Characters/Pairings: Daniel, Rorschach, peripheral others. Dan/Ror if you squint.
Date Written: 2009
Summary: Is it worse to die alone, or to die with blood on your hands?
Rating/Warnings: PG-13, some language.
Notes: Book!verse. Set in 1974 or so. I think this could actually fit in before the Zombie!verse, but then, just about anything pre-1975 could, so, whatever. Also: I know nothing about bombs, sorry. I’ve seen enough movies that I can hopefully fudge it. Additionally, this has been editted slightly since its original posting, just a few things tweaked and fixed to flow better.
There are too many wires.
There are too many wires, all snaking their way under casings and into power supplies and into the blocks of explosive, twisting in on themselves, and it's nothing like the simple slapped-together devices he'd run across nine years ago in their very first ill-fated attempt at the Big Figure. He'd only just woken up that time, on the bleeding edge of a concussion, his partner slumped against his back where they'd been tied, and even so he'd managed to nudge the box over with the toe of his boot and get the right wire disconnected. Somehow. It might have been luck, or the simplicity of the design. Or it might have been the extra pressure of both their lives – not just his – hanging in the balance that forced him to narrow his focus and dismiss failure as an extant option.
The pressure isn't helping this time, Rorschach prowling like a half-remembered instinct of wilderness all along the edges of his vision, and there are too many goddamned wires – and he didn't wake up this morning with the thought that he'd really like to disarm a bomb, for fun or kicks, before the day was out. This isn't how he’d planned to spend his night.
They hadn't even gotten to the first order of business – just as well, too, because these meetings had been feeling like corporate buzzword circle-jerks lately, and that was no way to handle crime fighting. Maybe Rorschach had been right all those years ago, about it being a publicity stunt. Ever since Nelson had died...
There was a sudden rush of motion. Ozymandias, urgent and costume only halfway arranged and flustered – actually flustered, that was a first - crossed the room in three distance-eating steps and slapped a piece of paper onto the table in front of them. Time. Place. How long until it went off. A threat, vague and amorphous, that if a single uniform were to be seen – police, disposal, SWAT, anything – the remote detonator would be used. This one was for them. See how willing they really were to protect and serve, and the words carried an undercurrent of the growing unrest frissoning through the city, the schism forming between two fraternities that really ought to have been on the same side.
And, just like that, none of the other bullshit mattered anymore.
"You shouldn't be here," Dan mutters, unwilling to raise his voice any higher lest the pressure of the sound wave cause the device in front of him to do anything... unpredictable. It's bolted into the concrete, and he has the passing, useless thought that whoever did this must have spent months installing it. People walk by here every day. How is it that no one ever notices these things going on right in front of their eyes? "Distracting me."
At those words, Rorschach pulls to a dead halt, going utterly still in place. He's about ten feet away and across from where Dan's hunched over the bomb, closed snips running shakily over the wires. Tracing them, trying to make sense of the design. There isn't a whole lot of time left. And there's no verbal response; just a sudden and complete lack of motion and the silence left over when already-quiet footfalls stop.
Dan breathes out, frustrated and terrified and feeling like he's had about sixteen cups of coffee mainlined straight into his arm. Incapable of that stillness. Irritated by it. "Just because you stop moving doesn't make you any less distracting." Red, red, black, green, green, green, green with white stripes? What the hell is that supposed to be? Black, white, white, red...
There's a shuffling sound of leather against fabric, loud in the enclosed and deserted space. Rorschach settles his hands in his pockets. "Not sure what the problem is, then."
White, green, blue... "What the prob- Rorschach." Dan rubs the back of his neck with the hand holding the wire snips; glances at the timer. Twenty minutes left or thereabout. He doesn't want to let it get down to seconds – sophisticated as this thing may be, he's never trusted the absolute accuracy of these timers – but pretty soon, he's not going to have much choice but to start guessing. "This would be a lot easier if I knew that everyone that I-" A pause, catching himself. "...if I knew that everyone else was safe."
If Rorschach notices the almost-slip, he doesn't let on; just stands there, ten feet away, damnably casual.
Ten feet isn't nearly enough. Ten feet is as good as standing right on top of it.
"Would that allow you to know which wires to cut?" he asks, and it's not a question, because everything in the tone says that he already knows the answer.
