Four Years Later
Where most people spent their twenty-first birthdays legally loading up on liquor for the first time in their lives, Helena spent hers steeped in blood, trying desperately to save lives from a barely human creature that called himself the Crimson Claw.
Two guesses what the crimson stood for and the second one doesn't count.
His preferred victims were children. He'd struck during the three nights the moon was at its fullest over the previous two months, kidnaping and killing six children each time, then disappearing again. The bastard thought he was some kind of werewolf, and Barbara had made getting him her entire purpose in life. For once, Helena hadn't argued or even offered up the mildest of sarcastic rejoinders. She'd seen the effects of his rage---the tiny, broken bodies. She wanted the bastard and she wanted him dead. Barbara had spotted his pattern and tracked him to his newest killing grounds, a pitch-black, dead-end alley near the docks where he could quickly dispose of the bodies. He'd already taken the children. Now was the time to kill. They were on the last night of his spree. If they missed him this time, it would be another month before they could try again.
Helena saved four, but lost two. That they were already dead when she arrived made no difference to the horror and the guilt, but it increased the rage a thousandfold.
When she leapt at him she had only one thing on her mind, and that was spilling a little crimson of her own. He fought back of course, hard and brutal, with inhuman strength and clawed hands that ripped and tore. Leather shredded under his brutal assault, but she ducked and dodged faster than the human eye, and flesh remained relatively undamaged. Then she spun, leaping high and rolling before dropping back to the ground and unloosing a vicious fusillade of blows hard enough to shatter bone and pulp flesh. Not nearly so tough when faced with an opponent over the age of ten, she decided with dark humor, though a part of her knew he was more than tough enough. It was just that she'd entered an all new place in her head and become a furious, bloodthirsty, predator determined to kill. He fought back and got in a few blows of his own, but ultimately, he simply couldn't stand up to the creature she unleashed once she started hitting. Some part of her knew she should stop, but when he started screaming, it just wasn't possible. She could hear Barbara's voice in her ear, trying to call her back, trying to reach her, but she didn't want to be reached or called back.
She wanted to kill and God knew he deserved to die.
So, for once, she didn't pull her punches, instead hitting until his face and ribs were mush and her knuckles bruised and bloody, maybe even broken. Barbara could scream her name---no, not her name, her goddamned code name---all she wanted, but Helena wasn't backing off. She was a master of combat, a weapon from head to toe, and she'd taken to enjoying the beatings she delivered in the name of justice. Working off some of the stresses caused by the many facets of her life by pounding the bastards who enjoyed hurting people into the dirt had become a way of life. Only so far, she'd managed to avoid intentionally killing anyone, pulling back, hurting but never destroying, still enough in control to resist the urge to just let go. She'd wanted to kill at least a hundred times before, but she'd held back because she knew it was what Barbara wanted, done it for her, but never for herself.
Not this time. This time she was doing it for herself. And that meant killing him.
It wasn't until she heard the sirens coming that she came back to herself. She stood, body trembling with her heaving breath, suddenly aware of her surroundings. He was still alive, but not by much, and Barbara's voice was in her ear stirred in with the sounds of traffic and a car engine. Headed her way.
"Huntress! Dammit, Huntress, respond!"
"I'm here," Helena rasped as she staggered back from the man she'd been so intent on killing only moments before, more than a little sorry she'd failed. Tiny whimpering cries reached her ears and she stumbled toward the bound children, quickly freeing them with the curt order, "Get out of here." One little girl stared up at her for a long moment, looking nearly as frightened of her rescuer as her attacker. "Go," Helena snapped impatiently, wanting them clear if anything happened. "The cops are coming. They'll keep you safe."
"The Claw?" Barbara questioned and Helena could hear the fear in her voice.
"He's alive," the younger woman bit out, tracking the children as they ran, sickened by the look of fear she'd seen directed her way, but even more by the fact that she couldn't blame the girl for being scared of her. She wasn't sure how different from creatures like the Claw she was anymore. "You called the cops?" she demanded as the sirens drew nearer and she saw the reflection of lights off the surrounding buildings.
"When you didn't respond, I didn't know if you were--"
"Gonna kill him," Helena finished the sentence furiously, certain she knew where Barbara's concerns lay, "So ... what ... you thought he was worth sending the cops to save?"
"I didn't know if you were even still alive," Barbara shot back, sounding almost as angry as Helena. "I sent the police because you didn't answer me ... I was afraid he'd managed to take you down."
"Fat chance of that," the brunette snarled as she glared at the creature she'd damn near killed, not even considering him human. "Total wimp when he's dealing with anybody over sixty pounds." Her lip curled in an expression of raw hatred, though it was hard to tell who she hated more, him, herself, or the woman on the other end of the connection. She was a seething mass of ugly emotions and she had no idea how to deal with them. No, that was wrong, she did, she knew exactly how, and that was the worst part of the equation. Except she didn't even have the promise of that much peace, just more tormented denial interspersed with occasional bouts of casual sex with people she could easily boot out of her life if they dared become the least bit serious about her.
She was still standing like that, barely feeling the pain in her body for the pain in her soul when she heard the sound of a heavy engine and tires squealing on wet tarmac.
"Helena!" the call echoed in her ears with both the fullness of reality and the faint tinniness of the electronic transceivers clipped to each ear. She looked up, spotting the hummer where it had skidded to a halt nearby as Barbara shoved the passenger door open. "Come on," the redhead called, then glanced back, checking the progress of the cops.
Obviously Wondergirl had charted a course to get her there ahead of the police. If she hadn't been so raw, Helena might have admired the skill Barbara had shown or appreciated the fact that she had to have driven like a bat out of hell to get there. At that precise point, however, Helena didn't much care about any of it. It didn't feel like it meant anything important, just Barbara desperate to stick to her rules about not killing or at most protecting a valuable commodity. Couldn't do the work without her trained poodle to go on patrol for her.
"Get in," Barbara called when Helena still hadn't moved.
And suddenly Helena was moving, diving into the passenger seat of the hummer, every muscle in her body trembling violently. She yanked the door shut and pulled her seatbelt on without even thinking, acting on autopilot.
Barbara reached up, finally remembering to shut off the two-way, then leaned across the space between them, brushing Helena's bruised cheek with a gentle hand, her touch incredibly light. "Helena?" she whispered, which explained why she'd remembered to shut off the radio, Helena thought acidly. Couldn't risk having real names going out over the airwaves. With that thought, she jerked her head back from the tender contact that seemed so much like a lover's touch, but was really just professional concern. "Are you all right?"
Full lips curled into a sneer. "Don't worry, I'll be up to kicking a few more bad guys in the ass tomorrow night," Helena growled as she stripped off her earrings and tore the choker free, symbolically cutting the communication.
A frown sketched its way across fine features. "Helena--"
"Just drive," the younger woman bit out. "The cops're almost here." She leaned back in her seat, arms tightly folded across her chest, mind and body hurting.
"Helena," Barbara said again, though her focus was on the road. "Talk to me."
"Not really in a talkative mood," the younger woman snapped, her gaze fixed and unwavering on a point somewhere in the distance. Finally, she turned her head to glare at Barbara, loving her and hating her at the same time, wanting not just the automatic kindness the other woman showed everyone, but the closeness and tenderness that she'd come to crave like the air itself. Only Barbara had grown increasingly distant, her mind so focused on their mission that she seldom seemed to have room for anything else. It was like they were caught in a dance, but Barbara didn't hear the music, and every time Helena thought maybe they were moving forward, the redhead would pull back and retreat into herself, showing no sign that anything had happened. She was tired of it. Sick of the merry-go-round, angry about the neverending nature of it all, and so damned lonely it hurt. Coming in beat and bruised, feeling like she'd been run through a shredder, winning a lot of battles, but losing some as well was taking its toll, and she didn’t know what to do about it. She couldn't talk to anyone but Barbara, and Barbara didn't really talk. Oh, she listened, offering that sympathetic look that made a body feel like the most important thing in the universe for those moments when her attention was directed their way, but she never gave up any of her own secrets. She locked them away, ignored them, shut them behind high walls, even faked a little sharing when necessary, but never opened up and just talked until the sense of caring started to seem very one-sided, and more impersonal than it initially had. How much did she really care if she didn’t trust enough to share her own inner self? The question tormented Helena, driving her to close herself off until they were nowhere near as close as they once had been.
She couldn't take it anymore.
Long minutes later, they entered the clocktower apartment, and Helena simply stormed through to the kitchen, ignoring her former guardian in favor of digging out something to eat. The refrigerator had recently been stocked by Alfred, thank god, or she'd have been lucky to find something green and moldy. He'd even made sandwiches and stacked them together. She grabbed a couple of halves and started stuffing them in her mouth, looking up when she heard the soft squeak of wheels as Barbara entered the kitchen.
"Your hands need to be treated," the redhead said softly, her worried gaze falling on bruised and bloodied knuckles.
Helena glanced down, eyeing her own hands with a knowing look, noting that they were leaving faint bloody marks on the bread. Barbara had cleaned and dressed her injuries dozens of times. Her gaze dropped to touch on the redhead's hands---pale, unmarked, corded, and strong---where they rested in her lap. She knew exactly how gentle those hand could be, could almost feel the warmth and tenderness of their touch. Just the thought was a promise of heaven and hell in one neat package, the feelings it aroused so intense she worried they'd taken the place of what she really wanted to the point she was getting hurt in search of more of the gentle care. "I'll deal with it later," she muttered, suddenly not wanting the taunting kind of closeness that promised so many things but never went any farther than it had when she was sixteen. Only she wasn't sixteen anymore. She knew the score, knew what she wanted, and she was so damned tired of being denied even the chance to try for fear of screwing everything up.
"Helena--" Barbara said softly, her tone carrying an underlying chiding note.
"I said I'll deal with it later," Helena said sharply, flashing a quick glare at the older woman, suddenly resenting it all more than she knew how to express. She was tired of being the one to shoulder the fear and the pain, tired of having to see things no one should ever have to see, and tired of coming back home to what felt like an utter lack of support. What she really wanted was to just crawl into Barbara's arms and sob until she couldn't cry any more tears, to hold and be held, then waken wrapped in those arms and make love until she forgot everything but the feeling of velvety flesh and sound of soft cries.
Oh yeah, that was likely to happen, when Barbara didn't even allow as much physical closeness as she once had. No more evenings on the couch or physical therapy sessions. They were nearly always working. She used electrical stimulus to keep her leg muscles toned. And she now met with a formal therapist a couple of times a week. Helena reached for a glass, fingers tightening until she was close to crushing it. God, she missed the fun they'd once had, but Barbara had become increasingly driven, while Helena had taken to losing herself in beating the bad guys senseless and raw, emotionally uncomplicated sex with people she barely knew. It wasn't what she wanted, but it was better than going back to a lonely bed, lying awake and longing for what she couldn't have, while bloody images replayed themselves in her mind and gave her no respite from the things she'd seen. She just wanted a little peace.
"Helena, have I--"
"I've rented an apartment," Helena dropped the bombshell with a suddenness that startled even her, taking perverse pleasure from the way the other woman paled and flinched as though she'd been struck. "I'm moving out." She just couldn't stay any longer, couldn't take the push-pull game they played where things got so close and no closer, then pulled back at whiplash inducing speeds. "And I'm not doing this anymore." She might have been able to take it if she could have come back and felt the press of welcoming arms, but she just couldn't spend her nights in one kind of hell and her days in another any longer.
Barbara just froze, staring up at Helena, the color draining out of her face, her lips faintly parted, eyes wide with shock.
And suddenly Helena was regretting the decision, ready to backtrack on it, wanting to do anything to wash away the startled pain she saw in green eyes.
"I ... when did you...." Barbara exhaled, stumbling over her own tongue as she struggled to come up with some kind of cohesive answer. "If this is about--"
"It's not about any one thing," Helena said, purposely softening her tone, wiping away some of the cruelty and anger. She shook her head slowly. "I just can't do it anymore." She couldn't face death on a nightly basis, not when she felt so damn hollow inside, and nothing seemed to make any difference. It all just kept coming and she had nowhere to turn. "I'm sorry. I'm not you ... this can't be my life." Tears threatened to choke off her ability to breathe. "I just can't."
Barbara swallowed hard, barely able to breathe. "This is your home," she whispered unsteadily, not knowing what to say to the bald announcement.
"I'm sorry," Helena said again and suddenly threw the remainder of her sandwich aside. She had to get out of there before she backed down, let the bruised look in green eyes draw her right back into a game she no longer wanted to play. "I'll send for my things later." And then she left, tears in her eyes, teeth digging into her lower lip, the sound of her name on Barbara's lips echoing in her ears.
* * * * * *
The clocktower apartment was utterly silent as Alfred entered. Too silent, he decided as he peered around, noting that all but one of the monitors attached to the Delphi were clicked off, and the one that was still running showed a standby message that indicated only the most serious messages were allowed through. Someone had shut it down until it was running only a bare minimum of its usual functions. Not a good sign in his experience. The last time he recalled that happening Miss Helena had come home the proud possessor of three broken ribs, several shattered metacarpals, and enough torn ligaments to leave most people hobbled for the rest of their lives, while Miss Barbara had been in only slightly better condition. Having gone after Miss Helena when things went bad, she'd had a bullet wound in one thigh, two cracked ribs, a broken arm, and an obscene number of bruises. Yet another Humvee had been chalked up as a loss. They'd both taken nearly a week off.
He had a very bad feeling this was going to be even worse.
A quick check revealed the rooms to be empty, but more than that, devoid of something, though he couldn't define what. Everything just felt wrong---rather like Wayne Manor since Master Bruce's exit. Lifeless. It wasn't that he believed rooms and buildings had souls, but when they were lived in rather than just inhabited, it seemed there was an energy, a lack of perfection that indicated that whoever lived there, while they might have stepped out, would be back again. Things were at a slight angle, the odd item left about no matter how perfect the butler. There was something there of whoever owned the space. Suddenly the clocktower lacked that energy, that sense of being lived in.
Much too much like Wayne Manor these days. He'd taken to avoiding the mansion in favor of looking after the two young women quite simply because that emptiness tended to bring with it a crawling sense of uneasiness and depression. And Alfred Pennyworth was not one for wallowing in the pits of depression when there were far more important things to do in life. Unlike his employers, he wasn't meant for going out and combating evil personally, but he was wise enough to understand that they very likely couldn't do the things they did without his support. 'He also fights, who stays and waits.' He waited for them, treated their injuries, saw that they ate, and offered guidance when their souls seemed too battered by the tasks they set for themselves to continue. They battled to save the world. He simply battled to save them.
Instinct told him that coming battle was about to get very difficult indeed.
He finally found Miss Barbara in a shadowed corner of the overlook, staring out at the city, her profile little more than a stiff silhouette against starlight. "Miss Barbara?" he said very softly, then glanced around, automatically looking for the second figure who generally hovered nearby whenever not on sweeps. "Miss Helena?" he questioned when he didn't see her.
"She's gone," the redhead responded, her voice without inflection, utterly flat in a way he'd never heard it before. Her eyes, he knew instinctively, would be dead in a way they hadn't been since those first awful days after she'd first been informed of the extent of her injuries, before she'd become responsible for Miss Helena.
For one horrific moment, he thought the worst had happened and genuinely feared for the sanity of the woman before him, then she relieved that terror.
"She moved out."
The old man checked the urge to lean heavily against the wall and catch his breath while muttering angry imprecations at the young woman for scaring him so badly. That wouldn't do, not at all. "Did you fight?" he questioned when he caught his breath. Knowing Miss Helena's temper and the occasional battles that occurred between the two women, that seemed the most likely explanation. And the easiest to heal from. The younger woman had a quick temper, but she was also far quicker to get over things than her mentor. Miss Barbara always seemed the calmer and seldom lost herself in her emotions, but when she did, the situation was extraordinarily serious. She had very strict lines in the sand, and those who crossed them were only very rarely allowed back.
"No," Miss Barbara responded in that same dead voice that was beginning to frighten him, "no fight ... at least not that I'm aware of...." She trailed off for a moment, leaving him with a sense that she was nerving herself up, clinging to the dead tone because it was better than revealing what she was really feeling. "It wasn't impulsive," she added, the words a brutal blow. For Miss Helena to exit in a huff was one thing, but planning something wasn't a good sign. It meant she'd been mulling something over, rather than simply losing her temper. That was far more serious. "She'd already rented an apartment apparently." She reached up, pinching the bridge of her nose, her voice a little rougher than usual when she continued. "She caught the Claw ... and I-I thought for a moment...." She couldn't finish and instead opted to change tack. "She saved four of the kids he took....." Again, she trailed to a halt, and took a moment to compose herself before continuing. "It doesn't matter," she said when she spoke again. "It's what she wants." He had a sense that she was struggling to convince herself far more than she was trying to convince him of anything.
"Perhaps if you talked--" he began carefully, certain there was far more to things than she was letting on. Perhaps even more than she understood or wanted to see.
"She wants out," Barbara cut him off, "and that's that."
He didn't know what to say to that. He'd seen the growing tension, but it had never occurred to him that things could go so utterly wrong so abruptly. "Just out of the clocktower apartment or--"
"Everything," Barbara said softly, her voice so totally devoid of emotion as to make her earlier comments seem overwrought by comparison. "I think she feels I pushed her into something ... and maybe I did." Emotion returned to the young woman's normal, faintly husky voice in a thick, self-flagellating rush. "Maybe I just needed it all too much ... needed to...." She didn't finish, couldn't to judge by the way her voice creaked and strained.
He could almost see the self-doubt and depression swirling around her the way Batgirl's cloak once had, but twice as black and a thousand times as heavy. "You've done an enormous amount of good together," he said in an attempt to offer what comfort he could.
"At what price?" Barbara asked, then tipped her head down, staring at her hands where they lay clasped together in her lap, or perhaps at nothing at all. "You didn't see the way she looked at me, Alfred ... like she hated me....." She brought her chair around, staring up at him, her face in shadow except for the gloss of her eyes as they caught the light. "I should never have allowed ... this...." She shook her head, the subtle play of shadows just barely revealing an expression far more lost than any he'd ever seen on her face. "I promised Selina I wouldn't ... but I let my own ... needs ... supersede her wishes." Her eyes closed, blocking his view onto her soul.
"Miss Helena asked you to teach her," he reminded her gently, wanting to erase some of the gut wrenching guilt. "As did her father."
"And I should have told them both no," Barbara whispered without looking at him, her voice ripped by self doubt. "Christ, I had no business...." She didn't finish the sentence and fell silent, her eyes closed, head down, shoulders trembling gently under the force of emotion.
Frowning, the old man rested a light hand on her shoulder. "You've done the best you could by all of their wishes," he quietly disagreed with her self-directed anger.
"Yeah, well, doesn't look like I did very well, now does it?" Barbara growled, then abruptly yanked on the wheels of her chair, jerking back, before giving them a hard spin and passing around the elderly butler.
She'd almost made it back inside when his soft voice pulled her up short. "Given that four children are alive who would not otherwise be, I am inclined to disagree." His tone was low but inescapable. "And that's only this time. How many others are still with us because of you two?"
She didn't even try to respond this time, simply gave the wheels a hard shove and disappeared inside, leaving him to stare after her.
Very difficult indeed.
* * * * * *
The music was so loud it seemed to crash down on eardrums far more sensitive than a normal human's. Not that Helena's hearing qualified as particularly superpower based, but it was good enough that without a healthy dose of alcohol to numb the senses, she probably would have been in mild pain. Luckily, there were more than enough people willing to buy her drinks in hopes of getting past the silk and leather that hid so little of her lean frame. None of them interested her beyond their ability to afford the rather expensive brand of vodka she preferred. They were beneath her notice for anything else, unworthy of more than the faintest glance.
Graceful, controlled, the ultimate predator, she moved through the crowd, parting it with a look, eyeing those who might have been interested and finding all of them wanting. She needed something else entirely. She wasn't even sure what until she saw the clump of college kids, defiantly dressed with spots of multi-hued hair dye here and there, laughing and joking. The woman laughing with them was clearly a little older, her eyes knowing and without the nervousness they betrayed, her clothes, hair, and makeup far simpler and less in need of shocking simply for the sake of outraging more sober viewers. Physically, she was as different from Barbara as was humanly possible, dark eyes, near black hair cut in shoulder length ringlets, café au lait skin, her body slimmer and lacking the solid layer of muscle. Helena had long since moved past the stage of grabbing the first redhead she noticed in a room, but there was a sense of gravity in the intelligent gaze that briefly flashed her way. An unconsciously seductive smile tipped full lips upward only to drop away as a dark gaze briefly gleamed with a dismissive expression, then moved on, sliding over the crowd in a faintly bored and impatient manner. She wanted out, probably thought the whole thing was too juvenile for words.
Helena continued to stare, glare almost, until dark eyes swung her way again. When she pointedly didn't look away, those eyes slid over her, taking in black leather and graceful curves before rising again to clash with Helena's blazing look. One eyebrow rose and full lips twisted into an expression that bordered on disdain, then the woman looked away again. Apparently confident she'd succeeded in spurning an unwanted suitor, she turned away.
If she'd just offered a bland smile and looked blank, Helena wouldn't have cared. It was the sense of rejection that did it. Teeth suddenly gritted, she stalked toward the woman in question, hunting her the way she couldn't go after other prey, determined not to be dismissed. As she drew close a honey warm voice rose above the small coterie of nervous students.
"Sorry, gang, I have a firm, no drinking or dancing with students rule."
"C'mon, Ally, you oughta get wild for once--" one of the younger ones---a boy to Helena's eyes, though they were probably much the same age---teased, his body language that of an overeager irish setter, though his shoulder length hair was streaked in black and Kool-Aid colors. "You work too much."
"Really, Scott, the showing was fun, but I really don't--" the words fell silent as a hand landed on a slim shoulder. She turned toward Helena, just as the brunette offered a wicked smile.
"I'm not a student," Helena drawled, the look in her eyes at least twice as wicked as her smile. "Though I can probably teach you a few tricks if you like."
The kids all shut up, mouths snapping closed as though a barracuda had suddenly swum into their midst and they were hoping not to be noticed. Despite their terror, they watched the encounter that followed with wide eyes, and there was little doubt it would spur more than a few fantasies during other, more private, times.
A dark eyebrow arched neatly and a hint of a smile touched their teacher's mouth, her expression more annoyed than inviting. She was probably thirty, Helena decided, and attractive enough to be comfortably experienced with getting rid of unwanted suitors. Like her. "I doubt that," she drawled, then used a single finger to brush Helena's hand off her shoulder.
It was the wrong move, triggering Helena's hunter's instincts to an even greater degree. "Afraid of finding out?" she challenged the other woman the way she couldn't challenge the person she really wanted.
That earned an eye roll. "I don't dance..." she put enough of a suggestive spin on the last word to make it clear she understood exactly what was on Helena's mind, "...with students ... or recalcitrant children--" No doubt how she viewed Helena.
Which only made the lanky brunette even more determined. "Which means you can dance with me," Helena responded neatly and quickly caught hold of slender fingers. The notion of being dismissed or denied only increased her intention to have the other woman, and she left no room for refusal as she tugged her onto the dance floor.
"Are you always this suave and sophisticated?" Acid toned, the question was directed at Helena's back, though she didn't 't detect any great resistence from her target, but that was probably more shock than interest.
Helena did a neat spin, body already moving with the pounding music, her every movement graceful and loose limbed. Slender hands brushed narrow shoulders on the journey to slide into loose curls. "Well, at least I'm not boring," she murmured, her voice a low purr that was still, somehow, audible above the music and the crowd. Shock finally fell away and she felt a tug of resistence from her quarry. "And aren't you tired of boring?" she drawled before the other woman could completely overcome the shock and deliver the healthy slap she probably deserved, then pulled her close, mouth finding faintly parted lips in a kiss that was more about conquering than pleasure.
"Very confident, aren't you?" Helena's prey gasped when their lips finally parted.
A hint of a smile touched the younger woman's mouth, the expression equal parts promise and power. "Do you think I don't have reason to be?" she challenged her intended quarry, her eyes bright with a hunter's lights.
* * * * * *
She tried to sleep, she really did, but sleep wouldn't come for Barbara Gordon. Exhaling a soft sigh, she reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, throwing the dark ceiling overhead into even less focus than normal. Strange as it was to contemplate, she'd largely grown used to the daily demands caused by her injuries, but at certain times she was reminded of how much her life had changed by the smallest, most inconsequential details. Like the fact that tossing and turning when she couldn't sleep had gone from a native state to an uncomfortable, restrictive, nearly impossible task. Simply rolling over generally required reaching down to shift her legs and if she was careless, they tended to get bound up in the sheets until she felt like she was wrapped up in some kind of cocoon.
As a result, she mostly just slept on her back even though she hated sleeping on her back. It was just easier than trying to get comfortable situated in any other position, and tended to put less stress on her lower spine. She'd even largely adjusted to the change, even if she hated it.
Except when she couldn't sleep, then it was pure hell just lying in one position, feeling trapped by her own sheets.
Trapped by her own goddamned body.
She reached down, shifted the blankets, then readjusted the position of her legs. Slim fingers paused a scant distance from her thigh as she started to pull back, then she let her hand fall back into place just above her knee. Running her thumb along a line of artificially fit muscle, she hunted for any sensation and felt the faintest flicker, then closed her eyes, concentrating in an effort to make it respond. Nothing. It was a game she hadn't played with herself in ages because it was always so damned frustrating. Even knowing it would leave her emotionally devastated---or perhaps because it would leave her torn and bleeding and she felt some need to punish herself ---she continued exploring slowly, running fingers and thumb along the complex twining of cords and ligaments. There were hints of sensation, but it was impossible to tell how much might be real and how much was just a phantom reminder of her old life. She ran her hand around to her inner thigh, massaging slowly, deepening the pressure, but even the tiny hint of feeling drained away. Her fingers trailed a little higher, moving until there was nothing.
Cursing under her breath, she broke from the explorations at mid-thigh, unable to bear the lack of any response. Amazing how something she couldn't feel could hurt so much. Reaching up, she gripped the headboard tightly, arms, shoulders, and upper back rigid with tension, but she didn't move, just strained against the solid placement of the bars, struggled for the purpose of struggling. Only she couldn't move them any more than she could change the very real state of her body.
And for the first time in a long time it felt agonizingly real. Not that she ever truly forgot, but she'd acclimated over time and generally didn't think about it, just lived her life. And in the past, when she'd started to sink into depression over things lost, there'd been Helena to worry about or drag her out of her own head. Only now there was no Helena, and god only knew what the younger woman was doing or how the hell she was going to support herself. She wouldn't take Bruce's money, didn't have any of her own, and the only job she was remotely qualified for---some kind of law enforcement---was also the sort where she probably couldn't pass the psych tests. At least not lately.
Tightening her grip on smooth steel, Barbara strained even harder, a soft grunt escaping her lips as she tried to lose herself in the burn of muscles fighting a battle they couldn't win.
The problem was, Helena would always have a way of paying the bills. At sixteen, she'd been none too adept a thief, but still good enough to get in and out of the New Gotham Museum with the Eye of Ra before Barbara had caught her. Now, with the skills she'd learned under Barbara's tutelage, she could probably do her mother one better. And if there was ever a physical confrontation....
The redhead shuddered at the idea of some unsuspecting guard coming across the young woman during a robbery. She might well kill without even meaning to.
She let go of the headboard, suddenly weak and trembling as though she'd received a hard blow to the solar plexus, and let her arms drop to the pillows above her head. No, she was being paranoid and needlessly scaring herself. Helena wouldn't....
Wouldn't what? Use her skills to emulate the mother she worshiped and thumb her nose at the former guardian she'd apparently come to despise? As angry as the younger woman had been during her exit, Barbara was terrified she might do just that ... and get a perverse laugh out of defying Barbara while she was at it. Helena had a finely tuned sense of self-righteous revenge. She might just view it as the perfect solution to the entire situation.
Barbara's stomach rolled and she had to close her eyes to block out the world as it tilted unsteadily around her, leaving her borderline seasick.
Enemies. If that happened, they would be enemies. If even the vague thought left her shaking in horror, the reality might well destroy her.
Barbara pushed up on her hands, staring into the darkness as though it held the answers she needed, then reached up and dragged tousled hair back from her brow. She couldn't let that happen, couldn't allow the situation to develop in a way that risked putting her up against Helena. She had to at least try to curtail any possibility of that happening.
And there was only one way she could think of to do that.
Sighing softly, she shifted in bed, throwing her blankets off, then carefully transferred into her wheelchair. It wasn't like she was going to get any sleep anyway. Maybe she could head off the worst case scenario. She didn't let herself consider the tiny thrill that slid through at the notion that it would give her an excuse to at least find out where the younger woman was and make some kind of contact.
* * * * * *
"Well ... now I know what the walls of Jericho felt like," the sleep raspy voice reached under the covers and pillow where Helena had hidden her head, forcing her to some version of wakefulness despite any wishes to the contrary. She pushed both aside just in time to catch a glimpse of the naked figure that padded into the bathroom, snagging dropped clothes on the way. A moment's disorientation left her vaguely uncertain of her surroundings and then she remembered it all, from the brutal beating, to her cruel exit, to the wild, last-call pickup that had wound up in her recently rented, just-barely-furnished-on-credit apartment.
And the pickup was now in the bathroom.
Probably doubting her sanity.
Helena glanced down, noting the bare mattress she was lying on. Given the lack of sheets, and almost everything else other than a brand new mattress, and a throw and cushions stolen from an equally new couch, the woman could be forgiven for any doubts. Nerving herself up for the coming confrontation, apology, shouting match, or simply profound embarrassment that was sure to come next, she slid out of bed, wrapping the throw around herself as she moved. The problem with picking up women who reminded her of Barbara in ways other than the physical was that they tended not to do as she preferred and simply slip out quietly once the sex was over. Helena frowned as she struggled to remember hearing the woman's name somewhere between the dance floor and her bed. Allison? Ally? Well, something like that anyway. She found her in the bathroom, staring at her image in the mirror, looking none too happy and muttering to herself. She'd yanked on her blouse and jeans during the intervening moments, which actually made Helena slightly more comfortable. All things considered, the last thing they needed was more nudity.
"No soap ... no towels.... Of course not. Why would a woman with no sheets have towels?" The brunette let her head fall forward until it contacted the mirror and leaned there, eyes closed, hands resting lightly on the counter. "What the hell were you thinking, Robicheau?" Still leaning like that she shook her head slowly. "Well ... not so much thinking as ... yeah ... that too." More head shaking followed. "Dear God, Allison Ravenna Robicheau, did you just park your brain at the door."
As Helena watched, she began thudding her head very gently against the mirror, slow and rhythmic, not hard, a purely symbolic gesture by the look of it, but still enough that the younger woman felt the need to speak up. "I suppose I should apologize," she said resentfully.
The other woman's chin rose, her head swinging around, expression doubtful. "Why?" Allison demanded, her tone ironic. "I know how to say no." Not that anyone could have told by her performance the night before.
"Yeah, but I didn't exactly give you much chance to," Helena pointed out, her tone practical.
That earned an arch look that seemed eerily familiar. "I assure you, I'm more than capable of deciding these things for myself," the other woman growled, then shook her head. "I just ... um...." She made an annoyed sound and shook her head, not even pretending to know what to say. It was all just too nuts. She wasn't the sort who went home with strangers, certainly not the type to be completely overwhelmed by smoky lust that just barely papered over the kind of hidden agony that made most women weak in the knees. She'd never gone in for that whole, 'save me,' mystique, and found herself appalled to have tumbled into that particularly dangerous emotional abyss this time. "Look, I'm not very good at this whole one night stand thing ... I suppose it's a lack of experience." She finished buttoning black jeans in a near panic, then paused, peering at Helena with an uneasy look. "How old are you?"
"Twenty," Helena answered instantly, then abruptly remembered her birthday the previous day and corrected herself, "I mean, twenty-one."
Allison looked ill. "I'm goin' to hell," she moaned and ruffled loose curls back from her forehead. God, the girl was younger than most of her students. "Yep ... right, straight down---do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars."
"I'm not some kid," Helena snarled, hair prickling on the back of her neck as she felt a level of resentment that bordered on rage rise in her breast. She was damn tired of being treated like a child by people who ought to know better.
"Oh no, you're a baby. You barely qualify as a kid," the other woman muttered unhappily and stepped around Helena, scanning the small apartment. "Where are my shoes?"
"How the hell could I lose my shoes in a nearly unfurnished room the size of a breadbox?" Dark curls fluttered back and forth as the older woman shook her head. "What the hell was I thinking?"
Helena grabbed a narrow shoulder yanking the other woman around with a hard tug. "I said, I'm not some kid," she repeated, furious at a whole host of things, most of them having nothing to do with the woman in front of her. Except this woman was here, and the real target of her anger wasn't.
"I'm thirty-five, carry a full teaching schedule and am about to finish my PhD." Allison glanced around herself. "Whoever you are, you don't even appear to own sheets, pick up strange women in bars ... and ... you ... what do you do? Do you even have a job?" Her tone was bordering on hysterical. She wasn't handling this scene well at all.
The question rocked Helena back on her heels. "I-I'm gonna get one," she said defensively.
"Uh-huh," the other woman murmured, her tone sarcastically practical. "Doing what?"
It was exactly the sort of question Helena would have expected Barbara to ask---cold bloodedly practical in a way guaranteed to make her feel young and foolish. She bristled at what felt like an implication that she couldn't look after herself. At the same time, the harsh reality was that she didn't have a good answer, so she just shifted from foot to foot, her expression a mix of angry and panicked. "I'll come up with something," she muttered at last.
The older woman stared at Helena for a long moment, the thoughts tracing their way through her brain obvious in her expression, though the younger woman was uncertain how to read them. "Uh-huh," she said at last, her tone doubtful, then she sighed heavily. "Look, I don't know what's going on with you ... but I don't have anything left to go around saving people."
"I didn't ask you to," Helena growled, the resentment only rising.
The denial got another head shake, punctuated by an arch look. "No, you begged me to ... you are one giant aching wound pleading for someone to play band-aid, and it can't be me ... no, no, no, no, no," she muttered and ran a hand through her hair again, pulling away to look for her shoes. "It's not my problem," she insisted without looking back.
"Like I said, nobody asked you," Helena snapped, "so why don't you just--"
A knock on the door---the sound soft and a little hesitant--- interrupted the angry words and snapped the young woman's jaw shut as twin pairs of eyes swung around to stare at the front door as though it had grown a head.
And then a voice, soft, hesitant, and muffled by the thin wood. "H-Helena?"
The younger woman instantly lost all color, her voice the barest breath as she exhaled a single word. "Barbara."
Allison glanced from Helena to the door, then back to Helena. "Oh, great," she exhaled, wondering what the hell she'd gotten herself into. She hooked a thumb toward the bathroom. "I'll just ... um...." Another knock on the door sent a wince through the older woman. "Bathroom," she decided firmly and fled, wishing as she got there that there was a window that would let her keep going. She glanced back at Helena at the last moment before shutting the door, taking in the way the younger woman was rocking on her heels, her expression shattered. Going would be good. She was comfortably certain that staying was a bad thing. Unfortunately, there was no window, and so staying was the only option that didn't require turning around and facing down whatever scene was about to happen between the person at the door and the walking wounded with whom she'd spent the night. Though she'd been wrong about that looking for a band-aid diagnosis. No band-aid was going to do for that bloody emotional gash. More like major suturing on the soul.
"Helena?" Barbara's voice came again as Helena heard the faint sound of the bathroom door clicking shut, though she paid scant attention to the tiny noise. "Please ... can you just open the door?" The younger woman flashed a panicked gaze toward the bathroom, making certain the door really was closed. Once upon a time she'd tried dragging lovers in and out of Barbara's space in hopes of getting some kind of response, but at that moment, the last thing she wanted to do was try and explain what was going on. She just couldn't deal with one more thing.
Another soft knock interrupted her panicked thoughts, and suddenly Helena was grabbing her discarded clothes and dragging them on as she lunged for the door, loving and hating the surge of excitement she felt with almost equal fervor. She felt like the junkies she saw in the clubs, hooked on the high, wanting it, needing it, and at the same time afraid of its power over her life. It didn't occur to her until after she started opening the door that she looked like a woman who'd spent the night doing all the thing's she'd spent the night doing; hair mussed from fingers combing through it, makeup smudged in the patterns left by dragging lips, clothes wrinkled, smelling of smoke and liquor, and only half buttoned. Too late to do the smart thing and run scared she realized as she found herself falling into jade green eyes that took in her obvious condition and snapped wide. Was this the agony or the ecstacy, she found herself wondering as she saw a flash of anguish in Barbara's gaze and drank it in, well aware that she took far too much pleasure in the other woman's hurt. If Barbara hurt, it meant that maybe she felt something and as pathetic as it was, even pain was better than nothing.
Then Barbara blinked and drew her shoulders a little straighter, her expression closing down. She looked down at her hands, the only obvious sign of her distress, the white knuckled clamp of slender fingers where they clutched a manila folder.
Helena stiffened, resenting the way Barbara could so quickly and easily shut off her emotions. How much could she really feel if it was that simple to lock it all away? Helena couldn't have done that if her life depended on it. Suddenly the younger woman's teeth were grinding together with years worth of frustration and denial. "How did you find me?" she rasped. She hadn't left the address.
Barbara waved the question aside without looking up. "It doesn't matter."
Which meant she'd hacked it. "Great, the big brother routine," Helena growled and spun away, completely missing the way the redhead flinched as though struck, teeth digging into her lower lip to keep from crying out. "Shoulda known you'd dig out the Orwellian tactics. Have you already got hidden cameras in my bathroom?"
Barbara ducked her head, fighting for breath, uncertain how to respond to the wave of fury directed her way. "I'm sorry," she whispered at last, ran out of breath and inhaled on a shuddery gasp. "I just ... I know you haven't touched your father's money--"
"Goddamn right," Helena hissed and spun, eyes blazing, grateful to have something she could be self-righteously angry about. Anger made it easier to resist the drumbeating pulse of voices telling her to fall on her knees and beg for forgiveness for anything and everything. Anger was a safe, comfortable, old friend. Her eyes fell on the folder clutched in Barbara's hands. "And if you're here to try and get me to take daddy's millions, then--"
"I'm not," Barbara choked, flinching as though she half expected her former ward to strike out, her response enough to make Helena sputter to a halt, the pleasure she'd taken from drawing blood leaching away in an instant. The other woman was hurt, she realized in a sick, gut-wrenching moment of despair, deeply, meaningfully hurt. Given the recent emotional gulf between them, she wasn't sure she understood it, and maybe didn't want to understand it, but it reined in the coming explosion more effectively than anything else could have. Which left her standing there helplessly, uncertain how to react without the comforting blanket of rage as Barbara thrust the folder in her hand out, clearly expecting Helena to take it. "I know you don't want his money...." Barbara paused and took a deep breath, gathering herself together. Helena still hadn't touched the folder, leaving the other woman twisting in the wind. "And you don't have any of your own...." Another pause while Barbara drew in another breath. "I-I know you don't have a job ... and I've always paid your credit cards." She shook her head, her tone almost plaintive. "You didn't have to stop them, you know. There was no reason for that. I would've...." She pulled to a verbal halt, head still down, lips just barely moving, though Helena had no idea what she actually said. "It doesn't matter," she said at last, still refusing to look at Helena until the younger woman wanted to grab her and drag her head up and force Barbara to acknowledge her presence. "This is yours. There was a little money left when your mother's ... affairs ... were settled. I kept it separate ... for you."
Slender fingers finally closed on the folder, moving stiffly as though Helena could barely control them. She flicked it open, staring at the numbers, but not really understanding them beyond the fact that Barbara had carefully kept things in a way that wouldn't force her to take her father's money. Suddenly the anger didn't feel so comfortable at all. It felt like an albatross around her neck, driving her to hurt someone she cared for, someone she....
Hatred turned inward in an instant, and Helena couldn't make her brain work to come up with any kind of comment. She was too busy dealing with the way Barbara's mere presence seemed to short circuit her brain, making coherent thought very nearly impossible.
As the delay in response stretched longer and longer normally agile hands abruptly closed on the wheels of the chair. Clumsy in navigating for the first time in years, Barbara yanked herself back, her voice nearly inaudible when she spoke. "I'm sorry I bothered you." She was halfway out the still open door while Helena was still trying to make heads or tails at what looked like little more than a jumble of numbers to her. Math had never been her strong suit, accounting even less so. For a moment, she was so involved in what she was staring at that she barely registered Barbara's, "I won't ... do it again. I just ... I thought you might need ... the money...."
The softly spoken words finally got through to Helena, and her head came up....
Just as the door slammed in Barbara's wake.
The sound hit like a sledgehammer blow, nearly driving the young woman to her knees and she lost her hold on the manila folder, barely aware of the way papers fluttered to the floor around her. Completely paralyzed by shredded and torn emotions, she wanted to go after the other woman, but her feet wouldn't move. It was as though they were glued to the floor, or maybe nailed there by sharp, painful spikes. She wrapped her arms tightly around her torso, shuddering violently, a sudden harsh sob escaping her lips. And then she was rocking back and forth on her heels, hot tears clogging her throat, burning her eyes, and making her nose run. It had been years since she'd let herself cry, and suddenly she couldn't hold the harsh sobs back anymore. She cried for all the deaths, for the things she'd seen that no one should ever have to lay eyes on, for all the pain, for herself, for Barbara, for everyone who'd suffered during the sorry course of her life.
Lost in her agony, she completely forgot she wasn't alone until a gentle hand curved to the back of her neck, tugging her forward until her face was buried in a supportive shoulder. "Shhhhh, it's okay ... it's okay ... it'll be all right..." a soft voice whispered over and over as a gentle hand petted her hair.
Allison knew she should leave, had even started to just step past the sobbing woman in a perfectly sensible attempt to just get the hell out of whatever fucked up situation she'd managed to stumble into the middle of. Only she couldn't quite do it. She'd just spent several hours getting intimately acquainted with the body shuddering under the force of harsh sobs even if the mind behind those remarkable eyes was a total mystery, and she'd never been very good at the whole fuck and run concept. It wasn't that she cared in any great personal capacity. She didn't even know this woman---Helena?---well enough for it to qualify as personal, but then again, after two bodies have shared certain events, there was some kind of relationship, want it or not. "Shhhh," she hushed, her voice as soothing as she could make it. Besides, leaving would have felt like standing by and doing nothing while a toddler old tried to cross a busy highway on its own. "Just let it go."
Sobbing so hard she hiccupped with every intake of air, Helena leaned hard into the anonymous shoulder, then wrapped her arms around a body she barely remembered touching the night before. And when she'd finally cried herself out and needed another kind of comfort, she half lifted the other woman, dumping her back onto the bed and moving over her.
"No," Allison hissed and slender hands came up to block Helena out.
Eyes still tightly closed, the younger woman easily staved off any resistance, then claimed soft lips until she tasted a low moan of aroused surrender. It wasn't even remotely healthy and if she'd been thinking clearly, even Helena would have been appalled at her actions. "Barbara," she groaned low in her throat as she tasted a firm breast. Another moment's resistance was easily dealt with, not with some tacky dominatrix move, but by sheer tenderness as she poured every bit of her love for Barbara into the way she touched and stroked, making love to the woman she'd wanted for so many years by proxy. Whispering Barbara's name over and over, she drank in the warmth and softness, the tiny cries and straining muscles, never once opening blue eyes for fear the fantasy would slip away and she'd be left with nothing.
Later, there'd be hell to pay, but for the moment she needed to pretend for just a little while to keep from going after the woman she loved and destroying everything. Because she didn't know what she'd do if she went after Barbara, just knew that she wouldn't be ignored and it wouldn't be pretty.
Hours later, she woke, unsurprised to find herself alone and the room dark once again. She stumbled out of her poor excuse for a bed and stood there, naked, alone, things seeming at least a thousand times worse than they had only hours before, and that had been bad enough. Groaning softly, she let her head fall forward into her hands, massaging at her temples in an effort to dull the alcohol driven headache pounding there. Even for her, this was majorly fucked up. Picking up some strange woman, then pretending she was Barbara. God, she hadn't done that in years, and never ... never like this. Before it had been all about sex and overeager hormones, a way of burning off a little of the incipient teenage lust. This had been....
It didn't really bear thinking about. Unfortunately, she couldn't seem to think of anything else.
Because this time it hadn't just been lust, instead she'd poured every drop of her heart into making love to a total stranger. Not just having sex, but making love, her emotions so tied up in every kiss and caress that she couldn't run from the truth any longer. Nothing had changed. She was every bit as ass deep in love with Barbara as she'd ever been.
