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FIC: Between the Brushstrokes - [13/?]

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.

*

A meeting of eyes across a room, one pair surprised because good god, he really hadn’t been expecting this – one pair swimming with violence under the brim of his hat.

Then Rorschach’s moving, on Adrian in a flash of bloodstained leather, growling like something untamed and unbroken – dropping him flat to the floor more quickly than Dan can even move to jam the lock button on the elevator, to hold it on this floor.

There’s a stairwell, too, and he moves to block it as well as he can. There’s no lock. This will have to be quick.

*

Rorschach has his hand around Veidt’s throat, pressing down with just enough force to restrict breath, to frustrate any attempts to call for help, to make him feel like he’s dying before the real threat even comes.

In a moment, he’ll pull the knife. Not yet – not yet. Once he sees the fear.

Once – once he –

He’s still making noise, snarling, showing teeth crooked and feral, and he knows he smells like blood and death and ash and nightmares. He should be terrifying, bearing down with all the fury of a slaughtered world, crushing the breath out of this murdering, arrogant, decadent piece of inhuman filth, no better than the common rapists and killers he breaks to pieces when he finds them only worse, because Veidt’s victims number in the billions and he has violated their minds, not just their bodies–

But the eyes narrowing in a face more weary and lined than he remembers are not afraid, just surprised and confused and placidly uncomprehending, and that is infuriating.

He will feel terror before he dies. He will–

(“We’re taking him alive.”)

He should be fighting. Struggling. The great Ozymandias, stronger and faster than either of them or both of them and he should be fighting, not lying here turning blue under Rorschach’s hands like acceptance and compliance are all he knows, the only way he can remember to handle confrontation.

(“Can provide proof that we’re…”)

Domesticated. Turned tame to keep him from biting back at the guiding hands, and who do they belong to? Who is –

Fight,” Rorschach growls through his teeth, slamming the back of Veidt’s head against the marble. “Going to kill you if you don’t fight.”

No, no, there should be no if. Should kill him regardless. Can, so easily, but he has to be afraid first, has to see his death in the empty round mirrors of Rorschach’s eyes, has to be afraid enough to fight.

There’s a reason for that. It’s probably important. Who is at the top, whose hands –

Who…

He hears his name from somewhere off to the side. It’s not panicked, not yet, but it sounds unsure and wavering and ready to give up, call this off just as they’re on the cusp of justice, so it must be –

Finally, a struggle under his hands, an attempt to thrash out from under the choking pressure. The fear is there now, blistering up through the skin, flooding around the corners of Veidt’s eyes and it looks like recognition, like panic wrapped in something made of steel and silk and fire.

Rorschach fumbles in his coat, pulling the knife free in one sharp motion.

*

In the overhead lights, the metal sings, and Dan thinks he will always remember the way the fluorescents flash off of the edge of the blade, blindingly intense for just that single moment, endless possibilities still hanging in the air.

*

“Rorschach!” He’s shouting, and he’s moving towards them as the knife flashes downward and Adrian’s body tenses like a wild creature’s and his hand comes up to meet the blow and deflect it and damn it all, he wasn’t supposed to actually –

(No. You knew he’d try.)

But he’d thought he’d have more chance to intervene, and before he can take another step the cheap blade is already shattering where it hits the marble and Rorschach is skidding across the tile like something boneless and impossibly lightweight and Adrian is groggy and blinking, blinking, when he pushes himself to his hands and knees and looks up to lock eyes across the room.

“Dan?” he asks, confused, but it’s an honest confusion, utterly out of place in that voice. Against the far wall, Rorschach’s struggling to get back to his feet. Having trouble, and he shouldn’t be.

It’s all just distracting enough that when the stairwell door explodes inward behind him – the very eventuality he’d been standing there to try to prevent – he doesn’t even register the presence of the guards in the room until the first round of bullets slams into his armor from behind, knocking him senseless and winded to the cold, white marble floor.

*

He can’t move. He can hear a shout, something incoherent and bubbling over with enough fury to mask the fear, and he doesn't understand, doesn't know why he feels driven to say it’s fine, I’m all right. But his voice won’t come and he doesn’t really know if it’s true anyway because he can’t move and he thinks for a horrible moment that maybe his armor failed, that his spine’s been severed and he can’t breathe or move or make sense of anything but that horrible noise, rising and falling like evening wind over the harbor – touch of damp fingers, smell of decay, sound of empty, hollowed-out misery, and the other birds never seem to notice it but he does, he does.

So much noise...

Adrian hasn’t spoken again since that first word and the world is still tilted sideways but a half-second later he can feel his toes again in a rush of prickling heat, can feel where he’ll be black and blue tomorrow,

(if you survive that long)

can feel his muscles start to respond as he tries to get his hands under him.

It’s still not fine – because he remembers what's going on now, where he is, and cheek to the floor he can hear the thumping of the guards’ boots around and past him, towards the far wall and–

*

He feels dizzy, like he’s just held his breath for days and the inrush of oxygen has sent his brain cells spinning off in ecstasy, abandoning him when he needs them the most because it isn’t a minute to noon, the angle of the light’s all wrong and he knows that something terribly important has just happened, is still happening. But he can’t make the connection and someone is making a lot of noise and there are guards running across his vision just as it starts to grey out and has there been gunfire? Will there be more?

He scrabbles at the edge of the desk, pulling himself up, trying to force focus because– because–

*

Daniel’s down, has been shot, has taken enough rounds to tear an unarmored man cleanly in half and when he first opened his mouth all he’d intended to come out was a name, a question in two syllables but instead something sharp and bloody is wrenching from his throat and he can’t stop it because Nite Owl isn’t moving and he’s so angry (afraid) that his voice can’t hold anything else. He’s still struggling to right himself against a leg that doesn’t seem to want to take any weight and ribs that pull like they’re broken and then the guards are on him, shoving him back to the floor, heavy on his shoulders and ribcage, grinding his face into the marble and everything, everything is wrong.

Wrong. Fight. Don’t let them–

Autopilot. Hand around an ankle, yanked sharply, one man off-balance and tumbling to the floor. Roll, dodge, an arm between his hands snapping like dry kindling wrapped inside a cushion of meat, ignore the howl of pain like the simple distraction it is, to his feet, to his feet–

Arms caught up behind him, tripped back to the ground. A knee presses into the center of his back and he can feel the warm metal against his skin above the scarf and it’s warm because it’s still smoking from eleven seconds ago, because it’s already taken one man down and they’ve got him at the wrong angle now, weighed down with more force than he can squirm out from under. He can’t see anything, can’t see if Nite Owl’s recovering, if his armor held and the metal is against his neck and he’s struggling, hard and mindless, because it’s all he can do and being still and doing what they want isn’t going to save him anyway and–

*

Hands, then feet, armor stiff and swelling bruises stiffer as he lurches toward the sound of a fight, willing his vision to clear, forcing breath to drag roughly through his lungs even as armored hands clamp down around his arms because he needs his voice, needs it

*

A breath of air that would taste like freedom if everything weren’t going so terribly wrong and why can’t he focus

*

He just needs to see, needs to know

*

He’s shouting and shouting and his voice is shot, and the clack-clunk of the rifle cycling a round into the pipe is deafening and he can finally see the way they’ve got Rorschach face-down in the floor and the muzzle tucked up under his ear and he’s thrashing and Dan is screaming at Adrian, “Call them off, Adrian, for god’s sake call them off, ” and his voice is weak but it’s cutting and sharp and he hopes that’s enough and

Rorschach stops fighting all at once, like Dan’s voice has short-circuited some relay at the back of his brain and he just shudders down into the tile and

Adrian is dazed and overwhelmed and it’s all moving too quickly and Dan wrenches against the two guards holding him back by the arms and he’s not even making sense anymore, not making words – just animal noise, and the goggles give him so much detail and he can see the finger going tighter around that tiny flange of metal that will end both their worlds and

“Stand down,” Adrian finally manages, voice wavering as he pulls himself off of his knees, leaning heavily on the desk and it’s obviously taking every ounce of will he has but he’s done it, he’s said it.

It’s a moment too late. The shot echoes like silence, hard and sharp and etched slow into the building wall of sound.

Then there’s the high-pitched ping of a ricochet and a dull thud as the bullet buries into a wall joist somewhere across the room. It’s over before Dan even has a chance to register it, before his chest can constrict and steal his ability to breathe, before he can blink, before he can even think oh god oh fuck he shot– he shot him in the–

The moment hangs, and Rorschach isn’t moving and he can see the blood but it doesn’t seem like there’s enough of it, and if the bullet went into the wall then it didn’t go into…

“I said stand down,” Adrian cuts in, more force behind the words. “As far as I’m aware, the instruction doesn’t include a rider to fire a warning shot across the bow.”

Across the…

The guards pinning Rorschach’s body to the floor let go, back away, leave him lying too, too still. Dan feels his own arms released but he’s not sure his legs can support him, rolling under him like water.

But then Adrian’s ordering the guards out of the room and Rorschach is rolling onto his back under his own power, and there’s blood running through his fingers in thick streams but his skull looks intact under the mess of it all. There’s a dark, splintered divot in the tile next to him to mark where the bullet actually hit.

He pulled the shot, Dan realizes through the numb, dizzying rush of blood returning to his brain all at once. Had already put enough weight on the trigger when the order came and, like a good automaton, pulled up. Mechanical. Robotic. Just quickly enough that it’d gone high, across the scalp instead of into it – off the tile, into the wall. Dear god.

Dan hasn’t even realized he’s moving yet but he’s already across the room, hauling Rorschach up until he’s sitting and pulling that hand back to pluck through matted hair and find the wound and make sure it isn’t deeper that it looks, isn’t serious, isn’t baring bone or worse. It’s clean, and Rorschach’s eyes are focused, clear, no sign of concussion – tracking his every move, bright with undisguised relief.

And it takes a moment to make sense of that, but then he realizes: Rorschach saw him go down. Probably didn’t see much after, and assumed the worst. Dan feels a flood of warmth tighten his ribs under a still-spreading map of blackened soreness.

Over his shoulder, he can feel Adrian’s unsteady gaze, and he watches Rorschach shift to meet it, something sharp and unidentifiable riding low in his expression, clouded by shock and pain but still there, always there. Battles left unfought or unwon, pushed aside for another day; justice not served, wrongs not righted, and there are pieces of the shattered knife blade embedded into Rorschach’s gloves, tiny rivulets of blood gathering where they’ve bitten straight through.

Never enough.

“It’s okay,” Dan says, and he’s not sure whose benefit he’s saying it for. He smoothes his gauntlet over the mess of blood and hair and torn skin, over and over, and it’s shaking. “We’re okay.”

*

“God,” Adrian’s muttering, arms heavy across his lap where he’s collapsed into the desk chair. The guards are gone but the stairwell door won’t stay shut now, and it’s hard to not keep looking at it, half-expecting their return. “You couldn’t possibly have been a bit less dramatic about all of this?”

Rorschach growls, and whether it’s from annoyance at the question and the apparent ingratitude or from pain is unclear. Dan’s got Adrian’s linen handkerchief, the only thing he’d had on hand to offer that could serve as a compress, pressed to the side of Rorschach’s head; it’s still bleeding and bleeding, but that’s what scalp wounds do. He knows that much from all their years on the street - they're terrifying to look at but ultimately harmless.

“Had to look real,” Rorschach grumbles, as if just speaking to Adrian is a level of personal involvement beyond what he’d signed on for. Reaches up to bat Dan’s hand away, taking hold of the soaked-through cloth and pressing it in with a viciousness that borders on self-injury. “Had to feel real. Or it wouldn’t have worked.”

A huff of dry, desperate laughter. “You mean that wasn’t real? I’d hate to see how you act around someone you actually do want to kill.”

A long, strained silence, and this could spiral out of control so, so quickly. Dan can feel the bleeding edge of it like an itch in his back teeth. He stands, reaching to pull Rorschach to his feet. “We should really get–”

“Implying?” Rorschach asks, and it’s a question but also not a question, and his voice sounds rougher than it should, like he’s speaking through some intolerable emotion.

“I really don’t think that–”

“Implying nothing,” Adrian asserts from his chair. “I don’t currently have the energy – or, very likely, the presence of mind – to fling accusations. I was just observing that it seemed a bit more than staged.”

Silence.

“I mean, really now,” he continues, looking up with a weary smile, and more than in the photographs or in his face when they visited last, Dan can see all the years laid in around it. “That had ‘crime of opportunity’ written all over it.”

“You should know all about crimes,” Rorschach spits back, dropping the cloth to the floor and pulling his arm free from Dan’s grip. “Of opportunity or otherwise.”

This is it, Dan’s thinking. Should have known neither of them could resist lighting the keg. He moves to step between them, to intercede somehow, anything to stop this from going hell right now, after everything they’ve risked to get to this point–

But before he even gets the chance, Adrian sighs, holding his hands up in something halfway between placation and surrender. “Fair enough, I suppose. Let’s not make the day any more traumatic than it’s already been.” He fixes them both with tired eyes in turn, and he’s either a very good actor or there’s actually something sincere in them. “We do have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Rorschach’s just about vibrating in place, maybe not expecting the concession, not sure what to do in the face of something other than yet another denial, another feint or wall of defense. Maybe starting to feel the bloodloss. It’s hard to tell.

“All right, look, uh,” Dan fumbles, and all of this is so anticlimactic. He picks Rorschach’s hat up from the floor, tries not to look too closely at the bloodstain already drying or at the way one edge is nicked and singed. Offers it over silently. “You know where we’ve been, can you meet us there at eight tomorrow?”

The clock on the desk reads 1:34 PM. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Rorschach disappearing under the hat, slipping into the space between it and scarf and turned-up coat collar, and wonders for a moment, inanely, why he ever needed the mask. Why any of them did.

Adrian runs his hand back through his hair, uncaring of the way it musses, the way it breaks the illusion and spoils the image and makes him look weary and confused and common, and nods. “Eight it is.”

*

The stairwell, Adrian advised them, not the elevators. No cameras on the stairs and less people, and the fifth floor has access direct to a fire escape, of sorts. They’ve clambered down it to somewhere around the third when Rorschach’s grousing reaches a volume that Dan can no longer ignore.

His hands tighten around the rung of the ladder, and through the leather, he can feel his knuckles go white. “Damn it – let it go, it’s not important.”

Rorschach doesn’t pause in his descent, doesn’t even look up, but when he hits the next landing he stops, scowls. “Accused me of–”

“Of something that’s probably at least a little true,” Dan counters, dropping the last two feet all at once. Because he’d seen the look on Rorschach’s face too – maybe not as close-up or vividly as Adrian had, but what he’d seen had been enough. Heard, too, and he hadn’t been waiting for an answer back there, because it isn’t really a question. “Look, his self-control is basically nonexistent. Like yours was yesterday, remember?”

A ducking of his head that Dan’s figured out over the years to be something like a cat obsessively grooming its tail; a grudging admission, tempered by embarrassment. Dan’s never seen the eyes behind it before, the way they shift to the side, desperately avoiding contact. He’s so far beyond caring about the other man’s dignity or shame right now that he can’t even express it.

“Like I think yours still is,” he continues instead, ducking his own face to track the brim-shadowed expression, shifting mercurially, refusing to settle. “You do realize you almost got your head blown off in there because you didn’t know when to stop, right?”

“Had to put him in fear of-”

Dan shakes his head, having none of it. “Bullshit. He was fighting you off already. You went too far.”

“Bad time for this, Nite Owl.” Rorschach glances around them suspiciously as if to emphasize their need to move, now, to keep moving, because that’s what he does, isn’t it? Moves and moves and never slows down enough to–

Dan narrows his eyes behind the goggles. “You always do that.”

“Try to keep priorities straight, yes,” Rorschach snaps back, still scowling. “First priority is to move away from compromising position. Sound tactic in most situations.”

Dan laughs, and it’s sharp-edged with something that’d almost been forced to be grief, is still trying to reinvent itself. Chooses, in this moment, to become absurdly dangerous candor. “Yeah, ‘compromising positions’, that’s exactly it. And you know? You’re always right. It always is a bad time. But it’s still a deflection.”

“Only attempting to deflect odds of being apprehended, Daniel,” and it sounds uncompromising and sincere and Dan almost believes it; probably because Rorschach almost believes it himself. And there’s still blood running from under the hat and Rorschach looks just miserable, dazed and tired, chewed up and spat out by the great toothy maw of the city and that isn’t far off, really.

It occurs to Dan that at this same time yesterday, just twenty-four hours ago, Rorschach was sitting catatonically against a crate, barely capable of intelligent speech beyond the functional necessities. Now, standing in front of him on a fire escape, bleeding and diverting and playing word games and Dan feels that amorphous something reshape itself again into something a lot less pointed, a lot more grateful despite the contradictions because maybe he’s infuriating and maybe this badly needs to be addressed, and maybe the anger won’t be tamped down on, has him clenching his fists against its temptations, but Rorschach is still fucking here to be angry with, and god–

A few seconds of silence, a few false starts, but none of this is willing to be wrapped into words. Eventually, Dan starts getting that ‘need to move’ itch too – they’re high up and in the open, far too exposed – and he nods. Turns to the next ladder, and starts climbing.

“You’re good,” he says, as they drop to the pavement a few minutes later, move to cross the street; he can see Rorschach covering his eyes out of the corner of his own, feels the press of a shoulder into his arm for the unoffered guidance he nevertheless needs to not wander blindly into traffic. “I’ll give you that.”

*

They traverse the city in silence, slipping through its eerie, empty streets without a sideways word. They’re starting to learn the patterns of this place – alternating vacancy and rush, the way the pressing crowd syncs up its collective footfalls until the pavement feels like thunder, the way even a skittering scrap of newspaper is shockingly loud in the vacuum that follows – and maybe they are also learning to match its moods. Or there may be something petty in it, but he doubts Daniel's going to own up to that.

Whatever it is, though, it's spent by the time they reach the warehouse and put its solid door between them and the world outside, still sleeping, caught in its whispering greyscale dream. They’ve had to shake a tail twice, long habit overriding the obvious futility, and the blood is still running and everything in this space feels so real, and the childish peevishness has given way to fear, to anger, raw and uncomplicated.

Fists and violence and shouting are uncomplicated. He can process uncomplicated; it's better than the alternative. The door slams, and the crash is unnaturally loud between high, far walls. “All right. We’re off the street, we have no pressing engagements. Is now a good time?”

Rorschach makes a low noise of complaint; It's an unacceptably vague question. "Which?"

"Hell, I don't know. Either. No, wait." Daniel pushes back the cowl and goggles, scrubbing through his hair. "Not either. This suicidal bullshit first."

"Not suicidal."

"Because if we're going to be doing this- and not just this, I mean Christ, I can't deal with..."

"Not suicidal, Daniel."

Daniel's pacing stops directly in front of him, and there's something in his eyes that's furious. Rorschach feels the brim of his hat dip in challenge, daring Daniel to contradict, knowing full well that he will.

"Sure looked like it back there. And in Antarctica. And..." Daniel scoops his civilian clothes off of the table, goes through the pockets. Comes up with his glasses, and a folded scrap of paper. "...when I found this. You're going to tell me this is all goddamned circumstantial? Because it's starting to look like a trend to me."

Rorschach feels a tugging in his brain, an old, intolerant voice telling him that this is more of Daniel's sentimental nonsense, that they don't have time for this, that he doesn't have to indulge any of it. Doesn't owe him anything. The words are there, on the tip of his tongue, but they feel unfamiliar and wrong when he opens his mouth, sitting there in the open air without shifting latex to filter them, to give them weight and shape.

There's only so much space between them now, and it's claustrophobic – because really, they have nothing to occupy their time until morning, and he owes Daniel more than he'd care to admit. He can feel the blood crusting onto his face as it dries, knows how close a thing it was, and he feels fear like he remembers from their earliest patrols, gunshots and crowbars whistling through the summer air. He can't remember if he heard the bullet, this time– and his shoulders hurt, like he's been bearing some unfathomable weight.

"Listen," Daniel says, and he lifts his hands as if he'd like to grip Rorschach by the arms, shake these things into him, but it doesn't connect. The moment is delicate, and maybe he knows that his touch will shatter it, will send all the pieces scattering for cover. Maybe he's just too afraid to find out. "There might have been a time when... well, I would have fought you on it, but in the end, whatever cause you thought was worth throwing yourself on, that would have been your choice. But... god, man. You're all I..." A sharp exhale, and from under the brim of the hat, Rorschach narrows his eyes. "We're all the world has, is what I'm trying to... damn it, I don't... You just don't get to duck out of this one early."

Ducking out. Walking away. 1975, 1977, 1985 in Veidt's sanctum, words spinning and voices pitched low, compromising. You quit.

("Now you're quitting on me.")

"Not giving up," Rorschach grits out, and there's anger there, rising up through quicksilver. It's bitter, like hypocrisy; he knocks the hands away from where they hover. "Have no right to- Don't. Don't want to die." Then, because evidence is evidence and Daniel is already opening his mouth to say it; because the note is damning, Karnak even more so and there are things he won't admit to even now: "Have a purpose! Think I would abandon–"

He cuts off, hands fisted at his sides, because there are many flavors of abandonment and he's held every one of them on the back of his tongue, and he would– he would never.

(You almost did, in that stiff cold wind at the bottom of the world.)

"And when that's done with? When everything's fixed? Then what?"

Silence, and a glare that feels like old times, that feels like the knife-in-the-gut twist of that familiar widening gap, in the years of blood and ash and payphones passed by without a glance. It says None of your business, Nite Owl, and it says I'll keep my own conscience and it says Maybe, maybe. It doesn't admit that the purpose, their battle against this greatest of injustices wreaked on the entire world, is only half of that fear, is only half of what makes the thought of quitting now run bile up his throat.

The other half–

He shakes his head, and Daniel rubs his eyes, and there are battles being chosen. "What happened back there? We had a plan."

There's a lot he could say about plans, but all he can feel is the weight of the knife in his hand, how satisfying the downward flight of it had been, and there's no room here for a childish denial. "Couldn't... nnk. Couldn't control it. Can't..." his hands scrub over his face, searching for the comforting obfuscation that isn't there. "Can't control anything, Daniel."

He's disoriented, and memories are spinning up around now, black and white threads lashing around color, hands and two weeks of a quiet voice in the dark – and then the words are out before he has time to realize that no, no, this isn't right: "Your fault. Compromised me."

There's an expression blossoming onto Daniel's face now, like blood seeping through layers of fabric until it's finally visible on the surface, heavy and frightening and telling of some terrible injury underneath, and this is wrong. Daniel runs his hand over his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose. Laughs, and that's somehow the most painful part. "You... god, you son of a bitch. After everything I did for you, you think this was some kind of... some kind of plan, that I engineered this?"

"Are an engineer," and he can feel how smug he's sounding, and it's wrong, this is all wrong, but he can't seem to stop. "And have always had... proclivities."

"Oh, all right. What's it gonna be this time? My liberal education? Laurie? Leslie? Or maybe the way I broke you out of jail and followed you to Antarctica to wage a pointless war against an injustice bigger than we could possibly handle, just because it was the right goddamned thing to do?"

Silence, just a beat too long.

"Yeah," Dan continues, quieter, but no softer, no more forgiving. "It was pointless in the end, wasn't it? Just like you throwing your life away now that I've only just gotten you back." A slip, that has to be, or the anger talking; possessiveness bled over from their old partnership, not– never– "Christ, man. Can't you see that?"

Rorschach breathes out, a harsh exhale, almost a growl. Remembers how little sound his mask had made falling into the snow, how silently Daniel had stood behind him, making no fuss, stealing none of his dignity; how badly he'd wanted Daniel to turn away. There might have been a time...

They'd had a plan, and he hadn't stuck to it, and there was a time when Daniel might have fussed over his safety but Nite Owl would have been furious, raging like a cataract – and this creature before him is somehow both, and maybe that's how it's supposed to be. Feathers and iron, and the feathers always hit the ground first, or is it–

"Listen to me," Daniel says, and it's a simple enough request. "So you can't control yourself right now – fine. You're still the one that needed me last night."

[Hands on a hilt and hands slipping through the dark, parting it like black oil, shearing it away from skin like onionflesh, cleaving out something ancient the scalds like acid and ash. He doesn't know which hands are his, but he knows that there is too much under them, too much here, bright and savage. It's blinding.]

[It can't happen again.]


"And that's all right, there's nothing wrong with – whoa, whoa," Daniel is saying suddenly, as if he's trying to handle some wild animal. He does feel hands on his arms now, holding him in place with a gentle violence, and the panic rises in bubbling waves, hot from inside. (It can't, it can't.) The smell of musty old blood is suffocating, suddenly; it reminds him of justice but also of a cloaked form walking away, not turning to look back. Sweat and blood and yes, even tears, and salt and salt and salt–

"It's okay," Daniel says, and the words ride a breath close enough to feel on his face. Rorschach chokes.

[He can't breathe, and all the blood is coiling away from his head and there is an indecent pressure, an unbearable heat, and his fingers are buzzing because there is skin under them, pliant and accepting and he's rocking, rocking against too many layers of fabric but he won't lower either of them to that level of vulnerability– and he somehow wakes warm and held and has to disentangle himself from all these limbs and threads of vulnerability and shame like catgut, and he’s barely able to peel the goggles away without running his hands over that face, through the hair and it’s all because Daniel had offered whatever he needed and god, he'd needed.]

"It's my fault," he grits out, "I did this," and yes, yes, this is right. Jumbled sensations collude together; there are hands on his arms because he was thrashing like an animal, like something that must be made still and safe. The wall is cold against his back because that is where Daniel has him pinned.

Pinned. Trapped. It's a feedback loop, and his body wants to fight harder for it, but he forces it still – forces all the fight-or-flight into his heaving breath, his hands clenched so tightly that the leather is creaking at the knuckles.

"It's no one's fault, it's just – Rorschach," Daniel says, sharp. "Calm down, it's just me. You're fine."

(Fine like this, fine like–)

"You're fine," he repeats, hands squeezing their way up to Rorschach's shoulders, and behind the glasses his eyes look like hot coals.

[Fingers under his skin like fire, working bloodless over ribs and beneath scars and plunging between hard muscle, and did that happen or was it a dream – in the deep endless sleep that came after, his sated body treacherous to their need for vigilance? If he reaches now, will he feel the scars?]

"Burn it out of me," he's saying, voice high and tight, because he can feel the black tumor of this thing spreading under his skin wherever those hands range over him. "Cut it..."

That was Warren's idea, wasn't it, says a voice in his head, and it sounds like Daniel's; this is secondhand knowledge, framed in that patient tone. Carve out the human heart lest it be allowed to darken and turn– but how can this be darkness when it's nearly too bright to look at?

Empty it out, then, his voice now, Rorschach's or Walter's or something from the overlapping edges. Flush out the sickness, make it clean.

[Stepping into a darkened pre-dawn world, he sees eyes that don't see him in return, and he thinks about the children who never play just as he never played and the sound of windows sliding closed in an alley and the smell of leftover Tandoori in Daniel's kitchen, curling around the doorframe and down to the basement like a thing with purpose. He watches this sterile clockwork and wonders: Is this life? Is a life this empty worth living?]

[He is not a philosopher, these are not the sort of questions he has answers for; but suspicions, always suspicions.]


"We'll fix this, whatever it is, okay?" and Daniel is no longer angry, isn't demanding answers or concessions. His grip has loosened but not vanished, and that hurts in a way Rorschach isn't used to, can't deal with. "It doesn't- you don't have to be freaking out like this. I meant what I said. You're not obligated, here."

("I won't hold you to anything later.")

[No, earlier, back in the swirling haze, words like the gentle pressure of fingertips against his mind: "Figures, you know. I finally get to touch you like this, and you probably don't even know I'm here."]


Clarity slams back in all at once, and it feels as if the entire world has just come into brilliantly sharp focus. Concrete under the worn soles of his shoes, concrete against his back, Daniel's hands on his shoulders and face hanging in front of him, concerned and afraid and still a little angry, under all of it. Everything is physical and simple again.

"...Always knew you were there," he mumbles, and his chest is tight, the words tighter.

The fingers loosen further, Dan's eyes drifting out of focus as he tries to place the non-sequitor.

"When I was gone. When you were..."

"Oh," Dan says, and there's something soft and delicate climbing into his eyes. "Oh... I, I mean, that's..."

"Not trying to die," he repeats, and these things are dipping and weaving in and out of focus but they're tied so closely together that it feels natural, feels right that in the context of their lives, death and need would tug on both ends of the same rope, would loop around on themselves. "Terrifying. Never was before."

[Adrian, standing over them, sneering from the far side of the desk, safely across an ocean of polished wood and brass. “I had no idea.”]

[Daniel, soft hands and softer words, bracing him against his own violence in a darkness too complete for words.]

[Rorschach, leaning against the wall, in a vigilante's clothes but with a civilian’s conscience, scrubbing over his face with his hands because at least that is skin, at least it is human. It is something.]


"I guess..." and Nite Owl is gone completely now, and it's better that way, that only Daniel receive this confession. "You just need a reason, sometimes?"

They've ended up on the floor somehow, slid down against the wall and Daniel crouching in front of him, and the concrete feels like a part of him, like it's reaching into him and diffusing all of the city's secrets straight into his blood– the clockwork people and the soulless machine that winds them and the furtive guilt and desperation of its figurehead and all the old history, the ancient bloodstains and remembered screams and the dirtiest secret of all: that everyone needs something in this place, needs someone, to ease them through the darkest spaces and keep them alive, keep them wanting to live.

And this, whatever it is, whatever its perversity – it's something.

Gradually, the ache in his gut subsides, and his hands feel only fabric under them, only the roughness of the concrete floor. He can let breath swell his chest without feeling hands against it, soft and burning and clinging. He can breathe and understand that the breath is his own.

"Tomorrow," Rorschach says, changing the subject with all the subtlety of a battering ram but neither of them will argue it, wrung-out now, empty. "Should explain our plan before taking him to the resistance?" It's a subtle thing that makes it a question and not an instruction, but the implication is clear; he's asking for an opinion, not simply stating how things will be. And that feels huge, feels like some new secret fed back into the city at his feet, like the entire landscape of the world has changed.

Daniel raises his eyebrows, settles more comfortably onto the floor. Just looks, for longer than is comfortable.

"...there are these islands," he finally says, with the tone of I know this sounds unrelated, but bear with me. "Off the coast of South America. And when a flock of finches got to them at some point, they split up– and all the islands were so different, needed so many different things, to survive on. And they adapted, and now you can barely tell they were all the same once."

"Survived?" Rorschach asks, tipping his head up, dried blood splitting his face in a broad line.

"Yeah. They're stronger for it, and fitter. Best thing that ever happened to them. But they're still just birds, man. Nothing about their basic nature changed."

A cautious silence, and then Dan reaches to lift the hat away, to run his fingers over the scalp wound, a more careful inspection now that it's stopped bleeding. It's mechanical and nothing they haven't both done for each other dozens of times, dozens of injuries. "I think we should tell him," he says, fingers pushing red-black stiffened hair aside. "Hell he's been through and the fact that he deserved it aside, he might have insight into whether it'll actually work."

Rorschach nods shallowly, mindful of the forgiving fingers tracing out the scale and depth of his mistakes, writ plain across his skin.

*

-----> Chapter 14

*

Tags:

Comments

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
midnite_vision
Oct. 30th, 2009 04:18 pm (UTC)
First, let me make sure I read this correctly. That night where chapter 11 left off on, they did actually do something, right? It wasn't just Rorschach imagining it here? (Sorry, I'm a little out of it right now.)

Second, you are a literary genius. That's all I have to say. ♥
etherati
Oct. 30th, 2009 04:46 pm (UTC)
If I was such a literary genius, people wouldn't still be asking this. XD

Yes, something happened, but it wasn't much more than a confused, clinging fumble. If anyone actually got off it would have been accidental(pent up much there, ror?) and for Dan it would have been mostly an attempt to just hold onto him through whatever it was he needed. Ror's confusing what actually happened a bit with the things he's afraid of, ballooning it out of proportion, but yeah, things did happen.

And thank you. <3
midnite_vision
Oct. 30th, 2009 04:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks for clearing that up. (I swear it's not you. It's these damn cold germs that I'm pretty sure are waging a war against my brain cells.)
etherati
Oct. 30th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)
Oh, I know what that's like. I hope you're feeling better soon. :(
midnite_vision
Oct. 30th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I will as long as work doesn't suck the life out of me this weekend. (My immune system picked the worst time to quit on me.)
sonomi_reads
Oct. 30th, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC)
I've been checking your journal all day, 'cause I knew you would update!

I love your writing and I love the way you find just the perfect imagery, it brings the scene to life in such a vivid way. "Something like a cat obsessively grooming its tail" is my favorite here :D (...Believe it or not, my boyfriend's red cat is grooming on the bed next to me right now. )

But it's not just your style, it's the way you go deep inside the character's mind and heart and make him alive, true. Breathing.

Your stories can keep me glued to the screen, I find myself unable to move a muscle, almost holding my breath, mouth dry, until I've finished reading.

Thank you <3

( and, guh, sorry for my awkward english, but this time I couldn't keep lurking, all these updates all at once made me ridiculously happy <3 <3 <3 )
etherati
Oct. 30th, 2009 06:47 pm (UTC)
Wow, thank YOU. That's such an incredibly nice thing to say <3

I think personally that it's so important to present the motivations from the inside out, so that what they do and choose and say feels like a natural extension of that internal state... i dono blah blah PRETENTIOUS but yeah, I try. I'm glad you're enjoying it. :)
feather_qwill
Oct. 31st, 2009 12:06 am (UTC)
Oh, wow. Awesome. Two new chapters so close together? you've made my week. Thanks. <3
etherati
Oct. 31st, 2009 03:07 pm (UTC)
Only because they were both already done(and meant to be one chapter) but LJ couldn't take a single post that size, unfortunately.

Thank you though, I'm glad people are still reading this. :3
acidicfog
Oct. 31st, 2009 07:49 am (UTC)
Oh, Ror. D: Jesus. I know moments like those so well, and it's just... Brutal. I also know the ways of that horrible dance where you're pinned to something just so you don't hurt someone. Or yourself.
... Also, every once in a while I read something that makes me feel even more sorry for Adrian. This is one of them.
etherati
Oct. 31st, 2009 03:11 pm (UTC)
I think everyone's had moments like these - particularly the bit where you can't stop the stupid shit coming out of your mouth even when you know you shouldn't be saying it. :\
(Anonymous)
Oct. 31st, 2009 10:50 pm (UTC)
THERE'S NOT ANYMORE??
*panics*
oh god I have to know what happens
etherati
Nov. 1st, 2009 12:18 am (UTC)
It's being posted as I write it, heh. There will eventually be more.
i_am_your_spy
Nov. 1st, 2009 12:19 am (UTC)
I was having the crappiest night ever and I finally check my friends list and two new awesome chapters yay! I love their bantering and Rorschach not being able to control himself and this:

"Your fault. Compromised me."

Broke me. In a good way.
etherati
Nov. 1st, 2009 01:46 am (UTC)
Oh, Ror, you gotta stop saying stupid shit like that.

Thank you so much; I hope it at least made your night a tiny bit better. :)
mad_bertha
Nov. 2nd, 2009 02:07 am (UTC)
I wrote a longer comment but lj let me down
So this will have to do :)

I am absolutely loving this story, and this latest instalment just about blew me away. Can't get away from the cliche, but, yes, this works so well because you put us into Rorschach's head, and we go through the same confusion as he is thrown here and there and finally reaches the conclusion that this, what he has with Daniel, is something, and connects that with his larger purpose. Because of the gap in time between the last chapter and this one, I had to revisit the previous and everything fell into place after that. I love writing that gets the reader to work!

I can see how hard this was to write, but you pulled through magnificently!
etherati
Nov. 2nd, 2009 10:07 pm (UTC)
Re: I wrote a longer comment but lj let me down
In a way it really has to be connected to the larger purpose, because I can't really see him taking something like that just for selfish reasons. It has to end up related to his ability to function and therefore carry out their plan/mission or else it's just a distraction.

Thank you so much; that last scene really was almost impossible to write, but it got shoved out somehow in the end.
mad_bertha
Nov. 3rd, 2009 06:37 pm (UTC)
Re: I wrote a longer comment but lj let me down
Just reread my comment and thought I'd better clarify that I meant cliche as in me saying, 'You put it us in his head'.

I am blown away how you managed to write that very complex interior process, disconnected synapses firing away, to arrive at the spot you did.

So loving this fic. One that I want to print out!
etherati
Nov. 4th, 2009 08:53 pm (UTC)
Re: I wrote a longer comment but lj let me down
Yeah I'm not really sure how well it worked either; it was a really tricky thing to break the narrative down into fragments like that and the whole time I was pretty much freaking out saying 'god this is a mess, I have no idea what I'm doing here'. In the end, the characters told me when enough was enough but it still feels a little excessive to me?

All the same, I'm glad it works and gets across how messed up his head is at that moment, and I hope you continue enjoying while I fumble around trying to figure this process out.
lampsh4de
Nov. 11th, 2009 08:26 pm (UTC)
I read all 13 chapters in one afternoon while I was supposed to be doing massive amounts of homework, and I was totally sleep-deprived. I have to say, going back and re-reading some bits today when my brain wasn't dead made this fic x10 more amazing.

I can't wait for the next chapter! I'd almost forgotten how much I love D/R when it's done right. And you're totally doing it right. C:
etherati
Nov. 12th, 2009 01:31 am (UTC)
Oh man, thank you, that means so much. I always worry that I'm not doing it right or that the story's veering off or whatever, because writing it in pieces it's hard to tell. <3
liannerose
Dec. 20th, 2009 12:21 pm (UTC)
Aaaaaah
I couldn't comment last night because it was 4AM, and I had been reading for 4 straight hours... my brain was techncally dead.
But I couldn't stop reading!
Like reading a book you need to finish just to know everything's going to be alright.
And I NEEDED to know everything was going to be alright, because my cheeks were still soaked from crying for them both.
I was just, exceptionally happy that this chapter didn't end with a cliffhanger, or I wouldn't have slept at all!

I don't know how yo do it, its all so intricate and deep, and hurting and thankful... and so... so... Rorschach and Daniel.

Thankyou so much for this beautiful... story doesnt seem big enough for this, hwo does that make sense?
I caanot wait for more <3
etherati
Dec. 23rd, 2009 09:28 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much; it's so touching to realize people are so wrapped up in these stories. :D I've tried to get away from totally gratuitous cliffhangers because people were about to start in with the torches and pitchforks buuut I can't promise none in future.

Thank you again for your kind words and hopefully I'll have more of this soon!
cousinmary
Dec. 23rd, 2009 05:23 am (UTC)
Okay, I just found this story and read it through. So amazingly awesome! Great job!
etherati
Dec. 23rd, 2009 09:20 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Hopefully I'll be continuing it soon. :D
book_of_sail
Mar. 23rd, 2010 09:14 pm (UTC)
Forgive a sleep deprived rambling, but...
I started reading this last night. I can't even remember how on earth I found it... These things happen at 4:am, and the brain refuses to retain things clearly. XD
But let's see... Must have been from someone's recommendation, probably? Most likely someone from y!gall~ 9___9
Yeeees! There was fanart for this, I'm pretty sure, and the artist gave a link. Ohohohoho, my brain is not so spotty after all.

Ehm, anyway~ So I started reading this last night, and heaven help me, I CAN'T STOOOOOOP.
I recently got bitten by the Watchmen bug again, entirely out of the blue. Have watched the movie three times this week (so far)... It bit me hard.
And after a couple days of drawing, watching the movie, having lulzy conversations as Rory and Dan with a friend of mine, and digging furiously for fanart, I'm pretty sure there's nothing left in my brain except for "RorschachRorschachRorschachRorschach".

I'm rambling. La~
This is the only Watchmen fanfic I've ever read. Actually ever. I am in love with it. I had flippin Watchmen DREAMS this morning, based somewhat on the premise of your fic. And if that sounds a little sketchy, you'll have to forgive me.
You're writing is great! You keep everyone so brilliantly in-character~ That's something that's kept me from delving into the fanbase too much; The idea that some massive injustice will be done to all the character depth that Alan Moore had written. BUT, no matter what personal changes you've put the characters through so far, no matter where Manhattan has dumped them, no matter what sort of things they're being made to deal with, they're still THEM. I'm still reading about Dan and Rorschach and Adrian, and not Inkfaced-Sue, Heroic-But-Unexciting, and Generic-Supervillain-A.
This universe is totally believable. I can picture everything perfectly. Actually, (and this might partially be due to the fact that I was up till 4:am reading it, but,) there were times when I almost forgot that in cannon, Rorschach is dead. I'd have to stop reading for a second and think about it, and go, "Oh yeah. Damn it." Because while I'm reading this, and squirming with anticipation for MOARE, there's something in the back of my head that seems a little off. And then I realize it's because this is a fic, and not what actually happened. XD
I mean this entirely in a good way. I'm not sure if that's how it's coming across. I hope that it's reading as praise, at least.

I really enjoy your style, and I love the world you've set up. Every time I reach the end of a chapter, I'm really worried that there's not going to be a next one. Haaaah, you have me hooked. I love your brains~ As a fellow author, this is the kind of quality I hope I can have, one day.
etherati
Mar. 24th, 2010 01:31 am (UTC)
Re: Forgive a sleep deprived rambling, but...
Responded to your other comment but again, thank you - can't really say that enough. I try so hard to keep them in character even when there are obvious external factors causing changes. I strongly believe that a character can be forced to grow while still being themselves. Otherwise, you're just playing with action figures. It's not compelling if it's not them.

That said I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the fanbase, especially if you stick with LJ rather than ff.net. Here there may be crack and porn but they're both well written and there are no mary sues, no character assassination, etc. It's an amazingly talented fanbase, I've never felt so intimidated or so surrounded by genius.

Thank you again - that the world is believable to suspend canon for you is an amazing compliment, and I think I'm going to feel warm and fuzzy the rest of the day. :D
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

what this is.


This is a fic journal for the most part, with some art on the side and a sprinkling of personal posts here and there. I don't write as much as I used to, but I try.

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