In the Gale
by Amy L. Hull -AmilynH at comcast dot net-

Disclaimers: I don't own the comics or animated versions of any of these lovely people. Not making money, yadda, yadda.
Rating: PG
Summary: Set within the very end of and just after The Killing Joke. DC Comics universe.
Notes: Thanks to Constance, Missy, and Yahtzee, for beta-reads and to Rachel for squeeing. Special thanks to Constance for finding a title in Emily Dickinson's poem "Hope".

ooo

"Come on, Commissioner."

Awkward hands tucked the rough fabric closer around him. He hadn't even felt it slipping and wouldn't have cared if he had. His fingers were too numb to hold the thick, rough, fabric, and his sense of dignity was dulled past caring.

He'd held out hope, for the first few hours of painful, humiliating captivity, that Barbara had been able to call for help, that she might have survived. He knew, of course, but even so he'd clung to those thoughts as a father clings to his new daughter's tiny fingers as she sleeps. Hell, he'd been denied even that with Barbara; there had been nothing tiny about the gangly pre-teen who'd come to live with him after her parents' deaths.

And now she was gone too, just like Roger and Thelma.

His officers would have told him she was alive immediately if she were.

The numbness from the chill night air on his flesh settled into his clenched stomach, slowed the heart rate he could hear rushing in his ears. Now that it was over, he was beginning to unlock the knowledge he'd denied. It crept through him, flowing over him, settling with a heavy shudder into the pit of his stomach, into each limb, each digit, each cell, each nook and cranny of his soul.

He could barely feel the hands guiding him to a gurney. He knew he'd have as much chance of avoiding a hospital visit as he would of making it home under his own power and so he submitted quietly to being led to the ambulance where he sat leaning against the side wall, his last shreds of dignity keeping him upright even as he shook uncontrollably. Even the tremors, however, could not shake off the residue of terror (what kind of cop did that make him?), the last of the adrenaline rush of relief, fear, fury, and the reality of grief.

The wail of the siren was comforting, annoying, familiar and intrusive, threatening to shatter the brittle silence surrounding and protecting him from reality. This sound, so much a part of his life and purpose, punched through the silence, horror, and waiting of the last days, brought him home.

Earlier he had cried--cried!--on Batman's shoulder, that dark cape draping around his nakedness and chill, while surprisingly gentle compassion in the usually cold and commanding voice urged him, "Let it come." The sobs had ended as the rough cover Batman had produced seemingly out of thin air settled scratchily over his shoulders. It tickled the hairs standing up on his back and arms, and filled his nostrils with the unmistakable scent of rain and dust, long since mildewed on the cloth. Then Batman was gone, following Jim's instructions to bring the Joker in "by the book." He knew by the time Batman slipped into the shadows that he would regret not setting the full force of Batman's unstable vengeance on the Joker.

The EMTs--they'd probably seem vaguely familiar if he looked at them--bustled around, giving cursory attention to his crumbled dignity in the form of hospital sheets and a blanket, soft with use and wear and smelling of industrial laundry soap, to take the place of the mildewed one Batman had scrounged. Jim occasionally caught a word of the EMTs' quiet exchanges as they examined him.

"Hypothermia..."

In the absence of the momentary catharsis of tears, he heard, over and over, a shot, a scream, and the shattering of glass. Heard the surprise, pain, fear, and confusion combined in that cry quickly fade, as his daughter and her spirit and intellect were reduced in a microsecond to the primal whimper of a dying animal.

"Careful of his feet; we'll want to check for frostbite."

He'd known then, of course. Without immediate and aggressive treatment--in far less than the now-dubbed "Golden Hour"--she would be dead. He had held out a father's irrational hope that, in the eagerness to take him as a plaything, the Joker had left quickly. That would have left some time for her, with the shreds of that stubborn, red-haired cussedness that made her brazenly patrol the city as Batgirl, to get to a phone and dial 911 before unconsciousness claimed her.

The familiar click, squawk, and sputter of the radios interrupted the drone of the siren and Jim twitched at every burst of static.

Then there had been the photographs. The proof. The evidence of how that freak (What had possessed him to tell Batman not to kill the bastard? And would he have, even if Jim had asked?) had defiled her, humiliated her, hurt her more as he moved her around for his own sport, treated her as a toy, a pawn. The evidence of the gravity and extent of her injuries, the amount of blood, the amount of time he'd spent there, torturing her, using up her time.

He knew the damage a .45 inflicted. His initial desperate hopes had been just that--desperate.

"Sunken eyes and cheeks. Dehydration."

"Start an IV; ER doc approved it."

The indifferent prick of a needle and the chill of those fluids stinging their way through his veins.

He knew. He'd known on the funhouse train. He'd not thought about it, not seen her in her coffin in her best suit, not envisioned the inscription on her gravestone, not thought about whether people would notice the coincidence in timing of the death of the commissioner's daughter and the disappearance of Batgirl.

They traveled longer than he'd have expected; he'd only been semi-conscious on the trip to the carnival grounds, and that consciousness had been occupied with his fury, pain and terror for Barbara.

Barbara. How long had she lain there, in the kind of pain that had grimaced out at him from the funhouse walls? How much of that critical Golden Hour had ticked away with the pulsing of her blood onto the spreading stain on the floor? How much had her chances slipped with each click of the camera shutter as the Joker aggravated the injury and mocked her and her pain? How long before the terrible blood loss released her into oxygen-deprived unconsciousness? How long before she had died, cold and alone, in a puddle of her own blood?

"Commissioner?"

Jim blinked.

"Commissioner Gordon?"

The voice shook him out of his reverie and he looked up from his careful study of his right hand.

"We're here, Commissioner."

Jim looked out the rear doors of the ambulance at the ER entrance. He hadn't even noticed them being opened. He started to stand, and the sheet slipped against his skin, reminding him he was still naked. A wave of dizziness swept him and he landed back on the gurney with a thud, not objecting this time as sure, efficient hands guided him to lie down and strapped him to the bed.

The ER routine, familiar and impersonal, passed in a haze of hospital gowns and smells, soft cloths cleaning his skin as they looked for non-existent injuries, smells of medicines and antiseptics.

"Sir? We're going to keep you overnight for observation."

Jim nodded distractedly at the young intern, not any more surprised by this pronouncement than he'd been by the required trip to the hospital.

"Someone will be right here to take you to your room." The young doctor set a hand on Jim's forearm, smiled a tiny, kind smile.

Jim almost let him go, but it was time. He grasped the man's wrist. "Do you know... My daughter... Where did they take her?"

"Um, I believe they brought her here, sir."

The man's somber expression on further confirmed the certainty of her death.

"I want to see her," Jim said firmly.

"Sir, I--" he paled. Jim's voice might be hoarse and gruff from dehydration and exposure, but his best Police Commissioner glare worked as well on a young intern as on a cadet fresh out of the Academy.

"I'll...I'll go check with someone."

Jim waiting, lying utterly still. How many times had he had to bring this news to someone? Had to tell them a loved one had been murdered? He'd always suspected that everything he said was inadequate. He'd never realized that he was all but invisible, that the words themselves didn't matter and probably were remembered not verbatim but only for their content.

A young nurse returned, looking as cowed as the intern, and Jim could see the name "Margaret" on her ID.

"Uh, they said I could take you to see her, but that you could only stay for ten minutes."

Jim nodded, sitting up carefully and allowing Margaret to help settle him into a wheelchair before she moved the IV bag to the wheelchair stand. There was no use arguing against some hospital rules. He did, however, draw the line when Margaret fretted over tucking in blankets around his legs and feet. Using his commissioner voice again, the one that worked on all the cadets and lieutenants and even a few of the detectives, Jim said steadily, even through the tightness gripping his throat, "Margaret. That's good enough. I want to see my daughter."

She stopped worrying at things and was mercifully quiet as she wheeled Jim to the elevator.

Jim frowned as she pushed the button for fourth floor. "Margaret. I said I wanted to see my daughter." Jim let a bit of warning creep into his tone.

"Y-Yes, sir."

"Then why are we going up?" His voice had regained most of its strength and the question came out almost as a growl.

"We're going to her room, sir."

Before Jim could answer or question, the doors slid open and Margaret pushed him through the elevator doors and into a patient room.

Jim stared at the bed. There was Barbara, hooked up to half a dozen machines that beeped softly, her chest rising and falling, her bright hair contrasting with the paleness of her face.

He reached down to the wheel rims and wheeled himself over to where he could touch her hand. "She's...she... Who found her?"

"Her yoga partner. They said another few minutes and she never would have made it."

He hadn't won. That damned bastard hadn't won. He was back in custody and Barbara was alive, her fingers warming in Jim's grip. His throat pinched closed and he swallowed hard as the tears and wracking sobs returned and he lay his head on the bed next to hers, holding her fingers to his lips, his other hand cupping her face while the thumb automatically stroked her cheek.

Her fingers tightened lightly around his hand and a very quiet sound broke through his relief.

"Daddy?"

Jim took a deep, shuddering breath, gulping as he forced himself back into calm.

"Yes, sweetheart?" he whispered, throat still too tight to speak.

"Oh, Daddy, he found you. Are you all right?" Her grip tightened around his hand and he could feel her trembling.

"I'm fine, honey." She was asking about him. "I'm fine now. I was so sure you were dead."

Barbara frowned at him, checking his face and hands with her own, scrutinizing him with the intensity of a force detective. "He didn't hurt you?"

"He tried," Jim conceded. He couldn't let go of her hand; the tactile contact was the only thing convincing him that this was not a dream. "But mostly he wanted to hurt me through you, and you're still alive. That's all I care about."

Barbara's breath caught, like she was suppressing a sob.

"Honey, we're both going to be okay."

Barbara began crying softly, tears flowing back into her hairline, soft sobs shuddering through her chest. Jim kissed her face and wiped away the tears, unaware of his own, and just held his big little girl who was alive. Their way worked; that bastard hadn't won and they were going to be all right.

o-fin-o