There was a very real possibility that it was a trap – that the remote detonator would be used anyway, as soon as they stepped foot in the building. It was also a non-issue as far as Dan was concerned. They had two options: do as the threat directed, and run whatever risks might come, or do nothing – out of fear – and watch the aftermath on the evening news the next day. Not really a choice at all.
Then, the realization sunk in by careful and slippery degrees. He was the only one here who'd ever – ever – defused a bomb. Ozymandias knew the theory but not the practice. Jupiter knew even less. Manhattan – the obvious choice, really – was simply not present, and no one knew precisely why. Off on some mission elsewhere in the world. He was not generous with his secrets.
"Hell," the Comedian laughed around his cigar, and he shouldn't have been laughing, not at this. "Only bomb disposal I ever did was chuckin' 'em into the ocean. Makes a real pretty explosion, I gotta say."
"Yes, well," and it was a tight and controlled response. Ozymandias was not amused. "As this one is apparently installed in place, I somehow doubt that will be a useful technique." The gaze shifted, something hopeful flickering behind it. "Nite Owl?"
He'd felt more than seen Rorschach stiffen beside him, a barely-perceptible shift in posture that was as close to visible alarm as the man ever showed. He ignored it, nodding lightly – and for a strange moment, wasn't sure who he was trying to convince. "I... have actually, yeah. It was a while ago, but..."
"It was luck," Rorschach growled from next to him.
And Dan was momentarily taken aback by the apparent insult until he caught the posture, the way gloved fingertips were pressing into the tabletop with just slightly too much pressure. Hit upon an understanding of what was behind it. Careful and deliberate and even: "You wouldn't know. You were out cold at the time."
And he looked away before Rorschach had a chance to respond, nodding to Ozymandias again, every effort put in to make it more solid and more sure. "I can do it."
There was no audible response, but it was as if the entire room had let out a held breath, and then they were in motion – evacuation and transport and organization and where's the best place to house everyone? Isn't there a convention center near...?
Dan didn't need to see under the mask to know he was being glowered at, openly and unapologetically.
The snips are open, bladed edges resting around a white wire leading to the power supply. He thinks this is where he should start. He isn't sure, and his hand is shaking, and damn it but Rorschach is still standing just inside his field of vision, stubbornly waiting for the answer to his non-question. Dan hesitates, then, simply: "No." He's pressing the blades closed a fraction of a millimeter, testing. They embed into the plastic lining the wire, but don't break through. Not yet. "I don't honestly have any idea what I'm doing. But someone has to try."
There's a rough sound that's either no emotion at all or something unbearably complex, and Rorschach comes forward, taking obvious care to quiet his steps.
(Wrong direction,) Dan’s mind is screaming. (Need you to go the other way.)
"This was a bad idea, then."
It occurs to Dan, irrationally given the situation, that a lesser man would be saying 'I told you so.'
Rorschach just stands, hands in pockets, something like worry clouding up the shifting blots, clotting them around the eyes like old, old blood.
The timer is still counting down.
Dan takes in a breath – holds it – whispers something that could be a broken piece of prayer but could just as easily be a condemnation of the man standing in front of him, and closes the snips.
"The civilians are clear," came the voice over the handheld radio, and Ozymandias ducked to give the news to Dan, quietly, obviously not wanting to be a distraction. Dan had managed to get the casing off, with some effort – had located and laid bare the timing mechanism. The note's estimate of two hours had been surprisingly accurate, unless this was a dummy clock, laid in to trick them.
Dan nodded, distractedly, fingers running over the thick bundle of wires all tied neatly together. The ties were the first thing to go, falling away easily, loosing the wires to be traced back to their sources. There were a lot of them. It hit Dan all at once then – hard enough to knock the breath from him – that he was in way over his head.
He glanced up, at Ozymandias and Spectre standing nearby, both having finished their segment of the evacuation already. At Rorschach, to all appearances unperturbed and unruffled now for all that he hadn't taken his masked eyes off of Dan once since the screwdriver had come out. They were trusting him...
There was a school on this block. A hospital on the other side. They didn't have any idea how powerful the bomb was – how much it would take out if it went. This building was clear, but that didn't mean there wouldn't be casualties.
"Out," he said shortly, turning back to the wires, fingers reaching in between to separate them into manageable groups. "All of you."
Dan registers, as he lets the breath out, that he isn’t dead. The snips are shaking violently in his hands, and the white wire is in two pieces, and the timer, of course, is still counting down. (So much for getting lucky on the first try.)
Then he glances up, and Rorschach is staring steadily back, and he realizes just how lucky he really was.
The tip of the snips goes back into the mess of wires, trying to get a clear idea of where to go next. "Maybe it was. You know what's a worse idea, though?" Dan's voice is higher-pitched than usual, underlined sharp and bright with fear. Edging on panicked. "You still being here. God, Rorschach – I was stupid, bit off more than I could handle. Do we both need to die for it?"
They'd nodded, and Jupiter had bit her lip nervously, and Ozymandias had wished him good luck and actually meant it, and he'd heard two sets of footsteps tracking out of the room. It'd taken him a few seconds to realize that the math was wrong, that there'd been three people in the room and not two.
Rorschach had been hovering, in the same spot, completely still – as if by not moving, he could escape notice indefinitely.
"Damn it," Dan growled, pinching the bridge of his nose and turning to look sharply up at his partner, expression exasperated and demanding.
Rorschach just nodded his head toward the device, indicating that he should get to work. Time was running out, after all.
There's something in the wiring of this that's starting to make a vague kind of sense. It's not an 'ah ha' – nothing that concrete – but he at least won't have to guess blindly, if it comes down to guessing, and that's a tiny bit of comfort.
Rorschach hasn't answered his question.
"Well?" Dan prompts, making a decision- getting a green wire between the snips, and nodding down towards it. "If this is the wrong wire... if my stupid incompetence is going to kill me, is there any sense at all in you going down too?"
The standing figure drops then, into a crouch, balancing on the balls of his feet. Down to Dan's eye level, though there aren't any eyes to look at. There's a silence, but it's a churning sort of silence – there's something gathering in the gap between them. Rorschach twists one gloved hand in the other, a gesture so like nervous wringing that Dan can't immediately reconcile it with the man in front of him; he hears the sound of a false start, bitten back.
Dan just looks straight into where his partner's face should be, fingers frozen around the wire cutters.
"Daniel..." And his head angles to one side, towards the floor. His voice sounds different when it returns, somehow reserved, quiet. Self-preserving in the face of too much revealed. "I know 'alone'. Know what alone is. You don't..."
Rorschach's head comes back up, and for just a second, Dan thinks he sees a real face there – then it’s gone, and only the black and white remain. Gritted out roughly: "You don't deserve to die that way."
A stretch of time passes, indeterminately long, and Dan can't bring himself to look at the timer, coldly ticking off what could be the last few minutes of his life. Of both their lives.
Uncompromising: "I don't deserve to die knowing that I'm killing you along with me."
A nod, Rorschach's motions stiff and jerky. "Probably also true. Can't have it both ways, though." He reaches up, straightens his hat absently. Rests both arms across his knees, and otherwise doesn't move. "Cut the wire, Daniel."
So Dan cuts the wire, in a moment of breath-holding unreality – and another after that, and another. And all the while, his partner is across from him, crouched on the tile, watching in silence and maybe, somewhere under the surface, is as terrified as Dan is each time the faint snip of the shears echoes in the space between them, expecting the instant-white-hot flash and the pain and then the empty black nothingness.
The timer reads a minute and fourteen seconds when it finally grinds to a halt – no movie-grade close shave, but that's just goddamned fine by him – and Dan drops his head to the device, listening for any signs that it's still active, that maybe he’s only succeeded in cutting power to the timer’s display, that he’s fallen into a carefully designed feint. There's nothing.
(Oh god… it’s stopped. It’s over.)
He rolls back then, off of his knees- overshoots, and winds up sprawling onto his side on the floor. His strings have been cut along with that last wire, and he's boneless suddenly- and all he can do is laugh and laugh and try not to sob. It's a hiccoughing sound that borders on tears, the helpless hysteria of reaching up and feeling the scratch where the bullet grazed and realizing there but for the grace of...
Rorschach stays crouched where he is for a long moment, inkblots shifting unreadably – then fluidly gets back to his feet, reaches down to haul Dan off of the floor and, one arm under him for support he obviously needs, walks them both, all shakes and jackhammer-heartbeats and unspeakable tiredness, out of the building and into the open air beyond.