Characters/Pairings: Rorschach, Dan
Date Written: 2009
Summary: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. A ghost story, for your Halloween enjoyment.
Rating/Warnings: Probably R for imagery.
Notes: Kinkmeme fic originally; 'Dan and Ror in a legitimately haunted house', but it's gen, so not kinky.
I. the way in
“God,” Dan says, an oath spun half in frustration and half in relief. He scrabbles at his goggles, jacking up the sensitivity as high as it will go; the place is clearly abandoned, dark as any sewer, the smell of wood rot and mustiness floating lazily through the air, but the sky outside is turning quickly and right now a roof, any roof, will suffice. “I can’t believe we managed to get this lost.”
“Will be able to find the highway in the morning,” Rorschach grumbles from somewhere near his shoulder, and Dan can hear the soft leathery thwup of his collar turning up. “The commute will be loud. Easy enough to pinpoint.”
It’d started out as such a simple bust – a drug ring on the Hudson waterfront, the man with the money, the biggest gun, all the answers, and that’s who they’d taken off after when the crowd had scattered, rats to bolt holes. One street to another had given way to a footbridge over the water to the Jersey side and more highway than either thought they could cover without stopping to rest. Then the man had ducked into a stretch of field and they’d followed, lost him in the shifting shadows.
Dan doesn’t know for sure – there’s no place on his uniform for a watch – but it feels like they’ve been running for an hour or two at least, and wandering aimlessly for a while after that, just looking for shelter from the storm they could see starting to gather against the stars. Now that they’ve found it, neither has moved from their place in the entryway, the creaking walls around them uninviting in a way that makes Dan think of the furtive eyes of rapists and murderers interrupted mid-atrocity: terrified and hostile at the same time, baring jagged teeth in the streetlight, faces like punched-out windows…
It’s entirely possible he’s been around Rorschach for too long.
“Come on,” he says, stepping carefully into the gloom, feeling for rotting floorboards with each step. It’s only after a particularly violent lash of lightning splits the sky, thunder fast on its heels, that Rorschach hesitantly follows, hands in his pockets wrapped into tense and weary fists.
“You know,” Daniel says, and there’s an irritating smile in his voice as they navigate, looking for the safest and cleanest place to set up for a long night of vigilance. Rorschach’s right hand is twined around a fistful of Daniel’s cape, an indignity he’d finally accepted after losing his way in the darkness three times already. “If this were a book or a movie, this place would be haunte–”
Rorschach grunts in a tone that is clear chastisement, cuts Daniel off before he can finish the sentence.
Daniel stops walking, glances back at him – there’s just enough light to see that, the motion, the swing of metal lenses toward him – and seems to just stare for a long while. There’s a question in the silence.
“…don’t want to tempt fate, Daniel,” he finally mutters, and he won’t be cowed, won’t be made to feel uneducated or stupid over this, not this. Not after all those nights in the Charlton east dormitory, annexed from a neighboring complex, repainted and refloored but some stains just don’t ever come out and no one else had ever seemed to notice or care but–
And it feels like Daniel might be about to say something, to hide the half-smirk in the concealing darkness, plaster over the laughter with the back of his hand like he always does when he cannot hold it back but fears retribution. Then a freezing dampness runs up Rorschach’s spine, like the fingers of a drowned man picking their way intimately over every ridge of bone, slipping deep in between, a grotesque violation too much like–
And Daniel stiffens too, and whatever he’d been about to say dies on his lips, leaves him still and attentive in the silence. “…yeah, okay,” comes out finally, voice suddenly three shades weaker. “You’re right. Best not to…”
“That wasn’t anything,” Daniel interrupts, and he at least sounds like he believes it. A second or two passes, Dan’s gauntleted hand searching out where Rorschach’s is curled into the fabric, moving on as soon as he’s sure it’s still there. “But I’ll keep my damn mouth shut anyway.”
In the end, the center of the house seems most stable, with neither caving floor nor ceiling, with walls not bowed in under the weight of a slipping roof and if the outer rooms’ windows are all shattered and letting the worst of the storm in, they can at least shut doors against most of them.
“Wind from the storm,” Dan’s muttering, surveying the room for anything that will make the stay more comfortable: blankets, cushions from old furniture no longer present, cloth of any sort to layer onto the rough, splintery wood of the floor. There’s really nothing, but it isn’t surprising. They haven’t even bothered with the kitchen, because even canned goods this old would likely have burst and botulized by now. “You know how gales always whip up right before one rolls in. Lot of humidity. Can feel like…”
Rorschach rolls his shoulders under the coat, standing by the far door. “Like what, Daniel? Fingers twisting between ribs?”
Dan goes still again, caught off-guard. This superstitious bent isn’t one he was expecting from Rorschach; as a kid, he’d always been the one that needed talking down from the far, huddled corner of his bed, convinced that there were things in the shadows, behind doors, frozen screaming in the panes of his windows. “It didn’t… it wasn’t really like that, was it? More like just air, I thought.”
His nightvision is struggling, dark red smeared over darker red, shapes shifting indistinctly. There’s just too little light to work with, but he can still see the broken up patches of dark and light and the way they animate a face otherwise stone-still, looking at him carefully from across the room.
“No,” the mouth says under the mask, and Dan can see that shift of motion, too, and the voice isn’t something he’s heard from Rorschach very often. It’s raw. “Not like air.”
…and Dan isn’t honestly sure how to reply, because it had certainly seemed like a sudden gust of wind, cutting through the cape and the fabric of his costume in a way wind usually didn’t, maybe, but nothing as visceral as the sense-image Rorschach’s just conjured. No wonder he was…
“Will take first watch,” Rorschach insists, straightening under Dan’s scrutiny.
Dan's mouth twists below his goggles, one hand lifting to push back his cowl, to run through flattened hair.
The most valid argument – that it’s black as pitch in here, and Rorschach has no nightvision, and the goggles won’t work over his mask even if he were willing to accept them which of course he never would – just sort of sits there between them on the floor, too obvious to justify remarking on. Around them, the house creaks and wails, the roof threatening to peel under the violence of the wind and suddenly driving rain.
“There’s… it’s abandoned, I don’t think there’s anything to keep watch for.”
“Will determine that,” Rorschach says stiffly, hands fisting deep into his pockets, and there’s no room for argument in his tone. “During watch.”
The ache starts somewhere deep in his calves, but it’s just the machine running down and Rorschach ignores it; knows that he ran further tonight than he’s used to at a stretch and over a lot of uneven terrain, knows the way his body complains when he spends three days awake and eats only what he can scrape up for free or nearly so. Knows its limitations. They’re irrelevant.
The pain behind his eyes is different, though. It seethes and itches, like a primitive memory of fire or lightning or something else that blinds and burns, throbbing with his pulse, and he’s just going to close them behind the mask for a minute or two, just for thirty seconds, just for–
He isn’t even certain at first that he’s drifted off. The awareness of it comes in soft, rolling waves: Daniel’s quiet snoring across the room is even quieter, more muffled, and he feels the hard heels of his shoes biting into his thighs where he’s slid down onto them – then doesn’t feel them so much, and he can see more clearly than he should be able to in what he knows intellectually to be near-total darkness.
The air is faintly blue, and there’s wind lifting the drapes from the window near the couch where Daniel’s sleeping, but there hadn’t been a couch – just bare stretches of flooring – and no windows. That was why they’d picked this room, because it had no windows–
The blue is pulsing lightly, and he rises back to his feet with a smooth effortlessness that feels like being on wires. His feet carry him to the center of the room without need for conscious thought, then stop, and will not move again. The air feels clammy, damp, and the fingers are back, rippling over his bones as if leather and fabric and skin and muscle were no more material than smoke.
There’s a sudden, flashing impression of another figure in the room – small, childlike, but no more an actual child than Daniel is an actual owl, the haphazard disguise doing nothing to hide the purple bruising of old rot and skin sloughing off in folds, like some mournful beast with a child’s face – and then it’s gone, burned into his brain like an afterimage of staring into the sun.
Fingers, dark and swollen with moisture, threading through his bones and over his scalp and across the sun and it almost feels like a caress. He still cannot move.
Daniel is shifting on the couch. Not just moving restlessly, but actually shifting, arms and hands moving in sharp blurred bursts of motion, grey and brown and flesh underneath twisting together and becoming something else, changing–
When the figure on the couch opens its mouth, to moan in pain or to scream or just to try to breathe, all that comes out is bloody water, thinned but deep, deep red, more coming up than human lungs can even hold, and that quickly the wires are gone and he’s free to move and he’s stumbling back and when he opens his own mouth he can feel/taste/see the same endless stream begin to flow, blocking air, choking and drowning him, pulling something out of him and emptying it onto the floor and across the room Daniel’s eyes are panicked for a moment before they glaze over into something new–
Somewhere, the sound of laughter.
Rorschach wakes up with a sharp grunt, smacking his head hard against the wall behind him as the dream carries into reality, jumping back, backing away, back back back run and why isn’t he moving forward, why isn’t going to Daniel, to his side, to help him–
Dream, he thinks darkly, even as he fights against admitting he’d fallen asleep on the very watch he’d insisted on. He lifts one gloved hand to the back of his head, rubbing the knot in a slow circle until reality has had a chance to settle back into place in fractured, bloody pieces. His hat is on the floor beside him, and he scoops it up, presses it into place.
It seems lighter in here, somehow, and that makes some sense even as Rorschach questions whether he’s truly awake again; his eyes have dark-adjusted behind closed lids, and this is probably as good as it’s going to get. He casts around, and he isn’t even sure what he’s looking for, pushing back to his feet – maybe furniture or hollow-eyed child-decoys or curtains lifting on a rainless breeze…
…but he knows there’s at least one thing he should be seeing that he isn’t, and he freezes, one hand on his knee, the other on the wall, hunched.
Daniel is gone.
Feet fall, one after the other, spiraling out through the adjoining rooms. It’s not fair to say that they move on their own; he is aware of himself and what he’s doing, though he’s not entirely clear on the reason. He doesn’t think his goggles are working anymore, but it’s possible he may have left them behind in the room he woke in, lenses glittering, glittering. He doesn’t need them. The sounds are enough, a tingling breadcrumb trail of skittering steps and fingers pressing into wall joists just hard enough to make them creak and something that sounds like a tinny old wax cylinder recording of a child’s laughter, circling round and round, always cutting off in the burbling beginnings of a scream, the moment that breath catches and swells in place and starts tasting like bile–
He has to follow the sounds.
The storm is still raging and in these outer rooms, tracing a careful path along the outer wall, the noise of it should be deafening. Water is pouring in by bucketloads, should be soaking him through to the point of distraction, but there, there – a creak, in the next doorway. A tiny sound, cutting through everything else, and it’s all that seems to matter.
Another sound echoes, so very far away, and it could be his name – but it’s too quiet, too garbled. Distant. Unimportant.
He calls for Daniel once, twice – then stands stock still, hesitant to even draw breath lest it blanket over the smallest sound of a response. There’s nothing. It’s still too dark.
Crouching to the floor, Rorschach runs a finger through the dust, stirred up where Daniel had been lying. The wood is not unnaturally darkened to indicate bleeding or injury, and no moisture clots the dust into clumps. There is no trail away from the wall to indicate which of the closed doors he’d left through or, for that matter, to show which they’d come in through to begin with.
Which. Should be impossible, technically. A low sound starts crawling up his throat by degrees.
Daniel’s cowl and goggles and gauntlets are haphazardly piled against the wall’s trim, amongst scraps of old, peeling wallpaper and wood shavings, just below a bare expanse that his eyes keep wanting to see a window in, when he narrows them in just the right way.
The sound comes again and maybe it really is his name, because it sounds familiar somehow and it feels like something dark and betraying stirring in his gut and in the back of his brain when he considers that it might actually be important. It sounds urgent, sounds–
He blinks in the dark, hand coming to rest against a doorframe. This time he can feel the joy transmute into terror, the scream bubbling up his throat like a lungful of water. The sensation is crushing, paralyzing, claustrophobic in as much as it makes him want to explode out of his skin, such a painful, constricting thing, holding him back holding him back pulling him down and if he’d only just follow…
By the time the sound fails to repeat a third time, he no longer remembers having heard it.
Fingers pick and peel at the wallpaper, finding its seams and pulling it away with a dry crackling tear. It feels something like skinning someone alive, because everything has its points of vulnerability, places fingers can dig in and grip on and tug
(Cold, damp fingers between bones, slithering into joints, wriggling there like worms, like some unheard-of new perversion)
and pull everything back until only the wet, glistening entrails remain, ready to share their secrets. Rorschach has never skinned an animal, much less a person, much less alive. He’s not sure where the imagery is coming from.
Under the layers of flaking paper, though, the wooden outline of a window sits square in the wall, bricked over carefully, plaster smoothing all the uneven edges. Scraps of thin blue fabric, ancient enough that they disintegrate when he touches them, are wedged in the gap between bricks. Translucent, the type that would color the light coming through it. Nothing exotic, just fine, thin cotton, weave going to pieces under the weight of a lifetime’s concealment.
The breeze coming through it had fallen across his face, so relaxed in sleep, just before–
Blue dust falling from his fingers, Rorschach knows – with the same certainty he feels crouching over a dark stain in an alley, knowing the spot on his glove will be blood before he even lifts it into the light – that he needs to find Daniel, immediately.
Follow, the clattering sounds are saying, sounding more like words and less like the dissonant pattern of limping and struggling footfalls the further along the winding path he gets.
If he only follows he can help, he can help set her free, and he doesn’t even know who ‘she’ is, or what she needs freeing from, but he keeps seeing things from the corner of his eye – shadows that look like human figures, all tall and imposing and frightening, like abstracted demons from a child’s fractured memory, filling in the gaps between what was and what it felt like with an inflation of terror. They move – god, they’re moving, and again his mind starts to actively protest his course because this is ridiculous and more dangerous than he can even understand and maybe Rorschach was right after all and they’re reaching hands out toward him–
The sound. The voice, calling his name.
Hands, hands, hands – and that building scream, cut off, always cut off just before it bursts free, winding its way into the shriek of the storm and hands settling on him and something smells like lakewater, like a bog, like soot and ash and the sounds are louder now, catching at his ankles and wrists, trying to lead him away. He wants to be away – away from the hulking shadows, their fingers, their shapeless faces. So he follows.
He’s not even aware that the scream has finally loosed itself, through the fibrous resonator of his own vocal cords – is echoing, along walls and wind-cluttered hallways, spiraling in, in and in and in.
He can’t see but it doesn’t matter, not now, not now, and Rorschach just keeps one hand on the wall as he runs, through doorways and narrow halls and there’s debris everywhere, fallen beams and broken furniture and long, jagged shards of glass and torn up tile but the sound is coming from everywhere and it’s horrible and he knows these things cannot hit or kick or pick up butchers’ knives, he knows, but there are other ways to make a man scream. Many other ways.
He’s screaming. He’s screaming and Rorschach isn’t there, isn’t at his back, can’t get there fast enough, and he can’t see clearly so he doesn’t even realize it when he starts moving through the same room twice, dodging the same obstacles, gloved fingertips burning where they touch the flaking paint of the walls, circling, turning and turning–
He shouts again, Daniel’s name or something very much like it, but he doesn’t expect a response – he just needs to do something to drown out the noise, the numb, fuzzy way it’s cutting into his brain and sticking like barbs under the palms of his hands and–
The last room feels like the last room, like the last, wildly shaking car on a long train, like a terminus. It’s empty and bare. There’s nothing in it worthy of any note.
There’s a window on one wall, bricked in sloppily from the other side.
Pool of old blood, black-rust in the dim light, spreading from the center of the floor.
Footprints in the dust, small and clumsy.
Nothing worthy of any note. Nothing worthy of any–
There’s a girl then, standing in the middle of the stain, strobe-lit by the intermittent lightning, and there’s more blood there than one body can shed.
When she smiles, it’s a shallow and empty curve, and it is shaped like the end of every story.
The screaming’s stopped.
No, no, it hasn’t stopped, it’s been cut off, and after years of striking terror into the city’s stinking black heart and sending its noisemakers into sudden and sharp unconsciousness, Rorschach knows the difference. He almost wishes he didn’t, standing suddenly directionless in a room like every other room, listening to the accusing silence filling in all the gaps between the rain and the wind and the floor creaking under his feet.
(Not fast enough, not a good enough tracker.)
He’d had a traceable source for how long? Thirty seconds at least, and he’d never gotten any nearer, and thirty seconds is a long, long time to scream.
(Fell asleep. Left him unguarded. Whatever’s happened to him, it’s your fault.)
A half-breath of silence, swelling up around him. Images come unasked, and it is not the bloodied and mangled bodies that send a shock of ice through his veins so much as the eyes, Daniel’s eyes, looking up at him out of some cold distant vacuum and not Daniel’s eyes at all. Lost.
(– oh but you tried don’t be too hard on yourself– )
And Rorschach freezes; the storm is still raging and the door in front of him hangs invitingly open and he needs to keep moving but he freezes like startled prey because that – oh, that isn’t his own thought-voice and it isn’t the internal Daniel that occasionally gets noisy when he’s taking particularly poor care of himself, doing something especially stupid or dangerous. It is also not a child’s voice, not the tinny false tones that’d filled out the laughter he’d heard, halfway in and halfway out of a dream.
(– he won’t be the first– ) comes yet another timbre, sad and faraway, and the shadows are starting to detach from the walls like bloodstains and he remembers this, he remembers this–
He’s taken two rushed steps for the door when a body barrels through it, all disorganized limbs and adrenaline-fueled flight,
(– or the last– )
and Daniel takes his presence in hurriedly, eyes tracking with more ease than they should in the dark, then collapses boneless against him.
“I don’t know,” Daniel’s saying, an easy answer to every question. He seems dazed, and they’re against the wall farthest from the shadows because that seems like the safest place in the room and the last thing Rorschach wants right now is go wandering and risk losing him again. “I don’t… I don’t remember.”
“You woke up. Left the room.”
Daniel’s got his hands curled into the trenchcoat’s lapels in a way that suggests he’s not aware of it. Rorschach lets them stay there. He doesn't bother pretending it's for purely practical reasons.
“Yeah, yeah… I did.” Daniel’s face is pinched and his head ducked, as if remembering were causing him physical pain. His voice is rough, almost more so than Rorschach’s. “Yeah. There were sounds. I…”
He starts to turn away, towards the far side of the room, motion distracted and slow. Rorschach grabs him by the shoulders, hard; forces him back to facing. “Sounds?”
He’s still looking over there, head twisted back towards something Rorschach can’t see. “Mm. Yeah.”
Rorschach’s reaching for his chin to turn him forcibly away from whatever it is he thinks he’s seeing, when a brilliant bolt of lightning finds ground nearby, flooding the room in a blast of illumination – and all along the pale expanse of Daniel’s throat there are marks, dark, soft-edged, like bruises.
Like fingers. Like strangul–
They can’t. He doesn’t think they – he doesn’t know but he doesn’t think they can–
“Daniel, ” he hisses, violence in the sound. “Your throat. What happened.”
When Daniel doesn’t answer for a long moment, still looking across the room – the shadows, the ones that were moving, he’s looking at the shadows and you never look, you never look – Rorschach reaches up with one thumb, passing it over the distal edge of one of the bruises, only to have it disappear under the leather of his glove.
He rubs his finger and thumb together, getting a feel for the grit between them – fine, black and powdery. Soot, or fresh ash. Grabs at Daniel’s hands where they’re latched to his lapels, turns them over, and even in the poor light he can see how the fingers of one are darker than the other, coated in the same clinging soot.
“You did this,” he says, disbelieving, and under his thumbs he can feel a pulse, fast and growing faster, stumbling over itself, and there’s a sound of breath hitching close by. Rorschach refuses to look back over his shoulder.
Daniel looks past him, and his expression is unreadable, locked into terror. The words tumble out in a rush. “I don’t… I don’t remember, why would I…”
“Probably don’t remember screaming, either,” and he’s edging them towards the far door, opposite the one Daniel had come through, away from where he knows the shadows are clinging. He’s got his hands on Daniel’s shoulders now, and the soot stained fingers are back in his coat, and that’s good, that’s fine, just keep the contact, don’t let it slip.
“I don’t,” Daniel says, and his voice is starting to come apart at the seams. The rough handprint on his throat is more visible now than it was, which means that shock is setting in, sending him paler, and all Rorschach can think about is the commotion there’d been two days before the dormitory was shut down and the sound crawling out of the boy’s throat the second before he’d– and he'd moved like this, like a puppet on jerking strings. He’d been quiet and smart and gentle, too.
Rorschach's wondering how much real bruising there is under the theatrical smears when they reach the door. He scrambles for the knob, one hand still clamped tightly onto Daniel’s shoulder, Daniel who’s starting to go shaky to match the white, whose breath is roughening, whose eyes are still locked somewhere over Rorschach’s shoulder.
The knob turns, and he pulls, and twists, and rattles it hard against the frame. The door doesn’t open.
He feels like he’s dreaming but he knows without knowing: in this place there is no just dreaming. Awake, asleep, the distinction means nothing – he’s no more really standing in a room with Rorschach as the doorknob rattles and rattles than he is standing out over a vast and open pit, rope chafing his ankles. No more than he’s smelling these things, cloying and ancient like rot all mixed up with mothballs, or hearing all the tiny, tiny sounds that speak straight to the base fears of the animal sleeping inside him.
Every breath feels a little like dying, like bleeding out in an alley or sinking to the bottom of the harbor or just feeling things break and break inside until he’s sure there’s nothing left. He’s been there. It’s familiar. There’s always been hands on those nights, curling into his sides or his shoulders, pulling him up and away, shaking him shaking him Daniel shaking Daniel snap out of it–
Hands are on his throat and he feels like he’s spinning and spinning and burning all up into ash, peeling apart, splitting right down the middle so that something can crawl through him. He can see it covered in blood and bone but maybe it’s not that gruesome, maybe there is no terrible violence here, maybe it just needs something he has and maybe it needs something Rorsc–
Be free, be free, the hands around his throat are singing, set yourself free, set him free, caged in flesh, tied to the ground like creatures of mud, can be so much more (less) can be so much less alone (together) (apart) can be forever (never) (sometimes) (now now now)
He’s upside-down and his ankles feel wrenched and he feels the steel bite in and he feels the fade, vision graying at the edges and he is no more really here than he is standing in a room while a doorknob rattles and a man grouses and growls and takes him by the shoulders and–
His hands are so small around the handle of the knife, so terribly small and fragile and the pattern of tiny black-red droplets starting to collect on the skin is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, spiraling out and out and it’s like a map, a path to follow, a code.
A drop. Another. Coming faster now, sluicing down through hair and–
He’s shaking, he’s being shaken, and the red is pattering fast onto his hands and arms, starting to form a solid sheen and it’s sticky and bright and he’s being shaken harder and harder and he needs to snap out of this, right now, he needs to open his eyes and focus, Daniel, focus.
He needs to wake up.
He isn’t asleep.
A thick drop lands on his wrist and he turns it over to look at it, at the darkness marring over the fine lines and delicate strings of tendon and it tries to seep in, tries to join back with him because it’s part of him and it should but it can’t, spreading and pooling over the surface. When he looks up the bodies are like abstractions, with none of the visceral shock of a murder victim found on patrol, lit in harsh and honest streetlight – but still corpses, still strung up by their ankles and draining their lives away, necks gaping open in ugly wide smiles and they all look like–
The voice again, insistent, and all he can do is stare and stare because they all look like–
Free, the hands say as they turn the knife inward. You can both be free.
“Daniel, ” Rorschach tries one last time, shoving him by his shoulders into the wall, hard. Hard enough to bruise ribs, to possibly dislocate shoulders, but he’s about to just kick the door down and he needs Daniel here and aware and ready to run, not glazing over further every second, clenching his hands like he’s holding something that isn’t there, breathing in a gurgle like his throat’s been cut. Needs him–
Needs him awake. And just like that, the shock of the impact still running through the plaster, he is – blinking fast and spasmodically in the dim light, eyes focused and clear. His voice is rough, and faint, but solid. “Rorschach? Where…”
“No time to explain. About to commit act of vandalism.” Rorschach hooks his hand into Daniel’s cape again, twisting it into his fist. “Need to run as soon as path is clear. Back with me now?”
Daniel nods after a moment, shaky and a little uncertain but there, present, under the fear. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”
It would seem anticlimactic when the doorframe splinters under the force of the blow, door swinging out wide on screaming hinges, if it weren’t for the fact that the shades are still moving, still crowding in around the edges of perception, and Rorschach has hauled Daniel through the door ahead of him and into the hallway beyond before he has time to process the implications. If they have enough physical influence to lock a door they ought to have been able to hold it against a kick and–
Which means they don’t. Which means that he locked it, on the way in. And he doesn’t remember doing it, because–
He doesn’t stop moving; just shoves Daniel along down the hall, and tries not to think about the fact that he has not been this way before.
“Talk,” Rorschach is suddenly demanding of him, not letting up on the rough jostling that his sluggish feet can barely keep up with, that he cannot mistake the almost-panicked urgency in. “Everything you remember. Now.”
It’s a long hallway they’re in, and light seems to bend and collect at the far end, reeling it in away from them even as they approach it. “I remember… waking up, I guess? It sounded like there was someone else moving around in the next room.”
“Went alone,” Rorschach growls, and the anger is there, audible through all the fine cracks in the illusion of control. He hasn’t let go of Dan’s cape. “Why.”
“You were asleep and – and I guess I didn’t want to wake you up?” Dan shakes his head, trying to pin down the feeling he’d had, waking up into that grey space and watching Rorschach shaking against the wall like a seizure victim as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Why hadn’t he…? “I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense now.”
“Didn’t make sense then, either. Just thought it did. They’re good at that.”
Dan shakes his head against a sudden wave of dizziness. The door at the end of the hall isn’t getting any closer. “So I tried to track the noises down, but everything got sort of foggy. Disconnected. I think I remember you shouting, and then running into you back there, but… argh. God. There was something in between, but I can’t see it.”
Their pace picks up suddenly, Rorschach hurrying them both along with more insistence, their footsteps dull against the dusty wooden floor. He’s obviously noticed the problem with the hall too, the way it’s refracting in on itself like a Mobiüs strip. “Did you see anything?”
See. Visions, he means, or dreams, but he won’t say it.
“No, I…” Dan starts, trailing off because there is something muddy and hazy and fierce lurking in the far corners of memory, like a creature sculpted of bloodied sand and shaped by endless winds, and it doesn’t want to be seen. The more he tries to pin it down…
A smile. A mouth like a dark scar, blood on the floor, blood patterning over his hands like ink but they weren’t his hands–
And under all of it, something lurching, heavy and strange.
“There was a girl,” Dan says suddenly, stopping short no matter that he’s being all but dragged, forcing Rorschach to stop with him.
Rorschach looks between him and the distant door a few times – lifts his mask for a moment, to clear something dark from his mouth with the back of his hand. “Ten or eleven. Indistinct features, visibly decaying.” He pauses, pulling the mask back down, and the description is not a question. “Smiles too much.”
“I thought she looked normal, I mean… not rotting or anything, but it’s like trying to piece a dream together, you know? Just… impressions. The smile though–” Dan looks to him sharply, focus suddenly very clear. “Wait, when did you see–”
“Nnk. Dream. When I was.” A grumble, defensive and recalcitrant. “Resting.”
Dan just nods, and though Rorschach’s grip on him hasn’t faltered, he still clamps a hand on his partner’s shoulder. Isn’t sure who he’s doing it for, really, and is alarmed to feel it shaking, under the thick, worn leather.
“Apologies, Daniel,” and it’s barely a whisper, but whispers carry in this place. Regrets too, hanging about long past their due, like bloodstains. “Should never have let that happen.”
It suddenly seems less urgent that they keep moving, that they run. There is nothing chasing anymore. So they stay where they are for a moment, and Dan just looks steadily into the dark ink splatters; wonders if it’s a trick of the light, turning them burnt red. “Look, it probably wasn’t your fault, I don’t think either of us knew what we were getting into here–”
“Knew,” Rorschach interrupts, looking away to again regard the end of the hall. “Still walked into it. Let you walk into it.” He gestures vaguely at Dan’s neck, but the motion is tense, jerky. “Marked now.”
Dan fingers the bruises under the ash with his free hand; sees a brief image of his own hand, dragging through the remains of an old, old fire. He winces. “Marked? What do you mean by–”
A long silence, feeling like eternity turning on its axis.
“Christ. You’ve dealt with this kind of thing before.”
Rorschach turns back to him abruptly, his own fingers reaching to trace the lines of mottled black and blue rising on Dan’s throat, touch hard and indelicate. He makes a short sound of disgust, all the sharpness of it turned inward. “…won’t matter if we can get you out of here. That has to be the goal.”
“You have, though. Seen this before, I mean.”
“Not. Not exactly the same. But similar enough that I should have – Daniel,” he says, voice taking on a sudden, alien note of fear. “We have to find a way out.”
The passage looms, grey and endless.
“This hallway is sort of a problem, isn’t it?” Dan finally asks, putting to voice what he knows they’re both thinking.
“How does the door keep moving?”
“Don’t think it is.” There must be something wrong with the mask, because he’s scratching at it now, over his mouth; the latex must be leaking–
(Hanging from their feet and most of the blood wasn’t running down from their throats, was it, it was coming from–)
“Don’t think we are, either. They’re holding us in place.”
He can still see the blood pooling over his hands, feel the warmth of it on his skin, and where did that memory even come from? Dan shakes his head, hard. “Can they do that?”
A sharp exhale, almost like laughter, but it’s jagged and dangerous. “Seen this once, Daniel. Not an expert. Best guess is they can do what they like.” Rorschach lays one hand on the wall next to them, palm sliding over the rough, time-worn wallpaper, fingers picking for a seam. “Can keep us and kill us and they don’t need their own hands to do it. Four perfectly good ones right here already.”
Dan feels dizzy, all at once, and his throat aches. “…oh god.”
A loud ripping noise as the wallpaper flays away, and the plaster underneath is as rotted and caving as they could hope for. A hand passes over it, digging for the weakest spot; one of four, and Dan has seen the violence it is capable of, the bloody scrawl it’s writ across the hearts and minds and broken bodies of the criminal fraternity. Turned to other uses… “Finally appreciate the seriousness of the situation, then.”
…it’s obviously serious enough to make an actual go of busting through a wall rather than stay on this looping tread, and serious enough that Dan is relieved to a shameful degree when Rorschach doesn’t pull out a knife to hack through the crumbling sheetrock; just starts hitting it, closed fist, hard enough to bruise or bloody him under the gloves.
Serious enough to make him do an inventory of his own belongings, and if Rorschach hears it over the storm and the havoc he’s wreaking on the wall when Dan’s throwing crescents hit the floor, he doesn’t acknowledge it.
“…yeah. God." His voice is shaky, like it wants to laugh. "We’re really in trouble here.”
Rorschach halts in his assault on the wall – takes a deep, shaky breath. His hands are shaking, and it’s unclear how much is fatigue; the blots on his mask swim like memory. “Yes. We are.” A pause. “Would appreciate if you helped with this.”
Dan does, and after a few hits, he stops feeling the pain altogether.
-----> Part 2