i_am_your_spy (i_am_your_spy) wrote,
i_am_your_spy
i_am_your_spy

Empire: Children of Manhattan

Empire: Children of Manhattan



“And you, you stand watch, you are one of the guardians. You meet your fellow by stirring the lighted wood in the pile of twigs beside you. Why do you stand watch? Someone has to stand guard, they say…Someone must be present.” — Franz Kafka


This time, Leslie isn’t subtle, or cautious, or anything else that might save her life. The new issue of Midnight Notes—which details, with fatal accuracy, Veidt’s entire plot, the blood that feeds his fragile peace—flutters like dry leaves over the sidewalks, floats down the gutters and clogs storm drains in soggy heaps.

No one notices. No one rises up in protest and demands the head of Adrian Veidt. She signs her death warrant in cheap and fading ink, and the world marches past her, another sad, unknown lunatic with a theory that would be laughable were it not in such poor taste. She might as well pace the streets carrying a doomsday placard for all of the attention she garners.

It says something good about New Yorkers, Dan thinks grimly, that none believe that a human could do this. Their faith is stronger than his own.

Days pass, and Dan waits by the window. The furniture is covered by a thin film of dust, barely touched. Rorschach is smart enough to avoid their gilded cage; Dan knows he probably won’t come back, that looking for him is pointless. So he waits, instead, for word of Leslie’s victory or, he thinks grimly, news of her death.

There’s a press conference, one of so many these days, but it’s Veidt so Dan listens from the kitchen while the television blares in the living room. In the drone of questions he recognizes a voice.

It isn’t Leslie Chadwicke, isn’t the Twilight Lady, though the lilt is still there, the birdlike cock of her head, the exaggerated contrapposto that makes her look more like the pin-up villainess she was than like Gale Knightly, camerawoman-turned-underground-journalist. What do you say to the accusations that you were responsible for the monster’s creation?—accusations few have read and fewer have believed, and when Veidt, laughing uncomfortably, starts to deny it, she pulls a tiny revolver from her purse and fires six times at the podium.

This is how Veidt wins, four months after he gave mankind his terrible gift.

The bullets dodged, without effort, the deranged former nemesis dragged away, screaming, to the New York State Psychiatric Hospital, her story—one of many conspiracy theories in the wake of a disaster that no human mind can truly comprehend—buried, a footnote in the many interwoven stories that will no doubt emerge from New York’s ashes. For now: a curious news item to be printed in the back of the /Gazette, the retired vice queen’s bizarre assault on a man who has poured his wealth into rebuilding the city.

Dan sinks into his couch, and it’s an hour since the press conference—the broadcast is a repeat—and there was yet another period of time that’s passed where he’d already lost before realizing it. It’s almost a relief, he thinks, to have been on the other side of the borough, to not have been tempted. And maybe he’s wrong, maybe Veidt doesn’t win after all, maybe no one ever wins and the great Ozymandias sleeps as badly as Dan does.

When, some time later, he walks down to the dumpster and hooks his fingers beneath the lid handle, he already knows he’ll find a note there. Two addresses, the first one circled and the barely-legible scrawl: “Here first.”

He wonders whether Rorschach will want to spring Leslie, either to enlist her in his one-man war or to put her on a bus to someplace she might be safe, or whether he knows, as Dan does, that she’s almost certainly better off where she is, where even Veidt can’t find her and force her to reveal her source. Or maybe his truce with her was only temporary and he still believes she ought to be locked up.

There’s no point in dwelling on it for long, he tells himself, as he reaches for his overcoat and not for his costume. He’ll find out soon enough.

*

He thinks that the burnt-out brownstone might have had tenants once, but they must have fled long before the monster. The sidewalk and concrete steps leading up to the door leak garbage and yellowed weeds, the grey keystones blackened with soot. What glass remains in the windows is heat-warped and cracked.

He has to break in, but it’s only a formality, like ringing a doorbell would be for a normal person. The rotted wood gives before the lock does. “It’s me,” Dan says, and his voice echoes up the stairs. He doesn’t need to check the numbers on the apartment doors; one is slightly ajar, and framed by the only light in the building. The hallway smells like something died in it, and as he slips into the room, closing the door behind him, the other, more distinctive scent that settles over him is almost a comfort.

Dan wonders if all of the candles, stubby and wedged into beer bottles, that are scattered on windowsills and the broken stove are there because electricity still hasn’t been restored to this South Bronx neighborhood, or because Rorschach is trying, he is, but he doesn’t understand social rituals any more than he gets why canned beans should be heated up before being eaten.

This was his apartment, when he was a child and hid from his mother’s shadow. Dan is sure of it without asking, and he sits down on the cracked wooden chair, the floor creaking under his weight, and thinks that whatever the hell brought Rorschach back here can’t possibly be good.

“Brought takeout,” Rorschach says as he emerges from the kitchen, and Dan is relieved until he sees that it’s scavenged from the soup kitchen; days-old bread and canned meat, but he hides his distaste and slides onto the floor because there’s no table and only the one chair. They’ve eaten worse.

“Thanks,” Dan says. He gestures vaguely at the candles. “Is this a date?” It’s the wrong thing to say—insulting, even—but Rorschach doesn’t flinch. It’s been such a long time since Dan’s seen him without the mask that he’s almost forgotten how unnerving his partner’s eyes are. Dan chews on a torn-off stub of bread, tough and stale, to avoid saying anything else that’s stupid.

“Need to talk.”

He gives up on the bread. “I know,” he says, though part of him whispers that there can’t be anything left to talk about, that all that’s left is to accept defeat, and since Rorschach won’t ever do that—“The second address…?”

“Miss Chadwicke’s. Source will be waiting.”

“The source?” He’d almost forgotten that there was another person out here, somewhere, still in danger, some other poor bastard who’s braver or more stubborn than he is. “Does it even matter now?”

“Matters,” and Dan pretends that Rorschach’s voice sounds like it always does and there’s no catch in the monotone, no hesitation. Rorschach knows who Leslie’s informant was—has probably known for awhile, maybe before he followed her home—and doesn’t want to say that he’s kept silent because he doesn’t trust Dan.

For some time they sit on the floor, on a cigarette-burned rug, staring at each other with the remains of dinner between them and the candlelight slowly dying.

“I won’t say anything,” Dan says. “I told you I wouldn’t betray you. And whoever it is—they tried to do the right thing. I won’t betray that person either.”

“Know that, Daniel. Good. Not like me.”

“The hell’s gotten into you, man?” He reaches out for Rorschach’s hand, but his partner—ex-partner again, maybe, with how cagey and unpredictable he’s been lately—jerks away and stands up to lean against the peeling wall. Dan follows him, stands closer than he should, close enough to tell that Rorschach is shaking, and after everything they’ve seen, everything they’ve done, he doesn’t want to know what it is that can make his friend tremble now. “Rorschach. Will you look at me?”

It takes some prompting, and his hand barely touching the sandpaper jaw, but he manages to get the smaller man to look up. He immediately wishes that he hadn’t—those aren’t Rorschach’s real eyes, and they stare through him blankly.

Still, he tries. “You’re good, Rorschach. You’re the best person I know—” and that, too, is the wrong thing to say; everyone he knows is dead or insane or evil. “—and I wouldn’t have made it, not after what Veidt did, if you hadn’t been there.” He’s about to keep talking, to spill everything—how he was lost for so long after his retirement, how he had no purpose and no passion until he came home and found Rorschach in his kitchen telling him that the Comedian was dead, how even though the world is over he has that one scrap of his old life to cling to and now it’s everything to him—when there’s a throat-clearing “eenk” and he bites it back.

“Should have been pure.” Rorschach’s fingers twist the sleeve of Dan’s sports coat. “Beyond this…perversion. Moral. Like you.”

“Uh…” It can’t be that simple, he thinks. It never is. “I don’t know what you think I’ve been doing for the past few months, but it hasn’t exactly been pure.” He almost laughs, except that Rorschach is serious, brought him here and tried to act like he thinks people in a relationship or whatever it is they have act, is trying to actually talk to Dan for once, and if he’s failing, it isn’t for lack of effort. “Rorschach, for Christ’s sake. Do you think there was ever anyone who put on a goddamned mask who wasn’t some kind of a deviant?”

“Normal, before. Did this to save me.”

He was always obsessive, Dan thinks, even before he broke completely, always so single-minded and in a way, that was what had drawn Dan—who could never make up his mind about anything—to him. Like he was always burning up and the only way to keep him here, just for a little longer, was to catch a part of that flame. Was that what he’d thought the first time, when he’d hauled Rorschach off a top-knot’s body and kissed him? He can’t remember having been thinking anything at all.

“Maybe that’s how it started,” Dan admits. “You can’t possibly think that’s what it is now.”

“Truth exposed. No need to hide. No need—” He flicks out a hand towards the last fading candle. “—for this. Can have good life now, Daniel.”

He clasps Rorschach’s shoulder. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

“No. Not right. Miss her.”

He almost asks, “Who?”—but, Laurie, of course. Laurie, who had left him devastated, alone, if Rorschach hadn’t been there to give him a reason to keep fighting. “Oh. Yeah, I do. But you can miss someone and even still love someone and move—” Rorschach is still staring past him, and Dan’s suddenly uneasy, because as fucked-up and miserable as his partner is, he isn’t exactly the type to go fishing for reassurances. And though Dan knows that sometimes when he wakes up from a nightmare it’s Laurie he calls out for, Rorschach has always been careful not to invoke her loss.

Dan pulls his hand away, and now the shaking seems to have infected him, too.

“Rorschach?” His heart thuds against his ribs. “Why—why would you bring her up?”

But the address is still in his pocket, the second address, and someone is waiting for him there, someone who knew enough to tell Leslie everything, and there were four of them there, four of them whom Veidt spared, who were given the choice between silence and destruction.

“I need to go,” Dan whispers. “I need—I’ll be back, okay?” He staggers, his limbs no longer entirely under his control, to the chair where he’s thrown his coat, and he tries not to look back.

If he did, Rorschach would still be standing there, his voice flat as he tells the closing door: “Daniel. Not what you think.”

*

There’s police tape around Leslie’s apartment so Dan waits outside as dawn breaks over the skyline. The buildings are suffused with red and gold; the clouds receding for the first time in weeks. Dan takes to pacing one city block, then two, and after some time he notices that there’s a figure walking the opposite sidewalk, dressed in a black hoodie that’s pulled over its face, a few steps ahead of him.

He almost collides with a taxi as he dashes across the street, and it’s enough pause to tell him something is wrong, to let him see shadows that fall in the wrong places, or no, it’s not that, it’s that a shadow is missing and what sort of person doesn’t cast one except—

Not what you think.

—there was a dream, but his dreams are never just dreams these days, and he squeezes his eyes shut because when he opens them the world will be back to normal and the face beneath the hood won’t shine, the voice that is almost her voice but isn’t won’t say, detached: “He didn’t tell you, did he?”

“I, uh…” She’s still there when he works up the courage to open his eyes again. It’s hard to make out her features; he thinks the birthmark is still there, a speck of indigo that refuses to glow. “…Laurie?”

“Keep walking,” and she does, and he runs after her; his legs are longer but somehow she’s faster and he has to struggle to keep up. He can’t tell if she’s walking at all—she moves like Jon did, as though she’s not really moving, as if reality itself bends to let her pass.

“What did he do to you?”

“I asked him to. I begged him, and he—well, Jon doesn’t beg.” They reach a hiding place, finally, the courtyard of a church that’s hidden from the street and empty in the early hours of morning. “But he didn’t want to make me like him.” She stands in front of him, taller now, and he could almost touch her. Just a few steps—but he doesn’t. He won’t. “I didn’t want you to find out this way, Dan. I didn’t want you to find out at all.”

He has so many questions, bubbling up all at once and all he can do is sink against the stone wall that outlines the courtyard, fight the tears that blot his vision, and the words choke and die in his throat.

“I saw it.” Her voice, like the ringing of a distant bell, like how a goddess would sound if such a creature existed. “Not days, not weeks after it happened, but right then and there. He brought me back in the middle of it. All those people, drowning in blood…I wanted to die, then. I wanted to burn out everything human in me. I wanted to tear out my own eyes because if I never saw again it would be better than seeing that.”

“So he changed you.” He spits it out, hoping bitterness can overpower grief.

“I can see now, as he does. I can live in the moments before it happened, when they were all alive, when you and I were—” She’s right there, kneeling beside him, and her hands, smooth and perfect, fall on either side of his face. He expects them to be cold, but it’s more that they take on the heat in his cheeks. “You can’t understand. I couldn’t, before. It isn’t like I thought; it isn’t like being disconnected. I’ve seen the universe, Dan, and it’s so beautiful. Everything’s so beautiful. Everything is connected.” Her eyes are white and filled with starlight. “Don’t cry, Dan. Please.”

“You left,” he said. “You left, and when you came back you didn’t even—you went to Leslie, you—”

“And you kept going, and you were stronger than you ever thought you could be.” She sits, and for a moment he thinks that it’s his Laurie, so familiar is presence that warms his side, the way she rests her arm over her knees like she’s about to raise her pipe to her lips. “You think I stopped loving you. I didn’t. There is no past, no end. None of us ever stop loving.”

“Then why…” The tears threaten to drown out his words again, and he’s almost grateful for them, because even if she can command space and matter she can’t make him stop feeling this. “Why come back at all?”

“To save the world.” She sounds almost surprised that he’s asked, even though she probably knows how their entire conversation—how their entire lives—will unfold. “Life is—amazing. So amazing. And rarer than you can imagine. There is nothing in the universe like this time, this place.” Her fingers on him again, smoothing back his stupid hair. “These people. It must be preserved at all costs, even if we have to lie to keep the bombs asleep in their silos. You agreed, the same as I did.”

“But you told.”

There’s still smoke in her voice, even with its new and strange echo. “Veidt was wrong. He thought he could keep it silent, but he’s still human. Even if he’d killed all of us, the truth would have come out eventually, and humanity would go back to slaughtering itself. He doesn’t understand how these things work—he only sees the overarching structures. He can’t be bothered with ugly details and coincidences and chance. It’s all logic, except people aren’t logical, and they don’t behave like he thinks.” She shakes her head. “Jon can see sub-atomic particles and Veidt can see how to end war and Rorschach can see a murder scene from a speck of blood, and you—well. None of you guys could see how the human heart works. You can’t suppress truth by burying it. But by speaking it—”

He should feel betrayed, he thinks. Outraged. There’s a cold fist in his chest, squeezing so that he can’t breathe properly. Laurie is back, right there beside him, only it isn’t Laurie, it’s some stranger who keeps Laurie’s face hidden beneath her glowing skin. “If the truth is so absurd that no one would ever believe it; if the person speaking it is someone who can be discredited…that’s why it was Leslie, wasn’t it? Because she was nuts and had a criminal past and you used her as a pawn.”

“You’re angry. Don’t be angry. The world is safe now, and no one had to die for it.” She stands up and reaches out her hand. He takes it, grudgingly, and maybe she’s right, even if he has to hate her a little for it. “You’re safe.”

“There’s something I don’t think you know,” he begins, but he can’t, and besides, she’s still speaking.

“You won’t ever see the universe as I do, or as Jon does, but try to imagine. It isn’t so bad. All around us, the dead are returning to earth, to the cosmos. Three million here, and millions more in places you’ll never go, reunited with the force that gave them life. That’s the great secret, Dan, that’s why Jon always smiled a little, even when things were at their worst. Nothing—no one—is ever truly lost.”

For a second he almost is comforted by the thought, and then he’s gripped again by doubt. “Laurie,” he says. “Why are you telling me this?” His brain does a series of quick calculations—how long it would take Rorschach to get downtown to Veidt’s office, whether he’d be that stubborn when he must know that it’s over, that even in death he can’t win, and of course that’s no deterrent, it never could be…“Laurie, where’s Rorschach? When you saw him, did he say anything weird; I mean, weirder than usual?” When she still doesn’t answer, he mutters, “Ohgod.”

Her arms around him, strangers now, not lovers, but still connected, and around him everything is bright, like it is in his dreams. Flashes of other worlds: a mushroom cloud rising above the city, a hat, abandoned, in the snow. “It’s different every time,” she murmurs, and he can’t believe that he thought for a second that the emotion was gone from her voice. “But some things can’t be changed. Or maybe it’s only we who change, and time continues, with or without us.”

“Take me to him,” Dan says. “You can do that, right? It’s how you got back to Earth.”

“And if you don’t save him?” Laurie replies. “If you are too late?”

The words gush free, like a severed artery, each request more absurd and incoherent than the next, to tell him what happens, how it ends, to send him back in time, to tear the humanity out of him and let him inhabit the eternal now where she lives.

At last, he whispers, “Send me there anyway. If I can’t do anything, if I can’t stop him…let me at least be there.”

There is no such thing as time or space, only a searing heat that scatters him into particles, and everything goes white.

*

Dan falls to his knees, retching wet starch onto a polished floor, vomit burning his mouth as he pushes back against the pain and nausea. He manages a few stairs on the frozen escalator before there’s a body, one of Veidt’s guards, his gun still in his holster—Dan grabs it, even if it’s useless—and his throat ripped out. He looks behind him and sees the other corpse, face down in the lobby fountain.

The escalator is a better bet than the elevator, he tells himself, even in his less-than-ideal shape. He leans heavily on the railing—no wonder Laurie hated this, the churning sickness as every molecule in his body settles back into place—and follows the crimson boot prints upstairs.

His lungs are bursting by the time he reaches Veidt’s office, and he has time to wonder if he’s pushed himself too far, if the cramp in his left side is a heart attack. But there’s a thump inside, the sound of a fist hitting flesh, and it means that Laurie was wrong, that he’s not too late, and he presses against the doorframe to catch his breath.

Veidt’s voice carries above the noise. “This is all so unnecessary,” he is saying. “You’re no threat to me anymore. You’ve helped me, even if it was unintentional; it all went so much better than planned. I don’t want you dead.”

“Not,” the growl, audible even with the wall and the mask between them, “mutual.”

“Oh, for pity’s sake.” Dan hears a crack: bone, splintering, a muffled hiss. He edges around the side of the door to see Rorschach on his knees at Veidt’s feet, his arm twisted at an unnatural angle and the bile rises in his gut again even as he wills himself to stay still, to think this one out. “You lost. The world won. There’s no shame in it—” A movement, too quick for Dan to catch, but Rorschach gasps in pain. “—not in fighting well for a bad cause. But it’s over. Find some other reason to live besides revenge.”

“No other reason.”

“Hm. I’m sure that’s why your partner is right outside, thinking that he’s going to ambush me. Drop the gun, Daniel, you know it won’t do any good.”

Dan lets the gun fall with a clatter and kicks it across the floor. Rorschach grabs it before Veidt can and slams it into his throat, frees himself in the split second where his adversary rallies and climbs back on his feet. Dan runs for them and suddenly he’s in the air, hurled against Veidt’s desk to land in an undignified heap, his head still spinning. Rorschach manages to get a few one-armed jabs in before Veidt’s clawed hand slashes across his face, taking the lower half of the mask with it. Ink bleeds sluggishly from the rent fabric and Dan is sure that the keening whine that escapes his partner’s lips is the worst thing he’s ever heard.

“You know what your problem is?” Veidt says, dodging blows as Rorschach batters at him, a wild animal, a dark and filthy specter incongruous in the immaculate, gleaming palace. “You don’t know your own limits. You still fight like you’re twenty, and you’re not. You think you can overcome pain because you ignore it.” He strikes, once, and Rorschach goes skidding past Dan into the floor-to-ceiling windows. “Might work on the streets, but in here, you’re just a—”

He’s interrupted by a crash as Rorschach squirms out from under his grasp and pushes his chair through the window. Wind rushes into the office, cold against Dan’s face, snapping him back to alertness. He crawls to his knees in time to see Rorschach pinning Veidt against the jagged wreckage of the window, ink and blood dripping from his ruined face.

The city lies below them, hungry and waiting. “Poetic justice, Rorschach?” Veidt asks.

“Could say that,” and with all his remaining strength, shoves Veidt off the edge of the floor.

But Veidt is faster, smarter, than either of them. His hand snakes out to grab the iron bar and hoist himself up. “You’ve left me with no choice,” and Dan almost believes he regrets it as he lifts Rorschach by the lapel of his trenchcoat and throws him to a city that, at last, welcomes him home.

*

Dan rushes Veidt and slams him against the bars, a shard of broken glass gripped in his fist, and still, he doesn’t look down because if he doesn’t look, maybe Rorschach is hanging off the side of the building, maybe there’s a rope or a scaffold and maybe he’s somewhere other than in a bloody splatter on the sidewalk below, and maybe then it doesn’t matter that Dan couldn’t save him. “Go on, then,” Veidt says. “Do it, if you can. Rorschach would.”

He lets the glass cut, just a little, even as it slices into his own palm. Veidt is mortal; he bleeds, golden skin parting at the translucent edge as it presses against his throat, and they both know that he’s the one allowing this—that he can reach up and snap Dan’s neck before the glass sinks deeper— because the grief that weighs down on Dan’s shoulders, a grey and heavy veil that squeezes his breath into barely suppressed sobs, is a curiosity to him. Veidt has felt love, a great and all-encompassing love that consumes everything it touches, but never this, never rage, never despair.

“I’m not Rorschach,” Dan says, though he doesn’t loosen his grip.

“That much is abundantly clear,” Veidt replies. “You have a sense of self-preservation.”

He wonders if Veidt wants to die. He can feel the pulse beneath his fingers, rapid and hot. He’s had his hands around another man’s throat before, knows where to cut, where to apply pressure—and he never has. Can’t, though he thinks that Veidt deserves worse if he could manage it.

A voice in his head—Rorschach’s voice, if he’s honest with himself—taunts him. Too soft, too slow, too willing to let others get their hands dirty. The only punishment Veidt will ever face waits beneath them, and Dan is too weak to deliver him to it, lost his chance the second he hesitated if he ever had it at all.

“It’s what he’d want,” the words almost seductive. “To wipe the slate clean so that it’s only you left standing. Divine violence, absolution, perfect and just.”

The wind howls and turns suffocatingly hot as though the air itself has risen against them, bearing down on them both. He feels Veidt shudder under him and their positions are reversed before he can so much as put up a half-hearted struggle, the other man’s muscled arms bending his around the beam, his bulk crushing Dan’s lungs. One slip, he thinks, and it’s over. But Veidt is careful; Veidt doesn’t want to kill him. High above the shell-shocked and fearful world he’s created, his masterfully realized vision, he is, in his own way, as lonely and bereft as Dan is.

“There is no justice, Adrian,” Dan wheezes out. “Not anymore.”

“Do you want to join him?” Even as he says it, Veidt releases him and steps away. He leans into his desk, rubbing at his bloodied neck, and Dan eyes the gun on the floor and wonders if he’d be fast enough. It’s not like he gets to tie up the bad guy and call the cops this time, not when it’s Ozymandias who has only thwarted his fourth assassination attempt—and this one by a wanted fugitive—in as many months. “You must hate me.”

It’s a betrayal to not go down fighting Veidt with his last breath, to return to his drab and quiet life while braver men die and crueler men reshape the world in their own image.

“You’re just going to walk away?”

“Even if we’re alone, even if this world has made us into monsters—I won’t be. Someone must—”

Every step is an effort as he drags himself that last distance to stand by the window, his city, innocent of the death that rains upon it, even more of a struggle to force himself—he owes this to Rorschach, his friend would never have turned away—to look down, but before he can, he’s blown clear across the room as the sky cracks open and the entire wall of the skyscraper is blasted into vapor.

“—rise above this.”

*

It’s her. Laurie, or whatever she is now, rising to meet them as the sky boils and turns black and the lights of the city fizzle out. He can’t see properly, and he lifts his hands to his face and he realizes that it’s because the lenses of his glasses have been blown apart.

He should look at her, beautiful and terrible, the air crackling and bending around her, her light a halo to his blurred vision. But his attention is grabbed instead by the body draped across her arms, and he no longer cares that Veidt is right there, that the early-morning commuters are looking up to witness the birth of a new god, that he could pick up the gun and end everything now. All he sees is that, when she lowers Rorschach to the floor, he huffs in vague acknowledgment of the omnipotent being that saved his life, picks up his hat from where it fell, and claws the edge of the desk to pull himself into a shaky fighting stance, his thin lips curling in a ink-stained scowl.

Half-blinded, Dan stumbles against the wall. Edges around Laurie, who burns strange and cold above the floor, framed by the scorched charcoal of the skyline. You couldn’t have told me? he wants to shout at her, but his voice would be lost in the wind. He manages, somehow, to reach his partner’s side, and that’s enough; Rorschach clings to him for support, battered and exhausted but alive, his fingers digging into Dan’s arm with strength enough to bruise.

He wills his partner not to move, almost hopes he’ll collapse rather than trying to take on Veidt again, fearing that if the brief contact ceases he’ll stop being real. He slides closer to press his face into the shoulder of his partner’s coat, its acrid smell more convincing than the indistinct blur before his eyes.

