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FIC: Between the Brushstrokes - [2/?]

Title: Between the Brushstrokes
Fandom: Watchmen
Characters/Pairings: Daniel, Rorschach, Adrian, Manhattan in pt 1, Dan/Ror (gee you think?) later on.
Date Written: 2009
Summary: A lot happens in the in-between spaces; in the tiny intervals of time in which no one watching, we are free. Dan and Rorschach face the future more head-on than they expected; Adrian learns about regret and what happens when you're wrong.
Rating/Warnings: PG-13, some language. Philosophy, violence, twilight zone bullshit, time travel, pretentious metaphors, and Waffle House.
Notes: Yet ANOTHER kinkmeme prompt. Post-GN fixit. In progress.



* 2 *


It takes a minute or two for neurons to start firing again correctly, for thoughts to start connecting – for Dan to realize the haze he's in, and make an effort to climb out of it. At first, the most pressing concern is just why he'd been unconscious to start with, quickly trumped by the fact that he doesn't seem to be able to move. Everything feels intact, a tingling warmth running from fingertips to toes, so it's probably not spinal damage; that's a small comfort. But there's a bone-deep exhaustion wound around him, binding him to the spot, and it's not a good feeling.

"Stopped believing in afterlife a long time ago. Obviously not a bar to entry." A pause."Not what I would have expected."

Okay, that's Rorschach's voice, that's something familiar, and he latches onto it. It sounds strange – meandering and without his theatrical, growling monotone, as if he's speaking without fear of being overheard. Talking to himself. But it's still-

(Oh god. Rorschach.)

Rorschach, who'd been seconds from obliteration outside of Adrian's stronghold; who is now somewhere nearby in the dark, babbling on about an afterlife, and Dan still can't move and he feels like his eyes are open but he can't see anything at all, and he's suddenly terrified. (Panic attack,) some helpfully functional part of his brain supplies, and that'll be his excuse later for asking, blearily but in all seriousness, panic giving the words a biting edge: "...we're dead?"

Silence. Dead goddamned silence. Even the other noises around them seem to have deserted, run down bolt holes so deep he'd swear they were never there. No wind. No birdsong.

Wait - there'd been birds? In Antarctica?

His vision's clearing, enough to realize that it's bright and that his goggles have fallen down around his neck, and it takes effort but he manages to turn his head towards where Rorschach's voice was coming from. He's half-blind without his glasses, but at such a short distance he can still make out the red hair and the profile of a face and the features all screwed up in horror in the instant before they go flat and unreadable again. Controlled. Looking straight ahead, fixed and staring, and it's obvious all at once: waking up first into the blinding darkness, disoriented and paralyzed, Rorschach had thought he was alone.

(Alone, and dead. And if you're here too...)

"Disappointed, Daniel," and there's anger and guilt and blame all layered into the words. "Weren't supposed to die too. What did you do?"

The implicit accusation is enough to get past the panic, stir defense up from the depths, breathless and fumbling. "Do? I didn't do anything, I was just standing there..."

"Did something." A mumbling, unintelligible and vaguely broken and underlined with disgust. "Compromised. Not a threat. Wouldn't have killed you for no reason."

"Um." Dan narrows his eyes against the sun glare that's getting more overpowering by the second, looks away from Rorschach and tries to make sense of the digital patterning of bright squares and brighter squares his long-distance vision is resolving into. Some kind of park, maybe, but it's hard to tell because his head is throbbing, making it hard to focus, and as sensation returns all over he starts to feel their fight with Adrian like he hadn't been able to at the time. Adrenaline is so goddamned double-edged.

And, of course, he addresses the wrong part of the statement entirely. "Rorschach, I... I really don't think we're dead. Too sore, to start with."

"Hrm. Like I said. Steerage."

"And that... looks like the Bethesda fountain. Over there." Which puts them in the middle of Central Park. His vision is snapping into as much focus as he ever has without his glasses, and some of the details are coming in; he catalogues them without trying. It's a brilliantly sunny day and, strangely, there's no one else here. No litter, either, though the nearest can looks empty. And he's sure the fountain had a broad swath of graffiti scrawled across its base the last time he was here, gang signs and the more innocent delinquency of bored, stupid kids, but the whole place is spotless. And quiet. And calm.

