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FIC: Between the Brushstrokes - [18/?]

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: R this part, PG-13 in general, some language. Philosophy, violence, twilight zone bullshit, time travel, pretentious metaphors, and Waffle House.
Notes: Yet ANOTHER kinkmeme prompt. Post-GN fixit. In progress.

*

”These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.”


*

It takes Dan about ten minutes of aimless wandering to realize that this is not just a temporary meeting place for the freed resistants. The numbers in prison clothes are overwhelming but not exclusive; others wander amongst them, handing out changes of clothing and pointing out locations in what is gradually revealing itself as yet another camp, lost to entropy but starting to come back together. Two of the children from yesterday wander carefully past him, no longer in a rush, and it strikes Dan that they must be as unfamiliar with this place as he is.

"Too young to remember," Laurie says, a note of sympathy finally making it unto her voice. "We haven't used this place in years."

Dan nods, distantly. There's a lot he's still trying to slot into place here. Over their heads there's an arch of metal sheeting, closing over the entire valley between broken buildings. Infrared shielded, like the other camp, if he had to guess.

"Why did you move?" he asks, not bothering to conceal the childish wonder at the scope of the place. It's big, five times the size of what he's seen, and everywhere he looks he can see the broken in footprints of the structures that used to be services, homes. Industrious, people are already working to get them standing again, hauling scrapmetal up into precarious card-houses.

Laurie shrugs. "Beats me, I was already locked up."

"We didn't need the space, after they started imprisoning resistants indiscriminately," comes a severe, chastising voice from behind them, and it's Donnelly, snuck up as silently as any vigilante. Dan is the only one who jumps.

"Shit," Laurie says, but it's halfhearted. "That was my fault, wasn't it?"

"Afraid so," Donnelly says, all seriousness, then breaks the act to smile broadly. "But it was worth the attempt. How have you been?"

"In jail," she says, and Dan hears Rorschach snort behind him, something close to laughter. "How do you think?"

His smile relaxes, even if there is a sadness in it. "I think we’re glad to have you back."

*

Rorschach breaks away when he can – Daniel and Juspeczyk are engaged running over the mission results with Donnelly, casualties here and casualties there and what it all adds up to in the morning. He's not comfortable enough around people to be able to say he wants to be here in the churning midst of them, but he'd had a twitch to wander and he's gradually realizing that there's rarely any harm in indulging these impulses.

Tables and benches are coming together around the periphery, piles of donated clothing gathering there and they're old, moth-eaten castoffs but the former prisoners seem eager to make the exchange regardless, get out of the prison greys, and that is something he understands.

He walks on, and somewhere between the clothing exchange and what his nose tells him is the new kitchen, his battle-honed instincts fail and he's ambushed – by a swarm of overexcited children, who tug at his sleeves and look up at him with imploring eyes.

"What," he growls, after a long moment.

A careful silence, then the oldest boy blurts it out, spokesman for them all. "Tell us what happened? We've never heard about a real jailbreak."

One of the younger ones, a girl, giggles and chews on her own smile. "Yeah," she says, and her enunciation is poor. "Tell us a story."

Another stretch of silence, six pairs of eyes gazing up balefully. Rorschach scans the crowd; sees no one he recognizes, and crouches to eye level with his captors. His voice drops, loses the growl, becomes conspiratorial. "Who told you I would tell you a story?" he asks, suspicions already forming.

"The lady over there," a gaptoothed boy says, pointing uselessly back through the crowd. "She was talking with a guy with a funny costume."

"Costume like armor? Brown and gold?"

The kid nods. "Yeah, exactly."

"And what did he say."

"Nothing, he laughed though."

The scowl deepens. "Just. Laughed."

"Well, he seemed a little angry too," interrupts the older boy, and he has Daniel's talent for covering everyone's motives with as little degradation of character as possible. Making excuses. "Or maybe not angry, like... flabbergasted!" he says, having had to search for the word and seeming proud of having come up with such a long one.

Rorschach very much doubts it's the word he intended. Still sighs, rubbing one hand under his hat – looks around, and everything seems to be under control for the moment. Settles down onto his heels, trying to think of how to best explain the security monitor tied and gagged with the tape from his own video reels in a way that won't come off as depraved to these impressionable minds.

*

It's around this time that Adrian stumbles into the camp, and stumble is definitely the word for it. He'd clearly met more resistance than expected, his coat worn and burned in a few places and one sleeve torn open and bloody. It's nothing major and they have gunshot victims still waiting in triage, so he's told it'll be a while before they can get to him and he accepts that with the good grace of a man who's grateful just to still have his skin.

People change less than they'd like to think, Rorschach had said, but maybe some people change more. Dan shakes his head, watching from the sidelines.

"What?" Laurie asks, coming up alongside him.

"Oh, just." He moves to pocket his hands, is blocked by the fact that he's still in his armor. "Was looking for Rorschach, wanted to spring him from the hell you sent after him back there." Gestures at the low-priority triage area. "Found this instead."

Next to him, Laurie's gone silent, unmoving. She once again reminds him of Rorschach, in his worst times, when he would go so inhumanly still before unleashing some horrific violence.

Instead she just hisses, low and angry, "What the hell is he doing here?"

"Well, he helped us pull this off, and–"

"He's the one behind all of this. God, Dan. Even before, the shit he pulled with that monster, the people he killed? And you're trusting him now?"

He tugs her away, further out of earshot. "I don't trust him, and god knows Rorschach doesn't. But we snapped him out of it and he does seem to want to help fix this, and–"

"God, you're gullible," she says, pressing fingers to her temple, and there was a time that would have been almost an endearment. Now it's just frustration. "And new leaf or not, he's going to go apeshit when he sees me."