“Need you,” Rorschach hisses at him. “Can’t fight him alone.”

“Don’t,” Dan mouths over the sound of the storm. “I need you too.” He can’t tell if Rorschach hears him, or cares. He can feel his partner’s muscles tremble, poised to spring but too weak to do much more than sway on his feet.

Laurie drifts through them; in her wake they are ghosts, hollow and ragged amid broken glass that sparkles like diamonds. They don’t belong here. Veidt turns, slowly, and the wind is extinguished with one last thunderclap.

“You always had a flare for the melodramatic,” Veidt says. “It doesn’t become you.” He folds his arms over his chest and stares up at her, cool and unafraid. “I wouldn’t have thought that it would be you, Laurel.”

“Disappointed?”

“Hmm.” A small and secretive smile. “Not anymore. This is it, then?”

She doesn’t need to answer. The air buckles beneath her hands, a shockwave that sends them both sprawling into the desk, but Veidt stands motionless as she drifts towards him.

“Your secret is safe,” the thing-that-was-Laurie tells him. “I made certain of it. Your works will survive you. Across the universe, in places where life is only beginning to stir, in farther places where the dust gathers into planets—someone will know of Adrian Veidt, the man who ended war.”

Veidt laughs. “But I’m not needed. Am I?”

“You would be God,” she says. “That’s never a good idea.”

Rorschach tugs at Dan’s arm, a painful stagger forward, one last try to be the instrument of justice that sweeps Veidt from the world. Hopeless, they both know it, and they both know he has to try, and Dan is grateful for the tattered remains of his mask, that if there’s madness or tears in his eyes it is hidden behind melting black, grateful for the damper that his own faded vision affords him. He’s seen enough. He pulls Rorschach to face him and stares into the still-shifting patterns, reaches down and grabs the gloved hand by the wrist and slides their fingers together.

And so he doesn’t see if, for an instant, fear crosses Veidt’s face as he says, “I leave the world in good hands. Take care of it,” though he knows that the words are meant for him. He doesn’t hear what Laurie whispers right before she takes Veidt into her embrace.

The light surrounds them, fills their skin to show the bones beneath, to sketch their embrace in black against a blaze of white. How frail we are, he thinks, how human, and Rorschach squeezes his hand as the world explodes.

*

Steam, wavering and hazy, rises from the floor. Dan coughs. His mouth is dry with ash. He can hear his own rapid breathing, listens as he inhales for Rorschach’s harsh gasps. Laurie—Laurie isn’t breathing at all. She doesn’t need to breathe. She will never breathe again.

Rorschach launches himself at her with a wordless animal scream. His fist passes through her as if through smoke, shadowboxing while she merely steps aside with a serene smile. He must know, Dan thinks, how pointless this is, how easily she could kill him too, just by thinking it, and still he rages at her, still snarls: “Had no right.”

“He killed half of New York,” she says, as if it doesn’t even matter to her. “He murdered my father. Are you angry because you weren’t the one to kill him, or because I didn’t let him kill you too?”

Dan suspects it’s both, or maybe something else, maybe that justice can’t be that clean, that instantaneous, that it must be hard-won, throttled free from a criminal’s throat by bloodstained hands in a pool of beer and piss. That Rorschach has to believe, if in nothing else, that they are beyond the whims of gods. He sinks into the floor at her knees, slides his hand through the shards of glass that litter the floor, and from behind the mask comes a sound that Dan has heard only once before, in the snowy graveyard of Veidt’s Antarctic garden.

“Laurie,” Dan whispers, helpless.

As he approaches the odd tableau, Laurie’s voice resonates in the back of his skull; he wonders if Rorschach hears it too, but his friend gives no indication that he hears anything at all. “It takes me centuries to return to that place, to revisit that moment, those promises we made. And even longer to figure out the answer, to come back and cut through the Gordian Knot.” She moves past them, to Veidt’s desk, to pick up one of the action figures sprawled over it, turning it over in her hand as if seeing one for the first time. “Now it can begin. Now you can rebuild.”

“Rebuild,” he echoes. He splays a hand over Rorschach’s back; the smaller man is shaking, the ink moving across the ragged shreds of his mask in jerking stop-motion. So absurd to suggest that anything of the city, anything of them, remains. “And you?”

