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In a Dustcoat Waiting

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i.

"You're studying with Louis again tonight?" Sandy looks sideways at Adi, tossing her long brown hair. "Why don't you tell him you have to, I don't know, help your mom around the house, or something?"

"Sandy. You know I'm horrible at math. What am I supposed to do, fail?" In fact, Adi's made sure the whole class knows she's horrible at math, something that her peers never question, though in reality she's been careful to achieve entirely average marks since sixth grade. That was when she first started to notice the suspicious looks thrown by classmates at too-ready answers, and the nervous way boys backed away from a girl with sharpness in her eyes and a book in her hands -- but it wouldn't do to let her place on the honor roll slip too badly. There's Sarah Lawrence to think of, after all.

She's always been careful. Careful not to look her teachers too intently in the eye when she asks questions, or to sigh impatiently at self-important boys quoting sentimental, half-remembered snatches of Kerouac as though they're the cleverest things anybody has ever come out with. Careful when she decides what shade of sticky pink to paint onto her lips -- not too candy-bright and childish, not too dark and slutty. Careful with the details, when she needs to think up another excuse for never inviting any of her friends into her parents' spacious home.

Sandy shrugs. "Must be a real drag, that's all I'm saying. I don't get why you spend so much time over there." Then her eyes widen. "Hey, you're not...dating him, are you?"

Adi's laugh is careful, too. Not too high (any suggestion of nerves will make Sandy sure that she's lying), and not too quick or derisive (she needs to dismiss the idea, but not cruelly). "Really, Sandy," she says. "Louis is a perfectly nice boy. But...well, would you?"

"Oh, Jesus, no." Sandy snorts. "Now, Robert Dover, on the other hand..."

Tuning out Sandy's monologue, Adi turns over the last few moments' conversation in her head. She probably will need a boyfriend soon, she decides, if she's to remain safely unremarkable among her classmates, but she knows instinctively that Louis won't work. He's a hopeless nerd -- Sandy was right about that much -- but that's not the reason why. Adi likes him, likes the unguarded enthusiasm with which he invariably answers the door to her and the fact that he doesn't roll his eyes or look shocked when the pretty little blonde uses words of more than three syllables. Around Louis, she doesn't need to cloak all of her real thoughts -- and that's why she can't date him. She could very easily forget to be careful.

Luckily, a safer option presents itself soon enough. Billy is stupid but not offensively so, fairly handsome, fairly popular, and he grins like an idiot at having her on his arm at junior prom. He even tries to hold her hand at the funeral.

But Adi knows, instinctively, that his sentiments are entirely teenage, that they won't last, that his voice won't break with disappointment when she calls him, a week before she's due to start college, and tells him she's going much further away than that.

After that, she says goodbye to Sandy, who is due to become Sandra Dover in six months and still flushed with giddy excitement, her head too full of diamond rings and Robert to admit of much else.

"But I wanted you to be a bridesmaid," she says, reproachfully.

Then it's Louis' turn. Adi has already hacked off her hair and stuffed her rucksack with shapeless shirts and pants when she meets him, and she isn't wearing any makeup. His face crumples when she tells him, anyway, like she knew it would.

"Don't worry," she tells him, smiling brightly. "I'll be just fine."

It doesn't seem to help. She places a swift kiss on his cheek before she leaves.

In Alexandria, she buys writing paper and envelopes. She fishes them out of her bag a year later in New York, screwed up into a ball and never used.

 

ii.

Cleopatra's disguise has its flaws, as she expected. (Adi chose the name for its iconic ring and its humanizing intimations of tragedy, though in fact she came up with the idea standing before the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut, and she has already decided that she will never go to the wall for a man.) The golden circlet and swirling silk make her look decorative, girlish, telegraphing 'easy target' in a manner certain to attract predators.

But it has its advantages, too. Blake -- as she already knows the Comedian's name to be; really, he's no good whatsoever at discretion -- is the trickiest opponent she's faced yet. Perhaps it's only because she looks so delicate that he hesitates, with something unfathomable in his eyes, just long enough for her to plant a boot in the side of his head and retreat with only scrapes and bruises for her trouble.

Of course, that's far from the end of it. She sees him again soon enough, and while he's busy poking holes in Nelson Gardner's plans, she can feel his eyes on her the whole time. He actually gives her a sly little wink over his shoulder as he walks out, and Adi knows that this is the beginning of a beautiful enmity.

He never actually tries to fuck her, though, which puzzles her for a while. Then one night she runs into Sally Jupiter's daughter, kicking seven shades out of some petty dealer with a wild light in her eyes, and she figures it out at a glance. Adi's almost ten years older than Blake's child, in reality, but the wide blue eyes and the Barbie pink lipstick make her look like little more than a slip of a girl. That's what makes him uncomfortable. And now Adi has something on him -- a way to get under his skin, should she ever need it. Even the arch-nihilist has a limit, apparently, and one dictated by the same quotidian emotions that drive every other parent on the planet.

Much as Adi hates to admit it, she's actually disappointed.

("Crazy bitch," he calls her years later, before a window, a half-articulated gasp through a throatful of blood.

Adi lets her smile twist into something sardonic, allows herself this one little moment of cruelty. "Oh, but it's hardly my fault," she says. "My daddy wasn't a very nice man, you know.")

 

iii.

Dr. Manhattan ought to be the most fascinating person in the room, but Adrienne (as she is careful to think of herself now -- she is no longer a teenager without two coins to rub together, after all) is already working on setting up meetings where she'll be able to study the Superman at leisure, without Blake's sneers or Rorschach's suspicious little asides sidetracking her concentration. So as she waits for somebody to say something interesting, head cocked attentively to one side, she lets her gaze wander over to his companion, instead.

Janey Slater is a little too starched and buttoned-up, perhaps (not a hair out of place, and pearls, at a gathering of costumed crimefighters) but she's undeniably lovely, and the simmering intensity with which she watches Manhattan and Silk Spectre exchange smiles seems to speak of more than just present jealousy. Adrienne can well imagine it -- the years of keeping quiet, of being calm and decorative and decorous and nodding politely when people address her as "Miss". She could relate, if relating was what she did.

After the meeting, she makes time to take Slater aside for a quiet word, one that pointedly isn't about her boyfriend. She's done her research on the other Crimebusters and their associates thoroughly, and so she has at least a passing familiarity with Slater's own research, which helps. She drops hints that she has a few business assets (which isn't a lie; she's invested wisely, and they're growing all the time) and that she might be interested in providing a little funding, to the right projects.

Slater eyes her with distrust, at first, and Adrienne can't quite blame her, given the Silk Spectre situation. Generally, Adrienne manages to steer the conversation in safer directions, but when Manhattan or crimefighting do come up, Slater's composure thins and her soft voice vibrates with resentment, and she refuses to meet Adrienne's eyes.

A few meetings over coffee later, and Slater is still holding back. It must be terribly lonely, Adrienne thinks -- being eternally vigilant, suspicious of any and all attention directed her way, sure that it must be for Manhattan's sake and not her own. Slater's facade is polished, but it is so obviously brittle. She doesn't seem like the type to choose solitude for herself.

"I'm afraid I must be going," Adrienne says, glancing at her watch. "Though it's been interesting talking with you, as always. I have a meeting."

"With Jon, isn't it?" Slater says, setting down her coffee cup with deliberate care. "Let me know how he's doing. I've hardly seen him, lately." She laughs, short and mirthless, and looks right at Adrienne, a direct challenge.

Sighing, Adrienne decides it's time to put paid to this silly resentment once and for all. She turns her head fractionally away, summons a sympathetic half-smile. "It must be terribly hard," she says. "I wish I could offer some advice, but I don't have much experience with these things, I'm afraid." She bites her lip. "I'd prefer this didn't go any further, but... well, I've never been much interested in men, myself."

Slater actually gapes at her for a second, which is satisfying. Then she shrugs, and a tiny smirk appears on her lips. Adrienne thinks that it's probably the most genuine smile she's given anyone in years.

"I'm starting to think you might have the right idea," Slater tells her. "They're more trouble than they're worth. And don't worry. I'm very discreet."

She thaws out fairly quickly after that, and Adrienne isn't surprised when, a few months later, after Manhattan and Juspeczyk have made their relationship public, it's her doorstep that Janey shows up on in tears.

Human comfort is one skill that Adrienne has never quite had the chance to develop, but she manages a comforting hug and a listening ear, and that really seems to be all that's required. Before too long, Janey's sobs have turned into rueful giggles as she lays out a laundry list of Manhattan's faults, clutching a wine glass to her chest, eyes still red-rimmed but no longer downcast.

And: "You know what?" Janey says to her, a week later. "Fuck him. I don't need him. He's barely even human anymore. I need someone who is."

Her gaze is direct, intense, hopeful. Adrienne thinks it would be cruel to correct her.

 

iv.

Nite Owl is of only peripheral interest, at first. But his technological knowhow has great potential, and the Twilight Lady debacle proves that he's fatally susceptible to a little flattery from a pretty face. Adrienne could laugh at that -- the bright spark of the machine age, laid low by a fault older than history -- but instead she puts it to good use, catching him by the arm after the latest failed attempt at a Crimebusters meeting.

She affects a shy smile, and ignores Rorschach's stare (probably a glare, under the latex; he's made his opinion of her quite clear). "Nite Owl," she says, pleasantly. "I hope this isn't rude of me, but... well, I'm very interested in the new project you mentioned earlier. The damage simulator."

He blinks at her. "Really? You don't think it's too far-fetched?"

"Absolutely not," she says, in her best reassuring voice, and gives his arm a gentle pat. She sounds like an elementary school teacher, but it seems to work. "Perhaps I could take a look sometime? If it isn't too much trouble, of course." She looks up at him expectantly through her lashes.

He actually blushes. Too easy.

So a week later, she finds herself saying goodbye on the doorstep of Daniel Dreiberg's townhouse, with a copy of the software tucked into her handbag and, thanks to Dan's nervously-verbose tutorial, a good idea of the changes she'll need to make in order for it to meet her particular needs.

Dan's palm leaves a sweaty mark on the door handle as he sees her out. "I'd, ah, invite you stay for dinner, but I'm due out on patrol," he says. "Rorschach will probably be waiting right now."

"I'm sure you have a lot to do," Adi says, with a wry, understanding smile. "But please, if I can ever offer you any help -- you know where I am. Don't hesitate."

"Thanks."

He never does call her. At least he's not entirely stupid. It's a relief, really.

 

v.

Vietnam, 1969. The war's over, and Adrienne isn't supposed to be here. She sits very still, legs crossed, back rigid, a headscarf hiding her face and her blonde hair. Naturally, she's taken every precaution, and the safehouse is apparently unknown to the authorities, but there's still tension thrumming through her, nerves and veins and muscles all screamingly taut. She taps her fingernails impatiently on the chair arm.

Why is she here, again? Some silly little personal act of defiance? A statement against slaughter -- at least when it's like this, an attempt at clinging to power, seeking respect on the world stage? (A statement to whom?) It's a risk, and risks are the one thing she ought to be avoiding. She shouldn't have come.

The four refugees don't ask many questions, which seems odd, but then they've been running for a long time, now. Their eyes are dark-ringed and tired, their postures slumped. One of them has a hat pulled down low over his face and hasn't spoken the whole time. Adrienne suspects that he's sleeping.

Well. Perhaps when you're out of strength to run with, the suspicious white woman about whom you know nothing seems like a safer bet than the people who are definitely out to get you.

"Of course," she's saying, "if there's anybody you'd like us to contact for you, we'll do our utmost--"

"Save your breath," the refugee with the hat says, without moving. The tone is terse, a warning, but the voice is pitched a little higher than she'd expected. Adrienne raises an eyebrow over the top of her steepled fingers.

"I apologise for my sister," says one of the others, taking the speaker's arm and looking at her sharply. "We-- our parents lived in Bến Tre. It was hard for us. She's upset."

Adrienne holds up a hand. "Please. There's no need to apologize." She gives the sister, still hiding behind her hat, a sympathetic look. "I understand. We've heard the excuses quite often enough on our side of--"

"Understand?" The hat is pulled off and tossed aside, and the woman behind it stares at her with bright, incredulous eyes. "You get to put the newspaper down when you've finished reading it. It isn't a political game for us, it's--"

"Anh." The brother says something in Vietnamese, low-voiced but direct and urgent. For a moment, Adrienne doubts that it will be enough to quell Anh's tirade. (And should it? In many ways, she's entirely justified.) But after a moment, she nods and falls silent.

For now -- but the initial encounter sets the tone for much of their brief acquaintance. Lý Thi Anh is not by nature a volatile woman, but she has a past full of pain and a quick, questing intellect that will not admit anything but the truth. It's refreshing, the challenge where she'd expected only silent gratitude, and Adrienne finds herself seeking Anh out, directing questions at her when they're speaking as a group. They never talk about it, but Adrienne feels that in the most probing questions, there's a grudging acknowledgement of her respect.

They speak for the last time on an airfield.

"You can change your mind, you know," Adrienne says. "You're an intelligent woman, and I always have room for intelligent people at Karnak. With the proper training, you could--"

"I can't. I'm sorry. It's kind of you, but -- it would be a cage, and that's exactly what I'm running from. I'll take my chances." Anh smiles slightly. "A big city should be easy enough to get lost in. New York, maybe. Who knows? Maybe you'll even see me around."

Adrienne returns her smile, and lets her go.

 

vi.

Before the mirror, Adrienne twists hair between her fingers. It's turning dry and brittle, the color of straw. She won't be able to get away with dyeing it for much longer. Another year or two, and people will start directing pitying looks her way, muttering about mutton and lamb. The general public, ever fickle, ever ungrateful.

She has done well. She knows this to be true. Oh, nothing's perfect -- there were bound to be teething problems, after all -- but it could all have been so much worse. She did a good job, all things considered.

Every morning she reminds herself of this, looking her reflection deliberately in the eye.

Her twisting fingers tighten in her hair. A few strands break in her hand.

In 2001, three days before she is due to leave on a charitable visit to the Middle East, Adrienne Veidt disappears. Seven years later, a verdict of death in absentia is recorded.

In the absence of any children, her whole estate reverts to a distant and hitherto unknown cousin in California. But Mr. Hollis and his wife never step forward to claim their inheritance, and attempts at contacting them prove fruitless.

In a place without mirrors on the other side of the world, an old woman counts the passing days, and rarely sleeps.