Characters/Pairings: Daniel, Rorschach, Adrian, Manhattan in pt 1, Dan/Ror (gee you think?) later on
Date Written: 2009
Summary: A lot happens in the in-between spaces; in the tiny intervals of time in which no one watching, we are free. Dan and Rorschach face the future more head-on than they expected; Adrian learns about regret and what happens when you're wrong.
Rating/Warnings: PG-13, some language. Philosophy, violence, twilight zone bullshit, time travel, pretentious metaphors, and Waffle House.
Notes: Yet ANOTHER kinkmeme prompt. Post-GN fixit. In progress.
Extra Note: The illustration here is once again NOT MINE. Gift from anonymous, who is EVEN MORE awesome.
It's 11:31 AM, and they're catching a cab to Veidt's New York headquarters. The address is different than what either of them remembers, but his old office had been perilously close to his monster's ground zero, had likely been uninhabitable for far too long following the attack.
They've decided it would be a prudent idea to show up early.
It's 11:47 AM and Daniel is paying the taxi driver, who thanks him benevolently and excessively, as if simply paying the fare were in and of itself an act of kindness. The building has many stairs – an excessive nod to aesthetic, with the side effect of intimidating those entering with the sheer scale of the building, shoehorned into a corner seemingly too small to contain it. Neither of them intimidates easily. They climb.
11:51 AM, 11:52 AM, they are waiting outside the door to Veidt's personal office on the top floor, and the security guard sent to escort them up is actually watching them, actually observing – listlessly, but his eyes focus for a few seconds at a time, and that's an impressive trick in this brave new world. Rorschach files it away.
It's 11:54 AM when they look at each other, and Daniel takes a deeper breath than he really needs, and they walk through the open door. Veidt's waiting inside, standing up from his desk smoothly, groomed and coifed and perfect. His eyes are as hollow as any they've seen in the city.
"Dan," he says genially, no effort wasted on formality, or on masking the dull, robotic menace secreted under the smile. "It's been a long-"
Rorschach follows Daniel into the room, pulls the door shut behind him, barrel sliding home with a quiet click.
A vaguely curious lift of eyebrows. "...Rorschach. I'll be honest, I didn't expect you to come."
Rorschach only grunts in response, pacing past Veidt's desk and on to the windows beyond, practiced hands sweeping down curtain runners, trailing long and jagged paths through the dust collected on the sills. Haven't been opened in ages; it is March, but it seems like more than one season's worth of dust. The glass is starting to go blue-green with age around the edges. The drapes conceal no obvious weapons or traps.
"Letter asked for both of us," he finally replies, stepping out in a wide arc that puts him and Daniel directly opposite each other, geostationary around the man who would be center of the world. Force him to choose who to watch. Doesn't matter who he chooses if it puts him off guard.
But it doesn't seem to. Veidt smiles, and condescension drips from his tone. "But Rorschach – you were never one to follow instructions."
The clock on his desk shows 11:55.
Daniel is shifting, hands looking for something solid to put themselves around – obviously sensing how close this is, already, to slipping out of control. He clears his throat pointedly.
Rorschach doesn't move; just stares back at Veidt with a sharpness the other man has never seen without the dilution of black and white and latex.
A nod, and there is comprehension on Veidt's face, dulled around the edges like brushed metal but there. "Only when it suits your purposes, of course." He gestures towards the chairs in front of the desk, seats himself in his own, ignoring the tension as if it's suddenly beneath him - or simply forgetting it was ever there. "You'll have to forgive me, it's been quite a while longer for me than it has been for you. I've lost track of some of your eccentricities."
Daniel winces, probably expecting an escalation in response; when it doesn't come, he glances back at Rorschach questioningly. Takes one of the offered seats.
Rorschach doesn't, bristling visibly, pacing behind the chairs in a slow and measured way that, for all of his age and weariness, is an echo of some young and violent creature of the wilds, circling for first blood.
"We have a good deal to speak about," Veidt offers, tracking Rorschach with his roving gaze, fingers steepled on the blotter in front of him.
11:56, and Veidt glances down at the watch on his left wrist. He never used to wear one, before.
"You want our silence," Daniel says, blunt and undiplomatic and Rorschach huffs behind him, something that sounds like approval.
