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FIC: Between the Brushstrokes - [14/?]

Title: Between the Brushstrokes
Fandom: Watchmen
Characters/Pairings: Daniel, Rorschach, Adrian, Manhattan in pt 1, Dan/Ror.
Date Written: 2009-2010
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.

*

It's early in the morning but life – real life, lived in the moment, improvised on the spot in all of its joy and freefall terror, doesn't run on schedules. Doesn't care that the sun's only barely up or that the morning meal hasn't even been started or that it's far too early for the Blakowski twins and Timothy Miller to be making trouble, flicking pebbles at the pigeons that mill at the edges of the camp, eating last night's leftover desert out of styrofoam cups with their fingers, faces smeared in sugar and mashed cherries. A sharp whistle from around two fingers, one mother or another, and they shove the pebbles into their pockets, giggling. There's a lot here that shouldn't be.

Frank Donnelly stands at the threshold of his scrapmetal shack, watching the dawn light slip like liquid gold along the sharp and jagged edges. He is taking a moment as he does every morning to appreciate the fact that he knows his name, really knows it in the way that he knows his skin – knows that he was named for his grandfather, knows that his last name resided in Donegal four generations back and knows the winding path it took to arrive here, this city, this place – when he's overwhelmed by a sudden vertigo.

It's not a feeling he could describe; something like anticipation and dread and the spinning rides he remembers from Coney Island, round and round until he always felt right on the edge of something, a nauseous breath away from a hollow, brittle understanding.

Something important is going to happen today.

*

"Look," Dan says, and he wonders for a moment if he's blowing up so Rorschach doesn't have to. His hands are hovering on the edge of an unfamiliar violence. "We busted you out of that thing because we need you and we know you want this fixed as badly as we do. Don't make the mistake of thinking that means we like you."

"Oh, Dan. We used to be friends."

"Yeah, sure. Before you decided to commit mass murder. You're not off the hook for that."

He'd come through the dockside door – discreet, a good choice – hooded jacket low over his face and all calm composure. Dan had really hoped the last few years would have taught him some humility, and maybe they had, somewhere inside. But the swagger and the confidence seemed carved deep into the heartwood of his personality and after what they risked–

"A lot of good people died," Dan says, stalking toward the workbench and its folded maps, and damn the hypocrisy if he's mostly thinking of Hollis, of his buddy Jack in the Ornithology Association, of the delivery boy from Panda Garden who always used to throw in a few extra almond cookies and a genuine smile. If he's missing the big picture, he can live with it right now.

"Yes, well. I stand by the claim that my motivations were legitimate–"

Rorschach finally slips his control, storming over from his post by the door, fists shaking at his sides, ranting with every step. "Not your right to decide that for the world, take away their freedom to choose. To make sacrificial beasts of millions of–"

"But I could have put more thought to the consequences," Adrian continues, ignoring the interruption. "Especially as pertains to longevity of peace and the aftermath." A pause, his eyes tracking Rorschach's motions as he retrieves his scarf from his pocket, winds it through clenched fists. "What are you doing with that?"

"Blindfold," Rorschach says, voice just barely containing something dark, something that's obviously enjoying itself.

Adrian raises an eyebrow. From the table, Dan watches, and he's only a little ashamed to be enjoying this too.

Rorschach loops the scarf over his eyes, pulls it tight across the bridge of his nose. It bunches where Rorschach's working the knot; it probably hurts. "Is this necessary?"

"Can't have them accusing us of leading you right to their doorstep, can we?" Dan opens the map finally, running a finger down its streets and alleys, trying to work out a path that's too convoluted to retrace but easy enough to memorize. "I don't think they'd be willing to help us if they thought we'd compromised their position."

"Well." Eyebrows raise above the scarf. "Fair enough, I suppose."

Rorschach steps back to admire his handiwork. Narrows his eyes. "Do you regret it?" he asks after a moment, voice dark and empty. Neither really needs to ask what it is, or question what rides on the answer.

A strangely hesitant silence, one hand coming up to touch the cloth over his eyes, explore this new boundary to his universe. When he answers, the confidence isn't gone, but it's tempered by honesty. "I've spent every waking moment of the last five years regretting it. Quite literally. I do understand that regret isn't the same as atonement, but I'd like to think it's a good start."

Another silence, and something in Rorschach snaps, audible like a dry branch on a winter day. He turns and walks back to the table, sudden fury visible in every motion – rolls up the map from under Dan's navigating fingers, tucks it into his coat. Heads for the door.

"You've got a ways to go," Dan finally says, stepping up to take Adrian by the arm and lead him out into the street.

*

"So I'm assuming there's some sort of plan here, beyond parading me around like a show pony." With the hood up and the scarf in place over his eyes, Adrian doesn't look like himself at all – doesn't look like anyone in particular. Nobody. Anybody. Masks are an old trick, one they're all familiar with.

Dan keeps his hand on one shoulder, guiding Adrian around obstacles as they walk. Three steps ahead, Rorschach's setting a furious pace, anger sublimated into haste, rolling the map between his fingers. He has the goggles again; Dan's relying on the improvised filter he spent most of last night fitting to his glasses to keep the worst of it out. "There's, uh. Well. There's a plan, yes."

"Which is?"

Dan makes a few more indistinct noises; finds himself having trouble articulating this. It'd seemed a risky but acceptable idea in the shadow of the warehouse's walls, separated from the people whose lives they're planning to gamble with. Now, on the street, laid bare in the light of day, it's a harder sell.

"Change instructions," Rorschach cuts in bluntly from up ahead, not breaking stride, not bothering with tact. "Instruct populace to commit suicide."

In a nearby tree, a bird flutters its wings in sudden, fierce irritation. It's the only sound.

"...you can't be serious."

No answer from Rorschach, forging onward with an unwavering step.

"I do understand the idea, and it makes theoretical sense, but... Dan. You do realize how much blood will be on your hands if you're wrong?"

"...one to talk," comes the grumble, now four steps ahead.

Dan ignores it; tries to hide the flinch. "There are risks, but the way I see it, whoever was responsible for this mess will be the one with the blood on his hands." It's not a particularly pointed tone, but the implication is obvious, and Dan wonders for a moment how different this is from what Adrian had done, this toying with life on a mass scale.

Adrian's obviously thinking it too, expression half amused and half distressed. Dan reminds himself that Adrian's plan involved the guaranteed deaths of millions; that this here now is just a calculated risk. It's not the same thing.

"That wasn't actually me," Adrian finally volunteers, "despite what I'm sure you believe. There was a politician–"

"Senator Warren, yeah. We know."

"–and those carrying on in his place are even more dogmatic. Morality of your plan aside, gaining access to the control device will be difficult."

Dan shifts his hand, guides them around a turn in the sidewalk. "Probably not impossible thou– wait. In his place?" He stops them walking, lowers his voice. "He's not in charge anymore? Where is he?"

"Riker's Island."

Even Rorschach stops short at that, turns to look back at them. Dan licks his lip, mouth suddenly dry. "You mean he's..."

"Yes. Ironic, isn't it?"

"Not the word I'd choose," Rorschach says, stalking back toward them, visibly run out of patience. "Will it work."

That's it, the real question, and Adrian seems to be considering his answer – actually thinking, not just making derisive commentary or trusting his own immediate instincts. It's unnerving to actually watch the gears turn; like using the Difference Engine when you're used to a Tandy.

"...it should. If the survival instinct is what frees people, then it should work. I shudder to think of the chaos you'd be unleashing–"

"Leave maintaining order to us. We've got a plan there too."

"–and there's also the issue of the children," Adrian continues, pointed. "Many too young to understand what death is, much less suicide. If that prevents survival from kicking in..."

And Dan's suddenly glad he can't be seen because he's just gone white – white with some green around the edges. He can't make out Rorschach's rough breathing anymore, and there's nothing wrong with his hearing. It's a second or two before he can form words again: "Jesus. I hadn't even thought of that."

A grunt from Rorschach. He hadn't either, and it's bothersome how far off their game they both are.

"We'd have to code it to exempt them somehow." The expected derision and mockery isn't there; it's more obvious now than ever that five years under the lights have changed him. Changed them all. "That will be tricky, to understate it somewhat."

Dan thinks of a weasel in a poorly cut grey suit, stinking of bitterness and dissatisfaction and fear. Wonders how much a man needs to know about the system to be put in charge of its use. "I think I might have a few ideas on that."

"...good," Rorschach says, tone flat but Dan can hear the relief in it. He takes up point again, leading them through the labyrinth the city becomes when every window is open for just a moment before it closes and eyes are everywhere, watching.

*

They arrive all at once – one moment, they're in an alley like so many others, the city's clogged vessels flushed clean, and there's a strange smell in the air. Food, but not chain food, not the hamburgers and coffee and fast, generic garbage this world seems to thrive on. It's spicy and thick, eastern, with a sharp and incongruous spike of cayenne and tomato. One moment, they are between narrow walls that could be any walls, could be any buildings, windows shut, sill boxes abandoned. They are in the city.

The next, they're in a wide open area, dotted with structures that look like huts, interconnected by snaking roofed walkways roped in against wandering out from under them. But the place is intricate and beautiful for all its rough edges, metal shining in the sun, and Dan can only imagine what it looks like from the sky. Spider web, he thinks. Cat's cradle.

A boy stands at the nearest edge of one of the walkways, gesturing to them urgently to come in under the roof. He's wearing a shirt three sizes too big and pants rolled up to their torn knees. A pair of black-spraypainted laboratory goggles hang around his neck. "Come on," he's saying. "Before the satellites see."

Satellite imagery. Looking for this camp, and they're just out in the open–

By the time they're under the walkway's awning, the place has come to life – violent, scrabbling life, afraid life, uncomprehendingly hopeful life. A middle-aged woman snatches the boy back by his arm. "What were you thinking?" she asks, and has a few more choice words but they're buried in the general cacophony. "Covering their eyes," Dan thinks he hears, in a child's protesting voice. "Like us."

"...no excuse!"

"But who are they–"

"Saw the one the other day, came wandering in like it was nothing–"

"...Jesus, they stink–"

"Kovacs," a voice says from the center of the crowd, and it quiets down by fractured degrees, physically parts to let the speaker through. "You said you'd come back."

The crowd tenses visibly, some running nervous fingers over goggles and thick bandannas hung loose around their necks. Rorschach narrows his eyes, and it takes Dan a moment to catch the source of his discomfort, but how could they know if he hadn't told them and why on earth would he have–

But he's talking before Dan has a chance to even finish the question. "Yes. Have brought proof of dedication to the cause, as you requested." And he nods to Dan, who taps Adrian on the shoulder, who reaches up to pull back the hood and slip away the scarf–

And all hell breaks loose.

*

Dan will realize, later – memory more exacting than realtime awareness – that only half of the pandemonium had swollen towards them; the other half away, people herding children and relatives and friends back to their homes, to grab emergency supplies, to head for escape routes. In the minds of these people, their home was as good as abandoned the moment the blindfold came off.

Memory outstrips realtime awareness, of course, because in realtime, the other half of the surge is scrabbling for ropes and weapons, real and makeshift both, and Rorschach of all people is standing between the panicked horde and their target, fending them off. Somewhere in the mess, one man's voice is raised, trying to vain to find control.

"Hey now, come on!" And Dan's shouting too, even louder, doing what he can to deflect grabbing hands and swinging fists. "Come on, let's just..."

He wants to decipher the crowd noise, understand their specific upset so that he can appeal to it directly but it's a cacophony, incomprehensible in its churning anger and fear, an animal baying like dogs out for blood

[tiny mouths in the snow, red-rimmed and sharp-toothed and greedy, greedy]

and it's like it's 1977 again, fire in the air and rubber bullets and screeching and isn't that where all of this started, premeditated cruelty forming out of all the chaos and taking away one man's reason for caring–

"I said enough!"

The voice cuts through with startling strength, and it's the man who'd addressed Rorschach by name, by that forbidden name. The crowd quiets instantly; Rorschach does not relax his stance. Dan doesn't either.

"Since when do I need to give an order twice?" the man demands, looking around at the assembly. "Are we a military movement or a lynch mob?"

Neither, Dan thinks. Holds his tongue, waiting.

The man turns to Rorschach, whose eyes are still wild, fists still raised. If his cheek’s blossoming a fresh bruise to match the yellowed, fading one, it won’t show for a few hours. “Why in god’s name would you bring him here?”

“On our side,” Rorschach says, and the words sound like they hurt to say, cut somewhere deep. He's a terrible liar, so it's good that this is only halfway an untruth; halfway because he still isn't really convinced. “On your side.”

“Which I could have explained if you hadn't gone straight to the torch-and-pitchfork routine. And anyway–” Adrian holds the scarf up in plain view. “It’s not as if I could find this place again.”

"You could have memorized the turns."

"I didn't."

“He’s not under their influence anymore,” Dan offers, and god but this is precarious: A stranger vouching for a stranger and the only familiar face too perpetually wired for violence to know when to drop his damn fists. He's about sick of these situations, these hair-trigger moments of mutually assured destruction brought down to the level of their individual lives. “He wants this stopped as much as we do.”

The leader-apparent steps past Rorschach then – Dan has to hold him by one shoulder to keep him from moving to block – and spends a long, tense moment staring critically at Adrian’s face, expression. Eyes, mostly. Dan wonders for a moment how many people have been programmed to act deprogrammed, how many times they’ve had to do this. How many losses they've suffered to trust given too easily.

Nearby, a mother twines her hand tight around her son's; it's the boy who called them in under the encampment's collective wing. He holds his goggles with grubby fingers, waiting.

“He’s clean,” the man finally says, and the whole crowd seems to deflate with released breath. “Call off the evacuation. For now.”

Adrian raises an eyebrow. Doesn't ask the question.

The man meets his gaze, answers anyway. “There are other risks we run, just by you being here. I won’t take chances with my people’s lives.” A long moment, considering, then he turns to Rorschach. “You don’t play these things small, do you?”

“Tend not to. Trust us now?”

“Your ability, certainly. Likely your allegiances. Your judgment… well, I'm not too sure on that one.”

The crowd’s mostly dissipated, though some still hang around the edges, curiosity overwhelming obedience, visors and masks swinging loose around their necks. They murmur, quietly, and try not to be noticed. “I have some things to attend to. This development will have an effect on our timetables. I assume you’ll want to clean up; our facilities are open to you.”

“The diplomatic way of telling us we stink,” Dan says with a smirk.

The man nods carefully. “You… well, you really do. But. Far be it from me to let that get in the way of civility." A hand, offered only to Dan, calloused and blunt, grip heavy. "Francis Donnelly, but most here just use Frank."

"Dan Dreiberg."

Donnelly nods; He knows Rorschach's name somehow already(a prickling of jealousy; Dan pushes it down, hard) and a man would have to be blind and stupid not to recognize Adrian Veidt. "Fair enough. We'll meet again after the noon meal. Don't forget to take precautions – the lights do reach us here." He turns then, leaves them to their devices with such an outward lack of concern that the message may as well have been spoken: there is not a move they can make that will not be watched.

"...'Frank'," Dan says, glancing at Rorschach significantly once the man's out of earshot. "And we're supposed to believe this is an actual military camp?"

Rorschach hrmphs, returning his scarf to his pocket. "First name basis not exactly conducive to discipline. But resistants aren't necessarily military people, just a cross section of humanity, randomly selected for. Genetic lottery, strong where others are weak."

Dan thinks of finches again; of how compelling the urge must have been, those first years on the islands, to just fly away home. "I don't know. Somehow I think the ones who could go back to that and choose not to – they might be the strongest."

"Sentimental romantization of valor," Rorschach chides, but Dan can hear the faint smile even if he can't see it.

Dan laughs, a quiet rumble of breath. "Probably. I usually–"

"I hate to break up all of this carefully veiled and meaningful banter," Adrian cuts in, and nearby, a knot of people aren't even pretending not to be watching and discussing, fingers pointed shamelessly, distrust borne of necessity in a literal world gone mad. Ears everywhere, here. "But the two of you really ought to take them up on that while you have the chance. I doubt sickening them over their meals will do much to endear you to their cause."

Rorschach narrows his eyes. "Staying," he says gruffly, and it's not exactly an order but neither is it something easily contradicted. Dan knows the tone, and knows this electric eeriness just as well, Rorschach cutting to the quick of an issue before Dan can even pick up on the fact that something's wrong. 'Your', not 'our'. Excluding himself; He's intending to–

Adrian settles his hands into his pockets, surveys the surroundings with a casual disinterest that is neither truly casual nor actually disinterested. He's taking everything in, as surely as Rorschach is. "...for as long as the meeting, yes. After that, I'll need to return to the tower. There are appearances to keep up, and 'dirt-floored hovel' isn't really my style."

"You think you can fool them?"

"Of course," and there's the pride again, ballooning up in the space left by all the light's brutal excavations, glinting sharp in lined eyes as he turns back to them – and it just figures, that his ego of all things would have been left untouched. "I've always been a passable actor, and we're not talking about the world's most discriminating audience. 'Smile a lot and try not to think too hard' should do it."

Dan looks around carefully, picking out the less obvious spies, the ones these gabbling busybodies are meant to distract them from. "And you will stay in contact?"

"Of course," he repeats, and the ego is gone now, and it's nothing but the truth.

*

Walking through this maze of shadowed walkways, past the open areas and the residences and the communal open-air cafeteria where a heavyset man works over a pot of roiling liquid, sending the boy at his elbow to fetch this or that vegetable or spice or utensil – they are silent, painfully aware of what interlopers they are, dumped by a spacetime bubble and only a few weeks into a nightmare these people have been living for years. Adrian has disappeared into the crowd, after explaining with what sounded like sincerity that he felt bad for having caused such a scene earlier and wanted to try to speak with the residents, apologize if they'll let him. Dan doesn't trust a word he says but does trust the camp's watching eyes to keep him from doing anything stupid or taking off, and they have their own matters to attend to. They've all been given watches with alarms set to noon, and there's not much time between now and then. This'll have to be quick.

"Making progress," Rorschach mumbles as they set out along one of the spiral arms on the far side of the camp, following the directions they'd been given. The hat's still low over his eyes but there's something loose-limbed in his gait, fluid and at ease in a way he hasn't been in years. "Situation resolved well."

"Yeah, and hey, no one even got shot this time."

An irritated grunt in response, but Dan feels his own step rolling to match; feels the anticipation, the fidgety restlessness that used to come whenever they'd decided they'd had enough of just waiting. Out of the light, this is starting to feel manageable again, like just another case, something to be strategized and launched and fought–

('Just cases, just problems to solve', and can flesh under your hands ever be the same as shoulders brushing and breath and nerves syncing up together in these drumskin-tight moments, the seconds that belong to no hours – only exist, shudder-pulsed and rich and bright, outside of everything? Which do you need more?)

(Do you have to choose?)


At a turn, three children barrel past them, all swift-footed abandon, laughing and kicking up dust from the cracks in the asphalt. They're all drenched wet, just come from the shower building, and even though it's a cool morning they don't seem to feel it, too caught up in whatever game they've imagined. They're young enough that this is likely the only life they remember, and it is as unbloodied and painless an existence as they've seen here.

This is home, to these people; they hang clothes and and paint address numbers on metal walls and raise children in its sheltered streets and call it home. But Dan knows perfectly well that there are plenty of things in life that are misnamed and mishandled, and that just calling it by the label you most want to feel rolling of your tongue doesn't make it so.

*

Fifteen days in a warehouse with no human amenities – no running water, no laundry, not so much as a hotplate – and what Dan really needs is a long, hot shower, a shave, fresh clothes, and a good warm meal. The meal might still be in the cards but otherwise they're going to have to make do with what's here: tepid water just this side of outright cold, carefully rationed, and no facility for cleaning clothes except to take them into the shower room with them. If the camp diverted more than this from the city grid, the woman outside explains, it'd be detected faster than they could blink.

So in the five minutes they're allotted, Dan does his best to focus on scrubbing off two weeks of grime and neglect, sloughing it from his skin and out of his hair and from the weave of his clothes, letting the water carry it away. It's such a welcome sensation, this business of feeling human again, and every second has to be savored; he doesn't have time to waste on observations, contemplations.

No time, but his gaze keeps drifting anyway, vision hazy without the glasses but at this distance he can still pick out the scars and bruises against the blurred-pale shape under the other spigot. This too-close, shared exposure – it's a practical necessity in the tiny facilities, and not either of their choices, and he doesn't want to gawk, doesn't want to turn this into something other than what it is. But it's so much more than he's ever seen all at once, so much laid open to view. Temptation, like he'd felt ten, fifteen years ago, staring at the mask stretched over the bridge of his partner's nose and his fingers itching, itching. It's a familiar braintwitch, and peeling just one mystery's onionskin layers back is never enough.

So he's being discreet, but even so he can see some of the age and wear that time has layered on, the rough edges and corners and sharp, sharp lines. Can trace the scars like one thread of writing to the next, each meaning obvious – knife here, burn there, a bullet skimmed too close, a broken bottle. So many are new in the last ten years, jagged and healed unevenly from being stitched up one-handed or backwards in a mirror, an unfamiliar map overlaid on the one he knows, the one his fingers still remember assembling from surgical thread and a careful urgency. He tries to read the stories laid out between them all, in the gaps, lingering just under the obvious things, the simple things, tries to–

Eyes on his suddenly, challenging, dark shadows in the hollow under Rorschach's brow – and for all that he's not really leering, not looking at him like that, just taking in a rare sight and trying to understand what it is he's seeing, Dan still frowns and looks away. Flush rises up his face like the humiliation of being caught stealing, caught looking, caught lying.

Focus, his internal voice chides, and it's still too deep and too gruff, and he turns back to the showerhead to rinse the rest of the soap away before his time under the flow runs out.

*

"Well, we smell better at least," Daniel says, leaning in to take an exaggerated sniff and smiling in a way that has always cast him as earnest and guileless; now only serves to make him look idiotic under a mat of soaked hair, clothes hanging against him in wet folds and tangles.

Rorschach feels a rebuke forming, a swell of anger rising hot and unconstrained and bolstered by the memory of wandering eyes, but he realizes that he must look just as ridiculous and the words will carry no weight. Daniel has always been hard to intimidate with false threats, even in the worst of times, and he's not entirely sure he wants to anymore, something like betrayal twisting sour in his head at the thought.

He pushes the wet hair back from his forehead instead; feels it catch in yesterday's injury, raw edges still ragged under his fingers. Some of the water had run rust-colored over it, but it doesn't hurt. "Hn. Don't get used to it, Daniel."

Daniel laughs then, puts a companionable hand on his back, far too easily felt in all its nuance of touch through the thin, clinging fabric of his shirt. The suitcoat and trench he carries, dry still; he'd been unwilling to ruin them in the water. His skin crawls at the sensation, and only partly because of its unpleasant connotations. "I know, I know. Purely practical reasons."

"Yes."

"And I bet you feel indecent as hell right now."

The hand shifts against his back, and he can feel the way the fabric peels and resettles. "Yes."

And it really isn't funny– but as with everything, all the ludicrous things they came across on the streets in years past and all the bizarre moments that make up a history, Daniel has a habit of laughing at exactly those things that least deserve it. Rorschach tries to pull away from the contact; is halted by the hand moving to grip him by the shoulder.

"Relax," Daniel says, and it's always easier when he says it this way, concern where others would bring condescension to bear. "We're in the same boat, okay? And you'll be dry soon enough."

Wet socks squelch in dry shoes, so loud to ears not used to hearing himself move. A turn here, left. A right. Up ahead, he can smell food, something spicy and foreign but probably safe enough, not likely poisoned if they’re serving everyone from the same pot. A quiet rumble of voices overlaid in waves, small talk and exaltations and furtively whispered rumors and not a single rehearsed pleasantry to be heard.

"Midday soon," Rorschach mutters, fingering the goggles hanging against his collarbone, the metal cold through his shirt. Outside the covered walkway, he can see cracked and unmaintained pavement; the skeletal and broken remains of a streetlight, brought down like a defeated giant and dismembered, the tremendous clear bulb in shattered pieces. Probably more of those all around the camp, quiet and sterile casualties of the earliest battles.

Daniel nods, looks at his watch. "About thirty seconds still. Go on and put those on, but you should still keep your eyes closed."

"Aware of that," he mutters, fixing the gaskets over his eyes, switching to pure infrared mode with a gesture that's become familiar very quickly in the last two days.

"Yeah, I know," Daniel says, lifting his glasses onto his forehead, pressing his palms over closed eyes. "Just not taking any chances," he says, and something in it tugs a little like fear, a little like the thread of longing that winds its treasonous way into grief.

Rorschach does his best to ignore it, closes his eyes. But it's still there, humming synaesthetically in the dark like its own kind of glow.

*

Adrian shows up again for the camp's lunch. He seems to have done well for himself in the intervening hour – for all that most of the people here still look at him with corner-of-the-eye distrust, he's assembled a group of converts around him who seem convinced that he's on their side, who seem enchanted by the notion. He only accepts a half-sized portion of the thick curried stew they're offering; always the expert at image management, he obviously knows that both refusing their hospitality and taking too much when these people have their own mouths to feed would seem inappropriate. It's all carefully calculated, and Dan wonders idly when the last time was the man made a decision that wasn't based around others' reactions.

1971, the cynical part of his mind offers up, and he grins into his bowl to smother the laughter that wants to come with it.

Rorschach has no such compunctions about feeding himself exactly as much as he wants to, this Dan knows from years of raided cabinets and shelves, and he finds he can't hold himself back either; it's just too good, too warm and filling and perfect after weeks of protein bars and peanuts and jerky. He chases a dumpling around the bottom of his bowl, considers whether he's seen anyone go back for seconds, whether it's allowed or not.

"So where did you two come from?" asks a voice from Dan's other side, the side not occupied in making horrible slurping noises, in driving away everyone in a three foot radius except for Dan. "It's strange to get new people."

Dan turns to her, smiles, old instincts automatically kicking in – observe, catalog. He was never as good at it as Rorschach but he's no slouch: She's maybe in her late twenties, no goggles in sight so a natural resistor, and there's a small child, too young to readily identify gender, crawled up halfway into her lap. They don't look anything alike, but there are probably a lot of foundlings and orphans here, and it doesn't seem to phase her as she idly strokes the child's hair. Both their bowls are empty and set aside; people here eat quickly, like wolves in a pack. Probably protect their own just as fiercely.

"Oh, uh. Well, we were just out of commission for a while, I guess," he says, letting her draw her own conclusions. "Just woke up here a few weeks ago."

She furrows her brow in curiosity; to his other side, Dan hears a break in the eating noises as Rorschach pauses to nudge him with an elbow. He gets it; the story's terrible, and they really should have expected this question, worked it out ahead of time. "Woke up, just like that?" she says, disbelief clear. "Where?"

Dan laughs, catches up the last dumpling and a few vegetables, tries to play it off as confusion. The truth makes for the easiest lies. "In the park, of all places. I don't know exactly what happened."

"Huh," she says, apprehension stilling her hand on the child's head; drowsy, he or she peers up at Dan from behind dark, dark bangs, blinking. A grin splits the small face – not old enough to be wary of strangers yet, but obviously good-natured, a remarkable thing in a world gone this off-kilter.

"Hey now Eli," the woman says, ducking to push the bangs back behind the boy's ears. "Back to sleep. You'll be cranky later."

After a minute or two of squirming, he complies, and Dan smiles at her again, setting his spoon into the bowl. "He's a good kid. Yours?"

"No, just... But he may as well be, his parents disappeared, I–" She narrows her eyes again, then smiles, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to stare, but both of you seem so familiar somehow."

A shrug, as casual as he can manage it; inside, a gradually escalating suspicion. "Some people have those faces, you know, generic. They always look like someone else."

She looks past him, at where Rorschach is hunched forward, hat low, trench hanging loose and open over his still-drying clothes. He doesn't look up to meet her gaze; he definitely doesn't have one of 'those faces' and there will be no brushing it off if she did see the picture that ran in all the newspapers so many years ago, if she figures it out. Bad enough they know his name, that wasn't exactly a secret after the arrest either.

"I don't know, it seems like something more than that," she says, and Dan wonders: Were Nite Owl's pictures ever published in the same way, grainy black and white, released by the police in the days following the jailbreak? How careful does he have to be? Does it even matter anymore?

On the woman's lap, the boy fidgets again, and she sighs; stands, gathering the small figure up like a bundled blanket. "Ah well, this seems to be a lost cause, he never sleeps well out here. And I'll probably figure it out later, when I'm not even trying. Lila, by the way."

"Dan. Nice to meet you, and your son."

She smiles, something like suspicion still sitting behind it, and disappears into the crowd; he watches her retreat with a curling of uncertainty in his gut, such a familiar thing now.

"Hm. Too much information, Daniel."

He sighs, scraping at what's left of his stew. "Yeah, probably."

"Already know our names. Won't be long before they put it together."

Dan leans back against the structure's wall, careful not to put too much weight on it. "Would that really be a problem? I mean, these people are all wanted fugitives themselves, just for existing. I can't imagine them caring much."

Silence, for a long moment, then the sound of a spoon dredging up the last bits of broth from a nearly-clean bowl. "Perhaps not."

Across the space, Adrian is entertaining his coterie, obviously recounting some story or other. Understated, no grand gestures or exaggerated words, but they all know who he is, who he was, and he's capitalizing on it. Even ten years older, there's something larger than life in him that they can sense, as surely as Lila had picked up on it in them. It's not heroism; that’s an illusion the last few months have driven clear out of Dan’s head. Maybe it's arrogance, like Blake told them all back in '66 – the stupidity of thinking they can make a difference here, that they're capable of it where no one else is. That changes can hinge on ordinary people, or that they are somehow not ordinary.

"Doesn't matter anyway," Rorschach grumbles, setting the bowl down finally with an unsatisfied grumble. "Masks unimportant now. Only the right plan matters. And the willingness to see it through."

All around them, people are eating, joking, laughing. Living. Children play barefoot in the spaces between them, an entire generation who remember nothing or very little other than this place or others like it, who have grown up in a world more afraid than all the nukes in Russia had ever managed. Their lives are sheltered and boxed-in but they still have them, fought for and hard-won. They have absolutely everything to lose.

"Yeah," Dan says, and suddenly he doesn't want seconds, has lost his appetite completely – because they both know full well that doing the right thing almost never comes without sacrifice, without cost.

*

----> Chapter 15

*

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Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
anactoria
Jan. 25th, 2010 07:27 pm (UTC)
It's always good to see you post more of this! The world you've built up is imagined in so much detail, and everything seems so tightly-wound and temporary and desperate here. Perfect.

Edited at 2010-01-25 07:28 pm (UTC)
etherati
Jan. 25th, 2010 07:39 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much, that's EXACTLY the mood I was going for. :D
robinnevermore
Jan. 26th, 2010 12:14 am (UTC)
LOL! I loved that Ror caught Dan looking in the shower...and then Dan joked about it. XD

Really though, i liked that you updated this story. I love your Zombie fics of course, i was curious about this one...I love your work. I just makes me gitty when i've seen you've updated, anything.
etherati
Jan. 26th, 2010 01:27 am (UTC)
He really *wasn't* looking in a skeevy way, it's just like, when else do you get a chance like that? XD

Yah I've been on a roll with this one lately; another chapter should be coming relatively soon. The holidays just blocked me up good.
orockthro
Jan. 26th, 2010 04:03 am (UTC)
I died and went to heaven when I saw you updated! I've read through it once and am going to give it a thorough scowering when I have more time. :)

But from my first-time-through cursory reading:
1) I love your world. Nuff said.
2) I love that Adrian is now playing a part in the merry band of... well not so merry band of revolutionists, unmaking his masterpiece.
3) Dan and Ror continue to make me cry and smile all at once.
4) I'm intrigued by your newly added characters. Outside points of view... make things interesting and keep it fresh. It's easy to forget just how fucked up everyone is. :)

Thanks so much for updating! I am, of course, waiting on the edge of my seat for the next chapter (as always).
:D
<3 <3 <3
etherati
Jan. 26th, 2010 04:56 am (UTC)
Thank you! Especially regarding the OCs; they're such a tricky balance to walk, but in a story this big do tend to be needed.

Ror and Dan really need to sort their shit out. :(
i_am_your_spy
Jan. 26th, 2010 08:53 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad to see this back!
etherati
Jan. 27th, 2010 12:46 am (UTC)
Thanks! Hopefully another part will be soon. :D
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )