looking up as she realized Barbara was speaking to her. "Sorry," she apologized, "I-I was just going over that checklist of Brad's in my head ... y'know ... making sure I got everything right."
"You're doing fine," the woman assured her, then offered a smile that was both affectionate and proud. "Actually, you've been incredible." She never would have predicted it, but the young woman had been incredibly responsible about the whole thing. "I hope you know how much I appreciate all your help."
Helena shrugged and looked away, afraid her emotions would all be there in her eyes for anyone to see, burning so bright they were completely unavoidable. "I'm just glad I could do something for you ... y'know ... when you've been so great." Keeping her head down, she continued, "So, what were you saying?"
"I was just asking if you'd like to borrow a video of Lear? I've got a copy of an old PBS production with Olivier and Diana Rigg somewhere in my things that you're welcome to borrow."
Helena looked up then, surprised by the offer. "I thought watching movies of assigned readings was cheating," she said a little suspiciously.
"When it's a novel ... I'd say, that's right, but Shakespeare's really meant to be seen, not just read." She considered her offer for a moment. "And, as I recall, this one is pretty faithful to the original play."
Helena was never against anything that made school a little easier, and god knew, struggling through the thee's and thou's of Shakespearean language was making her a little crazy, and besides why in the hell hadn't Lear just spanked those two older witch daughters of his and handed the kingdom over to Cordelia when it was obvious she was the only one who gave a damn about him? "That'd be great then," she said, then carefully settled Barbara's leg back onto the mat as she finished the last of the routine. She moved up alongside the woman, leaning down as she reached out to help her sit up. "Maybe we could make a movie night of it," she suggested, heart suddenly in her throat like she was asking for a date or something. "Y'know, pop popcorn, and be silly." One arm slipped behind Barbara's back, the other around her waist from the front, and the woman slid arm around Helena's shoulders, helping to tug herself upright. A soft smile curved the lips that Helena dreamt about every night when she was falling off to sleep, and she found herself forgetting all about Dick Grayson and whatever they'd shared. It didn't matter. He wasn't here now, wasn't the one she trusted body and soul this way.
"Sounds like fun," Barbara exhaled, momentarily caught by surprise as it occurred to her just how blue the eyes watching her were. Not the pale, grey-blue of Dick's, but a deeper, near-violet color that caught a person's attention and held it like a trap that snapped shut if you looked too close. Helena shifted her weight, easily pulling Barbara into an upright position, readying to lift her into the chair. It was strange and a little disconcerting to realize that she could trust herself so totally to a figure that seemed so slight. Little more than a child, she reminded herself as she felt slender arms lift her all the way upright, their strength seemingly impossible in a figure so delicate. And then suddenly she couldn't look away as she found herself analyzing bone structure that was quickly maturing into a stunningly exotic kind of beauty. No, not a child, she realized in an instant; not an adult, but not a child either. Somewhere in that halfway between state where it seemed to change with her mood. And in that quicksilver way of teenagers, she suddenly seemed wholly adult ... and oddly intense, like--
Helena felt her lips turning up in a smile. "It's a date then," she whispered and leaned a little closer. She tried not to be aware of all the things she was aware of, like the warmth of the body held so close, the halo of dark emerald that surrounded lighter green irises, or the press of firm breasts against the arm wrapped around a slender waist. Unfortunately, she was at an age where not being aware was damn near impossible, and god knew, she wasn't a personality that ignored temptation well. "We'll ... uh ... we'll do that," she continued, hormones going off like firecrackers all over the place. And more than that, she thought she saw a glimmer of temptation in the eyes watching her closely. "Just make a date of it," Helena groaned and started to lean forward. She knew she shouldn't, but she wasn't good at resisting temptation, and there was no resistance in the arms wrapped around her neck.
The sudden crash on the floor below brought her head around. Another crash, and the sound of voices and she hoisted Barbara into her chair, barely pausing to make certain she was stable before she was moving again. More crashes and voices, and all she could think was that maybe somehow the bastards from the pizzeria had somehow gotten in ... and if that was the case, they were going to bleed. She hit the mezzanine at a full run and skidded to a halt, suddenly uncertain just who she oughta hit.
It was like they'd been invaded by a team of surgeons who moonlighted as moving men---or maybe that was the other way around, she thought as white coated men in white coveralls swarmed around the lower level, hauling in furniture, assorted extremely technical looking devices, and huge bundles of cabling.
Barbara's, "What ... the ... hell?" summed things up pretty effectively as far as Helena was concerned.
The teenager glanced back at her guardian who'd followed close behind, though Helena noted she'd stopped long enough to grab a collapsible baton from the weapons rack. She shrugged a little helplessly. They didn't seem to be dangerous, but she didn't know what to make of the whole thing.
"No, no, that goes over there!" a familiar male voice rose above the hubbub.
"Dick?" Barbara exhaled, looking completely confused now as her old friend came careening through the crush of bodies, waving what looked like building plans as he moved.
He grinned up at her and waved, and then suddenly he was coming up the stairs two at a time, a big stupid, puppy dog smile on his face. Yep, Helena decided as she noted the expression, not to mention the well-defined muscles clearly visible under a black t-shirt that had to be at least two sizes too small, she definitely still hated him.
"Dick ... what are ... what's...." Barbara made a helpless, overwhelmed gesture to indicate the men and women rushing to and fro in her livingroom. "What is this?" she demanded when she finally got out a complete sentence. She didn't give him time to answer as she noted a pair of moving-men, doctor types slinging her computer around less than gently. "Hey! Be careful with that!" They didn't appear to notice her and she cursed under her breath while green eyes swung back around to pin a hard look on Dick. "What the hell is going on?" she snapped. "I SAID BE CAREFUL WITH THAT!" she bellowed down at the white coats when they still didn't manage to lighten their touch.
"Don't worry about that ... it's nothing," Dick said as he waved that aside, and grinned a little more broadly.
Instinct told Helena it was time to hate him just a little more. Nobody getting kicked out of Barbara's life could possibly look that happy. No, that look indicated somebody who thought he was just getting farther in.
"Nothing?" Barbara demanded as she found herself wondering if maybe she'd rolled through the looking glass without noticing it. "That's a highly tuned, personally customized, extremely expensive piece of--"
"And what they're putting in is a Delphi," he interrupted her tirade as he slung the book bag over one shoulder around, dropping it at her feet as he hit the top stair.
Barbara's jaw dropped. "A what?" she said. No, she couldn't have heard that right.
Dick only chuckled, kneeling down to unzip the bag at her feet and grab the huge notebook on top. "A Delphi," he said seriously and handed her the notebook. "There are copies of all the documentation in the bag ... all the specs, everything ... the techs I talked to said the version of the OS you're getting is open ... code? Source? Well, something like that, anyway."
Barbara yanked the notebook out of his hands, flipping it open and staring at the contents with wide eyes. "This ... can't ... possibly ... be..." she exhaled in tiny, very muddled syllables. She looked up at her old friend, then down at the workmen in the room below, shook her head as if her grey matter needed a little readjustment, then tried again. "Dick ... you can't seriously have--"
"Yes, I did," he disagreed cheerfully. "You're getting the new prototype ... and when the next one's ready, you'll get that one too. They're head-whatever said you'd probably have to..." he paused, struggling to remember the exact wording, "tweak the code ... but with all this, he didn't think you'd have a problem." He took a breath, indicating the workers running cable. "Plus they're putting in a T-something or other line." He shrugged, not really understanding what it all meant. "Said that was the best thing ... but if he's wrong and you need something else, just let me know and I'll make sure it gets done."
Barbara was completely and totally speechless ... without words ... struck dumb ... jaw flapping in the wind and totally at a loss for a response. She could only stare.
"I ... uh ... gather this is some impressive kind of computer?" Helena asked after a long beat. She had computer class at school, knew enough to use the internet, a word processor, and stuff like that, but that was about the limit of her expertise. And when Barbara went into techno-geek babble mode, she tended to just nod, try to look intelligent, and hope her guardian didn't notice she had zero idea what she was talking about.
Barbara just nodded, still staring.
Not exactly the screaming joy Dick had been hoping for. He leaned down into her line of vision, his expression a little worried. "Babs, you didn't stroke out on me, or anything like that, did you?"
She snapped her jaw shut, shook her head dazedly. "No ... no stroking out ... just a little...." She looked up at him again. "A Delphi?"
He shrugged. "Flowers make you sneeze, and when I give girls candy, they always get mad at me because I wind up eating it all." Broad shoulders dipped in another awe-shucks shrug. "I figured this was a better choice."
No question about feeling the hate now. And worse, Helena knew that what he'd just done for Barbara was about the damn nicest thing anybody could do for her, which meant she couldn't even hate him in good conscience. Instead, she was stuck with petty, small-minded, jealous rage, which just had to be colored by her extreme gratitude for doing something so goddamned nice for the one person left in the world that she completely and totally loved. And goddamn him for putting her in this position. He couldn't settle for sleeping with Barbara, now he had to prove he understood the way to her heart was through the computer obsessed grey matter between her ears.
"Delphi and a T-one line," Barbara exhaled, still just ... staring. Her brain, she decided with some degree of objectivity was clearly not functioning right. She had some wild hallucinations during the months of recovery---having enough drugs to fell a moose pumped into one's veins on an hourly basis will do that to a body---but nothing to equal this. "A Delphi?" she asked again.
Even Helena was starting to get a little worried about the stroking out thing.
"Yeah ... there are one or two advantages to being Bruce Wayne's adopted son."
She looked up at him and shook her head slowly. She wasn't sure she wanted to know what kind of strings he'd had to pull to make this happen. And suddenly it all sunk in with one seriously huge thump, and she couldn't stop laughing. "Oh ... my ... god." More excited laughter. "How? I mean ... I thought it was a restricted design ... strictly U.S. government and Wayne Corp use."
"Technically, it is ... and the grant that goes with it means you're now under the auspices of Wayne Corp ... which means the protection of the full battery of lawyers, accountants, etc ... should you need it." He was letting her know not so subtly that she had the full power of her mentor's company behind her now. "As well as a team of R&D people at your disposal as needed."
"I don't want to know how many legs you had to break to make this happen," she admitted, and then suddenly, the wheelchair was sailing toward the lift as she eagerly headed downstairs to check things out.
Dick started to hurry after her only to pull up short as a delicate hand curved to his forearm.
It took everything Helena had, but she had to say it because the most important thing in all of this was what was best for Barbara. "Thanks ... what you did for her ... it's really great."
"I love her," he said simply. "Always have ... always will." He didn't try to describe or quantify that love. It just was. He looked down at the girl, remembering his jealousy and suspicions, and couldn't help but notice the genuine gratitude in her eyes. They didn't like each other, and he wasn't about to trust Catwoman's daughter as far as he could throw the building they were standing in. On the other hand, it was obvious she'd done Barbara a lot of good. As much as he wanted to deny that basic fact, he couldn't.
"She's the one who's important," Helena said very softly, tamping down the anger and the fury by reminding herself over and over and over again that it was good for Barbara.
Dick nodded, then cursed internally because now he had to be at least as grown up as the kid in front of him and swallow his pride. "Which is why I need to thank you. I spoke to Brad Carlson. According to him, you're pretty much single-handedly responsible for her current rate of recovery." The therapist had been quite clear about that point, singing the girl's praises and making it clear that she was the one who'd managed to make a difference in getting Barbara into a controlled workout and physical therapy program.
Helena was tempted to get angry on Barbara's behalf for the way he seemed to think that he had a right to go behind her back checking on things because she knew just how much the woman hated it when people did that to her. But then again, she'd done a bit of that herself, so she couldn't entirely blame him. Barbara could be a very tightly closed book when she was of a mind. "I did it for her," she exhaled.
He nodded. "I know ... I'm still grateful." And then he was hurrying down the stairs, nearly jogging to catch up with the redhead where she was giving orders, trading information, and asking questions of the computer scientists moving the equipment into place and setting things up.
Watching from the upper deck, Helena's eyes tracked his every move, following him as he followed her, noting the way he reached down to rest his hand on a slender shoulder or leaned in to murmur something near a delicate ear. Unable to escape the comfortable way he massaged her neck or shoulders, the quick jokes that were obviously long-standing and personal, or the genuine affection in the redhead's smile every time she looked at Dick Grayson, she could only burn with hopeless jealousy.
Well, what the hell did you expect? She silently demanded of herself. That she was suddenly going to fall into the arms of some kid she's responsible for. Yeah, right, sure. That was likely to happen. Whatever she thought she'd imagined in those moments in the exercise room was just that, imagination. Deal with it. She saw Barbara look up at the Boy Blunder, her eyes alight, mouth twisting upward in what was probably the biggest smile she'd managed since the shooting and gave up right then and there.
Game, set, and match.
She so couldn't compete it wasn't even funny.
She wanted to be happy for Barbara, she really did, but every time he touched her or looked at her, it was like an acid dipped knife twisting in her gut, and she just couldn't do it and stay even remotely sane. Finally, as darkness began to fall over the city, she slipped away, grabbing a shower, and quickly dressing.
"Hey there," Barbara's voice caught her before she could escape the confines of the clocktower apartment. The workmen had finished, but the project head was still there, discussing the Delphi with Barbara, while Dick was sprawled on the couch, listening if not understanding. "Headed somewhere?" the redhead asked as she noted Helena's mode of dress---black, slashed, gashed, ripped, near shredded, very probably the height of cool, and definitely revealing more flesh than it hid.
Helena nodded, considered trying to pass it off as a study thing, but decided that even Barbara was nowhere near that gullible and shrugged. "Janey Colson called ... we're gonna meet her brother and a couple of his friends at Cooligans." It was an underage dance bar; no alcohol allowed, and Barbara had okayed Janey and her brother in the past. Not that Helena had any intention of hitting a place as lame as Cooligans, but it was a decent cover story. Or at least she thought it was. She saw russet brows knit, while green eyes were shadowed with doubt. She could see Barbara debating whether or not to question the story, but finally she seemed to either accept it, or at least accept she wouldn't be able to shake it. "Remember, it's a school night, so you need to be in by eleven."
"I know," the girl admitted, her tone a little surly, her eyes downcast. She nodded to indicate the array of fancy, new equipment. "You have fun with your...." Her gaze just barely touched on Dick, so quick Barbara almost thought she'd imagined it, then swung back to the computer. "...stuff."
"Have a good time," Barbara called after that narrow, retreating back, uneasy for reasons she couldn't quite put her finger on.
Helena simply waved an idle hand without looking back and kept moving. As she hit the street, she seriously considered going ahead and going to Janey's place. They had stupid fun together, and could always go dancing, or just hang out in Janey's room, making out and going as far sexually as two girls could without getting completely naked. The problem was that what was just friendly hormones for Helena was starting the make Janey think that maybe there was something more there. She was starting to look cow-eyed and vaguely worshipful. And outside of sex and dancing, the truth was that Janey bored the hell out of Helena. She was cute and busty and always knew which supermodels were making noises about wanting to become serious actors, which styles were in, which were out, and just who was dating who in Hollywood. If she was honest, Helena had to admit, she enjoyed her company most when they were either dancing or using their mouths for things other than talking.
In the end, she opted to just bypass the street to Janey's place and keep moving, not stopping until she hit the Fine Line, a dance bar where nobody looked too closely at her fake I.D., the tequila was cheap, and the music was as edgy as she was. She needed something to blow off a little steam, so in the morning, she could go back to pretending she didn't want all the things she wanted and didn't hate Dick Grayson's guts for getting them. She was so out of Barbara's league it wasn't even funny. She'd go for some guy, some nice, intellectual, college boy with a heroic streak a mile wide, money to burn that he felt wholly and completely entitled to, great body, perfect teeth, thoughtful, even temperament, and the ability to make her feel safe, secure, and protected.
And just who did she know who fit that bill?
Oh yeah, him.
Helena's lips curled with dislike, distaste, or maybe just dissatisfaction. She was not a happy camper. She flashed her I.D. at the nearsighted door guard, hurrying on in before it could possibly occur to him that absolutely all of the barely glimpsed details on the poorly made driver's licence were clearly fake with even the most cursory examination. Well, that would be one way to break up Dick and Barbara's alone time. Getting dragged home by a cop, or even better having to pick her up in juvie. If it weren't for the threat of the disappointed look she'd see in green eyes, she might just have gone for it.
She was still in the entry when the hard beat of the music reached her ears, already starting to lose herself in the almost tribal experience of the throbbing, pounding beat and hot press of moving bodies. She accepted a cigarette from a tall brunette more than old enough to recognize jailbait when she saw it, let the Xena-wannabe buy her a scotch, then quicksilvered away into the crowd before she could put on a few hamhanded moves. As if. The scotch tipped back quickly, burning her throat on the way down and her stomach when it landed. Oh well, she crunched the ice to put out some of the fire, then tossed that back as well, and ditched the glass on a nearby table, easily slipping through a wall of bodies that left most people stymied on one side or the other. She did it with charm, muscle, and something else no one else there possessed, a kind of look that drove the others back and drew them closer at the same time.
Oblivious to the gazes cast her way, she simply lost herself in the music, not caring that they wanted her, nor that they feared her, her body moving wild and graceful. The crowd was superfluous to her purpose, simply background decoration for an emotional bloodletting.
If she danced hard enough then maybe she wouldn't have to think.
Wouldn't have to envision his hands on her body ... stroking, sliding, discovering all the ways to please her now. Helena had read everything she could get her hands on, knew that it wouldn't be simple, couldn't be lightly done. Was he even now learning how to touch for maximum effect ... how to kiss and stroke ... the words to whisper to engage her mind ... the caresses to use to reach every last inch of her body that could still feel?
"Man, those are cool contacts," the voice was barely audible above the screaming sound of an overcranked set of speakers.
Helena looked up, eyes narrowing faintly and smiled, the expression raw and feral as she saw the pretty redhead staring a short distance away.
"Where'd you get something like that?" the woman asked. She had green eyes, red hair, a strong jaw, and impressively on-display cleavage.
Helena was all but panting. Staring at that body and into those eyes, vacant as they were, she could almost pretend. "Dance with me and I'll tell you," she lied.
The redhead started to pull back, suddenly a little afraid, but drawn closer all the same, and then she was nodding as though the dark haired figure in front of her was the one in command of her body.
And then Helena started to dance again. With any luck, if she tried hard enough, she could get her eyes as vacant as the green ones locked on her body with such fascination.
* * * * * *
Jim Case, the Delphi project head had finally gone, leaving Barbara reading the specs on the equipment and accompanying software, head down, her full attention on the reams of documentation she was reading through at what most people would have considered an amazing rate, though in truth, she was rather proud of herself for going so slow and being so careful.
Lying sprawled on the couch, Dick watched it all with a raised eyebrow, trying to decide whether to be flattered that she liked the gift so much or annoyed that she was completely ignoring him. He finally settled for something in between, but decided he wasn't enjoying the whole being ignored portion of it. Time to do something about that. Several questions about the computer elicited mumbled answers that he didn't understand literally or figuratively, while an effort at bringing up a political topic brought a reminder that they'd nearly come to blows the last time they'd discussed politics and there would be no fighting in her livingroom now that the Delphi was there. Which left him with only one topic he could think of that was guaranteed to get her attention. "So, she do that a lot ... just go out without warning ... or apparently any way to contact her?" he questioned, not liking the idea that the girl was leaving Barbara alone a lot ... not when one of the few reasons Dick could see for having her there was that it meant the redhead wasn't alone in the huge loft apartment.
Barbara looked up, trying to decide whether the question was intended as a criticism or not. "She's seventeen, Dick," she reminded him when she did speak. "An age when a social life is still considered a good thing." She shrugged, going back to the notes she was making. "She goes out now and then ... with friends she's brought around." Okay, so she wasn't entirely certain she trusted Helena's word that she always did what she said she was going to. Actually, she was comfortably certain that she didn't trust it. On the other hand, Barbara's lies to her father at that age had been covering an entire double life, she didn't have a whole lot of non-hypocritical ground to stand on when it came to white lies to parental figures. "And she's not someone who deals well with being too restrained." No, she tended to just go out the window when Barbara tried that approach, which had led to the current deal that she was to be honest about what she was doing and in return she got an hour later on her curfew than her friends and the use of Barbara's car on the weekends. The van was off limits unless she was driving Barbara and there were no negotiations on that point.
"I'll bet," Dick muttered und er his breath.
That brought the redhead's chin up and drew a sharp look. "Meaning?" she demanded with an edge of ice in her voice.
He shrugged. "Somehow I don't see Catwoman's daughter being very good at handling rules." He tried to offer an innocent look, he really did, but Barbara was far too smart and far too observant to believe it.
She considered fighting with him, but wasn't in the mood for it. She had a new toy, and didn't feel like tainting it by having a knock down drag out with an old friend. "She's Bruce's daughter too," she pointed out, though if she'd thought about it, it would have occurred to her that wasn't exactly likely to be a big contributor toward rule-following sorts of genetics. Bruce had gone by personal codes, not societal rules. "And she does okay." An affectionate smile curved her mouth. "Actually, for all of the black leather and dirty looks, she can be really sweet sometimes. She's been pretty incredible helping me and everything." Barbara's gaze became distant and she gnawed on her lower lip. "She's not what I would have predicted at all." Which wasn't quite true. Helena hadn't behaved the way Barbara would have predicted Catwoman's daughter would, but she'd been completely true to the young student she'd gotten to know before becoming aware of all the ins and outs of the situation. "But I honestly don't know what I would have done without her."
Which wasn't even remotely what Dick wanted to hear. He wasn't even sure why. He knew he didn't trust the girl. She was the enemy's child, and had driven out the man he considered to be his second father. But that wasn't why. That explained the sniping and the distrust. It didn't explain away the clenching terror in his stomach that what he wanted could never be his. If it was anything, it was the look in those near-violet eyes when they'd turned from enraged at him to staring longingly at Barbara. God, what the hell was he thinking? Okay, so the kid could undoubtedly have a crush. If he was honest, it was probably predictable that she would. Barbara was all the girl had, and she was smart and gorgeous, wheelchair or no, while Helena was at an age when kids often got crushes on either gender. Obviously, it couldn't possibly be something that was returned ... except ... except he couldn't escape the genuine affection in green eyes when she spoke about the girl.
Or the fact that their lovemaking had been an unmitigated disaster. Or at least it had been for her. Miserably enough, he'd been so damn turned on, he'd barely been able to think straight. She however, had definitely not had a good time. Okay, so that was probably predictable given the circumstances, but suddenly he found himself wondering how much of that was about the obvious physical challenges and how much was about ... something else.
Which was just ridiculous, right?
He suddenly realized he was staring at her as if trying to see something he'd missed before. She'd never seemed to date much, but he'd always figured that was mostly because she was always working, patrolling, studying, or in classes. Bruce didn't date much either. That didn't mean he was....
No, he was losing his mind. She wouldn't have, and he was behaving like an idiot because he'd completely and utterly failed her as a lover, and maybe searching for an out because of it.
He suddenly realized Barbara was speaking to him, had apparently managed to say his name a couple of times before getting through the sudden bout of imaginings. "Sorry," he muttered as he pushed into a sitting position, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees to peer at her.
Her expression softened, any irritation slipping away, and she sighed softly. "Y'know, we really need to talk about what happened," she said after a beat and snapped the notebook shut, then reached down and brought the wheelchair around so she was fully facing him.
"I'm sorry," he said softly when he didn't know what else to say. In his experience, if you didn't have anything else to say to a woman, apologizing was a good place to start. Of course, he mostly dated sorority sisters, so he was smart enough to wonder if that was necessarily the best tactic with a woman as different from his usual fare as Barbara Gordon was.
She looked confused and a little impatient at that. Definitely the wrong tactic. "What for?"
"The other night," he exhaled, staring down at the floor between his shoes now, "I know you didn't exactly ... enjoy yourself ... and I wasn't exactly Captain Sensitive--"
"You were very sweet," she disagreed quietly. "A little frustrated, I think, but--"
He shook his head. "I just lost my head ... touching you ... and ... I couldn't even...." He didn't finish, just sat shaking his head helplessly.
She took a breath, eyes sliding closed momentarily as she steadied herself emotionally before continuing. "You didn't do anything wrong--"
"You were crying," he croaked. God, he'd hated that, feeling so into it, then kissing her cheek and tasting tears. It had been the gut punch to end all gutpunches to realize that whatever was going on with her, pleasure wasn't a part of it.
"But that ... wasn't your fault," she said haltingly, her voice threatening to break under the weight of emotion. "Wasn't anyone's fault. It was just...." Her voice faded on her and she stared down at her legs, dug a thumbnail into her thigh through her slacks as though hoping to feel something. "There's nothing there anymore," she said at last, then looked up, swallowing hard against the band tightening inexorably around her throat. "And that isn't even remotely your fault."
"Babs," he exhaled her name on a longing note, slowly pushing to his feet and stepping forward to kneel in front of her chair, "the doctors have said you won't know how much healing there might be for another year or two ... maybe even longer. Nerve damage heals slowly. You know that."
"I know," she said very softly, then slim shoulders shrugged in a deflating sigh, the words coming in halting, half sentences and unfinished thoughts. "But you see the thing is ... I dunno ... I guess at some level, I hadn't really let myself consider ... some things ... I just didn't...." She fell silent for a second. "We all expect miracles now and then ... some tiny bit of luck ... and it hurts when it doesn't happen that way." She reached out, ruffling dark hair tenderly. "But that's not your fault." How could it be, when in a sense, he didn't even have much to do with it. She wasn't sure it was even him she'd wanted so much as to just be close to someone after so many months of locking the world out and pulling back when she could. And he was safe, a known entity; someone she could have without too many consequences, who would accept it if she needed to walk away, and wouldn't make demands she simply couldn't meet.
He arched up, leaning forward, one hand braced on a chair arm, the other stroking her cheek. "I'd do anything for you ... just tell me how ... what ... and I'll do ... anything."
The tears were threatening to return in full force and she swallowed hard, pushing them down through force of will, wondering why the hell it was she found herself comforting him when what she really wanted to do was rage and scream and beat on something until she couldn't move any longer. "The problem is I don't have any more idea that you do ... not anymore." She took a gasping breath, the sense that she was in that ever-shrinking cage and the water was rising returning as it hadn't since Helena had taken over the daily therapy sessions. "I just ... don't ... know...."
He edged a little closer, his expression worried, scared for her, wanting to help and not knowing how.
Smaller and smaller, crushing in on her ribs now and making it hard to breathe.
He must have seen her fear---stark terror really---because he pressed a soft kiss to her forehead and brushed silky hair back with a gentle hand, his tone the same one might use to calm a frightened child, "Shhh, it's all right ... s'okay." And then his arms were sliding around her, not as a lover, but as an old friend offering whatever comfort he could, just holding on tight as she broke down completely.
The position was hell on both of them and he finally lifted her onto his lap and sank down on the couch, hands petting tenderly, face buried in her hair as he cried right along with her, though it was hard to tell just who he was crying for, her, himself, or everyone who'd been so badly hurt. And when his lips dusted her cheek and she started to pull back, he shook his head. "Shhhh, no pressure ... I'm just an old friend."
The cage loosened its grip just a little as he just kissed away the remains of burning tears. Minutes later mouths met, the kisses slow, uncertain, while a gentle hand stroked her shoulder.
"Dick," she whispered, pulling back fractionally as she felt his hand start to slide lower. "I don't think ... this isn't a good idea ... maybe you should go...." The cage was shrinking again, leaving her to babble pathetically.
"I can't leave you alone like this," he said, his voice raspy from his own tears.
Startled to see the aftermath of his own emotions streaking away from grey blue eyes, Barbara reached up and stroked his cheek lightly. "This isn't ... I'm not ... I'm just not ... ready for this."
"Then just let me hold you ... be with you." He caressed her cheek lightly. "I'm not asking for anything ... we don't have to do anything." He dropped a light kiss on soft lips. "I just don't think you should be alone ... and I know I don't want to be."
More kisses followed and when he asked again, she nodded even though she knew perfectly well it wouldn't just be holding. As he joined her in her bed, she could feel the heat sliding off him, and even if she wasn't feeling the same thing, there was a part of her that needed to be wanted---or perhaps wanted to be needed. Either way, when comforting kisses slid over into the passionate, she didn't have it in her to pull away.
At least this time there were no false hopes, and it felt good to be close to someone even if the delirious physical pleasure was no longer possible. And if she felt a traitor, she didn't know why or what to do about it, so she simply closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on the body bound to her own.
* * * * * *
Sweat soaked from the purging physicality of dancing until she could hardly move and a little drunk on free shots of scotch and tequila, Helena leaned against the wall of the alley just past the rear exit of the Fine Line, her eyes hooded and gleaming, lips twisted in an expression that was more sneer than smile as she eyed the redhead who'd been her partner through all of it. One leg raised, knee bent, foot flat against the wall, the teenager draped one arm over her head, smiling as green eyes tracked the shift in flesh revealed by the artful rips in black leather and denim. She reached out with her other hand, curling it into soft fabric that was damp with sweat. A gentle tug and suddenly that body was plastered up against her own, legs that went all the way to the top straddling her upraised thigh.
The redhead, Lisa something-or-other, though Helena wasn't particularly interested in her name---in fact, would rather not have known any of it---grinned, leaned in and tasted lips that were hungry and panting, moaning low in her throat when Helena simply gave way to instinct. This was nothing like the teasing, teenage sex games she'd played with Janey where they were as likely to wind up giggling as anything else. Instead, it was raw and wanton, a mix of guilt, anger, and unwanted lust driven by hormones and instinct, all of it completely out of control. A slender hand in a slashed, black half glove tangled into red hair, pulling the woman's head back, opening her throat to teeth that grazed and bit, the low growls emanating from the girl's throat vibrating soft flesh.
"Oh yeah, that's good," soft, gasping, and desperate the words slid through Helena, the voice raspy enough with passion, exertion, and alcohol to allow her to pretend it was anyone she wanted it to be.
Then fingers were winding into her own hair, elbows bracing on her shoulders, curves moving against her own as the redhead ground against her thigh. And then those hands were pulling at her hair hard enough to cause a faint flare of pain that rolled into pleasure as she bit harder and tasted tiny whimpers of surrender. That was good. That was what she wanted---surrender. As she felt the body against her own lean harder into the caresses, she clutched soft curves closer, her touch gentling. She was caught by surprise when the hand in her hair pulled more roughly and she tried to shake it off.
"I like it rough," the redhead growled, age and experience driving her to become the aggressor with the less practiced teenager.
Helena blinked in confusion, not quite understanding. Before it had been instinct driving her, but now that was telling her one thing, while the woman in her arms appeared to be demanding quite another. Her head already muddled with drink and hardly a seasoned veteran of the sexual wars despite the image she liked to project, she couldn't figure out how to fit the two together.
Another hard tug on her hair yanked her head back when she didn't move fast enough for the redhead, and suddenly the girl found herself a little creeped out by the look in green eyes that abruptly seemed all the wrong shape and shade.
"Here, this should help release your inner animal," the redhead taunted as she held something up.
Helena stared stupidly at the pill, then up at the redhead, then back at the pill. Releasing her inner animal had never been a problem, though containing it had been a challenge at times.
"What's the matter? It's just E," her would-be sexual release-valve, assured her, lips twisting in a smile that killed more excitement with every passing moment. Purely sexual, twisted, uncaring ... it was an expression for fucking someone in the ugliest sense of the word and nothing more.
The brunette wavered on her feet, the fantasy rapidly fading as her partner's qualities began to sink in along with the fact that she was leaning against a wall in an alley that didn't smell at all good, and considering doing things she suddenly didn't want to do at all---at least not this way.
"It's ecstacy, little girl, just take it ... and we can fly," the redhead snapped, shattering Helena's momentary objectivity about the equation.
Blue eyes started at the thing, memory burning in her head. She'd done a tab of ecstacy once---exactly once, because her mom had found out and roared till she damn near went deaf. Nothing had been worth risking incurring her mother's ire at that level. But that wasn't a consideration anymore, and she was so fucked up on scotch and tequila that even the disappointed look in Barbara's eyes had become a scant threat. No, her sudden emotional response was something else entirely.
Pure, raw fury.
"I know what you do with it," she snarled, the words barely coherent for the rage suddenly running through her. She'd overheard enough to know that Falcone was running drugs into New Gotham---including ecstacy. Had this pretty little pill put a few more dollars in his pocket? Had it and others like it helped to pay for the equipment used to betray her mother and Barbara? She almost threw up, and grabbed it, crushing it easily between her thumb and forefinger, hurling the resulting dust away as she turned an enraged look on the redhead. "Where'd you get it?" Soft and guttural, the words came like jackhammer blows, the emotional intensity of them enough to drive the drunken woman back. She'd been looking for a night of wild fun, not ... whatever she was looking at. Nose and mouth twitching as though she was scenting prey, Helena backed the other woman up with slow, stalking strides. "Where?" she demanded again.
"Where ... and who from?" And she felt the animal surge. Didn't need drugs for that. The strength, sharper vision, emotional edginess. Her eyes, already gold for hours---the wolf at the edge of the fire---sharpened, pupils, narrowing then expanding again as she focused on the redhead.
Green eyes abruptly widened as it occurred to the drunken women that tricked-out contacts couldn't do that and she lunged back a step until the hand tangled in her shirtfront pulled her up short.
"Where? Who from?" Helena ground out again. Maybe if she could find the bastard dealer, then he'd know where Falcone was hiding. As plans went it, wasn't even a good one for a half-drunken teenager who barely knew about such things, but Helena wasn't thinking all that clearly at that point.
"What the hell kind of freak are you?" her prisoner demanded on a screeching note.
The girl blinked in confusion. Freak? She was no freak. Her mom had always said she was special, that others might not understand ... but made her understand she wasn't a freak. And when her powers got away from her a little with Barbara, the redhead always just looked at her with roughly the same look she got when Helena carelessly spilled something on the counter and forgot to clean it up.
"Freak," the woman said again, the sheer disgust in her voice leaving the teenager bewildered, and then she rubbed her thumb and forefinger together, the faint dust a reminder of who the real freak was.
Rage bubbling dark and dangerous in her chest, Helena couldn't contain an angry snarl, and she easily lifted the redhead off her feet with the hand tangled in her shirtfront. She'd show her a freak. "Where?" she demanded. "Who from?"
That's when the panicked screaming started.
Full throated, terrified, high pitched, and loud enough to make Helena's ears hurt. She dropped the woman and bounded back a step, looked toward the entry to the alley as two men came running in, responding to the woman's horrified cries.
The redhead pointed at the girl. "She attacked me ... she's some sicko freak ... not even human."
"Y'okay?" one of the guys asked, but the redhead was still pointing, her eyes wild.
"She attacked me ... tried to fucking rape me. She oughta be locked up," the woman lied in her drunken frenzy. "Fuckin' dyke pervert."
Helena scrambled backwards, ducking a hand that reached for her as one of the men started after her.
"What the hell?" he exhaled as he got a look at her eyes.
"Lise, I saw you dancin' with the kid," the other one muttered, well used to her more histrionic moments and slightly off center tastes.
"No, she's right," his friend insisted, "the kid is some kind of freak."
Helena growled threateningly, lips pulling back from clenched teeth in a wild snarl as she backed up another pace. They advanced on her despite the threats, shouting for help as they grabbed for her. She saw more barflies coming, closing on her, angry and frightening, while the redhead kept screaming out steadily wilder accusations. She struck out, hitting more wildly than she'd been taught, but with opponents as drunk as these, there was no one there to pick apart her technique. She sent two men twice her size flying, then pivoted and ran. Hands grabbed at her coat, frightening the drunk teen even more than she already was, and she leapt, hit a fire escape and climbed as fast as she could move, leapt again, hit another fire escape, and kept moving. Soon, she on the roof, staring back down at the gathering crowd below and feeling like some misunderstood movie monster just before the villagers went for their pitchforks and torches. It was scary as hell and set her running, bounding across the rooftops, their shouts and insults still ringing in her ears, driving her harder and faster.
She just ran. Ran from the crowd, ran from the insults, ran from what she'd been on the verge of doing, but mostly she ran from herself.
She didn't stop until she reached the niche in the wall above Barbara's bedroom. Safety, or at least it should have been. She froze, sobering almost instantly as she stared down through the window at the dark hair and broad back belonging to the figure sprawled face down in Barbara's bed. Knowing something and actually seeing it, she discovered, in a mind-bending moment of purest agony, were two completely and totally different things.
* * * * * *Barbara glanced at her watch, then glared at the weapons cabinet in the workout room. Two a.m.. Two a.m. and Dick was asleep in her bed. Two a.m. and Helena wasn't in yet. Two a.m., and she was sitting there feeling like maybe the worst piece of luck in her life was the not so simple fact that Bruce Wayne had possessed the money to hire the very best surgeons, consultants, doctors, nurses, therapists, and assorted other support personnel, all to make sure she lived.
Except she was starting to wonder about the wisdom of that decision. No, not starting. She'd been wondering for a long time, even if no one wanted to hear it. Hell, maybe if she'd gone ahead and died, Bruce might have faced up to his responsibilities and be there to look after his daughter. Maybe she'd actually even listen to him, and wouldn't leave him rotting with worry by running three hours late on her curfew. And if she did, he could go do something about it. Find her, drag her ass back, stop being so goddamned understanding, and lay down a few rules without feeling like a total hypocrite.
And maybe if she'd died, she wouldn't have to deal with Dick trying to recapture something that had never existed in the first place, and leaving her feeling like a total failure in the doing.
She wondered if they'd all think it was an accident if she toppled out of her chair on the overlook, and tumbled over the side. It would be quick, and she could fly one last time.
Maybe it would buy her just a little peace.
She sighed softly, retrieving a fighting baton from the rack. A quick snap of the wrist and it flicked open, and she ran her thumb along the telescoping metal. Wonderful. Suicidal thoughts. Not your typical post-coital afterglow. She wouldn't do it, of course. Not her nature. If she was overly prone to death wishes, she'd have simply let go, overdosed on drugs, or otherwise bought the farm far earlier in the whole process. No, like it or not, it looked like she was stuck surviving. But nothing felt right at that precise moment, and she didn't even completely understand the problem. It wasn't that making love had been some horrible ordeal. A little embarrassing and disappointing in some ways, but at the same time, something of an ego boost to have a guy like Dick, who quite literally could and did get every pretty girl that moved, could still look at her with such total adoration. So, why the misery now?
She grabbed another baton off the shelf, laying them both across her lap before reaching down to bring the chair around, getting strong enough that she was moving it far more confidently than she had in the beginning, though she had some ideas for improvements, and even a total redesign that wouldn't leave her feeling at waist level with the rest of the world.
She came to a halt in front of the heavy bag, with its neatly marked hit zones and kill zones, throwing the brake on the wheelchair as she stared for a long moment. And then suddenly her arms were moving, muscles working, slamming the batons into the bag with brutal ferocity, aiming for the kill spots nearly as often as the disabling shots. She didn't hold back, just let go until the bag was only in one piece because she wasn't at full strength.
Lost in the bloodletting, she almost didn't hear the soft pad of boots on the hallway just outside the door to the workout room, but she'd left the door open and been listening at some near-subconscious level. She was used to doing several things at once during combat runs. Hearing one teenager trying to slip in late wasn't that hard.
"You're a bit overdue," the words came out tinged in acid.
Helena just froze where she stood silhouetted in the open doorway, little more than a black shadow. Not now, she didn't want to do this now, not with every emotion she possessed rolling, her stomach twisted in knots, and her heart feeling like someone had put it through a shredder along with her self respect.
Barbara worked the wheels to bring the chair around in a sharp pivot. "Care to tell me where the hell you were?" she bit out, eyes blazing. Several hours of worrying and imagining the worst had not left her in the best of moods.
Helena shrugged, not meeting the piercing look directed her way. "Out," she said simply. There was no explaining the night's insanity, and she had no intention of trying. She just wanted to get the hell away from Barbara before she said or did something she'd regret.
A sharp push on the wheels sent the chair moving, drawing Barbara close enough to get a good whiff of the nightclub odors still clinging to her ward. "Where? A combination distillery and smoke shop."
"Maybe," Helena snapped back. Feeling cornered and angry, she stretched the word out until both syllables were distinct and separate with just a hint of a pause between, willfully daring Barbara to say something.
Barbara leaned forward in the chair to peer up at the girl. "You're drunk," she pronounced after a second, eyes blazing as she glared at the teenager.
"What difference does it make to you?" Helena shot back. She couldn't stop thinking about the sight of Dick Grayson lying asleep in Barbara's bed as though he owned it. "Didn't the Boy Blunder keep you busy enough tonight?" She saw the color drain out of Barbara's face and found she rather enjoyed the look of pain in green eyes, though a part of her also hated it and hated herself for enjoying it. "Or are we still playing, 'Don't let the kid know they're fucking in the next room?'" A total loss of color rapidly became a total loss of expression as well. Barbara looked like she'd taken a solid hit to the solar plexus and breathing was no longer an option. "Or did you think I was a total simp and hadn't noticed?" She'd thought she was dealing with the resentment, fear, and rage. Apparently not.
Teeth gritted, hands clenched on the wheels of her chair, Barbara felt the world start to reel around her. "You know?" she exhaled when she could finally breathe again.
"Yeah," Helena said, unable to contain the soul-ripping emotions any longer. What the hell, she was just a goddamned freak anyway. "Lucky me got to catch sight of the romantic makeout scene the first night ... or at least I'm assuming it was the first night--"
"Don't," Barbara pleaded, her own anger giving way before a kind of helplessness. This was one of the things she'd been dreading---being caught in the middle. It was bad enough before, but now she expected it to hit full scale war, and she loved them both, was loyal to them both, and feared they'd both be hell bent on making her choose.
Helena stared at the redhead, mouth twisting in an angry smile. She couldn't---wouldn't---lose control and hit or hurt, no matter how much a part of her wanted to. At least she wouldn't lose control of her fists. Words were another matter. "Come on, Babs," she sneered, intentionally using Dick's old nickname for her guardian, though she'd never used it before. " I'm sure daddy would be so proud to see his adopted son and favorite protégé together. So, tell me, is this some new event, or just the resurgence of some old flickering flame?"
"Don't," Barbara whispered again, her own anger just barely contained, experienced enough to feel the current confrontation rapidly devolving into something that would leave them both slashed and bleeding.
"Did Dickie finally decide he could live with a gimp after all, or maybe it's even a turn on? Does the whole, 'She can't feel a thing,' help him overlook any ... shortcomings of yours since that way you can't notice his?" Helena knew what she'd done the moment the words were out of her mouth, and she felt her stomach clench with horror at the look of sheer agony that rolled through green eyes. A sharp wrench on the wheels and suddenly, she was faced with Barbara's back and stiff shoulders. God, what the hell had she just done? Aside from everything humanly possible to wrench away the confidence Barbara had been rebuilding so painstakingly. Christ, how the hell could she have done that to her, when all she wanted was to make sure she was okay? "I'm--" she started to apologize, but Barbara cut her off, whipping the chair around as she finished for her.
"Sorry?" the woman demanded, one eyebrow rising high on her forehead, suddenly resenting the way Helena was looking at her, as though she had a right to something. "Well, you're right, I didn't feel a thing." Hurt flared in her eyes, the pain brutal enough to leave Helena on the verge of begging for forgiveness for inflicting it, adding to it, or maybe even just witnessing it. "And Dick is being kind enough to ... overlook ... my obvious shortcomings." She blinked rapidly to clear tears that were as much a product of anger as pain. Logically, she knew that it was about fear and jealousy. Helena had to view Dick as a threat to the home she'd made, and had to be terrified of having that shaken up. Logic, however, was a lot harder to maintain when Barbara could feel her fury ramping up, twisting and twining around her, nearly as dangerous and overwhelming as the teenager's more obvious anger. Contrary to what some people thought, she had a temper---an impressive one in actuality---it was just that she'd learned to control it over time, but it had been wanting to explode for awhile now, at all of them---Dick, her father, Bruce, the doctors and nurses---everyone who thought they had a right to rule her life. And if Helena wanted to join that number, then she could just bear the results.
Helena felt the burn of her own tears, suddenly so remorseful she'd have fallen to her knees and begged for forgiveness if it would have helped, except something told her that was only likely to make things worse. God, her mouth was bad enough when she was sober. What the hell had she been thinking, coming in drunk? She should be shot for terminal stupidity. "Barbara, I didn't mean--"
"But it's the truth," Barbara snapped, the words acid and bitter. "I'm broken merchandise these days."
"Barbara, I--" Helena tried again, only to find herself interrupted again.
"Hell, you of all people know just how broken I am ... all the things I can't feel and can't do for myself." It was hard to say who the words were meant to cut, Helena or herself ... just like it was hard to tell who she was angrier at, Helena or herself. She was all rolling, bitter emotion; months of it all cranked up, jammed in, held back, denied, ignored, and generally avoided. Prudent souls would have run away.
Unluckily for Helena, prudent had never been a word that applied to her approach to life, and when Barbara spun the wheelchair and tried to get away, she followed close behind, the mixture of hurt, regret, and anger making for a dangerous unwillingness to back off. "You're only as broken as you choose to be, and you don't have to settle just because someone is shows you a little attention!"
The wheelchair whipped around so hard the front wheels left the floor. Where Barbara might have toppled the chair in the past, she easily controlled the pop-wheelie, and settled the front wheels back onto the polished wood floor of the workout room. The fact that Helena had just managed to cut straight to her own fears about her reasons for falling into bed with an old friend only made admitting to it that much harder, and magnified the anger that much more. "Choose," she said very softly, her tone dangerous. She slammed a hand into her own thigh and felt nothing, the lack of pain hurting far more than the blow ever could have. "You think this is a choice?" she demanded, the anger spiraling higher.
"No, of course not," Helena said instantly. "But being with someone you don't love is."
The wheelchair spun away again, then rolled a few feet, gaining a little ground and space. "I love Dick," Barbara disagreed, her voice softening, a twist of guilt not allowing her to see the point Helena was suddenly trying to make. He'd always been there in her life, part little brother, best friend, and would-be lover so long that she couldn't say the words she knew would hurt him ... not when he cared so much.
"All right," Helena croaked, her voice strained by tears as she followed the woman she loved more than her own life, "you love him, but you're not in love with him."
"And who went and made you such a goddamned expert on my emotions?" Barbara snarled, back to feeling caged and not liking it at all. She was too tired, too angry, and too damn confused. The therapist had warned her there was a meltdown coming and she'd cheerfully ignored the warnings, certain she was handling things just fine, only suddenly handling them wasn't how she would have described it, and she didn't know how to get anything back under control.
"I--" Helena started to shout, then cut herself off, except Barbara was taking things all out of context now, and she felt her own anger spinning as her brain insisted on replaying the footage driving her over and over, then adding its own embellishments. Even sober, this conversation would have been one she'd have been wise to avoid. The difference was that, sober, she'd have understood that simple fact and run like hell until they were both in control.
Barbara brought the chair around in another of those pop-wheelie spins she was getting so good at. "Or maybe you think the gimp should be a good, asexual, little girl ... and stop bothering the nice, normal folks with any emotional or physical needs?"
Helena could only stare at the woman glaring furiously up at her. Given that the accusation was the exact opposite of what she actually felt and wanted, she didn't know what to say or how to say it, or how in the hell to get herself out of this whole mess. "No ... of course not," she snapped impatiently. "That's the last goddamned thing I think." She shook her head, frustrated at her own inability to make herself understood without risking everything. "Quit putting words in my mouth. I don't think you should be alone ... and I sure as hell don't think you're a gimp...." Her voice dropped low, some of the anger giving way to regret for the hurt she'd caused. "I think you're probably the strongest person I've ever known ... and that's why ... that's why you just ... shouldn't do something because ... it...." Helena trailed off, not even certain what she was trying to say anymore. She felt the wall come up between them as the wheelchair was spun away again.
"Go to bed. We'll discuss your behavior in the morning ... when you're sober." And when I'm back under control, Barbara added mentally. Right now, she just wanted all of them to leave her the hell alone, give her a little bit of a chance to get her equilibrium back. Mostly, she thought she'd been pretty good at the whole equilibrium thing, but right now, she didn't have a prayer. She was standing at the top of a shifting sand dune in a huge windstorm, and well aware that she was very close to tumbling and sinking under. The danger came from the fact that being buried alive was starting to sound really good.
"I'm not leaving you alone like this," Helena whispered, unknowingly echoing Dick's earlier words, truly frightened by what she was seeing. There was something going on in the woman that a drunken seventeen year-old just didn't have it in her to understand, which maybe even the woman herself didn't understand.
"Just go," Barbara whispered, down to pleading now. She knew Helena was having problems with all of this, but she just wasn't up to dealing with the girl's hangups on top of her own. A hard thrust on the wheels of her chair, sent it rolling until she pulled it up short in front of the heavy bag, a frown creasing her expression as she noted that the canvas was starting to tear in several places. Going to have to replace that, she thought idly as she flicked the control on one of the batons, extending it to its full length. She didn't have to look back to know Helena was still there. She could feel those eyes watching her with palpable intensity. She wanted to be able to lose control in private, to start hitting something and just keep hitting. In her younger days, she'd have caught up with some sleazeball getting into trouble and done it under the guise of justice. Now her only remaining option was to brutalize the heavy bag until her muscles were strained and screaming and she was drenched in sweat. Then maybe she could just forget everything for a little while. "Please," she begged, not wanting the girl to see her this way. Not wanting anyone to see her this way. God, she hated this. Hated not being the perfect tower of strength they all seemed to think she should be. When the hell did she get a chance to just be human and screw up like everyone else?
Helena stared at her guardian's stiff back and stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets as she strode a little closer. "I can't," she said very softly, startled to feel like for once she could see past the wall Barbara kept around herself; see past the wall and into the rage and pain that no one else even seemed to suspect were there. "And I don't think you really want me to," she added quietly.
Barbara made a frustrated, angry sound in the back of her throat. Not quite one of Helena's feral growls, but very close. "Don't presume to tell me what I do ... or do not ... want," she ground out.
Helena was silent for a brief moment, still angry, but more at what seemed like the hopeless injustice of it all than the woman in front of her. "You think I don't know about wanting to hit something ... kill ... destroy ... anything to try and drain a little of the acid out?" she demanded, hurting for Barbara and because of Barbara. She saw slender shoulders tremble ever so slightly. "Hell, what do you think I was doing tonight?" She felt the frustration rise when Barbara didn't respond, just sat perfectly still, the only sign of movement the faint tremor that rattled through her every so often. "Fine," she snapped at last when Barbara still hadn't replied, "you want to beat on something, why don't you try me." Anger crackled in the air between them. Talking wasn't doing anything to make it dissipate. Maybe a little action would.
Barbara shook her head, rejecting the offer. "I'm not interested in beating on you." Except there was a raw temptation to working out with a human---someone who would challenge her and not just there and take it like the bag would.
"I can deal with it."
"I'm stronger drunk than you are sober," Helena pointed out practically. "Faster too." She was pushing it, purposely going for the throat and triggering that anger. Better to go ahead and make it explode than try and pretend it wasn't there. Months of pretending it didn't exist had gotten them here. It was time for a new tactic.
Barbara brought the chair around, pushing off and gliding closer to the weapons cabinet Helena was standing next to. "And I could still hurt you," Barbara said softly, her eyes gleaming with the same confidence she'd once had when facing criminals in open combat. She was close to losing control, and that was the worst damn time for a fight.
"Don't flatter yourself," Helena growled and reached for a staff. No more words. She was no good with words anyway.
Barbara saw Helena brace to move a second before she did, and one arm flashed out, using the baton to knock the short staff aside before Helena could touch it, the move perfectly controlled. She caught smooth, black metal with her free hand, then brought it back around in a low sweep that took the girl's legs right out from under her.
Helena hit the floor on her backside, cursing volubly, then rolled to her feet in an instant, catching the staff in an inhumanly powered hand. Slender fingers clamped down and she yanked hard, too strong for Barbara to resist her efforts. In an instant, the staff was hers and then she was rolling it around. She saw Barbara snap the first baton up even as she grabbed the second off her lap and flicked it open. Even weaker and slower than she'd ever been before when facing a fight, she was still more than fast enough and strong enough to block Helena's clumsy swing.
And then they were fighting, neither one of them questioning it any longer, both needing the release of tension and anger. It was like lancing a badly infected wound. It hurt like hell, but there was a kind of relief from releasing the awful pressure.
Inexperienced with a staff the girl's swings were awkward and ill timed, but she made up for a lack of experience with pure speed and raw force, while Barbara was forced to fall back on the kind of technical knowledge that most people couldn't dream of. Even forced to maneuver the wheelchair during every available spare second, she was still enough better than Helena to maintain an edge.
But that edge was blunted more and more with every passing second as her young ward learned by doing. The steady, almost rhythmic crack of metal on metal was coming faster, the rhythm shifting and varying progressively more with each fresh round of contact. Helena went down more than once, acquired several new bruises, even managed to mete out one or two. It was fast, hard, even brutal a time or two.
It was also intense, completely focused, washing the world away until they were the only thing left, the wild combat sensual and raw enough to leave them both breathless and excited by the conflict. It was almost like making love in a strange way; the same total involvement and sense of commitment, the same emotional ferocity. Nothing existed but the two of them, and surging interaction of their bodies through the proxy of staff and batons.
Helena spun neatly on one foot, rotating the staff from the center to block a sweep aimed to take her off her feet, then rolled it again to stop a blow aimed to do the same thing by catching her in the chest. She spun again, blocking another pair of quick strikes, then went on the attack, spinning and slashing the weapon with quick, hard moves that Barbara barely managed to block, the force behind them driving the chair backwards. That was, she realized in a flash of insight, a real problem for fighting. If she threw the brake, the chair was just frozen, and if she didn't, she needed her hands free to control her movement. And then suddenly the rolling stopped as the chair slammed into the far wall.
Helena rolled the staff in, the blow aimed for a theoretical kill zone, choking her grip and leaning in, ready to stop it before it could actually hit Barbara's throat. She needn't have worried. A baton came up, blocking it well before it neared its target. The position put Helena faintly off balance, forcing her to take another step forward to keep from toppling into the woman pinned between herself and the wall. Which actually wasn't such a bad idea, she thought as she was briefly caught in the trap of wide green eyes. Just fall into Barbara and stay there. Momentarily lost, she completely forgot the second baton.
Right up until it took her feet out from under her and dumped her on her ass. She lay there for the briefest moment, completely breathless, pain throbbing through a region of her anatomy that was taking a pretty thorough beating in this particular confrontation. Barbara liked that sweeping move, and, while Helena had gotten better at blocking it, she still fell for it nearly half the time. She looked up, noted that Barbara was grinning at her, a faintly wicked, taunting, hint of a twist to her lips.
"Keep your mind on the fight," the redhead reminded her, leaving Helena to wonder if the other woman somehow knew she'd had momentary thoughts of tasting those lips while they were so tangled up.
The thought just triggered the hunter in her. Or rather ramped it up. It was already well beyond triggered. The bright yellow-gold of her eyes gleamed and she rolled backwards, shouldering the maneuver, then pushing up on her hands in a quick handstand before dropping to her feet.
"Show off," Barbara muttered as she gave a hard push on her wheels and came out fighting.
"Always," Helena confirmed, though she had to move fast to block the swift, rapping blows that followed.
Barbara flicked damp bangs out her eyes with a quick headshake, muscles sore and aching in a way they hadn't in a long time and she was surprised to realize she'd missed. She changed her plan of attack again, amazed by how quickly Helena was picking up on the patterns and learning to counter them. She was rapidly hitting the limits of her abilities, but Helena was just getting better. They were both drenched in sweat and fighting hard, both unwilling to surrender even an inch of ground, no longer driven by anger, but by something else entirely.
Something far too dangerous to name for the young woman who'd so suddenly found herself forced to deal with her own infirmities and a rebellious, emotionally wounded teenager. She didn't even allow herself to look at it, simply immersed her entire self into the fight ... just the way her mentor had taught her. There were so many things a body could avoid in a good, hard round of combat.
Helena went down hard, heard a flicker of soft laughter and came up too fast, whipping the staff in a one-handed swing. It was the sort of move that should have been reserved for real combat, not used in a light sparring match. Competitive to the core, she swung blind, then heard the crack as it crashed into shins that never felt the blow She was already looking horrified when it suddenly occurred to her that she'd caught Barbara at the worst possible moment, both front wheels in the air, mid pivot. She saw muscles pull taut as the redhead tried to catch herself, but already worn from the fight, and with a weak grip on the wheels, since she was forced to hold both the batons and the wheels to keep her speed up, she couldn't do it. Helena lunged in an effort to grab for the chair to steady it, but it was already too late.
Barbara toppled over backwards. The chair hit on its back, the momentum from the fall enough to send uncontrolled limbs tumbling, and crack her head into the wood floor. Oh, that was dumb, she thought as pain blazed through her skull. For the sake of speed, she'd risked balance. Dumb, dumb move. She was going to have to relearn a whole host of fighting skills if she was going to go on doing this sort of thing. She no longer had that perfect balance and unbelievable ability to catch herself at the last moment. Going to have to allow for that, she chided herself even as Helena scrambled forward, crouching above her, white faced, very blue eyes huge in her face, looking unbelievably terrified.
"Barbara--" she gasped, her voice coming out ragged and rough from exertion.
Before the girl could say any more than that, a shadow fell across them, and Barbara had an impression of black hair and a furious glower before her vision was obscured as a large hand swept down, grabbing Helena by the lapels on her coat, hauling her upright.
Her entire focus on Barbara, horrified that she might have hurt the woman, Helena didn't really register the attack until she was face to face with an absolutely furious Dick Grayson. Caught completely by surprise, she didn't even try to duck the brutal backhand that followed. It caught her full in the face, knuckles bashing into the side of her nose, long fingers whipping along the curve of her cheek and jaw. The force behind the blow took the girl off her feet and sent her flying until she crashed into the far wall. Tasting blood and badly dazed, she slid down into a sitting position, her ears still ringing, eyes faintly unfocused.