"Daniel." Quiet, sad almost, but not gentle, not pulling any punches. "It's our city. Made clean. No more scum to punish. What more poetically just reward was expected?"

(Oh. That's...)

(That makes...)


It makes some twisted kind of sense. For a second – just a second – Dan lets his healing eyes wander up paths and between trees, settle on the old, old stone angel perched on the fountain. It's out of place amongst the sterile and modern art pieces declaring their transient relevance on every rise and furrow of the earth, and he thinks about compromise and secrets and the horrible things he's seen done for all the right and wrong reasons, and for just that one second, he almost...

Then sanity slams back in, hard, and he's shaking his head. "Bullshit. I don't buy it. You don't die and go to the Park." Control is coming back into his extremities, and Dan works the gloves off, chafing bare hands together to try to banish the pins and needles. It gives him a chance to wonder, incredulous: is he actually having this conversation? With Rorschach, his own personal Nietzsche, who forswore the existence of anything more divine than the base, squirming, flailing horror of human existence, years and countless bloody and horrific nights ago, and never looked back? It's surreal. "That's just ridiculous. I'm not sure what is going on, but I'm sure we're not dead."

A long moment, then Rorschach nods, lifting his hands experimentally; turns them over and over, and his tone is dismissive. "Possibly a valid opinion."

"Hypothesis," Dan corrects, doing his best to roll to his hands and knees, scrabbling at the neatly trimmed grass, armor weighing him down. "In the face of no conclusive evidence to the contrary."

It's manipulative, and it takes a few minutes to properly settle through, but invoking the deductive method seems to have done what logic couldn't. Rorschach's narrowing his eyes, regarding the park around them critically. "Other city, perhaps. Modeled after Central Park but maintained more diligently. Sent here by Manhattan. Why? What is-" A pause, then with some urgency: "Daniel."

"What?" Dan asks, ungracefully shoving himself to his feet. A second passes; his expression shifts minutely. "...ohgod."

"Many people's stomachs unsettled by-"

Dan slips back down to his knees, hand clapped across his mouth and eyes pressed tight against the rising wave of nausea

(You remember now: Laurie complaining about this.)

and the rush of blood out of his head, a prickly, staticky field of black shot through with sparks that floods in to supplant vision. By the time his stomach settles he's on his side, dizzy and weary all the way through and there's a hand on his shoulder, steadying him against the roll onto his face that his body's trying to trick him into. Dan blinks against receding swirls of liquid, electric darkness.

Through the haze: "...stay there for now."

He nods, as far as he's capable of it, eyes pinching shut again. And if there really is anything of the superstitious left in Rorschach, something that rattles restlessly, haunted by the ghosts of a thousand transgressions and absolutions, by the smell of incense and musty brickwork and the narrow claustrophobia of wood and darkness and by the crumbling stone angel across from them, it's in his hand as it tightens on Dan's shoulder, forgiveness as backhanded and inevitable as anything he's ever given. Dan compromised, but it's all right, because Rorschach may hold grudges and try to maintain the anger but this – trials and terror and one breath at a time and double standards and a steadying hand and forgiveness for now - is how they have always worked.

Dan curls in on himself against the dizziness, and tries not to think about cold, and snow, and what an indescribable mess it would have been – and the hand tightens again, through the armor. It's an anchor, and he lets it be one, until the darkness clears and the sun paints his vision red and gold through his closed eyelids, warming his face in a way that shouldn't be possible in November, and there's something tenuous and fragile in the contact that feels, somehow, like home.

*

Thirteen minutes later and they're up and walking. Dan's put his cowl back, and he's not sure entirely why because it's dangerous, but it feels something like solidarity; Rorschach's left his security and safety some ten thousand miles away and while neither of them has spoken a word to that fact, he'd looked at Dan with something akin to gratitude when he'd reached to shove the Kevlar away from his face.

And they walk.

The streets are startlingly empty of people, impossibly clean. The pedestrian signals still cycle expectantly, and the only vehicles they see are delivery vans, taxis, bustling mechanisms of commerce – but no citizens, and strangely, no police.

About half a mile out of the park, Rorschach stops with no warning, eyes caught and locked on a row of townhomes – fine, delicate brickwork and cornices, impeccably kept, with cheerful curtains in every window and lush garden boxes on every patio.

Dan pulls up, backpedals. Looks between Rorschach and the building, and makes the connection. "These were tenements the last time I saw them..."

"Were tenements as of last week," Rorschach corrects, because of course he'd been through that recently, wallowing in the squalor at the shuddering heart of the city. He tilts his head slightly, a gesture that reads completely differently without the mask. "1972. Do you remember?"

Dan winces. "Yeah, uh... third floor, right?"

"Yes. Second unit. Child prostitution ring. The one boy-"

"His name was Kevin."

A grunt in response, but it's not unkind. "Wouldn't let go of your hand, even when authorities arrived."

They stand in silence for a moment, tracking the domestic arch of wrought-iron patio fencing and the delicate track of footpaths through the carefully clipped grass of the tiny stretch of communal backyard with eyes that don't quite understand what they're seeing or how it's possible. The question is obvious; but neither has the answer, so neither bothers to ask.

Dan pushes his hand through his hair. "He'll be seventeen now."

A short huff of breath. "Maybe." And then Rorschach is walking again, path picked up where he'd dropped it, leather barely making a sound on the pavement.

Dan lingers for a moment, watching the breeze catch in the curtain over one window – three floors up, two units down – then scrambles to catch up. "There's no need to be morbid-"

"Not being morbid," and he's not, that much is clear from his tone; quiet, thoughtful, putting pieces together – a recollection of earlier years, before everything went up in smoke on one dark September night. Before-

(Before everything changed.)

Dan's boots make more noise on the pavement than Rorschach's, and he's painfully aware of it in this moment. Wonders if Rorschach ever resented him for hampering his stealth, for breaking his carefully constructed silence.

Cautiously: "You've got an idea of what's going on."

"Getting there. Need to find a newsstand."

*

So they find a newsstand. And Dan is shocked, and Rorschach is not, because for all of his moral stiffness, he's always had the more flexible imagination; believing all of those crazy conspiracy theories requires no less. If he can buy that the moon landing was faked and that there are mind-control drugs in the public water supply, Dan figures 'you've been dropped ten years into the future' must not be much of a stretch, especially where Manhattan is concerned.

Dan, for his part, is still pawing through the racks, trying to make sure the Gazette's nameplate isn't just a misprint or a bad joke. The vendor is the first human being they've seen close up since coming around in the park, and he doesn't seem to care if Dan makes a mess of his stand, acknowledging the apology and the assurance that he'll put everything back where it belongs with a calm, tolerant nod and a lazy smile that doesn't seem inclined to fade.

Doesn't seem phased by the armor, either. Very strange.

"Explains the weather," Rorschach says from off to the side, rolling his shoulders under his coat. "Knew it was too warm for November."

Dan's flipping through the Times, checking each page's dateline. "Thought maybe some kind of Indian summer..."

Rorschach huffs dismissively. "Romanticism."

"Meteorologically valid, though. It's a known weather pattern."

A gloved hand settles onto the newspaper, preventing him from flipping through it any further. "Daniel. Gone through five papers now. We have the information we need."

A long moment, then Dan nods, hesitantly at first and then with more certainty. Starts sorting the papers back into the racks. "Yeah. Okay..." The vendor continues to smile blandly, eyes focused past him; Dan shudders slightly. "Yeah, we do."

*

Daniel's decided the first priority is a change of clothing and to some degree, Rorschach agrees. The political state of the world at this point is a mystery, but it's unlikely the Keene Act's been repealed and there are no costume parties in March, so even if no one is looking for them specifically – and he's not willing to count that out, not since one of the newspapers he'd paid for and walked away with revealed Veidt in one of the inner headlines – Daniel's uniform is liable to draw unwanted attention.

There are two conventional choices: purchase and theft. But even if they'd been so inclined, the latter is unworkable; in this cleaner and more prosperous age – and Rorschach has to force his fists to unclench, thinking about Veidt's grand and megalomaniacal plans for a forced utopia and the way they seem to have actually come to fruition – there is no laundry hung on landings and fire escapes to dry, the poor man's clothesline apparently out of vogue in a city with, seemingly, no poor.

