schizoauthoress: (A Spark in the Dark)
[personal profile] schizoauthoress
Title: Between the Stacks
Author: D.L.SchizoAuthoress
Rating: PG-13
Spoilers: general spoilers for the "Red Rain" universe, though I changed the ending of Part 3 (Crimson Mist)
Prompt: When I opened for prompts on Tumblr, Daggerpen asked for "Helena Bertinelli (Earth 43.H), teacher knows best".
Warnings: canon level violence (those damn vampires again)
Word Count: 3670
Summary: A schoolteacher meets a police officer. They fight vampires!
Word of the Day: dowager, noun:
1. An elderly woman of stately dignity, especially one of elevated social position.
2. A woman who holds some title or property from her deceased husband, especially the widow of a king, duke, etc.
An interlude for the Earth-43.H / "Rainfall" universe. Takes place chronologically before Part One.
Part one here.
Part two here.
Part three here.
Between the Stacks

These aren't the sort of problems that can be solved by a day's worth of research at the local public library (although Helena, good schoolteacher that she is, will never ever malign the public library system -- it's merely inadequate for her particular needs). What is widely accepted as fact and truth is not the entire story, and unless she wants to waste her time with what has been filtered into popular consciousness via fiction, Helena has to make a trip across town.

At least it isn't raining today, when she starts out -- though, like all good Gothamites, Helena totes along an umbrella 'just in case'. The sun is shining for once, though a bit... sullenly. A few clouds darken the sky in furtive, dirty-looking streaks.

As she hurries down the stairs to the subway station, Helena idly thinks -- as she has thought and forgotten many times over -- that she really ought to find a place that's closer to Ariane's neighborhood. But the old Sinti woman is a fixture in a neighborhood that is slowly losing its old status as a classy place to live -- most of the available apartments are small and cramped, made by hacking the original floorplans roughly in half to increase the number of tenants. Ariane's place is one of the few that retains its original dimensions, mostly because she's been on the same lease since the 1950s and her landlord is more than a little afraid of her.

Hell, there are some days that Helena is a little afraid of Ariane.

Helena's interest in Ariane's knowledge is not idle. She thinks that few people who go to see the old woman do so out of aimless curiosity -- it's not easy to hear her name, among the sellers of old books and the purveyors of antiques, though it was indeed a dealer of such things who directed Helena her way, years ago.

She'd been a teenager, the emotional wound of her family's murder still raw and open in those days, and damned determined to see the murderer pay. Ariane had absolutely refused to help her, should Helena follow through with a plan to drop out of high school to pursue the monster. Faced with the decision of refusing the condition and being denied any access to Ariane's considerable knowledge of the occult and arcane, or agreeing to continue her studies and gaining Ariane's help in her pursuit... well, it hadn't been a difficult choice.

In truth, Helena's determination has not abated from those days, but now she has focus and purpose... and a purpose outside the hunt.

The fare attendant at her destination station is making an announcement over the intercom system as the subway train pulls in. Helena has to wait until she's out of the crush of departing bodies, closer to the glassed-in booth, to hear it.

"Red rain today, folks. Take care opening those umbrellas. Red rain coming down."

She sighs and takes a moment to extend the handle of her umbrella and loosen the strap holding the top folded up. Several brisk steps get her away from any other people, and she swings it above her head and pops it open in a fluid motion, marching purposely through the fussing, fumbling crowd and up the concrete stairs already darkening with the chemical rain.

****

Voices converse on the other side of Ariane's apartment door, and Helena scowls a little upon hearing them. 'I should have called ahead,' she thinks, disregarding for the moment the fact that Ariane rarely picks up the phone when it rings. If Ariane is with some other seeker of knowledge, Helena certainly can't be open about the purpose of her visit.

She knocks on the door anyway. Maybe they're nearly finished. Maybe she'll only have to wait an hour -- there's a diner down the street that Helena can kill time at, if that's the case.

Silence. Then she hears Ariane's heavy step on the old floorboards. She waves at the peephole in the door and waits.

"Helena, honey," Ariane says warmly (the only person who can get away with calling her that, really) as she opens the door, "come in, come in."

"I thought I heard... is someone else here?" Helena replies, a little uncertain. She steps over the threshold anyway, depositing her umbrella in the brass stand beside the coat rack.

"Yes, but don't worry." Ariane closes the door. She presses her right thumb to a spot just above the peephole, then above the doorknob, and finally to a spot directly across and between the hinges. The sigils carved shallowly in the dark wood seem to sparkle faintly for a second. "Barbara is in the know, as much as you are."

"Only a tenth as much as you, then?" Helena asks, half-joking.

"It's why you put up with me," Ariane says cheerfully, leading the way back to the rooms where she keeps her books. They bypass the library -- which is huge for an apartment, made so because Ariane had a dividing wall knocked down decades ago -- and go into Ariane's study.

Helena is always a little wary of the study. All of the rooms in Ariane's apartment have large windows, big enough for a person to come through if they wanted, but most of them are locked tight or sealed shut permanently. In contrast, the big windows in this room are always unlocked, usually kept open to some degree except when it gets particularly cold. It's probably nothing to be worried about. They're several floors up, and Ariane can have the windows open if she pleases.

Right now, in deference to the falling chemical rain, they are all closed, but she can see glint of a brass latch hanging loose when she glances out the window directly across from the door. She deliberately turns her head to scan the room. It's in the usual state of controlled disarray -- Helena has no doubt that Ariane knows exactly where every book is, and why it's stacked among those particular fellows -- and her eyes linger fondly over certain familiar pieces of the chaos. There's the book of saints originally published in 1857, propped up on a sturdy wooden stand as always, and open today to a page on Saint Sebastian. (Helena always found the accompanying illustration, a young man tied to a tree and shot with arrows, to be awfully morbid. She prefers the related page on Saint Irene, shown tending to the wounded man.) There's the candle holders, piles of grinning white ceramic skulls, streaked with years of wax and soot, a bit of macabre whimsy on Ariane's part. There's Ariane's pine writing desk, and the long scratch that Helena put in the side on her third visit to the apartment, which Ariane has never let her try to buff out. Helena smiles.

"Who's this?"

Helena doesn't jump, but her head swivels toward the source of the strange voice. Seated at the small, oval table where Ariane sometimes serves tea, a redhaired white woman is giving her a once-over. She has an oval face with a prominent chin, sharp green eyes, and wears her long hair pulled back into a high ponytail. Her entire bearing screams 'cop', and Helena feels her back going rigid in pure reaction to the scrutiny.

She knows who she is, and that she has a right to be here. But she also knows that cops see things different when they look at a black person.

"This is Helena Bertinelli," Ariane answers. "Be nice, Barbara. I like her better than you."

Helena laughs. She can't help it. Ariane is outrageous like that. Barbara smiles a little as well, and relaxes, moving to pick up one of teacups.

"Sorry," she says, "force of habit. I'm Barbara Gordon."

"Hello, Barbara."

"What brings you here today, Helena?" Ariane asks, already moving toward one of those many stacks of books.

"I'm having trouble locating a nest." Helena says, forcing herself not to equivocate. She wouldn't if it were Ariane alone, and Barbara Gordon -- daughter of the commissioner or not, police detective or not -- will not make her change. Helena reminded herself, 'Ariane said that she knows.' She tries not to flinch when Barbara's teacup rattles against the saucer, and finishes, "The attack patterns don't fit."

"Are you sure it's just the one?" Barbara asks.

"No," Helena admits, "but I don't know about all the variations in territory spread for vampires. Not off the top of my head."

"O pale'cido mula khelevan tut," Ariane mutters to herself as she sifts through the leather-bound tomes of her collection. Helena feels vindictively pleased, just a little bit, at the look of confusion that flickers over Barbara's face.

"What was that, Ariane?"

"Oh, nothing," Ariane replies in a light tone of voice. She presents Helena with a thin black book. There's no title on the spine or front cover, and when Helena carefully lifts that cover, she sees that the book is handwritten. Ariane continues, now addressing Helena, "Nicostrato has the most complete account of vampire attack patterns that I know of. Diagrams of territory and hunting ground based on nest size, including when multiple nests overlap. The exact numbers are likely a bit out of date for the modern hunter, but it will give you the basic formulae."

Helena grins. "Like I always tell my kids, algebra will come in handy in the real world."

"There's always one or two who disrupt the classroom, hm?" Ariane asks. Helena nods, thinking of her most recent 'troublemakers'. They're good kids, really; she thinks Sylvester doesn't get enough attention at home, and Maria is just... extremely smart.

"You're a teacher?" Barbara asks, incredulous. Helena shoots her an annoyed look.

"Yes, I am. Is there a problem?"

Barbara actually blushes. "No. No problem... just... I thought you'd be something like..."

"A cop like you?" Helena suggests.

Ariane seems amused by the confrontation. She goes to the free-standing cupboard where she keeps her tea-sets, and brings out Helena's favorite cup.

"Being a cop means I have the training --"

"--to take down human lawbreakers!" Helena laughs, shaking her head a little. "All you know about me is that I'm a teacher, and now I'm unfit to be a hunter, in your eyes."

Barbara protests, "I didn't say that!"

"I've seen that look before. The one you were giving me." Helena steps aside as Ariane heads for the table, and takes a moment to slip Nicostrato's journal into her large purse. Barbara frowns at her, but Helena doesn't care if she's upset the other woman. She's offended at yet again being dismissed. "Being a teacher doesn't mean I lack experience. I've been hunting vampires for almost ten years, Barbara. How about you?"

Barbara goes still, quiet. Helena has an awful feeling that she's gone too far, but the apology seems to stick in her throat.

Ariane finishes pouring Helena's cup of tea, and points to the chair it sits before. "Sit down, please."

"I should go," Barbara says tightly.

"No. We're going to have a civil conversation, and you girls can get to know each other instead of making assumptions." Ariane shakes her head. "I can't abide misinformation, Barbara."

Barbara's mouth twists again, into an unhappy expression. But she sits back down. "Fine."

"All right," Helena concedes, taking her own seat. Of course it's directly across from the cop.

Ariane primly sits in the chair between them, on one of the longer sides of the oval table. "You never know. You two will probably have to work together, and it might be sooner than you think. So, Helena, you start."

"Ariane...."

"Talk. Tell the truth for once. God knows you rarely get the chance."

Helena curls her fingers around the handle of the teacup and doesn't answer right away. Ariane is right. (Ariane is always right, seems like.) People either don't know or don't want to face the truth of this world -- that vampires are real, and unimaginably evil. She's told a "normal" version of her past when pressed, and there are many people who know scraps of the true events... but only Ariane knows the whole story. Helena has never allowed herself to think what it might be like to tell someone else. She takes a deep drink of the tea, letting the warmth spread through her, fortifying her.

"When I was a little girl, it was the mob who had a hold on Gotham," Helena starts, "and my family was a big part of it. I don't remember exactly when it started to crumble. I remember Papa complaining about the red rain ruining his merchandise somehow. I remember whispers about the Penguin, a rival boss, I think. I was a child then. And I was twelve when... when the Bat-Man came for us..."

****

Hours have passed since they started talking. At some point when Barbara was relating her story, Helena had been vaguely aware of Ariane moving around the room lighting candles, but honestly, she's too transfixed to care.

She'd had no idea that the police commissioner had sustained the injuries that put him in his wheelchair while fighting a vampire.

The vampire, in her mind -- the Bat-Man himself. Barbara had discovered the truth only months before, and dedicated herself to finishing her father's work. Helena felt a lot more respect for the woman, now that she could grasp the full shape of the truth.

"...And, well, Ariane's been teaching me everything she can from the books." Barbara says with a shrug. "I've only killed a few vampires myself. Nothing like your kill count."

Helena realizes that Barbara's tone has become... almost awed. She feels heat bloom across her face, but smiles with only a hint of pride. "I've been hunting longer than you. You'll get there, I'm sure."

Ariane coughs delicately, from her place at the writing desk. "Should I make up the guest bedroom, Helena? I only ask because I'm about to start a translation that will take some time..."

"Oh!" Barbara startles, and checks her wristwatch. "I'm supposed to meet Dad for dinner in twenty minutes! And the restaurant is across town!"

Helena stands. "Where is it?" After Barbara gives the address, Helena says, "You can make it, if you leave now and take Oaklawn. I'll escort you out. It's dark."

Barbara nods, and slips out of the study on light, quick feet. Helena turns to Ariane, who looks entirely too pleased with herself.

"I'll get that blanket you like, honey," Ariane says, as she stands. "You won't be riding the metro home, after all. It's dark."

****

The next time that Helena sees Barbara, the redhead is running for her life, two vampires in hot pursuit. She's got a stake in one hand, but no opportunity to use it, and they're gaining.

"Over here!" Helena yells, "This way, Babs!"

Those green eyes meet hers for just a moment, across the busy thoroughfare. And then the cop takes a hard turn toward the street, hand going to her belt. She holds her badge aloft, and it glitters gold in the dancing electric lights. And as she darts into traffic, Barbara bellows, "Police! Stop!"

Helena is confused, but as she watches people slam on their brakes, and Barbara dart between the cars that create a barrier -- temporary as it is -- between her and the vampires, she understands. Barbara is creating the narrative that she wants -- everyone looking across the street where she's headed, trying to see the criminal she's pursuing, and not realizing that the monsters are pursuing her.

Wild-eyed, partway to its monstrous form as it scrambles up the side of the SUV in its path, one of the vampires prepares to leap at Barbara. Helena doesn't bother with careful aim at the center mass just yet -- the monster topples backward with a crossbow bolt through the neck, flesh sizzling from the coat of silver nitrate painted on the weapon. That will slow it down, and that's all Barbara needs right now. Helena reloads and darts from the alley that conceals her.

Barbara stands as still as she can while a taxi brakes for her, then leaps over the hood, sliding across the last few inches of it and ending up in a crouch between two of the parallel-parked cars on Helena's side of the street. The second vampire slams into the side of the taxi, and the driver gives a frightened yell. Helena shouts,

"Right here, ugly!"

The vampire's wide red eyes focus on her, and it leaps forward -- clearing the taxi and the parked cars with ease -- grabbing the streetlight in one massive clawed hand to swing around it and change direction right for her.

