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FIC: Between the Brushstrokes - [17/?]

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

*

This austere room on the 60th floor is not used to things like drawers slamming shut in frustration or expensive shoes treading heavy and careless over the fragile nap of antique rugs. But then, it isn't used to knives and ricocheting bullets and the cold choke of fear, either. It's been a peaceful, quiet place for a very long time.

He's in too much of a rush to think about it, to decide whether it'd been too long or not long enough. In the old days, when life was lived case by case and illogical, protocol-shattering decisions were often hailed as heroic, a low-paid security officer planted in front of a dozen monitors might have thought twice – maybe three times – before blowing the whistle on a man like Adrian Veidt.

These aren't the old days.

"Damn it," Adrian mutters, pulling open another drawer, already knowing how useless it is. The words feel wrong and unfamiliar on his tongue, coarse, but if years of disuse has rust-roughened all his old smooth edges, this isn't the time to worry about it. He has bigger concerns – namely, the fact that his security keys are gone. Not misplaced, not mislaid. Gone.

Taken.

There are times when, irrationally, he finds himself missing Bubastis more than any other aspect of the world as it was before. Often it's moments like these, when her steady protectiveness would have kept strange hands out of his possessions. Just as often it's been when loneliness has managed to creep up past the programming and leave him with a phantom feeling of smooth fur and warmth under his hand, of the one connection he'd ever really made. He does not miss his parents, or his employees, or any of the beautiful people he'd whispered strangeness to in the dark every now and again, but he does miss his girl.

Which is ludicrous; it's been ten years, and in the city's cemeteries, the bones and ash of three million rattle against his blasphemy. The silenced voices of everyone left behind join them.

He stops moving for a moment, propping closed eyes against his fingers: calm, recenter. He has a plan, and nothing good comes of panic or rash action or fixating on things that cannot be changed. It's been too long since he's had to do this, since he's had to act outside the lines or outsmart anyone, but he should still be able to manage it.

His eyes ache, lit red against black by the daylight.

When he opens them, his pacing has brought him to the picture window overlooking the street below, the survivors of his three million, and his hand goes to the glass without thought. He traces the paths of the crowd before it dissipates completely away, shuttering inside of offices and shops, away from the sun. Complete, utter clockwork, mindless in its efficiency.

Deformed, he thinks, as if he's looking at an animal bred for such precise perfection that it's become a monstrosity, and an echo of old dreams informs him that the accusation had been meant for another voice but had never made it to the air. A lot of things that never quite happened have haunted him and this city with the persistence of real memory in all the days and nights and years since 1985, made them remember what almost was or almost wasn't, bleeding together.

Right now though, actual reality is closing in on more fronts than he can count, slipping tight a great many nooses. One of them is right here, and he can almost feel the burn of the rope.

"Fine," Adrian mumbles, pushing away from the glass, talking halfway to himself and halfway to all the watching eyes, to the brains that they don't quite connect to. Fine, forget the keys; they may have been useful later but they won't be necessary, and he doesn't see himself coming back here again anyway. The more possibilities prepared for the better, but there's a fine line of sanity it can cross and he only has twenty minutes left to get out.

He scoops a sheaf of documents from his desk, a few prepared floppy disks from his top drawer, and the hooded coat from the back of his chair.

He hits the staircase like he's going into freefall.

*

He knows that they ran for it the moment the charges went off; it's standard protocol and they do this at least once a month, twice when the weather's amenable.

It's still March, by only a few days, and the weather could have used some improvement.

He knows they ran, and usually the fleet-footed volunteers he sends on these missions make it out without a scratch. But food's been poor lately and morale dipping, and the metal stairwells snaking up the bare side of the building are still slick with last night's rain – and sometimes things just don't go to goddamned plan.

Donnelly watches through heavy overland binoculars as Campbell goes down first, then Park a second behind. Even if the other two stand a good chance of making it – and they do, both vaulting the last set of steps like the height is nothing and beating the pavement well ahead of the bullets – the damage is already done.

