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FIC: Thermodynamic Miracles

Title: Thermodynamic Miracles
Fandom: Watchmen Z!verse
Characters/Pairings: Dan/Z!Rorschach
Date Written: 2009-2013 (yeah, it really took that long. Sorry.)
Summary: Keene Act fic. A city’s betrayal, the terrifying effects of that betrayal on the real night-to-night struggle, and all the ways they have always been good at breaking the rules.
Rating/Warnings: PG-13 I guess? Some near-death h/c.
Notes: Wow, so, I started this during the big snowstorm in 2009 right after finishing up NaB. Then abandoned it. Now finished it. Yeah.

*

0. "If two systems are at the same time in thermal equilibrium with a third system, they are in thermal equilibrium with each other."

*

The first time they hear about the bill being pushed through the Senate, it's during the police riots—an aside from the Comedian, on his way out to the lower east side. They don't talk about it; they just try to get the crowds under control where they are, existence narrowed down to the here and the now and the furious mobs swirling beneath them. Eventually it's managed, and with not much in the way of casualties—one unlucky rioter makes the mistake of taking a swing at Rorschach on the ground, but a cleanly broken arm mends relatively easily, and it could have been far worse.

They don't talk about it that night, and they don't talk about it the night after, or the night after. The night after that, when it comes across the airwaves and the nightly news and all the local rags' evening editions that the bill has been passed, they don't need to talk about it. They just suit up, and climb into the ship, and it's another night alone against the teeming wilderness that someone's seen fit to call civilization.

They don't need to talk because they both feel the same way, and if it manifests differently—if Daniel's violence tonight is all fire and fury and wasted, worked-up energy and Rorschach is too detached and shaken by the depth of their country's betrayal to show anything but chilled indifference as his hands do the city's dirtiest work and come away more bloodied than usual—well, they are different people, after all.

And if they both return home full up on wired anger and trembling nerves and hands that clench so tightly that peeling off the layers of disguise between them is difficult—well, they do have some things in common.

And if Daniel's fingers feel like hot coals and pressing them to Rorschach's skin feels like plunging them into dry ice, and all of their violence and anger and pain and betrayal and catharsis only manages to singe one and freeze the other, then they have found, at least, a kind of symmetry—even if they can never have balance.

*

I. "Energy can be changed from one form to another, but it can neither be created nor destroyed."

*

The first week after the news, it’s amazing how different it is. On some level Dan had expected it to take a longer time for things to sink in—like the grief that comes when a loved one dies far away and out of sight, trickling in over days and weeks and months. They’ve lost their city’s trust and faith, even after all the work they did two years ago to save it from itself. Standing in a lonely alley three days later with police sirens in the distance and a new kind of fear stuck in his throat, Dan wonders if maybe they shouldn’t have let the monsters have it.

It’s nothing stark, at first. Just a chilling, a coldness between them and the people they are helping that didn’t used to be there. A frozen moment of indecision, where the mugging victim or the beating victim slides their eyes to the side looking for a payphone, wondering if they shouldn’t call this in, now that they’re safe. The infamous Rorschach and Nite Owl, the only masks in the city refusing to retire! That would bring a hell of a lot of reward money, Dan figures, and they’ve already gotten in the habit of getting in and out quickly, too quickly to offer any comfort to the frightened and alone.

It makes the entire business feel furtive, like they’re doing something wrong. And maybe they are.

But if this isn’t exactly what Dan got into it for—if that human connection is as vital a part of the equation as defeating the abusers and thieves in the first place, its absence making him feel a little more gutted every night—they can at least take comfort in the fact that they are still, at least, doing something. It may be a criminal thing now, an outlawed thing, but the end result is still lives saved. It is different; it has not ended.

But all across the city, other masks are packing it in. Dropping quietly out of sight, all of the good they could have done evaporating away into nothing. Legislation has done what evil men have never been able to: it has destroyed goodness, quantitatively, measurably. It has burned good away like snow in the sunlight.

A whistle comes from the fire escape above him, and Dan doesn’t think—just turns to the ladder and starts climbing, up and up, until he is out of sight of the approaching police. If this is how they must play it in order to keep mankind’s darker impulses at bay, scrabbling about like the criminals they technically are, so be it.

*

II. "Heat generally cannot spontaneously flow from a material at lower temperature to a material at higher temperature."

*

"Daniel," he hisses through his teeth, running his hands up the armored sleeves, over the shoulders, back down the still form. They're slicked under the leather with cold and desperate sweat, and it's made him clumsy; Daniel shouldn't be still, ever. He should be walking and blathering on about something unimportant but still distractingly endearing, and watching the shadows with attentive and discriminating eyes. Should be flying the Archimedes, hands sure on the controls. Should be a solid and reliable presence against his partner's back.

Shouldn't be lying, crumpled and still and smelling of burned leather and hair, lips turning pale and blue in the streetlight.

Should be breathing.

