Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
"I don't know how many times it will take for me to tell you," said Bruce Wayne in a measured voice, spreading his hands non-threateningly, "but once again, Wayne Enterprises has a firm policy about negotiating with terrorists-"
The man who called himself Celsius cut him off with a brutal slap across the face, sending the billionaire toppling backward in the chair he was tied to. The room's other residents, namely Lucius Fox and a dozen other members of the company's experimental research arm let out a collective gasp. They weren't restrained like Bruce, but the silver-haired madman who had turned their New Year's Eve party into a hostage situation wasn't worried about heroics. He'd demonstrated what he could do by covering the entire window with foot-thick sheets of ice. No visibility in or out, and the cold was palpable. It was more than enough to ensure cooperation. At least from them.
Bruce Wayne himself was another matter. He'd shown a token semblance of awe at the superpowered demonstration, but not the abject terror that Celsius was used to. Angrily he pulled Bruce back into an upright position, securing a chair for himself at the same time. Turning it backward, he sat down to face his captive. "I want you to look at me, Bruce Wayne," he said, his voice edged with steel this time.
"I am," Bruce said. The trick was to keep his voice light, hide the furious machinations of his mind. Ice powers could bedangerous- the last time he'd gone toe-to-toe with Mr. Freeze he'd nearly gotten frostbite. Celsius' ice powers were impressive, and unlike Freeze he could do it without a gun. With preparation and the Arctic Batsuit this would be an entirely different situation. But here in the middle of the work day he didn't have so much as a batarang.
He wondered absently if he would even be able to make his date that night.
Celsius clapped his hands together, sending up a glimmer of frozen crystals. "I know about this policy, Mr. Wayne. I'm not the incompetent that you take me for."
"However, I also know that for every rule there are twice as many exceptions. This policy of yours is nothing to lose your life over. Or the lives of your employees here."
"You would kill us all just for a little bit of money," said Bruce, somehow managing to make the very idea sound ridiculous.
"No, no. . ." In Celsius' hand an ice sculpture began taking form. It was a crude likeness, but it was clearly Bruce Wayne himself. He waited til the sculpture had gained enough mass, and then let it topple to the floor where it shattered. "I would kill you all for a lot of money. And not think twice about it."
Outside of the looming skyscraper, GCPD Commissioner Gordon, Hostage Negotiator Phil Ortega, Detectives Bullock and Montoya, and a fully-equipped SWAT team mapped out an extraction scenario in the freezing winter night. There was plenty of illumination from the spotlights and helicopters, but that did nothing for the cold.
"Damn shame," muttered Renee Montoya, rubbing her bare hands together for warmth. "Aside from this cold it's a beautiful New Year's Eve. Too beautiful for something like this."
"Something like what?" growled Harvey Bullock, having finally managed to light his cigarette. He took a long drag and then turned back to the group. "We don't even know what the hell's going on up there."
"We know the basics," countered Gordon. There's a metahuman up there holding Bruce Wayne and thirteen Wayne Enterprises employees hostage. He initially demanded 20 million dollars for their release, but that number has since risen to 50 million. In cash.
"What communication avenue is he utilizing," Ortega wanted to know.
"Umm. . ." Gordon rifled through a few pages of notes. "Phone calls, three to be exact. All made to the precinct station. Very poorly planned- he has no idea exactly how he's supposed to get this money so he's left that up to us. Phone calls were of course made to the remainder of the board of directors, but we haven't gotten a single answer thus far."
"He already has Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox," Montoya mused. "Why doesn't he just ask them how to get the cash."
Gordon looked up at the twentieth-floor window. It wasn't easy to tell from the ground, but he knew that the entire glass pane was covered from the inside with ice. Who knew what the hell was going in there. He turned to Montoya. "If you ask me, that's what he's doing right now."
"Tell me," said Celsius, "Do you know what temperature carbon dioxide freezes at?"
Bruce thought for a moment. "Something like negative seventy-nine degrees. Celsius, of course."
"Of course. Very impressive, by the way. Even I didn't know that one. When I have had occasion to freeze carbon dioxide, I just willed it colder and colder until it liquefied. Turned solid. It's a very fascinating thing to watch, really. Exhaled CO2, solidifying while some unfortunate soul is breathing it out. One of the most horrifying deaths I've ever witnessed. Would you like to know what happens when the very air you breathe suddenly reaches freezing point?"
"Then find a way to get me my money," said Celsius. "Or I'll show the young lady behind you. Firsthand. Maybe she'll even let a good scream before her tongue shatters and the moisture in her mouth and lungs freezes like a Thanksgiving turkey."
Someone, maybe the woman, started crying. Even Bruce looked a little pale. "You're insane."
"And you're wasting my time. Twelve people is a lot. I'd hate to start offing them one by one just to motivate some rich, pampered brat."
Bruce pursed his lips. "Alright. You'll have to get me to a phone."
Justice League Headquarters
"So tonight's the night huh" said Black Canary, punctuating the last syllable with a beautiful reverse aerial kick to the workout room's punching bag. Nearby Wonder Woman was lazily doing one-handed bench presses, the hydraulic weights set to a rather disappointing maximum. However, the sudden question fazed her concentration just enough to send the two tons of resistance crashing back down to the machine's anti-gravity cushions.
Diana sighed and extricated herself from the machine. "Word travels pretty fast up here, I see."
Canary did a few rapid-succession jabs, and then turned back to the Amazon. "It does, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. We're your friends- Bruce's too, in a way. And I for one think it's about time."
Diana felt her cheeks grow warm. "It's. . .nothing big. I'm not even sure what to call it, really-"
Black Canary chuckled. "Well how did all this come about in the first place?"
Diana shrugged, leaning forward on the bench. "We were just talking one day, on patrol. There was a disturbance at some big Hollywood movie set, some occult movie that inadvertently ended up summoning a couple of real demons during filming. No big deal really, but he let it slip that he was in a movie, once."
"You know, that's exactly how I reacted. Hard to imagine, right?"
"Totally. So what movie was it?" Canary pressed.
"Oh, I don't remember that. But at any rate, I kept teasing him about this movie and he kept insisting that it was just a minor appearance and all that, and eventually he just suggested that I come over and see it for myself."
"Come over. . ."
"To his mansion," Diana clarified.
"Oh." Dinah chuckled. "Smooth operator. Yeah, if a guy asks you to come over to his house for a movie on New Years, then I think you're very safely in 'date' territory."
Diana seemed to perk up at this. "You think?"
Canary tapped her temple. "Voice of experience. Though I do wish Ollie would do stuff like that. His idea of romantic is baloney sandwiches and a Greenpeace rally."
Diana laughed at that. "Am I out of my mind for even trying this? Dinner and a movie as if I were some-"
"I'm gonna stop you right there," said Black Canary. "You're not crazy. This life doesn't have to be your only life any more than Batman is Bruce Wayne's. There's more to this world than punching from one super villain to the next."
"That's the kind of date I could do, no problem. It's the small talk and the flirting I don't understand. I'll watch a rerun of Friends and I have no idea what just happened or why Ross said what he said to Rachel."
Canary smiled even as she shook her head. "Do you like him?"
"So much," Diana answered immediately.
"Then forget everything you ever saw in one of those ridiculous sitcoms and enjoy his company. The rest will come naturally."
Bruce handed Celsius the phone. "My butler is in the process of withdrawing the cash from my private safe as we speak."
"All 50 million?"
"Yes," clipped Bruce."
"Yeah?" Celsius looked furtively around the room before his eyes settled back on Bruce. "Well, I hope so, because otherwise I'm seeing a lot of obituaries with words like 'hypothermia' and 'frostbite' for tomorrow's newspaper."
Bruce resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the theatrics. Clearly Celsius was nowhere near as clever as he tried to pretend he was. There was no 50 million in cash coming- it was a ridiculous thing to ask for in the first place unless you had a damn truck waiting to pick it up for transportation. Bruce had done the calculations in his head after Celsius' first demand. Fifty million dollars was what, 50 thousand hundred-dollar bills? You'd need dozens of industrial sized briefcases- at least fifty if not more. The sheer mass of Treasury-issued paper would weigh something like half a ton. It was ridiculous, and the only reason Bruce had told him that such an absurd request would be granted was to gauge the man's reaction. That he was a complete amateur was clear, but it remained to be seen whether that would work in the hostages' favor or not.
His thoughts were interrupted by the increasingly-louder thwop thwop thwop of a helicopter circling overhead. To Bruce's experience ear it was too swift for a news chopper. Probably part of the SWAT team that was no doubt gathered outside.
Celsius' gaze had swung up to the ceiling, as if he could see what was going on outside through the floors and steel girders. Truth be told, icing over the entire office window made it so he couldn't see a damn thing outside of the room.
He turned a pair of frigid eyes back on Bruce. "You! You signaled them didn't you? In that phone call."
"No. I didn't need to; the police department has procedures for hostage situations you know."
"Well, they must not value your lives too much then."
"More than they value yours. But you must have planned for this, right?"