"What? Why?"

No response; she just looks to the side and picks at her sleeve and deflects without a word, and that's a pattern he recognizes – finally, something familiar. "Okay," he says, "Okay. Look, I'm going to keep looking for Rorschach, why don't we try to get you something else to wear while we're at it?"

A nod, resigned. "All right, yeah."

So they walk – they can see the paths, the way the crowd is moving, divine the location of the spare clothing supply from it like reading an hours-old crime scene. He doesn't try to get too close this time.

"Hey," she says after a minute, eyes following his, the way they scan the crowd with something like urgency. "He sewn to your hip or something?"

"...what?"

"You just seem awfully attached all of a sudden."

Dan just shrugs, too much deliberation in the gesture for it come off as truly casual.

Laurie grins, and for the first time since the prison, it's not snark or cynicism or sarcasm fueling it. "Let me guess. 'Brothers in arms', back to back in the shadow of death, all that bullshit."

"...I guess, yeah."

"You know what they used to do to pass time in those foxholes, right?" she asks, raising one eyebrow.

And Dan tries to look affronted, but it's difficult to manage when he's also laughing so hard that he chokes.

*

"My god, he's actually–"

She'd been about to step over, say something smartassed about the entourage, but Dan's hand on her shoulder had stopped her. Now she watches, befuddled, as the terror of the underworld tells what they can overhear in snippets is a pretty awful story.

Still, the kids seem absorbed, and there are more of them than the six she'd originally sent after him. They watch for a minute or two; at one point Rorschach looks up to catch her eyes from all the way across the space and his are saying, clearly, will get you for this.

She laughs, and it sounds strange to her, like Dan's unguarded laughter had earlier. She supposes it's just the shock and adrenaline of the day dropping off, leaving them all a little giddy and vulnerable in its wake. It'll pass. "Forced to spend time with a bunch of hero-worshiping kids, though god knows why," she says, as Rorschach's attention goes back to his audience. "What a horrible fate I've inflicted. You'd think they were all spitting acid or something."

"I don't know, I think he's being a good sport about it."

"I guess so," she says, and narrows her eyes. He is, actually, and she watches the way he gestures to illustrate a point, something about a camera. His intonation's not exactly engaging but it's hardly the flat monotone she remembers, and it's been ten years so she can't be sure, but... "He seems a lot less cr–"

And she cuts herself off, isn't sure at first why. She'd been about to say 'crazy' because that's what Rorschach is, the crazy, creepy asshole, the sick fuck who makes her skin crawl. That's what he's always been.

"Laurie?"

But she'd seen fear on his face in the prison and heard curiosity on the walk back and is watching him now, telling a shitty story to a bunch of kids just because they asked, and suddenly she remembers where she's seen that eerie thousand yard stare before – on Barnes, the day they'd taken his kids away for a school trip back in '91, returned them glassy-eyed strangers that didn't even know to call him daddy. On Anya Kominsky after the first big push on the Lighthouse left everyone in her squad cut to ribbons by the guards' exotic new weaponry, who had stumbled back to camp dazed and empty and Laurie had been able to feel her seams come apart, holding onto the collapsed body as its mouth babbled things its brain couldn't comprehend. On Randolph-who-doesn't-have-a-last-name, a silent fixture in her cell for three years and he probably does have a last name but damned if he remembers it. On countless soldiers and friends who'd seen too much in this fight, been pushed too far, shattered too hard to come back.

She'd mourned them, each and every one.

"...broken," she finally says instead, shifting back to look at Dan. "Less broken than he used to be."

Dan doesn't respond at first – just looks at her carefully, and she can tell there's something in him that appreciates the distinction. She's still surprised herself. The connection has been there to make all along, but she'd only ever remembered him as an inhuman cipher, never...

"Less in some ways, more in some ways," Dan concedes after a long time. "But he's a lot more functional, more... normal, I guess."

"Still a bony-assed midget," she says, acerbic, and that feels more familiar.

Fish-breathing silence, open-mouthed, then: "Okay, why are you looking at–"

"It's easier now that he has a face," she says, shrugging dismissively, then stretches to pull the donated sweater down over the top of the prison uniform. The layers are uncomfortable, but she wants to be rid of the visual brand of shapeless grey. "Though telling them apart, that might be an issue."

Dan sighs, and there's not much amused in it. Disappointed, more like. "And you called him an asshole."

"Never claimed I wasn't," she says, on autopilot, but the casually callous banter she's used to has turned awkward, uncomfortable, in a way it hasn't in years. Laurie sighs, reaches up to rub her forehead; she doesn't remember Dan being this critical, but the defensiveness makes sense. She changes the subject. "So, how long were you under?"

It takes him a second to catch up, to understand what she's asking. "Oh, uh, about an hour. I only caught it sidelong, he snapped me out if it."

"How long was he under?"

A long breath, naked in the way it shakes out of him. "Two weeks."

"Caught the full blast, then. Was that before or after you did?"

"After."

Oh, of all the stupid... she just looks at him for a long time, incredulous. "How could that have happened, if you both knew about it?"

A shrug, far too nonchalant. "It was the most tactically sound decision at the time."

Around them, the background noise floor seems to subsume everything else, a very loud silence. Across the blacktop, Rorschach is growling a correction at one of the kids who'd tried to get ahead of the story.

"...wait," Laurie says. "Wait, what?"

"I told you before," Dan says, voice distant, nodding towards the knot of children. "Brilliant tactician. I was pretty pissed at the time, but with a little distance I guess I can see how it was the only solution."

She shakes her head; a pounding is starting behind her eyes. "I'm not even going to ask what kind of shit you'd have to get into for that to be a solution."

"I know," Dan says.

"You're both idiots."

A sharp laugh. "I know."

The story's winding down, they can tell, and nearby, nature's instinctual lunch bell is going off. She remembers this, remembers how there was never quite enough to go around. They won't want to be stragglers, heroes of the day or not. All around them are happy reunions, the violence of the morning already forgotten as people separated by months or years find each other, and it's all so storybook that Dan's big ideals and childish awe and suicidal heroics earlier, rushing back into the fray to pull Rorschach out of it, seem to fit in just right.

One of the kids is pointing at the bullet hole in Rorschach's jacket, question obvious, and she can feel Dan wince next to her.

"I was kidding about the foxholes," she says, quiet now, eying Dan sideways in what little time there is left to talk without listening ears. "But you weren't, were you?"

Guarded: "I laughed, didn't I?"

"You wouldn't have laughed before. You would have gotten flustered, blushed maybe. Said 'oh no Laurie,'" and she flatters herself that it's a fair imitation, "'of course not, I only like y...'"

She trails off, awkwardly. Dan doesn't respond. He's been doing a lot of that, and she wonders suddenly just how different she really is now, how many jagged cracks ten years have rubbed into her; like watching moss grow in to fill a fissure in broken pavement, you never see it change unless you go away for a while and come back. She doesn't have the luxury.

"Look," she says, and she tempers her voice into something gentler, tells herself it's for his own good, isn't just jadedness. "It's been ten years. I'm not really..."

"Yeah,” he says, a little sad, a little resigned. “I figured."

"You did?" She raises an eyebrow. "Really?"

"Well, I thought maybe. That you'd be involved, or–"

She huffs in annoyance, inarticulate, cutting him off. Crosses her arms.

Dan goes quiet again then, and it feels like a strategic retreat. Across from them, children scatter, their prize secured and grand adventure dreams for the night set in stone, and Rorschach unbends himself from his crouch, striding over to them more smoothly than any forty-something who's lived as hard and unhealthy as he has has any right to.

"Tell a good story?" Dan asks, cheerful to the point that it has to be artificial.

Rorschach levels another, less pointed glare in Laurie's direction, then turns and shoves his hands deep in his pockets. "May have... embellished in places," he admits, then gestures to the crowd up ahead. "Lunch, Daniel," he says, single-minded as always; some things don’t change. "Before they run out."

*

Rorschach had been wrong to worry about the food running out, and even if he hadn't been the kid handing out bowls of soup – all they could whip up on this scale and on such short notice – assures them that there'd been some set aside for them anyway. This seems to annoy Juspeczyk, who mutters something about heroism never mattering in the food line before, but there's a third bowl set aside for her too and that seems to pacify her.

It's also an oddity in and of itself, inconsistent with his assumption that she was just another rank-and-file resistance member when they rounded them up however many years ago. It'll need some thought.

For now, he just sits down on the bench next to Daniel – Juspeczyk's on Daniel's other side – and maybe shifts a fraction too close, almost leaning as he hunches over his food. It feels possessive but Daniel allows it and there's little to be said on the subject, so he watches the crowd move around them instead, carrying bowls and spoons and mugs of coffee, laughing in that delirious way someone does when they've only just dodged a screaming bullet. It's not just decadent, careless merrymaking; it's relief, so complete it makes the bones shiver, and there was a time that he wouldn't have been able to see that.

"So, ah, thanks," Juspeczyk says, breaking into his contemplations. It's quiet though, and not hostile, so he assumes it was meant for Daniel and goes on eating.

It's only after a few seconds' silence have passed and Daniel reaches to nudge him in the shoulder that Rorschach looks up, eyebrows pinched in annoyance. "What–"

Daniel just hooks his head sideways towards where Juspeczyk is leaned a little forward around him, looking at Rorschach directly. She's talking to you, the gesture says, with a trace of Don't be an asshole.

Rorschach contemplates her wordlessly for a moment, spoon still in his hand. "For what?" he finally grits out, trying to convince himself he's still angry about the ambush.

"For the jailbreak," she says, licking her spoon. "Three years is a long damn time."

A grunt that means nothing, and next to him, Daniel is grinning. "Assumed you would be thanking Nite Owl for that. Obviously the mastermind of the operation."

"Hey now," Daniel says, still smiling. "Sarcasm will get you nowhere."

She just shrugs, sets her bowl in her lap. There's something strangely serious about her flippancy, now. "Last I checked, you were the ones actually took these off," she says, holding her arms up, backs of her hands facing forward. There are rough, abraded red rings around her wrists, years spent in the handcuffs plainly obvious. "Thought that was worth a 'thank you', but if you disagree I can retract it."

His carefully arranged mask of indifference is in no danger of slipping, but Rorschach still looks back to his bowl, poking at it with the spoon. "Consider it a favor repaid."

And that wasn't even close to the same, not really – he'd already been loose when they found him, using the riot as cover to seek out a physical escape route. But he'd only been free because of convenient and misguided attempts on his life and had they not happened he would have needed their help; they may not know that, but he does.

Maybe she does too, now. It doesn’t seem to matter as much as it should.

"Hey," Daniel says, jokingly incredulous, oblivious to these transactions. "Are you two actually having a meaningful conversation?"

Then he looks aghast at having said it, but Rorschach's glad he did, glad for the soap bubble poked at and popped because he doesn't have any idea what to do with this strange creeping feeling of camaraderie that he's used to only having one target for. Awkward hostility feels more familiar, even if he can still feel the bite of the cuffs the night the police took him, the burn of captivity and the humiliation of depending on another for his escape.

Juspeczyk laughs, harshly, and it trails off.

They lapse into a silence just as uncomfortable as the one they'd started the meal in, and in the commotion of the cook chasing a mangy abomination of a stray cat out of the cooking area with swinging ladle and thrown rocks – children spring up and trail after the cat, chanting a noise that might be its name – Rorschach gets up and slips quietly away.

*

"Suppose you think yourself very noble."

Veidt looks up from where the camp medic is finishing up the last of the stitches in his arm. They're not very neat, Rorschach observes with some satisfaction. They should leave a scar.

"I'm sorry," Veidt says. "What?"

Rorschach gestures vaguely. "Imagine yourself special, being wounded for the cause."

The man finishes up, moves to wrap a light dressing to keep infection out of it; he's keeping carefully out of the conversation. Veidt shakes his head. "Not particularly. There are men who died in the bombing, which," he says, drawing the syllable out, but there's no accompanying smug smile. "You obviously already know, or you wouldn't be baiting me about it."

Rorschach had walked the camp for about ten minutes, not entirely sure what he'd wanted or needed from his wander. Now though, he's standing over the city's golden boy as he licks his wounds like a common cur, and he has the general shape of it. A little petty, maybe, but it'll do. "New Frontiersman office. Was that you?"

"I'm surprised you're asking. Benefit of the doubt hasn't ever been your style."

Rorschach doesn't reply; just waits for an answer.

"Yes," Veidt eventually says, eyebrows high. "That was me. Protecting a secret that still seemed important at the time. It was done afterhours if it's any consolation. Why? Such a very small crime compared to everything else you've laid at my feet."

"Could have just stolen the journal."

"They may have made copies, and anyway, I was still feeling dramatic in those days."

The medic glances between them, more obviously nervous than he'd been showing before. He clips the tape, securing the bandages with the quick press of thumbs and it's clear that he'd like them to take this elsewhere.

Rorschach ignores him, stepping up close as Veidt stands from the bench. "Feeling dramatic when you decided mind control was the best path to your utopia?" He remembers something Daniel said, back in the motel room, and adds, "Read too much science fiction while designing your monster?"

Veidt grimaces. "No. Horrible genre, very pedestrian."

He's pretty sure Daniel reads it on occasion, and feels an unexpected stab of vicariously wounded pride. The medic has vanished, clearly moving on to other patients. "When you created this system," Rorschach grits, hands already in fists. "Were you intending it to be used on the general population? Used on the world?"

A moment's hesitation, as Veidt peels back the opposite sleeve, peers at the burns there. They're not serious, and the medic had obviously been unable to spare any kind of ointment for them with all the other injuries to tend.

"...no," he finally says, and there's uncertainty there. "I actually didn't have this all plotted out, despite what you must think."

"Hard to believe."

"I really did," he continues despite the interruption, "intend it to be used only in prisons."

"'Smartest man in the world'," Rorschach says, making sure to enunciate the quotation marks. "Must have been able to anticipate what would happen."

Veidt sighs, looking off towards the center of the camp, where the bulk of the bodies are still gathered, still eating and talking and trying to settle. "I'd argue that grief, and the madness it can cause, are part of no mathematics. They make a man unpredictable."

Rorschach narrows his eyes, considering.

"Speaking of," Veidt says. "How is Senator Warren these days?"

"...still cuffed in his cell," Rorschach finally replies, and he's not sure if the warmth he feels at the statement is satisfaction or pride. "Displeased about it, from what I could tell."

With a casual vindictiveness Rorschach recognizes but does not expect from this bland puppet of diplomacy: "He deserves to be."

Questions breed questions, he's heard said before. It always felt like a warning.

Rorschach steps back finally, out of Veidt's immediate breathing space. Turns to leave, counts out five steps before turning back and grunting over his shoulder, "Milk."

"...pardon?"

"For the burns," he says, and now he's walking again. "If the kitchen can spare it. Unlikely."

Veidt doesn't thank him, and that's fine, he likely won't take the advice anyway. It's forgotten as soon as he leaves the scene behind.

*

It is a bit of a struggle, arguing with the cook – remembering all the personal chefs and short-order hash slingers he's known, they're all very much the same, territorial and defensive – and he feels a bit silly doing it in the first place. But it doesn't take a lot to realize that if anyone's had to make do without proper treatment and manage with just old wives' tales and remedies, it's likely Kovacs.

"We got set mealtimes for a reason," the man says, and he's definitely closer to the hash slinger end of things. "Too many people to feed, and everybody ready to think they're somethin' special if you give 'em an inch."

"Of course."

"I give you a cup of milk, and what happens? You'll want some bread to go with it next time, and next thing I know, word's gotten round and it's Custom Order Thursday every day."

It's never, as far as Adrian understands it, Custom Order Thursday. "That would be madness."

"Damn right it would be. Bad enough I have to keep the kids and the strays out of the supplies, but to have grown men come begging around after hours, pshhh. It's shameful."

"And again," Adrian says, raising an eyebrow. "I do apologize, but I was having my injuries seen to during lunch." The bandages make said injuries look worse than they really are, and in this case he's grateful.

The cook looks at him for a solid minute, assessing.

"All right, fine," he says, disappearing into the wheeled coldcase. He comes back with a paper cone, the kind that Adrian remembers his office having by the water cooler in the first floor lobby. "Half a cup," the cook says, handing it over. "And don't let me catch you sniffing around here for scraps again."

The choice of words chafes, but Adrian just agrees and apologizes again and takes his leave as quickly as he can.

A moment or two later he's forced to pull up short when his path is crossed abruptly by a pack of screaming mouths and flailing limbs, stubby legs beating the asphalt and stirring dust in pursuit of what he can only assume is an animate blur of claws and demented hissing.

Kids and strays, he thinks.

In the next second they've caught their quarry, and the child in the lead is waving the atrocity around by the scruff of its neck in a way that is plainly painful. "Hulu lulu!" she shrieks, catching the cat up under its forelegs and swinging the bottom half of its body back and forth in sloppy imitation of the aforementioned dance. The cat hisses and froths and spits.

And it is an ugly thing – grotesquely pushed-in face without any of the good breeding that usually accompanies the trait, matted dirty fur, flea-bitten tail that's been broken and healed unset in two places, and one of its legs is shorter than the others, the paw missing entirely. But still – no living thing ought to be treated like that.

"Excuse me," he says, stepping right up to the teeming hip-high mass, all jungle furor and cruelty of the hunt. "But do you mind telling me what the poor beast's ever done to you?"

The girl holding the cat doesn't respond – nor does she drop it – but the boy next to her speaks up. "She's always in the food, man. Stealing from us."

"Goodness," Adrian says, and he's not above condescending to children. "Stealing all those valuable and delicious garbage scraps and dead rodents. That is quite the crime."

No response, just a shuffling, embarrassed silence.

"Lulu, you said? Go on then, let her go."

They have no reason to listen to him – he's an adult but that's it, no one they know, no one in charge. It's a testament to his persuasive abilities that they still do, and the moment she's released, the cat takes off like a shot, disappearing into the crowd, clearly terrified and making good its escape while the chance still exists.

A lecture's on the tip of his tongue, but he lets that go too, and the children dissipate, wander back to their families and parents.

"And this is the world we're trying to save," he mumbles to no one in particular, but he still receives an answer: A piteous mew from his feet, questioning.

When he looks down, there she is. Staring up at him with those horrible dull eyes and filthy face and she's even uglier now that she's sitting still enough to focus on.

"What?" he asks. "Go on, get going."

Another noise, this one more pitiful than the last, and when he tries to walk away she follows, trotting diligently at his heels.

"You know," he says, and he'd like to chalk the fact that he's talking to a cat up to years of mind-control-induced brain damage, but he knows full well he used to talk to Bubastis too. "Just because I didn't want to see you treated like a punching bag back there doesn't mean I actually want to look at you. Or smell you."

It is no deterrent. She follows him down one corridor and up another.

Adrian looks at the cone of milk in his hand; considers. He barely has enough for his own uses as is, but if she's distracted for long enough...

He leans and dribbles a small puddle on the ground, and she flies to it immediately, lapping it up with the furious speed of a creature who's never had a guaranteed meal in its life. For a moment, his resolve wavers, but then he's moving, towards the residential block still being constructed, as quickly as he can without spilling his prize.

A moment after he arrives, she wanders out of the crowd.

Adrian blinks, incredulous. It’s not often people manage to surprise him, much less… "How did you– you have three working legs."

Lulu rears up on her hind feet, paws at his pantleg with the one front paw she has. She's no less a monstrosity, a perfect abomination, but she doesn't use her claws, and something tugs.

Adrian sighs. "All right, all right, fine. If there's any left after I'm done, you can have it."

The cat prrps happily and follows him and it has to be the food, there can't be any other reason the beast's taken to him. Once the milk is gone she'll move on.

He's sure of it.

*

The hours pass quickly; for those with the ability, there are things to be built and resources to be divided, and time evaporates under these endeavors. Laurie's disappeared to meet with Donnelly over The Adrian Issue, and she'd said it like that, pronouncing every capital letter. Dan has no idea what The Adrian Issue is but the words shook like violence when she said them and despite its facade this is, he's discovering week by week, a very bloody time.

So he's trying to find Rorschach; has been doing so ever since his partner slipped away at lunch, leaving a strange emptiness by his side he hadn't even realized was being filled until Laurie's jaded practicality became too overpowering, started tipping him into that hole. He's wandering, searching the sea of strangers for a familiar face. There are more than he expected.

He sees Lila and Eli and what could only be Lila's husband, still halfway in prison garb, the boy clinging to his leg like a vise. He sees the old man from the prison, fists raised in reenactment to the youth around him, how many guards he knocked out, blammo, flat on their asses. He sees Kevin and a young man that he assumes is a compatriot or friend until the compatriot or friend leans in to kiss his neck and marks himself lover, and Dan smiles and wonders: why can't he be all three?

He asks around, is sometimes pointed in one direction or another, tries to keep the growing sense of real desperation out of his voice because really, it isn’t as bad as all that. But he does wish he could catch a glimpse of red and brown and violet through the maze of bodies, just once.

*

Rorschach, for his part, stays one step ahead of Daniel well into the evening, though it isn't by intent. He's just moving to be moving; looking, as Daniel is, for something familiar. He finds himself patrolling the perimeter of the camp by sundown, and he's missed the evening meal but doesn't feel like he needs to eat right now, after days of glutting on one form of hospitality or another.

The children aren't afraid of him here. It thrills something deep inside, resonates with both Rorschach's and Kovacs's tattered pieces. It's something he remembers, if he allows himself to reach back far enough. The adults aren't afraid of him either, and he wonders how that will change – the hospitality too – when they realize who he is.

"Your friend was looking for you," someone says in passing, like half a dozen others have tonight, and he evens out his frown so it's not quite so deep and nods, mumbles a thank you.

The girl shrugs. "Hey, no problem," she says, "We've all gotta look out for each other, right?"

Rorschach doesn't have much of a stance on it, but Daniel may have been right yesterday, about at least this chunk of humanity. His opinion has climbed a few notches in the last twenty-four hours. "Suppose so," he says, a concession, touching the brim of his hat and continuing on.

"He seemed lonely!" she shouts after his retreating back, and something in his chest grows hot, presses against its walls. He keeps walking.

*

This version of the camp has a harder edge than the one he'd found nestled into the narrow alley backing all the disused remnants of the city's trade district; that one had grown organically, wending through corridors and spidering. This area is huge, spanned above and open below, and the northern edge is one long, straight shot along the path of the overhanging eave.

One thing he misses, in these places, is the ability to climb somewhere high, to stoop over a chimney stack and think. They're all on the same level here.

"Too much," he mutters aloud, and even he's unsure what he's talking about.

He's caught glimpses of Daniel through the crowd all afternoon and evening, out of the armor now but with the light catching his glasses like the impenetrable black sheen of his goggles, and he'd kept slipping away. He doesn't really know why. Now, overprocessed and overwhelmed, Rorschach's on the edge of seeking him out again.

He squints through the crowd: so many people, and no one familiar except for a few of the faces from today, Donnelly's second in command, Daniel's old ghost, and he might have had a few words for the ghost's behavior and choice of company before – he feels the tirade on the tip of his brain, hears the answering argument that they boy had been abused, and who else does he know that fits that description? He shies away from the entire exchange. He can hardly point fingers, now.

A mewing noise nearby, and then there's a figure leaning against the closest support, snuck up silently while he'd been distracted. It's not who he would have hoped for.

"Seems like a very brave young man," the interloper says, line of sight following Rorschach's. "Performed admirably today, from what I hear."

"Veidt," he says, turning around stiffly.

"So, I've been thinking," Veidt launches straight into it, no return greeting. "About what you said. Never mind her, by the way." He points at the cat, sitting at his feet. It's a mangy horror, and looks ill on top of it. "Won't leave me be; I'll sort it out eventually."

"Picked up a stray? Wouldn't think it would appeal."

Veidt frowns, vaguely defensive. "You don't have much room to criticize the transient and... unpleasant-looking, you realize. And I didn't come over here to wallow in hypocrisy."

Rorschach puts his hands in his pockets, waiting.

"You were right," he says, enunciating each word carefully. "About one thing, at least. Extenuating psychological circumstances or not, I should have anticipated this. It's entirely possible that I did, and decided that the ends justified the means." He waves his hand, dismissive. "Some kind of rationalization like that. Obviously nonsense, looked at in hindsight."

"Trying to–"

"All I'm trying to do," and Veidt leans back, letting more of his weight rest on the strut. It's been a long time since he's been the mask, and the age is showing. "Is acknowledge some piece of responsibility here. And assure you – goodness knows why I feel like it matters – that I have every intention of fixing it. No matter the cost."

Rorschach feels his hackles rise as Veidt finishes, feels something indistinctly eerie wind up his spine, like a premonition. He does his best not to show it as the man peels himself from the support and disappears back into the crowd without another word, gone as suddenly as he'd appeared, the cat trotting at his heels.

In the crowd, all familiar faces have vanished, leaving a strangeness, bodies all clamoring together in their freedom.

"Too much," he says to no one again, and this time he has a vague idea of what the overload is.

Rorschach hunches his shoulders, rolling the coat up against his neck where the fine hairs are just starting to lie back down. There will be time to process tomorrow, to start working out the connections, casting his intuition out to feel out the possible endgames here. Right now, he decides, shuffling back into the body of the camp and its still-dense crowd of life, he is going to find Daniel, and if he still has a place at his bedside, take it and not question it until morning.

*

It takes some asking around, but he eventually finds the tiny, newly erected structure Daniel had been directed to for the night. There are larger ones, but full capacity is being strictly enforced with so many new bodies to house. Privacy is often more important than space.

He lifts the curtain that serves as a door, looks in. The caged worklight hanging from the ceiling is still lit, but Daniel is already asleep. It isn't late.

There are two narrow cot mattresses, and they've been pushed together; he can see the scrapes in the dirt that's caked into the asphalt, showing where his was placed and where it ended up. He supposes Daniel could have asked for only one, saved them some resources, but this gives him the option to push it back away again.

He just sits on the edge of it instead, pulling his boots off in silence. The coat, the jacket, all the layers that bear the singed mark of bullet holes slip away, are pushed aside. It's a quiet time.

"Hey," Daniel mumbles, not actually asleep after all, or just on the edge of it. "Looked for you all day, asshole."

"Ehn." Rorschach sets his hat on top of the haphazard pile.

Daniel rolls under the blanket, off of his back and towards the empty pallet. "You okay?"

"...half expected to find Ms. Juspeczyk here."

A laugh, right on the border of inappropriate. "Why would she–"

Rorschach twists to look over his shoulder, shadows on shadows in the dull light but there's enough to see how ragged the last few weeks have left him, how thin and slumped he is. He was a fighter today but right now he's just a man, in his undershirt and his suspenders hanging down around his hips and still wearing the same holey socks. You couldn't call it hollow – they both know all about hollow, these days – but it's something wanting.

"No," Daniel says, serious. "She's not."

The blanket shifts as Daniel rearranges it, and he tosses the excess over the empty space. Rorschach settles under it, trying to let his mind blank. He'd been wearier than he remembers being in years when he came in, but he's suddenly wide awake, wired up like he's been drinking Archie's extra-strong coffee all evening. It makes him restless on the itchy mattress, and it makes it feel completely natural when he rolls over and slides up closer. Nothing's looming on the immediate horizon for once; it's the intoxicating lack of urgency that pushes him to reach between the blankets and find Daniel's back, pull himself in against him.

"Mmm." Daniel brings his own arm up, curling it around his spine and leaning in to press a dazed, clumsy kiss to the side of Rorschach's jaw. Nothing more, and it feels like he's waiting.

Blood shaking my heart, Rorschach thinks, finding the words scrawled somewhere in the dark, pulsing in time with the blood in his ears. My friend.

He hooks his arms up behind Daniel's back, scratching bitten nails down the bare skin, and it's a question but he doesn't know what it's asking for, hopes that Daniel does.

Then there's a shift, and Daniel is flush against him, kissing him so deeply he really might drown, suffocate under the flood of him. He makes an alarmed noise but he's hard against Daniel's thigh, can feel Daniel against his. Cause and effect aren't connecting – just an unfamiliar twitchy energy that drives his battered body to respond, tense and awkward.

Daniel breaks away, tilts his head to the side, stifling himself. "Foxholes," he mutters against the side of Rorschach's face, laughter in his voice.

"Hnh?" It doesn't make any sense but he doesn't think it's supposed to, and when he feels hands working the fastenings of his pants he just closes his eyes and breathes.

Fingers slip under the band of his underwear and rest there, and Daniel mouths the side of his throat. "Nothing, just... you're still really keyed up from this morning, aren't you? I mean, I am too, it's not..."

It's been hours, it's been all day. He doesn't suppose it matters; they spent years this way. The fingers curl, starting to tug, threatening to lay his depravity plain, and he thinks he might have been hard before he even came in here. The evening's been a blur of nerves and aggression.

The hands move away, move up his body, come to rest to either side of his head. "Say yes," Daniel says, and the question itself feels like an indulgence, absolving him of something unnamed. "Or say no. But say something, tell me what's going on."

Rorschach doesn't say anything, but he does open his eyes and nod, and then the last layers are stripped back and he can feel Daniel's hand on him, wrapping around him. It's overwhelming.

"Need this," Daniel says, and it's unclear who he's talking about. "We're in this together, right?"

The blanket is a rough, scratchy cave. Wartime, he thinks, as Daniel's hand moves and his own body jerks in response. Quiet places. I–

He'd expected this to be terrifying, even after he'd told Daniel he could handle it, had come through that curtain wanting it. But there's something so safe in the way Daniel's holding him pressed between their bodies, caught in the warm and dark, and he never knew safe was something this could be. Never even suspected.

"Let it go," Daniel mumbles into his ear, and he suddenly wants to, to see how far the safety goes, how far he can fall and still find this net at his back. It would be such an easy thing, just a moment's lapse of control, and he can feel surrender rising up his throat.

One arm curls behind his neck, draws him closer. "Go on, it's okay," Daniel says, is saying, over and over – so he does, bites down on Daniel's shoulder to muffle himself, lets the sickening warmth pull him inside out. It is no gunshot-sudden release, taking him by surprise; it feels like an unfurling, like something opening up, and when the rough weave of the blanket comes back into focus, Rorschach can swear he feels open air everywhere around him. He breathes.

"Hey, you okay?"

A quiet voice from the fog. He nods, dizzy.

"Oh, god," Daniel says, all misplaced reverence, mouth moving against his still-racing pulse. "That was–"

"A weakness," Rorschach mumbles, halfhearted. He can't find the vitriol, the disgust. He isn't sure who he is anymore, but that isn't new.

Daniel runs one flattened palm up his stomach, under the worn-thin fabric. Splays his fingers wide, like he's trying to get a grip on all of him at once. "Maybe, but you earned it today."

"Wasn't aware it worked like that."

A laugh. "Sometimes," Daniel concedes.

Time hangs for a second. Then Rorschach is fumbling between them, galvanized into motion by a sudden powerful need to do instead of think.

"Wait," and Daniel moves to catch his hands. "I didn't– I can take care of–"

"Shut up, Daniel." Rorschach bats his hands away, exasperated, and works Daniel's belt with clumsy fingers. "Want to," he says, and it feels like truth, but when his hand closes, it's shaking.

A few seconds; then Daniel's hand wraps around his, fingers slipping between, calluses still rough. He guides, wordlessly.

One of the mattresses must have knocked the wall because the work lamp is swaying, throwing strange gridlike shadows over Daniel's face. It cages them both, but Daniel's hair glows soft in the light, and his skin is soft under his fingers, and Rorschach has just enough time to wonder Is that what I looked like before–

There are no more words for this. He focuses past Daniel's shoulder, tracing the lines of corrugated metal as his partner shudders, listens to the breath catch and then even out. He knows why those hands have spent so long reaching for him in one darkness or another, now. He understands.

"Hey," Daniel says, voice shaky, smiling. Fingers touch his face.

He's distantly aware that there's a mess that will need cleaning and that they're both still halfway out of their clothes, but he promised himself not to question until morning, so when Daniel puts one arm over his shoulders and tucks their foreheads in together and breathes out, long and content, it's enough just to be here.

*

Both quotes(top and in text) T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, 1922

*

---> Chapter 19 

*

Comments

( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
marie_phantom
Apr. 27th, 2010 06:49 am (UTC)
Oh wow. This just keeps getting better and better. I LOVE the relationship the Rorschach has with children, because he seems to be the last person on earth to be able to deal with them, and yet you paint as being quite good with them in a way that is believable. Also, I know Adrian is an all round arsehole (I'm British, excuse spelling), but I love how you gave him Lulu to replace Bubastis. A damaged pet for damaged times. This is so wonderful, keep going!
etherati
Apr. 27th, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)
I have a serious fixation with the mental image of Ror + kids, even though I'm not fond of them myself. He always finds new and creative ways to be broken in front of them, and I can very much see how he'd have had a soft spot for them.

And yessss there is some important symbolism and meaning going on with Lulu but I also just love her all on her own. <3

Thanks!
theangstmonkey
Apr. 27th, 2010 09:52 am (UTC)
Wow. Just. Wow. I wish I could say something more than that but... wow.
etherati
Apr. 27th, 2010 06:20 pm (UTC)
I will take incoherent wow as a compliment! I think!

Thanks :3
theangstmonkey
Apr. 27th, 2010 09:20 pm (UTC)
Lol. Okay. Now that I've been able to process this. I love Adrian and Lulu and would totally draw you fanart of that if I could, because it's really just perfect.

I love Laurie's reactions and the way that she talks and the way that you've aged her. I think you always handle her really well when you write her and this is amazing as always.

And... the whole last part. Yep. But what self-respecting slash fan wouldn't? The emotional payoff is actually really stunning, considering that it's not much but really is enough. I like that word for what's happening here and as I was reading it totally came to mind and then there it was in the last sentence so... :)

Awesome work as always.
etherati
Apr. 29th, 2010 05:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad people are liking the way I'm portraying Laurie in this - I was unsure, but just went with what felt right, you know?

And yesss, the last part <3 I slaved over that one scene for probably a week, because it was so important that the payoff be exactly right. I'm so glad you thought it was. :)
jack_infinitude
Apr. 28th, 2010 08:33 pm (UTC)
Awesome! You were really successful in giving that sense of "we succeeded but we're still in a holding pattern, we need to figure out what to do next." I also loved Laurie -- she's still herself, but with a lot more jagged edges...
etherati
Apr. 29th, 2010 05:49 pm (UTC)
Thank you; that's exactly what this chapter was meant to be, a collection of recovery phases and a kind of rest stop for them all.

Laurie has grown up a lot and learned a lot. It's been both good and bad for her. We'll just have to see where it goes...
jeanemon
Apr. 29th, 2010 04:57 am (UTC)
Lovely, as always. <3

Hooray Lulu! Sick kitties need extra love, Adrian. :
etherati
Apr. 29th, 2010 05:44 pm (UTC)
The sad thing is, she's not even actually sick, just beat up and ugly. XD Poor bb.

Thanks!
i_am_your_spy
Apr. 30th, 2010 10:30 pm (UTC)
Oh YAY, new chapters. I missed this story. I love jaded!Laurie and the parallels with Rorschach and the kids and Adrian and Lulu.

Veidt grimaces. "No. Horrible genre, very pedestrian."

You lie, Adrian. You totally <3 Lovecraft.

The end was so hot and sad and perfect that I think my brain broke a bit.
etherati
May. 3rd, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
It's funny, Lulu was supposed to be a parallel and a symbol but she's kind of turned into just this horribly screwed up cat that I love on her own merit. XD

Thank you, the ending I spent about a week on, I was so neurotic about it.
eva_rosen
May. 17th, 2010 11:53 pm (UTC)
Lulu! I had a cat that was mangy and hideous and mean as hell (she was the less cuddly thing you could think of, and I'm certain she would have bitten my fingers off if it'd tried to pick her up baby style as I did my other cats), but for some reason she followed me one day and refused to leave and she was my cat for fifteen years. All my friends had an unholy fear of her. She was like a Rorschach cat, come to think of.

Anyway, lurked all this time to finally come up with this cat-babble.

But I have this fic in my memories and I love it.
etherati
Jun. 27th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
There is a Lulu-Rorschach parallel, yes. :D

Thank you! And no worries about cat babble, cat babble is awesome.
miss_jutta
May. 20th, 2010 08:31 pm (UTC)
Heh, I'm weird
I know realistically the only thought worth pondering is which one of them would get more violently ill at the mere suggestion, but this chapter has made me crave, of all things, some Adrian/Rorschach.
etherati
Jun. 27th, 2010 04:10 pm (UTC)
Re: Heh, I'm weird
Hahahaha. Oh, man. Yeah, I think they're more likely to kill each other, but I can at least see where the tension's coming from.
(Deleted comment)
etherati
Jun. 27th, 2010 04:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you :D I love the little details you can put into that kind of scene, that really let you into the characters' brainspace.
housespetpeeve
May. 28th, 2010 05:14 am (UTC)
I'd love to hate Adrien, but I just can't, since he's always seemed to me to be the other extreme of Rorschach----both of them being unloved and all. So I love that you gave him a little taste of the only thing he used to love ( lady bubastis). Also cutest Ror/Dan coupling ever, of course Rorschach would be most comfortable in dirty sheets and an itchy mattress. He is such a little headcase.
etherati
Jun. 27th, 2010 04:08 pm (UTC)
I usually end up treating Adrian badly in fic out of pure kneejerk 'zomg you killed 3 million people' but I set out very specifically to give him his own arc in this one, and Lulu is part of that, absurd as it sounds.

Yes, scratchy itchy blankets haha. But I'm just glad he finally got to a point of being able to maneuver around the rocks in his head well enough to ask for this and get something out of it.

Thanks!
( 19 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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