Dick is gonna kill me.
Oddly enough, that was the first thing on Tim’s mind as he rolled over in the snow and found the left leg of his ski pants torn and bloodied. He’d promised to return Dick’s ski gear unscathed. Absently, he wondered if he’d be able to order a new set on Amazon before Dick noticed.
But of course, he thought, staring at the actively bleeding wound in his leg, that should probably be the least of his concerns right now.
The snow around him resembled strawberry Italian ice, and it was only getting redder. He had to stop the bleeding. But with what? Tim didn’t exactly go skiing with a first aid kit on hand. Had he known how bad he was at skiing though, he might’ve prepared differently.
He decided to use his shirt, crafting a makeshift tourniquet to slow the flow before putting his coat back on. The insulated fabric felt weird against his bare skin, but at least he was still warm. He examined his work, and found that although it was still bleeding, it wasn’t gushing like it had been before. He also noticed with a pang of nausea that he could see something white deep within the wound. Snow?
No. Bone. That’s nice.
Tim forced himself to look away and breathe, suddenly grateful for the freezing air against his skin. He willed himself to calm down. Think. How could he get help?
He’d somehow skied off the slopes and down a steep cliff where he’d taken a pretty nasty spill that sent him careening into a stand of trees. He was fairly certain he was out of earshot of most people by now, and had seen too many cartoons to feel particularly comfortable screaming in a potential avalanche zone.
Walking on this leg was going to be a nightmare, but that would be his best bet. At least until he could get to a place that had decent signal. Tim felt around in the snow. His skis had broken and he had no idea where his poles had flown off to – more things he’d be hearing about from Dick – so he found a branch to help prop him up.
As soon as Tim was upright, he became painfully aware of how much blood he’d already lost. The world dipped and churned around him. His head felt like it was full of helium, floating miles above his body. He sucked in another lungful of icy air and blew it out slowly. If he passed out here he would either bleed out or freeze to death.
Either way, it wouldn’t be ideal.
He took a step with his good leg first, then his injured one. As soon as he went to move it, the leg surrendered under his weight and he collapsed, his face burning against the packed snow. Tim bit back a scream, rolling over and clutching gently yet desperately at his shredded thigh. Blotches of light flashed before his eyes as the pain wafted over him before slowly ebbing into a steady burn.
When he finally felt ready, he tried again, pushing himself to his feet. He took a step, then another. This time when his leg started to buckle, he grabbed a tree for added support. “Worst field trip ever,” he groaned.
The first field trip he’d gone on since elementary school and he ended up mortally wounded and stranded in the mountains. He imagined he’d be getting a kick out of this story one day. Assuming he lived long enough to do so.
No. He couldn’t let himself think like that. Bruce’s words rang in his ears.
The fight’s over the moment you give up hope.
Don’t give up, he thought to himself, taking another trembling step. He could barely get the foot of his bad leg above the snow, unable to lift it high enough. It dragged like dead weight beside him. A step, then a drag. A step, then a drag. The whole process was slow and painful and deeply frustrating.
Once Tim made it out of his little crash landing zone, he glanced back at the scene. A small crater of bloodied snow, a bloody trail of clumsy footprints. It wouldn’t take a detective to piece together what had happened here, though he realized that someone could just as easily assume that someone had been attacked by some sort of wild animal. And if someone wanted to track him, he imagined they wouldn’t have much problem.
Maybe that was a good thing, he thought. In case someone sent help, they’d be able to find him pretty easily.
That’s it, Tim. Positive spin.
A few more feet and he saw the thing that had done him in. A jagged stone jutting up from the snow, its tip now soaked with blood. As Tim had skidded and rolled down the cliff, this thing had cut his leg clean open. A smooth incision, so fast and so sudden that he hadn’t even realized it had happened until he saw the blood.
It wasn’t until Tim got to the base of the cliff that he acknowledged the obvious problem with his current strategy. Even on his best day, getting up this way would be a challenge. Now that he was down a leg, it would be nearly impossible. But up straight up was where the rest of the resort was – the one with all the people, heat, and perhaps a few medical supplies if he was lucky.
Tim surveyed his surroundings. He could try to go around, find another way up, but there was no guarantee that it would be any different on the other side. He turned to look down the mountain. There was a small town at the base, he remembered passing it on the bus. It was probably about five miles away. Maybe more. There was a chance he could make it. And everyone knows it’s easier to go downhill than to go up, right?
He turned his attention toward the sky. The sun was at its peak right now, which meant he only had a couple hours of daylight left. This whole thing would get a lot more complicated once nightfall rolled around and the temperatures really started to drop.
Tim weighed his options as best he could considering the blood loss and dizzying pain he was in, and decided to turn his back on the resort and head down the mountain.
When Tim was a kid, he’d gone through a brief yet intense wilderness phase where he’d studied everything about how to survive after being stranded in various environments. He learned about water filtration techniques, starting fires, building shelter. He learned how to send SOS signals and the early signs of dehydration, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, the works. For all intents and purposes, he had trained for this exact scenario.