So much for any notion that she hated Barbara. Resented? Yeah, sure, it was easy enough to cop to that one---Barbara had spent plenty of years making the rules that Helena so loved breaking---but hate? God no. She'd even tried. At some point, she'd started nursing the frustration and anger, digging up every little bit of negative emotion she could come up with---a goodly amount, since she was the sort who still bore a grudge against the doctor who'd slapped her backside the day she was born---and turning it against Barbara in hopes of dealing with all the teenage angst that came from loving and wanting the one person she couldn't even rightly consider having. Or at least the one person she couldn't ever consider putting the moves on because, God help her, she could and did consider having Barbara every damn day, not always in a nice or pretty way, sometimes with a brutal edge that sickened her, but every single day.
Sighing softly, Helena pinched the bridge of her nose, fighting off the temptation to lose herself in a fresh wave of tears. There were days when sobriety wasn't all it was cracked up to be. When she finally lifted her head and opened her eyes again, her gaze fell on the pale sheets of paper scattered all everywhere in an accountant's dream version of a parquet floor. Exhaling a soft sigh, she knelt and began carefully gathering them up, lagging as she noted that a few documents had notes in Barbara's handwriting. Her fingers brushed the neatly angled loops that were both regular and appealingly graceful. Like the woman herself, it was an attractive mix of technical skill and artistic style. God, even now she was mooning after her former guardian. She almost flung the papers in a fit of pique, but managed to regain control, then folded things together. She took a moment to flip through the contents, trying to understand it all, but she was either still too hung over, or just too inexperienced with numbers that didn't involve alcohol proofs. And besides the papers were out of order, and there weren't exactly a lot of clues about....
Oh hell, who was she kidding? None of it made any sense and it probably never would. "Damn, thick headed idiot," she muttered, wishing she'd inherited her mother's head for finances in addition to the whole meta thing. She stood slowly, flipped through a few more pages, then finally laid the whole mess aside with a muttered curse. Standing naked in the middle of a barely furnished apartment, having just spent several hours pretending one woman was another probably wasn't the best time for a crash course in basic accounting anyway.
Ruffling already disarrayed hair, Helena considered a shower, then remembered that she didn't have soap, towels, shampoo or even a change of clothes, just what she was wearing. She also didn't have but about five bucks on her, and had shut off her credit cards in some grand show of independence. The queen of planning she wasn't, and more than anything she suddenly wanted to run back to the safety of the clocktower, beg Barbara's forgiveness, and then....
She sighed heavily and massaged the back of her neck, rubbing muscles turned to cement by tension. No, no going back while everything was still the same. No matter how hard this was, doing that would destroy her or worse push her to destroy someone else. Finally, she grabbed her clothes and began pulling them on, moving stiffly, uncertain what to do once she was dressed. Without sweeps to absorb her time, and no job, the only other thing she could think of to do was hit the clubs and it was still too early in the day for that to have any appeal. Besides, she wanted company not dancing. It would be nice to hang with friends, except her primary companionship for the last few years had come from Barbara and Alfred. The few friends she'd still had after graduating from high school had long since moved on, and the relationships she'd had since then weren't really the sort that invited further contact once the physical part of things was over.
Which left her life feeling kind of like the apartment she'd rented. It might have a few of the amenities, but there was just too much missing for it to feel real. She finished straightening her clothes, finger-combed her hair, then opted not to even look at herself in the mirror for fear that she'd have to just hide under her couch cushion/pillow and not come out again until the gods of personal hygiene decided to take pity and drop some facial soap and makeup by.
Time to paste on a don't-give-a-fuck face and go. She was good at that. Maybe too good, because some days she worried it was getting a little too real.
Now if she could just figure out where to go. Shaking her head, she decided to worry about it when she got there.
* * * * * *
The redhead barely glanced up as the elderly butler entered from the kitchen, instead focusing on the computer readouts that had held her attention for hours. Or at least, she'd been trying to concentrate on them for hours. In reality, she was more or less exactly where she'd begun, her brain prone to defy any efforts at control and slink off to contemplate the scene in Helena's apartment despite her best efforts. Which always seemed to lead back to the look in blue eyes after the battle with the Crimson Claw.
Which in turn left her feeling like someone had been beating on her for fun and sport. The sensation was so intense, she could almost feel the bruises.
Alfred didn't take the hint and make himself scarce the way he had since her return. He'd initially started to ask how it had gone, only to fall silent in the face of the look she threw his direction, more than wise enough to realize her expression meant things hadn't gone well. This time, He didn't retreat before her glare, instead drawing closer to her computer station, his expression politely bland. "May I get you anything?" he asked his tone pointed enough to make it obvious the answer was supposed to be yes.
"No thanks, I'm fine," she muttered, the notion of eating or drinking enough to make her mildly nauseous.
He paused, studying her body language as she drew deeper into herself and focused more intently on the monitors. It was the most closed off he'd seen her in years, though of late, he'd noted that her normally serious mien had deepened until it bordered on the grim. He gave her a moment to gather herself, well aware that pressing too quickly or too hard would only trigger her defensive barriers, and they were impressively strong. Hardly surprising given her past, but still not something one could easily batter down once they were in place. At times like this it required more finesse than that to get through to her. In his experience, it was best to go around some walls rather than try and take them down. "Given some of your health considerations," he began carefully when he finally spoke, well aware that she hated references to the fact that she couldn't be as careless about her body as had once been possible. And, while she might hate the reminders, she had become more responsible over the years when it came to doing what was necessary to protect her health. "It seems to me that the wisest course would be for you to stop and eat." Skipping meals could tax her system, stress things that had to be carefully balanced, and damage her health in the long run.
For once she didn't respond to the gentle reminder, at least not in any positive way. "I said I'm fine," she reiterated without looking up, her voice coming out a throaty growl. Her fingers hit the keys far harder than was necessary as she continued typing.
He sighed softly, a frown deepening the creases on a well lined face. "It went that badly then?" he asked when he finally spoke. Given the respective personalities of both women, if things went too far, it wasn't hard to imagine that they might well both say things that would later be cause for regret.
The mad typing gentled, slowed, then stopped altogether. "I left before it could really blow up," she rasped after a moment. She peeled her glasses off and tossed them aside, then pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger in an effort to stave off the burning heat behind tightly closed eyelids. She'd wanted to grab Helena, shake her and scream at her until she explained why she'd run the way she had. Barbara just wanted to understand, to know why ... to know what she'd done. Because things had been growing increasingly strained between them for months, and she'd had the sense that the other woman was so angry at her that Barbara had taken to retreating, even avoiding Helena at times. Barbara's temper wasn't like Helena's, but she was human, and the steady barrage of rancor had worn on her nerves until she was constantly on the verge of responding to the steady string of sarcastic cracks in kind. She'd wound up avoiding Helena's company just to stay sane, and once again she'd opted to run rather than hit back. A fight wouldn't do either of them any good, especially since it was dangerously likely to do nothing but explode into something far worse. They knew each other's buttons too well, and they were both too good at pushing them. Let a fight like that get out of control, and they'd both wind up bleeding. Not physically---she wasn't afraid of that---but emotionally. Slashed and bleeding.
"Miss Barbara?" Alfred spoke softly, breaking in on her thoughts. "Perhaps---for the moment at least---some time apart is for the best." He'd noticed the growing tension as well, and while he was comparatively certain he understood at least some of its source, it wasn't the time to interfere in their lives. They had to find their way on their own.
A muscle flexed along the sharp line of Barbara's jaw as she ground her molars together. "I just wish I understood why." She shook her head, her gaze distant, expression lost. "Why she's so angry at me ... what I did." It wasn't just teenage defiance. They'd gone through---and gotten through---their fair share of that, and while there'd been fights, there hadn't been the constant undercurrent of acrimony that existed now. And back then, when it was over, everything had settled down and become relaxed again. But lately, Helena had been angry all the time and growing steadily more brutal in her battles. She'd also gotten careless to the point that Barbara was terrified she'd get herself killed. To try and make up for the slack, the redhead had driven herself, pushing her talents to the limit in a desperate effort to cover all bases and give Helena any kind of backup she could since she wasn't sure the brunette was capable of looking after herself very well.
Alfred considered the young woman for a long moment, formulating his response carefully. Even he was occasionally uncertain about precisely what to say. "I honestly do not believe it's anything you've done ... but this profession ... it's not an easy one ... it exacts a price."
"You think I don't know that?" Barbara demanded, the bitterness slipping through for once. She was reminded of the price almost every hour of every day.
"Of course you do," Alfred soothed. "I'm simply saying that--"
"You didn't see the way she looked at me, Alfred." Barbara closed her eyes again, trying to block the world out, except the memory of Helena's expression and tone insisted on replaying themselves behind her tightly closed eyelids. It was like a knife slicing through her and her fingers clamped down on something without her even being aware of it. She was distantly aware of the sound of cracking plastic and the press of sharp edges against her fingers, the faint pain doing nothing to break up the more pressing agony tearing at her soul. "She ... hates ... me...." She felt something splinter and crumple deep inside as she said the words, pieces like shards of glass spilling around her, then the compression of muscle in her arm, back, and shoulder as she swung in a mindless flinging motion. A moment's resistance, the sound of metal, rubber, and plastic giving way, then a second or so of total silence as she opened her eyes to watch a keyboard arc away from the tips of her fingers in a perfect throw.
She hurled it with all the strength and skill she'd once applied to her batarangs, and for just a moment there was total silence as it sailed with the same raw force and deadly accuracy.
It didn't tumble, but flew straight, one corner hitting a monitor on the opposite side of the workstation. In an instant, equipment was upended and glass shattered while sparks of electricity suddenly lit up the normally dark room in bright, arcing flares. Barbara just froze for a long moment, staring at the strange tableau her very expensive monitor made where it lay on the floor, burning, the glass front shattered into a thousand pieces that were now scattered everywhere, the plastic housing cracked open to expose the innards. She swallowed hard, watching in shock as blue flame rose from the broken case, blackening hard plastic and insulation as it moved. It was beautiful in a strange way, the flames low but almost playful.
The paralysis didn't snap until puffs of thick, white powder surrounded the burning mess, quickly asphyxiating the fire. Barbara blinked, gaze rising to touch on Alfred as he calmly wielded a fire extinguisher. A few more puffs and the fire was dead, leaving the tang of ions and the stench of fried plastic in the air alongside the faintly acrid, chalky smell left by the extinguisher.
The old man raised an eyebrow, somehow managing to chastise just as firmly as the lectures Jim Gordon had occasionally delivered at the top of his lungs.
"Not my best moment," she acknowledged, then reached out, fingering the remains of the keyboard cord, noting the shredded wiring where it had yanked loose from the connection in the back. She found herself rather glad for the wave of emotional numbness that followed the outburst, intense enough that it even managed to dull some of the profound embarrassment. Leaning forward on one elbow, she massaged her forehead, momentarily shading her face from the older man's view, well aware that he continued to simply watch her. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she admitted at last, the words coming slow as though each syllable hurt to utter, then hurt again to hear once it left her lips. She shook her head, dropping her hand and sniffing back on the threat of tears. "I ... uh ... I don't ... know." She could feel the caring, worried look directed her way as surely as she would have felt a hand on the shoulder or a knife to the throat. How ironic that Alfred was probably now every bit as worried about her as she was about Helena. Sharp incisors dug into her lower lip, the pain something of a relief since it momentarily distracted her from other things. Unfortunately, the other things were all back in full force the moment she let go, only now she also had the ugly, iron tang of blood filling her mouth. She let her eyes fall to the desktop in front of her, noting the empty space where her keyboard should have sat.
After a long moment of silent contemplation, she glanced over at Alfred, the lost look in her eyes frightening the elderly butler. "I do not believe that she hates you," he said at last, offering what scant comfort he could.
She shook her head again, her gaze unfocused, not really seeing him, but going over everything, hunting for signs, second guessing her every move and every choice for months---years even. "It's been growing," she whispered at last, "and I ... I've avoided it...." Ironically enough, she'd always hated confrontation, not the physical kind, but the kind that laid the soul bare and risked hurt to all parties involved. She'd learned young that it didn't pay to be too open about her feelings. As a child, when her real father would drink and the screaming would begin---before her parents' deaths and her adoption by Jim Gordon--- she'd learned to hide her feelings away, never show her anger or disdain for his behavior because that was more likely to bring an ego-slashing insult, hard cuff, or balled fist than anything else she could do. And later, there had been so many secrets to hide away from everyone. One set from her dad, another from her classmates. Secrets from Dick, more still from Bruce. Secrets from everyone and everything until sometimes she wondered if she even knew what the truth really was anymore. "I-I thought it was just a phase ... or a mood...." She ruffled her hair, pushing it back from her face, then reached back to massage her neck. "...not...." She didn't finish, couldn't finish for fear that there wouldn't be enough of the Delphi left to hack a popsicle stand if she started down that path. She'd hurled a keyboard with the last little, emotional bloodletting, and if she started throwing things a second time, she wasn't entirely certain she was going to be able to stop while there was anything left standing.
For very nearly, if not quite, the first time in his career, Alfred Pennyworth found himself at a loss for words. Meaningless platitudes were just that---meaningless---and he couldn't think of anything substantive to say. He was still considering the problem when she abruptly straightened her shoulders and looked back over at the destroyed monitor.
"Better get that cleaned up," Barbara muttered, purposely shifting her focus to something she could do something about.
Alfred started to suggest that he do that, but she was already at work, and he sensed that it was somewhat soothing to focus on something so mundane, so instead he simply moved to help.
* * * * * *
Helena didn't plan on making her way to the university any more than she planned on winding up anywhere. She was just floating, wandering the city to fill time. But then she found herself on campus, standing in front of one of those 'You Are Here' maps, her eyes sliding over the listings with only the vaguest of interest until she a notation and a hint of a smile touched her mouth. The art department had a small museum with everything from minor works by various of the masters to more current pieces. She'd been there with her mother several time just for fun. Nothing worth stealing, but her mom had liked the atmosphere, the halls full of students doing studies of great works and arguing over their historical significance. The idea left her feeling closer to her mom than she had in a long time. Besides, it wasn't like she had anyplace else to be. It was only mid-afternoon, too early for the clubs, and she couldn't think of anything else to do since the lack of money meant shopping was out, and she wasn't quite ready to take up her mother's old profession yet.
As Helena wandered the small museum, easily dodging the small knots of students working on assorted studies of the minor masterworks hung on the walls, she fully expected some funny looks, but apparently the art department was one of the few places on campus where the goth look never went completely out of style. Her rumpled black leather and thoroughly askew hair barely got a second glance and even her eye makeup by Raccoons Unlimited was comparatively subtle when compared to a few of the kids she saw go by who'd actually put considerable effort into achieving similar results. After she'd explored every room of the small museum, she wandered on to the attached classroom building, sticking her head in on a few of the larger lecture halls, listening in on the classes, and eavesdropping on random conversations, a little surprised to realize that none of them felt particularly over her head. Growing up with her mother had given her an excellent---if somewhat offbeat---grounding in the arts and history---necessary knowledge for one who stole fine antiques---and under Barbara's tutelage she'd picked up a healthy smattering of everything else from English lit to political science. Actually, she found herself thinking that most of what she was hearing was pretty basic compared to the ongoing lectures she often got from Barbara during the course of their work.
Their former work, she reminded herself, because she was outa the biz. Muttering a curse, she quickly squelched any temptation to remember the oddball lectures on a variety of topics with any fondness. It was just that she'd spent so much time floating above the city, watching for things to happen, often bored out of her skull, that the discussions had seemed more interesting than they undoubtedly really were.