Veidt looks at his watch again; picks up a pen. Left hand, not right. Starts writing – no, not writing, drawing, on a scrap of paper. Tiny clock faces, and the page is already halfway full of them. "A silence which, as you recall, Dan – you already promised to me. Ten years ago or two days ago, but one would assume it would stand regardless. I'm not worried about your sense of discretion."
But he is worried about someone's. It hangs in the air, as always: Rorschach is the problem, is the threat, is the great dangling loose end. A decade gone and the record hasn't been changed, and it's almost heartening, because if Veidt thinks they're actually a threat-
Rorschach circles closer, within sight of the sheet. All the clocks point to midnight. That, he understands, and his fists clench involuntarily. "Fail to see how it matters," he spits, halting his pacing long enough to look Veidt in the eye, daring the obvious lie. "Citizens of your utopia. Blind and aimless. Wouldn't know the truth if it fell from the sky."
From the sky. Monsters and lies and mind-poison, drifting on the currents, and those windows are broad and high and they’re not open now but they could be, in an instant. Below, crowds are milling, aimless and unaware.
Veidt smiles, and it's empty and chilling. "The level of tranquility you refer to is not absolute; approximately half a percentage point of the population worldwide are... regressive. Still as people always have been. Petty, angry, looking for an excuse to be moved to violence. I can't let you give them that excuse."
His eyes barely move, but he's just checked his watch again. It's 11:58.
"What happens at noon?" Daniel asks; it seems like a non-sequitur, but he hasn't missed it either.
A look of nearly genuine confusion. "I don't know what you mean."
Rorschach takes a step toward the desk, glowering; another habit that doesn't work as well without his face, but he's had no time to learn new tricks. "Keep checking your watch. Expecting something."
"I've been doing no such thing, and for the sake of us reaching an amenable agreement that involves you both walking away with your lives, I'd ask you to keep your... bizarre paranoia in check."
Another glance down, almost before the words are out. The second hand shudders along.
"My god," Daniel says, something strange and understanding blooming across his face. He reaches into his pocket, digging around. "You don't even realize you're doing it, do you?"
"Dan, honestly, I expect this sort of behavior from Ro-"
The note is unfolded, flattened out, pushed across the desk; behind him, Rorschach stiffens. They'd agreed not to play this card too soon, and it still feels unbearably early as Dan looks up to meet Veidt's gaze, one finger anchoring the paper to the desk. "Adrian. Why did you write this?"
Seconds tick away; below, a light changes, and pedestrians cross with the signal. Taxis and delivery vans wait patiently, vibrating and humming behind the white line, and there are none of the usual near-misses. Clockwork.
Veidt shakes his head and again, the confusion is almost convincing. "I... don't know what to say. It does look like my handwriting, but I'm afraid I'm not in the habit of drawing up correspondence by hand. Unprofessional."
"It was in with your letter."
The sheet of clockfaces on the desk seem important somehow. Some missing piece of-
"I didn't write-"
11:59, and the watch on Veidt's wrist is shrieking.
Veidt is out of his chair, leaned across the desk, has Daniel lifted from his own seat by his shirt, hands fisted into the fabric – more quickly than should be possible, too quickly for Rorschach to move to intercept. His eyes are sharp and clear and filled with panic. He's no longer smiling.
All of which is irrelevant, because he's broken their fragile, unspoken cease-fire, has taken physical action against them, is threatening Daniel. Rorschach's crossed the space and his hands are up and they're about to land, dislocate the shoulder or snap the collarbone or just stun him into letting go when Daniel puts his own hand up, palm out, frantically halting him.
Veidt is mumbling into the resultant silence, quietly, over and over again, eyes wide and full of animal terror: "Help me. Please."
Rorschach shakes in place, fury rattling its way out through clenched teeth and clenched fists, but Daniel is blocking him, warning him off, and he has to have a reason and he's talking to Veidt, so calmly and carefully as if he were a child: "How can we help you? What should we do?"
One hand uncurls from his shirt, is fumbling through a desk drawer. Rorschach stiffens, expecting a hidden weapon. Something tiny and glinting metallic in the overhead lights is palmed into Daniel's hand instead. "Take everything," Veidt insists, and if he has none of his old composure, he's at least regained the fire. "Don't look at the light. Whatever you do, don't look at the light."
Daniel nods, fist tightening around whatever it is he's been handed. "What light?" He gets no response; panic is starting to glaze into catatonia. "Adrian. What light?"
The watch starts emitting a low sequence of beeps, increasing in speed and pitch, like the rising and urgent scream of an air raid siren.
In the scuffle, the sheet of clockfaces has been brushed to the floor. Driven by impulse he doesn't fully understand, Rorschach crouches to pick it up, eyes not leaving Veidt and Daniel until he's standing again and risks a look at the page.
All the hands point to twelve. Midnight.
And as the clock on Veidt's desk gives a mechanical twitch, hands sliding fluidly together, and a gold-white glow starts to swell through the windows – he realizes his mistake.
("Don't look at the light.")
It's pure instinct that screws Rorschach's eyes shut – makes him release the sheet and lunge for Daniel, knocking him from Veidt's grip and dropping them both to the carpet.
And even as he's forced to bring his full weight to bear to try to keep his partner still because he's thrashing and bucking, hands clenched into hard fists – even as he gropes blindly for Daniel's face, palms pressing over his eyes when he finds them – he knows it's too late, because Daniel is screaming and screaming and the sound is dragging something sharp and horrible down along the inside of his ribcage, scraping him raw and bleeding, and everything that's left in there is all wrapped up in the man writhing under his hands and Daniel's eyes are covered now but he won't stop screaming and-
Someone, somewhere, flips a switch, because now it's quiet and still and his vision is black behind his eyelids again, not the red of light tunneling through skin and blood. He cracks his eyes open, cautiously. Finds conditions nominal.
When he lifts his hands away, Daniel's face is pale, fine muscle tremors rippling across his features, eyes unfocused and empty and roving.
"My goodness, I had no idea." Veidt's standing behind his desk still, an amused smirk dancing on his otherwise blank face. His eyebrows lift suggestively; his tone is all condescension and bemusement again, that strange, raw vulnerability evaporated. A minute to midnight, a minute to noon; it all makes a sick sort of sense. "Though I must insist that this is hardly the appropriate time or place."
Rorschach looks up and then down again; realizes that he's straddled across Daniel's midsection, hands still pressed to the sides of his face, and Daniel is obviously not well, is shaking and lost, had moments ago been thrashing and screaming in agony and he knows that only Veidt would make a filthy joke out of-
He also knows when he's being baited, cheaply and casually. Chooses not to take the hook, this time. More important matters: Daniel, information, and possibly manslaughter. He shifts back onto his feet, still crouched low, and hisses: "What did you do to him?"
(If you've hurt her-)
The words are different, the anger the same, but it's a functional, practical question, not loaded down with the childish implication of threats, and it earns him as honest an answer as he can expect from this smiling, bland puppet of a man
(You already got an answer from the frightened creature inside:
"Don't look at the light.")
when he narrows his eyes, leans over the desk to really look, and says, "I haven't done anything." There's something there like a mockery of concern, and he steps around the other side. "He really doesn't look well, though." A significant pause. "You should look after him."
Rorschach looks up, locks eyes with the man looming over them; business suit, shining cufflinks, not a hair out of place. A watch, now silent. At this range he can see the fine lines that the last decade has layered into Veidt's face, around the eyes and mouth; footprints of stress and worry, not of excessive laughter or smiling as Daniel has often insisted. A perfect caricature.
Rorschach knows how ugly he is. Knows Veidt has never seen him in person without his face until today. Had been expecting a taunt or a jibe; didn't care, but expected, given the man's superficiality and propensity for shallow insults.
He understands, right then, what's been so unsettling about the entire exchange. Veidt's been reading from a script, acting out a scene that's been on pause for a decade, with no sense of investment or the usual deep cunning. No expectation that it would go wrong, that it would not play out as it was supposed to.
He has no information to give, because he's telling the truth – he hasn't done anything. He isn't in control here.
"Will keep quiet for now," Rorschach lies, more easily than he ever has, because he knows that this gutted, pre-programmed ghost of what had once been the smartest man in the world will believe him.
Veidt nods in acceptance and steps behind his desk, busies himself with paperwork. The curtain's dropped. All that's left is for the actors to get off of the stage.
Rorschach hefts Daniel upright, limp and clearly delirious but his feet somehow remembering through the daze how to stand, step, walk - all of his weight on Rorschach's shoulders. Get them out, get them safe, figure out how to fix this. Because it is fixable; it has to be.
And because he is and always will be the programmed creature he is, Rorschach stops at the door, turns back to the room.
"Isn't over, Veidt."
A shuffling of papers. The clock reads 12:02. "Nothing ever is."