Prince Daniel pulled his sword from the body of the gargoyle he had slain and turned to gaze into Princess Deborah's eyes. She smiled back, blue eyes shy but hopeful, and held out her hand. Daniel took it, feeling his heart flutter, and cleared his throat ready to burst into song.
Tendrils of purple smoke whipped around them, tugging Deborah away from him and throwing her to the ground. A moment later they had resolved into a sinisterly beautiful woman, smiling at Daniel like a cat with a mouse.
'So we meet, my prince,' she said.
'Allembra!' said Daniel, drawing his sword. 'My father defeated you, and so shall I.'
'Yes, he defeated me,' said Allembra. 'But did he ever tell you how I escaped? Shall I tell you, sweet prince, your rôle in this little story? You see when your father held me, bound and captive, I hid my life away before he struck. But where to hide it?' She paused, put one hand to her mouth in an exaggerated pose of puzzlement.
'I hid it in the one thing I knew he would not destroy to get at me, his own son's heart. But now, my prince, if you should fall in love, my life will flee your heart and return to me. And since I could be defeated then…well, I'm sure you understand I can't let it happen.'
Deborah looked up, wringing her hands in horror as gold curls fell about her face. A portal was opening, glowing with a purple light that looked somehow dirty. The tendrils of smoke were rising again, this time tangling around Daniel, pulling him towards it no matter how he struggled.
'Witch! Where are you sending me?' he demanded.
'To a world were you are nothing,' said Allembra. 'A world where goodness means nothing, and hope is moot. They will think you a madman, and you will never be loved.'
The portal closed around Daniel, filling his eyes with afterimages and prickling unpleasantly over his skin. The last thing he heard was Deborah saying, 'Wherever you have sent him, I swear I will find him and bring him back.'
Then there was nothing.
Protecting a woman from a gang of thugs was all in a night's work for Rorschach. But when a man charged out of the shadows to help him in taking them down, he wasn't sure whether to be more surprised by the lack of mask or the fact that he was wielding a sword. At least he knew how to fight.
Once the gang was down and Rorschach had time to get a good look he realised that apparently a crazed historical re-enactor had come to his aid. The clothing was at least a hundred years out of date. The re-enactor turned to the woman they had rescued and bowed deeply, as if it was the natural thing to do.
'My lady, allow me to escort you to your home,' he said.
She shook her head looking as much bewildered as frightened now. 'Thanks, but it's only a couple of blocks now. I'll be fine.' She hurried off, impractical heels tapping on the pavement, and the re-enactor turned to Rorschach.
'Where is this place?' he said.
Rorschach stared at him, wondering whether this was some kind of joke. 'New York,' he said. 'You should have a mask,' he added.
That got him a wide eyed look. 'I should? Why?'
'To protect your identity. And it's not legal to go around protecting people otherwise.'
'That seems a strange law, to demand that the good go hidden.'
Rorschach was staring at him so hard he felt as if even his mask should have formed giant staring eyes. 'You missed the legalisation of masks. Where have you been?'
'Arillion,' said the re-enactor, looking suddenly forlorn. 'Is it far from here?'
Before Rorschach could reply that he'd never heard of it a car zipped past them, and the re-enactor flattened himself against the wall holding his sword out.
'What sort of creature was that?' he asked.
Rorschach realised that his initial evaluation of crazy had been accurate, which left him with a problem. Namely, that the guy was going to get himself into trouble if he was left to wander around. Which meant finding out where he had come from and getting him back there.
'Do you have family?' he asked.
The madman nodded. 'Back in Arillion my father is the king. He'll be so worried about me.'
'Who takes care of you in this country?' asked Rorschach carefully.
That got him a look as if he was the mad one. 'I've only been here a few hours. Are people normally taken care of in this country?'
'No, but someone should take care of you,' muttered Rorschach. 'Do you know anything about anything?'
'I know how to fight monsters and evildoers, and I can ride a horse,' said the madman.
Rorschach sighed, he didn't want to do this but he could hardly leave the poor guy wandering around when he was this confused. 'You had better come home with me,' he said, relieved when the other followed without question.
The look of hastily concealed distaste at his apartment was more or less expected, the fascinated awe when he switched on the light was not.
'How did you do that?' the man demanded, touching the lightbulb and then sucking his burnt fingers. 'Are you a wizard?'
'It's electricity,' he said.
'Electricity? What's that?'
'You can tame lightning?'
'Not like that.' Rorschach sighed. 'I'll get you a book on it from the library.'
'What's a library?'
'A place where you can borrow books,' said Rorschach. To stem the flood of question he hastily added, 'What's Arillion like?'
To his surprise the man took a deep breath and sang. 'A place with wonders 'round every corner, where animals will greet you every day. Even though the forest's filled with danger-'
'Stop. I didn't ask you to sing about it.'
The man stopped, looking crestfallen. 'Sorry, I thought-,' he paused. 'Do you think I'm a madman?'
Rorschach snorted. 'Probably.'
'Thank you, then. For bringing me into your home anyway.' His voice was soft and he looked at Rorschach with meltingly innocent brown eyes. 'My name's Daniel,' he added.
Rorschach ran his fingers along the bottom of the mask, but he would have to do it sooner or later. He tugged it up with one decisive movement, and met Daniel's eyes. 'Walter Kovacs,' he said.
Daniel nodded, lips curving into a smile. 'Pleased to meet you,' he said, voice ringing with sincerity.
The evening of the next day someone knocked softly on Hollis' door, and he opened it to find a young man dressed as a fairytale prince outside. Since he had once spent his nights dressed as a giant owl, he just raised his eyebrows and invited the boy in.
'Would you like a coffee, lad?' he asked.
'Thank you,' said the boy. He followed Hollis into the kitchen almost shyly, and his next sentence came out in a rush. 'Mr Mason, I read your book, and I would be greatly honoured if you would allow me to take on the mantle of Nite Owl.'
Hollis put the kettle on and fished around in the cupboard for mugs. 'So you want to be the next Nite Owl? Not some kind of fairytale prince?'
'Rorschach said I needed a secret identity.'
'You know Rorschach?' said Hollis. He had read about Rorschach in the papers, but although he had been active for nearly a year he had never been in contact with the other masks. From what Hollis had heard his paranoia would put Hooded Justice to shame. Then he caught the other implication of the sentence. 'A secret identity? So you really are a prince then?'
'Prince Daniel of Arillion.' He held out his hand and Hollis shook it, even though he was starting to doubt its owner's sanity. 'And Rorschach has been very kind to me, that's why I want to do this. In this country I have nothing, and all I can offer in return is to fight by his side.' The earnest, imploring look accompanying that would have melted even Doctor Manhattan's heart.
Hollis made the coffee and handed it over thoughtfully. 'Why Nite Owl, though?' he asked.
'I read your book,' repeated Daniel. 'You sounded like a good man, just and brave. I wanted to take up the name in honour of you. And I like owls, I knew one near the palace that often gave me good advice.'
Hollis sipped at his coffee. He couldn't deny he found the starry eyed hero worship flattering, even from someone who thought he was a prince and went around talking to owls. And he seemed like a good person, open and honest if a bit naïve. No one normal became a vigilante, did it really matter if the boy was a lunatic? Harmless delusions would be a good deal less damaging than the Comedian's disregard for others.
'Son, I'm honoured you want to carry on the name and you're welcome to it,' he said. Daniel beamed, clasping his hands against his chest. 'So you liked my book, did you?' continued Hollis, with a smile of his own. 'Want to hear about some of the adventures I couldn't fit into it?'
Daniel was a fascinated and attentive listener, and Hollis was enjoying the chance to wallow in nostalgia. So he didn't realise how late it had become until he was startled out of his story by the sound of an upstairs window being forced. Now that was either the sound of someone robbing his house at a very coincidental time, or of a worried vigilante who didn't want to compromise his identity by using the door.
'Down here, lad,' he called, willing to make a guess at which one it was.
The figure that appeared at the living room door was smaller than the stories had led him to believe, or perhaps it was just that he had been thinking of him as Hooded Justice Mark II. Still, the mask was every bit as unnerving as he had heard, and he would have looked like someone you wouldn't want to mess with, if he hadn't looked somewhat embarrassed.
'Told you not to leave the apartment, Daniel,' he said, and Daniel looked crestfallen at the reprimand.
'He's been no trouble,' said Hollis, quickly. 'I've enjoyed having someone to talk to who hasn't heard all my stories already.'
'They were very good stories,' said Daniel. He beamed, taking on the starry eyed expression he had earlier regarded Hollis with. 'He says I can be the next Nite Owl! Now I have a secret identity I can help you fight evil.'
Rorschach froze, even through the mask he looked rather taken aback. 'We should talk about this at home,' he said. 'Not here.'
Daniel nodded and stood up at once, turning to shake Hollis' hand. 'Thank you for the coffee, Mr Mason. And for letting me use you name, I'll try to live up to it.'
'Hollis, please, and you're welcome, Daniel,' said Hollis. 'Come and visit any time. You too,' he added to Rorschach. 'I might not be good for much else, but I'd be glad to offer the younger generation the benefit of my experience.'
'Thank you, sir,' said Rorschach. He looked back at Daniel. 'Join me outside.' And then he was gone, back upstairs to leave by the damaged window, while Daniel said goodbye again and took the door.
Hollis stroked Phantom and sighed. 'Hope those boys are okay,' he said. 'Guess the best I can do is be here if they need anything.'
Walter tugged the mask off once they were inside, the better to glare at Daniel. The first time Daniel had almost been surprised to find there was a human behind those shifting blots, but since then he'd been considering Walter as a sort of heroic peasant. Although he'd kept the designation to himself, since he wasn't sure Walter would appreciate it.
'I told you to stay here,' said Walter.
Daniel held his hands up, placatingly. 'I left a note-'
'I know you left a note, that's how I found you. You can't walk around dressed like a children's movie, drawing attention to yourself like that.' Walter closed in on Daniel while he spoke, and Daniel found himself backing into the wall under the onslaught.
'I needed to get a secret identity as soon as possible. You won't let me patrol with you until I do,' he protested.
'I didn't say you could patrol with me at all.'
Daniel took a deep breath and tried to put a hand on Walter's shoulder, disappointed when he pulled away sharply and started pacing. 'You've taken me in, shared what you have with me when you have little enough for yourself. This is the only way I can repay you.'
'You didn't even know what a lightbulb was, what would you do against someone with a gun?'
'I read about guns in Under the Hood, I might not have seen them before but I've fought against people who can throw lightning bolts. Against monsters and trolls.'
'Stop it,' growled Walter, whirling on Daniel with his fists clenched by his sides. 'I'm not letting you risk your life because of things you've fought inside your own head.'
Daniel's own fists clenched in response, he reminded himself that Walter's doubts about his sanity only made taking him in kinder. 'Fight me,' he said. 'I'll show you I can fight. And if I win you have to let me help you.'
'And if you lose you won't ask again?'
Daniel nodded, knowing it only meant he would have to patrol alone. He couldn't let innocents be harmed when it was his duty as a prince to protect them.
Walter threw his coat onto the bed and took up the correct stance for fisticuffs, Daniel mirrored him and they circled. Walter threw the first punch, catching Daniel's chest, he was left handed which made fighting him harder. At first they were both pulling their punches, unwilling to really hurt each other, but with something real at stake that didn't last and by the end they were throwing each other against the wall.
Which explained the angry thumping on Walter's door. Daniel froze where he was while Walter opened it and listened to his landlady's yelling in stony silence. Once she was gone Daniel stayed warily alert, not sure if the fight was over.
'Truce?' he asked.
Walter nodded. He had been winning when they were interrupted, but he looked almost defeated. 'You can patrol with me,' he said. 'Where did you learn to fight?'
Daniel shook his head, not able to give an answer Walter would believe. 'Sorry for upsetting your landlady,' he said.
Walter shrugged. 'Whore's always upset about something.'
'What's a whore?' Daniel asked.
Walter looked at him, eyes sharp with something almost angry, almost wistful, almost…hurt. 'Must be nice to live in your world.'
'You don't believe my world exists,' said Daniel. 'So this won't mean anything to you. But when I find a way back, you can come with me if you want.'
Walter snorted, but the odd look went out of his eyes. 'What would I do in a world like yours?'
'There's still evil to fight, and you could be my advisor. You know about lots of things I'd never heard of. Like libraries, I think my kingdom needs several.'
'Plenty to do in this world,' said Walter. He pulled his coat back on and reached for his mask. 'You can patrol with me when I've found you a uniform. Go to bed.'
