Title: O Human Child
Characters/pairing: Adrian (Some blink-and-you'll-miss-it one-sided Adrian/Dan, but not really a shippy fic.)
Summary: Supernatural AU: Adrian isn't exactly human.
Notes: Written for Supercrook, for the wm_secretsanta exchange over on LJ.
Thanks to Smirnoffmule for the super-efficient beta. :)
"What is it?"
"The baby." Ingrid hovers in the doorway to the child's bedroom, her hand curled tightly round the handle. For some reason she can't bring herself to examine too closely, she doesn't step inside.
"Hmph. What about him?"
Her child is somehow changed. Those wide grey eyes are surely not the ones she looked into this morning; the intelligence in them is no infant's; they seem to look through her, right into the hollow of her soul. "He looks... different."
Friedrich flicks on the lamp and strides over to the cot, regarding the boy curiously. He chews his lower lip.
The baby looks right back at him without blinking, and Ingrid feels a shiver, light as breath, brush its way down her spine. She can't quite put her finger on it, but there is—something. Something emanating from him. She almost wants to call it a light, but that's not quite it. A strangeness, an otherness—he is somehow more. Beautiful, yes, but he's always been a beautiful baby. This something, this otherness, is beautiful, too, but it is cold. Alien. She understands, inexplicably and undeniably, that this child is not the same one she set down in his cot earlier this afternoon. He is no longer hers.
Friedrich is still looking at the baby. Then:
"Better," he says, decisively.
"He was sickly before. Now he's better. That's all. You're worrying about nothing again."
He takes her arm. "Come on. Sit down. You need to calm yourself. If you still feel this way in the morning, we'll call a doctor for your nerves."
In the child's expression, Ingrid thinks she detects something like sympathy. She closes her eyes against it.
Before this, there was an elsewhere. Adrian—that is his name now, though he is sure that he once had another—remembers it in fragments, like a reflection in a cracked mirror. He remembers that there were others like him, though he cannot picture their faces or remember what they called him. He doesn't remember what the elsewhere looked like, but he remembers that it was cold and filled with twinkling lights, and that looking upon it felt like seeing the whole of the sky. He is curious, when he thinks of it, and he feels something that is almost longing, but not quite.
He is here, now, after all, and the people who call themselves his parents are not bad. Yes, the one Adrian is told is his father is distant and sometimes curt, pausing only occasionally to note his increased height and administer an approving pat on the head. And, yes, the one who says—with brief hesitation in her voice—that she is his mother is quiet and sad, and sometimes when she looks at him, her placid grey eyes grow wide with apprehension. But they feed him and clothe him, put a roof over his head and send him to school, and surely those things are all he needs to make sense of this world.
At first, he has little time for the other children. Their laughter and chatter, their petty squabbles and rivalries, hold little interest for him; he does not understand the appeal of their games. (Though sometimes they touch memories, just vague, momentary impressions, of other games, wild and whirling and urgent—as though they might be the originals these human children are trying to copy.) He sits solemnly alone in school, absorbing lessons and assemblies, and goes outside at recess only reluctantly. Sometimes, Adrian feels that he is the only one interested in learning.
Reading, writing, and math pose no problem for him, he can draw tolerably well, and he can throw a ball without disgracing himself. But it's only when they start history lessons that he really gets interested. The little scraps that they learn seem like fragments of a longer story, something that he might be able to understand if only he had all the pieces to put together. Adrian thinks that eventually it might teach him something he wants to know.
He can't bring himself to care about the individual people they study, however. Sure, he's interested in what they did, and how it might have changed things, but they don't seem any more real to him than his noisy, babbling classmates. And this fact makes him pause to think. He worries over it as he sails through his other lessons, wanders the playground alone, and sits beside his mother at Sunday service, waiting for the droning vicar to finish his sermon.
Before long, Adrian has decided that the quantity adults call 'soul' is alien to him. This troubles him, at first: with no soul to save, no internal compass to guide him, how is he to know right from wrong?
Church isn't much help. The vicar talks about Heaven and Hell, but Adrian is sure that the place he remembers—the place he came from—is neither of those, and so the vicar must be wrong. He decides, finally, that he will have to figure it out for himself, and as soon as he is old enough to be left alone in the local library, he starts his project. His mother is glad of a place to leave him away from her and in safety, and the librarians find him no trouble, so nobody thinks to look twice at the strange, quiet boy sitting in the adult non-fiction section.
Philosophy is difficult, at first. Not the concepts themselves—he finds them, for the most part, easy enough to grasp—but the acceptance of suffering that so many of them contain. It's like religion, he thinks. Pain woven right into the fabric of human thought and feeling, as if it had a right to be there. As if they needed it. There has, surely, to be a better way. Then, at last, he discovers Mill, and he sighs with relief at having finally found a little sanity. Perhaps here is the beginning of something he can make sense of.
Humans have dedicated books upon books, years upon years, to the development of templates for understanding the world. How is it, then, that they still so often fail to do so?
Adrian is good at passing unseen. The other children, for the most part, aren't really interested in him, and he's always top of the class, so the teachers are happy to leave him to his own devices.
That all changes when he gets to middle school, though.
It happens as he's wandering along the edge of the playing field, his head filled, for once, not with philosophy or schoolwork, but with stories from a book on the Greek heroes that he picked up from the library yesterday evening. For all the elsewheres that Adrian feels he has lived, he is, after all, still a child in this world.
He's just trying to decide what Theseus could have done better (really, a piece of string—too risky, too inefficient) when someone barrels into him, knocking his bookbag off of his shoulder and into the bushes. Another someone aims something at his head, but misses, and a clod of dirt breaks apart on the wall of the gym. They've both run off, snorting, before he has a chance to identify them, but, judging by their height, they must be a year or two older than him. He blinks after them for a moment, before kneeling to retrieve his books.
Other incidents are less dramatic: a catcall here; a snigger there; a quiet but pointed turning of backs. It seems that a dreamy, quietly-spoken sixth-grader with his head permanently in a book, or—to outside eyes—the clouds, is no longer a part of the furniture, but a target. After a particularly trying day in the second week of term—mud in his locker, and a chorus of giggles whenever he raised his hand during French—Adrian determines that something must be done. His mind turns the day's events over and over, and he's unable to concentrate on reading or even the radio. At last, he turns out the light early and flops down on his bed, letting out a sigh of frustration.
And it's that night that he sees them for the first time.
They appear like a disturbance in water, first muddling the edges of dream, coming gradually and uncertainly into being, and when they finally take form, Adrian can't be sure whether he is sleeping or waking. Nor does it matter, because in their presence neither sleep nor wakefulness any longer has meaning. His bedroom becomes a dreamspace, filled with a light that is not of this world, and he knows that were he to look out of the window, the familiar houses and gardens would be gone, and he would see their realm.
He would be home, he thinks, and a momentary pang seizes him: nostalgia for a place his human eyes have never seen, for a life his human brain can grasp only in brief images.
But in their presence, no sadness can linger long. The host of them seems infinite when he doesn't look at them, rustling and moving endlessly all about him—and at the same time, like the most intimate of gatherings. Three figures surround him closely, and, while he can put no names to them, their faces stir fragments of memory. Just flashes—gentle, silvery light, a carefree soaring on the wind in wild places—and their significance escapes him, but they are accompanied by a great and suffusing sense of calm.
The foremost figure extends its hands to him, saying something. A cool light shines in its upturned palms, and without knowing the language it is speaking, Adrian understands that he is being offered a gift. A gift, and, perhaps, a reassurance. Wordlessly, he holds out his own hands to accept it. The gift runs through him like cool water.
Previously, Adrian would have done his best to ignore the catcall, and carried on walking. Today, though, he stops and pivots on the spot to face his assailant. The boy who shouted at him is the foremost of a small group, and Adrian recognizes him from the grade above. His grin wavers when he sees that Adrian is smiling.
For a moment, Adrian simply looks at the boy. He takes a slow breath. His pulse does not quicken. He can feel the gift in him, now. A singing in his veins, a thing from somewhere beyond human knowledge, a power of which the other children can never conceive. He knows that he has already won.
Of course, he has heard human sayings about power and responsibility, and he takes a moment to consider this while he looks into the other boy's eyes.
If he does not use his gift, he will suffer; that is one consideration. These other children will derive some momentary pleasure from the exchange, doubtless—but what will they learn from it? That bullying is fun, and without consequences? Probably, and then what will prevent them from going on to victimize others? On the other hand, if he uses it, no-one need suffer at all. Not him, not any potential future victim. No; there is nothing here that is inconsistent with the morality he has chosen.
The older boy's grin has quite faded now, and in the face of Adrian's gaze, it twists into a snarl.
"What the hell are you staring at?" he demands. "I should—"
Adrian holds up a hand, and he trails off. "You don't want to speak to me like that," Adrian says. "Do you?"
The cold singing in his veins; a myriad of other voices beneath his own; the wind of another world rushing through his head.
The boy's eyes glaze over. Then he blinks, shakes his head, and they clear. "Huh," he says. "No, no, sure I don't. What the hell was I thinking? You're alright, kid." He turns to his friends. "C'mon. We better get to class before Kleiner kicks our asses."
If anyone's surprised to see the weird sixth-grade loner who had no friends yesterday invited to sit with cool kids a year older than him at lunch, they don't show it. They don't look surprised when he starts getting picked first for teams, or greeted cheerfully by other kids in the corridors, or when, after a couple of weeks, he's holding court to a group of willing admirers every lunchtime instead of haunting the library alone. Perhaps a few teachers are disappointed when Adrian's grades slip from 'brilliant' to just 'above average', but finally they chalk it up to normal adolescent interest in sports and popularity, and trust that things will pick back up when college entrance exams roll around.
Although he is no longer seen sitting alone with his head buried in a book at school, and though he is careful no longer to draw undue attention with his grades, Adrian doesn't stop studying. He has clues, now.
Another world; a child thrust out of it and into this one; a host of impossible beings, appearing to him at night; the ability to alter human perceptions. He's always been interested in fable and myth, but now he turns from the Greeks and Romans to the Celts. He learns the Irish name for what visited him in his bedroom that night—the fairy horde, the sluagh. He learns what humans have called his abilities—glamour—and the name they use for what he is.
Changeling. He likes the sound of the word, and its implications. A child who has been changed, exchanged—but perhaps there can be another layer, too, and Adrian smiles to think of it.
"Man, you lead, I dunno, a charmed life, or something."
"What do you mean?"
Jerry—one of the many friendly acquaintances whom Adrian has been careful to cultivate at a slight distance—shrugs. "Well, I never even see you stressed out about school, and then, bam! Harvard. How'd you do it?"
"I was just lucky, I suppose."
Truthfully, he's been looking forward to leaving for longer than anyone knows. Yes, he's been able to indulge his intellectual pursuits well enough in private, but the endless inanity of his fellow-students has been wearing upon him for some time, now. And he can only influence them to a certain extent. He can alter their perceptions of him, can ensure that they feel kindly towards him and crave his approval, but that is as far as it goes. The gift that theygave him can't broaden the intellectual horizons of his classmates, or prevent them from engaging in petty, bullying behaviour towards one another. He's beginning to suspect that that is something hardwired: another piece of pain inextricably tangled into what it is to be human.
Of course, at Harvard, the distasteful parts of humanity will still exist. He's just hoping that they'll be a little more effectively suppressed; that there might be someone there with whom he stands a chance of having an equal conversation, even if a friendship might be rather too much to expect.
"I can't wait to get away from my folks," Jerry is saying. "Dad's on my back the whole time at the moment, won't even let me borrow his car tonight. Says I'm irresponsible." He looks at Adrian. "Still, your mom and dad don't give you too much trouble, right?"
Adrian's home is a haven of tranquillity—or, at least, of quiet. He and his parents are like three strangers who happen to inhabit the same space, drifting through each other's lives like ghosts. He sometimes wonders if they will grow closer once he is gone. They won't miss him; of that much, he's sure.
"No," he says. "We get along fine."
Then he frowns, as he notices a figure hurrying across the quad towards them. It's one of the guidance counsellors, and her face is troubled.
She walks right up to them. "Adrian Veidt?" she says, and he nods warily. "You'd better come to the principal's office." She touches his arm. Her hand vibrates minutely; her voice is too gentle, too soft. "There's been an accident."
They come again, that night. The host, and the three always at the forefront. Over the years, Adrian has come to recognize their faces. One is always in the center, the other two leading it by the hands. Blank-faced, hollow-eyed. It never speaks.
But tonight, as they stand silently around his bed, it inclines its head and looks at him. And he recognizes something in the look, slow and sleepy. A stirring, a half-consciousness. The boy who might have been Adrian Veidt.
It gazes at him through half-lidded eyes. He stares back, and, sudden and unaccustomed, feels a lump in his throat and a sickness in his belly.
"I'm sorry," he starts to say, but the host is sweeping away from him already, sucked out through the window as into the vacuum of space, riding the wind into a sky bright with unblinking stars.
It will be a long time before he sees them again.
Months later, he wakes naked on desert sand, the morning sun already chasing away his shivers. He tries to remember his dreams, since he's sure that they were important, but can't grasp them. His mind slides away along their edges, and when he tries to force himself to focus there is only emptiness, a space thick with silence, like the gulfs between planets.
When he has picked himself up, dressed, and walked into town in search of food, he realizes that there is one thought circling in that space. Or, rather, a confirmation of something he already knew. Humans are not so very good at humanity. And, even if he isn't very good at it, either, he can at least try to help them along the way.
Nite Owl, Adrian thinks, might be the most perfectly human thing he's ever seen, because he's so very imperfect. So ordinary, and at the same time so extraordinary. So brave and so afraid. So earnestly determined to do right by other people, and, at the same time, so selfishly in need of them.
And tonight, it's Adrian he needs. Honestly, this couldn't have worked out better if he'd planned it. With Rorschach occupied on a secretive investigation of his own (a small-time pornography ring downtown that should be easy enough to crack, according to Adrian's sources), Dan is patrolling alone. Adrian didn't even set out to find him, but, judging by the ruckus in the alleyway below, he's bitten off a little more than he can chew.
For a moment, Adrian hangs delicately off the edge of the fire escape from which he's been watching the action. Then, Ozymandias is on the ground and in the midst of it, a cool whirl of destruction, his kicks and punches carefully timed to fill the gaps in Nite Owl's defence. Dan looks, briefly, in his direction, and his eyes widen—but thankfully he's able to contain his surprise and continue with the task in hand.
Moments later, it's over. The robbers are trussed up in the back of their van, their loot has been located, undamaged, and the police have been called.
"Thanks," Dan says, his chest still heaving from exertion. "I really owe you one." His grin is a little crooked, a little shy. He wants Adrian's approval, of course. They always do.
Adrian smiles back at him. "Don't mention it. I know you'd do the same for me."
Dan flushes. They're standing a little too close together, and Adrian recognizes well the bright uncertainty in his eyes.
He could use his abilities, he thinks, and not feel guilty for it. It would only take a little nudge. And neither of them would suffer—hopefully, quite the opposite. There is nothing in his chosen morality that prohibits it.
Adrian doesn't have a name for what it is that prevents him, except that he knows it is not love.
"I should be going," he says. "I'll see you soon, Dan."
Adrian stands amid snow and broken glass, gazing up into the sky as the owlship leaves. He will need to retreat further into Karnak, soon. It's not safe to stay here, exposed to the elements, now that the roof has caved in—and besides, there's nothing more for him to do or see. He isn't sure why he doesn't leave.
Then, they appear.
He stretches out a hand towards them, and for one bright moment he thinks that this, at last, is the end. He is done with this maddening world, now that he has saved it. No more thorny moral tangles, no more playing human, just the icy freedom of that nowhere-place, that elsewhere he sees in his dreams. They have come for him. He can go home.
But they are already leaving, the fairy horde, spiralling away from him on the roaring Antarctic wind, away to the cold, wild places of Earth, and beyond, where no human can follow…
He cannot reach them. His hands shake in the cold. And then he knows.