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 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: 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.
The dust motes still swirl just as restlessly in the sharply angled light - it's almost noon, the route they took back here deliberately convoluted and time-consuming, and Daniel checks his watch constantly - but the dingy warehouse, so different in the daylight than the blurry grey-on-grey of early mornings and restless late evenings, feels like a place momentarily carved out of time. Shadows are short in this space, sounds muffled, emptiness complete. If there are birds nesting in the high rafters, they keep to themselves. Every detail is picked out with exacting clarity, in the same way that a photograph is so much sharper than any moving picture can ever be.
Spread out in front of them is every piece of information that's gone missing from Veidt's headquarters in the last ten years, every minor paper trail that they will need to follow if they want to unlock the larger pattern; a detailed account of a world gone mad, collated and organized and allowed to fall silently and discreetly between the cracks. Daniel is being organized, deliberate, squaring each folder and binder and stack of loose papers, laying them out by date. It makes sense; it's not an intuitive approach, but intuition only goes so far when even a glimpse of the picture being put together stays so maddeningly out of sight.
(You're slipping. There was a time - not that long ago - when you would already have a list of suspects in mind, written down, correlated, fact-checked. Schedules worked out. Investigation strategy devised.
And do you really need toys for that, pen and paper? Are you so useless at this without pages and pages to spill your brain out onto?)
The journal sits to one side, unclassified.
(No. It's just a different kind of case. Veidt at the wheel, inherently harder to crack. That's all.)
Rorschach ignores the rest of the paperscrap and picks up the leather-bound book, easing it off of the makeshift table with two fingers, cautious: half-expecting it to sink poisonous fangs into his hand or just crumble irreparably into dust. The material is worn soft around the edges and bears lightened patches on either cover where strange hands have clutched it too hard in all the wrong places; the paper is yellowing and ragged.
Daniel watches, quiet, hand frozen mid-motion on its way into the stack of unsorted files. "...that's yours, isn't it?"
"Was," Rorschach corrects, running fingers over the edge of the book, lingering where he knows a thumb has pressed back the cover for hours. He feels strangely calm at the revelation, at the way the pages buckle apart under the lightest pressure. "Appears to have been compromised."
It's ten minutes until noon. Daniel won't let them start digging in-depth until after the danger is passed, lest they bury themselves in it and lose track of time. Rorschach hesitates, thumbing a circle over the cover - then stands abruptly. Paces away, towards the window, slipping the book open and turning the rough, ink-sodden pages with the casual ease of familiarity.
He skips over earlier entries, unrelated to their current situation - finds the beginnings of the investigation that eventually led them to Veidt's snow-covered doorstep, and starts reading. Blake's murder. Jacobi's involvement, sidelined partway through. Actions, inactions, suspicions, theories, and he'd been so far off base in the end, but at least he'd seen the loose shape of the thing, hiding back behind the screen. No one else had even seen that it was there.
He gets to the November 1st entry, pressing his mouth into a hard line as his eyes stumble and slip over the fatalistic words. Three days and one flight across the Atlantic ago. It feels fresh, and it'd come very close to being appropriate. He's still not sure that it isn't. 'I think we will be gone soon,' he'd written, and they'd been gone faster than they thought possible, vanished and smoothed over in the space between two seconds. Gone in all the ways that mattered.
Then he turns the page - he's not even sure why - and freezes.
"Thirty seconds," Daniel warns from his position at the table, getting the last of the folders laid out - piling the odder shaped packages together on one end.
Seconds are meaningless. Time has dropped away.
There's writing. After the last entry. After the end.
Rorschach's fingers grip around the book, hard, sliding unknowingly into the dips and bruises in the leather, all the points of least resistance. His stomach spasms, twisting in on itself, a dark hand curling its way into his gut, ice and mud and wet, clinging soot.
Reading it was already one crime - unacceptable, but overlooked in the light of everything else that's transpired. This, though, this-
The writing leans gently to the left, like his own. He recognizes the hand.
"Fifteen sec-" the procedural warning cuts off, and returns with urgency. "Rorschach? What the hell are you doing, close your eyes."
