Warnings: AU, post-GN (spoilers for same)
Disclaimer: Don't own, don't sue.
Summary: What if Rorschach had decided differently in the wreckage of Karnak? Why would he make such a choice, and what would it mean for himself, Daniel and Veidt's brave new world?
Author's Notes: Before you read this chapter, please go and listen to this song. It's not absolutely necessary, but I think that it will help to set the tone of the chapter, and hopefully convey what I was trying to paint through the whole story. That's really all I have to say at this point, except that this was a pretty emotional ride for me. I hope I did it justice.
Part 1 - "But for me, you would make an exception..."
Part 2 - "Those were the reasons, and that was New York..."
Part 3 - "We are ugly, but we have the music..."
4. "I need you, I don't need you..."
Gunmetal gray were the streets and skies of the silent city, clouds promising more snow to add to the dusting already there. The cars were silent wraiths in the concrete canals, horns left unsounded. The few people out and about on a weekday morning (and how few of them there were anymore) kept their heads down, not wanting to be seen by the newly erected CCTV poles, not willing to see for fear of being watched in return.
And if anyone even noticed the middle-aged man, coatless, bespectacled, wearing inadequate shoes, running down the street to the Gunga Diner and tearing through the trashcan on the opposite corner as if searching for the meaning of life, they did not comment.
Nothing. Dan kicked the trashcan with a sneakered toe and bent at the waist, hands on his knees, gasping for breath. Walter (no, not Walter, not then and not now. Rorschach) had used the garbage can as a mail drop, passing notes and clues without surrendering them to the system. After waking and discovering that his friend had gone, and gone for good (the purple pinstripes and brown trenchcoat vanished from the closet, the sack of chewing sugar taken from the cupboards, the Chandler novel gone from the nightstand), Dan had thrown on what clothes he could manage and went to the only place he knew, the only one he could remember from the world that died. All the way there, he'd prayed for a glimpse of ginger hair to burn away the gray, a scrap of paper wedged into the side of the trash bin with an address in a familiar scrawl, something. Anything. But there was nothing at all.
Dan straightened, peering around him at the empty street corner, at the place where the newsvendor's kiosk had stood, and the cheery purple neon of the Gunga Diner (recently reopened for business, ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on) and held on to hope for one second longer, for one fleeting glimpe of a small, spare frame in a flapping coat, of a stained green suit jacket under a red-orange flare, something. Anything.
But there was nothing at all.
Shivering with cold and loss, Dan wrapped his shirtsleeved arms around himself and made his way back home. And on that long, last mile, with the terrible clarity of hindsight, Dan remembered, and saw, and understood.
He thought that he knew why Rorschach had made his choice in Antarctica, his compromise. At first he'd thought that Rorschach had finally seen the big picture, that he was willing to submit to the greater good. Then, he'd thought that he'd done it for Dan, borne of love and friendship to stave away the crushing weight of lonely knowledge (oh, how vain, how prideful he had been). He thought that he knew the reasons, never thought to ask, too afraid to ask. But Rorschach had told him his reasons, the first new day.
"Not stupid, Daniel."
Rorschach wasn't stupid. He had known that, if he was dead, Veidt would be left unchallenged, unchecked. No one would dare to watch him or question him, even if it needed doing. Rorschach was the only one willing to take on that awful responsibility, to turn his back on the crowd as it fell at Veidt's conquering feet. And to do that, he needed to survive. To compromise. To lie.
And so he lied. There in the owlship, that first new day, he made a decision and took off his face. He took off his pride and fervor and black-and-white view of the world, and put on a mask in place of it (a mask with the face of a man who died in 1975, oh God, oh God,) so that no one could know or suspect him, biding his time until Veidt had his back turned, the savior of the world too busy with dreams of conquest to notice the movements of one ordinary man. A man no different from any other, save that he was dead. Rorschach pretending to be Walter Kovacs.
"Not stupid, Daniel."
It had been true. It had been, perhaps, the last true thing Rorschach had ever said to him.
Dan had stopped shivering by the time he returned to the brownstone, too numb to shake. He walked mechanically into the kitchen, putting a pot of coffee on to percolate, hands balking at the routine like rusty, untended gears. He reached for the sugar cubes and reminded himself that they were gone before realizing that they weren't entirely gone. There by the canister, in the corner of the tile counter, Dan saw something he'd missed in his initial scramble through the townhouse: a small pile of wrapped sugar cubes, resting on the open pages of a slim hardbacked book.
