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FIC: Strangers

Title: Strangers
Fandom: Watchmen
Characters/Pairings: Rorschach, Dan, Hollis
Date Written: 2009-2010
Summary: Something's only truly lost when all the lines are cut; even a single thread can lead the way home.
Rating/Warnings: PG-13.
Notes: KM fill, Dan goes into deep cover in a cult for investigative reasons and needs help getting back out. Out-of-sequence narrative.

*

Dan pushes the broom, careful, careful; he has to make sure to get the corners, and the thrill of a job well done is a novel and wonderful thing, pulsing through him like color and noise. The grain of the handle against his fingers is fascinating, rough against rough, and when the ventilation kicks in somewhere far away, it is a surprise and a shock and that is thrilling too.

After a few minutes of hearing nothing but the swish of the bristles over tile and the air circulation rattling its ductwork and the buzzing of a defective ballast and his own breath (somewhere else, voices scream and shout and sirens wail, plaintive and unrelenting, but not here, not in this safe and quiet place) , he reaches another corner, and the satisfaction is new again. It's crisp and clear against all the things he doesn't understand, and there are so many: Where does all this dirt come from, and why are the hallways so long, and should he recognize the face suddenly hovering in front of him, shifting like steam over black tar asphalt on the coldest days of the year?

Too many questions.

"Nite Owl," the man says, and the material over his face is remarkable; Dan hasn't ever seen anything like it. He lifts up a hand to touch, to feel, but he's ducked away from with a sigh of annoyance. "You haven't been calling in. Have to leave now, police are here."

Dan doesn't respond – just stares in contented delight at the delicate patterns blossoming in and out of existence, swimming across the planes of the stranger's face.

*

"Nite Owl, " he repeats, because it's been a long night and a longer month and he doesn't have any patience for Daniel's foolishness, not now – not after the radio had fallen silent three days ago, the conversations just before spindling and folding in dangerously alien ways. His hands twitch; he wants to be taking care of the scum upstairs personally but the matter is out of his hands now and the knowledge that justice will be served will have to be enough. The world is still strange with combat-rush, fever-bright, and he has more immediate concerns. "What are you doing?"

The entranced gaze breaks away, and Daniel seems to remember the broom in his hands. "Oh. Sweeping the floor. We need to keep our home clean; Disorder is entropy, and entropy drives toward sameness, and–"

And it sounds like a recitation, like a religious tract, and all at once the adrenaline Rorschach's been riding on seems to have transmuted to cold mercury, sluggish in his blood. Alchemy. A sharp exhale, buffeting the mask. "Knew it. Something's wrong with you."

"No, nothing's wrong. Everything's fine," Daniel says, smiling placidly, and it's the same thing so many of the people here have said to him tonight – and Rorschach can tell that he really does mean it. Everything's fine, everything's wonderful, except that the walls are falling down around their collective ankles and none of them seem to be noticing.

None of them. Rorschach wonders distantly when he started lumping his partner in with these lunatics' numbers, categorizing them together in his mind. It might have been when Daniel had gone strange on the radio, voice confused and borrowing someone else's words, or it might have only been thirty seconds ago – time feels dilated. None of them, one of them: It's an ugly turn of phrase, naked and bleeding on his tongue.

Us against them, it's supposed to be. Not–

"Are you new?" Daniel finally asks, brain seeming to latch onto an idea it understands, and his eyes are dull and his voice carries a plastic-sounding enthusiasm but there's no recognition there – and the reality of the situation finally hits Rorschach square between the ribs, beyond suspicion or doubt. Daniel, his partner, the only person he's ever called 'friend' even if only in the thinnest hours of the morning and only in his own head, is looking at him like they've only just met. Worse than that, because when they'd first bumbled across each others' paths in that crippling blackout six years ago, Nite Owl had at least known him by reputation.

Now, nothing - just a lax face and dolls' eyes, black in the dim light.

"Am I– Daniel," His voice isn't wavering, and if it is, it's because he's still coming down from the fight. It doesn't matter. "You know me. We have to go."

"I don't, I'm sorry. And I have to finish sweep–"

It's a moment of blind panic, welling up faster than he can bail it out at the thought of this, of losing this, of losing the only thing he's ever– and he'll regret it later, dragging a too-heavy body deadweight through the streets, but the sirens are getting louder and it feels like the only option. He wheels back and slugs Daniel hard, dropping him straight into unconsciousness, and the fact that he doesn't even move to block the strike is somehow even more sickening than the sound his body makes, slumping to the floor.

The broom clatters where it falls, and Rorschach ignores it; ignores the lights and color and noise on the way out, the shadows cast in red and blue and violet, lurching in stop-motion up and down the walls.

The weight across his shoulders, and the roaring between his ears, he cannot ignore.

*
*
*

"I already told you," Daniel says, leaning over the mess of electronics on his workbench. He's soldering something delicate and small, and the air smells like hot metal. "If you want to be the one going in there, you have to lose the mask now. I'll need to be able to pick you out in a crowd, in case something goes wrong."

"Can handle myself." Rorschach levels an even glare across the table. Maps and technical schematics shift under his hands, fisted against them. "Stronger will than you."

"This is something to do with the decadent dollar-fifty Chinese takeout you found in the fridge, isn't it?" Daniel's tone is musing, idle; only halfway paying attention to the conversation.

And Rorschach ignores the interruption, because it's important that Daniel understands the implications of what he's suggesting. "Can resist more... persuasion."

Daniel hmms around a thin screwdriver pursed at the corner of his mouth, reaching to unclip the jeweler's stone from his glasses. "Yeah, that right there? That's bullshit, and I think you know it. If we were talking brainwashing like in stupid late night sci-fi movies, maybe." The last drop of solder goes into place, and he hisses through his teeth when he accidentally catches the side of his finger on the iron. Winds a thin coil of wire carefully with one hand, sucking briefly on the injured finger. "But if they're using drugs to pull this off – and there's a good chance they are – then we'd be pretty equally screwed, buddy."

Under the mask, Rorschach grimaces. Tries to imagine himself forcing some vile, malicious chemical out of his system by sheer force of will, but has to concede to reality in the end; physiology is what it is.

"And if it comes down to forcible extraction, we both stand a better chance if whoever it is knows who they're looking for. Look." The tools settle quietly to the workbench surface, and hands that have always seemed too large for this sort of work wedge the casing closed. Finished, it's meant to be a communication device, a constantly transmitting one-way bug with the option for two-way comms at the flick of a tiny, tiny switch. The diagrams spread between them are so much Greek but Rorschach knows a vital tool when he sees one. "I know if an investigation really hinged on it, you'd do what you had to. But I also know how much it means to you, and there's just no reason for it this time. I can handle myself as well as you can, and you know how to use the monitors here just fine."

The radio gear is spread along one desk, abutted to the nearest wall, and Rorschach turns to walk its wires, fingers tracing lightly over each interconnect and junction. "Don't like it," he says, crouching to look into the transceiver's speaker grille even if he knows perfectly well there's nothing there to see. "Too much of a risk."

"Everything we do is a risk."

A drawer opens and closes, out of sight. Papers rustle as they're twisted into haphazard rolls. They're estimating two to six weeks on the inside, and that's too wide a range, too long a time to spend regarding a cold metal radio housing as his only–

"And if this guy's really into the shit we think he is..."

A low grunt, and Rorschach stands again, rolling his fists in his pockets. "Yes. Has to be done."

*

Dan's done undercover work before, to varying degrees of success, and he knows that this is the hardest part: walking up to the first mark sick with the anxiety churning up his gut, trying to keep his story straight, his characterization solid. The first sentence, the first word; getting his mouth to form around that first sound and after that it's like giving a graduation speech or an address to the Ornithology Association. The words flow, liquid and silver and so natural, like he'd been born into his cover story, as long as he doesn't stop for long enough to start worrying.

They always have room for new people, they say, smiling and with an emphasis on new that feels less predatory and more childishly excited than he'd expected. Pamphlets are pressed into his hands, sweat stains darkening them everywhere the dedicants have touched them. Blown pupils follow his every move, nervously jitter back and forth when he holds still for too long, make their eyes look black in the poor light of the converted office space.

Where did he hear about them, they want to know?

Dan looks straight into those dark, unfocused pits, and lies.

*

At the first gathering, he sits inconspicuously in the back row. He doesn't need to take notes or appear suspiciously attentive; he knows without having to toggle the radio to ask that Rorschach is taking down reams, in the yellow legal pad on the desk or in his own notebook, pencil scratches echoing in the cavernous room. He wishes he were there too, suddenly and fiercely, in the same way he'd once wanted out of that early morning New England dew-grass a moment before a high-ceilinged heat lightning storm had sent a bolt into the old oak he'd been standing by. The fine hair on the back of his neck is standing on end, and the air feels electric.

"The past is a burden on your present," the man on the stage says, and Dan's sure he's seen that in the pamphlets, word for word. "Only by discarding out fixation on the past – letting nostalgia, regret, and yes, even memory itself fade away – can we truly be free to enjoy each day's unwinding surprises as we are meant to."

There's more – cynicism and expectation and entitlement, and the joy of infants set loose anew on the world, and the beauty of simplicity, but after a while, Dan finds himself tuning it out. It isn't their rhetoric he's here for, and for all the trappings, they don't pass around any suspicious refreshments; no strange-smelling gas leaks from any of the vents. He supposes he's safe, for now.

*

Far away, Rorschach listens to the sound of breath evening out and calming, losing its attentive edge, and he frowns at the radio. His fingers are white-knuckled around the pencil stub, and he taps it restlessly on the benchtop, listening, thinking.

*

They offer him lodging on-site almost immediately, and he accepts it. Worry about being followed aside, the longer hours he has access to this place the better. There are a lot of dark corners to snoop into, rocks to turn, shadows to empty out. Filing cabinets to break into, and he wishes he had Rorschach's skill in picking locks, but he'll manage something.

"Thank you," he says with as much false geniality as he can muster, and the boy smiles blankly and wanders away, leaves him standing before a room more primitive and sparse than his dorm room in college had been. The walls are bare, the lightbulb in the ceiling is bare, the hardwood laminate of the floor is curling up in rough, delicate strips, cracking away under his shoes. The mattress smells like old sweat, and he supposes he isn't meant to notice.

He shoves his duffel under the bedframe, sits carefully on the edge, ignores the stink. Keys up the radio. "Hey. Just checking in."

"Any information to add?" the radio crackles, and he's grateful suddenly that he went with a lower frequency; this is barely on the functional range as it is, any higher and it wouldn't have reached, wouldn't have made it through the walls.

Dan glances at the window, at the old, leaded glass, at the painted-over sill. Wonders if he has anything he can tape to the panes, some kind of identifier. "No, not really, just... just wanted to..."

The static waits patiently, swimming in an out of aural shapes and patterns, just like–

"I just needed some human contact, you know?" Dan finally admits, smile full of self-deprecation in the dark.

"Hrm. Plenty of human contact where you are."

And that's true, but they're braindead and they're unfamiliar and it isn't the same. "You know what I mean."

Another patient silence, quieter, like Rorschach's keyed down but isn't saying anything. Then: "...yes. I do. But excessive contact is dangerous. Room could be bugged–"

"I know, I know," Dan says, pressing a hand to his forehead. He can feel the note of panic rising in his voice, like a claustrophobia he doesn't have. "I'll go somewhere more secure next time. Hallway in the basement or something. I just..."

"Nite Owl," the voice says, quietly, as if speaking softly to the radio will keep it from being monitored on the other end. "Always here. Listening. Not alone in there."

"Yeah. Yeah, I know." A sharp exhale, looking to the window again. "Thanks, man."

*

"I remember... glass. And cold, and..."

The girl trails off, eyes roving toward the ceiling. There are hands moving over her arms and shoulders, soothing murmurs encouraging her, pulling the memory out by thin, fragile threads. They're seeing a sister in faith, caught up in whatever these people do instead of communing with aliens or speaking in tongues, and to them it's surely a beautiful moment. Dan only sees a teenage runaway, seventeen if she's a day, with the hollowed out face of a survivor of many horrors and the faded bruises of old track marks down her arms. Nothing fresh though, and she seems to have more weight on her than the alley-raised waifs they come across sometimes, wasted on ennui and heroin, cradled in the arms of neglect.

