Characters/Pairings: Dan/Rorschach, lightly
Date Written: 2009
Summary: "After changes upon changes we are more or less the same."
Rating/Warnings: R. Language. Violence. ZOMBIES. Cracky premise, non-cracky treatment.
Notes: This is completely a guilty indulgence – I love reading zombie AU fics, don’t usually write stuff like this. So! This was a zombiefic challenge from elsewhere(the kinkmeme *coughs*). AU. Pre-Roche, so expect reasonably complete sentences from our favorite psychotic redhead. Warnings include: 'zombies created by SCIENCE' cliché, bad science on top of it, mild gore, MotherHen!Dan, non-explicit slashiness(Dan/Ror). Also: OMGWTF*LONG*.This sucker is sitting at about 50 pages in Word right now. End notes are at the end.
Spoilers: Some Roche stuff eventually. Not much else.
Dexter Jackson leans back in his swiveling chair; spins it to face the window. Scrubs the palms of his hands over his eyes. It's been a long day. Long week. Two weeks tomorrow, actually, and the clock is marching its way onward to midnight. He's considering this, watching the second hand sweep, when there's suddenly a reflection in the glass – two reflections, and the curved glass distorts them, makes them more unrecognizable than they usually are.
He spins in the chair, facing back into the room – and with all this horror movie bullshit he's been dealing with lately, he half expects them to have vanished, like ghosts appearing briefly in a shaving mirror with the sole intent of getting him to gasp and turn and be scared shitless for the benefit of an audience somewhere.
The ghosts aren't ghosts. Nothing incorporeal could generate as much raw animal menace as the smaller one standing far too close to him or as much cold fury as the one in the goggles and cape, quietly pulling the door closed behind him. They aren't ghosts and they aren't going to vanish and Christ, they match the hazy descriptions so many of their new VT-10 admissions have given, masks who've taken up some sort of personal vendetta against the goddamned zombie virus and...
"I take it you know what we're here to discuss, then," and it's as controlled as Rorschach's ever been, as much restraint as he's ever shown. It'd taken them nearly an hour of ducking security, searching out back stairwells, picking blocked doors, short-circuiting elevators, and the odd bit of windowsill walking to navigate the maze of the hospital all the way to the top floor undetected, and he's not going to risk them leaving without their prize. Not this time. "And every time you say you have no idea what I'm talking about, going to break another bone."
"And before you say 'you must be joking'," Daniel says from in front of the door, goggle lenses shiny and black and endless like the shells of dark, lumbering beetles, "He isn't."
Rorschach counts in his head. To five. Gives the man that long to start talking on his own, then takes a single menacing step forward. That does the trick.
"All right, okay, okay. This is about the fatality rates, right?"
He can feel the inkblots shift, lazy and slow, as he narrows his eyes under the mask. "And the insanity. People losing control, degenerating. Killing. After visiting your hospital."
Jackson looks honestly surprised for a moment, sincerely confused, and that's hard to fake. Hard, but not impossible. "No. Don't lay that one on us. That's happening on its own."
A beat or two of silence, no matter how it's measured. "You're lying," Daniel says from the door, and there's a faint thread of fear in his voice, and that's no good – they can't put their cards on the table like that, have to stay in control of the situation. Rorschach shoots Daniel a sharp look that he completely misses, due to the mask. Advantages, disadvantages.
"No. He's telling the truth." It's a rough grumble, and he's surprised to hear a matching note of fear underlining it, somewhere buried in the atonal registers. He turns his head sharply back towards the hospital director still seated in his ridiculous swivel chair, as if inextricably rooted to it. "What causes it?"
"We don't know exactly. I should remind you that we didn't build the virus, we've just been asked to quarantine it and study it..."
"Asked by the city government. The mayor?"
A nod, punctuated by smaller, less voluntary shakes. "The best guess we have is that it's mutating out there, learning how to cross into the brain on its own. It seems to be a spontaneous mutation; there's never really any warning."
Daniel shifts by the door, crossing his arms over his chest. "And the people who are dying?"