He closes his eyes behind the glass. In his mind, he's slipping down into a deep, familiar hole, darker than any of these last ten years. All of his lost men and women are here, and they aren't angry.

"Better be worth it," he mumbles under his breath, thin and desperate and it can only be to himself because there is no one else here to watch any of them fall.

*

They say that walking, running – they're just a continuous thread of controlled falls. Right now he believes it, as they plunge through the north facility, crash against its walls and seep into its cracks, building momentum and groundswell with every opened cell.

He tries to remember the last time he'd had a hero's hand in his own; tries, through some streak of masochism, to bring back those lost and painful years from the beginning of memory, but he'd been helpless then and they're all anything but now, and it's all dropping away. Every new pair of eyes alights on him as if he were the hero, and maybe he is. Maybe they all are.

Their movement is as inexorable as gravity.

*

"Hey, Dan," she says when he makes it to the bars, something ghostlike about her voice or maybe adrenaline's just dumbed and numbed his nerves, his hearing. It's weary and relieved and a little sarcastic, and there's a bit of 'fancy meeting you here' mixed in, but there's nothing flirtatious about it. Dan's grateful, the part of him that can only focus on the immediacy of Now, because Rorschach already looks like the floor's dropped out from under him, like he's falling through the world. He looks physically ill.

"Didn't realize you were here," Dan says by way of greeting, with a relieved smile and one hand pressed supportively between the trenchcoat's shoulders, hidden from sight. He's eying between them and he knows how obvious it is that he wants to say more, ask questions, but none of them need to say it aloud: there'll be time for talking, for acknowledging each other's existence and the time that's passed,

(Ten years, and the thought twists, ugly, at the detached way she's regarding him. May old acquaintance be forgot.)

and that time is not now, no matter how much the delay stings. If he's honest with himself, he doesn't even really know what he'd want to say.

So he just stoops to pick up the key ring; reaches to pull Rorschach's hand back out of the air and press the keys into it. Addressing him now, careful and slow, the other hand on his shoulder. "Hey, you okay? You got this?"

A brief pause, like the onionskin unraveling of seconds. Then Rorschach snaps into motion, sorting through the keys with a mindless efficiency and it's like the goddamned mask is back, face blank and blank and blank. "Yes, Nite Owl," he growls, and the softer tone he's affected recently is gone. "Have it under control."

And he does, but Dan still watches for just a second as he seats the key and starts punching the digits in; meets Laurie's eyes over his shoulder and even now, after ten years and hardships he can only guess at, there is a curiosity scrabbling to the surface.

Then urgency overrides the desire to linger, and he nods – to which of them he's not sure – and turns back to his side of the hall, his own key ring already running through his fingers as he approaches another lock, another door, another set of watching faces. Now is not the time to talk, or think, or consider the web of cause and effect, or wonder at the way his life keeps cycling the same people back to him, over and over. A familiar slouched back against his kitchen chair, highlighted in the scratch of pencil over paper; eyes across an expanse of iron bars, older but no less recognizable.

Distantly, he hears the sliding scrape of the door thrown open, and hushed voices, and the metallic clanking of handcuffs being worked open. Everything here echoes, gaudy and loud. Everything is larger than life.

Now is not the time to lose focus.

*

Of course, just because it's a bad time to focus on something doesn't mean it's not there, and a need for silence doesn't preclude there being things that need saying. These are circumstances that leave things to fester, chasms to gape, and a single stumbled step to roll into a fullfledged backslide. He can see Rorschach shutting down already, slipping to the place he'd spent a decade in, skirting the edges of Dan's life but always just out of reach.

And still, there's not a damn thing he can do about it right now - not until they reach the end of the hallway and Dan checks the timestamp in his goggles and realizes that they only have ten minutes left. They're more than ten minutes from any exit, and this isn't going to be an easy escape no matter how quickly they do this. Up ahead, there are guards, and Laurie moves with a soldier's grace and a soldier's practicality, efficiency in every motion, and he can still see her in the tenement fire, in the alley, always moving, up and over and through. Moving like he and Rorschach both used to, before time weighed down one and broke the other.

Apparently, what breaks one blade only hones another.

Nearby, his partner is fighting mechanically, like he can't feel where he is all of a sudden. He's being too rough, too violent, and Dan can remember all too clearly what it sounded like the first time he saw Rorschach put someone on the ground for good. He can hear the words coming out of his own mouth, a month ago, ten years ago: He was normal once. Over the years, the mask's eaten his brain, and what business had it been of Laurie's? Why had he felt the need to-

He was normal once.

A grunt and a snap of bone and the tussle's over, but there will be more on the way, there are always more on the way. Soon, they'll be showing up armed, and what then?

This entire thing is crazy, in more ways than one.

"Hey," he says, switching off the chronometer, reaching out on impulse to snag Rorschach by the shoulder, pull him away from the crowd before they have a chance to regather their wits and start counting heads. He swings them both around a square concrete pillar, out of sight, so fast that even the sharp, trained people they're traveling these halls with will have missed it, though he expects no such obliviousness from Laurie. At the moment, he doesn't care; this descent has to be halted, because he's been doing so much better and that can't have been Dan's imagination, can't have been wishful thinking. "We don't really have time here, but..."

Rorschach just stares up at him, challenging, but when Dan reaches up to run the knuckles of his glove over the hard, sharp angle of his cheekbone, he doesn't pull away.

"I just wanted to make sure you-"

"Understand," Rorschach says, and the gravel is still there but it's tempered. Dan doesn't know what exactly he's claiming to understand or if he really does, but then something in the dull eyes softens and he leans incrementally into the touch and the glimmer of vulnerability hurts, stings at Dan like the ground wasps of his New England autumns, drunk on their own deaths and unpredictable for it. Something has been dying here, since the moment the mask peeled away too wet on the inside, and everything snaps back into focus all at once. It all makes perfect sense.

Dan closes his eyes behind the goggles. Takes a breath, opens them, and drops the hand down to squeeze at Rorschach's arm. He wants to say Whatever else is going on here, I've got you or Don't worry, you're the only one I want like this but the first goes without saying and he's not entirely sure the second's true and doesn't have time for all the explanations and qualifiers that would make it true, so he settles for a nod and a smile he can feel through his whole body, and it'll have to be enough to last until later.

Then they are back in the fray, back to back and shoulder to shoulder, determined to work as much progress out of these last ten minutes as they can and face whatever comes as it does; the pattern of every mission and patrol they've ever been on. Dan can feel the years lift away, their weight and disappointment and fear dissipating.

From the corner of his eye, Rorschach moves like water.

*

In the end, the escape goes more smoothely than Dan had been expecting. It's a fight, and there are a few close calls and a few scares but Laurie's still fast and Dan's fully armored and while Rorschach's suitcoat and trench are going to need some holes patched, the vest under them holds. There are a few casualties but it's nowhere near the bloodbath he's been envisioning.

"Come on," he says, tugging Rorschach still winded and dizzy across the prison yard, out onto the street, one arm threaded around his back. He digs in his pouches with his free hand, comes up with six maps with six different routes that he hands out at random to the crowd around him as they all move together, not stopping to see who's taking them.

"Everybody take as many others as you can, try to split up evenly." There's still gunfire echoing behind them, getting closer, and he can hear the desperate hysteria in his own voice, breaking in time to Rorschach's steps next to him. It's a close cousin to laughter, all the mirth stripped away. "We'll see you when we all get there."

So as the crowd moves its size diminishes, each group splitting off where it needs to, and elsewhere he can only hope that the others are dividing their groups in the same way. Short 10:30 breaks are starting all over the city and he understands why they'd insisted on nine in the morning; the usual crowd masks theirs, gives them time to manage some distance.

Laurie doesn't disappear with any of the left and right turns and divergences; just hauls a few strangers behind her and sticks close to Dan and Rorschach and the path they're carving through the city's back alleys.

It's a while before Dan realizes that he's bouncing a little with each step even as they're technically skulking, rocking one fist back and forth to let off nervous energy. He's excited, about their success and the low number of losses and the utterly professional way they'd all handled that last round of guards, but he doesn't want to say anything about it to either Rorschach or Laurie – Rorschach who'd just tell him to wait until it's over to call it, and Laurie who's spent the last however many years in a prison cell and who is probably not in the mood for his exuberance.

She still notices, and when she elbows him in the ribs it's not as playful as it used to be but the pretense is there. "What are you so happy about?"

"We won," he says, grinning under the goggles, letting the words drop like the rest of the statement's obvious: we won, almost no one got hurt, and now everything's going to be okay – except that it isn't, they're a long way from that, and he knows it. On his other side, Rorschach grunts derisively, because he knows it too.

It's obvious from the expression on Laurie's face that she knows it just as well and is about to say so, so he tosses his free arm over her shoulder; she stiffens under it like Rorschach used to do. Dan ignores it. "Yeah, I know it's not over. But we've got a chance, right?"

"Against the world? You really think so?"

"That doesn't sound like someone who got thrown in jail for fighting the good fight," Dan says, narrowing his eyes. Behind them, their group moves through the phalanx of businessmen and shift workers like they belong; this cover strategy clearly predates their imprisonment. Laurie doesn't answer for long enough that he starts to realize just how tactless he can be, this hopped up on adrenaline.

"And what makes you think I was fighting the good fight?" she asks, after the moment stretches just a bit too long.

"Because I know you."

She shakes her head, expression half amused in a way that the added lines and age reinterpret into something both familiar and not. "You know who I was."

"I still think I'm right," Dan says, tightening his arms. Next to him, Rorschach fidgets to be free of the grip, senses recovered enough now to manage without the support. Dan lets him go, but the distance between them doesn't change, still just narrow enough to barely get a slip of paper through.

Rorschach fingers the bulletholes in his coat as they walk, then reaches to straighten his hat. Interrupts with all the casual rudeness he's ever been capable of. "Have to agree. Never seemed particularly sincere in your claims to want a normal life, to avoid conflict. Likely a self-deception to make quitting feel less like quitting."

"And I see you're still an asshole."

An uninterpretable little noise. "People change less than they'd like to believe."

"People change as much as they want to," Dan interrupts, something warning in his tone, less sheepishly ineffectual than he'd been the last time he'd had to break these two up, more final. They're almost to their destination, but there's a traffic light and Dan reaches up to adjust the goggles; Rorschach slips the borrowed blacked-over lab glasses up out of what is now pure habit. Laurie eyes them curiously, doesn't say a word.

The light changes, and they cross without incident. The sound of gunfire has faded, has either stopped or is too far behind them now.

"You're late," Laurie says after a while, slipping out from under Dan's arm. "Jon said you'd be here a month ago. Not that I put much faith in the big blue ass when it came to important things, but dates he was usually pretty solid on."

"We ran into some trouble."

"Obviously." She gestures to Rorschach's eyegear, and that he'd need it in the face of something as relatively innocuous as the stop-go-stop of the traffic lights makes it pretty damn clear what kind of difficulties they'd stumbled into.

"Yeah, well," Dan says, unfolding the last map and double-checking. Laurie's being tactless and Rorschach's growling at being used as Visual Exhibit A, and Dan could almost laugh at the simple normalcy of it all. "The future doesn't exactly come with an instruction manual."

A turn here, another, and a straightaway. Windows speckle the alley walls, mostly closed.

"...yeah," Laurie finally says, quiet. "Even living through it, I could have used one of those. Nothing ever turns out like you expect, you know?"

"What were you expecting?" Rorschach reaches to push the goggles back down, and the actual curiosity in his voice is a little shocking. Dan's occupied with the navigating now, directing them around a sharp, blind corner, studying the route carefully, but he still manages to raise an eyebrow over the edge of the unfolded map.

Laurie shrugs, and it's stiff, nothing like the casual flippancy Dan remembers. "That the good guys would win, I guess. That I'd be able to–" She cuts herself off, shaking her head. "Whatever. It didn't happen, this did," and she waves one hand around for emphasis, "and who knows where we go now. Get it clear in your head though," she says, looking at Dan specifically. "We didn't 'win'. Not today. Probably won't ever. Take what you need from it, but don't get your hopes up."

Dan licks his lips, carefully refolding the map. Says nothing. Even Rorschach seems taken aback, and that's a tough feat.

"What?" she asks, and that half-amused smirk is back, and Dan's starting to remember where – and on who – he's seen it before. "Would you rather I sugar coat it?"

Rorschach shakes his head, pushes past them to the last corner; he'd been peering over Dan's shoulder, apparently.

"No," Dan says, "Of course not," but as they follow in Rorschach's path and come into full view of this blasted out refuge, nestled in the ruined remnants of countless old tenement buildings and swarming with thousands of people draped in the orange and dull grey of prison standard uniforms – feel the energy surging here, the reignited hope and the ballooning future and the sheer press of numbers – it certainly feels like a victory, like a day that can be called won.

*

---> Chapter 18

*

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
book_of_sail
Apr. 7th, 2010 08:17 pm (UTC)
YES! There is moooore~ I'm so sad, I can't actually read this yet. I have to go to a job interview. Boo, job! Don't you know that fics are a little more urgent? Sheesh.
But I wanted to say that I'm super excited that 17 is up! I shall dance, and have something to look forward to this evening.
marie_phantom
Apr. 7th, 2010 09:35 pm (UTC)
Good, Dan is sticking by Rorschach and now knows when he need reassurance. And Laurie had a personality transplant with Rorschach! Wohoo, I love this, and I hope that we don't have to wait so long between updates. You are on a role here, keep going!
etherati
Apr. 11th, 2010 11:18 pm (UTC)
I'm trying, it's just hard to find the time to write, you know?

Personality transplant XD YES

Thanks <3
book_of_sail
Apr. 8th, 2010 01:27 am (UTC)
Proper squeeing
Huzzah~! Of course, I love this just as much as all the chapters prior. What a lovely way to end the evening. I'm super excited about the outcome of the jailbreak, I have no idea why. Kind of feels like a threshold. Either that, or you're just really great at conveying Dan's exuberance.
I do feel bad for Rory though, with his mini breakdown during all the fighting. Or maybe not a breakdown so much as a regression? Either way, I was really wanting Dan to go over and hug him or something. Hopefully there will be hugging later.

Much as it pains me to see Laurie being (slightly) disagreeable, I can still appreciate that her attitude is totally accurate to her situation. Of course she wouldn't be flowers and cuddles and sticky pink pleasantries after ten years of who-knows-what. It's kind of hard to picture her like this. But then again, this is a hard future. You're so great at conveying the atmosphere of where and when they are, and all the emotional layers of the characters. Even after the massive plethora of fics I've read lately, this one still wins out above all others~
etherati
Apr. 11th, 2010 11:18 pm (UTC)
Re: Proper squeeing
He does need a hug, and will get one later, but stopping to dispense hugs mid-jailbreak is probably ill advised.

Of course she wouldn't be flowers and cuddles and sticky pink pleasantries after ten years of who-knows-what.

I'm not entirely sure if Laurie was EVER flowers and cuddles and sticky pink pleasantries XD Maybe when she was six, though maybe not even then. But yeah she's definitely been hardened by her experiences.

Thank you!
jack_infinitude
Apr. 11th, 2010 10:30 pm (UTC)
I have no words for this incredible chapter. I am on tenterhooks now.
etherati
Apr. 11th, 2010 11:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I hope at some point I actually manage to resolve all this tension haha.
archelongirl
Jul. 13th, 2011 10:44 pm (UTC)
and that half-amused smirk is back, and Dan's starting to remember where – and on who – he's seen it before.

Holy shit, this.

(All of it, really <3)
( 8 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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