etherati (etherati) wrote,
etherati
etherati

FIC: Between the Brushstrokes - [11/?]

Title: Between the Brushstrokes
Fandom: Watchmen
Characters/Pairings: Daniel, Rorschach, Adrian, Manhattan in pt 1, Dan/Ror as of this chapter.
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.


*

“Came at me with that,” Rorschach mutters, toeing at the discarded knife as he stalks past it, hand clamped over the bloodiest part of his shirt, a jagged tear snaking out from under his fingers. “Looked surprised that anyone was here, pulled the knife. Probably figured I’d just sit there while he slit my throat.”

Dan grimaces at the blood spill, obviously an arterial burst, and all the fears he’d had on seeing it come back. They’re toothless things now, could-have-beens cowering in the shadows, but still too ugly to bear examining; he bends to pick up the knife and sets it on a crate, where it’s less likely to cause accidental harm. His hands are already bloody from the man outside. There’s nothing here to be squeamish about.

...because it isn’t either of theirs, at least not the bulk of it, and god but that’s a familiar reassurance, three times a week on patrol and more than that near the end: (It isn’t yours, it isn’t his-)

“Saw the knife. Saw the angle, how to disarm him. Couldn’t force myself to move until it’d almost hit. Everything slowed down.”

“Like in a dream? Where everything’s sort of… heavy and hard to move through.”

An abstract nod. “Sudden, acute awareness of life about to end. Seems to have been enough. Mind control cannot circumvent survival instinct.”

A rough exhale, and Dan presses his fingers to his eyes – because something’s just fallen into place. “God. That explains why Adrian said he couldn’t let us spark off any violence among the regressives. They start attacking people…”

And there goes the programming, all of it, up in smoke, because even drained of everything that makes them human, people still have something inside, buried deep, that won’t let them stand idly by as they’re slaughtered. It is, somehow, a reassuring thought.

“Suspect intent was burglary,” Rorschach rambles, stripping the shirt back from his shoulder, inspecting the knife wound with something that looks suspiciously like concern for his own wellbeing. “Warehouse is not that long out of use, there could potentially have been goods still stored here. Supplies. Arms, possibly. Scout for the resistance? Not a good sign, if they’re reduced to theft and murder to keep the movement functional.”

Dan frowns, digging in his pockets for the supplies he’d held over from his utility belt; comes up with a wad of gauze, and presses it to the wound. He’d mentioned the possibility of a resistance movement – among many, many other things, and he’d be hard-pressed to recite the stream-of-consciousness late-night monologues back just now – when he’d been depressingly certain that nothing was getting through. If he’s talking about–

The gauze is a sodden mess within moments; too deep. Dan sighs and digs for a needle. “…how much do you remember?”

They’re well away from the blood trail on the floor – and they’ll have to clean up what’s outside, after this is taken care of, if they don’t want to attract attention. Well away from the wall of looming crates, where so many hopeless and desperate words uncurled into the dark, drifting up to disappear into the rafters.

“…all of it,” Rorschach finally replies, uncertain, then nods distantly to himself as if confirming something. Looks up to catch Dan’s eyes, holding them steadily. “Everything.”

(…god. And he’s still willing to look you in the face.)

“Said that I was quitting.”

Dan blinks, hard and looks away, if only to hide the confusion on his face, and if it’s read as shame over the accusation, then so be it – because he remembers everything, and that’s what he’s upset about?

The first suture is threaded, and Dan puts the stitch in with a practiced motion that eight years off the job hasn’t dulled; he’s always had a long, long memory. “I was trying to snap you out of it. Would have said anything, if I thought it’d work.”

Rorschach shakes his head in something like disappointment, mouth curling into a bitter smile. “Lying, Daniel. Can always tell. Meant everything you said.”

The second stitch is shakier, going in.

Dan nods hesitantly, painfully aware of the depth of what he’s admitting to when he says, “…yeah. Yeah, I did.”