Jackson looks to the floor, shakes his head. Looks up, wearing a different face. It's subtle, but they've both been reading subtleties for years. They're good at it. "We're just trying to help them. They don't stand a chance of survival on their own; we just haven't found the right treatment yet-"
"Lie." Rorschach glances over to Daniel, hands flexing in his gloves. "You see the difference?"
"I'm starting to," and the goggled eyes lower dangerously.
"I don't know what you're-"
And before he can finish, Jackson finds himself swept from his chair and slammed bodily into the wall. There's a hand twisted in the collar of his coat, supporting a portion of his weight so that he won't choke to death before he can talk. There's another hand around his throat. It's suddenly ungloved, and pressing in with just enough force to make sure the intent – and the significance - are understood. "May just skip breaking bones entirely," Rorschach hisses into his ear, flexing cold fingers threateningly.
For a moment, all the man can do is gasp and sputter, but as soon as he realizes that he's not actually had his airway cut off – not yet – his brain starts working again, and the chill of the grip around his throat sinks in. He rolls his eyes down as far as they'll go, and catches a glimpse of white white white sharp against all the dark fabric and shadows of the dimly lit room, and he chokes, this time from fear. "Oh god, you're..."
The fingers tighten incrementally. "One of the first down. Not dead yet, as you can see. You're lying. What. Are you. Doing to them."
Across the room, Daniel shifts uncomfortably, and Rorschach knows that he knows: he would never reveal this much if he intended to let the man live.
Still harboring hope, Jackson coughs against the grip, struggling weakly. "They asked us to... to find a cure for it, to reverse it completely. Promised us more funding if we could do it. We're city General, we're underfunded, understaffed-" And he coughs again, because the fingers have gotten that much tighter. "But reversing it, god, we've tried everything, every treatment we can think of, crazy things, nothing's working..."
"They all could have lived with it. Didn't need it reversed."
"People come to us to be fixed," the reply chokes out around rapidly bluing lips, "To be made whole... stabilizing the condition doesn't make you whole. You should know that, better than anyone..." A sharp laugh, delirium setting in. "Not like you'll have a choice, once they find out you're infected. You'll be quarantined with all the others. Maybe you'll even walk away whole. Maybe not..."
A long second, punctuated by sucking gasps through what's left of the man's airway.
"Rather stay like this, than be one of a thousand dead guinea pigs on the road to normalcy."
The grip loosens, and Jackson is dragged away from the wall, hauled towards the window. Desperately: "They're not guinea pigs..."
"No," says Daniel from the door, breaking resolve shaking in his voice but still compelled to speak. "They're human beings."
"And you've betrayed your oaths." Rorschach is at the window now, and his gloved hand grasps Jackson's by the back of it. He curls the other man's hand forcefully around the handle, using it to shove the window along its runner.
"Christ, what are you..." And it's a stupid question, because he already knows. Only his prints will be on the handle. It'll be perfect and neat and hasn't he already considered it in the worst moments anyway, too many screams echoing in his memory?
Rorschach hauls him up by the back of his jacket, forces his scrabbling feet to find purchase on the window ledge for lack of anywhere else to settle. A low growl: "Making sure the last thing you do, is done right."
Daniel sucks in a breath across the room.
"Christ!" Dan explodes, away from the door and across the room in three long steps, gloved hands coming up to rest on the windowsill - then pulling back as if burned, hanging in the air in front of him. He doesn't look down. "I can't believe you actually-"
"Thought I made my intentions clear enough," comes the low reply, and Rorschach is at the desk now, hauling an old Selectric into the center of the heavy green blotter. The glove's back on.
"I thought you were just trying to scare him..."
(No. You hoped he was just trying to scare him. You didn't actually think it, not for a second.)
(So why didn't you move?)
Rorschach's digging in the desk drawer now, all business. He comes up with a stack of hospital letterhead. "I'd scared him enough already. Got everything I needed from him."
Dan reaches up to press his fingers to his temples; he's blocked by the cowl and the goggles. Digs his fingers under the band instead. "You just... killed him."
A noncommittal grunt, cranking the first sheet of paper into the roller.
"You... Damn it, Rorschach."
"Mn," Rorschach replies tightly, fingers working slowly and jerkily against the typewriter. The response, when it comes, is offhand and dismissive; An excuse, but far from the real reason. "He wanted to put me in his 'program'. That's as good as a death threat. Self-defense."
"He wasn't exactly holding a gun on you," and it's sarcasm and it's anger and it's just a little bit of worry.
"Daniel." He pauses, jamming down on the same key again, nodding to himself when this time, it unsticks and strikes. "He was threatening my life. Or does that not matter anymore?"
Dan grimaces as his partner turns to face him directly, and damn that mask but he's sure he'd be seeing challenge on the face under it if he could see anything at all. Daring him to stand behind what he'd said the night before, to place value on a life that barely is one. And really, Dan should be thrilled that Rorschach is giving a damn about his own life again - or hell, at all for that matter - but all he can see behind his eyes is the moment Jackson's feet slipped off the ledge and gravity took back its own.
"Of course it matters," and the twinge that Dan had been trying to rub away magnifies instantly into a full-blown tension headache. He pushes back the cowl and kneads circles into the sides of his head; if there are cameras in there that can function in light this low, they're already screwed. "But if you hadn't done all the goddamned theatrics, he never would have known."
It's the 'e' that's sticking, Dan observes distractedly, waiting for a response.
"Needed it for dramatic effect." Matter-of-fact, unruffled. "Had to encourage him to confess."
There's a long silence and a longer silence, and when Dan speaks again, there's real fear in his voice - the first time he's felt truly afraid of the man across from him in this whole mess and it's nothing to do with any virus and everything to do with the decision Rorschach made just three minutes ago, up in his head, in his perfectly normal and uninfected brain. "So he... you mean to say, let me make sure I have this right. He died for the sake of your dramatic effect?"
"No," and it's quiet; subdued even. And immediate. Fingers pause over the typewriter keys. "He died because he killed dozens of people. Who came here for help. Who came here trusting." A single key, struck hard. The paper is pulled free, set aside; another threaded in. "And he did it for money."
The room holds its breath. Dan drops his eyes to the floor, almost ashamed of his outburst. Almost. "All right, okay, fine. But we don't usually-"
And just like that, he's cut off, spared having to actually say it.
(We don't usually throw people out of windows.)
The typewriter clicks and whirrs.
(We don't kill people.)
Dan bites into the leather over the knuckle of one finger, and nods.
"Shouldn't we be doing this somewhere else?" Awkward attempt to change the subject, but it'll do. Dan's never been so glad for the opacity of his goggles; he's sure there are things visible behind them that he doesn't want seen, not right now. "As soon as they find him they'll be up here."
A headshake. "We're twelve floors up. Take a while to identify him. Might not manage to until these are found." The fedora nods down towards the typewriter.
Dan nods, looking straight out the window, across to the nearest rooftop. Feels an extraordinary urge to get out, to run or jump or fly, anything to escape. Looks down, finally, instead.
It's not just the fall, he realizes, a cold sickness settling its grip deep in his gut. It's barely the fall at all. The fall has done its damage, and taken its price, and left its gruesome abstract signature scrawled over the sidewalk. But like blood and chum stirred into shark-infested waters, the half-exploded body below is drawing all the monsters out of the shadows, pale and dirty and moving like animals but undeniably two arms, two legs - faces that were human, once, with dark holes in their faces in all the right spots, covered in blood both fresh and dried. And they're descending on the scene below with more speed than he's ever given them credit for.
There won't be much left to identify.
Dan turns away from the window sharply, hand to his mouth, fighting down waves of nausea for the second time in two weeks- and he used to have such a strong stomach, too. It wouldn't be half as bad if they weren't making so much noise, keening and ringing sounds carrying up twelve floors on nonexistent wind. If he couldn't still see, in his head, the mangled, pale-white limbs, clawing into the bloody mess, alien and incomprehensible.
If he didn't feel compelled to glance over at Rorschach, hunched over an electric typewriter at the dead man's desk, forging a press release and reaching up to shift his hat further back on his head when it slips a bit too far forward into his view. Every movement is precise and exact and deliberate. Controlled. But how much control can you ascribe to someone who'd just thrown a man out of a twelfth floor window, who had been shaking so visibly at the smell of blood that even Dan, coming off of his adrenaline high at nearly being knifed in the face and badly shaken himself, had noticed?