So he takes the cash Daniel's produced from a belt pouch, gets in and out as quickly as he can, judging sizes by eye. He brings out a complete set of clothing for Daniel and, in a strange fit of practicality that surprises him, a new coat for himself – one that won't smother him in the heat, and isn't emblazoned with old blood and pain and the echo of desolate screams in the night. Won't draw as much attention from the public or the authorities, cause civilians to scream bloody murder. That's the only reason.

If Daniel seems relieved when the bloodstained stretch of leather is folded away under his arm, Rorschach doesn't notice.

*

Dan has the thought – quickly abandoned – of returning to his home. There's obviously no point; a decade on, if he hasn't been declared dead and the property reclaimed, it'll be uninhabitable. Strangely, he's less bothered by the loss of the property and more by the little things. His degree. His books. His collection of newspaper clippings following Hollis's exploits, and the thought hits him like a bucket of ice water: Hollis has been dead for ten years.

A lot has been dead for ten years.

*

They cut down Park Avenue to midtown, and despite the brilliant sunlight and the civilian disguises, it feels almost like a patrol – the way feet feel out every step before it's taken, carefully negotiating for permissions and boundaries with the brainstem, existence mapped out across a spectrum of clinical observation and animal wariness. There are more people here, milling in droves in front of flashy stores and upscale restaurants, aimless and blank but seemingly happy enough; Dan watches the rapidly accelerating fury torque Rorschach's expression into something more frightening than the mask ever was, and wonders at this disturbing piece of the puzzle. There's more to figure out here than the date.

Later, though. For now, every motel they come across that advertises a rate they can afford on Dan's limited cash supply is studied – observed for the subtle details that mark a location as a good or bad place to go to ground. Rorschach's rejected all of them so far, for no reason Dan can see, and he tamps down on his impatience; the man stayed out of police custody for eight years after they'd been made illegal, and that says something for his methods.

Still, it's been a very long and exhausting and emotionally draining twenty-four – thirty-six? – hours, and they haven't even spoken about Karnak and the city and accountability and just what they're going to do about it, ten years too late, and there's only so far human patience can stretch. And Rorschach's about to reject another hotel. And Dan's about to snap at him for it, and it's all going to go downhill from there.

It's fortunate, then – though it doesn't seem so immediately – that the smiling, smiling man in the courier uniform steps up to them when he does, a large envelope under one arm, and asks: "Excuse me, are you Daniel Dreiberg?"

(...)

(What the...)


At Dan's confused, eyes-narrowed nod, he just smiles even harder, eyes flat and empty. Hands over the envelope. Wishes them both a wonderful day, and is gone.

Rorschach eyes him, the question obvious in the set of his face.

Dan looks right back, and swallows tightly; then tears the end of the envelope off in one sharp pull. He shuffles the thick, multiple-page letter out of it, immediately flips to the last sheet, seeking out a signature, because who would know that they're here when they've only just figured it out themselves and...

And the issue of motel choice is suddenly unimportant, because Dan lets out a ragged sigh, and his voice is flooded with a shivering panic that has trouble finding ground.

"...It's from Adrian."

*
There's a stretched-thin moment, neither of them moving as Daniel flips back to the first page, takes enough time to focus in on the near-distance and read all of three sentences - maybe. If he's a fast reader. Rorschach rather suspects that he is, but his fists are curling hard enough to feel blunt fingernails biting through two layers of leather and his partner's speed-reading potential isn't even on the radar.

Then Daniel's off like a shot, cramming the papers back into the envelope, long-legged strides eating up the sidewalk at speed. Rorschach has to overextend to match, and does without thinking, body and face and voice all disciplined control. "Daniel. What does it say?"

"Forget the motels," Daniel forces out between the rhythm of his pace. "Need somewhere without a front desk or... housecleaners, other guests. Without people." And he's starting to go as telegraphic as Rorschach, doesn't seem to be noticing it, jackrabbited up on a sudden rush of adrenaline that shouldn't really still be available after everything they've already been through.

Rorschach makes a noise of agreement. "Obvious, given that we're being pursued." The papers are nearly concealed now, going into the envelope unevenly. He sees something that looks like '-hreat to world securi-', and he snarls, because that's exactly the sort of self-important socio-political posturing he expected but he still wants to hear it. "Would help to know nature of the pursuit. What does it-"

Daniel rounds on him suddenly, empty hand going to his shoulder to halt his motion, words coming fast and aggressive. "Rorschach. When you used to disappear. Back in the old days, after the worst fights, when you would have left a trail of blood straight to your door and I know you wouldn't risk that."

Rorschach nods, and doesn't bother shrugging Daniel's hand off, focusing instead on dislodging the memory: Back before he'd started following his partner home, before they'd even called themselves partners. Before he'd gotten in the soft and weak and addictive habit of licking his wounds under Daniel's supervision and with Daniel's assistance instead of alone and shuddering from bloodloss in one of a dozen dark and narrowing spaces scattered across the city, and maybe he's missed that comfort zone from time to time and maybe he'd even admit that under duress but right now he needs to know what. Is in. The letter.

But Daniel's giving him a sharp, uncompromising look, and for a sparse moment, it seems like Nite Owl has managed to transcend the uniform - transcend the years, the betrayals, the broken promises and the sheer weight of everything that's happened since, together and apart. He's asking a lot, and he knows it, and he's asking anyway. "Where did you go?"

"...nrrg. Warehouses. Abandoned. In the neighborhoods where the scum track blood trails backwards to save themselves the chance of trouble."

Daniel nods, distractedly; he's scanning the milling crowds, eyes roving with a meticulous care as if he actually knows what he's looking for. Maybe he does, subconsciously. Maybe the old instincts are twisting their way to the surface. "Might not be abandoned anymore. Or still standing. Whe-"

"Daniel," and it's just as demanding, a reminder woven through the pitch and timbre of the fact that Rorschach doesn't waste breath on chatter, doesn't ask questions that aren't important, that can just be brushed off and aside. Forceful for it's monotonic flatness, and just about out of patience: "What. Is in the letter?"

Daniel draws up, makes a visible effort to pause his train of thought; shifts the envelope in his hand as if only then becoming aware of its existence. It would read like a stall if he didn't know Daniel better, but he does, so he waits.

The city doesn't wait with him. A woman with three identical, nine-months-apart children in tow blusters past them, and Rorschach stiffens at the uninvited contact but doesn't shift his attention. He watches Daniel turn his head to squint and track their retreating backs, crowned with bobs of shining blonde on blonde, all of them muttering cheerful apologies to the thin air a second and a half too late - like an out of sync recording, voices shivery and strange. Across the street, a happy and smiling family plays with a dog on a leash, a simple creature, all saliva and instinct and childish, indiscriminate hunger; the girl laughs from her father's shoulders, and there's something in it that is eerily hollow.

"Like listening to a record skip..." Daniel mutters, watching the repetitive gestures, the endless verbal concessions to how wonderful everything is, of course, how could it be anything else, and did you hear? Isn't that lovely? The choreography is perfect and in the middle of it all they stand, like rocks in the flow, fear and uncertainty breaking up water with jagged, ugly fingers - and it feels like the city resents them for it, grown intolerant in its self-indulgent middle age, no place for anything but its chosen puppets, spinning and spinning. And what exactly goes on in the in-between beats, if there's anything there but more agonizing rehearsal and practice - or do they slump like ragdolls in the dark, inanimate in the lonely moments they aren't showing off for the world?

...fanciful, ridiculous, and it is possible that his imagination is getting the better of him; happened in Veidt's office, there's recent precedent. More than possible; likely. So he just stands, and waits, and refuses to look away, gaze like a butterfly pin.

And for a second it looks almost like Daniel's going to finally answer, mouth falling open around some unformed word or thought, but then he shakes his head sharply. "Not like this. Not out here. Can you find one of the warehouses from where we are?"

They're at Park and... a mental map starts unfolding automatically, and of course Daniel already knows the answer to that. Rorschach studies him steadily, thin lips pressed tight. Forces his hands to unclench, to settle in his pockets; the delay chafes, but if Nite Owl's calling it a tactical delay, that's something he can respect if not exactly appreciate. Owes him that much. Wouldn't even be stuck here if not for-

...

He huffs finally, and it's almost a laugh, but there's no humor there. Reaches up to unwind his scarf, shoving it into a pocket. "Can find all of them."

Daniel anchors the envelope under his arm. "Closest one first, and we'll go from there."

Rorschach nods, and leads, and for the first time in a good while, the word 'partner' doesn't feel like a nod to nostalgia; it rings with something like truth, sits easily and comfortably on his tongue.

*

Chapter 3

*



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