But Daniel stood by the window for a long time after he was gone, humming softly to himself, hoping Rorschach was all right out in the city with no one to watch his back.
A week later Walter pushed the newly finished owl suit into a carrier bag and set out for home with a sigh of relief. It was risky staying behind to borrow the sewing machines for that sort of thing, but he had to make use of the resources he had. And Daniel would be pleased.
Hurrying home through the city Walter wasn't sure whether to look forward to having Daniel as a partner or to dread it. He could fight, there was no denying that, and Walter enjoyed his company, but he was too innocent for exposing him to the city's grimy underbelly to feel right. He was vulnerable, and he trusted Walter to take care of him. The wave of tenderness at that thought made Walter grimace, he was getting too close to his guest. Although he didn't see how anyone could have someone that dependent on them and not feel protective. Stupid, if that was true no children would ever be abused.
As for what was wrong with Daniel, a week skimming mental health books at the library had only allowed him to rule out schizophrenia and not given him any clues as to what it was. Daniel's delusions were all firmly rooted in the past, he never claimed animals were talking to him in the present. He showed a startling lack of knowledge about, well, everything, and was apparently attempting to rectify that by reading through the entire library.
He seemed most like an amnesiac who had filled in the blanks with memories of Disney movies. Could people do that? His only really odd personality trait was extreme naïvety, which was both infuriating and oddly endearing. That and a tendency to burst into song at any excuse, Walter added mentally, as he reached his apartment building to hear Daniel's voice drifting down the corridor.
'A spider's web all rimed with dew, between a lamp post and the wall,
One stretched between the forest trees is not more beautiful at all.
A song for the city, for beauty unseen,
For oak trees in gardens, still strong and still green.'
Pushing his apartment door open Walter was greeted with a sight that made everything he had just been thinking moot. Daniel was sweeping his floor, while several mice skittered along in front of him with the dustpan. There were squirrels washing his laundry in the sink, while pigeons draped the clean garments over a clothesline strung across the room. A racoon was sweeping off the tops of the cupboards with his tail.
'A pigeon's collar, rainbow bright, is finer than a ladies pearls,
And city mice are small and cute, the sweetest creatures in the world.
A song for survivors, so small but so strong,
Unthought of or hated, but worthy of song.'
Daniel emptied the dustpan into a binbag, and a pair of bluejays somehow tied the top of it off. Daniel, still humming, turned and saw Walter standing in the doorway. They both froze, Walter realised his mouth was hanging open and forced it shut.
'I've been staying here for long enough I thought that I should help out,' said Daniel, looking sheepish. 'I hope you don't mind.'
Walter shook his head, but had to clear his throat twice before he could speak. 'Telling the truth. Why didn't you do this before?'
'Clean your apartment? I suppose I could have done, but I wasn't sure whether you'd mind.'
Daniel clasped his hands in front of him, looking confused and anxious, while the various animals started filing out through the window. He had no idea, realised Walter, that this sort of thing didn't happen on this world. He wondered if the animals had any idea how strange it was.
'I believe you,' he said. 'You're from another world. Will find a way to help you get back there.'
'How?' asked Daniel. It wasn't disbelief, he sounded as if the problem was nearly solved now Walter was on board.
'We need to find a way to talk to Doctor Manhattan,' said Walter. 'Probably best to go through Hollis.'
Jon poured the solution into a test tube and set it carefully over the bunsen burner. In thirty one seconds Rorschach would finish picking the high security lock, despite the fact that he had been invited, and Jon would meet both him and Nite Owl for the first time. In five months and eighteen days Jon would indulge Nite Owl's curiosity and teach him how to repair a watch. In one year, two months and nine days Nite Owl would burst into song at the first ever Crimebusters meeting, confusing everyone and mortifying Rorschach, but neatly disrupting the Comedian's little show. Jon adjusted the bunsen burner to the correct temperature just as the door clicked open.
'Hello, Rorschach. Nite Owl. Pleased to meet you,' he said. Nite Owl was wearing a brown costume with a cowl and cape. His goggles were tinted swimming goggles, it would be three years before he mastered enough electronics to give himself night vision. They both shook his hand, Nite Owl seemed less disturbed by his appearance than Rorschach but then he had met non-humans before.
'Nite Owl is from another world, he needs to go back there,' said Rorschach. He was standing stiff, head up, the posture of someone who refused to be intimidated.
'I'm afraid I can't help you there,' said Jon. 'I'm a scientist, not a magician.'
'What do you mean?' asked Nite Owl. He was looking around the laboratory with the sort of awe most people reserved for Jon himself, but he returned his attention to Jon as he spoke.
'My abilities, while unusual, are grounded in science. You were sent here by an enchantress using magic, and that is not something I can reverse.'
'So I can never go home?' asked Nite Owl despairingly. Rorschach put out a hand towards him, as if he wanted to clasp his shoulder, but pulled it back before he could. Jon contemplated the abortive gesture impassively, knowing already what it portended.
'I didn't say that,' he said. 'On the contrary you will have your chance to return quite soon. Beings from your world have already breached this one, but you will not become aware of them for another nine days.'
'Oh,' said Nite Owl, softly. 'But…you know where they are already?'
'No. But I remember that you will tell me about meeting with them, and when you will say that meeting occurred. In the meantime I can do nothing to help you.'
Jon returned his attention to the beaker, moving it carefully back from the flame. His guests thanked him politely, Rorschach's old fashioned manners were an affectation, Nite Owl's simply natural, and left quietly. Jon turned his attention to the door's components just long enough to fix the lock, and then went back to his experiment in peace.
The sound of the window being forced woke Hollis, and he wondered whether it was Rorschach and Nite Owl or burglars. He looked at Phantom who whined softly, hair standing up in a ridge down his spine, and nodded, reaching for the baseball bat he kept to hand. It hadn't been so long since he retired that he couldn't take a couple of burglars by himself.
He was jumped as soon as he entered the hallway, he swung the bat automatically and was left holding a stub as it broke over the intruder. He turned to a creature with wings touching the ceiling and a mouthful of fangs.
'You were expecting someone else?' it said, grinning, as its fist came down.
Daniel stumbled away from the trussed up gangsters and, having made it out of their sight, sat down on a low wall. Late roses nodded above him, looking black in the moonlight. Rorschach stopped, looking down at him.
'Upset that no one from your world has found you yet?' he asked. It was the ninth day since they had seen Doctor Manhattan and both of them had spent the night on tenterhooks, but Daniel shook his head.
'Some of those criminals were children,' he said. 'Did they even understand what they were doing?'
Rorschach shrugged. 'They knew they were hurting people in order to take what they wanted. Age is no excuse.'
Daniel moved to push his goggles back and Rorschach grabbed his hand to stop him, they were still in a public place here. Daniel's fingers curled into his palm. 'Is that really true? It seems like we were pretty rough with them.'
'This is why I didn't want you to patrol with me,' said Rorschach. 'You're soft. Not your fault, you come from a better world. You should be back there soon.' It was the best comfort he could offer.
'Will you come with me?' Daniel's hand was still in his, and Rorschach hadn't pulled away.
'Hurm. Don't think I'd fit in.'
'You don't fit in terribly well here.' Daniel looked down, biting his lip slightly. 'Sorry, I didn't mean that.'
'No. True enough. But I'd fit into your world even worse.' Daniel's hand felt warm in his, even through two layers of leather, and the way his heart was racing was proof of exactly how badly he would fit into a perfect world. Daniel looked up at him and he wished he had let him push the goggles back so he could see those warm brown eyes.
'I'll miss you,' said Daniel. Rorschach pulled his hand away belatedly, and then couldn't think what to do with it. Far too much of his brain seemed determined to focus on how soft Daniel's lips looked.
A clip-clop noise from behind him was enough to break the moment and he turned to see a brown horse heading towards them.
'Archie!' called Daniel, as the horse trotted up to him. Rorschach could have sworn it was smiling.
Then a human followed the horse around the corner, a young woman with flowing gold locks and huge blue eyes, wearing a deep blue ballgown with mud crusted around the bottom from the New York streets. Daniel stood up and she picked up her skirt and ran straight into his arms.
'Deborah,' said Daniel, delightedly. 'However did you find me?'
'Allembra changed her mind about sending you here and sent gargoyles through to find you,' said Deborah. 'They've been coming back and forth. Archie and I managed to sneak through the portal tonight before it closed.'
She was nestled against Daniel's chest as if she would happily remain there forever, looking up at him through ridiculously long eyelashes. Daniel pushed his goggles back and smiled down at her.
'We should talk about this indoors,' he said. 'Especially if there are gargoyles about.'
'Apartment isn't big enough for three people,' said Rorschach. 'Much less a horse.'
Daniel looked downcast for a moment and then cheered up. 'We can go and see Hollis,' he said. 'I'm sure he wouldn't mind Archie staying in the garage, and maybe Deborah and I can stay there as well.'
So much for missing him, thought Rorschach. Looked like Daniel would rather move in with his girlfriend as soon as possible. Daniel and Deborah led, arm in arm, and Archie walked beside Rorschach. When Archie gave him a sympathetic look Rorschach sped up, he was not about to be pitied by a horse.
Laurie knocked on Hollis' door and was disappointed when there was no answer, but frowned when she heard movement from inside. Was Hollis there after all, or had someone broken in? Should she do something if they had? She walked around the outside of the house, wondering whether she should give up and go home, but stopped with a grin when she saw the guest bedroom window was slightly ajar. Time to put her vigilante training to good use, and if Hollis was there she could give him a surprise and a reason to answer his front door in future.
Shinning up the drainpipe was easy, balancing on it while levering up the window less so, and she tumbled over the sill landing on her side. A wooden cage, made from dismantled crates, immediately dropped over her head. Looking up she could see a horse standing in the bedroom, he had been holding a rope in his teeth attached to the cage he had just dropped over her. While Laurie was still wondering if she was dreaming, the horse turned and kicked a metal tray leant against the wall making it ring like a gong. Three pairs of footsteps trip-trapped up the stairs.
A vigilante in a swirling black and white mask was first through the door. Rorschach, she had read about him in the papers. A young man in an owl costume, presumably the new protégé Hollis had been talking about. And a young woman in a ballgown, which Laurie sincerely hoped wasn't meant to be a crime fighting costume. All of them staring at her with obvious disappointment.
'You were expecting someone else?' she said, standing up and brushing herself down.
'Could she be a spy for Allembra in disguise?' asked the woman in a ballgown.
Rorschach snorted. 'No. She's Silk Spectre's daughter.'
'Really?' said Nite Owl II. He took a step towards the cage, smiling and eager. 'I'm Daniel. I read about your mother in Under the Hood.'
'Yeah? She won't let me read that,' said Laurie.
Daniel looked awkward and embarrassed, a reaction that seemed all too common in people she said that to. 'Sorry, I shouldn't have…' He stumbled over his words, coming to a halt. 'Archie, could you let her out of the cage, please?'
The horse took the rope in his teeth and hoisted the cage off her. Laurie gasped. 'That's amazing! How did you train him to do that?'
'I didn't train him,' said Daniel. 'He's always happy to help.'
Archie gave her a bashful look from under his long eyelashes, and Laurie petted his nose smiling. 'You're the cleverest horse I've ever seen,' she told him.
'Let's go back downstairs,' said the woman in the ballgown. 'Dinner should be nearly ready by now.'
The cooking was being done with the help of a family of possums, which was the only reason Laurie believed the story they told her. Otherwise she would have thought they were all crazy. She still wasn't sure any of them were normal, Daniel and Deborah were larger than life in a way, all their expressions slightly exaggerated, while Rorschach strove to show no emotion at all, but a normal vigilante would be a contradiction in terms. Rorschach bothered her the most, perhaps because he didn't have the excuse of coming from a different world or because the others at least seemed friendly. Daniel was the only one of them he would talk to, or even really look at, and Laurie was starting to be offended.
'So you set up the cage to trap a gargoyle and make it tell you where Hollis is?' she said, once she had heard the whole story. Daniel nodded. 'And once you know you'll go after him?'
'Yes,' said Daniel, expression hard for the first time.
'I'm coming too, then,' said Laurie, carrying on before Rorschach could protest. 'I've been trained in fighting all my life, my mother saw to that. And I've know Hollis longer than any of you. If he's in danger then I want to help.'
Daniel smiled at her, friendly and guileless. 'I'll be glad to have you along.'
A sound of a hoof against a metal tray rang out through the house.
Laurie was the only one who stayed while Rorschach got information out of the gargoyle with the help of tools from Hollis' workshop, despite her young age she seemed undisturbed by harsh methods. As they headed downstairs to inform the other two of what it had said the sound of Deborah singing drifted up and Rorschach paused at the top of the staircase to listen.
'I crossed two worlds undaunted
Knowing you were what I'd find,
But now your eyes are distant
Although they are still kind.
Your heart stays slow and quiet
When your arms around me wind.
Is this Allembra's magic
Stealing your heart and mind?'
Daniel's voice followed with the next verse, rich and sad.
'When first I met your eyes I thought
Our love was sealed as true.
But now something I cannot grasp
Holds my thoughts back from you.
I've seen so much and learned so much
Of a world I never knew,
That I am not the person now
I was when I met you.'
Deborah continued, 'How can we be together,
And yet so far apart?
If true love truly conquers all
Then what ails your heart?'
Daniel's voice replying, 'If I could love you still I would
And offer you my heart,
But I think this world has changed me
Not Allembra's magic art.'
Laurie tugged Rorschach's sleeve, making him flinch. 'Come on. Or are we really going to stand here all night listening to them sing?'
Rorschach followed her down the stairs slowly, mind going over Daniel's song. It was worrying to think New York had changed him, that perhaps the corruption he had seen would follow him back even into his own innocent world. But he was grateful, and guilty for being so, that Daniel's feelings for Deborah had cooled. That true love wasn't about to totally eclipse their friendship in the few days they had before Daniel left. Laurie burst into the living room ahead of him, startling the two singers from their spot by the window as they turned to her for news.
'The gargoyle said Allembra took Hollis back to Arillion, to her lair,' said Laurie. 'He wouldn't tell them where you were.'
'My fault,' said Daniel. 'I should never have contacted him. But I thought Allembra had finished with me when she tore Deborah and I apart, I never expected her to follow me here.'
'I wonder why she did?' said Laurie. 'She sent you here to stop you falling in love, right? You haven't met anyone lately?'
Daniel shook his head, bewildered. 'I have been leading a most reclusive life. You are the first woman I have truly spoken to.'
'Not important,' said Rorschach. 'We need to find Hollis. The gargoyle will open a portal for us.'
It did, from inside its cage in the bedroom, watching Rorschach with a trepidation that was almost funny from a creature seven feet tall and made of stone. The portal was purple, tendrils reaching from it to wind around them, and Rorschach felt his heart speeding up and his lungs tightening as clinging magic touched his skin. It was too much like being held down, being helpless, and he struggled against it with the erratic motions of a trapped animal as it dragged him into the portal.
When the darkness of the portal faded Daniel was holding his shoulders, whispering urgently. 'Walter! Are you alright? Can you hear me?'
'Not Walter when I'm in costume,' he said groggily, and Daniel's hands squeezed his shoulders tightly with relief.
'Laurie threw up,' he said, still whispering. 'I didn't think about how magic would affect you when you're unused to it.'
'I'm fine now,' Rorschach whispered back, growl dropping out of his voice with the need to be quiet.
Looking around he could see that the gargoyle had done what it said it would and transported them to an unused storeroom in Allembra's lair. It was a cave, part of a complex no doubt, but there was something a little off about it. Maybe it was the fact that they could see with no obvious form of light. Or that the stalactites resembled teeth more than was feasible, bending inward slightly in a way nature would not have allowed.
Laurie was wiping her mouth on a handkerchief Deborah had given her, recovering from throwing up, and Rorschach was glad he wasn't the only one to react badly to the trip through the portal. Archie was standing nearby, far too calm for a horse underground. And this little group was meant to take on the wicked sorceress and rescue the prisoner? It seemed unlikely. But Daniel looked entirely certain of himself, self-possessed in a way he never had been in New York, and when he motioned them to follow him into the corridor everyone fell in behind at once.
Daniel had his sword with him. He'd never thought it was the right kind of weapon for Nite Owl, but had lacked the resources to make anything else. Right now it was the only weapon among the four of them. He knew Walter could fight and thought Laurie could but neither of them was familiar with magic. Deborah was familiar with magic but couldn't fight. That left him, the one who had got them into this mess and desperately hoped he could get them all out alive. He was lucky. The first gargoyle they came across didn't see him before he stabbed it, he took the twin knives it had been carrying from its corpse and handed them to Walter and Laurie.
'They're starmetal, like my sword. They can kill gargoyles,' he said, the cave echoing even his low voice.
Walter took the knife gravely, looking at the blade. 'Thought you were against killing. You don't even like getting rough.'
'They're evil magical constructs, not humans,' said Daniel. 'It's not the same.'
Walter accepted that with a thoughtful hrm and they carried on. Deborah had been in the lair before, looking for a way through to find Daniel, and she led them towards the dungeons. They all stayed as quiet as they could, even Archie was trying to tiptoe.
The dungeons were apparently natural caverns, although suspiciously evenly spaced, with bars across the openings. Skeletons were inside several of them, hanging from cuffs or draped pathetically across the floors. The group found themselves walking closer together as they went further in. When Daniel heard Allembra's voice ahead he threw up an arm to stop the group in its tracks.
'Still not talking, hero?' she asked mockingly. 'I'll find your fledgling with or without your help. The only difference is how much you'll suffer before I do.'
Hollis didn't reply. Daniel started edging forwards, trying to get close enough to see around the corner sheltering them.
'Answer me, hero,' said Allembra. 'Or I'll wring sound out of you, you know I can.'
'I won't betray Daniel,' said Hollis. His voice was hoarse in a way that made Daniel think he had been screaming a lot. It made him pause against the wall, heart drumming with anger as much as fear. He should have stayed alone in the world he was thrown into, he may not have survived but at least he wouldn't have dragged others down with him. Walter's hand brushed his shoulder, a very tentative offer of comfort. Daniel looked back at him, not needing to see his expression to know that Walter didn't regret being pulled into Daniel's problems. It was enough for natural optimism to reassert itself. Daniel mentally shook himself and told himself to think of solutions instead of regretting the problems.
'How sweet of you,' said Allembra. 'But mistaken. Once the potion I'm brewing is finished, you'll tell me everything you know.'
