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FIC: Between the Brushstrokes - [12/?]

Title: Between the Brushstrokes
Fandom: Watchmen
Characters/Pairings: Daniel, Rorschach, Adrian, Manhattan in pt 1, Dan/Ror.
Date Written: 2009
Summary: A lot happens in the in-between spaces; in the tiny intervals of time in which no one is 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.

*

Dan wakes up cold – cement at his back, shirt half-unbuttoned and rucked up under his arms, and with no reassuring weight against him to keep out the chill of early morning in March – for the first time in two weeks. He sighs, lifting a hand to press at closed eyelids.

It’s not a bad thing. It isn’t. It’s a reminder, tactile and plain, that Rorschach isn’t going to just stay where he’s put or where he falls anymore, isn’t a loose-limbed doll waiting for someone to take up his strings. It just figures though, that after everything that– after all of it, he would–

He opens his eyes. There’s a note, folded in half, propped up dramatically, almost comically, in the center of his chest. He catches it up in his fingers, brings it in close.

Went walking. Took goggles. Will be back before nine.
.][.


Dan furrows his brow, running one hand back over his hair until it meets the concrete, and yes, the goggles are gone, snuck right off of his head and he hadn’t woken up, he could bet he didn’t even mumble or fuss or paw ineffectually at the imposition. He’ll probably catch a lecture for that later; sleeping too deeply, too open to attack.

This close to zero-hour, to the single act that will pivot their and the world’s fate around on its axis, all he can do is laugh.

*

The goggles don’t fit well, and the hard-wired prescription correction makes the world unfold around him like a bug-eyed view of eternity, bent around the edges and with a sweeping grandiosity that makes the sky seem vaster, the buildings taller and caught in structurally impossible curves, the very air around him cramped in on itself. He has a headache from it after only a half an hour.

Physical discomfort is irrelevant.

What’s relevant is not being caught unawares by any of the city lights; innocent enough their instructions may be, it’s the principle of the thing, and a bone-deep aversion to being controlled, directed, prodded about. The distaste isn’t new, but it has been freshly sharpened, honed.

The fisheyed world is filled in with smiling faces and aimless feet and useless bodies hanging in between, lax and lifeless and he can see so much more in that language of apathy than he could before. Knows what it’s like to be that cold and empty, that void of purpose; to see without observing, to hear without listening.

To hear and hear and hear…

To feel it all come back, with all the pressure and burning in the chest of a breath held for too long, bursting painfully free. To feel a heat rippling under his skin like fury or vengeance , needing to plunge it into water so calm he can still see the steam rising, ghostlike, from his skin.

(“Whatever you need–”)

And if the scattered, stitched-together remnants of all the human creatures he’s been had needed too much, gone too far, pushed down past the calm and dug fingers into the sediment and stirred it up until all the dingy, desperate murkiness made it impossible to see exactly what he was doing–

(“Won’t hold you to–”)

The light changes. He reaches up and adjusts the goggles the way he’s seen Daniel do it – he doesn’t know what any of the dials do exactly, has no idea how the settings work, but with enough fiddling, he ought to be able to figure it out.

*

This place has felt alien since they first set foot onto its flawless expanses of concrete and asphalt, the people little more than constructs to fill the streets, to consume and consume, to crowd the quiet spaces out with their noise lest someone catch enough of the silence running under it to realize they’ve made a mistake.

But it rained last night – it’d woken him but not Daniel, too heavy a sleeper after so many years off the street, so many years not living or dying by the stretch of his perception, and it’d rattled against the roof like distant gunfire. He hadn’t been able to convince himself to do anything but stay where he’d fallen, hopelessly tangled, and listen until the gunfire became machine noise and the machine noise became the clicking claws of prowling dogs and the claws became just water landing on an old, old roof, a rhythmless white noise that’d startled his pulse out of time for just the barest of moments.

The water has found the tiny, invisible cracks and faults in the paving, collected there and darkened around them like veins under the skin, exposed them in open view.

The air smells like violation and some grim sort of potential.

These people still move through their choreographed dance, but he can’t help but notice a twitch at the corner of a mouth here, a tic over one eye there; signs that there are people in there, the same he’d once vowed to protect and then seen too much of, come to understand too well, written off as filth but still cried for, still plastered his face under with flash-frozen salt because they didn’t deserve to die like that, to be murdered for a cause they knew nothing of–

He knows they’re screaming, under the placid faces and pleasant chatter. He can still hear the echo in his own head, and he’s never felt so connected up with the city’s hammering, filthy heart. The pavement they share hums with it, a warm electric ripple of I know, I understand, I’m going to help, soaking into it like summer’s beating sun.

Because he’d been just as weak and helpless and empty as they are, and as loath as he is to admit it, it isn’t their fault.

*

In some ways, he is still weak and helpless, and his fingertips twitch and burn with the sense-memory of skin and soft hair and–

He ignores it, balling his hands into fists in the close darkness of his coat pockets.

*

Rorschach retrieves Daniel’s armor from where it is still safely hidden, the flexible pliancy of it not feeling like anything that could protect from gunfire. It is too soft, too much like skin, bronzed and scale-patterned but still giving under the gentle pressure of fingers. He’s put his hands on it before, to shove Daniel down or aside or pull him back, but he’s never just touched it and it is too soft, too weak.

But really, he knows better. He’s watched it stop small-caliber rounds, watched it turn knives.

He bundles it up in the bag they’d used to hide it in and exits the alley a different way than he came.

*

The lights change: red and green and red and green, stop and go, restraint and release. Yellow hangs somewhere in between, offers some middle ground, but yellow has always been a coward’s color.

It can’t be allowed to happen again.

*

The decision is like a mantra, subconsciously circling the back of his brain with every step, and it provides the rhythm that keeps him moving.

*

He walks until he doesn’t recognize the space around him, and that’s a feat – but even in the old days, Daniel had sometimes surprised him, getting them into odd places by air that foot patrol tended to steer them around, just by nature of the lines of roads and alleyways and the way architecture had its way of bending the skyline around pockets of shadow. The view from fifty feet up had always been very different.

But this narrow corridor by the waterfront is still just the same as any Rorschach does know, dingy with sharply cast morning shadows if not with actual filth, claustrophobic in the way there’s only room for one arm to draw back with knife or bludgeon, no space for another to come up and block it.

Then it opens out into a strange clearing between the looming rear walls of cheap apartments and shops, a junkmetal village of lean-tos and shacks and a smell like the Chinese leftovers Daniel was always stuffing his refrigerator with and burning wood and the Gunga all rolled into one. It’s anachronistic, powerfully out of place and out of context, and when people emerge from the ramshackle shelters, all of them at once, it is coordinated and paramilitary and their collective gaze is suspicious and bright and clear.

He pulls the goggles off, operating on some deep and unknowable instinct, and meets it.

*

“Terrible vision, Daniel,” Rorschach says, handing the goggles and the bagged and folded armor over; his hands are only just barely shaking when there is a brush of contact, and he’s proud of that. “Also,” and he’s crossing to the map Daniel has spread across the floor, all their possible escape routes marked down in different colored inks. Crouches down over it. “Discovered resistance movement’s location. Hrm. Green route is preferable.”

Daniel’s at his side in an instant and he’s too close, already taking unacceptable liberties, and–

“Wait, what?”

Rorschach points, tracing the street grid with his finger. Ignores how unsteady it is. “Green route goes through busy pedestrian area, will be easier to lose ourselves in the crowd if we’re being pursued. Also most circuitous.”

Dan shakes his head. “No, no, before that.”

Rorschach’s finger pauses in its trace over green ink, slides up along the waterfront to the extreme opposite edge. Hesitates for a moment, then taps at a specific location. “Here. Isolated corner, where the lights don’t seem to reach. Infrared-resistant building materials for shelters, so impossible to detect from the air. Has slipped through the cracks.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Daniel gaping, open mouth working to address something utterly unexpected. He realizes: Likely-doomed prison break aside, Daniel had not expected to find allies in their fight. Without allies, they stand very little chance of success against an institution this entrenched. Perhaps he’d not expected to succeed. Perhaps he’d expected to die trying.

The thought bothers him more than it should, somehow, for one he’s entertained often enough himself.

“Mostly resistants,” he says, forcibly redirecting his increasingly wandering train of thought. “But also some who’ve been unhooked.”

“Like you.”

“And you. Yes.”

Daniel is reaching to touch the spot on the map he’d indicated and his demeanor is all business but he’s still far. Too. Close. “’Unhooked’, is that their word for it?”