"I was supposed to have the money and be gone by now," snarled Celsius. "Not sitting on my ass waiting for the damn GCPD to come storming in with riot shields and guns blazing." He jabbed a finger at Bruce. "Your stalling's gonna start getting people killed."
"You'll get your money," Bruce insisted. "It's just a matter of time- it is New Year's Eve after all."
Celsius pursed his lips, finally nodding at Bruce's logic. "I'll wait a bit longer. But time's running out. For all of you."
Diana showered and changed into some comfortable casual wear as she pondered the night's activities. She didn't bother getting ready for the 'date' itself just then, most of her makeup and good clothes were down planetside in the condo she stayed in while off-duty. Part of her wanted to go all out, best designer dress and everything. He'd seemed to like that black number from their dance in Paris, if she recalled correctly.
Then again, he'd brought up the idea so nonchalantly. . .what if his thoughts weren't even traveling down those paths despite Black Canary's assurances. She'd seen the 'just friends' talk in all her favorite sitcoms. Being on the receiving end of one sounded about as appealing as a hot bath with Vandal Savage. So maybe it was best to-
Diana! came J'onn's telepathic summons. Please come to the Monitor Room immediately. There is a. . .situation.
"Fifth floor clear," crackled the SWAT team's leader over the radio. "Proceeding upward. Elevator's rendered inoperable here, some sort of flash-frozen-"
"We get the picture," Gordon said curtly."
"Right." More static, then, "Half of my team will take the East stairwell, the other half the West, effectively flanking this guy. Has Ortega talked to 'im yet?"
"That would be no," grumbled the hostage negotiator. "And it doesn't look like I'll have the chance either. This guy's not doing anything by the book- no open lines of communication, no firm demands. ..there's nothing to negotiate. Hell-"
Gordon's cell phone chose that moment to start ringing. "He shushed Ortega with a raised hand, flipping open the phone with his other. "Gordon here."
"Hello, Commissioner. This is Alfred Pennyworth. I've just received a very important phone call from Master Bruce."
"That's great. Where are you now Alfred?"
"Oh, I've already driven to the downtown area. I'm about a block away from your current position. You should be seeing me soon."
Gordon looked left, then right and did indeed see Alfred, walking briskly toward the Wayne Tower with a large black briefcase in each hand.
"The hell's he doin here?" Bullock muttered.
"So far, he's the only one to have received direct contact from that room's occupant in the last two hours," Gordon said sharply. "Right now, he's more useful than all of us put together." Alfred was within hearing range by now, and so the one the butler put down the suitcases, Gordon proceeded to make quick introductions and reintroductions.
Montoya gestured toward the briefcases. "What do we have here?"
"Why money of course. 1.8 million dollars to be exact."
"That's a lot of money," said Gordon. "And nowhere enough at the same time."
"True," Alfred conceded, "but it's what they contain that's important. You see, Master Bruce and I long ago planned for such contingencies as this. There is a facial recognition camera in each of these briefcases, programmed to trigger a jet of knockout gas when it recognizes the individual in question. I've spent the past half hour programming it to recognize our maniacal friend Celsius, and the sleep compound is highly potent. He will literally be unconscious before he hits the ground."
Gordon let out a low whistle. "Impressive, though it sounds a bit risky. If it fails, then all we've done is antagonize him and maybe cost innocent civilians their lives."
"It won't fail," Alfred said with complete confidence. "And as for antagonizing this man. . .the SWAT teams that you have currently infiltrating the building will do that and more by themselves."
"Are you saying I should call them off?"
"Yes. For now. The briefcase ploy may be a simple one but it is a countermeasure that has worked in the past."
Gordon mulled this over for a moment, and then brought up his radio. "SWAT team Alpha, stand down."
"What?!" came the incredulous reply. "Sir, we're on the verge of successfully breeching-"
"I know. However it has come to my attention that Bruce Wayne has a countermeasure in play that might be less risky."
"The billionaire? With all due respect he can barely tie his own shoes!"
Alfred seemed to bristle at this but said nothing.
Gordon sighed. "Be that as it may, we are dealing with a metahuman here with very lethal abilities."
The SWAT team's leader sounded like he was about to protest further when suddenly a piercing scream cut through the air, clearly audible even over Gordon's radio connection.
Silence. Then: "Orders be damned, we're going in," The team leader said tersely.
The connection went dead.
"Oops," chuckled Celsius. "Honestly, I didn't mean to do that."
"You bastard," bit out the office secretary, breathing heavily. The reason was the shard of ice embedded in the wall inches from her head. She was shaking, tears of pure terror streaming down her face.
"Honest," said the metahuman apologetically. "These powers. . .it's really hard to maintain precise control you know. Though I think it would probably help ease my nerves if Mr. Wayne's butler would-" He froze, eyes suddenly growing suspicious. "Did you hear that?"
Bruce had, though he'd been praying Celsius wouldn't notice. The SWAT team was good, but there simply wasn't a silent way to penetrate foot-thick barriers of solid ice, which Celsius had arranged in a perimeter around the 20th floor's entire office complex. Of course the team would know that too, which meant they wouldn't waste any time. . .
Bruce had just enough presence of mind to close his eyes before the flash grenade went off. Still, the reflected glare of the ice wall blocking the window nearly blinded him through his eyelids, the stark relief of tiny capillaries standing out in the intense light.
"Freeze!" screamed the lead man, assault rifle aimed and ready. Bruce silently cursed the fact that he and Alfred's plan had apparently been overruled. This would complicate things. . .
"Hands on your head!" yelled the other team members, pouring in through the breached door and taking up positions around the area. Some had their assault rifles still trained on Celsius, while others were busy trying to help the hostages exfiltrate. Textbook procedure, and it would even have worked against a normal human.
But Celsius was something else entirely, and suddenly things began to spin completely out of control. The lead man on the SWAT team was the first to die, impaled by an icicle that seemed to materialize from Celsius' outstretched hand. A second commando was able to get off a few shots before he met the same fate, none of which connected. Celsius then flash-froze a solid wall in front of him, blocking the barrage of bullets that came from the remainder of the team.
With the new ice wall, he and Bruce were effectively separated from the SWAT team. Celsius turned to Bruce, a dangerous grin on his face. "Whelp, looks like the boys in blue don't give a rat's ass whether you live or die Mr. Wayne!" He leapt over to Bruce's chair and yanked him upright, not even noticing the fact that the billionaire's improvised restraints had vanished. "Time for a little trip, wouldn't you say?"
He gestured toward the ice on the window, which seemed to magically recede at his command. The supercooled glass only needed a tap to break into a million pieces, allowing the frigid night air to rush in around them.
"Don't," said Bruce.
Celsius just laughed as he leapt, pulling Bruce into a freefall with him twenty stories above the solid concrete below.
"Wonder Woman to Watchtower, I've just pulled into the downtown Gotham district. From what I'm picking up on police channels, there is currently a rescue attempt underway. I'll have a visual on the building in just a second."
"Understood," J'onn responded over the communicator. "Report as soon as you gain any new information."
"Yup." Diana went down to a low glide as the Wayne Tower came into view. There was a huge crowd of spectators and media gathered outside, being ineffectually held back by the overwhelmed police force. Large spotlights had been mounted on the adjacent buildings, their powerful beams trained on one window behind which Wonder Woman assumed the hostage situation was unfolding. Two GCPD helicopters are circled around overhead, occasionally sweeping their own lights over other areas of the building.
Wonder Woman glanced back up at the window, which was completely opaque due to the sheet of ice behind it. What could be going on in there, and more importantly how we she be able to help? She'd never personally had dealings with Celsius, but Frostbite, a notorious member of the League's rogues gallery, had similar powers and that woman had been a nightmare to deal with. Hopefully this guy wasn't as powerful. . .
She heard something very faint on her communicator's automatic survey of police bands. She closed her eyes, straining to hear what it was and as such almost missed the incredible sequence of events that unfolded.
First, the window shattered, the ice behind it having disappeared. Then two figures flew out of the exposed opening, trailed by a shower of broken glass. Celsius and. . .
"Bruce!" Diana cried. She flew for all she was worth, zooming toward the rapidly falling duo. What a lunatic this guy was, jumping out of a skyscraper! Straining even more, she closed the distance between them in fractions of a second. Time itself seemed to slow, her hurtling toward Bruce and Celsius to intercept them before they hit the ground. She reached out at the last moment, trying to grab Bruce's hand. Their fingertips brushed.
And then she was hit by what felt like the entire continent of Antarctica rolled up into a blast of the most intense cold she'd ever felt. It made the low temperatures outside seem tropical by comparison. She was knocked away, frozen in a block of ice that dropped like a rock toward the ground.
Celsius laughed and then before impact formed an ice bridge that met them from the ground up, carrying him and Bruce over the heads of astonished onlookers and toward one of Gotham's main overpasses. "First name basis with Wonder Woman, huh," he quipped as he sent out dozens of ice pylons supporting his makeshift mobile bridge. "Haha, you dirty dog." They zoomed down the street on a platform of ice that moved as fast as he could form it. The spikes of ice that he generated to support it were devastating, ramming through automobiles, pavement, sidewalk, and even some of the street-level businesses.