If. There are a lot of ifs.
"Deserved it," Rorschach interrupts his train of thought, neatly predicting it. He can hear the carnage down in the street just as well. Doesn't seem bothered.
Taking a stabilizing breath, Dan makes an indistinct motion with his hands. "Maybe. Probably. I don't know if anybody deserves that, but... look, I know this is all a lot more personal for you-"
"No idea, Daniel." The typing stops, abruptly. Then begins again, faster, more jarring. "We've brought seventeen people to this hospital ourselves. Probably dead now."
"I..." ...nothing to say to that, really, and he trails off, leaning forward to plant his hands on the edge of the desk.
A long few moments, then another pause in the typing, as if considering something. Then, like it's escaping from within tightly clenched hands: "I knew how bad it was."
Dan looks up, and something in the tone makes him lift a hand to slide his goggles down. "How bad what was?"
Rorschach doesn't reply at first, hitting a few more keys sharply. Then, without pausing in the keystrokes: "Leg. There was a lot of blood. It wasn't good. I was close to here, and thought briefly about coming. Would have hidden my clothes in the alley behind the building, so they wouldn't know who I was. Just another homeless transient who can't pay."
There's that sound again, low in his throat, and Dan's realizing that it might not be what he thinks it is.
Rorschach misses a beat finally, faltering over that damned letter 'e'. "Maybe you would have found them someday. Maybe you would even have figured out what happened. Maybe not."
…to never know… to have escaped to safety himself knowing that there were others still out there, to have hidden away and survived while his friend died out there somewhere and to never know...
Dan pushes away from the desk, hard. Turns away, bringing his goggles back up into place. There are a lot of things he wants to say to that, a lot of questions that want asking. The only thing he manages is: "Why didn't you?"
Behind him, there's a final keystroke; it sounds like a gunshot, muffled against skin. The paper is cranked out of the typewriter and the gentle whirr of its electrics dies from the room as it's switched off. There’s a protracted pause that sounds a lot like a shrug. "I don't trust doctors."
(But he does trust you.)
Even that, though, is a manipulative implication. The entire thing’s manipulative and Dan knows it; Rorschach might find the idea of an anonymous death serving no purpose whatsoever to be distasteful, might worry over Dan’s reaction, but it’s by no means his greatest grievance with the man currently being picked over down in the street. And it doesn’t matter, because he’s known almost since the day they met just where all of Dan’s buttons are, and how to push them just so to make it personal, to make him see and understand and, very often, agree with his points.
And, damn it, it isn’t fair – but it is effective. Because even as Dan knows he’s being manipulated, all he can think about is standing in a dingy alley surrounded by death and filth, one glove tucked under his arm, running that strange shifting fabric between his fingers and wondering and worrying and never knowing.
“Here,” and there’s a rustle of papers in his direction. From below, there’s a siren; not an ambulance. No need, the body’s all of three feet from the hospital door. Police. Swat, possibly. Driving away the scavengers. “Read these over.”
Dan takes the sheets, noticing but not remarking on the way they’re shivering in the air like leaves caught in a resonant fall wind. Not remarking, but keeping one eye on the other even as he skims through the two letters. One is shorter, a standard-issue suicide note intended for the staff in general. The other details Jackson’s actions, the source of his instructions, the promises of funding, the mayor’s involvement. It’s directed to the press, and will likely bring down the entire house of cards. Both are written with restraint, without any of Rorschach’s usual play with colorful metaphor.
“They’re fine,” he says, handing the sheets back. He wants to say ‘they’re a lie,’ but the smaller man is starting to shake more visibly now, dropping the sheets onto the desk and burying his hands in his coat pockets, and he doesn’t want to push or agitate. “You okay?”
No response at first, Rorschach glancing around as if he’s suddenly woken from a dream and has no idea how he came to be… here. Then a short, curt nod. Words that don’t agree with the affirmative. “…cold. Not sure.”
Dan furrows his brow. Almost detaches his costume’s cloak to offer, but realizes how useless that would be – extra layers only warm if you’re generating heat to trap in them. He steps over, setting a steadying hand on Rorschach’s shoulder, is surprised to be able to feel the skin jumping and trembling through three layers of clothing. Is shocked beyond the capacity for speech when Rorschach leans into it, ducking his head slightly and angling his posture inward towards Dan – like someone huddling towards a fire for warmth. That’s likely exactly what he’s doing. The shaking redoubles in intensity.
“All right, look, I don’t know what’s going on here, seems to have come on with no warning, but we need to get out of here before it gets worse-”
(“There's never really any warning," he’d said, and had he been laughing then, or had that come later?)
Rorschach’s practically leaning on him now, hands still stuffed resolutely in his pockets, body language protesting his sudden weakness no matter that he’s starting to sway on his feet. “Can you make it out the way we came, or do you want me to bring Archie up?”
“Nrg. Can’t draw that much attention to ourselves. I’ll manage.”
Dan is doubtful of that, but he doesn’t question.
They make it down to the street without serious incident - just a few hairy moments on one ledge or another when Dan is sure that Rorschach is going to buckle and fold and slip right off, which doesn't happen but he can't quite shake the worry or loosen his grip - which he figures is pretty ironic as he brings his fist down again into the mass of dirty hair and skin and teeth currently trying to wrench his arm from its socket. Ironic, because he'd been so relieved when their feet had hit pavement that he'd completely forgotten about the scavengers now scattered from their food source and looking for something to replace it.
And there's only one, and the armor is helping as he had said it would, but the thing detached itself from the shadows with such oily grace and palpable, burning menace and bolted straight at him with such speed - past Rorschach like he didn't exist which is good because it's doubtful he could have fended it off at the moment and god, what if there are more of them lurking around and and and - that it didn't take long for the panic to set in. When the teeth latched into the armor covering his forearm and he realized that they were sinking straight through it, 'panic' was no longer a strong enough word and he's fallen to beating at its face over and over as if it's shark or a pit bull or some other predatory creature that bites down and doesn't ever let go.
And all he can think, crazily and with a mental voice rapidly rising in pitch and volume is:
(Even they prefer a warm meal when they can get it.)
And he's just about to lose it - completely and totally, because he's starting to actually feel the teeth pressing through, and it's probably only been a second or two but it feels like hours, and it's just been that kind of night - when there's a snapping sound, a splintering dry wood sound, and instead of 130 pounds of struggling animal flailing against him, there's suddenly 130 pounds of dead weight dragging down on his arm, falling from unsteady gloved hands hovering just above.
Dan just breathes for a second or two, savoring it for all that it hurts- choking gasps past that horrible blood-in-the-throat feeling of terror dropping off into something more manageable. Then they spend ten agonizingly exposed minutes trying to work the jaw open, pry the teeth out of the dense material they've become embedded in.
Rorschach keeps a hold on his arm after the body finally slips free to pool at their feet; runs shaking fingers over the deep bite impressions in the armored sleeve. "Did it break through?" he asks, voice insistent and demanding and needing to know but wheezy and distant, like someone who's been running for so long they no longer remember where they're going.
Dan just shakes his head, inspecting the damage in what light they have. "I don't think so. Hard to see, though." And he doesn't feel anything, any sort of actual injury, but wired as he is, he isn't sure he'd feel a knife between the ribs right now. "Let's just get back, okay?"
It's the only expression Dan can read through the mask - Rorschach narrowing his eyes at him - he can always tell by the way the fabric bunches and shifts over his brow line. But Rorschach continues to shake violently and is unsteady and threatening to pitch into the pavement at any moment, still holding onto Dan's arm as if he's forgotten about it, and they're both still in danger out here. So Dan ignores it, starting out in the direction of the ship with footfalls heavier than they should be, letting his friend take whatever support he needs.
When they finally get back to the brownstone- it's a long and tedious trip, Dan trying to navigate while also keeping a constant eye on his partner shivering in the copilot's seat, curled in on himself in an unconscious bid to conserve warmth he's no longer generating - and Dan changes into his street clothes, he picks up the Owlsuit's sleeve and takes a really good look.