"Daniel," he says again, and this time it's a smaller and frailer sound. He's yanking one glove off, shoving clammy fingers under the edge of the cowl, searching for a sign that the last fifteen years aren't coming to a screeching halt here and now, seen and echoed only by the reflective surfaces of filthy puddles, surrounded by blood and garbage and worse. That they haven't gone through everything they have for less than no good reason. That there is still good in the world for them to do together, even if it is not appreciated.

The fence looms over them, electricity dancing along the chainlink honeycomb with a rough and churning crackle that sounds like nothing so much as finality.

The pulse under Rorschach's fingers is erratic, but there.

But the skin is going slack and cool and the blue tinge is spreading and there's still no motion under the hand that Rorschach's unconsciously set spread across Daniel's chest, no hitch or shudder. Nothing. And there's a second or two of frozen indecision, of calculating the fastest route to a hospital and remembering what he can remember about flying the ship and trying to recall how long a brain can go without oxygen before permanent damage sets in—five minutes? Ten? Less? —before it occurs to him, like a sledge hammer hitting glass, that the game has changed. That they are not welcome in the institutions of the civilized anymore, that they are well and truly on their own. That he is all Daniel has, and that is so paralytically terrifying that for the first time in recent memory, he has no idea what to do. The ungloved hand shakes against the side of Daniel's neck.

Start simple. Air. He needs air.

And, almost without thinking at all, he hitches the mask up over his nose, takes a breath far deeper than he has in years, and pitches forward to drive it forcefully into Daniel's lungs. He has no idea what he's doing, none at all—he saw this done once at the scene of an attempted murder that wouldn't have been 'attempted' had he not intervened, but was too busy looking for a way to slip off unnoticed to pay attention to what was being done. The basic idea is simple enough—how complicated can it be to simply get air moving, in and out, in and out, and he's muttering around the breath now, an incoherent litany of fury and fear and his friend's name and he isn't sure if he's begging or accusing or just saying it, over and over, because if he keeps saying it then it stays real and Daniel isn't gone

After the fifth breath, the cut power line coiling and writhing against the opposite side of the fence finally falls away, the sound of its death throes fading as the electricity finds a shorter route to ground.

After the sixth breath, the image comes unbidden back to mind—Daniel halfway up the fence, and his own hands reaching to grab it, a step and a half behind. One of the thugs on the other side kicking at something on the ground, nudging it towards the fence. Vision goes white and jagged. Daniel doesn't scream and doesn’t fall; he’s locked there, gone rigid, and when Rorschach gets a hold on his cape and pulls him forcefully free he just hits the ground in a heap. The smell is indescribable.

After the seventh breath, the litany is reduced to Daniel's name, all the anger and terror bleeding out onto the alley floor.

After the eighth breath, the possibility that he may be doing this entirely wrong starts bearing down on Rorschach's shoulders oppressively, driving him down towards Daniel with a force of motion that feels almost like falling.

After the ninth breath, the chest under Rorschach's forgotten hand seizes and heaves and Daniel is coughing, sputtering—choking on the cold rush of oxygen, too disoriented to even open his eyes. He shifts, years of hard-trained instinct telling him to get up, to move, to get to a position of advantage before someone stabs him, shoots him, slits his throat—

The hand splays flat, and the strength behind it far exceeds Daniel's in this moment. "Stay still," Rorschach growls, holding Daniel in place, and it's a few blinking seconds before he seems to figure out where he is and what's going on. He doesn't remember the details, says as much even as Rorschach runs his hands over his arms and torso, checking for other injuries—settles them against the sides of Daniel's face, taking in the color returning, the flush of warmth under fingers far cooler.

What happened, he asks, but all Rorschach can wonder is where exactly this warmth is coming from, what unrelated pocket of the universe is giving up its heat for his friend—because he has no warmth to give, no life to share. It could not have come from him.

Yet somehow—it has.

Daniel is asking where the thugs they were chasing are, whether they got away. His voice is rough. His face is filling in with life.

Rorschach tells him that it doesn't really matter and helps him, shaky and weak, to his feet.

*

III. "As a system approaches absolute zero, all processes cease and the entropy of the system approaches a minimum value."

*

It’s the coldest day of the year, and in both the literal and metaphorical sense, it is the coldest year they have ever had. December the 17th, 1977 will go down in record books.

A black and white shape nearby droops forward; it jerks up again, and it feels to Dan like more time has passed than should have. His brain is sluggish, dilating time as it passes by.

“Rorschach,” he mumbles; the sound of his own voice sets his teeth on edge, makes something ache in the back of his skull. He isn’t sure what exactly is going on, but something is obviously not right. “Where are...”

Where are you? he thinks, and Where are we?

“Hnngrrh,” comes the noncommittal reply.

Dan turns his head up, closes his eyes; he’s just going to rest them for a moment, he’s sure of it, but then there’s something in his head as sharp as a hunting owl’s scream and it’s telling him that if he rests now he will never move again.

“Okay,” he says, breathless, forcing his eyes open, willing his senses to switch back on. “Okay.”

White, he can see, and a blackness beyond, split by a light so bright as to be blinding. It’s confusing at first, all blown out spots and blinking, until he remembers that it is winter, realizes that he is staring up at snowfall through the glare of a streetlamp.

There’s the what and the where. Now for the why. He casts around the area, looking for clues.

Off to one side, the perfectly smooth arc of Archie’s metal shell gleams in the streetlight, reflects the falling snow in his glass eyes. It’s hypnotic, the way the flakes mirror back and back, like it’s snowing inside the ship, like the ship is just a giant snowglobe. Dan finds himself so captivated that he doesn’t immediately notice the blown emergency hatch, or the smoke, or the fact that the ship is canted onto its side awkwardly, brokenly.

The moment he does, there’s a noise from his other side—another disorganized sound, barely language, and he remembers: Rorschach, he’d been asking Rorschach a question, but it’s okay, because he knows the answer now. He crashed the ship, and it ejected them, and they’re sitting in a snowbank and—

And it’s not okay.

“Rorschach,” he says again, turning in that direction; the body in the snow next to him is lax, beyond even shivering. That can’t be good. Daniel lifts one gloved hand, paws numbly at his partner. “We have to... we have to go somewhere else...”

Nothing. No response. And just like that, Dan’s brain finally turns over, a rough roaring to life that jolts him out of the fuzzy warmth of half-awareness and sends him tumbling into reality. Reality is sharp-edged and very, very cold, and it is full of random, rapid fire thoughts that all coalesce down to I will not lose him.

“Move,” he says, more forcefully, and he’s not sure which of them he’s talking to. “Get up.”

Still nothing. Fine: If Rorschach will not get to shelter and heat on his own, Dan will bring the shelter and heat to him. He turns as best he can, a stiff rolling motion toward his partner, reaching out with the edge of his cape in his hand. “Come here,” he says, and not dissuaded by the lack of compliance, pulls Rorschach in against his chest, bundles the cape around them both.

Oh jesus he’s cold. Dan rearranges them so that Rorschach is under him, is sheltered from the worst of the air. The ground isn’t warm, but snow is an insulator and nothing is as cold as the wind that’s just now kicking up, whipping the snow up around them. He tries to imagine himself like a furnace, like a hot water bottle, pulling the edges of the cape tight to make sure none of his own diminishing heat is lost.

How long have they been out here, he wonders? How long before he regained consciousness—and on a night this bitter, no one would have seen them. And if they had, they might not have helped; it is remarkable how quickly they’ve been turned on, classed in with common criminals to be left to flounder and die in winter’s bitter maw. He is the only one who can help, now.

Against his body, Rorschach doesn’t stir, even as heat gathers between them. Dan moves in the restricted space, chafes his hands up and down Rorschach’s throat, over his chest, not lingering anywhere long enough to know if there’s a slow, struggling pulse still there.

“Wake up,” he says; his tongue feels thick and clumsy.

“Wake up,” he says again, but Rorschach doesn’t.

Without thinking, he hooks his thumbs into the neck of Rorschach’s mask, hauls it up over his nose. He’s doing this by touch; the cape’s over their heads too, and he can’t see a thing. He knows what he’d see regardless: bruised grey and blue and white, no matter whether he’s alive or dead. It wouldn’t be useful information.

He presses his palms to his partner’s face, then kisses him, hard and hot and pleading. Wake up.

It would be a better story, later—assuming there is a later—to say that Rorschach did wake up here and now, surging back to life under the heat and pressure of his partner’s desperation. He doesn’t, but stirs instead a few minutes later, while Daniel is pressing his mouth to his throat, a messy trail of warmth against lizard-brain vulnerability. His protest is weak, would be useless against an actual predatory creature bent on tearing him apart, but to Dan it’s enough.

“Come on,” he repeats, “We have to get out of here, we have to move.”

Rorschach nods groggily, disoriented. Dan works the cape out from around them, tries to figure out where they’re even going to go, once he gets Rorschach to his feet; hell, once he gets himself to his feet. But it’ll be okay, as long as they don’t go still, as long as they never, ever stop.

In a world gone cold and quiet around them, they move.

*

*

Note: The coldest day in NYC’s history was actually -January- 17, 1977; I took some liberties to fit it into a post-Keene timeline.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
gunmaxual
Jun. 5th, 2013 10:30 pm (UTC)
So many happies
This series of yours simultaneously breaks my soul and warms my heart. I love the dual realizations that society has betrayed them -- that they no longer have access to MEDICAL CARE, of all things, and that nobody will act to help them. It hurts how quickly the city turned on them, because it echoes reality.

So well written, as usual.
etherati
Jun. 5th, 2013 10:35 pm (UTC)
Re: So many happies
Thank you so much! I always thought that was something that wasn't very well explored in the canon -- mostly because Rorschach's the only one in a position to have experienced it and it's not a concern he would have had, as far gone as he was at that point -- and I wanted to tie it into how insular and dependent on each other they've gotten in this au, because the loss of that community support would ramp that dependence up to eleven. And as much as Ror's in a better place in this au, he's still not the type to like depending on anyone OR the type to trust himself as the sole person another is depending on.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )