Characters: Janey, Adrian, Jon
Summary: It's the doubt that gets you, and it gets everybody in the end.
Notes: Written for help_pakistan on LJ. This is for flyingrat42, who kindly requested that I write up one of the plotbunnies already sitting on my hard drive. I'm so sorry that it's late, and I really hope you like it!
Many thanks to findmyantidrug for checking this over for me. :)
1959. Janey sits in front of her lunch tray in the cafeteria, choking down boiled carrots. She cuts and lifts, chews and swallows, putting all her concentration into the task of getting food into her mouth without spilling it down the front of her lab coat. Across the table, Wally half-opens his mouth - to suggest, perhaps, that she shouldn't be wearing it in here - but Janey looks fixedly back at him until he closes it and returns to his peas and gravy. A string of saliva dangles stupidly from his top lip.
People are nervous when they speak to her now. They dance around the edges of her grief as though it is something toxic, waiting to seep in through their skins should they slip up and touch it.
Oh, they are quick enough to do their bit, of course, scrambling to hold open doors and cover absences for her, as long as they don't have to stick around and make conversation afterwards. Janey has already grown accomplished at smiling graciously and murmuring thank-yous while she bristles at their pity beneath the skin. She is beginning to regret that her relationship with Jon was quite so open a secret. The loss of him is hers. She does not like having it stared at.
She can feel the eyes on her back now, while she munches and listens to Wally burbling away with forced and increasingly desperate cheeriness across the table - or she suspects them, anyway, and that's just as bad. She still finds herself looking down at the fork in her hand and thinking about ways to make them go away, the resentment scratching through her like ground glass. Maybe she ought to take the rest of the day off.
Janey is pondering how best to make her exit without attracting another round of sympathetic murmurs when she feels it, the shifting and fizzing of the air - and then suddenly nobody is staring at her anymore. They're all looking at something else, and she is, too. At a face she knows, a face she has kissed, illuminated by a light that is like nothing in this world.
Half the cafeteria is on its feet, or cowering behind toppled furniture, while Janey just sits in her chair, transfixed. No-one gets up to drag her out of the way.
The first time Jon teleports her, Janey feels a little nervous. She's seen him do it in the lab, under controlled conditions, and the disorientation and nausea that most of the subjects have exhibited doesn't look like the kind that can be cured by sucking on a piece of hard candy.
Her stomach lurches, once, as she rematerializes, and she stumbles, one hand out to steady herself against the kitchen cabinets. Then she breathes in deeply and looks down to check herself over. All of her molecules seem to have been reassembled in the correct order, anyway. Not too bad.
"It worked," she calls through into the den, laughing. "And I feel fine. I could get used to travelling like this."
And she does. But the first time Jon tells her what she's about to say before she says it, Janey does feel like she's about to throw up.
He asks her if she's okay, a cool hand on the small of her back. She glares at him and bolts for the Ladies', and before she even knows what she is doing she's kneeling on the floor, her head over the toilet bowl and a finger down her throat. Her gorge refuses to rise.
By 1966, Janey has gotten used to disappearing from view.
She is a space around which light curves, invisible beside the endlessly fascinating brightness that is what Jon has become. It's miserable, mostly, but it does have its advantages where observing people is concerned. From her place in the shadows, she has learned all the ways people look at Jon. Most of them make some kind of effort to be discreet, grabbing quick little sidelong glances, satisfying their curiosity piecemeal. Then there are the unabashed starers, like the girl in the yellow costume, shameless, their eyes wide with curiosity - or, occasionally, lust.
The latter sort make Janey's skin crawl. They're sick women (or mostly women, at least) and they think she is one of them. At first, she used to try staring them down, but they never kept looking in her direction long enough.
And then there are those who don't exactly stare, but who make no secret of their interest, either. These are the powerful men, taking him in with an awe that is reverence and wonder and hunger all at the same time. Impressed, excited, but never overwhelmed, always looking ahead. The cogs never quite stop turning behind their eyes. Ozymandias has that look in his eyes right now, and Janey is not surprised: surveying the room coolly from behind steepled fingers, he is clearly someone who expects one day to be a very powerful man indeed.
(The general who stands beside Jon in 1960 is wearing that same expression. In 1962, he resigns amid pitying murmurs and rumors of a drinking problem. There are dark circles under his eyes, and the doubt and fear that have appeared upon his face by the end are still vivid, still there in Janey's mind's eye, because she knows them well from her own reflection.)
(She catches herself thinking like this sometimes, in Jon's voice. Inside her head again, rolling out past and future like twin ribbons of tarmac, flattening and relentless.)