Tipping her head up, her jaw dropped as she saw Dick Grayson, wearing jeans, but barefooted and bare chested. His expression twisted by rage, he started after her only to pull up short, leashed by Barbara's sharp, "Dick, no!"
He held his ground, but Helena could see the furious rage, every muscle in his body spring steel taut, ready to pounce on her.
Meanwhile, the girl could taste blood, it was running from a cut inside her mouth, and freely from both nostrils. On top of a stomach already tormented by far too much alcohol, it wasn't a good combo, and she barely contained the urge to moan.
"She attacked you," Grayson snarled, still watching Helena, ready to go for a kill.
"No, she didn't," Barbara insisted. "We were just sparring ... and it got a little out of hand."
"Sparring?" Dick demanded, and flicked a gaze her direction, though he kept an eye on the girl on the floor a short distance away. "What the hell do you mean, 'sparring?'"
"D'you think I could get a little help here?" Barbara ignored the question, still tangled in the upended wheelchair and struggling against it.
Dick froze, visibly torn over whether to finish beating Helena to a pulp or help get Barbara righted.
"Dammit, Dick, she didn't do anything wrong," Barbara said impatiently.
He backed off, then crouched down, sliding an arm around Barbara's waist, and gripping the chair tightly with his other hand. He easily pulled both upright in one move, resettling her before straightening. "Now, what the hell do you mean you were sparring?" he repeated his earlier question, while flashing frequent, suspicious glares at the teenager sprawled a short distance away.
Barbara brought the chair around, the look in her eyes a comfort to Helena. No anger there now, just a gentle kind of worry. After a brief second, she looked up at Dick, ignoring his angry expression as she rested a hand lightly on his forearm. "I need to talk to Helena alone," she said softly and nodded to indicate the door.
He stared at her as though she'd lost her mind. "Excuse me?" She had to be kidding. She couldn't seriously expect him to just leave after the scene he'd just walked in on.
"Please," Barbara requested quietly, though she kept track of Helena out of the corner of one eye. The girl was looking very wan and more than a little queasy, red running from her nose, though she was visibly trying to sniff back on the blood, and probably swallowing most of it in the doing. "Just go." She knew from experience that was never a good idea.
He glanced at the girl, then back at the woman staring seriously up at him. "Babs," he said, more than a little afraid that his tone slid over into pleading.
"We'll talk later," Barbara assured him, "but right now, I've got to look after her."
Helena had to fight the urge to grin, despite the fact that her entire face appeared to have turned into one giant, throbbing bruise, when she saw the look on his face. Oh, that wasn't going over well at all. Take that, Superhero Stud-Boy, Helena thought with some triumph.
"Go," Barbara said her voice low but firm. She couldn't deal with both of them at once, particularly given that Dick still looked like he'd enjoy finishing what he'd started, while Helena was starting to get that cynical expression that said she was seriously considering tweaking someone she felt deserved it. Given Dick's current mood and clear distrust, that was just a bad idea. All they really needed was for Helena to taunt, him to react, then she could react right back, and then they'd all wind up with even more bruises, more blood, and maybe even somebody badly hurt. "Now," she added, sharpening her tone to make sure he understood she meant it.
He got it and stiffened, throwing a confused look at the girl, then back at the woman between them.
And then Helena did smile ever so slightly, the tiny movement drawing a soft cry as agony blazed through her cheek. The flare of pain made her stomach roll, which wasn't a good thing at all given just how much alcohol and blood were swirling around in there. She missed his final exit owing to the fact that it suddenly became necessary for her to run for the bathroom in order to avoid puking the complete contents of her stomach all over the polished workout room floor.
She was still retching violently when she heard the soft squeak of wheels on tile and felt a gentle hand hold her hair back.
Oh yeah, this was a great, romantic moment. Finally, her stomach was empty, and she'd completely and thoroughly learned just how painful it was to throw up with a badly bruised jaw. She didn't actually notice the pain while it was happening, but in the aftermath, it washed over her in agonizing waves. Totally spent, she leaned heavily on her elbows, momentarily watched blood drip from her nose into the water, and seriously considered passing out. No more alcohol. At least not anytime soon. Maybe not ever again. It had seemed like a good idea when beautiful men and women wanted to buy her drinks, but apparently not.
"What'd you have?" the question was quietly asked and utterly practical. Barbara's rage had burned out, leaving an odd kind of serenity in its wake. Helena needed her, which meant she had no room left for self-pitying tantrums. Time to act like an adult.
Helena sat back on her calves, head down, watching as blood dripped onto her hand, but made no effort to stop the steady stream. "Scotch ... tequila ... some bourbon ... a rum and coke...."
Barbara muttered something about kids who didn't know better than to mix their liquors under her breath, then demanded, "Where?"
"The Fine Line," Helena answered.
A muttered curse, then Barbara quietly asked, "Can I expect an angry phone call from Janey's mother demanding to know what you got her into?"
Helena shook her head, still not looking up. "I went alone."
Barbara didn't know whether to curse again or be relieved. Neither response seemed likely to be especially effective, so she simply poured a measure of mouthwash into a cup and passed it to Helena. "Here, that'll at least help your mouth taste a little better." Might cut some of the smell too.
Almost completely shut down, Helena did as told, wincing as the alcohol burned the cut inside her cheek, spat, then flushed before sinking back on her calves, head still down. Of all the fuckups to end all fuckups. She sniffed hard, fighting the urge to dissolve into drunken tears, then had to look up as gentle fingers tucked themselves under her chin and a damp washcloth brushed her blood streaked cheek. She expected rage or at least anger, but Barbara's expression was sad and more than a little sympathetic, her fingers gentle as she mopped up the blood, then took a moment to decide that Helena's nose wasn't broken. A thin trickle of blood was still running from one nostril, and she grabbed a fresh washcloth, pressing it into place with the quiet command, "Hold that there."
A slender hand rose to do as told. "He doesn't want me here," she said very softly, no longer feeling so victorious.
Barbara didn't argue. Not that Dick would have suggested throwing the girl out on street, but he'd made no great secret of the fact that he thought someone else should be dealing with her. "Doesn't matter," she told Helena as she wet another washcloth, then wrung out the excess water before gently washing a bruised cheek. "This is your home now."
"Listen to me," Barbara said sharply, fingers gentle as she drew Helena's chin up when the girl would have looked away. "Nothing ... and no one ... is going to make me throw you out. You're family now ... and this is where you belong." The hand under Helena's chin trailed up, brushing loose bangs back from her forehead, the gesture tender. "I'm not sure exactly what's going to happen," she admitted. Things were up in the air where Dick was concerned, and she'd have been lying if she tried deny it. He was family too, and she wasn't going to let go of their friendship, but past that, she honestly didn't know. "But I am sure of this much ... if it comes down to a choice, I'll choose you every time." She petted silky hair back from Helena's face. "We're a package deal now, and that's not negotiable. And anyone who can't accept that is going to have to get out. Understood?"
"You really mean that?" the girl whispered.
Barbara nodded. "Yeah." She reached down, catching one of Helena's hands in her own, twining their fingers together. "We're family now ... nothing and no one can change that." She squeezed hard, felt Helena squeeze back, and offered a gentle smile. "I promise you."
For the first time in hours some of the aching terror let up and Helena nodded, then her eyes touched on Barbara's shins, a worried frown creasing her brow. She knew the woman couldn't feel any pain ... that the very lack of sensation could be dangerous, allowing injuries to go untreated. "Y-your knees," she whispered, horrified by what she'd mistakenly done, "I didn't mean--"
"I know," Barbara assured her. Now was not the time for an emotional confrontation about not losing control during a fight. "I'll get ice on them. It'll be okay." She knew the limitations of the human body well enough to be comfortably certain the girl hadn't hit hard enough to break anything, but there would definitely be some nasty bruises.
Suddenly, the only thing the girl could think of was the possibility that she'd done real damage. "But what if--"
"If there's any reason to worry, I'll get in to see my doctor tomorrow," Barbara assured her. Bruce's money guaranteed that the door was always open where she was concerned.
A worried flinch rattled shoulders that were slender to the point of delicacy. Barbara wasn't good about going to the doctors, nor especially good about looking after herself in any way, manner, or form, and Helena could envision all sorts of awful results. All of which would be her fault.
"I promise," the redhead added seriously as she noted the girl's worried expression. The last thing the poor kid needed was a healthy load of guilt for something that was as much or more Barbara's fault. As the teacher, she'd had the responsibility to remain in control, and keep things from getting out of hand, and she'd failed miserably. "But in the meantime, I don't want you taking a guilt trip. I was the one in charge ... who should have calmed things down."
"I'm the adult ... and the one with experience," Barbara over-rode the denial, her voice surprisingly soft, but determined, "which means I'm the one who should have known better." She gently smoothed Helena's bangs back, noted the way they instantly fell back over her eyes, and shook her head wryly. Even the girl's hair only did what it wanted. "That's the joy of being the one in charge. The buck stops here." Another gentle hair ruffle and a tired sigh. With Bruce gone, she'd somehow gotten stuck being the adult for all of them. "Now, why don't you get yourself cleaned up and get some sleep." The bleeding had stopped, but the girl's cheek was definitely starting to swell. "And you'd better get an icepack on that while you're at it."
Helena considered saying something, only to discard the idea. There was something tired and a little overwhelmed glittering in green eyes, and instinct told her that it wasn't the time to press things. Finally, she rose, suddenly so exhausted she was staggering.
"Oh, and Helena," Barbara added, her voice drawing the girl's head back around, "plan on being grounded for at least the next month." Russet brows rose high, full lips pursing to let her ward know that the evening's earlier adventures hadn't been forgotten.
Helena was tempted to argue, but she didn't bother. She'd screwed up and screwed up big. Finally, she just nodded and stumbled out, well aware of the figure that followed a short distance behind until she reached her own room, the soft creak of wheels on wood oddly comforting. She slipped into her own room, and then into the attached bathroom, where she flipped on the shower, listening closely until she heard the soft scrape of wheels moving on, then the sound of the lift. Then she was out the window, easily alighting higher on the tower, climbing gracefully despite the evening's traumas, though she did move more slowly than usual. It took several minutes for her to reach a favorite niche, a narrow ledge just above the huge clock and the lookout. Blue eyes narrowed as she watched the broad shouldered figure pace back and forth, his strides long and fast. He'd pulled on a shirt since leaving, though he was still barefoot. She ducked back the moment she heard the faint rhythmic sound of wheels on cement.
Dick did a fast turn, barely noticing the chill wind that ruffled his hair as he spun to face the woman who easily maneuvered her wheelchair through the broad door onto the stone balcony. "She okay?" he asked without preamble.
Barbara nodded, moving forward to stare out at the city. "Yeah, a little shaky ... but her nose isn't broken ... and we got a few things out of the way." There were more discussions to be had, but they'd gotten the major thing straightened out. Helena was safe and nothing was going to change that---not even an old friend who thought he was doing what was for the best.
He winced, guilty and angry at the same time. God knew, he wasn't one to go around hitting teenaged girls, but he couldn't forget who or what she was and when he'd seen her kneeling over Barbara's downed wheelchair, he'd just instantly assumed the worst. They'd already lost too damn much to one enemy. He couldn't risk losing any more to another. "I'm sorry, but, dammit, you can't blame me for thinking Catwoman's daughter could be a problem."
Barbara sighed softly and ran a hand over her hair. "If she wanted to hurt me, she could have done so a long time ago ... could kill me twenty times a day if she wanted ... sell me out to the first criminal that came along."
"How can you be so sure she won't?" he demanded, raising a brow as he noted the ice pack on each knee.
Barbara shrugged, staring out at the lights of the city. "How did you and Bruce know I wouldn't sell you out?" she asked, her tone practical. She'd come late to the game, and they could have easily concluded she was trouble.
Dick smirked. "I dunno, but I think the cop for a father, never been in trouble, straight A's, championship gymnast thing might have been clue."
Barbara shook her head. "That wasn't it," she disagreed quietly as she remembered a moment when blue eyes that were eerily like her young ward's had peered at her---stared through her really---as though they could see everything she was and everything she could ever be. Somehow, he'd seen past a dumb kid in a Halloween costume doing something dangerously stupid to the woman she could become under his tutelage. She'd been a little in love with him then, drawn to the fiercely magnetic warrior side, though she'd later come to understand just how truly screwed up the man underneath was. She remembered a conversation some years later when she'd finally worked up the courage to ask him why he'd taken the chance. Broad shoulders had dipped in the faintest of shrugs.
"You have the calling," he'd murmured as though that settled everything. The calling---like the priesthood, you didn't choose it, it chose you. Bruce had seen it in her before she even understood what it was.
"Babs," Dick said a little impatiently. He'd always been the literal one of the three of them, simply seeing life as it came at him, seldom planning ahead, enjoying things for what they were. He didn't sit and worry about what could be or might be, didn't ponder the ethics of situations until they were dumped in his lap, he just went out and lived his life and didn't worry too much beyond that simple chore.
Sometimes Barbara envied him that ability.
It wasn't that he was simple or stupid. He just tended to accept things for what they were, seldom looking for the hidden meanings or deeply buried layers. "He knew before he even knew who I was ... that first night, he looked into my eyes, and he knew." She sighed softly, suddenly missing her mentor fiercely, fighting tears because there was a part of her that was so damned angry at him, and another part that just wanted him to come home, and things to be the way they had been before. Except that wasn't possible. A tired, sad sigh escaped her lips as she struggled to explain things to her old friend in a way he might understand, even though she knew she couldn't and he wouldn't. "Sometimes you just know," she said at last.
"Babs--" he said again and she could feel him readying his arguments, all very logical and well thought out.
"Don't make me choose, Dick," she warned him, her voice very soft. She looked at him, driving her point home. "You won't win." She saw the way he paled, staring at her as though seeing her for the first time.
Dick just stood there for a long moment, the verbal lashing he'd planned on giving her for doing something as stupid as sparring when she was still so physically vulnerable drying up along with his arguments that maybe there was someone else better suited to taking custody of a wild teen who just happened to have a few superpowers into the bargain. He snapped his mouth shut after a brief second. He'd seen that look in her eyes before---in fights that she'd won every single time---absolutely resolute, utterly confident and certain of her path. He suddenly knew that he could talk till he was blue in the face. She wouldn't be dissuaded. He gnawed on his inner cheek for a long moment as he went over everything in his head, but couldn't assemble it all into a picture he understood. It was like one of those expensive brass puzzles with hundreds of pieces, which only went together one way. Do it right, you got some beautiful knick knack, do it wrong and nothing but spare parts. Barbara was like that; thousands of parts that only went together in one subtle, very perfectly fitted way. Why was it he was suddenly afraid that he was forever going to be doomed to the spare parts version of things? "What's going on between you two?" he asked at last.
She looked up at him, frowned, and he could see her dissecting the question, examining the text and subtext, taking it apart, putting it back together again, spinning it around and studying it from every angle. It was a rather amazing level of analysis for such a simple string of words. He would simply have popped off an equally simple answer and not worried about it, whereas she considered the question at a dozen different levels, and then suddenly just stopped, leaving him with the intense sense that she'd hit some kind of personal wall and shut down. It was completely and totally out of character. Normally, she was as fearless in looking at her own motivations as everyone else's. It rather frightened him to see her back down that way because he didn't know what it meant.
"She's family now," Barbara said after a long beat, and he sensed that was as much as she was going to say, maybe as much as she was willing to consider.
He was wise enough not to press for any more than that, and they both stared out at the city for a long time before he broke the uncomfortable silence. "We're not going to last, are we?"
A sad sigh greeted question. "No," Barbara admitted. Much as they cared for each other, she didn't see any hope for it.
He seriously considered running like hell right then and there, the notion of starting something that was doomed from the first going against the grain. Except he couldn't. There was some part of him still hoping, and some part that needed to be certain. Still, he had to face the probability. "Whatever happens, we stay friends?"
She nodded. "Of course."
No doubt in her voice which was a relief to him. Nothing was worth risking their friendship. He looked over at her, allowed his lips to twist in a grin, needing to get away from intense and scary subjects. It probably didn't bode well for any of them that they both considered criminal overlords less intense and scary than human emotions. "So, you think you can get through the encryption problem with the Delphi?"
A wolfish smile curved full lips. "Oh yeah." Suddenly the stressed tone of doomed lovers slid away, leaving longtime friends and comrades in its place, dropping them back into roles they were both far more comfortable with.
He didn't understand much of the technical discussion that followed, but it was a relief to hear her talking like her old self, so he just folded his arms across his chest and listened.
Helena considered staying even longer, but her face was aching and swelling and the stench of alcohol and cigarette smoke clinging to her hair and clothes was starting to make her sinuses burn, and besides, she'd heard what she needed to hear. Moving impossibly silently, she climbed back up the way she'd come, then crept around to her bedroom window. Some of it was hard to hear, but at the same time, a part of her was warmed by the absolute certainty in Barbara's voice when she'd said they were family. Okay, so maybe she needed Dick right now, and that might hurt like hell, but at the same time, there'd been no doubt in her voice when she'd said it wouldn't last, and when she'd made it plain that if she was forced to choose, Dick would lose. If she had to, she supposed she could live with that situation.
Besides, Janey was still plenty of fun, and there were others who'd stared at her with heat in their eyes. And who knew, maybe it really was just some dumb teenage crush, and she'd look up some day and find herself staring into a pair of eyes filled with love and adoration and it wouldn't be Barbara.
Okay, so she doubted it, but it was worth the effort to look.
With that thought, she climbed into the shower and let the hot water run over her washing away the stench of the night's activities, the hot water helping to soothe stressed muscles. When she climbed out of the shower, she pulled on an overlong t-shirt and stumbled into her dark bedroom, yawning broadly as she slid between cool sheets. She snuggled in, then froze, a frisson of awareness sliding down her spine as she realized she wasn't alone. She rolled up on one elbow, frowning until she spotted the distinctive line of the chair hidden in the shadows. Uncertain what to expect, she was utterly silent.
"Ice pack," Barbara said softly and lobbed a cloth wrapped, blue ice pack her way. "You'll need it if you plan on moving your jaw tomorrow."
Helena glanced down at it and nodded. "Thanks." She settled into the blankets, tucking cold pack under her sore cheek and along the edge of her nose.
Barbara was silent for a long moment. "You shouldn't go eavesdropping like that," she said very softly after a beat.
Helena flinched as muscles clenched along the line of her jaw, sending runners of pain through her facial muscles. She didn't think Barbara had known. "I'm sorry ... I just ... needed to be ... certain," she said haltingly.
"I know," Barbara sighed, sounding painfully tired. "Hopefully now you can relax a little."
Helena nodded, watching closely as the redhead turned as if to leave. "Barbara," she said very softly, her voice catching the other woman. Barbara glanced back over her shoulder. "I'm glad we're family now."
"Me too," Barbara said with a faint nod, her voice gentle as she added, "Get some sleep."
Helena tugged her blankets higher, settling in comfortably, cheek resting on the cold pack. Okay, she could deal with everything. Boy Blunder might be a fact of life for a little while, but it was her home, and Barbara was her family. She closed her eyes and heaved a relieved sigh, snuggling a little deeper. She could handle anything as long as she knew that much. They were family and she was home. That was all that really mattered.
* * * * * *