In the back of his mind he knew that to be true. He knew that he knew what to do here. But now as hypothermia turned his muscles to stone, and his face burned with frostbite, he found himself struggling to dredge up even an ounce of useful information from that time.
All he could seem to remember was that it was crucial to properly extinguish flames to avoid forest fires.
Yeah. Very helpful.
The sky was now that hazy blue it turns right before the sun fully sets. Tim’s entire body was shivering as if from the inside out and his steps barely got him anywhere anymore. In fact, he wasn’t even sure he was still moving. The town seemed just as far away as it had been when he’d started, although when he turned around, the cliff seemed incredibly distant.
He was more or less stranded between his two best hopes at survival. He might as well have been lost at sea.
Tim exhaled a puff of white air. He was exhausted and hurting everywhere. He needed to stop, to rest. Without thinking, he sat down with a grunt, his muscles so stiff that bending at all felt shockingly painful. He noticed then that his leg had stopped bleeding. In fact, he couldn’t feel it at all. Looking down, he realized that was only because the blood had frozen in the wound, creating a temporary seal, and that most of the exposed flesh there was probably on the brink of necrotizing. Dying. His skin and muscle tissue were dying.
He wanted to be concerned, in fact he knew without a doubt that he should be concerned – terrified, in fact – but all he could think of was how tired he was.
Everything in the world felt like it was moving in slow motion, especially him, and he couldn’t help but imagine how peaceful it would be to curl up right here and go to sleep. Just for a little while so that he could get his strength back and try again tomorrow. Barely even a second, if he thought about it.
Something deep and instinctive was pulling him down and away, beckoning him into the darkness. He’d been fighting it for the past hour or so, but now he thought it might be best to just surrender. Let the tide carry him off.
As his eyes slipped closed, Tim couldn’t help but note how weightless his body started to feel. How everything ¬– the burning cold, the ache in his bones, even the grit of the snow against his cheek – seemed to disappear, replaced by a welcome emptiness.
With a sort of distant annoyance, he could feel himself screaming at himself to get up. To open his eyes. To move, find a way to get warm. He could feel himself demanding that he refuse to give up. That he keep fighting.
You’ll die here! part of him was shouting. You’re dying!
It’s fine, he thought irritably. I’m just resting.
And with that, the distant voice faded along with the rest of the world, and Tim slid at once into a deeper sleep than he’d had in years.
The first things Tim noticed was something soft pulled up under his chin and something warm against his face. If he hadn’t known any better, he thought, he would’ve sworn he could smell a fireplace.
When he chanced a peek, half expecting to find himself still in the snow, he was shocked to see that he was on a couch in a small cabin right next to – he guessed it – a fireplace. The heat lapped at his face gently, resurrecting the nose he’d assumed had fallen off somewhere on the mountainside. It was nice, but although his skin felt much warmer, he was still shivering against a kind of bone-deep cold that would take much longer to thaw.
The edges of his mind felt fuzzy in a way that was all too familiar to him.
Painkillers, he thought.
It would explain why he felt so comfortable, despite his ordeal. For all intents and purposes he should be curled up in fetal position right now.
Oh no, he thought suddenly, his heart lurching. What if this was all some near-death hallucination?
The human body has a funny way of protecting itself. He’d read countless stories of the things people saw in their final moments, as if their brains chose to indulge in a personalized escape rather than face the reality of what was happening – a way to make even the worst death more bearable, more peaceful.
Some people see their life flash before their eyes. Others step into a daydream.
Tim felt panic rising up in his chest as he pictured himself still curled up on the mountainside, slowly freezing to death. He imagined the rangers finding him there. The phone call to the manor to break the news. Alfred would probably answer, then tell Bruce who would tell the others. What this would do to them. How it would break them. For a group of people so accustomed to tragedy, they sure were awful at dealing with it.
He couldn’t believe it was ending like this. All those years on the streets, launching himself into countless deadly situations and walking away with a bloody lip and a grin. All the training, the plans he’d made for himself, his life. He was going to be somebody; he was going to help people. And just like that, it was over.
Tears streamed over the bridge of his nose and towards his ear as he stared at the fire, furious with himself. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t give up, that he’d keep fighting. He could’ve made it further down the mountain, could’ve pushed himself harder. Dick would’ve found a way. So would Bruce, Jason, even Damian would’ve worked something out.
But not Tim.
Maybe it was better this way. He’d always suspected that he was the weak link on the team, holding the rest of them back. Now they wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore.
Tim felt himself descending into self-pity and welcomed it. He didn’t deserve a happy hallucination. He was weak, cowardly.
He bunched the blanket up under his chin, still shivering, his tears now streaming in earnest.
It probably wouldn’t be long now, he thought. He had no way of knowing how much time had passed, but with the temperatures likely plummeting, he knew it couldn’t be much longer. His core temperature would drop, his breathing would slow, then finally his heart would give out.
He glanced at the cabin door, wondering if someone would soon walk through and escort him away, and his heart leapt when suddenly a light flashed through the window and filled the small room.
Tim sat up to face the door, his mind racing. This was it. For one wild second, he wondered if he could fight whoever was coming, maybe wrestle his way back to conscious.
He just wasn’t ready to go yet.
A key turned in the door and a figure entered with a gust of icy wind, still silhouetted by the light. When finally the lights turned off, Tim blinked, struggling to focus on the person’s face.
And there, to Tim’s endless surprise, stood Dick, shaking snow out of his hair, his face red with cold. Damian came up behind him, followed by Bruce and Jason, who shut the door. Jason checked his phone then informed the others that apparently Duke, Cass, Steph, and Barbara would be there within the next few hours.
Dick nodded then grinned when he saw that Tim was awake. “The ice boy lives,” he announced jubilantly.
Tim didn’t move, barely breathed. This only served to confirm his fears. He really was hallucinating. Nothing else could explain why they would be here with more on their way. Tears rushed down his face as hiccupping sobs jerked his body.
“What’s wrong?” Bruce asked, rushing to his side. “Are you in pain? Is it your leg?” He threw aside the blanket to reveal the freshly bandaged wound. When it appeared to be all right, Bruce scanned the rest of Tim’s body, apparently searching for the problem.
“I- I’m so… sorry,” Tim sobbed. “I didn’t mean… to leave you guys… I didn’t mean to…”
Bruce’s face was creased with worry as he tried desperately to understand the broken apology. The rest of them gathered around, all varying shades of concerned and confused.
“What do you mean?” Dick asked.
“The mountain… I gave up… I gave up and now…” Tim struggled to speak, to breathe, gasping for air between words.
Jason and Dick exchanged looks, visibly shaken. Jason made a “loopy” sign with his finger.
“And now what,” Bruce asked gently.
Bruce blinked. There was a pause in the room, even the fire seemed to fall quiet. Jason snorted, turning away so that Tim wouldn’t see him laughing. Even Dick’s worry was now tinged with some amused confusion.
“You’re…?” Bruce asked slowly.
“I’m dead…!” Tim insisted. “That’s why you’re all here. You’re not real. None of this is real.”
“He’s totally lost it,” Damian sighed hopping up onto the dinner table. Dick shushed him, but Damian just shrugged, laying back with his arms folded behind his head.
“I mean it…” Tim whispered. “I let you all down. I’m so sorry… I’m so…” Suddenly he found himself being pulled into a hug.
Bruce’s chest rumbled against Tim’s ear as he murmured, “You can never let me down.”
This only made him cry harder. It was all too perfect. There was no way any of this was real.
When they pulled apart, Bruce wiped Tim’s tears and Jason crouched beside him, grinning ruefully. “Listen, kid. Speaking as someone who’s done it before, I can assure you that this,” Jason gestured to the room, “is not what it feels like to die. Trust me.”
“I second that,” Dick added.
“Third,” Damian chimed, still laying across the table.
“Fourth,” Stephanie chirped. Apparently Dick had her on speakerphone. “They got you, Tim,” she said earnestly. “You’re alive. You made it.”
Barbara’s voice perked up from the same line, “They’re right. I haven’t died myself, but I’ve come pretty close. Trust me, it’s no cozy cabin adventure.”
“Your teachers called when they couldn’t find you,” Jason explained. “Dick and I were out here within the hour, found you, and brought you back here to thaw. That’s it.”
Tim nodded. He was starting to feel more confident, but how could he know for sure?
Jason sighed, apparently reading Tim’s mind, and reached over to his bad leg. He squeezed it, one hard pulse right along the bandage.
White hot pain ripped through Tim’s body, exploding behind his eyes. He choked out a weak groan and dropped his back onto the armrest.
“That answer your question?” Jason asked.
Oddly enough, it did, more convincingly than anything else had. Tim nodded, wiping his face, suddenly deeply embarrassed by his outburst. “I… sorry about that,” he muttered.
“Apologize one more time, Drake!” Damian threatened, still unmoving from his comfortable spot on the table.
Tim grinned, a chill running through him, and instantly found Bruce layering another blanket over him.
“Rest,” Bruce said, rising and heading into the kitchen. It was an order which Tim was happy to obey.
As he sunk back down into a comfortable position under the blankets, Dick tossed him something from across the room. Still battling the tail end of a hypothermic episode, Tim’s reflexes left much to be desired. The object slapped him across the face. When he pulled it away to look at it, he recognized Dick’s ruined ski pants, one leg bloodied and torn to shreds.
Dick crouched by Tim’s head, his eyes deadly serious yet twinkling with humor. “By the way,” he said, his voice low. “You owe me a new everything.”