In A Song (part 12 of 12)

Three months later: Wednesday, 4:46pm: Dark Horse

Sunlight slanted in the high windows above the bar dividing the space and turning the circulating dust motes into a kind of glitter. The place had an expectant feel: glasses lined up and waiting, floors mopped, chairs down off the table tops. Helena reveled in the pre-opening quiet; the crowd would get there soon enough.

Business had been good. New customers attracted from most of the myriad levels of New Gotham’s social scene came not just for the strong drinks, friendly service, and attractive staff but also to take in the music. Helena paired the local and out-of-town bands in inspired and often musically disparate shows which sometimes made for some strange crowds. She hadn’t made another appearance on her own stage though. Helena refused to sing there or, despite hinting, prodding, and outright begging from Davey Cruz, with the jazz band she played in on Wednesday nights at the Blue Note. Losing herself in the music as her hands coaxed magic from the piano was just one way Helena had filled up the deafening silence created by Barbara’s request for time.

The first few weeks had been brutal for Helena. Brutal and filled with doubt and self-recrimination, and second guessing over the doubt. Some part of her knew that she’d betrayed Barbara’s trust while another equally stubborn part kept insisting that she hadn’t really done anything wrong. Some days it was a little like the metaphorical devil on one shoulder and angel on the other. Some days Helena wasn’t sure which opinion was which.

The nights those first few weeks that Helena hadn’t been behind the bar moving on rote she’d spent trailing Dinah on sweeps. She’d given the teenager just enough distance to avoid overhearing her communications with Oracle but had stayed close enough to provide backup if necessary. Once she was sure Dinah would be fine, Helena’s sweeps of the city became solitary. Not as effective as they would have been with assistance, she was sure, but they worked the nervous energy out of her system and reduced street crime even in a New Gotham patrolled by a suddenly vigilant police force.

But as two weeks stretched into four, four into six, and six into ten, the silence solidified around Helena and her need for motion, the need to do something, anything, itched along every nerve and fiber of her being. She filled the void Barbara left with every sensual pleasure she could find: music she played with the jazz band and booked at the Dark Horse; food she learned to cook herself so she could taste it and know she was still alive, still real; sweeps where she left the fights with her muscles pumped from the adrenaline and the criminals in a tidy a pile for the next patrol car; sex, the rush of endorphins, scent, and warm skin on skin, with any woman that caught her eye.

One frenzied weekend she steamed the wall paper off the walls in her apartment, shoving all the furniture from room to room so she could repaint everything. A week later when she and Gabby showed up for dinner Dinah stared long and hard at the shredded piece of wallpaper Helena had framed and hung back in its place on the living room wall; she’d stared but she hadn’t asked. For that Helena had been grateful. She was grateful, too, for the fact that Dinah refused to take sides, refused to even acknowledge the change. She gave Helena the comfort of stasis by not mentioning Barbara or sweeps or anything that involved the life the three women shared. Helena was certain the teenager did the same for Barbara.

The weeks passed and Helena’s unsundered life, the one without the space she so desperately tried to fill with pieces she sensed didn’t quite fit, started to seem more like something she’d dreamt than lived. Without the redhead’s voice in her ear sharpening the edges and reminding her of what was, that dream-like quality persisted. It persisted until Helena realized one morning on the way home in the early dawn quiet, the scent of some anonymous woman still clinging to her skin, that not only wasn’t she getting anything done she wasn’t enjoying herself.

The itch, the need to move wasn’t really the desire for forward motion at all; it was fear, fear of punishment lurking unacknowledged and shadowing her subconscious. All her grasping, all the diversions, really only killed time. Helena realized in that instant that there would be no punishment from Barbara for her night with Jess Kalen, for the betrayal not just of Barbara’s trust as her lover but of her knowledge of the redhead’s weaknesses of self-perception. No, the silence was her penance whether Barbara intended it to be or not.

She’d stopped on the street corner, morning sun hitting her face like a spotlight, as the force of the realization ripped through her. If the clouds had opened and angels had sung Helena wouldn’t have been surprised. It was then that Helena began to learn the difference between quiet and silence and how to embrace one and acknowledge the other without letting it rule her life.