It's Veidt's handwriting. It's the same as the letter. He should be reading it but he can't focus through the rage welling up, stirring like nausea, drawing something out of him that is young and frightened and violated and flaying it open in the light.
Somewhere nearby, he catches motion out of the corner of his eye, a crate-turned-chair toppling backward with no little force.
-It took me years to understand. Years to lose enough to be able to tell loss from sacrifice - what is given and what is taken.-
Daniel is yelling at him, gesturing at his watch.
-To understand why you were willing to die for the world's right to choose - choose to live or choose to die. To give because they choose, not because it is required or demanded or tricked away from them.-
The writing is in four distinct patches, the ink color different between each, the skew sharper with each successive passage, the line quality degrading as it goes. Sentences bridge the gaps seamlessly, as if the thread of thought had never been laid down.
-Now everything has been taken, and there is no one left to care that a difference ever existed.-
The last section is barely legible, shaken apart by anxiety and dread and something deeper and darker than both of them.
-We were both wrong and not wrong, and now the world is far worse than wrong and I do not believe it will ever be right again. Humanity did need to be saved from itself, but that is not what I was doing.-
Somewhere, there's a ticking, and there's a voice.
(His watch. Daniel's watch. Noon.)
-If you hold this in your hands again, then they will be coming for you. I will not be able to prevent it. Time forgive us, who cleaved the knot without knowing it held our future aloft, over a pit far blacker than any we had imagined.-
The journal shakes in his hands. Daniel's eyes are open as he shouts, crossing the space between them with frantic, echoing steps, and there are seconds left - and the anger bleeds out and Rorschach knows.
He claps the book shut, hard. The sound echoes like a gunshot.
The world goes white.
On the top floor of the Veidt Corporation's headquarters, a telephone settles softly back into its cradle, the frenzied conversation of the last sixty seconds cut off without a word. The man holding the handset has no idea how it got into his hand, or what he'd been saying, or why his security chief had been repeating over and over that the retrieval order cannot be countermanded, no, really, not even by him. Adrian Veidt doesn't remember making a telephone call at all, and he settles back into his chair and allows himself the luxury of a moment's flitting concern; these blackouts are coming more often lately, and he feels like he should know what that means, but the information dances, taunting, just out of reach.
On the other end of the line, the security officer shrugs, and hangs up the phone, and dials the standing orders into the rank and file – the conversation already all but forgotten.
Sixty seconds of freedom aren't always enough.
Dan opens his eyes, after he's sure the light's faded. Two feet away, his partner's are closed.
"Oh," he says, and it comes out like a sigh, like relief. Dan pushes the goggles up onto his forehead; he'd kept his eyes closed under them for probably longer than he needed to; had been honestly a little terrified to open them, but he hadn't heard a sound out of Rorschach and he vaguely remembered screaming until his throat had gone raw and useless when he'd been hit and he needs to make sure but it looks like... "You weren't– I thought it was going to get to you."
"Did," Rorschach mutters, terse as always, and Dan suddenly has something cold and slithering where his blood should be. Relief boils off in an instant.
(No. No, can't be. He's aware, he's talking, he's-)
He's – Christ, he's having trouble opening his eyes. Every time he tries, it's only to blink rapidly, an arrhythmic, seizure-like flutter that seems to shake through his entire face. "Just. Not all of me," he appends, as if that in any way makes this less precarious.
A step, and Dan's mostly thinking about their first night here and double standards and how he doesn't have any more goddamned patience for them. "Let me see," he says, bracing Rorschach's face between his palms – it's not an illusion, he really is shaking – peeling an eyelid back with one thumb. Underneath, Rorschach looks dazed, and it reminds Dan of the Underboss hitting them with those flash bombs back in '66 that left Rorschach blind for three days, hazy for a week after that. It had been a very, very bad three days: He hadn't seen under the mask, but he could tell by the way it moved that there was something unseeing and afraid behind it. He's seeing that again now.
