Doc Worth lights himself a cigarette. His fingers are cold, but they don't fumble with the gears. The movement is perfected by more than a decade of practice, and the sweet little snick is the only thing that's right these days. He looks up at the stars—so much brighter tonight, there's got to be more stars in the sky than there were pages in all his college textbooks combined. He can see a stripe of dust across the center of the sky, every goddamn star in the galaxy spiraling off into space. He doesn't like them. They're pretty and they remind him of things he'd rather forget, all different kinds of things at once, ghosts of memories that press in on him from every side and turn the sky into a massive blue and gray blur.
So he thinks about other things instead, like the machinery in his lighter and the shadow lying next to him, and how he's going to explain this to the goddamn fairy princess when he doesn't even get it himself. And he thinks about how the ground is fucking hard out here but he's not complaining, and how there's somebody, somebody up there or out there, having a laugh at his expense.
It's the last day of March, and the world as he knows it is coming to an end.
It was February not too long ago, despite what you might think. Nasty slushy snow refrozen on the sidewalks like a half eaten TV dinner, the little distant sun pouring weakly over his city. Typical February in the Doc's shithole town. But it was his town, he picked it and he was going to stick with it if it killed him.
The radio was blasting something about avian flu, or maybe swine flu, and he was trying to decide whether he was interested as a doctor or bored as a citizen. It was a crappy little radio, rejected or left over from the eighties and fitted with exactly three and a half stations—none of which played German death metal. In fact, the only reason he had it at all was some bludger had left it sitting in a window where any idiot could nick it, and the Doctor had decided that said idiot might as well be him. Teach somebody a lesson about leaving shit unattended.
He switched the contraption off and leaned back, enjoying the silence. Everybody talked too much, like they had to fill space with any bloody thing they could get their hands on. He firmly believed that if you had nothing to say, you shouldn't say it.
The silence stretched off into an hour, and then somebody knocked at his door. Doc closed his eyes and reached for a cigarette, because he only knew one person who bothered to knock. Show time.
"Get yer pansy ass in here or bugger off."
A pale face poked through his door, scrunched with distaste, and eyed the admittedly filthy floor with obvious contempt. Hey there Mr. Achenleck, done anything about that crippling mysophobia yet?
Doc Worth lit up a cigarette, just to see the expression on his patient's face. It wasn't like the kid even needed to breathe, but some kinds of faggotry just went straight to the bone, he supposed.
"Well well. Ya just can't stay away, can ya Connie?"
Conrad gave him a look typically reserved for the types of bugs that live under rotting logs. "Oh no. I've been just dying to bask in the glow of your unwashed presence. I missed you so much I found a giant cockroach and put it in a jar next to my bed, but it just can't compare to the real thing."
"Movin' a bit fast, there. Ya gotta buy me dinner before ya start namin' pets after me. Li'l clingy, ain't we peaches?"
Conrad twitched. "I hope your bout with lung cancer is long and brutal."
"Nah, I ain't never getting' cancer. Whole damn family smokes, not one of us ever killed for it. Good genes, eh? Pride o' the damn Aryan race."
Conrad stalked up to his desk and threw his purse—messenger bag—onto the floor. "Normally I'd say you're lying through your crooked teeth, but… Some people are just too mean to die."
"Eh, and some people're too dead to die b'sides."
It had been the better part of a year since Conrad had entered the world of the living dead—not to mention Hanna's personal world, which was a far scarier place—but the kid still looked like he was going to be sick when anybody reminded him of it. Doc Worth thought it was comedy gold.
"Just give me my dinner and I'll leave you to jacking off or harvesting organs or whatever else it is you do when you're not harassing me."
That was a little disappointing. "What, ya got a date waitin' for ya back at the apartment? She c'n wait, I'm more interestin' than whatever ya managed to pick up at the knittin' club."
"Okay, first of all: knitting club? Really? And second of all, no, actually. Just give me my dinner now and you can be twice as annoying next time I stop by. It's not like you care or anything."