Daniel could hear the swish of her cloak as she walked away. Around the edge of the corner he could see two gargoyles, one on either side of Hollis' cell. Hollis was chained to the wall as well as behind bars, he was tugging hopelessly at the cuffs, fully aware that even getting free from them would do him very little good. His wrists were bleeding. The gargoyle furthest from them had a bunch of keys on a belt around its waist, hopefully the ones to the cell and cuffs.
Daniel looked at his group, who had followed him to the corner. He pointed at Walter and Laurie and then the closest gargoyle. They nodded.
Daniel attacked first, racing past the first gargoyle to get to the second. It drew its sword and parried his blow. They fenced, swords clashing together with ringing sounds and little flashes of silver. Laurie and Rorschach fought with less flash and more brutality, slicing at any part of the gargoyle they could reach. Circling it so that one was always behind it no matter how it turned. Unfortunately for them gargoyles don't have blood, and tactics that would have slowly bled a human dry were less effective used on stone. Daniel was the first to finish, managing to drive his sword deep into the gargoyles chest and disrupt its magic heart.
He was about to help the others when he heard a rushing sound like a storm approaching through the winding tunnels. He grabbed the keys instead, trusting Laurie and Walter to hold their own at least, and unlocked the cell door. He fumbled with the key as he unlocked the cuffs, the sound of rushing wind underground was getting closer and louder all the time. Hollis stumbled stiffly to his feet at the same time as Walter managed a killing blow on the gargoyle. Daniel tugged Hollis with him out of the cell, the group retreating the way they had come. Allembra appeared, carried on a storm of magic which lit the room with bright purple lightning as it crackled around her.
Daniel shoved Hollis at Laurie and Walter. 'Get out of here. I'll hold her off.' All three of them started to protest but he shook his head. 'She won't kill me. She can't. Go.' Laurie and Hollis gave in, knowing it was each other's lives at stake as well as their own, and backed off towards Deborah and Archie. Walter shook his head. 'Please. Hollis is injured and Laurie is inexperienced. Get them out safely.'
'How touching,' said Allembra. 'The noble prince saving the commoners. Who will save you, prince?'
Daniel looked at her, meeting cruel dark eyes without flinching. 'You won't dare kill me, Allembra. I have your heart.'
'You know little of what I can do,' said Allembra. 'True I cannot kill you, but an endless sleep would be little different from your perspective. And if you cannot wake love cannot touch you.' She pulled something from her robes, a powder which sparkled in her hand. 'Shall we see how it works out?'
Walter gasped, stepping closer instead of away. The sudden sound of hooves rang through the room as Archie galloped in and to Daniel's side. Daniel threw himself into the saddle and pulled Walter up behind him. Archie galloped past Allembra, taking them down the other tunnel and away from the route the others had taken. Allembra screeched in rage behind them, a screech that rapidly became a roar. The sound of a huge beast, of scales scraping the sides of the tunnels came from behind them and stalactites and stalagmites barely cleared their heads.
'You should have run when you had the chance,' said Daniel.
'No. Partners,' said Walter. His arms were around Daniel's waist from the sheer necessity of holding on. And, despite himself, Daniel was glad that he was here. It was good not to be alone.
Archie proved to have known where he was going, like Deborah he had been through Allembra's lair before. The hall he charged out into was filled with portals that the gargoyles had been using to hunt for Daniel. This meant it was also full of gargoyles, many swooped down on them at once. Daniel brandished his sword to fend them off, Archie galloped flat out for the nearest portal. And the purple dragon Allembra had become burst into the cavern with an earshattering roar.
Allembra's claw snatched them from Archie's back just as he leapt for the portal, and the horse twisted in the purple light flailing with his hooves as he tried to return for them. Walter tucked himself into a roll automatically, coming up on his feet while Daniel was still scrambling to his. He yanked Daniel upright and pulled him towards the portal, the dirty tendrils of it closing around them at the same time as sparkling powder scattered from Allembra's claw. Walter, mostly inside the portal and struggling not to pass out as it clung to him, only got a small amount on him and found himself feeling slow and stupid just from that. Daniel got covered with the stuff and, as it sank in through his costume in tiny glimmerings of light, he sagged forward into the portal.
Walter emerged on the other side stumbling as he held up Daniel's weight. The tips of Allembra's claws emerged through the portal which slowly stretched around them. Hoisting Daniel into a fireman's lift, Walter staggered away from it. But he could hear the slithering of scales on New York streets as Allembra followed and, like a nightmare, he didn't dare take the time to turn and look but knew inexorably that she was coming. Her shadow darkened the street, he could hear screams from people in the buildings, and she landed in front of Walter with an expression like a cat playing with a mouse. He stumbled back, trying to turn quickly without overbalancing, and Daniel was ripped from his back.
Walter grabbed at Daniel's leg as she lifted him, not sure what he hoped to accomplish and only knowing he wanted to go where Daniel did. That he wouldn't abandon him. Allembra swatted Walter away easily with her other claw, and took off towards the still open portal. She was going to take Daniel back and Walter would never see hm again.
A sharp electric blue lit the horizon, vying with both daylight and the purple glow of the now huge portal. Doctor Manhattan, easily the size of Allembra, stood over New York, walking unconcerned through the streets to block her return through the portal. Allembra hissed like an affronted cat and started to grow, Doctor Manhattan gazed dispassionately back at her and did the same. Soon they towered over New York, terrified people spilled out around their feet and fled from buildings that would soon become unsafe. Allembra dropped Daniel onto the top of a skyscraper and threw herself into the attack. Doctor Manhattan grappled with her, pushing her back from where Daniel now lay, but neither of them could wound the other. Walter thought of irresistible forces and immovable objects, neither of them could give way.
'Rorschach!' Laurie and Deborah were standing in the mouth of a sidestreet. Laurie beckoned him over to join them. 'What happened?'
'She sent Daniel to sleep. He's up there.' Walter pointed to where she had put him.
'I have to reach him,' said Deborah, twisting her hands into the skirt of her dress. 'Allembra can't be killed while he holds her heart. If true love touches him then we can put an end to this.'
Walter nodded, already scanning the abandoned buildings for an open door. A huge blue foot came down close to them, a claw digging hard into the leg above it. All three of them flattened themselves against the wall.
'This way,' said Walter when it lifted again and they followed him into an apartment block.