"What happened?" Dan asks, and it's all he can do to keep the panic out of his voice, shifting his hands to check the other eye. He doesn't say: You knew perfectly well that it was coming. Or: You knew how to prevent this. Or even: What the hell were you thinking? That, oh – that will come later.
Rorschach shakes his head sharply, moves to swat Dan's hands away – barely makes contact. The spastic blinking is starting to slow and settle, but focus isn't coming back underneath it. "Let some of it through."
The hands stop moving, locked in place.
(Let. On purpose. He – oh god, he did it on purpose.)
It's no dramatic shocked freezeframe; shock implies feeling nothing, and in the seconds that follow, Dan feels plenty. Fear. Panic. Mostly anger, if he's honest, and right now he sees no reason not to be. "...why would you... Rorschach," he snaps, as his friend's attention starts to drift and god, he remembers that. "What were you think-"
"Had to find out." He's digging absently in his pocket, with none of the urgency his words imply. "They're coming. Now. Put the evidence back in the box."
Dan doesn't move, still trying to get a handle on the extent of damage that's just been done, arms dropping to his sides – weighing the tired, empty voice and tired, empty eyes against every feather he's ever held in his hand.
"Evidence, Daniel," Rorschach insists, still searching his coat, and yesterday it would have been sharp and commanding and would have left Dan no room for argument. As it is, it sounds like he's struggling just to remember what he's saying from second to second. "In box."
Yesterday, it had been sharp and commanding. It had pulled him out of the fugue with jerking and relentless barbs, hooked him deep and pulled all the buried things back out into the light. He should be able to do the same thing,
(If you don't run out of time first)
but there's a weight to Rorschach's words, hanging hard in the air, and even in the face of this gradual dissolution, Dan needs to believe: that there is a reason. That there is a plan. That Rorschach didn't just throw himself away on a whim.
He thinks, jarringly, of snow; of children gnawing bones in a moonlight fractured by fire; of a scream that will not come.
Somewhere up above, there's a rustling, and dirty grey feathers fall, fall – hit the floor. Make no sound.
The scale tips. Dan's back at the table in a heartbeat, fight instincts overriding: deal with the immediate danger now, sort the rest out later. "Who's 'they'?" he asks, sweeping his carefully organized piles into the cardboard bin, taking only enough care to keep the folders closed and contained. "And how do you know?"
Rorschach lifts a hand to his face, wavering over his eyes. He hasn't moved. "Them. Whoever... they. Are. Nrrg. Privy to instructions, not psychic."
Sarcasm. That's good. Sarcasm's good, even if it's coming out flat. "How do you know?" Dan repeats. Keep him talking, keep him focused in his thoughts if not in his vision...
God, his eyes. They're not looking at anything.
Dan gathers the odd packages and drops them in on top, grabbing the bin up by its handles. When he turns, Rorschach is opening the journal still in his hands, tearing an entire page free. He's directly in the sun from the window and particulate dances around him, renders his face indistinct, expression vague and watery. "Flash contained instructions," he says, and the pauses are getting longer, harder to recover from, fight leaving him. "Mobilization of forces. They've known we were here the whole time."
Somewhere distant, Dan can hear the sound of helicopter rotors churning up the sky.
The pencil stub scratches over the page, poking a hole where Rorschach presses too hard. "Red," he says cryptically, "Means stop."
Stop. Stop means stay, means stay put, means sit still and wait for them to come to you, means sit still and don't fight. Red means stop...
(...and he hasn't moved...)
"...and green means go." Dan stands, bin in hand, watching him struggle with the paper. There's a building hum in his ears and the long bones of his legs. He isn't sure if he's hearing it or feeling it, riding up through the floor like the early warnings of an earthquake. "That's what you saw, isn't it? The 'go' order."
The hum intensifies. There are no earthquakes on the eastern seaboard; he's pretty sure of that.
Dan shifts the bin to one hand to reach for his goggles, pull them down. The page is pressed into his hand, and the journal disappears into Rorschach's coat. There's an address, scratched across the yellowed paper in a scrawl that visibly deteriorates from top to bottom. "Not yet," Rorschach says, and there's a renewed strength in his tone. He's still not looking at anything. "After dark. When you're not being followed."
It's somewhere on the waterfront, on the distant edge of the same warehouse district they're currently in. It's the sixth and last location. Rorschach knows how to get there, can navigate them there easily enough even in this state. So why write it d-
The bin suddenly feels heavier, the chopper noise closer, and Dan asks even though he's afraid of the answer: "Why are you giving me this?"
Rorschach is quiet for so long that Dan's starting to think that's it, he's lost it, slipped under, gone – and he knows they needs to be moving, can feel the need to go singing along every nerve, but he's not budging until he gets an answer and if it's an answer he doesn't like, well –
"Going about this the wrong way." Rorschach's voice is soft, with a tenuous thread of control wavering through it. Apologetic, almost, and that's the last resurfaced emotion Dan wants to hear right now. "We run, hide, like rats infesting Veidt's basement. Will keep finding us. Need to find them. Confrontation is inevitable, eventually."
"Eventu– it's only been three days."
Three days since Karnak. Since Rorschach made this decision the first time, took on this resigned and regretful tone the first time,
("That's always been the difference between us," he said, and was that an insult or...?)
and Dan should have known that he was kidding himself, acting like this was some kind of miraculous reprieve that somehow changed everything. That they could investigate and prowl the streets and take on the world, back to back, like they used to – ignore all the falling to pieces they've both spent the last eight years doing and pretend to be whole again, for just a little while.
"Three days, three-hundred days," Rorschach says, and he's getting audibly more spacey. "No difference." A pause and then, significantly: "Daniel."
The noise is getting louder, from above and below. Dan turns the paper over in his hand, recognizes Adrian's writing on the back. His voice is quiet. "How did you snap me out of this, Rorschach? Tell me, right now, before you can't anymore."
"We can make time, this is-"
A gloved hand closes over his, folding it around the sheet of paper. It doesn't even occur to Dan to be surprised at the contact, to be touched. Nothing's making it through except the fear. "Can't fight like this. Doubt you can stop them alone. Occupy them, you might be able to get out."
Get out. Live to fight another day. Carry on – and keep what they've fought for, folded away in all of those binders and wrappings, safe. It's a tactical decision, and it smells like the beginnings of a plan, something complicated and underhanded and inaccessible, but Dan still shakes his head like he's trying to rattle something free from inside, some bad idea that clings with tenacious fingers. He's close to just throwing tactics to the winds, grabbing Rorschach by his coat collar, dragging him out of here himself if he has to. "No. No way in hell are you going to just walk into this."
"Reconnaissance," and it doesn't sound like even Rorschach's sure he believes it. "Will find out who is behind it. Location. Methods. Bring information back-"
"You know what they'll to do to you."
The reality sits between them, heavier than the words or the downy grey feathers or the weight of any silence: Dan mumbling useless nonsense in an alley, eyes that seize and shudder and refuse to open. Green means go, red means stop, and what does 'surrender' mean, white and waving, in this brave new world?
What is Adrian's writing doing in Rorschach's journal?
"Maybe," Rorschach mumbles, eyelids starting to flutter again, voice barely there. "One flash per day. Will have at least 24 hours to escape before-"
Dan bites his lip, exhales explosively. Frustrated. "Do you really think you could escape from anywhere, like this?"
A second passes. The helicopters are almost here, now.
The page he chose to rip out – was that accidental, or is there a point behind it?
"They're going to hit you with that thing until you don't even know who you are anymore." There are no histrionics here; just a cold recitation of the facts as they understand them. "Until you don't know who I am, until you don't remember why you care."
And there is no worse nightmare; well-adjusted façade aside, Dan's had plenty to compare it to. He's long since learned how not to wake up screaming. He doubts it will help him much, this time. "How can I..." he starts to ask, trailing off because Rorschach has gone very quiet and very, very still – and it isn't even a real question to begin with.
(How can I do this alone?)
Wandering a strange city, with a Veidt Consolidated Banking bin full of documents so secret there isn't even a classification that would suit them, half-programmed and ducking lights and trying to – literally, now, not some ego-stroking exaggeration – save the world. By himself.
(You've worked alone before. But, but! You never felt alone, knowing that out there in the city was someone who would steal your food to say 'I miss you' and break your locks to say 'I worry' and come out of nowhere with a hand on your shoulder and sharp words about retribution to say 'I'm sorry, I know it hurts' and then vanish again but never gone, never gone.)
'Gone' is such a horrible word, rounded and blunt and permanent, and hasn't it been waiting in the wings since Rorschach walked out that doorway into the swirling white, self-destruction inevitable and assumed – and there is a 'gone' in 'foregone', too.
Around them, the dust dances. The windows start to rattle in their frames.
Dan opens his mouth – closes it again. The open warehouse floor is suddenly flooded in pulsing, furious red light; his filters block out the worst of it, but what does get through at the trailing edges of the spectrum is still conventionally bright enough to stun and blind him. There's the sound of glass breaking, then raining down onto concrete in sharp, jagged pieces. There might be the sound of booted feet hitting the ground. He isn't sure. Hands are on him long before the new footfalls reach where he is, and he's still blinking sparks out of his eyes when they shove him, hard, towards the side exit.
There are three men coming in the side door, struggling eyes tell him. Heavily armored, armed with clubs and stunguns, helmeted and thick with bulk if not actual muscle. The first two hit the ground before Dan has a chance to let reality catch up, the first man's club coming around to knock the third across the base of his skull, just under the headgear, and that's apparently all the force they felt a side exit deserved because he is suddenly still and alone and clutching a length of carbon-coated steel and
remembering that he isn't the only target in the room and
the box is on the floor next to him and he's turning and
Rorschach is just standing there, hands up in a pale imitation of threat, as a much larger group closes in around him. They haven't noticed him here, in the dark of overhanging crates, the shadow of the doorframe. Their focus is as single-minded as their instructions.
Rorschach doesn't specifically look to Dan – he's turning in a slow circle towards each operative in turn, and somewhere in that sweep there is an intersection. For that moment, his eyes clear and he mouths something voicelessly, well under the puppets' threshold for observation, and Dan curses himself for never learning to read lips properly but he doesn't really need to – he knows it's 'go' or 'run' or some other open-voweled monosyllabic imperative. Not 'run for your life', not 'run and save yourself', because Rorschach hasn't been that sentimental in
("...Occupy them, you might be able to get out," and was the emphasis his, or did you add it after the fact?)
– well, in years at least. No, it's 'run, because I have a plan.' Because he always has a plan. Always. That's what's so brilliant about... what used to be so brilliant about –
Used to be. Before he – arguably – lost a good chunk of his mind.
It could be a terrible plan; he's capable of them. It could be no plan at all. Worse, there are plenty of perfectly good, tactically sound strategies that involve suicide runs.
There are twenty of them, weapons drawn, a knot gradually tightening. They're wary, moving carefully, some deeply coded if-case triggering in their programming at Rorschach's unexpected quiescence: be ready for tricks, be ready for displays of shocking and instant brutality, be ready for anything. They're focused on Rorschach and they're on edge and they're not intuitive fighters –
-but there are still twenty of them and Rorschach is in no state to fight, has no will to fight despite his wavering fists, and it's enough to make him dizzy and sick straight down to his gut when they reach to grab at his partner's arms, pull them behind his back, and Rorschach does not fight –
And Dan cannot take them all himself. He knows this with the same intuitive certainty that tells him when to hit, when to duck; that tells him when the tide has turned and victory is out of reach. When to run.
It could be a terrible plan. Leaving him to it could be fatal.
The sheet of paper in his hand stares up, words daring him to accept their truth. –Some knots cannot be cut,- they say, the last stuttering, broken line on the page. –They must be unraveled.-
He hears the ratcheting clank of handcuffs snapping into place, and he knows that it's over. Another pair of cuffs dangles from the leader's belt, expectantly.