*

Dan nods in the general direction of the prison maps he still has laid out from days before, a handful of different colored pens scattered across them. “I think a lot the resistants are being jailed. If we can start breaking them out, we’ll have a better chance with all of this. Little bit bigger jailbreak than I’m used to pulling, but…”

“Have to revive Veidt first,” Rorschach mutters around an obvious grimace of pain; they’re almost finished, and he’s been sitting silently the entire time, and Dan is once again struck by how visibly Rorschach is emoting these things. He isn’t sure if it’s really unusual or just seems so in the context of the last two weeks, but he can remember the hours after they peeled away from Sing-Sing–

(Can’t remember how red the blood was though, can you? Grey, grey, grey…)

-and he doesn’t think that face, the face he watched accuse Laurie of collusion and tear down his landlady and disappear back under the black and white the first chance it got, could have held these shifting, mercurial expressions. Out in the snow, maybe; for those few seconds, the rigidity had melted away and his eyes had held something living and he’d seemed real.

“I’d tend to agree,” Dan says carefully, nodding, tying off the stitch and trimming it down, reaching for another length of thread. “But I honestly expected you to want to… exact justice for all of this, while he’s still an easy target.”

Rorschach shifts, rolling his head back against the wall. “Need him to help fix this. Justice can wait.”

Dan freezes, hands over the injury, last suture in his fingers. The line that jumps to mind, immediately – ‘who are you and what have you done with Rorschach’ – isn’t even the slightest bit funny, is wildly inappropriate, is too painful in the context to consider giving voice to.

(The twisting, bloody dance, shaking free bones and blood, becoming something new and all that persists is the eyes-)

(Death is not always death.)


“…that doesn’t sound like you,” Dan finally says, voice careful and even.

Another long silence, Rorschach watching with undisguised fascination as the last stitch goes in, tugging at the flesh, sealing up the last gap. Making the skin into, if not wholecloth again, then at least a well-assembled patchwork.

“Bigger things at stake,” he finally says, the words coming out with obvious difficulty. “Veidt will be punished for the part he played in this atrocity. Has a part to play in ending it, first.”

Dan knows the concern’s obvious on his face as he unwraps a length of bandage, tapes it over the row of stitches. The rationality is startling, and would be welcome if it hadn’t come out of nowhere, and he’s wondering if Rorschach’s really as in the clear as he seems to be. It would be just like Adrian to give himself a backdoor from the inevitable vengeance…

Will be punished,” Rorschach repeats, reaching for his discarded vest and suitcoat, seemingly picking the worry right out of Dan’s brainpan and tailoring the assurance to fit it. Falters, fingers running over the cloth. “Just. We can’t.” A beat of almost confused silence. “It’s-”

“What?”

“Were only under for an hour, Daniel,” he says, shifting carefully to pull the vest over what’s left of the shirt. The jacket will be harder; the layers have always made Rorschach’s injuries more difficult to deal with. “Probably don’t remember.”

Dan is wrapping up the supplies, pocketing them again into his own jacket, but there’s a waver of something vulnerable and important in those words, and he looks up sharply. “I… don’t remember much. Just it being kind of grey and hazy.”

“Awake inside,” Rorschach grunts, pulling the jacket into place, and the words are coming faster, breaking up the monotone. “Always awake, seeing, hearing, but nothing responds, nothing does what you tell it to do. No matter how hard you try. Or how long you scream.”

He looks up then, exhaustion stooping him, shoulders crooked inside the jacket and in obvious pain – eyes giving away too much, far too much. Dan can suddenly see, clearly: He’s still as fractured as he’s been for years, all the fault lines clear in his face and his posture and in the way he doesn’t quite layer correctly into the space around him, but it looks like a human kind of broken now, and Dan feels something sharp pulling in his chest, like a watch spring slipping its tracks.

“Those people,” Rorschach says, gesturing vaguely towards the wrong door entirely, starting to shake where he stands and whether it’s from rage or fatigue is unclear. “Screaming inside. We have to fix this, have to make them whole. Can’t take the chance, exacting vengeance first. Can’t leave them this way,” and there’s something in his voice that’s trying hard to be passion, rusty and out of practice but trying all the same. It doesn’t seem like his body’s equipped to handle it anymore, and he’d been shaking like this at Karnak, too.

Dan just steps up to him, quietly, hand on his good shoulder – gentle pressure downwards. “Come on. Sit before you fall.”

Rorschach glares and resists but still folds under the pressure, sliding into an undignified heap on the concrete floor; Dan follows him down, sits across from him like he has for the last two weeks –

But now the posture is anything but lax, and those eyes are urgent and burning when they lift to his. “No one deserves…” he trails off, eyes pinching shut against an obvious wave of lightheadedness, still making a halfhearted effort to shrug off the contact.

“I know,” Dan says, and keeps his hand where it is.

*

“Have to decide how far you’re willing to fight this, Daniel.”

Dan laughs, stripping the wrapper off of a ration bar; they’re dense, meant for a few meals, and he breaks it and offers the other half across the pool of light. The lack of tact in Rorschach's use of 'you' rather than 'we' should be annoying, but right now, it’s like sunlight and a good book and a mug of coffee – familiar and, for its familiarity, precious. “You remember me accusing you of quitting, but you’ve somehow forgotten me saying I wasn’t going to?”

Cautious fingers curl around the bar, accepting but not acknowledging. There’s a long silence burned through with the intensity of a narrowed, penetrating stare, and Dan knows: He remembers. He just isn’t sure if he can trust or believe it.

“Look,” and the laughter’s gone, tone all seriousness. “I don’t want to ever have to see another human face looking like you have for the last two weeks. That’s an unreasonable thing to ask for, because they’re out there and we’re going to see them. But I’ll settle for the next best thing.” Dan crumples the wrapper, shoves it into a pocket. “Which is seeing this through as far as we can. Until we can’t anymore.”

The implication hangs, and he stands by it, unflinching: Until it kills us.

“Arguably a better world,” Rorschach mutters, breaking off a corner of the ration, and the devil’s-advocate tone in his voice is unmistakable, as is the obvious test. “No more killers, rapists, child molesters.”

Dan nods, idly tapping two fingers on his thigh. “But this isn’t humanity improving itself. It’s someone cutting and … molding, and deforming humanity, into what they think it should be. It isn’t real. Isn’t worth preserving – not at this price, anyway.”

Rorschach just looks, for a long time – then pops the piece of food into his mouth, grimaces around it. He still doesn’t look completely convinced.

“I said I was willing to fight this one,” Dan reminds him.

“Said a lot of things, Daniel,” and his tone is suddenly so openly suggestive, unexpectedly and incongruously inappropriate in a way that Dan cannot reconcile with the what he knows of the man sitting across from him, that he just about chokes on his ration bar.

Said things. And he had, and has already owned them all, but Rorschach’s being specific now, in tone if not in words, and he remembers the motel: He’d been talking in his sleep and no, no, what he’d said wasn’t relevant, really it wasn’t. It wasn’t.

But it was.

Rorschach sits silently as Dan catches his breath, smoothes crumbs off of his shirt and damn it, this place doesn’t have rats yet but it will soon at this rate. Watches as Dan examines the floor carefully, all the fascinating cracks in the concrete, spidering into something complex and entropic. Meets Dan’s eyes when he finally lifts them and god, there’s something like expectation there, something wanting…

He wants the truth, Dan chides himself, that’s all. That’s what he always wants, and every lie only makes it worse.

“…I meant those too.” A stretch of silence in which Dan is all but daring him to get upset at the things he’d said, the truths whispered brokenly to a shell he’d thought might never hold life again in quiet night spaces he could barely have told apart from dreams. Daring him to make an issue of it, in the face of everything they’ve been through and seen and still need to do to make this right.

Rorschach just looks at him, steady and even. He has the truth and it should be enough, but the expectant expression doesn’t change.

A frustrated laugh, and Dan is shaking his head. “I already owned up to that, I don’t know why we need to-”

Silence; then, from above, a creaking in the rafters.

Oh, he wants to say, watching something too familiar jump in still-unfamiliar eyes. Oh.

“All right, well, we know how to snap the programming, now,” Dan says, swallowing past a sudden thickness in his throat, and the subject change is about as graceful as Rorschach’s assailant had been, sliding off the dock and into the water’s hard grip. Just about as inevitable, too. “Distribution’s going to be a problem. Kind of hard to bottle up and hand out, as antidotes go.”

Rorschach just stares for a few more agonizingly stretched seconds; blinks, hard, as if it’s the first time he’s done so since coming around, and his expression shifts, consciously schooling itself into composure. “Veidt will help with that. Has access to the instructions being filtered through the lights. Can change them.”

“And what, tell them all to try to kill each other? That could get messy.”

A head shake, and Rorschach’s fiddling with a button on his jacket, seemingly just now noticing the way it’s been hanging by a thread for weeks. Distracted by it, and visibly irritated. Deft fingers wind the thread around, tuck the end in, try to secure it. “Some could succeed before their own programming is broken. Every unintended casualty is a failure. No.”

Dan narrows his eyes. “What, then?”

The button isn’t staying, and Dan briefly considers offering the needle wrapped up in a wad of tissue in his pocket; it’s not sterile anymore and won’t be again anytime soon so it’d be no loss, but he’s not sure how much he wants to divert Rorschach’s attention from more important matters. It seems to be an unusually simple thing, now.

Rorschach looks up, and there – there it is, something dark and calculating and safe for its familiarity and Dan can almost see the shifting black and white layered over it. “We tell them to kill themselves.”

The rafters are creaking again, and Dan should really be sliding the lenses down, switching to infrared, checking up there for intruders, because pigeons and rats don’t make that much noise. He’s too busy trying to remember how to operate language, mouth opening and closing around a few false starts before he finally manages to get something out. “…you have got to be kidding.”

“Survival instinct, Daniel. It won’t let them do it.”

Dan drops his face forward heavily, both hands running back through his hair, snagging where it’s trapped under the band of the goggles. “That’s a guess. We have no idea if-“

“It’s a guess supported by the evidence.”

Palms press in against a sudden sharp pain, arcing between his temples like electricity. “It’s still a guess. Damn it, Rorschach – what happens if they all just… go through with it? Do you want to put that much innocent blood on our hands? You just said yourself, every unintended casualty-”

Rorschach’s hands flash forward with no warning, wrap around Dan’s wrists – pull his hands free from his head, and twist them away to the sides. The grip is too strong, is overkill, is more than is necessary but it cuts through and grabs Dan’s attention like nothing less physical could have done. Slowly: “Will monitor it carefully. Change instructions back if it looks like tactic is ineffective.”

“When people start jumping in front of trucks, you mean.”

Before. Not when.”

After a long moment, Dan just nods, and the grip around his wrists releases with something that feels almost like reluctance, but that’s –

His imagination is really overactive today, is all. Had he actually thought he’d seen, earlier…

“Okay,” Dan says, voice strained. “As long as we’re ready to pull the plug the second it starts going wrong.”

Rorschach finishes the rest of his ration bar in silence, but his eyes never leave Dan’s.

*

“Should sleep, if we’re going after Adrian tomorrow,” Dan says a bit later, and they haven’t talked about what ‘going after Adrian’ entails; don’t really need to. The knife is glinting tellingly in the dim light, and maybe at Karnak they’d utterly failed to make the man so much as take them seriously – but ten years on, the once-great hero out of condition and out of practice, they might just be able to inspire the kind of fear this’ll take.

…or the guards will put them both down before they even get close, just two bodies sprawled on the marble while Adrian looks on in his braindead stupor, screaming and screaming inside but useless to intervene. Dan’s wondering idly whether the standing orders to his security forces are to kill on sight or to detain for questioning and conversion, trying to decide which would actually be worse, when he’s suddenly aware of a weight shifting up against his chest. Rorschach – Walter maybe, he isn’t sure, hasn’t asked since the dock and is even less sure he wants to know – is stiff and tense where he leans, as if he expects to be pushed away or is already contemplating bolting.

“Um,” Dan says, mentally congratulating himself on his eloquence. “Okay, uh…”

“Sorry,” Rorschach says, ducking his head in, tensing to move away but not quite managing to do so. “Got used to it. Comfortable.” The growling sound the words trail off into might still be language, might be some fragment of self-condemnation. “Comfort is for the weak and lazy. Leads to complacency and degradation. Shouldn’t need it. Shouldn’t need–”

The words cut off, but this is not some bizarre reverse justification; Dan can hear it in his tone, the utter and unshakable surety. Rorschach really believes he shouldn’t be doing this, the proximity and the weakness implied in it probably making his skin crawl and his stomach turn, but he’s doing it anyway, and that’s–

Dan knew Walter for years without ever knowing the name, and he knows that man’s limits – knows he would accept coffee or cocoa at the end of a long patrol, would take the cot in Dan’s basement rather than walk countless blocks through inclement weather, would accept contact and the comfort it brought without thinking any of it was a failing or a liability. And Rorschach, Rorschach who was no longer Walter, who’d walked into Dan’s home one night bloodied and strange and never the same again, would never bend like this. Would believe what he said and act accordingly; would not lean back with muttered apologies and self-loathing on the back of his tongue, bitter and ugly but ready to be swallowed down, choked back, ignored.

Every vague suspicion he’s had narrows to a certainty: This is something new.

“Maybe,” Dan says, hands drifting to settle around Rorschach in a way that’s become muscle-memory after two weeks of sleeping this way, and it feels wrong and all manner of inappropriate now that the other man’s aware enough to know they’re there, but Dan doesn’t know what else to do with them, to do with this. “But you can still want it, sometimes. Nothing wrong with that.” A sharp laugh, humorless. “Especially after what you’ve just been through. That’s not pity,” he adds quickly, anticipating the protest in the way the body tenses against him. “Just acknowledgment. I mean, Christ – despite popular opinion, you’re only human.”

“…nng. Part of the problem.”

Dan just shrugs, motion telegraphed through the contact.

Rorschach shifts; moves one hand to his shoulder, pressing lightly around the seam of the jacket at where the gauze is wrapped underneath. Lifts it to scratch lightly at the burns still lingering, old blisters now, at his throat. “…possibly not the most tactically sound decision,” he admits, tone carefully blank.

“It was stupid, is what it was,” Dan mutters close to his ear. “But I do understand why you did it.”

“Would have surprised us,” and the voice should be growling and defensive, but it isn’t. If anything, it’s resigned, slipping back into those unaffected tones Dan had first heard waking up in the park, when Rorschach had believed himself alone and hadn’t bothered with the theatrics. Somehow, the sound of that quiet, human voice voluntarily offered up seems to matter more than the face did, is more intimate than the way they’re leaned together in the darkness could ever be, and Dan has to close his eyes against an unexpected upswell of something he can’t even identify. “Taken us both. Wasn’t any other choice.”

Dan just nods – has no idea if it carries across, isn’t capable of much else.

“Knew that you’d likely figure out a way to reverse it, if it came to that.”

“But I didn’t,” Dan says, and it takes all the discipline he has not to tighten his grip. “Probably never would have, either. It’s not like I was ever going to come at you with a knife.”

A disgruntled, disappointed noise. “Had hoped you’d eventually…”

“What?” And strange tightness in his chest or not, Dan’s leaning back, away, voice all sharp edges and the pain of those edges suddenly turned inward. He digs into his pocket, comes up with a folded scrap of paper. “Put you out of your misery? Like you asked me to?”

The note’s held out in front of them; Rorschach takes it in careful fingers, turning it over in his hands. The light in here is too sharply angled to read by, but he doesn’t seem to be trying – just running the rough paper between his fingertips, feeling out its physical reality.

“You know what?” Dan asks, and he’s about a half-second from shoving away, standing up, finding another place to sleep, because this is a fury he thought he’d buried but after today, after seeing the blood and being so sure he knew whose it was and what that meant, it’s fresh and raw and throbbing grisly just under the surface, and being chastised like this, for not being willing to… “You can’t ask for that. You can’t expect me to-”

“Said ‘hoped’, Daniel. Not ‘expected.’ Knew you’d be too soft to…” The growl is back, but Rorschach trails off with a flustered, embarrassed-sounding noise. He doesn’t seem pleased with how that came out, the words lost somewhere between intent and meaning.

The camping lamp flickers. Its batteries are starting to run down, too.

Rorschach can’t say things like ‘I know you care too much’, or ‘you’re too sentimental, but it worked out this time’. Can’t say things like ‘thank you.’ Dan knows that, but they hang unspoken, a silent coda to that small, frustrated sound.

“Yeah, well,” Dan finally says, feeling the anger breaking apart, starting to shake away. Not much energy left for it. He reaches to switch the lamp off, conserve what little power it has left. “Be glad I am, it’s why you’re still alive to sit here insulting me for it.”

The darkness that settles over them is heavier than it seems like it should be, even with no windows and only one ventilation shaft open to the sky; a complete wall-to-wall blackness that makes the hands want to wander over closed or open eyelids to be sure everything is still there.

(“Those are pearls that were his eyes.”)

“Am grateful,” Rorschach says, tone soft and unfamiliar again, distinctly apologetic in a way Dan’s not sure he’s ever heard, not in twenty years of stolen food and busted locks and backhanded insults. “Too many broken things here already. Don’t need to add to their numbers.”

Dan lets out a noisy breath.“That’s for sure,” he agrees, though he isn’t even sure what Rorschach’s referring to – himself or, if he’d died, Dan? Or them, this partnership or friendship, whatever it is, whatever it’s turning into in these dark stretches of silence; something clinging and hopeful and dangerous that he’d seen on Rorschach’s face as clear as day and he shouldn’t ever be able to say that, nothing residing in those hard-edged features should ever be that clear–

The body leaning against him twists in his grip, turns to face him, and he still can’t see a thing but maybe it’s better that way, because there’s a touch on his face, barely there – the smell of a cheap motel room comes back, and the sound of a voice twisting in grief.

(“Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel-”)

“Made you admit it twice,” the darkness in front of him speaks, disembodied. “Had to be sure.”

Hands are shifting to his shoulders, and they’re trembling, with fear or the effort of restraint – really, the entire body they’re attached to is shaking, a sloppy mess of nerves and twitching muscle and terror riding under all the layers of cloth.

“Don’t know why I-” the voice tries, breaking off. “Doesn’t. Make sense.”

“Hey,” Dan says, reaching one hand up to smooth down over the grip on his shoulder, and he can feel a note of guilt in his own voice. “Look, this is probably my fault, babbling on like that for weeks. I shouldn’t have-”

The grip on his shoulders tightens to the point of pain. “No. Was the truth. Truth is important, Daniel. More important than keeping things broken just because it’s. Nnk. Familiar. Comfortable.”

Dan closes his eyes. It had been comfortable, hadn’t it? Easy to forget completely for eight years, then later just ignoring, changing the subject, only ever giving these things voice in his sleep. It’s okay to want comfort, he’d said.

It’s not okay to need it.

Broken things, all the jigsaw edges out of alignment and if you have to push and jam on them to get them to fit, ruining the pieces, distorting the picture they form, then you’re not doing it right, not doing it right at all…

A face buries roughly in the crook of his neck, the contact shocking in its immediacy. No motion for a long stretch – just the grating scratch of stubble against his jaw, breath uneven over his ear. Rorschach sounds like he’s caught a lungful of water or something just as dense and unbreathable, like he’s drowning.

(“I do not find the Hanged Man.”)

“Whatever you need, okay?” Dan says, and his voice is shaking as badly as Rorschach’s hands are, curled into his arms. His own stay where they are, a steady anchor against Rorschach’s back. “I won’t hold you to anything later.”

The sound is low and laced with animal fear, rumbling against Dan’s ear, and the concrete floor is hard and unforgiving against the ridge of his spine, and it’s cold. But breath is hitting his face, choppy and labored and panicked, and the hands cling and shake and pull and the heavy, intractable presence bears him down against it and seems to want little more than to press against him until it’s unclear where the boundaries between them lie, and the heat there is enough – and he knows, somehow, that they’ll make it through to the morning, that they’ll be all right.

*

----> Chapter 12

*


Tags: fic, slash, watchmen
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