~*~

The meal Nelson picked up from the Gunga Diner was eaten in a heavy silence that was only interrupted by occasional ringing clangs from the garage where Rorschach and Nite Owl were readying their equipment.

"They're both insane," Laurie muttered as she picked at her chicken. "This can't be right. It doesn't add up. How can it be Adrian? They've both been losing their grip on reality for a long time now. Do you really think we should put our safety in their hands?"

"Just because you lack his suspicion doesn't mean that Rorschach is wrong," Rolf growled.

"His suspicion?" She chewed with a touch of petulant energy. "You mean his paranoia."

"Dan hasn't been all there in the last few years," Hollis admitted, "but he is a loyal sort. I don't think he would endanger us if he didn't genuinely believe there was a risk of some kind."

"And if he's genuinely crazy then that risk isn't there, if this is all a fools errand dreamed up in their imaginations, then what?" She demanded.

"I don't see how a visit to Sally could hurt," Nelson said. "I feel guilty about the way we disappeared like we did. It would be nice to see her."

"And while we're reminiscing about old times, God only knows what he might due to Adrian!"

"Does God know? He might tell you if you ask nicely." Rolf's eyebrows arched. "And I'm sure the man who was Ozymandias can take care of himself. He certainly can if it was him who killed the Comedian."

"If he killed him." She shook her head. "I wish none of this had ever happened. I wish Jon and I were back at the Center, that I'd never even heard of Eddie Blake falling out of a window or Adrian making monsters."

"Well don't let it eat you up," Nelson advised. "And if you really believe you care for Jon, don't wait too long to go after him." He gave Rolf a sideways glance. "Even if you find a happy ending, you always regret the wasted years."

"Maybe," she sighed.

"We're ready. Are you all done?" Daniel stepped back into the room and look at the group with a cold gaze.

"We're done, Dan." Hollis gathered up the trash, even though he worried they were never coming back.

"Then get into Archie. Quickly, now."

"You're out of your mind, I hope you know that," Laurie said as she passed him by. He didn't even bother to look in her direction.

They filed into the ship and this time all discussion died. Each person kept to his own counsel; even Rolf and Nelson exchanged thoughts only through glances. Outside, Rorschach hesitated and looked over to Nite Owl, standing at the foot of the ladder leading up to the vehicles elevated cockpit. He didn't move, but Rorschach knew when Daniel was afraid.

"Daniel." He set a hand on his shoulder. "Are a good man. Nothing to fear. Proud of you. Never gave up, never quit."

"It's dark out there," he whispered. "And there are monsters. And I'm scared of dying." He did not want to admit this, but in his last moments the fright came tumbling out. "If I do it will be alone."

"Do not have to be alone."

"I have to be."

"Then stand by decision. Have always fought monsters. Can kill one more. And do not fear dark." Rorschach takes his hand. "Can walk safely in it. Good man, Daniel. Do not fear. Nothing in the dark to hurt you."

"Promise?" He rubbed his thumb across Rorschach's palm.

"Promise Daniel."

Daniel's arms sprang open and clamped around Rorschach, one final, desperate, permitted embrace. Anything else he had to say, he kept silent. It all transferred to the force of his grasp. Then he turned and scaled the ladder, shut the hatch and waited while Rorschach walked into Archie and took the rest of the masks to a distant coast.

~*~

After her career as Silk Specter, Sally Jupiter couldn't be shaken by much. She thought that her daughter hooking up with a glowing blue atomic bomb was the ultimate shock and that nothing would surprise her ever again. Then an owl-shaped ship landed outside on her lawn (and gave a man in the next building over a more than metaphorical heart attack) and proved her wrong. But no matter how shocked she was, the moment Laurie stepped out, the mother in her took over.

"Laurel, what are you doing flying in that?" She stepped out to scold her. "It looks like a death trap. And couldn't you have called ahead and told me you were coming?"

"Sorry, mother," she groaned, getting inside as quickly as she could.

"And you brought company too and left me to meet them in my bathrobe! Hollis? Is that you? You look good and... My God, is that Rolf and Nelly?" She started laughing. "I didn't even think you boys were still around! Well how do you like that, all the old crowd coming to visit me?" She smirked. "It was me you came to see, right?"

"Sure, Sally," Hollis grinned.

"Lawn unwise place to hold reunion," Rorschach growled. "Inside!"

"Loosen up, Inky," Sally chuckled. "Half the people here probably won't even remember this after getting dinner and their meds. Now you're all going to have to tell me what you've been up to in the last decade! Oh, and I'll page the girls and have them bring over something to eat. You've probably had a very long flight. Well aren't you going to stay too? I didn't make you mad, did I?" She called to Rorschach who was already walking back up Archie's gangplank.

"Business to attend to. Must hurry. Keep low profile." His face was unreadable but the scorn in his voice came across clearly. "And put clothes on. Best not to meet end looking like tramp."

She flipped him off and gave him a vicious 'screw you' that he was already too far inside Archie to hear.

~*~

For the first few moments, Nite Owl relaxed into the seat and let the feel of his creation wash over him. He knew down to the final gram, to the last square inch how much metal surrounded him, forming a shell that protected him from the world and armed him against its horrors. He looked straight ahead and all around him, to the very corners of his vision, were windows and screens to give him input and feed him information. Lights that revealed various types of data - temperatures, identifications, composition - ghosted over the layers of glass and silicon. His arms slid into the gauntlets he'd designed to steer and operate the weaponry, more unfamiliar than Archie's controls but comforting all the same.

A finger put pressure on a button and the machinery closed in on him. Appendages attached themselves to his head, locked in around his legs and arms. Every movement was designed to make the machine move, every glance to feed him info, every twitch to manifest his power. He patiently waited until Archie had vanished into the night sky then pressed the sequence that brought X to life. All around him, the machine thrummed with its mechnic lullaby and Dan drew breath like he was about to leap off a precipice. A series of vicious clangs broke the air, taking him upwards and into the night. He saw the sky above him, felt himself rise into, a larger self now made of alloy and air.

Then he looked down to the earth and lifted an arm for X's first true test. He set his home in its scope, already drawing spectators and sirens from across the city, police making a twinkling path in their cars to his door. He needed to hurry; helicopters wouldn't be an obstacle but they would annoying. First things first, though, and it was imperative that they never got a true hold on his nest. Better to destroy it than to allow others to have it.

And so he did, with a device that penetrated, through the roof, to the very ground floor of the building and sent concussive shocks that made it implode while his neighbors watched.

After that, it was an almost clear flight. The coast guard threw up a few airborne roadblocks, but he knocked them aside like toys. Once over the water, he sped, holding straight to his course. Another time he might have reveled in the speed of his creation. But the destination was his only thought, drawing closer as he moved over the endless blue through clouds and air, feeling the pull of the island and the nameless creature that waited there.

He was almost a hundred miles off when he first felt the unsettling feeling in the back of his mind start to grow. He drew closer, saw the people - Adrian's people - sailing on the boat. He swooped in low enough to see them celebrating on the deck like the mindless idiots they were. Then, after he'd passed them, he heard the ship explode. He didn't much care. His facial identification system had read a few of the faces, enough for him to know the world had lost little with their deaths, only mindless liberals and intellectuals, artists and libertines.

Then the tarp came into sight, a package to deliver to the beast's master. The pull was stronger now, uncertain. He couldn't hesitate, everything had been for this. His right arm extended and a series of missiles sprayed out. The first hit the creature and a wave washed over Daniel.

Sitting in the grass at night watching an owl swoop overhead. Standing in front of a building at night watching it burn.

Another button, a blade extended, he flew down close, vision blurring, sliced a tentacle off. A wave of pain and misunderstanding.

Feathers in hand, stroking them with wonder. Father's laughter. Blood in hand, dripping off palms. Screams and barks then crackling flame.

Tentacles flared, tried to latch to the metal. Large enough to crush, flashed needed to be exploded, sheared off. Get height again, get above, swoop back down. More blades, and fire too. Flesh started to blister and smell. A beak snapped. Panic now, rolling waves of it, and ever increasing pain.

Studying at school. Isolated in passions. Naivete before his partner. Uncertainty. Fumbled explanations. Times alone. Dangerous.

Hinges of the suit, necessary for movement, let in drips of blood and bile. Dan's stomach twitched convulsively, emptied itself onto his front. Sense of direction gone, blind attacking, anything, everything. It was dying piece by piece but it was breaking and breaking him with it, breaking and breaking, but breaking something already broken.

A child cried and a man laughed and blood covered them both. The child held out a hand and a glove took it and everything became black and white and then red all over and he had to shoot and kill and burn and tear until everything was...

The water bubbled as the pieces sank below. The metal collapsed into the corrosive salt water, half on the beach and half below the surf. Lights dimmed, water stilled.

Finally, everything was quiet.

~*~

A quick remark on the last chapter (because several reviews asked about it), the Daniel/Tiger, X/Owl references are to Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.