As the meeting comes to its premature end, the Comedian shouldering his way past them muttering something about 'fucking freaks' and the rest of the masks drifting aimlessly away, Ozymandias stops them at the door. He shakes Jon's hand, greets him familiarly (they must have met before) and addresses a few polite questions to Janey, too. The scraps of conversation thrown her way are charity, they're always charity, but at least he does a decent impression of interested. He speaks mildly and kindly, and even remembers to make eye contact. Janey could almost trust him, if it weren't for that look.
She never has learned to ignore it, although it is always directed at Jon and not her. Every time, it reminds her how very small she is, and how absurd, standing hand-in-hand with something inhuman, sharing a home and a bed with it, pretending to share a life.
She tugs at Jon's arm. "Let's go."
When, in 1976, Janey is offered the job at Pyramid heading up her own research team, she's startled - though she shouldn't be. She's been working in the field for years, has experience in some of the most prestigious institutions, and a respectable string of publications to her name. Why not her? She's as qualified as anybody, even if she finds it hard to remember that at times.
Somewhere along the line, she's started thinking of herself differently, seeing herself as others must see her. She's stopped being Dr Janey Slater, physicist, and become Doctor Manhattan's ex, betrayed and bitter and best held at arm's length, like a flask of something corrosive. Sometimes she feels as though she has been hollowed out, eviscerated, everything she once was scraped out and thrown away. What standing human beside a living god won't take from you, being cast aside by him in the public eye will.
So when the letter arrives, she stares at it in disbelief for a good minute. She dials the phone number and listens to it ring with a caustic question in the back of her throat, ready to undo her.
Then she thinks: no. She deserves this, damn it. She never asked to be part of the circus surrounding Jon, and she's spent half her life working her ass off for this. The certainty starts to slip away as soon as she dares to feel it, but she clings on as best she can, swallows, and breathes in deep as the line is picked up.
She takes the job.
Three weeks in, over the course of a routine planning meeting, Janey discovers that Pyramid is in the negotiation stages of a quiet buyout by Veidt Industries, and her heart sinks.
So it was never about her abilities, or her experience, or her hard work. Of course it was about Jon. It is always about Jon.
And she's used to it, and normally she'd just sigh and sink a little further into resignation - but she'd honestly believed she was onto something this time, something of her own, and anger snatches her up and bears her along like a hot wind. She manages to ride the current of it out of the building (nobody questions her when she announces that she's taking the rest of the day off and someone else will have to pick up the goddamn paperwork), over to the Veidt Enterprises building, and right up to his office door before her confidence begins to falter.
Veidt's secretary gives her a perfectly charming, perfectly pleasant smile, and invites her to take a seat. She doesn't bat an eyelid at the scowl on Janey's face, or the drumming of her fingers on the chair arm; the bottle-blonde bimbo actually manages to look as though she's above it all, as though even she is too important to be worried by Janey's petty little snit.
Janey taps her foot impatiently, and glares at the hands of her watch. If she has to sit and think for too long, she will start to realize how childish she must look, she'll remember that her own ego really is pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of things, and all of her resolve will fizzle away. Her heartbeat thrums hotly in her ears. She glares harder.
But to her surprise, the hands have hardly moved on two minutes when she's shown into the office.
Veidt greets her with a welcoming smile. "Doctor Slater. What can I do for you?"
She clings with all her might to the last hot threads of her rage, but the accusations already sound pathetic as they tumble out, her voice thin and querulous. Why does no one care about me?
But Veidt listens to them patiently, without interrupting, and when she's finished, he lets out only the barest of sighs.
"I can understand your concerns entirely," he says, "and I can see that the fault is all mine. I should have taken the time to speak to you earlier. Unfortunately, the situation's a little more delicate than can be explained in the few minutes before my next meeting. But I have a couple of hours free this evening. Perhaps - if you have the time - I can help set your mind at rest then?"
And that's how she - Janey Slater, the woman who nobody in her right mind would want to be - ends up spending her evening in a swanky bar, sipping the most expensive red wine on the menu opposite the man who everybody in America wants to be.
At least he has the grace not to play dumb, or to pretend he doesn't understand her offence. Yes, he admits (managing to give the impression of a beleaguered parent answering the questions of an insistent six-year-old, although there's nothing but cheerful politeness in his manner), of course Jon was a factor in the decision to hire her. It would be pointless to pretend otherwise. But it wasn't the only factor.
The project is bigger than that. It has to be. She, of all people, should understand. Jon is helping in Veidt's efforts to replicate his power, and they've already made great strides - but success is far from being a foregone conclusion. There is still room for error. Jon may see time and matter from angles the rest of them can't begin to imagine, but he is not infallible. He is still a man.
(With half a bottle of wine inside her, Janey can't suppress a sneer. Veidt studiously ignores it. He probably thinks he's being gracious.)
That's why they need the best people working on alternative methods, he continues. There has to be a backup plan - how much good they could do with that kind of power, and how unthinkable it would be to risk losing it! And who is better qualified for the task than Janey?
"Of course, you won't be required to work directly with Jon. I'm a firm believer in cooperation for the greater good, but I'm not entirely heartless." Veidt looks at her sideways. "In fact, I'm not sure that Jon needs to know about this part of the project at all."
It's a transparent appeal to her resentment, and she really ought to know better, but the idea isn't without a vicious little attraction.
Janey shrugs. "I don't suppose he does," she concedes, and Veidt smiles quietly.
He's obviously been expecting her to concede that, and it rankles. In agreeing, she's revealing a shameful part of herself, admitting to her nastiest and pettiest and most childlike emotions. She can't help feeling she deserves something in return.
Veidt isn't much of a drinker, she can tell. Only on his second glass, and he's barely touching it, sipping with the caution of somebody determined not to exceed his limits, sensing incipient vulnerability. And... well, far be it from Janey not to take advantages where they are offered to her.
She shares out the remainder of the wine without being asked, and takes another swallow from her glass. "So," she says. "What's the fascination? Really?"
Veidt lifts an eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"
"With Jon. I mean, don't get me wrong, I know that the project is worthwhile, and I appreciate being involved with it, but... you're not a physicist, and your company has plenty of quicker and easier ways to make money. There has to be some other reason you're so interested."
"For one thing, it's a unique opportunity to help-"
"There are quicker and easier ways to help people, too. Ways with guaranteed outcomes." Janey smiles. She knows that her smile isn't pretty anymore. It has vicious edges, and she has to school it into pleasantness. This time, she doesn't bother. "Anyway, do you think I didn't notice? At that meeting, back in '66?" She laughs, and it comes out in a short little cough, her throat dry with drink. "I didn't know who to be more afraid of, that Silk Spectre slut or you."
He doesn't look as shocked as she's been expecting (maybe the rumors are true, then), but he doesn't make any denials, either, just gives her another of those faint little smiles.
"The fascination? To be in the presence of such power, to be made aware of a whole other level of being, is..." The sentence fades into silence, and there is that faraway look again, just for a brief second, and then the inscrutable mask is firmly back in place. "Well. Whether or not I can make use of Jon's power in a way that will help the whole of mankind remains to be seen. I certainly hope that I can. But whatever the outcome, I have to at least try to understand it." He gives Janey a careful, measuring look. "You and Jon were a couple for six years, Doctor Slater. Surely you must understand the impulse, at least a little?"
Janey stares at him. She wants to protest, to yell, to say no, of course she doesn't understand. That she knew Jon before, when he was human, and it was about human affection and human loyalty, not some sort of abstract intellectual challenge, and Jesus, what sort of a person doesn't get that?
She keeps her mouth shut. She is no longer sure that loyalty is such a great thing, in the end. It kept her with Jon, clinging onto a memory, for years - years that she will never get back. She might never get herself back, either.
Standing human beside a greater power, beside somebody telling you your next move before you make it, your next word before you speak it - no wonder that you start to feel as though you're dwindling to nothing, and nothing you do has any meaning. The awe breeds doubt, a doubt that becomes part of you and persists, feeding upon itself and proliferating like a keloid scar. It's the doubt that gets you, and it gets everybody in the end. Janey read as much of Wally Weaver's book as she could stomach, and she knows that all his eloquent pronouncements about religious terror are just the expression of something she's known in some dark corner of herself beneath consciousness ever since the first moment she saw Jon again, suspended above the lunch tables in Gila Flats, staring out at her from the crackling blue.
She drains her glass, sets it down, and shrugs. "Maybe I would've done, once." A pointed glance at her watch. "It's getting late. I should be heading home."
Veidt nods sympathetically, and insists on calling her a cab. Janey can read the pity in his gaze (well-hidden, but she has years of experience), and she knows that his patient quiet while they wait is intended to say to her, I understand. And if there's a sick little satisfaction in thinking that that isn't true, and that this time, really, it is she who understands - well, Janey figures that it's a hell of a lot less than she deserves.
She stays at Pyramid, of course. She's never going to find a job where people don't think of her as Jon's old girlfriend first and Janey Slater second, and at least this one is more prestigious than most. Plus the people are nice enough, the work keeps her interested, the pay is good, and the health insurance is generous.
She's glad of that last fact, eventually.
Late summer, 1985, the sunlight lingering like an ache. Janey wakes in her hospital bed feeling dazed (the side-effects from the last bout of chemo haven't quite worn off yet) and then blinks when she sees a bright yellow blur out of the corner of her eye.
Flowers. On her bedside table. Tulips: insufferably bright and cheery in a hospital ward, and entirely unexpected.
Nobody comes here, after all, save the occasional work colleague dropping in for a duty visit. Certainly, nobody brings flowers. The last time Janey got a bouquet, there was a 'Sorry For Your Loss' card attached, and she guesses that even that belonged to Jon, in the end.
Cards, though; that's a thought. Janey squints, and sure enough, there's one of those fiddly little florist's envelopes on the nightstand, beside the vase. Nothing written on the front, but maybe there's a message inside.
She struggles upright, and slits it open with her thumbnail.
What falls out isn't a notecard. It's a sheet of A4 paper, folded over until it's small enough to fit into the palm of her hand. Odd. Janey spreads it out with a nauseous little twinge in her stomach, and she isn't entirely sure that it's from the drugs.
A list of names. She recognizes most of them, at least vaguely - colleagues, or former colleagues.
Flowers, and a piece of paper that seems to have been pulled out of Pyramid's personnel records. Janey frowns.
Glancing down the list, she finds that a few names stick out. Jacobi. Weaver. Slater.
And the others - this one she recognizes from a 'Get Well Soon' card, that one from snatches of gossip around the lab. One day last year they were short on staff because of a funeral...
Then she knows. Everyone on that list has been involved with the project, or exposed to Jon's power one way or another on more than a couple of occasions. It's Jon. Always Jon. After a cursory moment's thought it all seems so obvious. She knows that she ought to be angry, but somehow all she can manage is a resigned sigh.
Janey isn't sure how much later it occurs to her to turn the sheet over. When she does, she finds a message scrawled on the back, in a messy, faltering, childlike hand. The writer must have been badly out of practice, or drunk as a skunk.
The joke's on all of us, it reads. You were just the first suckers in line.
And at the end, like a punctuation mark, a lopsided smiley face. It appears to be sneering.
Janey stares at that sneering face for a long time, until it starts to turn fuzzy around the edges, and she knows that she won't be able to stay awake much longer. She'll have to think about this later, when the meds have worn off a little and her mind is clear. Then she'll decide what to do.
But when she wakes up, the list and the envelope it came in are gone. All that's left is the vase of tulips, scentless and violently bright.
Remission. A reprieve, though the doctors warn her it may only be a temporary one. Janey fights her way back to work as quickly as she can, feeding Occupational Health some bullshit about not wanting to give up her research until she's sure the project is in safe hands. The interviewer nods understandingly, wide-eyed at her dedication in a way that nobody ever was before she got sick.
Detective work is hard, and Janey soon finds herself feeling furtive even when she isn't busy prying. The lost message, just the knowledge that it existed, feels like a mark of criminality, scratched indelibly into the surface of her brain.
But nobody seems to suspect. The security guards, after all, already know her as that woman who works all available hours because she has nobody to go home to. She calls in some favors down in Computing, invents a complicated inter-lab feud that could only possibly be of interest to somebody versed in the finer points of particle physics, and soon enough she's poking around in records that were never meant for her eyes.
Funny. She's never quite realized, until now, how good she's gotten at lying.
In the end, though, she finds it almost by accident. It isn't even late at night, as she might've expected; she's on a mid-morning coffee break, and she doesn't even intend to go looking. It's just that the need to know, to find out what it is she doesn't know about her life, commandeers her every spare moment. As always, she's searching for some indication of where that list might have come from - employee records; some kind of investigation into the possible carcinogenic properties of the Manhattan energy, perhaps? - when she finds herself through a back door in the system and in the Twilight Zone.
A few minutes, and that's enough. She has seen all she needs to see. More, perhaps, than she will ever be able to bear having seen.
She ought to tell someone, she decides later. They'd never believe her, but she should tell anyway. She can't quite understand why she doesn't.
Probably she should check again, just to be sure. Hell, maybe she is losing her mind.. She doesn't have much to lose, but still, she'd prefer not to risk unemployment and ridicule without knowing for certain what it was she saw.
Naturally, the files are gone.
When Janey finds herself in hospital again, two weeks later, she's almost relieved. She can just sit here, in bed, and do as she is told, freed from the burden of action. It's a burden, she realizes now, for which she's spent half her life waiting, only to find it too much for one little human to carry.
Maybe it wasn't even real, what she saw. Maybe she imagined it all, in some last, doomed attempt to give what's left of her life a little meaning. All a dream. That would be comforting.
A couple of mornings after being admitted, she wakes up to find Veidt sitting in the visitor's chair at her bedside. She blinks and frowns, though she isn't surprised, exactly.
It occurs to her that he probably isn't planning for her to be alive at the end of the visit, and she wonders - in some detached, half-hysterical corner of her brain - what it will be. The old pillow over the face, perhaps? Or some invisible, undetectable toxin in her IV, already administered while she was sleeping?
As though he has read her mind, Veidt reaches across and pats the hand without the needle in it.
"Doctor Slater," he says. "Janey."
Her fingers twitch involuntarily, and Veidt returns his hand to his lap, an opaque little half-smile on his face.
"You must have realized I'd find out. I had rather wondered how long it would take you to go looking."
Janey stares. "Then..."
"I let you find the files."
"You - why would you do that?"
"Because, Janey," here, Veidt spreads his hands, palms up in an open, welcoming gesture, like a politician on TV, "I wanted to ask your help."
Janey closes her eyes. Maybe she's delirious. Side-effects from the meds. That must be it.
But when she opens them, Veidt is still sitting there. He waits for a moment, and when it becomes evident that she's not going to reply, he carries on talking.
"I know that the last few years haven't been kind to you. I understand that it must be hard, really, I do. The world is often a cruel place. But all we can do is try to make it a little better. Don't you think?" The question is accompanied by a clear-eyed, expectant look, and that's what finally breaks through Janey's disbelief.
"You understand?" she sputters. "Make it better? You want me to help? You - you knew that working with the Manhattan energy was making us sick, and you didn't do anything about it. For what? Bombs? You could kill millions of people. I don't know what kind of empire you're planning, but-"
"Oh, Janey." He actually sounds disappointed. "Come on, now. You know better than this. I know you do. An empire? If it was personal power I was looking for, don't you think I would have taken it by now? One look at our work, and the Senate would be falling over itself to give me any amount of money, or any political office, that I wanted. Or I could run for President. I haven't abandoned that idea entirely, as a matter of fact – but no. My purpose is an altogether greater one."
Janey opens her mouth to ask, then closes it again. Then she figures that, well, she's probably having a nightmare anyway, so it doesn't make a damned bit of difference what she says.
"Go on," she tells him.
Her incredulity only grows as Veidt explains things. To hear him talk, you'd think that Jon had never happened, that the whole of the world had not been completely changed. He lays it out in simple terms: numbers of casualties; the likelihood of war; the political landscape of the future. Really, Janey realizes, he's trying to reset the world, trying to put everything back to the way it was before. As though any of those human little things actually mattered any more.
Her rage is already giving way to sorrow. It's pointless. All of it. It's just that Veidt - like most of the world - hasn't figured that out yet.
Janey opens her mouth to say so.
"Okay. I'll help you," is what comes out instead.
She knows that she is playing a part, but talking to the reporter feels cathartic, anyway. He listens to her talk with a careerist's shrewd-eyed interest - another man building his own career upon the back of something greater, as though his position in the anthill could possibly matter - and Janey smiles when the nastiness of her laugh makes him stare and fidget in his chair. She doesn't spare him.
She pours it out, all of it, her bitterness and her rage. And even the parts she doesn't say are there, bubbling under the surface, barely-repressed. The futility of living when the world is mapped out and determined for you, the being-as-nothing that she feels deep in her bones, even now, a cancer that has been with her far longer than the physical rot.
She is trying, she realizes later, to give meaning back to her life. To banish that awful doubt born out of certitude by banishing Jon, and letting the shape of the world be determined by humans, again.
Perhaps it will be a hideous thing. Perhaps it will not work at all. She will see, soon enough.
October 31st. Janey checks her luggage and sits in the terminal at JFK, well-disguised by her headscarf and sunglasses, leafing through a magazine that's more perfume ads than content for something to do with her hands.
She catches herself looking out of the window, past the planes, up at the sky. She knows that she is waiting for something. An answer, or a judgement? Something divine?
Abruptly, Janey slaps the magazine down on the seat and gets up. She doesn't bother to retrieve her bags, just walks out through the doors and climbs into one of the shiny yellow cabs waiting outside.
It's still early, still not quite light. As they approach the city, Janey thinks that it does not look quite real yet. It's indistinct, a waiting, half-dreaming thing, a ghost trembling before the dawn.