They ran up the stairs. Every so often one of the combatants would hit the building and it would shake. More than once they were jolted onto hands and knees, and the plaster in the walls around them was cracking with the strain. Walter and Laurie were soon covered in fine white powder, although it seemed to avoid Deborah. The rooftops were shaking as well, and several were now cracked. Laurie followed Walter fearlessly, limber and gymnastic, but Deborah frequently needed help from both of them. Walter practically threw her across some of the jumps he and Laurie made. The last stretch of wall had to be climbed, Daniel's skyscraper was higher than those around it, and Walter carried Deborah on his back, clinging to the wall like a lizard.
Allembra's tail hit the building and Walter closed his eyes and clung on as pieces of cement fell around him. One tore his mask, sending black and white liquid trailing down his neck and over Deborah's arms. He felt a moment's helpless anger at the loss, a shallow echo of his feelings about having Daniel taken from him. They climbed onto the roof, looking anxiously up to check Allembra hadn't seen them only to find her still fully engaged with Doctor Manhattan. Laurie's palms were bleeding, she hadn't had gloves on to protect them during the climb.
Deborah knelt next to Daniel, torn skirt pooling gracefully around her, and bent, blushing, to plant a tender kiss on his lips. Daniel slept on. Deborah stared at his unmoving body, then buried her face in her palms and wept.
'I knew…I knew he no longer loved me,' she said. 'But I hoped. Oh, Daniel!'
Walter remembered being glad that Daniel did not love her, glad she would not come between them, and shame swept over him. They would all lose Daniel now.
'You two should go,' he said, staring up at the raging battle. 'There's nothing we can do.' He would stay, though. Whether or not Daniel ever knew it, he would not die alone. Laurie grabbed Walter's sleeve in her grazed hand, pulling him around to face her.
'Kiss him,' she said. When Walter stared at her in incomprehension she pulled him impatiently towards Daniel. 'She sent the gargoyles because he was falling in love. He hadn't spoken to anyone but you, and I've seen the way you act together. You'd die for him. Kiss him.'
'But,' protested Walter, and Laurie glared at him.
'If you can die for him you can do this,' she said.
Walter knelt next to Daniel, still hesitant, and peeled off his broken mask. He could not do this as Rorschach. Daniel's lips were soft and pink, relaxed in sleep, and he had wanted to do this for weeks now. But Daniel came from a perfect world, could surely not even understand such desires. It wouldn't work, if he didn't love Deborah then certainly he could not love Walter, but he had to try.
'I'm sorry,' he whispered and bent down to press his dry lips to Daniel's.
Something a dark and violent red pulled out of Daniel's chest and flew from them on the suggestion of wings. Allembra's screech of despair filled the air around them and Daniel's warm brown eyes fluttered open to stare up into Walter's own.
Daniel woke with the taste of sugar on lips still tingling with pressure. The rough planes of Walter's face were above him and he reached up to check he wasn't still dreaming, ran his fingers down the stubbled jaw. His first kiss. From Walter. And a kiss meant everything, meant true love and marriage and happily ever after. But Walter was a man and they wouldn't be able to marry. Walter wasn't likely to live happily ever after either, not with all the suffering in this world he could never ignore. But Daniel thought they could still have true love. He cupped the back of Walter's head and pulled him down for another tender kiss.
The building lurched, sending their faces smacking together rather than kissing, and then Deborah and Laurie were pulling them to their feet. Allembra, howling with a mixture of rage and fear, was thrashing around and whipping her tail into buildings. Daniel had thought that once she had her heart back Doctor Manhattan would be able to kill her, but his power was still too different from hers to have an effect. To kill a magical creature you needed starmetal. Daniel pulled away from the others as they tried to herd him back and waved his hands over his head until Doctor Manhattan glanced in his direction. Or Daniel thought he did, Doctor Manhattan's head was a long way away and hard to see. Daniel drew his sword and waved it, gesturing with it towards Allembra. And, as far as he could make out, Doctor Manhattan nodded.
Allembra's body smacked against the side of the building hard enough to knock them all down again, tasting brick and cement dust on the air. Daniel scrambled up and walked towards the edge, placing his feet carefully as tremors jolted through the roof. Doctor Manhattan had pinned Allembra against the side of the building and was holding her head against it several feet below the roof, her eyes were gleaming with hate and she hissed steam. But Doctor Manhattan held her mouth closed and that was all she could do. Walter's hand on Daniel's sleeve held him back as he made to go towards them.
'I have to,' said Daniel, looking Walter in the eyes. For a moment he thought Walter wouldn't let go, but he sighed and let Daniel's sleeve drop. When Daniel walked to the edge of the trembling building Walter paced at his side.
Allembra's head was pinned but she was twisting it back and forth against the brickwork, rubbing away chips of stone to rain down below them. Daniel dropped onto it and she surged and shook so hard he fell to his knees at once, the hot steam around him was like a sauna and made it hard to get his bearings. The street below him was a narrow line, it made him even dizzier when he looked down. Daniel raised his sword, even though it cost him balance to do so, and plunged it down into the scaly head. He heard Allembra's death cry at the same moment as he slipped sideways. Allembra's head was still under him at first and he tried to grab it but it was dissolving into purple mist. At least he had defeated her and fulfilled his duty, he thought, he could die unashamed.
A hand grabbed his, wrenching his arm but halting his fall. Walter was holding onto a window ledge above him, dangling precariously from only one hand while the other held tight to Daniel's. Doctor Manhattan lifted his palm under them and they dropped onto it, gaping as he raised them high above the city. It was spread out before them, all the buildings, the rings of people outside the area where the fight had been. Walter's city and for a while it had been Daniel's too. Doctor Manhattan raised his free hand and in a moment the damage was gone, all the buildings restored. He smiled, showing the satisfaction of a job well done, and in a blink they were gone.
The teleport didn't shock Daniel, he was used to magic, and so he wasn't too surprised to find them back on the roof with Deborah and Laurie, as well as a normally sized Doctor Manhattan. Archie's sudden appearance did surprise him, although not quite as much as it surprised Archie who was keeping a long way from the edges of the building.
'The portal is already starting to close,' said Doctor Manhattan. 'If you wish to leave it will have to be now.'
'I'm leaving,' said Deborah. 'Daniel?'
Daniel looked at Walter, who shook his head. 'I cannot, Daniel. This is my city.'
Daniel nodded. 'Then I'm staying too.'
Walter pushed his hands into his pockets, Daniel could see the shape of his clenched fists even so. 'You should leave. You never belonged here.'