“I won’t be used as a tool, like Jon was.” She stands at the edge of the floor. Sirens flood the stilled air, shouts from the street below, a police loudspeaker warning people away from the crumbling building. They don’t have much time. “This world is too fragile to be inhabited by people who can live forever.” She turns, bathed in the red light of a police airship. “I can’t stay.”

“But…” He couldn’t end the sentence if he tried—of course she can’t stay. This is not a place for impossible things, for impossible people. She has seen centuries fall away like leaves from a dying tree, seen the death of their world and the birth of new suns far beyond the places where mankind can dream, and what are the few short years he knew her, the fewer days that she loved him, measured against that?

“You can come with me,” Laurie tells him. “If you want. Jon wouldn’t mind. You could live forever and wander the stars.”

“Daniel.” Rorschach’s mumble is barely audible, and Dan squeezes his forearm in reassurance. Laurie, resplendent in sapphire, holds her hands out to the city, and they cower in the place where her shadow should have been.

“But,” she says, “you’re about to tell me that you won’t, that you can’t leave this place. You owe something to it, despite its ugliness and horror and pain. Because it is your city, and because you will always try to save it, because you have to believe that it’s possible for it to be saved.”

“Laurie—” He almost doesn’t, but: “What happens, Laurie? If I stay, if…”

She laughs. “You’re asking me if you’ll be okay? If it all ends well?” She casts a sidelong glance at Rorschach. “Don’t be so naïve. Nothing ever ends well. If I tell you that your future and my past are simultaneous, that every decision is set in stone, that you both live happily ever after or if worse things are still before you and a time will come when we will all wish that we had died that night in New York—would it change your answer? Would you believe yourself less free?”

Rorschach bristles; Dan murmurs, more to him than to Laurie, “No.”

“Then goodbye, Dan,” she says, and he wants to think there’s sadness in her words, maybe even regret. “And tell my mother I—no, don’t tell her anything. She wouldn’t understand.”

He stares after her for longer than he should as she turns from him and walks into the fog, across the sky until she becomes a pinpoint of light, a distant star that pierces the clouds. He watches until he hears Rorschach clear his throat from the floor.

“Police here. Should leave. Not likely to accept explanation of events.” The monotone is back, and he’s not sure whether to be relieved or worried.

“What happened just now…”

“Forget it. Nothing happened.” He grabs Dan’s arm to pull himself to his feet, sucking air through his teeth as he tries to pull the frayed mask across his face.

“Right,” Dan replies. “Nothing happened,” and pulls him close, holds him as best he can without further aggravating his injuries, ignoring the annoyed noises he makes and the liquid, viscous and bitter, that floods his mouth when he presses his lips to Rorschach’s clenched teeth. It isn’t much of a kiss, he thinks, but it’s enough that he can still touch the guy at all. “I thought you were dead, you bastard,” he says as he draws away. “Don’t ever do that to me again.”

Rorschach shrugs, reaches up to tips his hat low over his face. “Hazard of profession.” A pause, then: “Came back.”

“You thought I wouldn’t?” They walk, leaning on each other, out of Veidt’s crumbling temple, down a fire escape while the cops converge around the other side of the building. The sky is still dark, though it must be afternoon, and the shadows between skyscrapers conceal their slow and painful flight. Not free, Dan thinks, but no longer bound to the dead either.

“Hurm. Thought…”

“You’re stuck with me, Rorschach. I just turned down immortality for you.”

“Why?”

He stops abruptly. “The hell if I know sometimes. You’re psychotic and you’re a fascist and you—you piss me off like no one else can, and—” He lets his arm drop to his friend’s side, parting the folds of the mangled coat to embrace him. “—you never gave up on me, not even when I gave up on myself. Not me, and not the world either.”

“No,” Rorschach says hoarsely. “Never could.”

Dan holds him there for a moment, close enough that he can see him clearly though his vision is soft at the edges. Slowly, Dan peels back his mask, reveals unblinking eyes deep-set in a weather-beaten face. Traces his finger over the drying bloodstains—butterfly, he thinks, a grin twitching at the side of his mouth—for a moment, Rorschach isn’t ugly, isn’t damaged; he is strong and whole, an afterimage of the lost man Dan still searches for.

“Then even if it takes years,” Dan whispers, “even if it takes the rest of our lives…I won’t give up on you either.”
Tags: fic, watchmen
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