Bruce responded by punching Celsius in the throat. The supervillian's eyes comically widened, all the better to see the leaping snap kick that knocked him off of the ice bridge and onto the pavement eight feet below.
Bruce himself landed considerably more gracefully, martial arts training allowing him to economically absorb most of the impact. But even as he landed, his mind was already focused on putting as much distance between himself and Celsius as possible. Those blows hadn't taken the man out, and with his powers. . .
Celsius rose unsteadily to his feet, a hand going to his bruised throat. "Do you have any idea what I'm going to do to you," he rasped menacingly as he stretched out his hand.
Bruce dodged just in time to avoid being decapitated by an ice blast. He leapt over a nearby parked car and darted into a nearby alley, Celsius hot in pursuit. Seeing a lone dumpster ahead, he jumped behind it. Another blast rocked the makeshift shield, sending icicles clawing out past the edge. Bruce prepared to move, which was one he realized just how badly in trouble he was.
"Dead end, genius," Celsius laughed, strolling casually down the alley. "Honestly, I'd like to take my time with this but the cops are gonna be here and soon and it's pretty obvious I won't be getting my ransom anyway. So your death will just have to be short and horrible instead of long and drawn out."
Bruce stood from behind the Dumpster with his hands up. "Look, I can still get you your money-" he was silenced by a chilling blast that encased him in ice from the neck down. He gasped from the pain and the cold. "Please."
Celsius rolled his eyes. "Pathetic. First you go and slug me, which made me think you might actually have some stones after all. But then you gotta go ruining it with this sniveling, begging nonsense." As he spoke, a blade of ice began to form in his hand. Wickedly curved and lethal, like a translucent scimitar. "But hey, at least they'll be able to say you died on your feet."
Suddenly the timid expression on Bruce's face evaporated, replaced by a smirk. "Wondered when you'd get here."
"Who are you-" the rest of Celsius' question was cut short by the 140 pounds of pissed-off Amazon that landed on him, slamming him into ground with perhaps a bit more force than was necessary to render him completely unconscious.
Diana wasted no time in rushing to Bruce's aid. With a powerful punch she shattered the ice around his body, praying it wasn't too late. Despite his bravado he was looking pretty pale, and unlike her he didn't have superhuman durability and recovery.
With the ice gone, Bruce swayed unsteadily before collapsing into Diana's arms. She squeezed him tight to share some of her warmth. Weakly, he returned the embrace, shivering violently despite himself. She planted a grateful kiss on his temple, resting her cheek against his jaw.
"Ambulances should be here in less than a minute," she murmured. "Celsius caused a lot of damage with that ice bridge of his, left a trail of injuries and destroyed property. And carried you nearly half a mile in the process."
Bruce said something so faint that Diana could barely make it out. "What was that Bruce?"
She could feel his slight smile against her cheek. "I said, th-thank you. You s-saved my life."
Diana pulled back so she could see his face. "I was so worried, Bruce, I thought-"
"I know," he said. "We can talk about it tonight."
"Tonight. . ?"
He coughed as another spasm hit. "That is, unless you p-plan on standing me up."
"No- no. . . it's just with everything-"
"I can handle it," he assured her. "But you need to go. This place is about to be a media firestorm and we both know how much you hate even getting your picture taken." Even as he said this, emergency and police vehicles were pulling up, sirens blaring. Overhead, half a dozen helicopters or more were circling, mostly media trying to get a shot of the celebrity billionaire and the big name superheroine who'd come to Gotham City.
Diana seemed to hesitate, so Bruce stepped back, letting his hand fall back to his side. "Go. But expect your doorbell to ring at about eight, okay."
She nodded. "I'll. . .see you then."
He gave her a quick wink, and then turned to the approaching swarm of police, medics, and reporters.
Diana reluctantly ascended up into the air, flying away too fast for any of the news choppers to even get a fix on her. She keyed her communicator on. "Wonder Woman reporting in. Situation successfully resolved."
"I noticed, " replied J'onn dryly. "Good job, Diana. Do you wish to be beamed up now?"
"No," she said, "I think I'll just head back down to my condo."
"Well get some rest. You've earned it. Watchtower out."
The line went dead and Diana flew toward her home in the next city, her thoughts preoccupied of course with the enigmatic Bruce Wayne.
Note: The quote at the beginning, for any lovers of poetry out there, is from a Robert Frost poem called Fire and Ice. It's a favorite poem of mine.