'But you kissed me,' said Daniel, shock, hurt and disbelief colouring his voice. 'Doesn't that mean you want to be with me?'
Walter looked down at the restored roof beneath his feet. 'Want to. But. Should not. You belong in a better world.'
'I'm not leaving you,' said Daniel. He didn't really understand this. Being in love with a man wasn't something he had ever thought possible. But he had always known that true love conquered all and nothing should get in the way of it. 'If we want to be together then we should be.'
'Always make things so simple,' said Walter scornfully.
'What's wrong with simple?' said Daniel.
'The portal is nearly closed,' said Doctor Manhattan. He disappeared and reappeared as a giant again, holding his hand flat against the roof. 'Anyone who wants to leave should step onto my hand.'
Deborah hesitated and then threw her arms around Daniel. 'Goodbye,' she said. 'I'll miss you.'
'You too,' said Daniel. 'Take care of Archie for me?'
Daniel led Archie onto Doctor Manhattan's hand and patted his nose. 'Be good for Deborah,' he said and Archie nodded, looking mournful.
'You should go too,' said Walter, but Daniel stood with him and Laurie while Doctor Manhattan lifted the others up and up until they were through the portal and gone completely.
They went back to Hollis' flat at first and phoned Sally to come and get Laurie. When she arrived to find Hollis covered in welts and bruises she insisted on taking him home with her as well. With no one left to look after Walter and Daniel walked home, the distance between them remained a few feet as they walked. Both felt too awkward to risk touching, but neither wanted to get too far away. They were too exhausted to feel triumph yet, the battle over and won leaving them somewhere new but too tired from their ending to try and forge a beginning. Daniel made them dinner and they ate it without talking of anything consequential. Afterwards they went to bed, Daniel sleeping on the couch as usual.
Walter slept restlessly and woke early. The light of dawn looked dingy on his apartment walls and he winced to think of what Daniel had given up for this. Sitting up and rubbing sleep from his eyes Walter suddenly registered the sound of humming, happy and lilting, coming from his kitchen. When he went to look he found Daniel leaning out of the window with birds perched all over his head and shoulders. They flew off as he pulled his head back in and turned around.
'You look happy.' It came out gruffer than Walter meant it, almost accusing.
'Why shouldn't I be? Allembra's dead and I don't have to worry about leaving you any more.'
'And you're stuck here.' Walter felt tired, he wasn't worth what Daniel had given up. 'I'm sorry.'
'You deserved a happy ending,' Walter interrupted harshly. 'In this world there aren't any. You should have gone.'
Daniel kissed him, it was warm and soft and nothing like a desperate attempt at lifesaving. Walter tilted back his head and sighed into it, while the birds twittered encouragement from the sill. Realising they were in front of the window Walter pulled back, blushing furiously, and Daniel was still watching him with sparkling innocent eyes.
'If there aren't any happy endings in this world,' he said. 'Then it's only because nothing ever ends.'
They were still in front of the window for the next kiss, but this time Walter didn't pull away.
There were always animals around Daniel, since he got a job with Hollis there were now several mice and rats in the city that knew how to fix an engine, but now he and Rorschach were moving in a tide of them. Rats and mice, foxes and racoons, even a few owls come to help their namesake, all streaming towards the garment district. No human knew where the child was, none that Rorschach could find at least, but Daniel has friends everywhere and princes always reach the damsel in distress with time to fight. Rorschach held on tight to Daniel's hand, trusting to night vision goggles and stories, and let himself be pulled along.
The warehouse had dogs outside, alert and sharp with hunger, the animal tide swamped them and pinned them to the floor of the filthy yard. Daniel and Rorschach held each other for balance and kicked the door as one.
The girl was crying, face a mess of tears and snot, her blond hair bright in the light of the furnace she was chained beside. The man was sharpening a knife, his face blanched when he looked up. Daniel gasped, after all these years it still took him by surprise that men could be so cruel. The petty evil of a child discarded like trash when her parents lacked the money to pay for her shocking in a way megalomaniac schemes by sorcerers and monsters never could be. Rorschach knew this better, knew exactly how harsh this world could be, yet he was the one the scene cut to the heart.
'Let her go,' said Daniel. Quiet, there was no sound now save the girl sniffing. The animals had followed them in, sitting now on every surface bright bright eyes trained on the man with the knife. A foxcub squirmed its way into the girl's arms, natural wariness forgotten under Daniel's spell, and she buried her face it its soft fur.
'I didn't do anything!' The man protested, trembling. 'I was-I was going to give her back.'
Rorschach clasped his wrist above the knife, everything seemed far off through his mask. 'In how many pieces?' he asked.
The man's chin wobbled and he dropped the knife. Pathetic, so pathetic. Daniel bent down to unchain the girl, this clearly wasn't a fighter they had caught. A moment later he stood up, holding both her and the foxcub to his chest.
Rorschach looked into the man's dull eyes, this banal evil that crawled through the dark spaces in his world. He wanted to rip, to kill, but behind him stood Daniel and the girl. A tableaux of innocence. Handcuffs would have to be enough and the police could sort out the rest. Rorschach sighed and relaxed, pulling the cuffs out of his pocket.
Daniel started singing as they walked away, a lilting lullaby for the frightened child. The whole city seemed to lean in to hear, a tired world wanting to be soothed to sleep.
Rorschach hung back from the girl's parents, it was the kind of scene Daniel was born for. Graciously accepting gratitude for a monster vanquished and a child returned. Besides, it was Daniel's doing, or the doing of the animals perhaps. Daniel's face in the light spilling from the front door was as innocent as ever, if a little wiser, unblemished by everything he had seen tonight and in the past ten years as well. As long as he looked that way everything had to be all right.
Back home Rorschach stripped off the mask and became Walter, gasping as if the latex had choked him. Dizzy with relief and horror, swaying on his feet. This time it was Daniel's kiss that felt like it brought him back to life, steadying him until the floor settled. Kissing back came easily now.
'That girl and her parents,' Walter said into Daniel's neck as they embraced. He could still see them in the light of the front door, the girl between the adults, their faces alight with relief and joy.
'What?' asked Daniel. He was shaking too, but both of them would be fine. They always were.
'Hurm. Maybe there are happy endings in this world.' Or maybe not endings, Blair Roche would grow up and live her life. But happy. Or close enough for now.