Dan brushed the cubes away and picked up the volume (a collection of poetry, a gift from a well-meaning aunt, left to molder on Dan's bookshelf without so much as a crack in its spine, the same bookshelf Walter had raided so regularly). And there, in the middle of the page, was a single stanza in a Richard Lovelace poem, bracketed in black ink, a few cramped words scrawled beneath it, punctuated with a symbol Dan had hoped he'd never see again.
"Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honor more."
Sorry, Daniel. Force of habit.
Dan slid to the linoleum floor and wept.
Dan wasn't surprised when, that same day, a tall fit man in a black suit arrived at his door, wishing to ask him a few questions "to benefit the public interest." The man asked him about the whereabouts of his known associate, Walter Kovacs, of his own whereabouts, of his plans for travel in the future. He said that he was with the police. Dan kept his own face and voice mannequin-blank, refusing to dignify the lie by pointing it out. The black-suited man was not a policeman, for he did not serve the law. He was not even a vigilante, for he did not serve justice. He was only a mercenary, for he served only Veidt.
Dan told the man everything he knew, which was nothing (he did not know where Mr. Kovacs was, nor did he know when he would return, nor did he know if he would be traveling in the future, good day) and sent the man away. The mercenary said that they would be watching, and Dan believed him. They had likely been watching since they returned from Karnak. Rorschach had undoubtedly known this, but had not told Dan. He might have told Nite Owl, but not Dan.
That night, Dan sat in the Owl's Nest, staring at Archie, wondering if he should take it out and go looking for Rorschach. But the black-suited men were watching, he knew, and they would follow, and even if he did find Rorschach, he would only lead them right to him. So he stayed, wings broken, hiding in the underbrush while the foxes sniffed around, and he did not sleep.
The next day, Dan wasn't surprised when the headline of the New Frontiersman proclaimed "ALIEN INVASION: HOAX!!" The lead story went on for three pages, drawing together threads and segues into a whole, unified picture: the death of the Comedian, the cancer scandals, Dr. Manhattan leaving Earth, the missing writers and artists, Dimension Developments, genetics research, all of it. Dan was impressed with Rorschach's restraint; there was no hint of his friend's usual poetic embellishments on the nature of man, no dark, lush allegories between society and disease, nothing but cold, hard, rational fact. It was beautiful in its sparse elegance, a masterpiece of justified paranoia. And Dan was sure (he hoped against hope, the sensation tightening his throat) that no one would believe him.
The day after that, Dan was very surprised to see the headline of Nova Express denouncing the New Frontiersman as a hatemongering rag, spreading lies and filth about the great Adrian Veidt, who was currently leading Gallup polls by 77% as a replacement for Nixon. Of course, this meant that all of the sane, rational, liberal-minded citizens who read the Nova Express picked up an old copy of the New Frontiersman, just to see what all of the fuss was about. And then they started talking (and hope died in Dan's chest, the carcass weighting his heart like lead).
Two days after that, the headline of the New York Gazette read "ADRIAN VEIDT: SAVIOR OR MADMAN?" with four pages on the controversy. National talk shows had picked up the story. Gallup polls had dropped to 47%. And in the midst of all this, Dan was not surprised, not at all, to find a single, unremarkable column on page four: the previous night, escaped felon Walter Kovacs, also known as Rorschach, had been shot dead while fleeing police custody. (But they were not policemen, for they did not serve the law...)
Walter Kovacs would have no grave for his enemies to leave roses upon (shipped out to the cremation pits in New Jersey, ashes to ashes, dust to dust), so instead, Dan stripped the cotton sheets from his bed, took them to the tiny patio behind the townhouse with a box of kitchen matches, stuffed them into a metal trashcan, lined the edges with page four of the Gazette and struck a match. He stood and watched until the sheets were completely consumed, until not even a single ember glowed amid the remnants, and then he spat into the ashes and walked back inside.
He did not cry. Dan's last tear had been shed days before, for a man who had died more than a decade ago.
Dan was surprised when, the next day, Adrian Veidt came to his door, flanked by two black-suited mercenaries, bloodshot eyes hidden behind dark Wayfarers.
"I hope you're happy," he spat in Dan's foyer, black limousine waiting in the street, rage and fatigue and hopeless impotence bleeding into his cultured voice (and, in a previous life, Dan might have sympathized). "I hope that, when this peace falls down around us and when people start killing each other all over again, and you only have yourself to blame for the end of all humanity, I hope that you'll be happy."
And Dan would have smiled at the idea, but he couldn't. The part of Dan that had smiled and argued and caressed freckled skin had been burned in a bundle of bedsheets, had been cried out on a kitchen floor, and this... this was what was left. "The end of humanity was your doing, Adrian," he said simply. "Not mine."