What she did from then on she did because it felt right not because she couldn’t bear to face her life, to face the silence outside and the noise inside her own head. Her piano playing, kicking ass on the streets at night, the occasional third-wheel outing with Dinah and Gabby, flirting with Caitlyn her lead bartender, even randomly accepting the staff’s invitations for drinks after closing; everything she did added up to a life that felt almost complete. Almost.

The silence in Helena’s life reduced down to a small hard ball at her very core, something she knew she could carry nearly indefinitely. Some days she could ignore it, and on some days, like today, when the sun threw spotlight shafts through the windows and the newspaper was filled with fallout from the arrests and exposure of corruption in the city government, she felt that silence keenly like a physical presence in her body.

Helena shook her head as she finished the latest article about the grand jury testimony. Jess Kalen completed two days on the stand the previous afternoon only to be whisked away by the FBI to “an undisclosed location.” There was no mention of her brother. Helena snorted. She could think of at least one person who could find them both if she really wanted to. She set aside the news section and dug through the paper for the comics.

“Hey boss, you’re in early,” Caitlyn said, ducking through the service cutout at the end of the bar.

“I’m leaving early,” Helena replied, taking in Caitlyn’s subtle curves with a glance. Helena silently gave herself two points for being smart enough even in her darkest hour not to sleep with anyone on the staff, especially not the smart, perceptive woman she’d put in charge of her bar.

Caitlyn pulled her long blonde hair over her shoulder, separated it out into three ropes, and started braiding. “Right, Wednesday. One of these weeks I’m going to have to get Jaycee to cover for me so I can come hear you play.” She smiled and gave Helena a wink. She’d come to enjoy the undercurrent of attraction as one of the side benefits of her job.

Helena laughed. “Then we might as well close the place for the night. Jaycee hasn’t been behind the bar in a year.” She’d just finished folding open Leisure section to the comics when Caitlyn flopped a thin manila envelope onto the bar next to the newspaper.

“Someone left that for you yesterday right before closing. I told her you were here but she said she just wanted to leave the envelope.” Caitlyn pulled a glass, filled it with ice and drew herself a club soda all the while watching Helena’s face for a reaction.

Helena met Caitlyn’s pretty brown eyes. “Someone?”

“Redhead in a wheel chair, glasses, good looking.” Caitlyn regarded her boss with a steady, interested gaze. Speculation among the bar’s staff about their boss’ private life ran rampant. And no matter how hard she curled protectively around it, Caitlyn could tell the bruise Helena tried to heal went soul deep.

“Thanks.” Helena didn’t have to pick up the envelope to know its contents; the sound of a CD hitting the bar had been unmistakable to her metahuman ears. She put the newspaper together inside the main section and stuck a stray pencil in a cup full of matchbooks near the service cut out.

Helena took the back stairs resisting the urge to take them two at a time; she’d felt the weight of Caitlyn’s speculative gaze follow her up the metal stairs to the catwalk and through the hidden door to the back offices.

Helena ripped the end off the manila envelope letting both pieces fall to the floor as she took the CD out of the plastic case. She set the CD in the player’s tray and pushed it shut. The display registered one song. Her finger hovered over the play button.

Helena closed the distance between the past and the future.

The minor key piano tune poured out of the speakers, the singer’s voice sounding small, soft, sad, and ineffably strong to Helena as the first verse began.

Tell me how you’ve been,

Tell what you’ve seen,

Tell me that you’d like to see me too.

Helena inhaled sharply and deep the air in the room suddenly holding not quite enough oxygen. She felt her throat close, choking on tears unshed. She leaned her head against the front of the stereo cabinet as the song’s invitation continued.

’cause my heart is full of no blood,

My cup is full of no love,

Couldn’t take another sip even if I wanted.

But it’s not too late,

Not too late for love.

Without a doubt it was an invitation, a chance. Delivered this way she had space to think, to consider her options and desires, and could easily choose not to accept without hurting herself or Barbara any more. Helena shook her head and smiled softly against the tears: the move was typical Barbara, all understated elegance, strict manners able to cover any social misjudgment. She held still as the song played on.

My lungs are out of air,

Yours are holding smoke,

And it’s been like that now for so long.