She wasn't sure what she was thinking when she wandered into the departmental offices. Just curious mostly. School offices in high school had been a source of trouble since she was never sent there to reward her for her sterling scholarship, and she found herself wondering if it would feel the same.
A rather kindly looking secretary somewhere between sixty and eternal offered a professional smile and eyed Helena from head to toe, then said, "You must be one of the new studio art majors."
Helena glanced down at herself, then up again, uncertain how to take the comment. "Ah ... something like that," she murmured. She hadn't really expected anyone to speak to her---the secretaries in high school had usually clucked disapprovingly, then pointedly ignored her unless they were assigned to usher her straight into some office for other for immediate discipline. Without that threat of punishment, she had no idea what to say.
"Did you need to make an appointment with your advisor then, dear?" the secretary questioned.
Stuffing her hands in her coat pockets to have something to do with them, Helena shook her head. "No ... thanks. Just ... y'know ... looking around." That comment earned a curious look, giving Helena the sense that just looking around wasn't that common a phenomenon. She shrugged, suddenly wondering at her sanity for not just saying she was lost and getting out of there. "I like to get a feel for a place and--"
"Miriam, have you...." The question died unspoken as the woman who'd stuck her head in the office trailed to a shocked halt. Staring at Helena as the younger woman turned toward the door, Allison Robicheau checked the urge to reach up and rub her eyes and make sure she wasn't seeing things. Not good. This was so not good.
Instantly recognizing the voice, Helena did a half turn and peered over her shoulder at the newcomer. Posture suddenly tense, her expression somewhere between nervous and aggressive, she stared at the woman with whom she'd spent the previous night.
The secretary noted the sudden bout of extremely pregnant silence, suddenly curious about the young goth-grrl standing uncomfortably in the middle of the room. Her gaze swung to the GTA who'd just entered. And speaking of uncomfortable. Robicheau looked like she might just hare out of there any moment, a definite contrast to her normal laid back attitude.
Dragging her eyes away from the lean figure standing a short distance away, Allison glanced at the secretary, summoning a weak smile. "Umm ... Miriam, could you make certain that there are sixty copies made of the master test that's in my box ... by morning." She glanced at her watch, noting that it was close to time for the departmental secretary to break for the evening. "It's really important." The smile was forced, but it had the pleading look they all tended to get when discussing the office copy machine. The elderly woman was the only one who seemed to be able to successfully make it do anything other than churn out shadowed, unreadable pages, or hang and refuse to do anything.
"Oh," the secretary murmured, sounding disappointed. She glanced back and forth between the two women, her interest sparked. There was something there. But duty called. "I'll make sure that's done." With a last look over her shoulder, she disappeared into the back room.
Helena was still glancing back and forth between the two women like a spectator at a tennis match when a hand curled into her sleeve and she was hauled bodily from the room. She tried to yank her sleeve back once they were in the hallway, but Allison didn't let go, instead shoving her through a nearby door, then into a postage stamp sized office where she finally let Helena have her arm back.
Faced with the angry, suspicious look directed her way, Helena plastered an uncaring smile on her face and folded her arms across her chest. "What's your problem?"
Allison took a breath, clamped down on the impending, panic-driven explosion. "My problem," she said sharply and pointed in the general direction of the office they'd just come from, "is that that was Miriam Davenport ... the biggest gossip in this department ... and you have no earthly reason to be talking to her ... leaving me to wonder exactly what the hell you're doing here."
A protective cloak of uncaring insouciance hanging on her shoulders, Helena shrugged. "I was just ... looking around." Which sounded hopelessly lame, she realized even as she said the words. She saw the other woman jerk back, arms folded together in a defensive posture across her chest, fear replacing the anger in her expression.
"But you said you're not a student," the older woman said quickly, and flashed a fast glance at the door as though wondering whether or not she ought to make a run for it.
"I'm not," Helena confirmed, still trying valiantly to look cool and uncaring without even a trace of success, "I was just ... y'know ... in the neighborhood ... decided to take a look around ... see the museum ... and ... stuff."
"What are you ... stalking me?" Given that she wasn't a student, the older woman couldn't come up with any other reason for Helena to make an appearance. Certainly there was nothing between them that qualified as a relationship, and the strange bout of---what it was beyond the obvious---that had occurred between them didn't hint at an overly stable personality. She edged back several inches, eyes sliding over the younger woman, taking in the aggressive, almost pugnacious stance. Brown eyes slid down, surreptitiously checking for any bulges that might indicate hidden weapons, though it abruptly occurred to Allison that she wouldn't actually know a dangerous bulge from a perfectly normal one, and besides, she wasn't sure the woman in front of her would need weapons anyway. Despite her delicate build, there was something threatening about Helena as though she could---and would---take down the devil himself if need be.
Helena flinched as though struck as it sank in just how badly her appearance had frightened the other woman, and looking at it from her point of view, she suddenly saw why. She'd probably be pretty freaked if their situations were reversed. She knew it was just a coincidence ... or at least mostly just a coincidence, though as she thought about it, she had to wonder. The other woman had mentioned working at the university, and the kids had definitely been from the art department. It didn't take much to figure where she'd be found. And Helena had been feeling lonely, wanting company. She wanted Barbara, but that wasn't an option, so she couldn't help but wonder if she was settling for the closest person she could come up with. The realization shattered the harsh edge and drove her to soften her voice and expression. "No," she quickly insisted, then shook her head, trying to explain the impulse even though it didn't make a lot of sense. "I-I wasn't. I didn't even mean to ... I mean, I didn't plan to come here." Dark eyes continued to watch her suspiciously, making it harder to sound at all coherent when she was feeling dumber and more gauche with every passing moment. "I was just ... walking ... wound up on campus ... I saw one of those stupid You-Are-Here signs ... and I just ... hit the museum ... and wandered around." She shrugged, looking down as she outlined a square of cheap asbestos tile with the toe of her boot. "I wasn't looking for you ... at least I don't think I was," she admitted in a burst of honesty, then quickly added, "I'm sorry ... I didn't mean to scare you." She risked a quick look up under the cover of thick lashes in time to see the other woman's stiff posture ease ever so slightly, some of the near-terror draining away, though she was far from relaxed.
A long moment of silence followed before Allison quietly asked, "Why did you..." she trailed off, apparently opting not to continue on that course, waited a moment, then tried again. "Why here?"
Helena shrugged, unable to explain the lack of friendships or the fact that she barely knew the city in daylight any more. "I didn't have anywhere else to go," she admitted, her voice turning plaintive. And maybe she had been looking for the other woman, not because she desperately wanted to see her, but for something to do, and someone to talk to.
The older woman reached up, massaging her eye sockets, feeling the exhaustion and lack of sleep. She'd missed her first several classes and explained it all away with a story about a nonexistent flat tire since the truth definitely wasn't something she was eager to have knocking around the department. Nor even around her own head. The whole experience had been beyond unsettling ... and now Helena was here, looking hopelessly lost and pathetic, her expression begging for.... what? Protection? Care? Understanding? Love? The sane thing to do was send her packing as quickly as possible. Except the thought of doing that felt like seriously contemplating kicking a very adorable, lost-looking puppy. "This is why I don't do one-night stands," she muttered under her breath, thoroughly disgusted with herself for getting caught up in this situation---whatever this situation was. "They always get ... messy." She saw the younger woman flinch, and felt a wave of unwanted guilt for inflicting more pain on a body that had already suffered its fair share of agony by the look of it. She snapped her mouth shut, but hissed a weary obscenity through her teeth
Helena took a breath, seeing herself through the other woman's eyes and not liking the view at all. "I'm sorry," she exhaled and dropped her hands to her sides, posture deflating, "for everything." The other woman had offered her comfort, and she'd used her to fulfill something that went a lot deeper than fantasy, but in a way that made her want to crumble in shame. The word no had been whispered between them several times, and she'd used every trick in her considerable arsenal to overcome it, demanding and taking all the things she wanted from Barbara until they'd both wound up sweaty and worn. She shoved her hands in her pockets to have something to do with them, felt her stomach growl with hunger, a practical reminder that hadn't eaten anything but bar snacks---popcorn and pretzels---in the last twenty-four hours. Allison didn't say a word, just stood staring at her, and unable to stand the silence, Helena found herself rambling. "What happened ... it was wrong ... and I'm ... I'm so sorry," she apologized again. She shook her head, the tough act shattering completely as she sniffed back on the threat of tears. "You didn't deserve to be treated that way." Nobody deserved to be treated that way---as a proxy for someone else. And yet she'd done it so many times, but at least the others hadn't known, and probably wouldn't have cared if they had. For her, They'd been easy fucks for the night, and that's all she'd been to them as well. After a few disastrous relationships early on, she'd learned to either pick people who didn't want anything more or get out before things went any farther.
Allison exhaled another heavy sigh, her default comment it seemed at that point, then went back to massaging her eye sockets. She shook her head, not wanting to think about the tenderness and care the other woman had shown during those hours ... all of it while uttering another woman's name over and over. And definitely not wanting to think about her own physical and emotional response. "Not exactly a real ego booster," she muttered when she finally spoke, finding that she believed Helena despite the insanity of it all.
"I'm sorry," Helena repeated, not knowing what else to say.
Another exhausted sigh escaped Allison's lips, leaving her to wonder if her brain had shut down for the day. She turned away, fumbled with a mug full of pens, pushing it aside before turning back, hip hitched against the edge of the heavy steel. Eyeing the younger woman, she tried to see her the way she saw the myriad of screwed up young students who came wandering through her office and classes. That was safer and easier, letting her gain some much-needed distance on the problem. And it was a problem, like it or not. She eyed the young woman standing near the door and looking like a wild animal that might bolt at any moment. Too old to be a runaway, and she didn't have the knockabout look of a throwaway. She was more reminiscent of some of the rich kids who hit school with almost no practical survival skills after a lifetime of being looked after by overprotective servants and parents. Except that apartment hadn't belonged to someone who had much money to speak of, and she'd seen the no-money-down contract for the furniture on the counter. She noted the girl's wince, and the way she paled faintly, one hand fluttering over her stomach momentarily before dropping back to her side. Time for practical considerations. "Have you eaten today?"
Helena frowned, taking a moment to understand the completely unexpected question. "I ... no," she responded before she could think better of answering honestly.
"About five bucks is all," Helena admitted, too tired and hungry to successfully pretend she was more in control of the situation.
Allison pushed away from the desk, not giving herself time to question her sanity. "Come on," she muttered as she grabbed her coat off a nearby chair.
"What are you--"
"Feeding you." Glancing up at Helena as she stepped past her, Allison shrugged. "In my experience, when in doubt with freshmen, feed them." She eyed the younger woman. "I'm guessing the same rules apply here." Besides, she wanted more information so she could assess the situation more effectively than she could at that moment, and this would keep them in a public place.
Helena wanted to argue, she really did. She wasn't some kid and she resented the implication. Only the growling in her stomach stopped her. After a moment's consideration, she trailed after the older woman.
Thirty minutes later, wolfing down a slice of what was very probably the biggest pepperoni pizza she'd ever seen in her life, Helena glanced up, still chewing as she eyed the woman watching her over the edge of a beer mug that was rapidly turning wet with condensation. Allison took a sip, but only a small one, not enough to even dent the contents, in fact barely wetting her lips from what Helena could see. There was no physical similarity, but for some reason the look on the other woman's reminded the young woman of the way Barbara had watched her for the first couple of months after her release from the hospital. Her expression had been shadowed and thoughtful the same way this woman's was. Helena paused, suddenly uncomfortable with the close scrutiny. She was better with being the watcher, hidden in a shadowed corner, well above the world. This just felt ... wrong. "Look ... thanks." She gestured to the pizza with the slice folded together in her hand. "But I'm not really that hungry." Even after a night of hard combat, she couldn't eat that much.
"Take what's left home. It'll feed you for a couple of days," the older woman advised and took another minuscule sip of beer. The pizza was a tactic she'd used with several kids over the last few years, making sure they were fed when loan checks and scholarships came through late and they started looking pathetic. She just couldn't stand the idea of letting anyone go hungry.
Allison sighed softly, touched her tongue to the beer and barely resisted the urge to make a face, annoyed with herself for ordering it in the first place. Not a time for alcohol, and she couldn't stand the stuff anyway. "Look, I'm not sure what's up with you," she said after a long pause to consider her words carefully, wondering if she was slitting her own throat or giving a basically decent kid a chance to do the right thing, "but I'd really appreciate it if you not come by my department again."
Helena took another bite, chewing slowly as though it would protect her from having to respond if she just kept her mouth full.
"It's a political place ... and I've got orals in a few weeks," Allison explained quietly, looking down at her beer to escape the eyes suddenly watching her so closely. "I can't afford any gossip." And god knew, she'd skated close enough to that edge with the scene at the dance bar. The only thing saving her was the kids had been high as kites after a successful showing---not to mention a couple of sneaked joints they doubtless thought she didn't know about---and had barely noticed her actions once they got involved in their own. Besides, they were all frosh, and seemed to view the notion of a teacher and sex as a serious gross-out---a notion to be avoided, not relished-- but if Miriam heard about something. Gads, that didn't even bear thinking about. The whole department would know in a matter of an hour or two, and that could do so much damage. University politics were damn strange things, and while the department didn’t entirely approve of someone who was too single, it became positively prudish over rumors of one-night stands and mindless pickups.
Helena swallowed, a little startled to find the food suddenly tasted vaguely like cardboard as she got the message. The woman in front of her wasn't just scared, she was also embarrassed, even ashamed. Nice payback for the ego blow she'd delivered, she supposed, but it still made something crumple inside. She was smart enough to know that it didn't have much to do with this woman---it was all about Barbara and her own lingering hangups---but it still hurt. "Yeah, I got it," she hissed. "Good enough to fuck ... but please go away now."
Allison had the good graces to flinch. "Not how I'd phrase it," she said very softly, the implication clear.
"But essentially correct?" Helena snarled, suddenly resenting the way this woman was watching her and reminding her of other things, and other times ... making her feel....
God, she didn't even know what she felt. She barely knew this woman, and yet the rejection felt like getting kicked in the teeth.
"It's not a question of being good enough," Allison disagreed quietly, carefully restraining her emotions. Considering that she wasn't even sure what they were, it seemed best to just lock them away and ignore them. "But I really don't need any complications in my life right now." She eyed Helena. "And you don't look like it was a good time for you either." She touched her tongue to beer again just to buy some time. "I mean ... realistically ... you weren't muttering the name Barbara over and over ... when we were ... uh ... well ... it wasn't because you had some love at first sight experience with me."
Blue eyes dropped to the table top as Helena was reminded of her own actions in a way that neatly deflated the self-righteous resentment. "I'm sorry about that," she apologized again, staring at the artificial wood grain of the tabletop, plucking out shapes the way a child might see things in the clouds floating overhead. The brief mental exercise was something of a relief, giving her a moment's peace. It wasn't fated to last long.
"Did you two just break up or something?"
Helena froze, the quiet question yanking her out of her momentary reverie. With no sane way of explaining the complicated relationship she shared with her former guardian, she shrugged, her voice so soft it was nearly inaudible. "Or something." Though soft, her tone was bitter enough to discourage further inquiry.
Allison frowned, considered pressing the subject, then dropped the idea. This wasn't her problem, and she really needed to get the kid to some vaguely stable state and be on her way. She had her own life to worry about, and for once, she really needed to ignore the urge to save every stray that crossed her path. Her head tipped to one side as she considered the young woman on the opposite side of the table. Her eyes dropped to bruised knuckles, noting the faded red marks. "What happened to your hands?" She hadn't noticed the damage in the flashing lights of the club or the darkened apartment, but in the cold light of day, they were ugly enough to get her attention.
Helena looked down, noting that the injuries had healed considerably during the intervening hours. They appeared to be several days old rather than just a few hours. "I ... uh ... had a little ... accident," she exhaled after a long moment. Which didn't make any sense. They were the sort of injuries a person got by hitting something, and when she looked up, she saw the suspicion in the other woman's eyes. Given that the young teacher could probably call the cops and get them to listen to her, a better explanation seemed in order. "Punched a wall," she lied, figuring that sounded about as believable as anything. Besides, if she just pretended for a little while, maybe it would make the reality drift a little farther from her mind's eye. Then maybe the things she'd seen would seem more like a bad late night movie, and less like the visceral, cruelty of death and destruction.
"Repeatedly by the look of it."
Helena shrugged. "Yeah, I guess." It wasn't that big a lie. She had punched repeatedly, and hitting the Claw had been a lot like hitting a wall. "It was a really ... bad ... night..." she added a little helplessly as the other woman's doubtful look drove home the point that most people probably didn't go around hitting walls any more than they went around hitting people.
Allison looked down at her beer, once again wishing she'd ordered a soft drink instead of following the societal expectation of turning to alcohol when stressed. She debated several responses, not liking any of them. "Keep eating," she advised at last. "You won't do anyone any good by making yourself sick." It was easier to focus on the practical and avoid thinking about ... everything. Like the fact that she felt oddly responsible for the young woman seated on the other side of the booth. Having stumbled into the mess, she didn't quite know hot to just walk away.
Helena stared down at the pizza, took another bite, ignoring the cardboard taste. Hunger had become a physical, gnawing pain in her gut, so she kept eating. She'd already had enough Pyrrhic victories during the previous twenty-four hours. She didn't need any more.
As she watched the girl eat, Allison reached up, slowly massaging her temple, feeling vaguely like a child molester as she was struck by how very young Helena was. The sense of maturity was purely illusory, she realized, a product of her seeming confidence---sexual confidence anyway. In the cold light of day, that self-assurance seemed to have evaporated rather dramatically, and there was a sense of a ship adrift at sea.
Helena glanced over her shoulder, the reflex gesture buying her a moment's time. Being watched so closely was making her uncomfortable, like the hunted rather than the hunter. She didn't like the sensation. It made the hair on the back of her neck prickle, triggering instincts better left to the late night pursuit of criminals. Her eyes narrowed faintly. "You're a student then?" she questioned and flashed another quick glance over her shoulder in the direction of the university.
Allison paused, visibly considering whether or not to answer the question, then finally nodded. "Post-graduate in art history ... should have my PhD in another month." She sighed very softly and took a sip from her beer, then muttered under her breath, "God willing."
"Art history," Helena murmured between bites, finding the food tasted better as she took a little more control of the situation, "soo, what's your specialty?"
"European female artists of the renaissance, baroque, and rococo periods."
Helena raised an eyebrow, a hint of a smile touching her lips as she saw the faintly dismissive look in the other woman's eyes, clearly broadcasting her expectation that Helena wouldn't have the faintest idea what she was talking about. "You mean like Anguissola, Gentileschi, and Marietta Tintoretto?" She enjoyed the startled look that washed over the other woman's expression.
"I ... among others," Allison murmured at last, uncertain what to make of the totally natural way the younger woman had dropped names that very few people knew, especially anyone who looked like far more likely to know the names of current grunge bands than classical artists. "How did you...."
The little bit of victory felt very good after all of the recent defeats, and Helena basked in it. "My mom was something of ... collector." Selina Kyle had been a thief, but she'd also truly loved beautiful things. Helena smiled as she remembered her mother's rambling discourses on art and history. "She generally preferred Egyptian and Chinese ... particularly sculpture." Small, valuable, highly collectible, and easy to fence to very well placed collectors, her mother's taste in sculpture had paid more than a few of their bills over the years. "But she always admired the female artists." She looked down at the table top, trailing a stray finger along a random blob in the artificial wood grain that reminded her of a cartoon character. "Said she respected the way they did what they wanted even though the world they lived in disapproved ... belittled them, and tried to make them back down ... not be what they were."
Allison leaned forward, her tone warming faintly. "It's one of the reasons that I started the research ... the notion that these women went totally against convention ... not for money or fame ... but simply because something inside of them needed to be expressed." She shook her head slowly and took another sip of beer, her tone philosophical and almost dispirited when she continued. "I think I've always envied that sense of purpose ... the drive to do something." She shook her head, leaning forward on her elbows. "Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a sense of some kind of higher calling ... instead of just slogging through life."
Helena considered the comment for a moment, then shrugged. "But that's probably not how they saw it." Barbara had some kind of higher calling, but often seemed wholly unaware that it was anything but normal to bury herself in concerns that most people couldn't have understood. It wasn't the same thing, but in some ways, it wasn't so different. "They probably just thought they were slogging through life ... probably never occurred to them how..." she debated terms, finally settled on, "unusual ... they were." She went back to staring at her fingers, still trailing one along that amorphous blob, trying to remember what Saturday morning nightmare of bad animation it reminded her of. Jabberjaw? Was that the name, she wondered distantly. "I don't think that most people who are truly unique ... or special ... have any idea that they're anything out of the ordinary." A hint of a frown creased her brow as she considered her former guardian, putting away the personal issues for a moment and trying to look at her objectively. Barbara was driven---had been since she'd been a teenager---had done so much good, and yet Helena knew for a fact that she brooded on every single loss. "In fact, if anything, I think a lot of them see more of their failings than their successes...." When she looked up again, she was surprised by the way the other woman was watching her closely, her expression thoughtful. She half expected an argument, but Allison only shrugged.
"Maybe you're right." Allison took another slow sip of beer, not liking it any better than she had the first time. "Read about a study once where they concluded that the smarter you really are, the dumber you think you are ... and the dumber you really are, the smarter you think you are." She shrugged. "Maybe that rule applies to just about everything ... talent, power, skill ... what have you."
Helena nodded, finding the concept rather appealing. "Maybe it's about perception," she offered after a moment's consideration. "A person with more insight into something perceives what they don't know or what they can't do ... and that's always greater than what they do know or can do. They can see past the horizon ... where someone else is trapped in a perpetual fog of their own ignorance."
Allison just stared for a long moment, her expression totally unguarded in her shock. The thoughtful observation wasn't even remotely what she would have predicted and she couldn't think of a response for a long moment.
"Or maybe I'm just being stupid," Helena abruptly muttered when the silence stretched out longer than she expected. Suddenly self-conscious, she returned her attention to her food, shoveling it down in order to have something to do with her hands and mouth that didn't involve communicating.
"No ... quite the contrary," Allison murmured as she realized she'd unintentionally hurt the younger woman. Despite the hard edge she tried to project there was a softness there, a vulnerability she tried to hide behind a tough, sarcastic shell. "I think you're probably right ... the smarter a person is, the more aware they are of what they don't know." She took a sip from her beer, then her smile twisted into a wry smile. "Which means I may be effing brilliant ... since I generally feel like I don't know anything."
The self-deprecating comment earned a soft laugh from Helena. "I know what you mean," she admitted. "If cluelessness equals intelligence, I may be the smartest person I know." Hanging out with a certified uber genius often left her feeling incredibly lost at sea on the intellectual front.
The dry humor lightened the mood considerably.
Allison leaned forward, elbows braced on the tabletop. "So, if you know the artists, which one do you prefer?"
Helena considered the question for a moment, then shrugged. "Probably Anguissola. Saw some of her work when I was in Europe with mom years ago ... and it was just stunningly beautiful. Her composition guided the eye through the painting, and her color choices were exquisite."
A hint of a smile touched the older woman's mouth as she studied Helena. "Tell me more...."
* * * * * *
Newly hired by the Arkham Institute, Dr. Harleen Quinzel smiled ever so slightly as she studied her newest patient. Noting her perusal, he looked up, eyes blazing with caged-animal hate. He lunged against the glass bubble that protected the world from his rage, growling low in his throat, barely seeming to notice recently broken bones.
She glanced down at his chart, then up again, noting the fading bruises and torqued limbs that indicated shattered bone already healing in the wrong position. Whatever the Crimson Claw was, he wasn't really human, at least not in any meaningful way. Nor was he reasonable enough to even discuss the option of serving her. Her smile broadened. But then again, that didn't mean he had no value. Giving the speed with which he was healing, the courts had ordered that he be moved back into regular police custody---a mistake, since the institute for the criminally insane was much better situated for dealing with such uniquely violent criminals, but she was in no mood to argue. After all, it could hardly reflect badly on her if the lunatic got away from the police.
A sensual smile trailed along crimson lips, and she reached out, stroking the glass, very nearly caressing the spot that he lunged into, her mocking tenderness only making him crazier.
He might not be the sort of material she was looking for in her organization, but he would definitely have his uses.
* * * * * *
White knuckled, her expression creased by stress, Barbara focused on the monitor in front of her, firmly ignoring the soft sounds from the direction of Helena's room. She could do this, could get through what felt like having her body torn apart piece by piece. Even with her fingers hammering on the keyboard, typing as fast as she was able, she couldn't quite block out the noises, consequently, she was well aware when the rustling sounds finally died away. The soft sound of a throat being cleared stopped her as though someone had broken all ten fingers at once. The difference was that wouldn't have hurt nearly as much. Swallowing hard, she carefully set the keyboard away from herself, removing temptation, then reached down and released the break on the wheelchair, suddenly wishing she'd given way and switched to an electric on a daily basis when her arms trembled and sweaty palms threatened to slip on the wheels. She had one, of course---the best on the market, courtesy of Wayne International---but had resisted using it where it wasn't necessary since the damn thing was ponderously slow, clumsy, and....
And she was avoiding thinking about what that soft sound meant by worrying about a goddamned wheelchair, she realized in an instant. She clamped down on a self destructive wave of disgust, consciously straightening her shoulders and pushing the shakiness down through force of will. She clamped her hands on the wheels of the chair, bringing it around in a slow turn. Despite her best efforts she couldn't contain a flinch when she saw Alfred standing a short distance away next to a tightly packed duffle bag.
"Miss Barbara," Alfred said softly, his tone gentle, his expression drawn into a worried frown, "are you certain this is wise?"
Of course she wasn't. She wanted nothing more than to tell him to put everything away, then go and drag Helena---kicking and screaming if necessary---back to the clocktower so they could hash it out until her former ward accepted that this was her home, and she gave up any thoughts of leaving.
At the same time she couldn't help but remember the look on Helena's face---so miserable and angry. Barbara didn't want that for her. Looking back, she could see that her former ward had been hurting for months, and she'd missed it---or more likely, just hadn't wanted to see it, so tied up in her own mission that she'd failed Helena. Given that failure, maybe it was best for the other woman to get away ... especially from her. Only she knew Helena would never ask for help ... might not even return to the clocktower for her things to judge by their earlier confrontation. Her eyes slid away from the older man's, fixing on a theoretical point somewhere in the distance. She wasn't sure she could get through what she had to do if she was faced with his questioning look. He'd made it clear he doubted the course she'd set, but she didn't see anything else she could do. "She left without anything, Alfred ... cancelled her credit cards ... and she doesn't want to see me...." She paused, eyes sliding shut, throat convulsing in a hard swallow as her teeth dug into her lower lip. She took a deep breath, then forced herself to continue. "I took the information on her mother's accounts over ... but I don't ... don't know if she'll even take that money." One look at the accounts would tell Helena that it had been Barbara who'd turned the few thousand dollars left after Selina's bills were settled into a reasonably sizable sum. She blinked away the threat of tears, then looked up at the elderly butler, her eyes reflecting a thousand kinds of pain. "I just want her to be happy ... and if this is what she needs...." She shook her head, then reached for the wheels on her chair, yanking it around to escape a gaze that was somehow pitying and accusing at the same time. "Just take those things over to her ... and take the petty cash too...."
"Already done, Miss ... nearly a thousand dollars."
Barbara nodded. That would see Helena through for a little while if she wouldn't take her mother's money. Of course, if she wouldn't take that, there was a good chance, she wouldn't take anything, but maybe Alfred could reach her where Barbara obviously couldn't. "Good ... and tell her ... if she...." She couldn't finish and had to take a breath and start over. "If she needs anything else ... it's hers. Whatever she wants or needs ... anything...."
Alfred stared at the young woman's stiff back, his normally unreadable expression softening with pity. He considered several comments, then accepted that none of them would be well received. Neither of his young charges was listening, not to each other, and not to anyone else. He'd feared the burgeoning tension between them for some time, but had hoped they'd be able to work through it, keep things just calm enough that they could both hit a level of maturity before it stretched too taut between them and snapped. Unfortunately, the added stresses of recent events had made that impossible.
Perhaps it was best if they were apart for a time, though he was under no illusions that state would last long. Neither one of them could stay away forever, no matter what angry words were spoken. He didn't always understand their relationship, but it was apparent to him that they needed one another. They might strain against it, fight it, resist whatever destiny they'd been ordained, but they were a part of one another. Ignoring the question of Helena, he focused instead on the young woman sitting stiffly in front of the monitor, struggling desperately to look like she was fine, when in reality he could see the cracks on all sides. "Will you be all right while I'm gone?"
She didn't turn back, and her fingers froze over the keyboard. "I'm fine." An obvious lie any way one looked at it. "Just trying to get some work done."
Except Alfred was well aware that with Miss Helena gone, there was no particular work to be done. Yes, Miss Barbara could gain information, but without an operative to follow through on certain things, then there was little she could do with the knowledge. The police couldn't use evidence gained under such questionable circumstances, at least not in a court of law, and her ability to manipulate most situations---at least the dangerous ones---was very limited without someone on the ground. Nonetheless, it seemed obvious that she needed to focus on something.
"I shan't be long," Alfred said at last. "And I shall keep my cellular telephone turned on."
"I'll be fine," Barbara insisted, though her voice choked at the end, the words coming rough and uneven, as though she was being strangled while she spoke.
With nothing more he could say, Alfred finally simply picked up the duffle and slipped out.
Every sound Alfred made tearing at her soul, Barbara sat stiffly, trying to pretend she was looking at something when she couldn't even breathe past the agonizing tightness in her chest. For reasons she didn't even begin to understand, it was very important to her that she not fall apart while Alfred was looking on, and somehow she managed to hold onto the emotion.
And then she heard the elevator doors slide shut in his wake.
Afraid she might just decimate the expensive computer system, she pushed back hard, clenching her hands together in a praying position so hard her knuckles and fingers were white with tension and the cords stood out in sharp relief. She could do this.
No ... no, she couldn't. Hell, she was going to be doing well just to survive.
Then suddenly her hands untangled, one snapping down to the custom designed clasp embedded in the armrests of her chair, retrieving the batarang cleverly hidden in plain sight. She flung it without thinking, plotting the bumper car path it would follow with automatic skill. It went exactly the way she meant it to, pinging off of various points around the room like some nearly silent pinball game until it hit the second to the last point in the proposed path.
She hadn't even had time to take another breath when it angled directly toward the back of her head on a path that would cleave her skull in two if something didn't happen.
The batarang was moving so fast it whistled gently, but she didn't need to hear it to know its exact speed and how close to her head it was. She'd spent years perfecting her use of the weapon, knew it inside and out....
Knew perfectly well what it would do to bone and brain matter if it hit at the speeds it was moving.
Only inches to go.
Then it would all be over. She could finally stop hurting.
Throwing herself to one side, Barbara felt the burn as the weapon skimmed past her right shoulder so close it sliced through her sweater and left a shallow cut in soft flesh. Reacting with eerily perfect reflexes, her hand slashed out, snatching the batarang out of the air before it could speed away.
For just a moment, she sat perfectly frozen, staring at the weapon clutched tightly in slender fingers, then, in a slow motion collapse, her arm fell to her side and the batarang slipped from suddenly numb fingers, clattering gently as it hit the hardwood floor, circled from end to end, then finally rattled a last time before it settled and lay silent.
Shaking hard, Barbara suddenly bent double, her stomach rolling violently. She wrapped her arms around her knees, clinging tightly.
She stayed like that for a long time, the shock of what she'd nearly done leaving her breathless and confused. Finally, every movement slow and uncoordinated, she pushed into a sitting position, her body language that of someone who'd aged several decades in a matter of moments. Barely able to make even the muscles that still functioned respond, she leaned back, head tipped up so she was staring at the featureless ceiling with a shellshocked expression. She could feel hot tears burning her eyes, but she couldn't even let go and truly cry. She could only sit there and stare helplessly. Her lungs threatening to seize up, she drew a deep, shuddery breath, then let it out so hard it was like her chest spasmed. She stayed like that for a long time, her breath coming in random, unsteady pants, then finally lifted a hand, shading her eyes and massaging her temples with her thumb and forefinger.
She didn't know what to think or feel and it scared the hell out of her to feel so mentally adrift.
Ordered and neatly compartmentalized had always described her mental filing system. In living a life with so many separate and distinctly different facets, she'd learned a thousand techniques for keeping it all ordered, knowing at all times that she could never allow one element to bleed over into another. It was the only way to manage the games she'd played since she was seventeen years-old, the only way to keep all of the lives she'd lived as separate as they needed to be.
Suddenly it felt like someone had taken a blender to her carefully constructed world view and left her mind in pieces.
She continued massaging her temples slowly, trying to put things back together without much success. Nothing was right anymore, and she didn't know how to fix it. Hadn't known for a long time. she'd screwed everything up somewhere along the way, and she wasn't even sure where or how. Trailing her thumb along her brow, she ended the journey by pressing into the space between her eyebrows, rubbing up and down in a slow motion. She accepted that she needed the other woman, but apparently Helena didn't need her. And maybe Helena was better off away from her anyway.
Maybe now Helena could build the normal life she sometimes talked about wanting. God knew, Barbara couldn't help her with that. Her version of normal was decidedly abnormal---always had been and always would be. She dropped her hands to the wheels of the chair, rocking gently in place as she forced herself to accept that she couldn't help Helena this time. The kindest thing she could do for her was let go. As far as she was concerned, they'd always be family, but that wasn't the sort of emotion one could force on another person. And if Helena....
She shied away from the thought, unable to even think the words that threatened to shatter what little resolve she still maintained. After all, even with Helena gone, she had responsibilities, students who relied on her, not that a substitute couldn't follow the lesson plan every bit as well as she could....
And then there was Alfred. With Bruce gone, he needed--
No, the older man was remarkably self sufficient. Oh, he was worried about her, and she felt a need to shield him from the emotional storm, but he didn't need her.
Her father was totally tied up in work, Dick had built a life in Blüdhaven, Bruce was gone, and....
And, given that she wasn't Batgirl anymore, with Helena gone, she could gather all the intelligence in the world, but it wouldn't do anyone any good. Useless. She was utterly useless. That thought left her with more than a little temptation to retrieve the dropped batarang and finish what she'd started.
No, no, no.
That was the coward's way out and damned if she was going to have anyone thinking she was a damn coward. Whatever her failings, she wasn't that, and she wouldn't have it as her epitaph.
Barbara took a deep breath, dashing salty tears from her eyes with a rough hand, then winced as she realized the movement had pulled at the fresh wound on her shoulder, and there was a heat trail of blood running down her upper chest. She turned her head, staring down at the injury with a faintly dazed expression.
Needed to clean that and get a bandage on it, then change clothes and dump the sweater before Alfred got back. She didn't want to have to explain what had happened. After her last little explosion, she might just find herself in a room at Arkham, safely bundled up in a white coat with extra long sleeves that buckled in back.
She pushed that thought aside, focusing instead on the pain, and the need to deal with the injury. That was concrete, something she could actually do something about, a problem that relieved her from the need to think too much. It was frightening for someone so intellectually based, but for the moment, thinking about the mess her life had become felt entirely too dangerous.
She was still mopping up the mess when the distinctive ping of the Delphi alarm brought her head up. She started to ignore it since there wasn't much she could do anyway, then remembered she'd reset the priorities. It was only supposed to go off if there was a serious incident. Careless of the still oozing injury to her shoulder, she yanked on a sweater, then hurried to check on the alarm.
By the time she reached her primary station, the data was already coming up. Auburn brows drew together in a frown, and she reached for the keyboard, pulling up and expanding the information trail in seconds.
* * * * * *
"Look, I..." Helena started to say as she climbed out of her unlikely benefactor's car, then leaned back to retrieve the boxed remains of the pizza. She peered back at the woman sitting stiffly behind the wheel of the Honda. offered a small shrug and opted to simply say, "Thanks." She looked away, breaking eye contact and quietly added, "Nobody would've blamed if you'd told me to go to hell...." She paused, using the moment to gather herself. "Anyway, I know you didn't have be ... nice ... about things ... and ... and I-I won't bother you again." The look of relief the hesitantly spoken words brought wasn't the most pleasant feeling she'd ever had in her life, but then it wasn't exactly a comfortable situation for either of them. They'd managed a couple of hours of surprisingly comfortable chatter as long as the subject matter stayed well away from any personal issues, but now things were back on awkward footing. Finally, Helena stepped back a pace, accepting that sometimes there just weren't words, and repeating 'I'm sorry' over and over again didn't seem very productive. She still felt some ham-handed need to try though, so she drew breath, then tensed as a prickle of awareness made its way down her spine. Blue violet eyes rose and sharpened, then shifted as they focused on her apartment window, well lit when it should have been dark.
Noticing the sudden burst of tension, Allison followed the line of the girl's gaze to the brightly lit window, frowning as she noted a hint of shadowed movement.
"Dammit," Helena hissed, uncertain whether to be angry or grateful, certain she knew who had invaded her space. "How dare Barbara just...." She trailed off abruptly as she realized the figure she could see was clearly at standing height and moving around. Definitely not Barbara after all. Full lips pulled back from tightly clenched teeth. Despite the fact that she had nothing to steal, she somehow had a burglar. Bad move, buster, the young woman thought. After everything she'd gone through over the previous twenty-four hours, the notion of kicking a little ass was all too appealing. "There's somebody in my place," she ground out, aware of the eyes that turned to stare at her with a questioning expression.
"Maybe it's your landlo--"
"No," Helena cut her off as she tossed the pizza box onto the car roof, then started forward, her strides long and graceful. She might not know how to do much of anything else, but she knew how to deal with criminals. "He couldn't care less so long as I don't burn the place down, and I locked up when I left."
"What are you--"
"Teaching the motherfucker not to steal," Helena snarled, still moving, her every step perfectly controlled. She vaguely heard the sound of a car door opening behind her as she rounded the car, then track shoes on gravel.
"Why don't I call 911--" the other woman suggested, sounding scared and disbelieving.
"Don't need it," Helena snarled and leapt.
"Holy shit," Allison exhaled as the young woman appeared to bound straight up the fire escape that ran along one side of the building. She blinked, shook her head and rubbed her eyes.
She couldn't have....
She must have just climbed the fire escape really fast. Maybe she was some kind of gymnast or something.
Allison's frown deepened as she continued staring---watching as Helena slipped the window open, obviously intending to take on whoever'd broken into her apartment.
Which was how people were forever getting themselves killed.
Suddenly she was moving, her momentary paralysis broken grabbing the cell phone from her backpack, along with the tazer she carried for self defense, then running and trying to dial at the same time. She managed to dial 922 on the first try, then 944 on the second. She was just about to finish getting it right as she reached Helena's front door. The door was open and she stepped through without thinking only to have her hand and wrist instantly grabbed, strong fingers clamping down tightly enough to block her efforts to hit the final one.
"It's all right," Helena assured the other woman as she stripped the phone out of suddenly nerveless fingers and shut it off. She was calm now. Not at ease, but no longer dangerous.
Brown eyes rose, touching on the elderly man standing on the opposite side of the room.
"Miss," he said in polite acknowledgment.
Allison flashed a questioning look at Helena, who looked uncomfortable.
"Uh ... this is Alfred ... the ... uh...."
He stepped forward a pace, the ultracourteous air that only the British seemed able to affect so effortlessly swirling about him. "The butler, Miss..." he finished for Helena, trailing off at the right point to make the response a question as well.
"Robicheau," Allison supplied, working on autopilot, "Allison Robicheau." She looked at Helena, her tone genuinely perplexed. "You don't have any sheets, but you have a butler?"
Helena shrugged, uncertain how to respond to that. "It's ... uh ... hard to explain."
The older woman looked back and forth between Helena and Alfred, then closed her eyes as though to blink away a hallucination and shook her head. Clearly, somewhere along the way, she'd finally slipped a cog and everyone was just too polite to mention it. "Of course," she exhaled at last, considered her options for the briefest moment. Despite the rumor that the butler always did it, it seemed obvious that the elderly man wasn't likely to do too much damage. Time to beat a hasty retreat. "And on that note, I think I should be...."
Helena caught the other woman's wrist again, her hold clamping down hard enough to draw a wince. She gentled almost immediately, and her expression softened into a pleading look. She knew Alfred's real reason for being there and it had nothing to do with bringing over her things. She could see it in the worried cast to his expression. He was there to talk her into coming back, and she didn't even have the protective shield of anger to block out the old man's entreaties.
"...going," Allison finished after a brief verbal stumble. She stared at Helena, started to shake her head in rejection, then couldn't do it in the face of the silent entreaty directed her way by violet eyes. She glanced at Alfred, sensing that he wanted her to leave, and found herself offering the tiniest of apologetic shrugs as well as a weak smile.
"Miss Helena--" the butler said, his tone gently chiding, but his young charge cut him off and turned a forbidding look his way.
"She was invited, Alfred. You weren't." He was the closest thing Helena had to a grandparent and Helena felt a bolt of shame at the subtle twitch of his eyebrows as they drew together ever so slightly and his eyes reflected both disappointment and something that bordered on hurt. Nonetheless, she couldn't back down. Not this time. She couldn't go back to things the way they had been. It would destroy her.
He stood perfectly still, staring at her as though he was having a hard time processing what she'd just said. It was the first time Helena could ever recall seeing him appear to be totally surprised. He waited a beat, then tried one more time. "Miss Helena--"
"Please leave," she said before he could continue. This time the pleading look was turned his way. If he put up the full barrage, she wasn't sure she could stand up to it, and her going back wasn't the best thing for any of them, not when she was so angry and on the verge of exploding all the time. If Barbara gave a damn maybe it would be different, but it seemed obvious to her that she'd become little more than a commodity where the older woman was concerned and she couldn't go back to that state.
He studied her for a long moment, then finally nodded. "As you wish." He stepped forward to leave, hesitating as he pulled even with Helena. For a moment he appeared about to say something only to remain silent.
"And don't come back without an invitation," Helena said very softly as Alfred stepped past her.
He stiffened almost imperceptibly and looked back, his expression unreadable. "As you wish." The old man would never do something so gauche as show pain at the brusque dismissal, but there was something sad in his eyes, though his voice remained perfectly even and polite.
"That's what I wish," Helena confirmed.
He nodded, then quietly slipped out.
Helena barely waited until he was clear of the door before she pushed it closed, and stood rocking gently on her heels and glaring at her hand where it still rested on the doorknob.
"May I have my arm back?"
The acid tongued question shattered Helena's paralysis, forcing her to open the fingers of her other hand and release Allison's wrist. She glanced back to the see the woman massaging the joint as though it had been caught in a vise. Considering the pressure she was under, maybe she really had clamped down that hard. "Sorry," she apologized.
Allison just shook her head, her expression disgusted. "Spare me," she muttered and glanced back toward the door as though she could see through it, feeling guilty for her participation in kicking the poor bastard who'd just left in the teeth. "Can I just say that was just about the cruellest thing I've seen in a long time?"
"You don't understand--" Helena muttered, not liking herself any better than the other woman did at that moment, but convinced she'd done the right thing.
Allison snorted softly, her expression twisting into a knowing sneer."Let me guess, Mommy and Daddy didn't approve of the love of your life, so you ran away from home." She'd seen the pattern so many times before that she was almost disappointed to find that was all it was. The whole thing had seemed more mysterious and menacing. Only it was just her imagination getting her in trouble one more time.
Helena shook her head and stepped away from the door, suddenly wishing the other woman would get the hell out now that she'd served her purpose as a shield against Alfred's gentle duress. "My mother's dead. She was murdered when I was sixteen," she said tonelessly as she sank down onto the couch, leaning forward, elbows braced on her knees as she rubbed her fists deeply into her eye sockets. Her voice grew even flatter as she added, "and I've seen my father exactly once in my life ... the day she died. The day some bastard put a knife in her for loving the sonofabitch that sired me." She wasn't really even talking to the woman standing near the door as she continued, just talking, trying to work it all through. "That's when I went to live with Barbara...." Lost in her own agonies, she didn't notice the way Allison frowned, her mouth o'ing in shock.
"She was my guardian," Helena murmured distantly as a thousand memories of times spent together assaulted her. Barbara on the roof in full Batgear minus her cowl, the wind catching her hair, so beautiful it almost hurt to look at her, then just a few days later, bloodied and near dying, the months of recovery, sparring, and laughing together. Barbara lying in her arms, caught in a nightmare, then settling in trustingly when Helena whispered soothingly to her. Barbara hunched over her computer, totally lost in her work, but arching into the firm hands that massaged away the awful tension in her neck and upper back. It all went boiling through the young woman's mind, shredding her certainty that she was doing the right thing and dragging her in a dozen different directions at once.
Helena didn't even hear the other woman's softly muttered, "Sweet Jesus."
The younger woman wrapped her arms tightly around her midsection, trembling under the force of memories, all of them coming together like a battering ram in her head trying to make her go back....
"No ... I can't," she whispered, not really even aware she'd spoken. "I can't go back." If she went back, everything would just be like it was before, and she couldn't take the hell of wanting and denial. It was killing her an inch at a time. "Can't do it anymore ... can't be who she wants me to be...." She barely felt the hand that landed lightly on her knee, and was hardly aware of the slender figure that knelt in front of her. "...can't go back and pretend...."
"You don't have to ... you don't have to go back to ... that...." Allison kept her voice low and soothing, trying desperately to ignore her own horror about what she was hearing, and what had apparently been done to the young woman rocking gently back and forth. Jesus, it explained so much, she thought, horrified by her own part in adding to the victimization, even unintentionally. She abruptly realized that she'd rested her hand on Helena's knee. Maybe not the best choice all things considered. She yanked it back. "N-nobody has the right to make you do anything." Totally out of her depth, she realized. She'd stumbled into this whole mess, and now she was in it, and it was apparently a whole lot sicker than she could have imagined, and she was just in over her head. "Look ... the university has counselors ... I could set you up to see one. They ... uh ... they talk to a lot of kids who've been through things like this ... they could probably help you."
Helena looked up, frowning in confusion as she remembered she wasn't alone. She blinked, refocusing on the woman kneeling in front of her, her brown eyes wide and kind of scared looking---like a mugging victim Helena had saved a couple of weeks before. That woman had watched Helena pound her attacker into the ground, and when things calmed, had stared at her rescuer with a look that was somewhere between pity, fear, and horror. This wasn't quite the same, but there was something similar in the complex mix of emotions. She went back over the half heard words, her frown deepening as she struggled to assemble them into some kind of meaning. "A counselor?" she repeated at last, struggling to understand how that could possibly help. Were there counselors who specialized in helping fucked up vigilantes straighten out their tortured love lives?
"Yeah ... somebody to help you work through things," Allison said very softly. "I mean ... you left ... broke the ties. That's probably the hardest ... and they can help you come to peace with it all."
Helena's frown only deepened as she struggled to understand. "Wha'?"
"You were only a kid ... and she was responsible for you ... was your guardian ... and she ... obviously--"
The horrified disgust in dark eyes dragged Helena out of her subjective view of the situation for just a moment, forcing her to see things how others would have ... how they would have seen Barbara particularly. It made her stomach knot painfully. "Y-you think that Barbara--"
"She used you," the older woman said, her voice low, but hard and carrying a strong note of disdain for what she perceived Helena's guardian to have done. "That's not your fault--"
"No..." Helena broke in, shaking her head, appalled to think that she'd somehow given the impression that Barbara had treated her that way, like some kind of sexual toy. At sixteen, it had all seemed so possible and sensible, but looking back from the vantage point of twenty-one, she could suddenly see the immorality of the whole concept. God, if someone her age touched a kid, she'd beat them senseless. And Barbara had been several years older than she was now.
"I said, no!" the younger woman snarled, her eyes flashing dangerously. She shook her head a little wildly. She wouldn't have anyone thinking what this woman clearly did of Barbara. "She didn't do what you're suggesting." Her eyes slid closed and she shook her head again. "She wouldn't."
"I understand that you're emotionally involved, but--" A kid used that way, that young. She had to be totally torn up and confused as hell. Probably didn't really understand the gravity of what had happened to her. Certainly there was a part of her that loved the bitch who'd played with her that way. The tender way she'd made love, desperately whispering the Barbara's name over and over attested to that.
"No, you don't understand," Helena snapped, clamping down on her temper. "You don't understand at all." She took a deep breath, shuddering as she released it. She couldn't have anyone thinking that Barbara was some kind of monster. Had never really considered before that if the older woman had done all the things Helena had dreamt of, that was exactly how many would have seen her---and perhaps even how she would have seen herself. Even harder to admit, but it might have even been true. Her voice softened as she struggled to explain. "I didn't leave because we were lovers ... and she certainly never made me do anything ... like that. If anything, I left because we weren't." It wasn't that simple ... but then again, maybe it was. God knew, she wanted, wanted until her skin burned and her palms sweat, until parts of her body were totally seared in their own heat. It was just that she wanted a whole lot more than that too.
Dark brows shot up, and the older woman's expression fell in confusion.
The shocked look yanked Helena back to the present and she shook her head, glaring down at her fingers where they were laced together. "She'd never take advantage of someone ... never ... certainly never of me," she said grimly, then couldn't hold back a soft, sarcastic bark of laughter. "No matter how much I wanted her to." She swallowed hard, struggling to piece together shattered thoughts, the words coming slow and halting as she tried to explain. "She just did her best to get me through ... not use me. We were friends ... family ... it's just that lately ... it hasn't been like that. It's like she doesn't even care anymore ... not really anyway ... not about me ... just ... business...."
Allison just stared. She'd thought she knew what was going on there for a moment, but obviously not.
"We're not even very close anymore ... we used to do stuff together ... be stupid and have fun ... I even helped her with her therapy for a long time--"
Helena closed her eyes again, the single word somehow reminding her of the night everything had come crashing down so painfully. "The maniac who ordered my mother's murder ... that same night ... he went to Barbara's place. She was a ... business associate I guess you'd say ... of my father's. Bastard knocked on her door ... then shot her when she opened it." She took a deep breath, the pain still incredibly real. "I was in the hospital when they brought her in...." She paused again, nearly unable to continue. "She was all red ... blood everywhere ... more dead than alive ... one of the bullets damaged her spine." She clenched her fingers tighter, pulling them against each other, not wanting to remember, but unable to forget. "She's in a wheelchair ... for life."
Allison didn't have the faintest idea what to say, so she simply said the first thing that came into her brain as she struggled to understand. "How old was she?"
Not much more than a kid herself, the other woman realized. She leaned back, sitting instead of kneeling, the whole story running through her brain. She peered up at Helena for a long moment. There was obviously a lot more to the story. She wondered if she really wanted to hear it. Part of her wanted to leave, just run like hell and get away from the things she was hearing. She'd read about horrors like this in the paper and seen them on the news, but had led a life remarkably free of that kind of ugliness. The whole thing would have been surreal---like something out of a comic book---if not for the agony in Helena's eyes and voice. It left her wanting to run---close to making a break for it---just to escape the intensity of emotion. Except she couldn't in good conscience leave Helena alone for fear of reading about her in the morning paper. She could too easily envision the young woman in front of her doing a header off the nearest high rise if she was left to her own devices. That would only be more agony to join a litany that was already far too long. Now there would be a nice little gift of guilt that would just keep giving. "I-I'm sorry," she whispered at last, though the words were wholly inadequate to the task at hand. There simply weren't words. Language wasn't designed for assuaging that kind of pain. She reached up, ran a hand through her hair and rubbed her temples, still struggling to absorb it all. "So ... all this time ... living with this woman ... y-you've...."
"Been in love with her?" Helena finished when the other woman trailed off. She nodded slowly, her every movement betraying her exhaustion. It wasn't that she wanted to tell this woman about her life. It was just that she couldn't hold it all inside any longer and there was no one else to talk to. "Yeah." She leaned forward, head hanging from her shoulders, and slowly massaged the back of her neck. "For a long time I thought ... maybe ... maybe one day...." She shook her head slowly. "But it's not gonna happen ... no matter what I want ... and wanting what I couldn't have has been destroying me." She looked up momentarily, then let her head fall forward again, burying her face in her hands with a tired sigh, her entire body trembling as though she'd been running for miles without taking even a hint of a break. That was what it felt like ... like she'd been running her entire life. Running away, running toward. She couldn't tell the difference anymore, which, she supposed, just left her running in place. Helena's body shook again, and it struck her that her fingers were suddenly growing hot and wet with fresh tears. God, she hadn't cried in ages, and suddenly she couldn't seem to stop.
"I'm sorry," Allison repeated, the words useless when it came to offering comfort, but all she had.
Helena barely heard the softly spoken words, her mind already moving on with dizzying speed. "What am I gonna do?" she groaned. She slid a hand up into the bangs, pushing them aside, then drew her hand back down, knuckles pressing deeply into her eye sockets. She felt sixteen years old again, adrift without the one person who made her life worth living. Only this time, it was her own damn fault. No stranger with a knife on a rainy night had done the damage. She'd run away on her own, and she'd only made it this far on pure adrenaline, using a self-inflicted temper tantrum to get her out of the situation when she was too cowardly to do anything else. Helena dug her knuckles harder into her eye sockets. She honestly had no idea what she was going to do without Barbara in her life, couldn't even begin to imagine her day without seeing the other woman, or a night without her voice echoing over the headset in her ear. She leaned farther forward, sliding her fingers into her bangs and pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes in a vain effort to stop the tears. It was like losing a part of herself, like having a limb cut away from her body, leaving her feeling both its loss and the ghostly sensation that it was still there.
It was the closest Helena had ever come to imagining what Barbara had been through. Not in the literal sense, of course, but conceptually. It was that big a loss ... especially when she contemplated the idea of never going back. She'd left in a huff, but now the magnitude of her decision was starting to catch up with her, leaving her to wonder if maybe half measures were better than nothing after all. At least with half measures she could see Barbara, fantasize sometimes that they could be more ... all while pretending that she wasn't so damn lonely it hurt.
"No," Helena whispered again, though her tone lacked conviction and trailed into a tiny moan at the end.
"What?" the disembodied question was gently asked, but oddly insistent, not allowing Helena to slink away into her own agony.
A long moment of silence followed, then Helena quietly admitted, "I wanna go home." She lifted her feet onto the couch, folding her legs tightly against her chest and hid her face in her knees. She'd stepped out into the big bad world on her own, and she already hated it. She ran a hand into her hair, pulling at the strands so hard it hurt, the pain clearing her head a little. "But ... I can't ... just be ... nothing ... to her...."
More silence followed, then, "Can you talk to her?"
Helena just shook her head. What could she say? Barbara, I've been in love with you for years now. Wanna get naked? She let out a soft bark of sarcastic laughter at the image that painted in her head. "If I could I wouldn't be in this mess," she sighed disgustedly.
"I don't mean about ... your feelings ... at least not...." Allison trailed off, finding that she wasn't in a hurry to consider those too closely. It was strange and not at all comfortable to know so much about someone's very intimate feelings for someone she'd never even met. Especially considering her own---admittedly brief, but intense---history with the woman on the couch. "I just mean about how you've been feeling cut out ... ignored."
Helena just shook her head, the whole suggestion close to bringing her to tears again.
"Given everything you've told me ... don't you think you should discuss this with her ... it may be a lot of piled up misunderstandings." A moment's pause, and then Allison continued. "After all, you've obviously been very close ... and there's usually a reason when things cool down." Situations didn't get this fucked up without a lot of emotion on all sides in her experience. Whatever the other woman felt, Allison was comfortably certain it wasn't nothing.
Slim shoulders dipped in a hopeless shrug as the truth hit Helena solidly between the eyes. She was afraid to go back for fear that the moment she looked into Barbara's eyes she wouldn't be able to leave again. Her sheer weakness terrified her to the point of nausea. "I can't," she whispered at last. She couldn't face any of it, not Barbara, not her feelings for Barbara, and not herself. "I just can't." She half expected more pressure. Or maybe she was hoping for it. Maybe she could give herself permission to do the weak thing if someone else told her it was for the best.
Fortunately---or un---no such argument was forthcoming, only the kind of silence that leaves a body wishing they were somewhere else---anywhere else---until finally the other woman spoke up, her voice low and unemotional. "You said your mom collected Chinese sculpture. Any preferences?"
Helena looked up, brows drawing together in a frown as she struggled to dissect a question that seemed to have come at her in ancient Summerian or some other equally archaic language. "T'ang Dynasty," she said at last. "Though she liked some of the work from the Han as well." A hint of a smile touched her mouth as she remembered playing with a heavy bronze her mother had stolen when Helena was only a small child. The sculpture had been a stylized figure of a horse, thick necked and bodied, but with impossibly delicate legs, and Helena had become fascinated by it. Her gaze grew distant as she remembered her mother's smile as she allowed her to play with the tiny statue despite the fact that it was better than a thousand years old and worth a small fortune. She'd sold it a year or two later, but not until Helena had moved on to other toys.
Allison saw the hint of a smile, and the distant look that went with a more pleasant memory. "Tell me," she whispered. They both needed something a little more upbeat at that point.
"Mom had acquired this horse from the T'ang Dynasty...."
* * * * * *
Alfred was rapidly learning to dread entering the clocktower, especially when it was dark. No, not completely dark this time, only mostly dark. The monitors on the computer station were burning and when he squinted to adjust his eyes to the light, he quickly spotted a slender silhouette moving between them, her head downbent, her concentration on whatever she was doing. He fully expected her to look up and acknowledge his presence somehow, but she simply continued working, her fingers dancing over the keys.
Alfred cleared his throat.
Miss Barbara continued working, her pose so focused that he found himself wishing the lighting was better so he could get a glimpse of her face.
"Miss Barbara?" he said at last, and finally she reacted, a faint glint of light off her eyes indicating that she'd looked up.
"Helena?" she said simply, her tone bordering on brusque.
He stiffened uncomfortably, folding his hands together at his back. He wasn't one to lie, but at the same time he had his doubts about telling the entire truth.
"Out with it," she said impatiently, reminding him rather eerily of Master Bruce in his more intense moments.
Alfred took a breath. Clearly a lie would not suffice. "She was there with a young woman. I'm afraid she asked me to leave."
The flashing eyes disappeared into darkness as Miss Barbara closed her eyes, leaving him to wonder if the tremor he saw work its way through her silhouetted figure was real or just his brain inserting information where there was none. She didn't say a word.
"Miss Barbara?" he said again, sensing a level of turmoil that was about far more than their personal issues.
"They were transferring the Claw from Arkham back into police custody when he broke free ... killed four police officers and escaped."
The butler stiffened. "Miss Helena--" he began, but Barbara cut him off, her voice diamond hard.
"No. She wanted out. This'll be all over the news. If she wants back in, she knows where we are--"
"I said, no," Barbara snarled, and he saw her shadowed figure reach up and push rumpled hair back from her face.
"And if she does not return?" Alfred demanded practically. The police had been nearly helpless against the monster. His defeat had come about only through the efforts of both women, Miss Barbara to track and hunt the creature as only she could, and Miss Helena to confront the killer. There was little chance that either of them alone could have achieved even a modicum of success.
Miss Barbara was silent for a moment, and he heard the faint rattle as she drew a deep breath and exhaled it in a gust. "We've got a month before the next full moon. He'll go to ground till then ... and in the meantime, I'll just have to find someone else I can work with who can face him down...."
"Perhaps Master Dick...." Despite the difficulties in their past relationship, they had worked well together during their youth and trusted one another.
Barbara shook her head. "He's busy in Blüdhaven. Besides, he's not strong enough. The Claw would tear him to pieces ... no, it's got to be someone who can match the bastard blow for blow."
"And if you cannot find such a person?" the old man asked practically.
A grim laugh escaped the young woman's lips. "Then I'll have to come up with something else...."
* * * * * * *