"I was going to save humanity, you small-minded... idiot!" Adrian snapped, voice hoarse with too much coffee, eyes burning unseen behind his sunglasses."
How?" Dan asked, pushing despite himself. "By muzzling it? Neutering it? Drugging it into a stupor of fear and lies until they do whatever you tell them to? That was what you were doing, Adrian. The curfew, the mercenaries," Dan's gaze flickered to the black-suited men, "the media control, the manipulation. All of it. You did more than slaughter three million people, Adrian. You took free will from those that survived."
Veidt licked his lips, shoulders hunched. "It... it was only a temporary measure," he insisted. "A stopgap, until things settled down. The people would see, I could make them... but why," he asked aloud, straightening with a mocking scoff, "am I justifying myself to you? You, a flabby footnote in the annals of history? Why should I justify myself to you?"
"Because you can't justify to yourself," Dan said without inflection, dimly aware that he should have been insulted. "Can't justify own actions. Can't reconcile. Want justification."
"Dammit, stop talking like that!" Adrian shouted, ripping his glasses off. He looked terrible, chalky white against the dark purple of his suit, the whites of his eyes consumed with red. "It's not true!"
"It is true," Dan replied. "You tried to scare people into world peace. And it worked, for a little while, but then people started adapting, returning to normal, making the wrong choices. So you tried fear again, and it worked. But don't you see? I've lived in your stronger loving world, Adrian. You're not creating world peace, you're stripping away free will, the very thing that makes us human." Dan sighed, making a low sound in the back of his throat. "We all make our own choices. No one gets to choose for others, Adrian. Not even you."
Veidt clenched his perfect teeth, breath hissing between them. "I could kill you," he said darkly, pointing one slim finger, prodding for a reaction, a glimmer of fear, anything. "I could kill you, right here, where you stand."
Dan huffed something that might have been a laugh. "Of course you could. You've killed so many already, shoring up your crumbling foundations. What's one more?"
The finger trembled, the tremors climbing to shake Veidt's shoulders, the blond man suspended on the knife's edge of his own choice. But then he turned, shoved his sunglasses onto his face and nearly ran from the brownstone, mercenaries trailing in his wake down the steps and into the limousine and into the dark city streets. And Dan let out the breath he was holding and shut the door. (Alive, alive, I am alive, and oh how very bitter it is.)
Three years after Veidt's bloodless downfall (none of the New Frontiersman's allegations could be proven, of course, but his image had never recovered), Sam Hollis settled his check at the tiny diner and walked out onto Main Street, tipping his hat to the pretty blonde waitress as he left. Sam was the town mechanic, and a damn good one too, come out to the tiny town of White Deer, Washington, (where the air smelled of green, growing things even in winter) from New York City in 1986, another refugee from a dead world. He was a quiet man, not much for socializing, but the townsfolk knew what 11/2 meant, and so they did not question. But life goes on, ob-la-di, ob-la-da, and wasn't Reagan doing a bang-up job with that Gorbachev fellow, a cowboy in the White House, who'd have thought?
Sam seemed to keep to himself, though he could be seen on nice weekends taking his tired old pickup to the nearby Glacier Falls Nature Preserve, returning on Monday with a sketchbook full of wing structures and foliage patterns. But apart from that (and infrequent jaunts to the market, the hardware store or the diner), Sam kept to his garage or his tiny cabin, his garage because it kept him busy, and his cabin because it was the only place in the world where he could still be Dan Dreiberg.
On those quiet weekday nights, after the mask of Sam Hollis came off for the day, Dan would make a cup of coffee (three sugars) and stand near the window, looking out into the pine forests (not looking at a slim volume of poetry in easy reach on the end table, its spine well-creased with use) and lie to himself. He thought that, if he did it enough, he would start to believe it. He thought that he might believe that his brief liaison with Rorschach (his love for Walter) was just an odd version of Stockholm Syndrome, a reaction to the terrible situation they'd been in. He thought that he could say it didn't really mean anything, that what he felt for Laurie and Leslie and a succession of half-remembered lovers had been more lasting, more real than those two borrowed months. He thought that, after three years, he could simply remember Rorschach as a fond memory (blind whispers over freckled skin in a cold hotel room, kisses sweet with summer peaches, a flat monotone chasing shadows away) and as nothing else.
He thought he could do that.
He should have known better.
I don't mean to suggest
that I loved you the best
I can't keep track of each fallen robin
I remember you well
in the Chelsea Hotel
but that's all
I don't even think of you that often
-"Chelsea Hotel No. 2," Leonard Cohen
*crying* Comments are *sniff* greatly appreciated. *sob*