I’ve seen people try to change,

And I know it isn’t easy,

But nothin’ worth the time ever is.

And it’s not too late,

It’s not too late for love,

For love,

Helena didn’t need to think. She knew what she wanted. The sound of her apartment door shutting behind her rang loud and true drowning out the last bar of the song.


Wednesday, 5:12pm, Clocktower balcony

As Barbara watched the last traces of sunset fade from the sky over New Gotham she tested her newly found calm. She didn’t find it wanting.

The tears had come freely after Helena left, after the elevator door slid shut cutting off her view of the brunette and seemingly taking all the light in the room with it. Barbara gave into them letting the grief, anger, and self-pity wash out of her system with the salty liquid.

Dinah had found her staring out the clock’s face, watching the snow pile up when she’d gotten home from her date with Gabby. She’d said nothing. Instead she merely brought the redhead a cup of tea and settled herself on the couch with a book. It took Barbara nearly an hour to finally croak out the question, “How long have you known?”

Dinah put the flap of the book’s jacket on the page she was reading and shut the volume. “A while. Touch telepath,” she said, rueful expression creasing her features. Dinah made sure Barbara met her eyes before she spoke again. “I won’t choose. I can’t. But I’m not going to get involved either. You understand why?”

Barbara regarded her teenaged charge with a tinge of wonder at the adroit way she handled emotions. Dinah’s face said everything her words didn’t and Barbara wasn’t sure at that moment she deserved the love and respect that shone there.

“I do. Thank you.” She quashed the surprise she felt when Dinah eased off the couch and hugged her hard.

Barbara hadn’t told Helena the whole truth; she knew exactly what it was that bothered her about the brunette’s night with Jessica Kalen. Barbara needed to the time to figure out if she could live with her own deficiencies with her self image, her insecurities and, she was forced to admit to herself, her vanity so exposed and disregarded. If she couldn’t live with them, she reasoned, it wouldn’t be fair to ask Helena to no matter how willing she was to try.

She’d taken the time she’d asked for to find her own limits, to strip herself bare and admit all of her weaknesses; to learn to forgive herself for not being perfect, not being totally capable in every possible way. She knew she’d reached that point, that she’d accepted herself for who and what she was limitations and all, one Wednesday night when she’d taken a chance on something new and wandered into a jazz bar across town.

Instead of the shame she’d been sure would overwhelm her the next time she saw the brunette, desire, longing, and love gripped Barbara at the sight of Helena on stage behind the piano with her eyes closed practically channeling the music. Barbara nourished those feelings for weeks trying to crush the doubt that told her she’d waited too long, that she’d been a silly, over-emotional fool and if she’d just followed her head everything would have been fine eventually. Instead of the silence she’d asked for and nothing but her own fears to fill it, Barbara would have had Helena parked on the couch in the evenings after sweeps complaining about the choice of ice cream and making her smile with ribald banter, stealing the covers later in the night after they’d sated themselves on each other, and making her life richer than she’d dreamed possible.

It had taken her another month to charge up her courage, to convince herself that even if she was rebuffed it would be because she didn’t fit with Helena any more not because she was inherently unworthy. It took her another two weeks to figure out how to approach Helena but once she did the solution’s obvious nature had her grinning and shaking her head at her own stupidity. She knew just the song.

If the look she’d gotten from the pretty blonde tending bar had contained even a hint of possessiveness when she’d inquired after Helena, Barbara might have folded and let the silence she’d asked for harden into finality while she learned to live with the mistakes born of her own insecurity. Instead the young woman’s manner had been one of professional disinterest and Barbara had left the Dark Horse seeing clearly for the first time in weeks.

The Delphi’s security program beeped as she moved back into the clocktower’s main room. “Stale access code” the alert read, listing the code underneath. “More than 60 days out of date.” Barbara’s heart pounded. The code was Helena’s. She took a deep breath and dismissed the alert.

Barbara turned to face the elevator.

finito

Comments

  1. Amanda Hanson says:

    I love the story. Love it. But why end it there! what happens?

  2. woodstock says:

    Well, it ends here mostly because this is where I thought it should end. A mushy answer, I know, but the truth nonetheless. Glad you liked it.

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