Title: Cold Winter's Night: Too Late, Two Breaths
Author: DC Luder
Rating: M for language, adult situations and violence
Summary: At his lowest hour in No Man's Land, a surprise encounter may be the difference between surrendering and pushing onward.
Infringements: All recognizable characters belong to DC Comics, not DC Luder.
Author's Note: After reading No Man's Land to sate the sudden need to re-read that wonderful scene between Jim Gordon and Batman in Legends of the Dark Knight #125, I randomly sat down and wrote this piece. I opted to break it into two chapters to elaborate on an nasty cliff hanger because that's how I roll and you know you wouldn't have it any other way.
A/N 2: General references to events throughout NML. Oh, there is an M&M cookie waiting for who can spot the David Duchovny reference!!
The difference between a hero and a coward is one step sideways.
The last week of November succumbed to a vicious cold snap that left the shattered streets blanketed in nearly six inches of snow. Thankfully, the sub-freezing temperatures had convinced even the most violent of gang members to seek shelter rather than cause trouble. I had spent most of the night checking in with Oracle for any sightings of any of the major threats still left roaming the streets.
Namely Bane and the Joker who, thankfully, were working against one another.
Bane had been in the employ of Lex Luthor, first to destroy the hall of records using nuclear explosives to annihilate Gotham's written history. From there, he remained in No Man's Land as hired muscle to scare off the Joker who had taken to destroying construction sites in order to delay rebuilding the city. In my last encounter with Bane, I had learned that Luthor had promised him the sizeable payment of possession of his homeland, Santa Prisca. Rather than engage in another physical encounter that would no doubt have me limping to Leslie's MASH unit, I had tried reasoning with him.
In the end, I had asked him which he desired more: another confrontation with me or his own country.
He chose the latter with a smile on his face.
On the other side of the card, the Joker had been on and off our radar since No Man's Land had begun, slowly collecting followers, weaponry and territory. Little blips had surfaced every so often with random killings, smiley faces spray painted on buildings and people talking of the clown either pulling pranks or threatening to kill them. For the last few days, there had been no sign of him, not even a green hair.
Calm before the storm.
Sitting atop the fairly stable Gotham's First National bank in Midtown, I kept my eyes on a group of bundled up men huddled around a fire below, "Yes?"
"One of my Eyes is calling in from the J. P. Prewitt Reservoir… figured since you're in Coventry, you're the---."
"What's the situation?" I snapped, quickly sizing up the best place to anchor a line in order to descend to the streets. For years, I had used the rooftops as a means of making it across the city, but considering less than fifteen percent of them were structurally sound, the pavement offered the quickest and safest path.
Especially with the snow coming down in droves.
"Late night ice skating gone surprisingly wrong… apparently the ice gave in… two are in the water… I've already notified Leslie, she's sending a pair of volunteers with supplies."
I spoke quietly under my breath, "Let's hope they don't make the trip for nothing."
Running through the settling snow with as much caution as I would spare, I regretted broadcasting to my self-doubt to her. Since my return to Gotham, I had persevered through the greatest of challenges, acclimating to a new way of life while letting go of over a decade of memories. Although my allies had returned as well, I had lost the trust and faith of the one I relied on the most: James Gordon. Where I had fled Gotham after failing to convince the government to spare it from being dissolved from existence, he had stayed on without hesitation to do what I thought was impossible. Ignoring the odds, he had remained in our city to keep justice and order in a living Hell.
For three months I had tormented myself many number of ways ranging from bumbling about as Bruce Wayne to engaging in senseless violence without defending myself. Having given up on Gotham, I had in turn given up on myself and had surrendered to a life of self-punishment. I had failed my city, my people and my parents.
I hadn't deserved life, even one of suffering.
As the No Man's Land carried on with abundant survivors, I had expected Alfred or Clark or even Dick to hunt me down in order to slap some sense into me.
The slap, surprisingly enough, had been delivered by Talia.
It had happened after a long night of being trapped in Bruce Wayne's skin, behind his fake smiles and underneath his lewd jokes. Unable to bear it any longer, I had left the gallant casino of debutantes to walk it off. Sur enough, I had taken a wrong turn, the one I had been anticipating and even longing for. Instinct had forced me to block the first blow they had wielded upon me but after I mentally shut down my autonomic defenses, the rest had been easy.
I could still taste the blood on the back of my tongue.
Fresh from having the life pummeled from me by the trio of Parisian thugs, I had stumbled back to my hotel room ready to crawl into bed and lick my wounds. To my utter surprise, Talia had been waiting for me, trying to conceal her concern with anger. After I had made a remark that she was sweet to have come but needed to get out, she had hit me hard enough to make me forget about the group of men I had just faced off with.
Although where they had left me lying in the streets, she had tended to my wounds.
Both inside and out.
As she staunched bleeding lacerations and iced contusions, Talia had tried to remind me all that I had accomplished but when I replied that I didn't care anymore, she had resumed aggressive tactics. She had said that I was a disgrace, to myself, my teachers… and my parents. When even that low of a blow failed to move me, she had offered herself to me, to be her beloved once more. I had been quick to tell her that she knew it was never going to be, that I belonged to the vow that I had made to my parents.
And that's when it all had come back to me.
The next morning, I had been on a plane back to the United States, ready to answer the calls of those that needed me.
To the average person, the surface of the reservoir appeared to be frozen well enough to chance a few steps, maybe even a twirl or two. Unfortunately it wasn't and it was something that the two drowning figures would certainly remember from then on.
That was if I---.
Shut up and save them.
I paused on a jagged piece of cement that had once been part of the twenty foot tall lip of the smallest of Gotham's reservoirs. On average it held a little less than four hundred million gallons of fresh water but since the quake, it could not have been more than a tenth full.
Still plenty enough to drown in.
Without wasting another second, I secured two grapples to the remnants of the steel building that had once been the water treatment center. Discarding my cape, I secured the lines to my belt before descending into the reservoir, cautiously making my way across the weak ice towards the splashing and screaming. Activating my night vision, I spotted only one pair of hands frantically grasping a large chunk of dislodged ice.
… two are in the water…
The opening in the ice was big enough to park two Batmobiles in, offering plenty of open water to make it to the surface for air.
The young woman doing her best to stay afloat was towards the middle, a good ten feet from the edge of the ice that had yet to falter. Taking a deep breath, I slipped into the water, thanking Alfred silently for salvaging the thermal Batsuit from the Cave. It took less than four swimming strokes to reach her but even in that little amount of time I was able to feel my body's temperature drop a degree.
They had been in the water for nearly ten minutes.
As I reached her, I offered no words of encouragement as to save my breath. Instead, I unhooked one of the grapple guns before securing it around her waist, setting it to retract on slow. The water rippled around her as she shivered, not a major concern considering severe hypothermic sufferers were too cold to shiver. I kept her in my peripheral vision as she and her ice block made it to the edge of the ice and then over it. As a few bystanders headed towards the anchored grapple to await her arrival, I turned my attention to the happenings underwater.
The first two dives I made, I chose to use my rebreather but after feeling my lungs frost over, I opted to simply hold my breath. Even with the night lenses of the cowl, there was no sign of another being in the water within my vision range. Each time I came up for air, I found it harder to go back under and when I did, it was increasingly difficult to stay under for longer than a few minutes. Drifting under the intact sheet of ice, I forced myself to hold the air in my lungs as I resumed my search.
Twenty minutes in the water.
Then finally, a flash of white amidst the green, grainy background. Despite the numbness in my limbs and tightness in my chest, I dove down, grasping at the pale limb before shooting towards the surface. It was when the figure was in the pale light of the stars that I realized she had been in the water much longer than twenty minutes.
More like twenty days.
I chose to let go of the corpse in order to dive back down once more but I hesitated as I picked up on loud voices coming from the far side of the reservoir. Glancing over, I spotted a group of four people standing by as a female figure knelt with her back to me. Upon looking more closely, I realized she was leaning over another lying on the ground. I tried to blame the distance on my vision being out of focus even though it was a text book symptom of Stage One hypothermia.
The stooping woman was tilting back the head of the still form when I realized that she appeared to be wearing a dark wet suit. Was it quick thinking on her part, coincidence or had the connection between my brain and eyes frozen over completely?
Looking back to the former treatment building, I spotted the cluster of people from earlier had formed a small fire and were trying to put warmth into the young woman with blankets and vigorous rubbing. When my eyes returned to the other gathering, I realized the woman on her knees had begun to perform artificial respiration.
Ignoring the pain that had seemingly engulfed my entire body, I unhooked myself from the second grapple line in order to join the more emergent of the two rescue efforts. By the time I made it out of the ice and onto solid land, the woman on the ground began coughing and the others were quick to roll her over so that she could expel icy water in wet hacks.
An older woman fell to her knees, saying something about taking the wet clothes off before wrapping her up in the blankets she had brought. As I informed her not to as it actually increased body heat loss, I found my eyes settling on the quivering, wet shoulders of the savior. More precisely, at the wavy dark hair that was starting to freeze in the cold air.
My boot crunching on snow caused her to turn her head in order to look up at me.
Although her skin was always a pale cream color, the flesh of her exposed cheeks was bright white, standing out starkly against the mask that engulfed the top of her head and face. Lips that were usually a deep crimson were nearly cobalt. The only thing that was the same was the green jade of her eyes.
The last time I had seen her, Selina had declared her intentions to reap the benefits of No Man's Land by taking possession of whatever struck her fancy. Instinctually, I had growled a warning that if she stole in Gotham, I would bring her down. She had grinned over her shoulder at me before replying, "Good, come and chase me, Batman."
When she had been out of earshot, I had allowed myself a moment to smirk before replying quietly, "Count on it."
It had been my own fault as she had returned to No Man's Land at my request, which I had been fairly surprised that she had so readily complied. She had been one of the few people that I could trust who lived outside in the real world that would have the knowhow of sneaking in and out of the military protected remains of the city. Without question, she had agreed to bring me information I needed to verify concerns I had about a certain bald headed billionaire taking over my city.
Either she wanted to take on the challenge or she had her own agenda or most likely, both.
In the weeks that had followed, I had been preoccupied with maintaining order in a lawless city in addition to hunting down Arkham inmates, doing battle with Bane and preparing to counter with Luthor's less than philanthropic acts. Amidst the day to day struggles, I had lost track of her, not even able to spare a second's thought of her whereabouts at any point in my waking hours. There had been no doubt that my focus belonged to preparing my city to rejoin civilization as opposed to looking for one cat thief.
Not the first time I had made the mistake of overlooking her. Nor the last.
She offered a smile on trembling lips before raising a hand towards me. I was quick to grasp it, helping her to her feet as she fought for balance. She had never developed her suit to protect her from gunfire let alone from extreme elements. It seemed as if she was doing all she could to keep her shivering under control but there was nothing she could do about the color of her mucous membranes.
No doubt she was thinking the same as she looked me over.
With some of Gotham's finer Samaritans hard at work, I escorted Selina away from the reservoir and into the seclusion of a former drug store that had the blessing of being in a Wayne Enterprises commercial structure. Although barren after months of raiding and scavenging, it was quiet, out of the cold and away from prying eyes.
"This is exactly why I'm not one of the good guys… too much work… not enough pay out," she stammered, still managing to smile.
I went to open the first aid pouch on my modified utility belt but was surprised to find it difficult to use my thumb and forefingers together.
Losing muscle dexterity.
"How did you know there was another girl?" I asked as I finally managed to undo the clasp.
Her shrug was barely noticeable amidst the quivering, "Was taking a late night stroll. Heard laughter. Looked down… saw the girls skating around in boots… then the ice…" My eyes went to her face when her words tapered off. She cocked her head slightly before asking, "You okay?"
"I'm fine," I replied curtly before snapping active an instant chemical warming pouch, "Here, press this to your chest and cross your arms over it---."
Selina took it and did as told, "Oh, come now, we all know the best way to regenerate body heat… is through skin on skin friction…"
"This first," I retorted, "That… if necessary."
"Promise?" she raised an eyebrow before leaning against my chest.
Out of concern for her immediate well being, I reluctantly wrapped my arms around her shoulders, pulling her to me before rubbing her back to help her blood circulate. She laughed through chattering teeth as she pressed her cheek to my chest. After an eternal sixty seconds, she looked up at me, "Feeling warmer already. You?"
I roughly estimated my core body temp to be hovering at ninety-six degrees given the challenging muscle control, every hair on my body standing on end and the fact that my vision was still blurry.
My stance suddenly faltered and I found myself stepping back to lean against a frosted over counter. Panic filled me that the muscles in my limbs were giving but when I regained my balance with no trouble, I realized why I had stumbled. As exhausted as I was had made it fairly difficult to hold up her suddenly limp form, despite her small stature.
"Selina?" I began to lower her to the ground while simultaneously checking her vitals. Her limbs quaked violently as her eyes clenched shut. I called her name again, louder as I pinched skin on her upper arm.
When her lids slowly pulled back to reveal green, she asked, "Wh-what happened?"
Idiot, false sensations of warmth meant she was transitioning to the second stage of hypothermia…
I had a satellite cave less than a mile away.
Selina had twenty minutes to get her temperature above ninety-five degrees before ventricular tachycardia and organ failure set in.
I couldn't fail.
Next Chapter: Now or Never