"Is she getting better?" he asks a woman at his elbow.

"I don't know," she says, running twitching fingers over the bulky weave of her sweater. "I think so? Everyone gets better here eventually, and she's stayed with us a long time, but I can't quite remember..."

Dan glances at her sharply, infuses his voice with something that will hopefully catch Rorschach's attention. "Stayed with you? You mean people leave here after a while?"

"Mm." Now along the bottom edge, yarn bits knobby and dense, and it's easily eighty degrees in here. "I think they'd have to. We're always full but never more than full, and new people are always joining, so people must be leaving, too? But I guess some people take a lot longer to heal up. The past is a poison, and it affects some more than others..."

Dan says nothing; just lets her trail off, and in a few minutes, she won't remember the conversation. He just stands and narrows his eyes, and watches the lost girl among the raptors, bleeding off her memories for the sake of a peace that she honestly probably deserves.

He thinks about the resiliency of young bodies, and how clean living can affect them, can heal all of their systems back to a fresh pink perfection. Thinks about all the missing person reports, and this family of goldfish surrounding them, memories too short to care where they've gone. Thinks of an assembly line, a conveyor belt, leading straight through this place, and what exactly comes out the other side?

"... and he cut my face, and pushed me into..."

"Let go, let go," the crowd murmurs, circling her like prey, and she suddenly looks as though something heavy has been lifted away, like these things never happened. Like she's free.

Dan closes his eyes, takes a breath, and tries to keep the talons from striking bone.

*

"We know he's involved in human trafficking," the voice bursts over the static, and Rorschach has one finger on the transmit switch, the other hand flipping through his notes as Daniel talks to him through the radio's tinny filter. "We just didn't know who he was selling them to, or what for."

"Assumed prostitution," Rorschach mutters, still searching for something specific. "Standard pattern. Drug into docility, sell to highest bidder."

"Yeah, I know," and Daniel's voice sounds strange, like he's in an echo chamber. A tunnel, maybe. "But I don't think so now. They're not selecting for attractiveness, just physical health. Rorschach, I... I think they're doing organ harvesting."

The papers still under his hands. For a long moment, neither Rorschach nor the radio speaks, and the wheels turn and turn. The theory eventually renders up as sound and very possible, even probable, in light of the evidence. "Hrm. Would explain why none of the missing people have turned up in the usual quarters."

"Yeah, exactly. I was wondering about that from the start. I mean, I'm not sure, but Jesus, if they really are..."

Another silence, too much turned inward for speech; it's such an ugly idea, and it makes this so much more dangerous. Rorschach shifts against the edge of the table, and he's not thinking about what good condition Daniel's in, how he never smokes and rarely drinks, and what a body looks like when everything's been scooped out of it, an empty shell disposed of like garbage. He isn't. "You're not eating their food?"

"God, no." A bark of laughter, sharp through the noise. "Of course not."

He leans back in the chair, and if the sigh of relief isn't professional, is an unacceptable breach of some code or another, it's been a trying enough week that he can allow himself the lapse. Anyway, he's alone here. "Good. Don't."

*

It's easier said than done, really.

The communal meals are tricky. In the vast cafeteria, surrounded on all sides and exposed, it's a very touchy thing to palm the food away into bunched napkins and pockets, to not touch the water and juice and greasy-golden broth. In his room, stuffed into the duffel he came here with, are a month's worth of completely functional, tasteless ration bars and two quarts of water. The water will need to be refilled somehow, and he isn't sure how he's going to manage that.

When he walks in one evening and finds the supply disturbed, it occurs to him that he probably should be worried about that, but the reason is slippery and he can't quite find it in the dark.

*

"What dagger of the past sticks in your heart, brother?"

Dan pauses, his hand on the doorknob. He isn't sure when they'd started calling him that, isn't sure when it'd stopped bothering him. You're playing your part well, is all, and it's true, but something niggles. "Oh, ah. Why do you ask?"

The man shifts to his other foot, and like all of the others here, he doesn't look like what the word cultist conjures. He's smallish, pudgy, with thinning blond hair and wireframe glasses and everyday clothes, no robes or sheets or cloaks. He's bundled, like he doesn't feel the heat. "You seem burdened," he says, thin reedy voice empty of any malice. "And you don't speak much at the forgettings."

Dan rubs the back of his neck, self-conscious. "Well... I mean, I'm not as comfortable yet with all of that. As the rest of you are."

"Yes, yes I understand," the man says, nodding. "We all evolve towards simplicity at our own pace. It's not an easy thing for some people, to let go of the past. Even when they recognize its necessity and seek out our help."

Dan bites his lip, jitters his hand over the doorknob.

"Would it be easier to talk about if there were only one other present?" the man asks, looking at him imploringly, and Dan feels something in the back of his head toggle, a rusty knife switch that creaks loudly as it slips home.

"I... maybe," he says, horrified at the words as soon as he hears them hit the air, but he can't seem to hold anything back all of a sudden, not under this patient, benevolent gaze. He can feel memory rising up like a black sludge: shouted arguments and slamming doors and nights spent huddled under a tree in the front yard rather than beg to be let back in, and his degree torn in half and how long it'd taken to get it replaced and everyone dressed in black, solemn, as the will was read... his hand relaxes from the doorknob, stops seeking escape. "I had some... some issues with my father?"

Hands on his shoulders now, having to lean up to reach him, just like, just like–

He's listening, common sense pokes at him from the corner, drowned out in whatever this is, ignored.

"He never... he didn't approve of my life, said I was a disgrace," and the words are slipping free like beads on a string and he isn't the one pulling the string, he isn't–

"Keep going," the man says, and his eyes are like black holes, gravity wells.

And Dan does, haltingly, spilling his secrets in the hot, churning belly of this devouring beast, letting them wash over and past. In the end, he has said everything he can remember, worked it out from under his skin like poison ivy, and he feels empty and light and he can't quite remember what he'd been so upset about, can't find a reason to care what one old man had said years ago now that he's slumped against his door, scrubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands, watching his brother walk away. Hollowness has never felt less like the salt-stinging taste of tears and late nights curled on a kitchen floor, has never felt less like fear.

He's starting to understand. And he is a lot of things, but he is not afraid.

*

Three weeks on, the girl with the track marks is healthy now, is young and strong and flush with the joy of life lived as if every moment were the first or the last. She'll be leaving soon, she says, they say, and this should be distressing but he can't really pin down a reason. Instead he finds himself happy for her, watching from the sidelines as she speaks lucidly of the last five minutes and how wonderful they've been with more clarity than she's ever shown, more clarity than Dan's ever felt. He can't quite remember her name.

"It's wonderful," he says to the teenage boy next to him, unprompted, who smiles and nods. "I wish I could..."

Then he feels the weight of the transmitter under his collar as he shifts his head, and he remembers his home, the basement, Archie's hull shining a broad curving smile in the dark, a figure slumped over the radio table. Hanging on his every word. He's suddenly resentful, and jealous of these people for their unfettered joy; they, who don't have a judgmental ass listening over their shoulders, ready to chastise every time they call home like a father he's long since outgrown.

So he doesn't call in that night, but instead sits in the dark, pawing through pamphlets with fingers that leave dark sweat marks wherever they touch. The air is cold.

*

The next morning, he looks in the small mirror over his sink and black, endless eyes stare back at him, the thin ribbon of brown constricted out to the edges. It's beautiful.

*

Everyone has a job here and his is cleaning, at night, when the others have gone to sleep. He has a long push-broom but no bucket or dustpan, so it mostly consists of shuffling dirt from one location to the next, creating the pretext of cleanliness without actually removing any of the filth. These are busy hallways during the day, and feet careless in their love for the moment don't hesitate to stir it back up, spread it thin and even, and every night he must begin again.

He thinks vaguely of a suit of Kevlar armor and the heavy press of rubber gaskets around his eyes, and of a small figure in swirling leather and swirling black and white, and the way bone and muscle feel under his fists. Rope and handcuffs and hushed words spoken into payphones, unbelieving voices echoing up from the depths. They are all just specks of dirt, shifted around, always more ready to swarm in and fill the gaps they leave and will their work ever be over?

The thoughts are unpleasant and not entirely grounded, so he pushes the broom and tries to let them dissipate away.

*

"Don't you... I don't know. Think sometimes, that maybe we're wasting our time?"

The crackling voice on the radio sounds anxious but guarded, careful, as if speaking to a skittish child. "With this investigation? No, Nite Owl. Will save a lot of lives."

Dan stands at the end of the hallway, peering into the darkness like he does every night - every few nights. Every week, now. It has a pull, like something exotic, like the tunnels he used to... used to... well, it isn't there when he digs, but he knows there were tunnels, and that he was much smaller. "No, I mean, in general. We can't stop all the crime all on our own. We can't be everywhere at once. It's... too big, too much."

He takes a drink from his water bottle; it's sweet, has been sweet for as long as he can remember now but that's as it should be. Water should be clear and sweet and cleansing, washing everything away.

"Hrm," the static-voice says, flat. "Sound like Comedian."

Dan feels his eyebrows knit, and it's an interesting sensation. "Comedian? I don't know..." The word sits like a label, like a person's name, but he can't place it, can't put a face or a personality to the sound of it. He's not even entirely sure who he's talking to anymore; the thread of a conversation runs through his mind but the trailing end of it is lost, flagging in a dying wind.

"Nite Owl?" a voice asks, and the worry in it is plain.

He looks at the tiny radio transceiver in his hand – marvels at its construction, wonders who could have built such a thing – and thinks he really ought to say something, but every thought he has skitters away before he can–

*

The voice on the radio doesn't sound like Daniel anymore. It isn't Daniel, never has been; just an electronic reassembly of the idea of him, the impression of sound and meaning as it passes through the air. The memory of a voice.

When only memory is left...

"Nite Owl?" he asks again, and he knows that his tone is betraying more than he should but this is his partner, is Daniel. Is important.

"It just seems like..." the static resolves, and the echo is stronger now than it's ever been. "Things could be a lot simpler. If we stopped holding the past against these people... I mean, whatever they did, it's over and done, and if we can't let that go, then... we're stuck on it, we're letting the past burden our present and... it could all be so much easier, you know?"

The voice wavers on the last few words, almost pleading, and if it weren't the middle of summer, Rorschach would almost think the basement had just shed twenty degrees of heat. Even knowing, his finger hesitates on the transmit button, his usual ease with words deserting him, because what do you even say to...

["Know what you're getting into, Nite Owl?" It's 1965, and the city is dark, and they've just fought their first scrabbling fight together, won their first victory. "Isn't an easy life."]

[Nite Owl laughs and laughs then, and asks if anything worthwhile ever is.]


The switch clicks into place, and his hand is as steady as he can manage it. "...coming for you, Daniel," he finally says, because they have all the evidence they need, and he's already working out the phone calls he'll need to make, to the police, to the city council. To Mason, because the aftermath of this may be beyond his ability to handle alone. "Will take a few more days. Keep the radio on."

No response; just a looping, circling hiss and the sense of an empty space growing wider and wider.

*
*
*

“I just don’t know, son.” Mason is crouched in front of Daniel where he’s sitting placidly on the couch; in full costume, Rorschach paces nearby. “Knowing what they actually did to him, that’d be a start.”

“It was drugs,” Rorschach grumbles. “Probably in his water supply.”

Mason shakes his head. Lifts three fingers to trail across Daniel’s field of vision, watches as he follows them obediently. His pupils have been dilated since Rorschach found him. “It’d certainly be easy to blame it all on pharmaceuticals, and I think I’d be tempted, too. But in my experience – and I’ve had plenty of experience with mind-benders of every stripe – it’s almost never just the drugs.”

“Implying they actually got to him?”

“I’m just saying that usually, the drugs can soften a mind up, make it suggestible, but that’s not enough to do this. I mean, look at him, for goodness’ sake.”

A short sound from Rorschach, making it as clear as it needs to be that really, he’d rather not.

“No, there’s something else at work here.” Mason drops his hand; Daniel’s eyes shift to follow Rorschach’s circling tread around the room, something of the caged animal in his step. Mason narrows his eyes. “Something deeper.”

“Will you help him?”

A long moment that registers intellectually as awkward, though Rorschach has too many more important things on his mind to really feel it. Mason touches the couch, carefully pulls himself back to his feet.

“I’ll do what I can, but…” A glance between them, following Daniel’s dogged gaze. “…in all honesty, I don’t think I’m the best man for the job.”

That stops Rorschach cold, and the mask bunches over his brow. It's the one expression he can't help giving away. "Why not? Trusts you, respects you."

"To be blunt, that's exactly the reason. Do you understand how these places work?"

Rorschach grunts dismissively, gestures vaguely with one hand. "Use drugs or coercion, often require substantial donation from wealthy targets–"

"They offer people support and acceptance that they're lacking elsewhere," Mason interrupts, voice weighted with experience. "Maybe their family's all busted up, maybe they don't have many friends – but getting that all at once, it's a powerful thing."

Daniel leans back against the couch cushions, seemingly content with the way they fold around him. He's been mumbling since he woke up, but neither of them can make out what he's saying, even in this momentary silence. His voice sounds like it's coming from somewhere deep and empty.

"As for me," Mason continues, glancing back at his successor, visibly pained. "There's nothing he needs from me right now. He already knows what I think of him, and knowing what these people play off of, I don't think that's enough."

His voice comes out like a warning. "Suggesting–"

"I'm suggesting that he may need his partner right now," Mason says, emphasizing the word pointedly – and he's one of those few that always manage to hit his eyes right through the mask – "more than some old fool he used to look up to when he was still learning up from down."

*

The pamphlets drop from Daniel's jacket pocket as Rorschach wrestles him out of it; he kicks them aside, focus entirely on getting Daniel into his bed and familiarity. He doesn't bother picking them up, doesn't bother with conversation that'll be wasted on the unhearing, uncomprehending. There's a red-hot burning in the back of his mind, fury over Mason's implications. It's true that he's the best person to look after Daniel, but not for the reasons the old man had given. There's nothing lacking; he's a good partner, dependable, always has his back, always there when Daniel gets sloppy or misses something and needs his help. This isn't his fault.

He pulls the covers over his friend, switches off the lamp, and Daniel drifts off, still mumbling incoherently until the last of his own lights go out.

Rorschach doesn't move from the chair near the bed until dawn.

*

[He wakes in the middle of the night to a darkness that doesn't hide the fact that he isn't alone in the room, is being watched over, guarded. It seems important somehow, but he can't remember why; he drifts back off, restless.]

*

The first day, he catches Daniel with a broom from the hall closet, dutifully sweeping nonexistent dust in the kitchen. He's humming, something tuneless and strange, and when Rorschach snatches the broom away the look in Daniel's eyes is total heartbreak, mixed with a child's fear of being caught away from his chores, of being punished.

"No," Rorschach says, tossing the broom back into the closet. "Don't need to do that anymore. Not here."

Daniel nods, seeming to understand, but he's at it again the next day. This time, Rorschach throws the idiotic thing out the window and if anyone's hit by a falling bristlebroom, it's not important enough to make the evening news.

*

Every night, Rorschach turns up the heat in Daniel's room, lets him sweat the chemicals out of his system. He doesn't know how to operate the washing machine downstairs – the coin-ops at the laundromat down the street are much simpler – so he just keeps replacing the damp, stinking sheets with fresh ones, all the while wondering why someone who lives alone has so many sets of fresh bedding stashed away. Has a guest room that's never used with an attached bathroom that's always stocked. Has four chairs at his kitchen table.

And every morning, Daniel comes around with a look of surprise on his face, thrilled at waking in an unfamiliar bed and surrounded by walls he doesn't recognize, watched over by a stranger. Rorschach has stopped bothering to introduce himself, because it doesn't last the day; rarely lasts an hour, and the memory will come back on its own when it's ready. He knows how to make oatmeal, the instant kind, and learns how to manage toast. Daniel never complains about the lack of variety.

The day Daniel looks at him with those quietly sympathetic eyes emptied out and vacant, tells him he can see the past hanging on him and asks if he wants to shed any of it away, it's all Rorschach can do to walk away before that blackened eye becomes one of a matched set. It's not really his partner he's angry at anyway, but he's the nearest target to hand and that's a dangerous situation.

When he comes back an hour later, Daniel has forgotten him again. This time, the wall is a good enough target, and the plaster gives more easily than he'd expected.

*

[The noise is frightening but it doesn't frighten him, is a threat that doesn't feel like one. Pulse pounding through his veins is an alien sensation now but he can almost bring it back, muscle memory and nerve memory and the memory of every drop of blood, spinning through him in concert–]

[Punches thrown and punches taken and it's violent, that hidden place in the high rafters of his mind. He shies away.]

*

"You're so nice, " Daniel muses one morning, nibbling on the corner of a piece of toast, staring blankly at the calendar on the wall. It hasn't been changed over, but he doesn't seem to notice.

The canister of coffee Rorschach's holding hits the counter, hard. A long silence, only uncomfortable on one end.

"No, " Rorschach finally says, spinning to snatch the toast away, slap it down onto the plate. There's no rhyme or reason here; he's just had it. "I'm not nice."

Daniel stares, bewildered.

"Difficult," Rorschach continues, and it's really not regret he feels slipping into his voice, coloring it in jagged spikes. It's not. "Critical. Argumentative. Never nice.”

One hand reaches for the toast, hesitant. There's so much childlike apprehension on his face now that it's all Rorschach can do to hiss through his teeth and turn back to the coffee. When he sets two mugs down on the table and slides into the chair facing Daniel, he has to will his hands to stay on the edge of the tabletop where he's put them, to not wind into Daniel's shirtfront and shake him. He remembers Mason's advice; has been ignoring it for a week, and has made no progress and maybe...

It's out before he can stop it: "They were, though. Weren't they."

Daniel looks up from his toast. "Who?"

"The people where you were. They were nice to you. Filled some..." He pauses, and the phrase is handled carefully, like a particularly disgusting creature pulled, all jointed legs and slime, from under the refrigerator. "...emotional need?"

No answer immediately, Daniel regarding him with a look that says he doesn't quite understand the question. Then, "...they listened to me sometimes."

He remembers this, from the long nights of note-taking; them cornering Daniel about his past, his childhood. His father. Rorschach had always assumed his partner to have had a perfectly normal childhood, maybe filled out with material excess where a parent's time might have been stretched too thin to pay constant attention, but still stable. Had never imagined the rejection Daniel had spoken so freely of with this stranger, never pictured him thrown out, sleeping in the yard, practically excommunicated from his own blood – but then, he'd never asked, had he?

Listening isn't just listening. It's being willing to ask, too, and wanting to hear the answer.

"Daniel..." Rorschach says, trailing off, mouth working under the mask. He wants to say that Daniel can tell him these things, that he won't judge, but he doesn't honestly know how true it is and right now, the last thing this twisted and folded mind needs is more lies. "...know I've been judgmental in the past," he finally settles on, forming the words carefully. It’s distasteful, but it has to be done. "I’ll try not to be from now on, if there are things you need to say."

And the simple apprehension doesn't fade, but there's something there inside of it now, trying to show itself through the cracks; something like longing, but being unsure what it is that's longed for. "That would be nice," he says, quiet, breaking off another corner of toast.

*

Late that night, Rorschach scrambles through his notes, for once infuriated at his own poor handwriting; for all the years he's spent nose-first in one journal or another, jotting down every thought that occurred, he's never had to reread any of it. Buried somewhere under the mission notes, comings and goings, minutes of the meetings Daniel had attended, theories and conjectures as to their motives and means – some side notes there, known organ trafficking rings in the continental U.S. – he finds a thick sheaf of yellow lined paper.

Conversation transcripts. Logs, basically, of both the mundane and the deeply personal, every word spoken by or to his friend during his incarceration. If there's really anything to what Mason said, and it's starting to look likely, no matter how it chafes to admit it, this is the place to start looking.

Red pen in hand, he starts reading – but after three hours and two complete runs through the stack, one lead after another fixed on and then abandoned, he has to face it. There's nothing there. Whatever need Daniel'd been feeling so acutely in those long tunnels, dark underground spaces with both their voices hollowed and distorted and far away, he didn't speak a word of it aloud, to anyone.

*

[A dream: Thick feathered wings, heavy in the air as they beat against gravity, against entropy, against the shape all the world wants to take. On the ground, he's alone, and sometimes there's blood on his hands and sometimes there isn't and there's someone just on the edge of sight who could help him figure out why it won't stay away but the figure is always shifting, black on white or white on black, always moving just out of reach.]

[The sound of wings is deafening.]

*

"This is your house," he says for what must be the twentieth time, gloved hangs slung heavily across his knees. In the bed, Daniel is clinging to the sheets in something like terror; had been shocked, today, to wake up in a strange new place. It hurts to see but it's probably a good sign that the giddy elation is fading. "Daniel. You're safe here."

"Don't know you," he says, the distrust obvious in his tone and after days of Daniel blandly accepting a stranger in his space without so much as a narrowed glance, welcome.

"You don't trust me."

"...no."

Under the mask something that might have been a smile, in some other life. "Good."

Daniel's face creases up in confusion. "You don't want me to–"

"As long as you don't know me, then no."

*

He's still and quiet on the landing, head tilted to the side; behind framed glass, a blown-up photograph of a barn owl in flight, stooping towards some prey hidden by the wintry landscape. Daniel's reflection is superimposed over it, glasses another set of mirrors, back and back and back.

"You took that," Rorschach says from behind him, quiet. "Trip to Vermont. Talked about it for weeks afterward. Annoying."

Daniel lifts one hand, runs it down the frame and splays it over the glass, breaking the chain of reflections. It curls into a fist. "I can't remember," he says. "Why can't – what's it going after?"

Rorschach rolls his shoulders in a loose approximation of a shrug. "Mouse maybe. Think that's what they eat."

Narrowed eyes. "But you can't..."

"It's there." One hand settles awkwardly onto Daniel's shoulder; he doesn't flinch out from under it. Some sense of familiarity is returning, but it's still so vague, so deep. "Wouldn't go after nothing."

They're both reflecting now, hard edges all subsumed by the white. Rorschach's mask is half pushed up, and he hasn't bothered with the hat inside for days now, or the gloves; Daniel's hand clasps down over his and it's uncomfortable and possessive but he allows it. He thinks of the safety of underground places.

He thinks of snow.

*

[It's cold but he's bundled against it, thick puffy coat making him feel out of proportion, like a child again. Wool scarf, wool hat, wool gloves, fingers peeled back so that the camera doesn't slip from his hands and those bare fingertips are red and aching in the iced-over air, like his face is, like his toes are even inside the boots.]

[A shape splits the air, white and dark and deadly, and he can suddenly smell machine oil and iron and worn leather, hovering just inside his senses.]

[Click, goes the shutter, and the moment's his.]

*

Daniel's shaking and breathing hard, rough. He's almost sobbing; holding it back with a child's determination to not cry, to never cry. The most coherent thing Rorschach's been able to get out of him is that he's remembering some of their cases, the very worst ones, the ones where they arrived too late and someone was hurt or killed and there was nothing for them to do but hover in silence and then turn away, part paths, go each their separate ways to whatever passed for home on those nights.

There'd always been something shifting there, behind the goggles, in the instant before Rorschach turned his back–

He's holding onto Daniel now, slumped at the base of his stairs, warm yellow light from the kitchen casting a deceptively comforting glow across them. It's a terrible thing to have come back first, without the greater context of all the cases they've worked to success, all the lives they have saved. The people they've sent away with a smile and gratitude. The nights that make the life worth it. It's a terrible thing to remember but it's still a memory, is something he'd shoved down under the layers of drugs and denial and the calm voices telling him it was okay to forget, fighting back to the surface.

Daniel thrashes in his arms, eyes shut tight, a reedy sound working its way up his throat, and Rorschach knows: blood washes out of clothes and off of armor and skin, but there is a deepness beyond that, beyond muscle and bone and the shields they set up to protect themselves, and he should not have ever walked away.

*

It's an easy thing, from that huddled, dark place, to move on to holding Daniel not because he needs it but because he simply wants it, asks for it, hands tugging and pulling at his sleeve in a gesture that constantly forgets itself. The drugs are long since out of his system now, his pupils returned to normal and responsive to the light Rorschach shines into them twice a day, and the night sweats have subsided. He can form new memories, and some of the old ones are coming back – he remembers Rorschach's name, remembers what the mask is and that it shouldn't frighten him, remembers the feel of bare, nailbitten hands and why he wants it – but others are maddeningly out of reach, visible only from the corner of vision.

When Daniel narrows his eyes, trying to reach out and grab hold, Rorschach can see them dissolve like day-old dreams and slip clear through his fingers, and it aches.

*

[Blood and flight, intertwined, like the gory ascent of the owl with its prey in claws and it's always his hands that crust and crack with it, that swim with it like spinning and morphing blackness in the eerie half light of the dash, but he can't put them around what he wants and owls don't hunt in pairs anyway.]

[He sees a half-face, emerging from shadow, and it's his fathermothersistermentorfriendpartner and it's none of them, it's nobody at all.]

*

Days and nights and days and nights. Daniel shakes in his sleep sometimes, and in the vigil he can't afford to keep, Rorschach leans over him, tries to steady him against the tearing-down his mind's pushing through, getting rid of what's false, making room for what's real. Tries to understand even a word of what he's saying; mumbled entreaties too full of shame and secrecy to ever make it into language. Sometimes...

Sometimes.

*

["I never thought–" he says, and he's not sure if it's a daydream or a memory or a fantasy, but he's lying crosswise on his bed and his head is pillowed on an uncomfortable lap, all jutting bone and hard muscle. A hand touches his hair, pulls away.]

["I thought you wouldn't–" he starts, but he never finishes because sleep is dragging him either down or up, and he doesn't know which is which or whether he's dreaming or awake but something electric jumps from the fingers to his scalp and it's like every dream he's ever had are piling up on one another, bunching and lifting like cars in a massive wreck, layering and twisting together but god, they aren't dreams, they're–]

[And he's–]

*

A flicker of eyes moving beneath closed eyelids, casting about grotesquely under flesh like something alien and disgusting but he just settles his hand back down, feels something in the skin like acceptance–

*

[And it all makes so much sense–]

*
*
*

Rorschach's drifted off somehow, because it's past dawn before he's aware again, the blinds still open from the night before and something cold and uncomfortable in the winter sunlight glaring through the glass. He straightens up from where he'd slumped against the headboard, rubs his eyes through the mask. Upsets the weight across his legs in the motion, and how did he end up–

He freezes, an animal sort of paralysis. Looks down at Daniel, still dozing lightly; is immediately unsure whether to extricate himself and save his dignity or stay exactly where he is and let him sleep a little longer. It’s an embarrassing position to be in but Daniel’s nights have been so restless, calm like this so rare, and it feels like something bigger than any of that is hovering this morning, waiting to drop on them like a cloudburst.

So he stays still, and waits, and waits. And as soon as Daniel opens his eyes, Rorschach sees the change in them immediately – a filtering in of careful recognition, an easy comfort, and it might still just be wishful thinking. But then Daniel blinks up at the mask, narrows his eyes curiously and it’s so like himself that Rorschach can't do anything for a moment but stare, shifting his hand through the soft hair, reaching around underneath to cradle the back of his friend’s head like something perfect and precious.

Intact.

"If you ask me what happened," he growls after a long moment, leaning down closer than he usually would. "I will break your hand."

Daniel smiles then, and laughs and laughs, and Rorschach bunches his mask up and runs the back of his hand over his mouth. Breathes against it, rough and shaky.

The moment hangs, refuses to sink in, but he doesn't push away.

*

Tags:

Comments

( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
sepulchre_angel
Feb. 1st, 2010 04:59 am (UTC)
I KNEW IT WAS YOU!! :D

Or. Okay. Rather, I suspected it was you. Particularly at the end. Your prose has a very poetic and emotional vibe to it that's so muted and striking that it fit. I wasn't sure 'til now, obviously. XD Anyways, I really liked this story and especially the arc everyone was forced to go through for everything to go out okay. Awesome story!! XD
etherati
Feb. 1st, 2010 05:11 am (UTC)
Ahaha pretty much everything I post anon to KM, someone figures out immediately, so I'm not too surprised. XD

And thank you, really. I was trying really hard to avoid over the top angst in the ending bit, or over the top HOORAY in the very end; just keep it kind of mellow and reflective. So glad it worked out okay :3
housespetpeeve
Feb. 1st, 2010 07:37 am (UTC)
haha everytime you post i literally have to stop myself from dancing. you're a writing god and once again have convinced me that nothing is more beautiful than rorschach/dan--- thank you for being amazing ( lol sorry all my lurking has compiled into one big fangirl drool fest)
etherati
Feb. 1st, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
And this story wasn't even particularly slashy! (Well, okay, some ust leaks into basically everything I write for them, but it wasn't blatant) It really is a beautiful thing.

Thank you <3
steals_thyme
Feb. 1st, 2010 01:05 pm (UTC)
Difficult," Rorschach continues, and it's really not regret he feels slipping into his voice, coloring it in jagged spikes. It's not. "Critical. Argumentative. Never nice.”

And that's why we love him!

I really enjoyed reading Dan's steady descent into a pod-person, and Rorschach's response to it: I feel like he was frustrated and angry about it right up until the end, then with the last couple of paragraphs you show us just how completely terrified he was, and that he's finally let himself feel it now that he knows it's all going to be okay.

Also, laughing forever at Rorschach not being able to read his own handwriting :D
etherati
Feb. 1st, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
Need little bits of lightness mixed in with the dire, I figure XD

But yeah, he had to get to a point of actually showing that fear - not just anger and annoyance which are his standard MO and part of the reason for the distance between them - to really latch on and provide the level of connection that Dan needed to pull out of it. Something worth coming back for, as it were. And I'm so, so happy with the ending.

<3
tuff_ghost
Feb. 1st, 2010 08:10 pm (UTC)
Look, it's fanart!

http://kandagawagufu.livejournal.com/7867.html

Apparently it was the horrifying thought of hair loss that finally dragged Dan back to reality
etherati
Feb. 1st, 2010 09:06 pm (UTC)
Yeeeeah I somehow doubt that's actually fanart for this. XD
(Anonymous)
Feb. 1st, 2010 09:27 pm (UTC)
The mattress smells like old sweat, and he supposes he isn't mean to notice. This sentence is missing it's 'T.'

Your writing is always beautifully poetic and just pleasing to read. You always make me smile when I see that you've posted something new.

Thank you for all the wonderful stories.
etherati
Feb. 1st, 2010 09:49 pm (UTC)
Fixed!

And thank you! I'm glad people are enjoying them <3
lampsh4de
Feb. 1st, 2010 11:57 pm (UTC)
Ohman, you are such a fantastic writer. *Flail* It gets me every time.
That cult was terrifying. :O I have a love/hate relationship with memory loss... It can be so angsty. But this is perfect. The end made me feel all warm and fuzzy and full of Dan/Ror goodness.
etherati
Feb. 2nd, 2010 01:27 am (UTC)
Memory loss can be done in a really cliche way and it gets annoying sometimes, but I tried to specifically make it not so much loss as a deliberate burying, gradually unearthable with the right tools, rather then OH HEY I WOKE UP WITH MY MEMORY BACK AWESOME.

And yes, that cult is pretty scary. D:

Thank you!
daylilymoon
Feb. 2nd, 2010 05:32 am (UTC)
Gah. The language. THE LANGUAGE. Always so gorgeous to the point of being nearly tactile. Dan emerging from the land of the lost was done at just the right pace.
(Anonymous)
Feb. 2nd, 2010 05:52 am (UTC)
Haha thank you, as always <3

And I'm glad; I was unsure on the timing, as much as I liked the actual scene itself.
etherati
Feb. 2nd, 2010 05:52 am (UTC)
ME ^^^
SIIIIIIIGH
i_am_your_spy
Feb. 2nd, 2010 11:12 pm (UTC)
I think you're just determined to hit all of my fic kinks, including the ones I didn't know I had. Not that I'm complaining.
etherati
Feb. 3rd, 2010 12:36 am (UTC)
Blame the KM, seriously; it's very very good at unearthing fic kinks. XD And thanks!
streetcake
Feb. 3rd, 2010 03:29 am (UTC)
all the while wondering why someone who lives alone has so many sets of fresh bedding stashed away. Has a guest room that's never used with an attached bathroom that's always stocked. Has four chairs at his kitchen table.

Reading this story had me all anxious and giddy, but THIS^ made my heart drop into my stomach like a rock dropped in a deep dark lonely well. Probably because it's too depressingly close to home; and Dan is the nicest guy in the world, so it's unfair that he has to be that lonely :C But the end was so warm and fuzzy, it took away a little of the hurt(unless I start thinking about 1975, then it makes it worse.)
Also, there's never enough talk about Dan and his father really duking it out in fanfics, and this interpretation was particularly cruel, so that made me happy :)
etherati
Feb. 5th, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
Yeah, Dan being lonely and cut off from most normal human connections is the big thing in this - it's why he WAS so vulnerable to them where ror wouldn't have been, since while ror's just as cut off, he doesn't feel the need for those kinds of connections anywhere near as acutely. It's also a vulnerability ror wouldn't have noticed/picked up on, before beginning the plan, because it's not something that would have occurred to him; even pointed out to him straight up, all he could think was that he was a good partner - because he keeps dan from getting killed, and isn't that what he's supposed to do?

Ramble, sorry. But yeah. It's very sad. And I always thought that Dan was consciously toning down a bit in the GN about his father; it seems like a valid premise that later guilt over having treated him THIS badly might have been what compelled him to include him in the inheritance.

Also: Thank you! <3
snake_easing
Feb. 16th, 2010 03:09 am (UTC)
That was soft and beautiful. I love it.
etherati
Feb. 16th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I was trying really hard by the end to have it end up as something softer and quieter and less... sensationalistic, even if that's how it started out. Damage done is always dramatic but undoing the damage should be slow and careful and include cuddles if possible.
snake_easing
Feb. 17th, 2010 01:01 am (UTC)
Mmm... You must be right. It's hard for recovery stories to work in the commercial market because people always try to press a climax into the end of them. Recoveries don't end with a climax.
wednesday42
Jun. 25th, 2011 04:29 am (UTC)
*picks this fic up and cuddles it*

I know I commented on this back on the Kinkmeme. The gods would have stricken me dead if I didn't, because this is wonderful.

I love that you have Hollis in this, and he gets to be the one to tell Rorschach what's what. :) Your descriptions, as always, are beautiful even when describing such nightmarish things, and will always keep me coming back. ♥
etherati
Jun. 29th, 2011 07:46 pm (UTC)
I love love love the fanony idea that Rorschach used to (pre roche at least) look up to and respect the older heroes, and I especially love it where Hollis is concerned. There's just something so satisfying about that kind of interaction.

*hugs* thank you. :)
peoriapeoria
Jun. 26th, 2011 12:42 pm (UTC)
You excavated their brokens and shown how it's similar grain in reflection.

Dan to come back needed to feel not the hero worship he has for Hollis, the surrogate good father, but rather the 'we have feet of clay and reach for stars' fellowship he has with Rorschach.

Thanks for sharing!
etherati
Jun. 29th, 2011 07:48 pm (UTC)
Hollis's regard for him was important, but it wasn't what was lacking, you know? What he wanted/needed with Rorschach - whether you read it as slashy or not - is what was missing.

Thank you so much for reading. :)
( 26 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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