There's only the thinnest layer - a fraction of a millimeter or so - still intact under the bite marks. Dan grants himself a moment to tilt his head back and stare at the ceiling and really consciously feel his heart beating for the first time in his life - to feel relieved and grateful for his luck, without guilt over those less fortunate tugging him back down.
Then the moment passes, and he's in his guest room, helping Rorschach struggle his coat off over arms too uncoordinated to accomplish the task on their own. He's barely aware of his surroundings at this point, beyond fighting the assistance, beyond any sense of pride or vulnerability or what the words even mean. Dan wants badly to ask what's going on, to grab his friend by the shoulders and shake the information out of him, but that's not a wise move on a good day and this is anything but.
(And he probably doesn't know any more than you do.)
Which, well... that's frightening in its own special way.
So they peel off the coat and the jacket, and Dan sets the hat aside and Rorschach manages to toe off the shoes himself before reaching up to pull away the mask, retreating into the blankets in blind and bleary obedience of some ancient burrowing instinct, buried in the back of the brain- the part that remembers being tiny and scrabbling and alone in a terrifyingly hostile world.
Dan stands for an indeterminate length of time at the foot of the bed, watching and thinking - mostly about the tight question mark his friend is making under the blankets, and about the bodies they've been finding out on patrol, huddled into themselves, faces frozen in something like desperation all mixed up with surprise. And about how useless those blankets are, as useless as his cape would have been in that drafty office twelve stories up, doing nothing more than capturing and holding in the cold.
He's not really thinking anything at all when he nudges his own shoes off, mind a carefully arranged blank as he drops his glasses to the nightstand and sits on the edge of the bed.
Pulling back the corner of the blanket, he's thinking
(it's fine, he's completely out of it, he won't even notice, and it's for his own good)
and he's thinking
(you're a complete and utter idiot, and you know it)
and the two thoughts directly contradict and one of them must be wrong but he can't bring himself to examine it too closely; just awkwardly shifts himself into the cold and cocooned space between the blankets. And he feels stupid and unbearably brave all at once because he can hear Ozymandias's cold accusations and he can hear the hospital director saying that he won't get a warning and his free arm is sore and aching from where the scavenger's bite crushed the armor around it but he still loops it over the shivering body next to him and tucks himself up against it, letting his warmth be leeched clean off through both layers of fabric.
He tells himself that this is practical, that if his heating blanket hadn't blown its element last winter and gone down in a haze of fire extinguisher expellant that this wouldn't be necessary at all.
He tells himself that there's not something inside of him that's being warmed by the chilled form gathered against him, even as his own body heat is diffusing away.
He tells himself that he isn't terrified that either he or Rorschach won't make it through the night, depending on what exactly is going wrong; that it isn't the case that he can't find it in himself to walk away from this right now; that he doesn't feel like his only option is to face it, and hold on for dear life, and hope for the best.
He tells himself a lot of things – then there's a shifting against him, and Dan freezes in place.
And it sounds like a warning but it's strangely quiet and resigned, as if he knows what Dan is going to say and doesn't harbor any delusions of being able to change his mind. And Dan would be surprised that that's all he's protesting about the situation - Dan's own safety - but he's all out of energy for being shocked tonight, and maybe the fact that the space under the blankets has already warmed considerably has made his motivation obvious –
"I know," Dan replies, quietly, the breath that comes with the words ghosting through the smaller man's hair.
-or maybe after starting to find a place for himself in the grey space between the person he'd been before and the creatures baying and screaming in the street outside, Rorschach's finally finding somewhere within himself an ability to exist in those zones – the space between the clearly defined thoughts and ideas that make up schemas and worldviews and the places we call home-
Dan closes his eyes and tightens his grip fractionally. "I can take my own chances."
-or maybe he's just exhausted beyond thought. There's a small sound, vaguely disapproving, but no further argument. No energy left for it. Within a few minutes, Rorschach's drifted off, though the tremors continue undiminished.
Sleep is longer in coming for Dan, who lies there looking into the cold and empty space inside himself, and considering how he ended up here of all places, and trying not to let the shaking body under his bruised and sore arm find and pluck a resonance in him- and worrying about exactly what reality he'll be opening his eyes on in the morning.
If he opens them at all.