Dan thinks of the people wandering helplessly outside, of Adrian's desperation, of the dark and unbearable void that he cannot pull Rorschach from if he's down there himself, swimming in the nothing. He knows that hell; as much as he wants to run screaming at these puppet creatures, cut through them with hands and feet and a mind that knows that hell, he can see the reality as clearly as any snapshot: he will drop two of them, maybe three, before he catches a truncheon in the back or knee or kidney and falls, and the last thing he'll see on Rorschach's face before they're both dragged away is a horrible and accusing emptiness.
It could be a terrible plan. But it's all they seem to have, and Dan searches around for the part of his brain he's ignored since that humid early fall night in '75, the bit that went the way of the burning dress shop, and the parents' faith in a fair and loving world, and the man behind Rorschach's mask – digs, and finds that old, familiar trust. Does what Rorschach is asking of him, before he can reconsider. Picks up the box, ducks out into the street.
He runs and he runs and he keeps his head down, away from the lights that he can't spare a hand to adjust his filters against, and he doesn't think he'll be able to maintain his resolve if he sees them leading Rorschach out, bound and subdued and undone in surrender, so he does not look back.
Somehow, somewhere between the sting of the box's handles cutting into his hands and the building ache of muscles no longer used to such maintained exertion and the nauseating salt-stink of self accusations, Dan manages to convince himself that he isn't being followed – because if he is, then this is all for nothing, and there is no thought less bearable.
When he was young – and wasn't everyone young once, all naiveté and good intentions and the pervasive idea that everything works out for the best, that the good guys win, that the good guys exist – he came up from the Jersey side with his family for a visit to the city. The only thing he remembers is the library, and the way he'd tried to climb onto the back of one of the great guardian lions flanking the stairway. His father had pulled him down, thinking it was just a child's foolish need to clamber onto everything that will hold their weight, but in truth, he'd been sure – absolutely certain – that there was a fierceness snaking around under the stone, something of the jungle hiding away behind the cold white eyes, and he'd wanted to touch that wilderness, feel it humming under his hands.
Now, they are simply grotesque, their ferocious birthright locked up inside the marble, a mockery of life. Their eyes are unbearably empty.
It is hours until nightfall; hours before he can safely return to the warehouse district, to the address that may be a rendezvous point or may end up as just another last stand. The crowds part around him and pay him no mind, but he is suspicious to anyone who is instructed to look, incapable under these circumstances of subtlety, and he has to get off the street.
So he ignores the statues, and he does not understand why something like memory catches in his throat as he climbs the stairs, taking sanctuary in the one place in the city he's ever felt truly safe.
Back and back, deep into the maze of stacks, Dan collapses against a wall of books, the box clattering to the tile beside him. He is breathing hard, the smell of old leather and paper riding every gasp, and his hand refuses to uncurl around what is now little more than a scrap, crushed beyond recognition. It's the world history section he's collapsed in, each volume naming a nation, a culture, a place that human beings, whatever is left of them, call home.
Albania. Argentina. Australia. Gold lettering on worn spines. There are stories here, of the sort that are no longer being written. There are listless and aimless children who should be playing in Zimbabwe dust, should be dancing through Tokyo's cherry blossoms or dunking each other in New York's public pools, and there are artists and musicians and writers who aren't, and he draws his knees up to his chest and tries very hard to really feel the magnitude of this, of an entire world under lock and he may have the only key and the key may break off in the lock and what then-
The bin sits next to him, and it looks like office leavings, the remains of some fired employee's cleaned-out desk, but it could be the most important trashbin in the world. Or it could not matter at all.
He looks down at the page in his hand, smoothes it out; tries to read it, but he sees words like 'sacrifice', words like 'willing to die', and he wants to scream but he has to stay hidden here, stay unnoticed. There will be people searching, and losing his composure now, leading them right to him in a moment of emotion-fueled carelessness, would be the greatest betrayal he could manage.
(Yes, even worse than-)
He bites hard into his fist, and closes his eyes, and waits for the windows to thread curling strands of dusk sunlight around him.
-----> Chapter 9