Rorschach nods, grunting noncommittally. “Arbitrary slang. Hoped they’d have a less volatile method for it, but seems they’ve come to the same conclusion we have. Threat of death seems to be the only motivator that’s strong enough.”

Which means their plans today are still on. Which means they will need to walk into Veidt’s headquarters and threaten the life of the world’s most beloved benefactor, in the face of what they both know already is a well-trained and well-armed security force, likely ordered to shoot on sight and if their timing isn’t perfect

And he doesn’t want to see– doesn’t want them to–

“Daniel,” he says, suddenly hoarse, voice on the wavering and cracking edge of some precipice or another. Something is crawling up the back of his throat. He doesn’t want–

“Yeah, I know.” An arm loops over his shoulders, and there is nothing depraved in the touch; just the desperate closeness of one animal in a trap consoling the other, holding back the gut-clenching fear for long enough to draw one breath, then another.

The lives of good men are meant for throwing away, for tossing onto the right fires, for doing what needs to be done, unflinchingly, no looking back. No regrets and no reservations.

It’s a terrifyingly unfamiliar feeling, this business of really, truly not wanting to die.

*

“So, did they tell you anything?”

Dan’s pulling his armor on piece by piece, and it already feels strange again after only a few weeks. It also fits a little bit better – he still has to force it in places, but not as hard as he remembers from the days before Karnak – and he puts that off to the fact that with dwindling finances comes dwindling food supplies. He’s not in better shape, he’s just starting to succumb to malnourishment. It’s not an encouraging thought.

Rorschach grumbles from across the room, belting his old trench back into place. Dan can smell the ancient blood and ash and mustiness of it from all the way over here, and he can almost imagine that it really just smells like fear, plain and simple. And fear is what they’re after. “No. Thought I might be a plant, sent in to expose their plans.”

He’s also picked up a new hat somehow, and Dan finds himself strangely stuck on that fact, on the deliberate nostalgia of it. “Did you tell them anything?”

“No,” and it’s almost a growl now, but there’s something self-amused in it as the brim of the hat comes down, covering the upper half of his face. “Thought they might be plants, put there to expose our plans.”

The situation they’re about to walk into couldn’t be more dire, but Dan still dredges up a laugh from somewhere. “Mutual paranoia; hindering vital alliances since 1971.”

A beat of silence, reaching for the returned goggles, and he can hear the wheels turning.

“…Alliance with local watch group was not necessary, Daniel. Gathered the information we needed on our own.”

“They could have saved a lot of people expensive emergency room visits.”

Rorschach huffs dismissively, rolling the heavier coat over his shoulders to get his feel for it back. “Also could have been Vinuzzi gang shills. Endangered the mission with false information.” A pause. “Endangered both of our lives.”

Dan narrows his eyes slightly; something in that last that was both vulnerable and critical of the vulnerability, and the internal conflict is becoming more obvious, shifting closer to the surface. He smoothes his hair back to situate it under the cowl. “Fair enough,” he says, cautious. “Anything useful come of it at all?”

Another pause, and then Rorschach is crossing the floor towards him with no small urgency. Halts himself a few feet away, wobbling as if he’d just reached the end of an invisible tether. Gloved hands work restlessly over each other, and his voice pitches quiet and low. “…offered us shelter there, and coordination with any plans we may have that will require a distraction.” Prison break, say the words between the words. “If we can provide proof that we’re on their side.”

“…Adrian would probably work for that.”

A curt nod, acknowledgement of the obvious.

And if Rorschach is uncomfortable with the way Dan moves into his personal space to try to keep their voices as low as possible – this place may yet be bugged – he doesn’t flinch away, at least. “This has to work, then. We have to get him out of there. Alive.”

Alive, even though he probably deserves less, even though he’d murdered half a city and enslaved what was left, even though it is the gravest miscarriage of justice Dan can imagine and if he feels that way–

“Yes,” Rorschach says, his voice worryingly caught between agreement and outright lie.

*

“Look,” Dan says, halfway to the warehouse door, rounding back to face Rorschach square-on. “About, uh. About last ni–”

“Worst possible time for this conversation, Nite Owl,” Rorschach replies gruffly, elbowing past and towards the door, not even breaking stride.

And Dan doesn’t miss the name shift, the depersonalization – doesn’t miss the skittish way Rorschach shies away from contact, more fear than disgust, something small and afraid sliding around under his skin. Also doesn’t miss the fact that Rorschach is probably right, that this is the last moment either of them needs a distraction.

Worst possible time. He only just manages to keep from asking if there will be a better time, and really all he wants to do is offer the same reassurance as before – that he doesn’t expect anything, that this doesn’t have to go any further, that he understands what was going on and why – but he is Nite Owl now and they are on the clock and there is no room here for any of that.

(Plenty of time to talk when you’re dead), he thinks, and once again, he isn’t sure whose voice it’s in.

“Coming?” Rorschach asks from the doorframe, hands deep in his pockets, face shadowed by the brim of his hat.

Dan nods, settling his goggles into place.

*

He keeps his eyes closed under the brim of his hat; allows Daniel to put a hand on his shoulder and lead him through the streets. Coming back, their cover will already be blown – but for now, it’s just as important to let the watchers at Veidt’s tower think he’s still in need of guidance as it is to hide from the lights and their prickly instructions.

It’s a practical sort of contact, easy to trust, like the feel of armor against his back in a fight; a level of comfort he’d almost forgotten after a decade of going without it, almost exorcized the need for. He’s still relieved that Daniel is wearing his gauntlets, the thick material like history’s grip on him instead of man’s, reaching over from that secure place they share, buried back and back, blood in the moonlight and faraway sirens and the singing thrill in the veins of justice done.

Safe.

*

They take the blue route on the way out, a strange one-sided flank through back roads and alleys and parking garages that lands them in the questionable cover of midday shade lurking behind the Veidt building. Right against the loading docks, and there are no trucks, no deliveries coming in, only a lightly-armed guard patrolling with a careless lack of attention, their booted feet thumping the pavement with the cadence of the terminally bored. Above them, against a sky so blue as to seem false, gulls wheel and dive.

Something in the back of Dan’s head itches, makes him think of the air shifting hard over Archie’s hullplates when he used to really push the ship to its limits, when the whistling and buffeting sounds would turn ominous and make him wonder if this screw or that bolt would hold, make him want to self-consciously check the maintenance schedule and make sure he’d kept it up. Something is stretching, close to snapping; the trip here has left him feeling exposed and antsy. The itch could be flight or fight or something else entirely, he isn’t sure.

A breath of silence, held in the shadows, one step, two, three –

Then a blur of motion, the feel of flesh under his fist and metal chill through the gloves as the rifles skitter off across the pavement, and the guards are down – and if Rorschach slams one’s head too hard into the pavement, breaks the other’s arm unnecessarily, they are at least allowed to live, huddled in on themselves in groaning, mindless heaps. It’s less than Dan had hoped for, more than he’d honestly expected, a relief and a surprise and a lecture he’s glad to not have to give –

But stepping past the bodies and stalking across the pavement like some hunting creature on bloodscent, Rorschach is still cutting a frighteningly murderous image, and seems unwilling to leave the knife alone where it sits under his coat flap – reaches in to touch it like a token or a charm whenever he thinks Dan isn’t looking. And Dan is looking, and thinking, and worrying more and more because this new tendency to believe one thing and do the other seems increasingly beyond Rorschach’s ability to control.

They leverage the loading bay door open and Dan glances over and Rorschach’s hand is inside his lapel again, and his head is tilted just such that Dan can see up under the brim of his hat. He looks caught in a daydream.

*

“We’re taking him alive,” Dan mutters in the quiet darkness of the loading area, as strangely deserted as the outside yard, every whisper echoing between uninsulated walls and a ceiling far too high. He means it to come off as a simple pre-mission recap, but even he can hear the uncertain waver in his voice. “Right?”

“Of course,” comes the reply, offhanded, and Dan is reminded of a sheet of left-handed clockfaces.

(One hand doesn’t know what the other’s–)

“Okay, well, as long as we’re clear on that.”

Rorschach just grunts in reply, testing a doorknob carefully and pulling his pick case from a pocket when it refuses to turn. Plucks out a wrench and a C-rake, gets to work.

Dan bites his lip, and waits.

*

Dan doesn’t turn to look at him; just feels the rolling hum of the elevator cables through the ceiling and floor, vibrating up through his boots. Watches the levels tick by like a goddamned timer, counting down. Reaches to put one hand on Rorschach’s shoulder, silent encouragement and support and some kind of assurance, whether it’s acknowledged or not. Grounding, for all the good it’ll do.

Just before the readout flips to 60, he feels a hand settle roughly over his, a sliding contact that can’t bear to persist, that is gone almost before it’s there.

The door chimes, a deceptively pleasant anachronism. It opens.

Events get disconnected very quickly, after that.

*

-----> Chapter 13

*

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Comments

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
midnite_vision
Oct. 29th, 2009 01:44 am (UTC)
Yay! It's back! (I was very tempted to read the parts you posted on the meme a while ago, but patience kicked in.) I'm glad there are people who still have their minds, for that fact itself and because they can possibly help. I'm worried about what happens with Adrian, though.
etherati
Oct. 29th, 2009 01:54 am (UTC)
The entire next chapter is actually ready, but LJ couldn't handle the whole thing so I broke it up. :) So you'll get to see soon!
midnite_vision
Oct. 29th, 2009 02:36 am (UTC)
Yaaay! (More reasons not to do homework! xD)
etherati
Oct. 29th, 2009 04:18 am (UTC)
DO YOUR HOMEWORK I WILL NOT BE RESPONSIBLE RARFLEGARFLE
midnite_vision
Oct. 29th, 2009 01:16 pm (UTC)
Haha! I will, I will. If anything, I'll blame my procrastination on this odd cold-like thing I'm getting. (I feel all fuzzy and weird. Bleh.)
jeanemon
Oct. 29th, 2009 04:10 am (UTC)
Eeeeeee <3

*Also excited for this!*

....

*pops back in the lurkerhole*
etherati
Oct. 29th, 2009 04:17 am (UTC)
*peers* man, how many people do these things hold, anyway?

<3 Thank you, I'm excited for it too!
theangstmonkey
Oct. 29th, 2009 06:24 am (UTC)
I came home from work tonight and literally squeed when I saw all the updates you made and even more so because this had a new part! Lovely.

Random, but I adore the way you describe rain in this. The image of Rorschach lying next to Dan in the dark and hearing things other than rain is awesome on so many levels.
etherati
Oct. 29th, 2009 06:30 am (UTC)
Thank you so much! He really does seem like the type that could see his demons lurking in a basket of kittens; nothing is ever just innocent or neutral to him.
theangstmonkey
Oct. 29th, 2009 06:32 am (UTC)
No, no thank you for another amazing chapter!

He so does seem that type. I not only love the trait but just the way that you wrote it. Beautiful imagery, as always.
etherati
Oct. 29th, 2009 06:36 am (UTC)
Dawww <3

Be on the lookout for another chapter tomorrowish, whee
theangstmonkey
Oct. 29th, 2009 06:39 am (UTC)


Yay!
anactoria
Oct. 29th, 2009 08:46 am (UTC)
Eeep! There's more! *bounces*

I'm on the edge of my seat here. Fantastic, as always.
etherati
Oct. 29th, 2009 05:53 pm (UTC)
There will be more again soon! I had to break it up because LJ couldn't handle it D:

Thank you!
seraphitta
Oct. 29th, 2009 08:57 pm (UTC)
I read this all in one go, so I was sailing through thinking "this is awesome" and now I get to join everyone else in the waiting game =(

I love this. You write beautifully. I especially love how you weave memories and thoughts with present action. it's organic and many people + myself have trouble with that -- creating one seamless fluid story.

Also, am I allowed to say poor Adrian at this point? Actually, the fact you made me think that is prolly a feat itself -- I'm not too fond of him in general. stop making me sympathize. stop it right now!!!
etherati
Oct. 29th, 2009 10:04 pm (UTC)
Hey if I'm making people sympathize then I'm doing something right, since I'm attempting to build a more sympathetic version of him in this one. I'm not actually hugely fond of him in general either - I think he's a fascinating character but I can't abide the choices he made - but it's become such a trope for post-Karnak fixits to have Adrian be this completely evil bastard that I wanted to go a different route with it.

The next part will be up soon, no worries. And thank you for all the kind words, this fic in particular is so focused on memory and past and present and what they mean, and all the little things going on between the beats, that it's great to hear those aspects are working. :D
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )