He can feel Daniel standing somewhere behind him; in this heightened sensory maelstrom of a moment, every nerve wired up with life in defiance of their imminent demise, he can detect the shift in the eddies of the air where they pass around his old partner - can feel the lazy, winding curl of warmth that is an extra body's heat and breath in a bleak landscape of white and cold. Daniel is not making a childish scene of this, and for that he's as grateful as he's ever been. Some things simply need to be done, regrettable or not, and if his friend finally understands that, then that's his last bit of unfinished business finished; the sting of Daniel's treasonous compromise lessened, his last regret smeared out of focus if not completely wiped away.
There's another part of him, paradoxically compassionate and living deep and low in his chest, that aches desperately for Daniel to not have to see this happen. But he's never been one to put concerns of the heart - if that's what this is, and he isn't even sure, but the dull pain sits in roughly the right place, pulling like a cracked rib - over concerns of the practical.
So he says what he has to. And he waits. The snow falls, blind and unknowing; elsewhere, millions of people have breathed their last, falling onto each other in the streets, a grotesque diorama on decadence and decay and the corruption that power always, always brings. Manhattan's hand comes up. He can feel Daniel shaking behind him, taking one hesitant step in the snow.
The moment is unusual and unexpected enough to warrant a closer look. When he'd regained(will regain, does regain) his vision of the future, he'd seen(does see, never sees) this event play out, and it'd been different – just himself and Rorschach in the snow, and then only him, and later: Dreiberg asleep in Laurie's arms, both of them safe and at peace for at least that moment.
In another life, perhaps.
He picks this snapshot of a moment up, turns it around to look at it from another angle, holds it up to the light. He has a sudden, startling memory – they so rarely creep up unannounced anymore, so the tachyons must be lingering – of being a child, twelve years old, poring over the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. A favorite pastime, before the blinding precision of clockwork dominated his mental life; He is examining the moment captured in the paint, less than a fraction of a second long because a point in time, like a point in space, has no dimensions; trying to decipher its meaning.
On lazy, idle nights, he simply makes up stories that seem to fit: they are rewarding the family dog with a treat from the table because he only that morning saved the youngest son from climbing a tree he surely would have fallen from, or the young couple is so happy with their new home because they've just come to the suburbs from the very darkest heart of the city and are so dizzyingly thrilled to have escaped that it hardly feels real.
But very often that child's serious eyes scour Rockwell's vision of life, beautiful and perfect and real, for the tiniest of clues, the most subtle hints of context. It's pieced together, like a detective story, tentative connections made between one brush stroke and the next that unlock the mystery of everyday life.
Here in the Antarctic wastes, he can see the brush strokes. The mask lying in the snow. Wetness freezing to the face that'd spent such an eternity under it. Fear shaking through Dreiberg, ten feet further back; fear in his eyes, burning through the goggles. Terror the likes of which he hasn't seen since his time in Vietnam, lighting on each enemy soldier's face in turn in the moment before he obliterated them. A level of emotion only suited to the threat of one's own existence, but that isn't what he's seeing in the way those goggles turn between him and Rorschach, in the way one hand clenches in the air and one foot shuffles hesitantly forward.
Daubs of paint, each of them delicate and honest.
And hadn't that fear been the worst part of his time in the war, the moments of blossoming and then evaporated terror tugging at what was left of his capacity to feel? Is it right that he's seeing it now, on the face of one he had once called a friend?
The entire moment is inaccurate, has deviated from its original predicted course. Perhaps further deviation is possible.
He looks into the future – finds a smooth patch amongst the twisting and writhing strands of time, the crests and troughs ducking in and out of each other's view. It is stable enough that they will be unable to do harm and stretches long enough for them to live out their lives without butting up against any large-scale moments of fragile volatility. It is an acceptable alternative.
His hand comes down. Time resumes. He is alone in the snow.
Laurie will ask, in seven and a half minutes, why he'd sent Dreiberg away as well. He will be unable to give her a satisfactory response; will be unable, in that moment of terrible clarity, to explain how there'd been something of the printed page about the moment he'd found himself trapped in, truth written in the space between clotted ink and the precise dot pattern of muted and abstract color, visible and obvious provided the time is taken to really look. That the greatest cruelty is often in the mad, twisting dance of the left-behind, a slow spiral to a place that time cannot touch.
That the moment had played out the way it had to.
She won't understand, and he accepts this, because in a little time, she will forgive. Before that happens, he will find Adrian in his inner chamber, will give him cryptic advice that he will not follow, and will give him forewarning of the time and place opposition is likely to reappear. He will tell him to take no action when it does. Because Adrian trusts his intentions, this advice he will (intend/try/pretend) to follow, and that is the best he can do for them.
Right now – in as much as it can be 'now', as a moment can be said to exist – he stands in the snow, among footprints and the vacuum of two lives, watching time carefully re-stitch itself around their absence. He feels that he has never seen, on this planet or another, something so simple or uncomplicated as the carefully unfolding and unfolded lives of those human beings created of paint, dwelling inside of printing presses and living one carefully disconnected moment after another, the transition neither jarring nor traumatic: a life of snapshots, each as real as the last, and does it really matter what's going on in the spaces in between?