Oh Conrad, you know what you do when you assume? And yeah great theory, only, messing with Conrad was one of the high points in his week and he wanted to know what exactly was interrupting his fun. That, and the nervous sort of tick Conrad was sporting tonight, looking at the door every couple seconds, was suspicious. You could smell the apprehension rolling off him. It made the Doc… curious, let's call it.
"Less pretend fer a momen' that I do care. Just fer fun. What's got ya so antsy y' gotta run home right the fuck now?"
Conrad glanced back at the door again and sighed, apparently deciding that this was the fastest way to do things. "My mother. She's got this new strain of flu and they can't figure out how to fight it. The doctors in England, you know, they don't have… Anyway, I have to be near my phone in case something goes wrong."
Doc Worth looked closely at him. Vampires didn't get dark circles, but if you paid attention you could still see that he'd been up all day, and there was a kind of unfocused look in his eyes that announced "I'm not really here; I'm back home with my telephone."
So the doctor shrugged and stood up, headed back towards the freezer. He might not be on good terms with his own parents, but family is something you don't screw with. He looked back over his shoulder.
"Ya got cash, don't ya? Hop a plane an' see 'er fer yerself."
The vampire shook his head. "She won't want to see me. I said some stuff to her a long time ago, and she won't—why am I telling you this?"
"'Cause I'm so goshdarn trustworthy?"
"Oh god, I've lost my mind." The younger man looked at the doctor again and cringed. "Just, don't follow me home this time, okay? I can't deal with you right now."
"Like yer so special. 'Ere, take some blood, get the fuck outta my office." The distrusting look he received was both amusing and irritating. "What, like I don' have nothin' better to do? Go, get. Scram."
Now Conrad appeared to be offended. He snatched the blood packet and marched off towards the door, shoulders stiff.
"An' ya know—"
"—jess in case she don't make it, ya might wanna call 'er tonight. Personal like."
And then the door slammed closed.
The Doc sat down and leaned back, took a deep drag off his cigarette. He was toeing the line now, wasn't he?
Well. It wasn't like the vampire was particularly inclined to think about Worth's motivation. It wasn't like Worth was particularly inclined to think about Worth's motivation. He let it be. So far, his code was intact. As long as he didn't think about it, it wouldn't be a problem. Everything was normal.
But he did allow himself to hope, sort of vaguely and quickly, that Confag's mum came out alright. Just because he didn't want to deal with a depressed bloodsucker, moping around his office and drinking all his stock.
He was always more of a Lestat guy, and he never did like Louis much.
That was early February, essentially January. Closer to midway through the month, Hanna and his little gang of freaks dropped by the office looking like something a rat would be scared to chew on. Again. So the Doc got out his black bag and started sewing things up, yelling at Hanna, and generally feeling put upon by the whole scenario.
"It ain't good enough—" he yanked a thread, "—t' go an' get yerself half killed, nah, ya gotta come rollin' in here an' bloody up my clean operatin' table, knock over my plants—"
Hanna hissed and then grinned up at him, as if getting brand new stitches without so much as an advil was just another way to spend a Saturday night, along with horror B movies and bowling. "I did it a favor. Put it out of its misery. Seriously, Doc, when was the last time you watered that thing?"
"'Bout five years ago."
The older man gave the thread a good hard pull to shut up his most frequent patient. There was a racket outside the door that sounded like Conrad having a fight with his desk chair again—you'd think a guy would learn, after the first time, but then some people are stubborn. Worth tied off the stitch and stood back.
"I know ya ain't gonna listen to me this time neither, but could ya stop with the stupid-ass stunts for a while, Hanna? I'm runnin' outta thread, an' don't think I don't see the tearin' 'round those staples. Pop one o' those an' I'm gonna lock ya out fer good."
Hanna gave him this look like what are you talking about, I've been a good boy all year. Worth groaned and tossed the kid his shirt—what else can you do? It's Hanna, Hanna don't listen to nobody.
Out the door, the Doc was faced with a tangled mess of paper, plastic, and stunned vampire strewn across his floor. Sighing, he reached down, grabbed Conrad by the collar and yanked him to his feet.
"Can ya do anythin' without embarrassin' yerself?"
"Your chair is unnatural!" the dead man shouted back. "It's got three bloody legs and half its nails are missing! Where'd you find that monstrosity, a dumpster?"
"'Ey Connie, ya didn' know? All the best shit comes outta the dumpster."
Conrad railed at him for a minute solid, while Hanna and his zombie sidekick wandered out of the stitching room and back towards the front door. The Doc lit himself a new cigarette and listened to Conrad insult his mother for a while, stopping by the fridge as he went, and shooed the actual patient out into the alleyway. Then he turned back.
"'Ow's yer mum?"
Conrad blinked. "…What's your angle, Worth?"
The doctor shrugged and made his way back to his desk, yanking the awkward chair upright. He left the papers where they were, since he never bothered much with paperwork anyway. Lamont could come get his cash in person if he needed it so damn bad. Enough with the never ending invoices.
"I'm tryin' to show some frien'ly concern, faggot. Where're yer manners?"
"How can you ask me about manners?" the vampire raged, positively trembling with fury from his square-rimmed glasses to his ultra-hip white shoes.
"Wha? Ya think I got no manners?" The Doc shrugged off his coat and made a pointed gesture towards the mess around his feet. "Think yer the one who ain't got no manners."
"That's a double negative, you—" Conrad cut himself off. Deep breath. "Fine. I ain't got no manners. Sure. Can I go?"
"Wha? You dis me fer five minutes an' I can't even ask ya a damn question?"
There was quiet, the sound of a heater groaning somewhere in the background, and Conrad's face crumbled. There were lines creased under his eyes, wrinkles at the collar of his polo, little things that the Doc hadn't noticed until now.
"I don't know," the vampire sighed, looking away. "They stopped calling me. I tried the number, the doctor's number, but he won't answer. I googled the hospital's number but the only one I found is disconnected. I don't know. I can't get in touch with anyone."
Now, Doc Worth was nobody's psychic, and certainly nobody's grief councilor, but he couldn't quite shake the feeling that he ought to say something a little less dickish than usual, just this once. If something like this happened to his sister, after all, he probably wouldn't be in any mood to deal with people either. He tried to make a snide comment anyways, but the words wouldn't form. It didn't feel right.
"Yer mum's prob'ly fine," he said, after a moment, "she prob'ly found out they've been callin' ya an' threw a fit. No news is good news, innit?"
Conrad gave him a suspicious look. "That's very… considerate of you."
"Aw now, no need to be insultin'. I jus can't stand whiney faggots crowdin' up my front room, an' yer in here more 'n Hanna." The doctor thought for a moment, eyeing his reluctant patient carefully.
He stood up and leaned over the desk, hands curled around the dull edges. Yeah, he knew just what the doctor ordered for this ailment.
"Awright," he announced, "I got the perfect treatment for this'un, Connie."
"Oh do you?" the younger man sniped back, a bit warily.
"You bet." Doc Worth tapped his own cheek, just below the sharp curve of his cheekbone. "One good punch, free o' charge."
Conrad looked at him like you'd look at an escaped mental patient. "How would that help anything?"
"Always helps me," the Doc shrugged. "My mum was a bitch too, y'know. If yers is anythin' like mine, she's prob'ly out fuckin' some call boy an' wishin' she di'n have a son ter begin with."
And with that, Conrad punched his lights out.
By the time Doc worth got his bearing back, Conrad was stalking out his front door yelling about insensitive pricks who don't have the first clue what they're talking about.
But he didn't look depressed anymore, which was all that really mattered.
Doc Worth did a lot of work for men in suits with bullet wounds in their shoulders. Doc Worth did a lot of work for men in ties with stab wounds in their sides. Doc Worth had been playing this game since he went by his real name instead of Doc, since he was pre-med and Lamont had recognized the man in the hat stumbling into their diner, demanding to know if there was a doctor in the house.
Those men never forget a favor.
But he was not used to the scenario that presented itself at the end of February, when he opened his grungy back-alley door to another man in a pinstripe suit. He took one look and turned on his heel, heading for the surgery gloves he kept under his desk.
"Where's th' hole?" he demanded, straight to the point because if it was a stab wound he probably didn't have long to work.
The well-dressed man waved him off. "It's nothing like that," he wheezed, whipping out a handkerchief to muffle his cough.
The Doc turned around just in time to catch sight of little red spots blooming across the white cotton. He bit back a curse. "Yer sick," Worth noted, moving closer. "What ya think I kin do about it? I'm th' sawbones, I stitch people up. Go ter the hospital if yer sick."
The well-dressed man shook his head. The handkerchief disappeared into his jacket, but a smear of red clung to his lip. "Donnie went to the hospital a day ago. Some of us guys, we tried to see him today, went to find his room number. Nothing. Like Donnie never walked in the door. Receptionist didn't have a clue what we were talking about, said there wasn't a Donatello anywhere in the building."
The hospital in town was small; if you wanted the big hospital you had to go about two cities away. Doc Worth remembered it from his school days, from sneaking in and nicking the equipment Lamont couldn't procure for him years later. It was small. There were two ladies at the front desk, the same one every day, the other one every night. They'd remember you if you came in spewing blood the day before. Something was fucked up here.
"I dunno what they did to Donnie," the well-dressed man was saying, "but if they're after the Family then I can't walk in there expecting to be treated properly. I'm not high up enough to fly out somewhere else. You're my only chance."
The Doc looked at him, then looked back at his desk, and then back to the man.
"God save us from fuckin' heroes," he muttered, and marched back towards the examination room. "Y' got five second to get in here or I'm kickin' you out!"
The man rushed in behind him.
Doc Worth did his version of an examination. It involved a lot of cursing, threats, objects stuck in painful places, invasive questions—but the doctor was always thorough, you could say that at least. With a smoking cigarette wedged in the corner of his mouth, he mapped the stranger's anatomy like a cartographer on a familiar shore, feeling out irregularities and hoping vaguely that whatever this poor bastard had wasn't airborne.
The Doc was not afraid of death. When it was your time to go, it was your time to go. He didn't particularly go seeking it out either, though.
Joe Shmuck, Worth dubbed his new patient. Joe's breathing was raspy, painful sounding, and his eyes were shot with blue veins. Joe told him he suffered from nightsweats the last two days, started coughing up blood the day before, passed out in the street on his way to the third door down the alley. A couple of his friends were starting up the same symptoms, but they were too scared to tell anyone.
I am Joe's raging sense of paranoia.
And all the while, Worth was smoking his fag and filling his lungs with dry smoke, wondering if he ought to offer his patient one. After all, he did have some sense of social decency.
"Here," he said at last, holding out his spare. "Think yer gonna want this."
The well-dressed man took the cigarette gratefully, muttering about how he just quit smoking himself, for the old lady, you know. Fuck it now, though. Doc Worth sat back and tossed his gloves in the trash.
"Now," he started, "what ya got sounds like a text book case of tuberculosis, except fer these here veins-" he pointed to the blue-streaked eye, "-an' the sudden onset. No fevers, no chest pains, nothin'. Look here bloke. I ain't got a clue what's wrong with ya. If this is anythin' like TB, y' need to check yerself inter a damn hospital or y' just might die, an' it damn well won't be my fault."
"Wait, you're telling me I have consumption? Doc, isn't that disease gone?"
"No, dipshit, it ain't gone. An' I don't know what you got, I'm jus tellin' ya what it looks like."
The well-dressed man looked up at him, and Worth had to steel himself or he might just have looked away, because he knew in his bones that he was talking to a dead man.
Joe Shmuck came back the next day, said he felt better, had been feeling better since yesterday afternoon.
Joe Shmuck came in the day after that, and died on Worth's examination table.
After that, Worth started noticing the signs. He'd be walking downtown for Chinese takeout and he'd spot tissues pressed to people's mouths. He'd be sneaking into Conrad's favorite coffee shop and he'd spy people asleep on their laptops, sweating in the cool air.
Hanna was coming in at least three times a week, at that point, saying that he'd been picking up a lot of jobs for some reason—the dark side of the supernatural was getting a bit more daring lately, and Hanna was just as gung-ho as ever.
Worth left the radio on these days.
Conrad stopped by, second week of March, and caught the doctor mid-practice, administering his special brand of treatment to yet another well-dressed goner. The vampire hung quietly in the background, all respectful and solemn, but he broke character conspicuously when Worth whipped out a new pack. In Worth's world, you got a smoke with your bad news, like it or not. Professional-like.
Conrad hung by the door, watching while the Doc ran the whole spiel for the umpteenth time—coughing up blood is bad, you need antibiotics, why does everybody thing I'm a goddamn miracle worker—and sent a walking dead man back through his door, into the evening light. They never took his advice. They came in one by one, Dee would come because Tony said that he'd been to see the Doc and Tony came back feeling better, but by the next patient Tony would be dead and it was Dee who had sent him to the Doc.
Worth looked over at Conrad, and he could feel the circles under his own eyes darker than usual. It wasn't like he cared or anything. Hadn't been getting much sleep.
"C'mon," he barked, "make yerself useful. I got an office to sanitize."
Fagula would be helpful with that, yeah?
Somewhere between scrubbing down the desk and the floor—which was seeing more soap than it had probably seen in ten years—Conrad turned back to him for a moment.
"What was wrong with him?" the vampire asked, nodding towards the door.
"He's dead," Worth replied, matter of fact. "Or 'e will be, soon enough. Those mafia bastards won't go 'n get proper treatment, an' they're droppin' like flies."
"Did you… did you tell him it was tuberculosis?"
"Somethin' like that." Worth looked up, and the expression on Conrad's face made him wonder what he'd missed. "Why?"
Water dripped from Conrad's rag. "My mother," he murmured. "Just before they stopped calling. They told me she had a new strain of tuberculosis."
A dull thud of silence rang through the office. Worth set down his own rag and reached for another smoke, suddenly a lot less worried about emptying his newest pack.
"The first guy who walked in here," the doctor told him, "was the fly guy. He told me he'd just gotten back from the airport when the coughin' started."
Conrad said nothing, and picked his rag back up.
The radio finally had something to say. A talk-show host called in sick; the DJ on 101.2 made an announcement about flu season. People called in asking about the new thing going around, asking if anybody knew what it was. Asking what to do about it. Asking if they knew where the patients were getting sent.
But still, nobody was panicking.
Hanna came in dragging his two dead friends behind him again, talking about how he thought he saw a shinigami and he didn't even know those were in America and wow they must have immigrated here with the Japanese a long time ago.
And Worth made sure to check his eyes before he let the kid leave.
"It's going to get worse," Conrad announced, as the door closed behind his companions. "I can smell it in their blood. It's spreading faster."
Doc Worth leaned back in his chair, examining the spider-web cracks in his ceiling. "Whuzzat? Fin'ly puttin' those Vamp skills to use?"
Worth raised a brow.
"Ugh, whatever. Sure, I'm using my goddamn superpowers."
"Hey now, don' give yerself too much credit."
"You are impossible!"
Worth grinned. "Y' know it, sweetheart."
"I'm going to knock out your stupid crooked teeth, one of these days," Conrad seethed. "And then I'm going to strangle you with that goddamn coat."
"Now why go ter all that trouble when y' could jus suck me dry?" Worth tilted his head, strtching the tendons of his neck as far as they'd go. He grinned. "Worried y'd get hooked? Worried y'd turn into some kinda unnat'ral freak?"
"Oh yes, that's rich. Let's psychoanalyze the man with the legal occupation and functioning social life, never mind the drug addicted recluse who cuts people to bits without a license!"
"Aw Connie, I didn' know ya felt tha' way."
"You—argh! God, I don't know why I come here, I'm sure Lamont could help me just as well."
"Heh, mebbe. But y'd miss me. Be'sides, this-" the doctor held up a bag of very valuable red liquid, "-this ain't free with Lamont. I'm more a generous sorta bloke."
"Generous my ass," Conrad muttered, swiping the baggie. "You just get off on fucking with me."
"Mebbe tha' too," Worth grinned. Then the grin faded for a fraction of a second. "Ya make sure y' come to me if y' get in any trouble, Confag. World's gonna eat y' alive unless y' get some kinda backup."
"I don't need your help," the undead man growled, spine cracking straight. "Keep your generosity, and whatever else you're going to ask for in return. I can do just fine on my own."
"Tha's the spirit," Worth yawned. He made a shooing motion. "Now get yer ass outta my office. I got work t' do."
And Conrad left the office irritated and indignant, which was a hell of a lot better way than he came in.
Worth managed to sleep properly the night after that one. He fell asleep in his chair, a hand resting on the ancient radio.
He dreamed that the world was unraveling at the seams, leaving piles of yarn where post offices and street signs used to be. He dreamed that his office crumbled to dust and Jesus was standing over him, saying that
To conquer death you only have to die
And he dreamed of buildings that blew away into clouds of grey smoke, people blowing away into clouds of dust, crumbling into nothing and carried away on the wind. He dreamed of fire and ice, frozen moonlight pouring down over hollow skyscrapers. He dreamed of Conrad standing in front of him, perfectly manicured hands dripping blood, eyes as empty as the skyscrapers and saying
To conquer death you only have to die
And Worth dreamed that he reached out and grabbed Conrad's dripping hands and wiped the blood onto himself, smeared it into the lines of his own dirty palms and saying
To conquer death, you need one hell of an army.
Two days later, all Hell broke loose.
You could blame it on the reporter who ran the story, slipped it into the printer at the last minute or so the story goes, but that's just blaming somebody for what was bound to happen anyways. Like blaming the Germans for World War One. What happened happened, and even if she'd never published the headline "Government Hushes Killer Epidemic", the world had to explode eventually.
She did her research, you can say that much for the poor bitch. Tracked down every lost patient, located every crematorium, tracked down letter after letter reading the same thing—"getting better, heading to rehab. Be home in a month or so."
And then she went and published it.
The first riots were in New York City, where the mass of citizens—white, black, yellow, wouldn't the liberals be proud to see it—crashed down as one wave over St. Mary's hospital, and Bellevue Hospital, and Harlem hospital, spreading out to crush the police stations and the government buildings, rippling out into the heart of the good old US of A, shattering windows and leaving bodies in its wake.
Worth stayed inside.
The first fire went up at six, and Worth walked up the abandoned fire escape to the top of his building to watch it, sat on the edge of the roof with his shoes hanging over the alley, and cracked open a beer. Part of him would have liked to be out there, participatin' in some anarchy, as it were, but something kept him tied to the building. Project Mayhem was better left to people with nothing to live for—Worth didn't need a cause, didn't need to prove anything to anyone.
Besides. Somebody might come by.
When the sky went totally dark, Worth climbed back down into his office and pulled out a scalpel. The radio shrieked another fire, another fire, and for every new one Worth put a slice into his arm. To conquer death, yeah right.
To conquer death, you need to stop being scared of it.
At eight o'clock, the door swung open for another walking dead man. There was blood pouring down the face, dirt matted hair, stained fingers leaving smears on his doorframe.
"Worth," the dead man croaked, and then—"Luce."
The doctor was across the room in seconds, wiping blood off the injured face and holding together a massive gash, and—
His friend made a grimace that was supposed to be a grin.
"Oh, you motherfuckin' idiot," Worth growled, grabbing his lapel and dragging him back towards the surgery room. "Once I sew this up I'm gonna rip ya a new one. Can't take a fuckin' day off to save yer bloody life, 'n that ain't even a metaphor."
"Don't bother," Lamont wheezed, smiling in a way that split his lip open. "No point in that now."
"Whatcha mean, fucktard? Don' be a baby, head wounds bleed a lot but they ain't life-threatenin'."
"No, that's not it. I—" his friend broke off coughing, bent over at the waist. Awful hacking, lung splitting coughs. He stood, pulled his hand away from his torn lip, and—
Blood spots bloomed over his palm, huge and ugly.
Lamont laughed, and it was his same obnoxious awkward laugh—the same laugh he'd had since he was ten years old and he'd finally pinned Luce Worth after weeks of getting beaten up, laughing because he wasn't quite sure what had come over him but now he was sitting on top of the neighbor kid and there was a black eye growing where his fist had met face. The day they decided they were friends.
Worth didn't know what to say, so he gripped the shirt tighter and dragged his best friend to the bedroom.
"I don' have a cure," the doctor said, once Lamont had taken up what little space there was on his mattress. "I can't fix ya."
"It's okay," Lamont coughed, "I feel a little better anyways. Sitting down, I guess. Air's better in here."
"I can't fix ya," Worth repeated, staring at the door. "Yer gonna die. Soon."
"Well no shit Sherlock."
Worth kept staring at the door. He could feel the cuts on his arms turning into scabs, and he wanted to pull his coat off and dig his nails into the healing flesh. Break the system down.
"Nobody lives forever," Lamont says, with an ironic sort of smile that Worth can hear in his voice. It's an old joke. A pretty vampire woman once offered Lamont a shot at immortality, maybe because she liked him, maybe because she was bored. They'd never know. Lamont came over to the Doc's that night, wasted, laughing in that awkward obnoxious way.
"No thank you, ma'am," he'd told her, "It's hard to do this job if you can't wear a crucifix. And besides, nobody lives forever."
Now Worth turned back to his friend. Walking dead man. Why was there a difference between dying and seeing someone die? How could he be so casual about his own death, come today or ten years from now, and still feel like his insides were shredding to pieces tonight?
I am Joe's broken heart.
His fists were clenched so tight he sort of wondered if he was going to pull a muscle. Men don't cry. Men don't whine. Men take their fucking lumps and keep going; men do not fall apart.
He looked away. "I'll prob'ly miss you, I guess."
"Hey," Lamont groaned, "don't get all sentimental now. I'd hate to be the one who proves you're not a complete dick."
There was silence for a minute, and through the thin walls, Worth thought he could hear the sounds of mayhem drawing ever closer. Glass breaking and people shouting. But maybe not.
"Hey Luce," Lamont whispered, after a while, catching his friend's eye as he glanced back. "I'm sorta glad, you know."
"What, that yer dyin'?"
"Nah," the darker man laughed, and the laugh sounded painful. "That we were friends. It's been… fun."
And then Lamont was closing his eyes and slipping off into the cheap facsimile of wherever he'd be headed soon enough.
The doctor ghosted back out into the main room of his office, fingers curled into a muscle-burning knot. Men do not cry. Men do not fall apart. Men do not fall on their knees and scream at God and rip their own chests open and pull out their hearts to stop the pain. Men do not fall apart.
As he passed the door, he reeled back and busted a hole in the plaster.
He knew, without turning the radio back on, that the fires were getting taller and the riots were getting bigger, and the city would burn and the country would burn, and the whole goddamn planet would burn from the biggest metropoli to the smallest villages, and they would burn and burn until there was nothing left but dust and smoke.
Watch how the mighty have fallen.
And he couldn't spare a fuck, one way or another, for what happened to the world, because his best friend was dying in the back of his shithole alley office and there wasn't a bloody thing he could do about it. This was nowhere near the darkest hour in store. This was only the beginning.
Doc Worth didn't give two shits whether he lived or died, and he hadn't since he was twenty-six and standing bloody over another man's corpse. But for some reason, and he hadn't realized it until that moment, standing at the front of his shithole alley office- he did care if the people he knew survived. He did give two shits about that. And he realized in the same moment that a man with nothing and everything to lose can be a very dangerous man indeed.
He cared, and it was a pity he'd only realized it now.
He would not sit back and let the universe fuck him up the ass. He would not. Real men fight losing battles. Real men grieve. Real men hold it together, and Goddamnit—
He needed to find Conrad.