Two gunshots in rapid succession echo off the surrounding walls in loud cracks, and the vampire jerks and twists -- unhurt, Helena knows, because bullets never stop them -- and she suddenly has a clear shot of the heart. She takes it, and tries to dodge the dead weight of the incapacitated vampire as it finishes its leap in a fall. One of the flailing arms clips her left leg, and Helena is knocked to the ground, sprawled on the unforgiving concrete sidewalk. She doesn't have any time to tuck her chin properly, and her head bounces on the ground, dazing her as well as any purposeful blow from a vampire.

She hears a familiar roar, and recalls through the pain that she hadn't properly -- or even temporarily -- killed the other vampire. She tries to get to her feet, but her body isn't obeying her. And then Barbara is standing over her, and it isn't her standard issue pistol in her hands. The smaller gun has a higher report -- more of a 'snap' than a 'crack’ -- as Barbara fires once into the creature's chest.

It shouldn't work, Helena thinks, but somehow it does. The vampire crumples to the ground and goes still.

"Gang members on PCP," Barbara declares, and that's confusing as hell, too. Helena blinks up at Barbara. The cop kneels down beside her. "Stay with me, Helena," she says. What a strange thing to ask. Helena isn't going anywhere. She leans her head against Barbara's shoulder, and closes her eyes. She just needs a moment to rest...

****

The next thing Helena knows, she's in some strange, sunshine-y room. It's not a hospital room -- it's rather small, and the bed is full-sized with a particularly plush mattress, and she's tucked in under a fluffy purple comforter. When she looks around, she immediately notices that her weaponry is arrayed on the nightstand next to the bed, and her body armor is draped over a nearby chair -- upholstered in cherry-red chenille, old enough to be a bit worn down.

"What...?"

"Good morning." Barbara's voice replies. Helena looks up, toward the door. Barbara is standing there, in a pair of grey sweatpants and a faded black t-shirt -- the shirt reads, in cracked white screenprinted letters "National League Champions", and below that, "1998" split in the middle by the old Gotham Mammoths 'mammoth head' logo in red. For once, the woman's long red hair is loose, and Helena sees that it goes a few inches past her shoulders. Barbara gives her guest a tired little smile. "I figured you wouldn't want to be officially involved, since we made a such a scene. I called in a few favors to get you home and have a nurse check you out here."

Helena frowns slightly. "Home?"

"My apartment," Barbara clarifies.

"Oh." Helena feels her face go hot with an embarrassed flush. She drops her gaze to her hands. "Well. N-now you've seen the mighty hunter in action, huh?"

Barbara doesn't reply right away, not until Helena feels the mattress dip under her weight. She looks up to see Barbara sitting on the edge of the bed. Barbara reaches out to touch Helena's face, taking a moment to inspect her eyes. "Those were some damn good shots you pulled off, Hel. So yeah."

Barbara smiles warmly at Helena, who feels her own mouth curving into an answering smile at the sight. "Speaking of shots. You took down a vampire with a gun."

That smile turns into a gleeful grin, as Barbara explains, "Silver bullets."

Helena takes a moment to process that. "That's brilliant."

"It's only good for putting them down temporarily," Barbara says, with a little shrug.

Helena sits up more as a thought occurs to her. "What about the two from toni-- last night?"

"Jason -- that's my partner, Jason Bard, I mean -- he knows. About vampires. He followed me on my second kill, saw everything." Barbara looks somewhat abashed to admit, "He thinks I'm 'a ridiculous dipshit' for taking them on, but... he'll do cleanup if he has to. He called me about twenty minutes ago, said he beheaded them."

"Ah." Helena isn't sure why the mention of Barbara's partner makes her feel unhappy. She should be glad that someone has Barbara's back, even if it isn't her.

'Wait... why should it be me?' Helena thinks to herself.

Barbara laughs. "He's an asshole, but he's a dependable asshole." She touches Helena's hand. "Does your head still hurt? I have ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet."

"I'm okay," Helena assures her.

Barbara presses, "What about food? Are you hungry?"

"I could eat," she replies after a moment of consideration. Barbara nods, and smiles again. As she gets up from the bed, Helena reaches out and snags her by the wrist. As their eyes meet, Helena says softly, "Thank you, Babs."

Barbara tilts her head to one side, and her bangs fall with the motion. "You're the only one who calls me 'Babs', you know."

Helena stammers, "Oh, I... I'm--"

"I like it." Barbara touches Helena's cheek again, and this time Helena leans into the contact.

She's watching Babs the whole time -- can't take her eyes off of the woman, truthfully -- and yet Helena is still surprised when Barbara bends down gracefully and gently kisses her on the lips.

Not that it stops her from responding in kind, though.

*-*-*-*-*

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