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.
II. the way out
Dan is hit by a wave of dizziness as soon as they finally manage to break through to air on the other side, and they have no idea what’s there but he’s grabbing at the ragged lip of the hole with both hands, trying to steady himself on it. It can't just be the pain in abused bones and joints sending him spinning down because he can see Rorschach swaying too, right on the edge of vision, being eaten up by swarming grey smoke. He doesn't know what's–
“Trying to stop us,” a voice growls and of course Rorschach is right and damn it, Dan’s getting tired of being the liability here – he can feel that much through the fade, that certainty that he has become so much dead weight to be dragged around out of some sense of loyalty or obligation or hell, maybe Rorschach actually cares about him, doesn't want to lose him to this thing, but this isn’t how it’s supposed to work.
Partners. They’re supposed to be partners, watching each other’s backs, working together.
“Partners,” he mutters over a tongue gone thick, and he knows he’s said it out loud because Rorschach looks to him sharply, still trying to steady himself against the assault. Dan doesn’t have the spare energy or attention required to decode the swimming blots, find out if they spell out confusion or frustration or anger. Right now they all look like bloodstains, heavy and dark. Any other time he’d call it imagination; here, in this place, it’s a very bad sign.
The next room could be worse. He doesn’t care. Rorschach’s being hit harder than he is this time, reeling in against the wall, fingers scrabbling at the hole for purchase, and they’re out of options.
Dan squints through the haze, settles hands solidly on the crumbling edges of the hole – there’s a sudden blast of heat and pressure, threatening him with an unconsciousness he knows with chilling certainty that he won’t ever get back up from – and pushes, the weight of his entire body behind his arms.
The wall crumples, and everything relying on it for support against invisible, relentless assailants crumples with it, hands and feet and bodies down among plaster and wood, scraps of wallpaper, dust and age and time and the crush of memory–
And just like that, the pressure is gone.
“We have to keep moving,” Daniel says, hauling him up out of the structural detritus with one hand, brushing the sawdust and plaster from them both with a gesture that’s laughably domestic, absurdly out of place. Who cares if they’re clean? They’re likely not going to outlive the night. “Stairs, there. Maybe there’ll be an upstairs window we can–”
It’s quiet here. No, not quiet – the storm can always be heard, raging through the walls – but still in a way no other place in this godforsaken house has been, an epicenter of sanity amidst deathless lunacy.
“Rorschach? Come on, we have to–”
“You can’t feel it,” Rorschach says, tone low and even, and it should be a question but it isn’t.
Daniel doesn’t respond – just shifts from one foot to another, uncertain. The motion draws Rorschach’s eyes, refocuses them on those dark bruises and soot-streaks and then down, down to the bare hands still stained.
They’ve both taken damage, of more than one kind. Rorschach coughs against a thickness in his throat. “Not in here with us. Maybe they can’t be.”
Already one hand on the banister, testing the lowest step, Daniel doesn’t seem convinced. His boot taps hollowly on the planking, then comes down; it holds his weight. Good sign. “They weren’t in the hallway either. Saw where that got us.”
“They were there. Chose to pursue us in a different way, but they were still there.”
Daniel pauses. Takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, as if feeling out the pressure there or checking for onset of the bends. Out of the depths they–
Rorschach nods, sitting down in a heavy, uncoordinated motion on that first step, running one gloved hand up over his mask, under the fedora. He’s had moments of greater vulnerability, of greater terror, and of greater pure human relief, but he could count them one-handed and this is the first time he can honestly say he doesn’t begrudge himself it.
A shuffling sound, and Daniel is settling down next to him on the just-slightly too narrow stair, arms slung over his knees. He takes another too-deep breath – lets his head fall forward to rest in the scaffolding they form, hair falling over his armored sleeves in haphazard whorls. Something wet patters as it drips to the dusty wood floor.
“Your hands,” Rorschach grumbles, not bothering to beg permission before he takes hold of one of them, turns it knuckles-up.
“Yeah,” and Daniel’s seemingly not inclined to lift his head from his arms; his voice is muffled. “They’re bleeding, I know. Beating through sheetrock will do that.”
Rorschach lets the hand go, considers. Digs an old, rust-spattered cloth handkerchief out of an inner suit pocket, puts it between his teeth and tears it into two roughly similar sized pieces, irregular but serviceable. “Blood makes them stronger,” he says, binding one hand sloppily, then the other. Daniel doesn’t stir, and Rorschach would be concerned if he couldn’t read absolute and utter exhaustion in his partner’s posture, in his frame. “…I think. Better to be on the safe side, regardless.”
“Still haven’t explained how you know about all of this,” comes the muzzy, quiet reply.
And under normal circumstances Daniel wouldn’t even have asked, would know better than to push about personal information, about other lives and other years, lost to time.
Under normal circumstances, Rorschach wouldn’t even consider telling him.
There’s a long silence, but that’s fine; time spent in this haven is not time that counts against them, is not another second, another minute, another hour closer to never seeing daylight again. They can afford to let it spool out, let it build a buffer against the things that must be said.
Far away, the clatter of a screen door battering open and shut in the wind.
The wind sounds like–
“Spent time in a state-run institution,” Rorschach says, and even he can feel the way truth has of splitting the air like lightning.
Nothing at first, then a slow lifting, hair falling around Daniel’s unfocused eyes. “…what?”
“Heard fine the first time.”
“Yeah, I did, I just didn’t…” Dan shakes himself visibly, pulling himself up to sit straight. Attentive, even through the body’s obvious desire to shut down. “I didn’t really expect you to answer, you know?”
Rorschach sits for a moment, unmoving. A hand, fast, pulling his mask down into place, and he’s not sure what he’s hiding from. “It’s relevant information. Important. Could decide whether we get out or don’t.”
Daniel rubs the dust from his eyes. It looks like he’s trying to fake nonchalance, but he’s doing a poor job of it. “Okay then, I’m listening. Shoot.”
For a long moment they sit in companionable quiet, and Dan is beginning to worry that maybe Rorschach’s changed his mind about disclosing any of this, whatever it turns out to be – and he doesn't know, but he can feel the shape of it, lurking ugly and fractured somewhere off in the shadows.
Then Rorschach makes a noise all twisted around in razorwire. “Dormitory building was old. Predated rest of the structures. Last century was just as violent as ours, they…”
He trails off, the words breaking up into sound, and there's a fine shake in it. Dan waits it out, unmoving.
“Looked it up, years later. Seventeen ritualistic murders over the course of two months, spring of 1887. Don’t know how many of them stayed around, after.” A short exhale that could almost be a laugh. “Hard to count what you can barely see.”
“You could see them, though.”
The mask turns to regard him, and Dan may know most of the patterns well enough through sheer familiarity to take a guess at their meanings, but this one is new. “Only two of us could. Hrm. Patterns, repeating.” He swipes at the latex with the back of his hand again. “He was only just aware enough to be influenced without feeling the puppetstrings. Without knowing what he was seeing. Easier target.”
Dan winces, tries not to look the parallels in the face or think too hard about the implications. “What did you see?”
“Unimportant. Daniel,” he says, voice suddenly lower, less inflected. “They convinced him to kill himself. That's how they do it. Like they almost convinced you to.”
It hangs between them, this most violent truth of all, all its sharp edges bared to the light. Again, the visual memory with no context: his own hand shadowed against a suffusing glow, soot-smeared and starting to curl closed. Blood, pattering onto it from somewhere higher. The distant swinging door is still battering its frame, the sound closer now, and that shouldn’t be possible.
Close one door, open–
“Was he a friend?”
A snort, an attempt at dismissiveness. “Barely knew him. Only his temperament – quiet, goodhearted. Intelligent.” A pause, perhaps a second too long, and pointed; he’s waiting for it to sink in. “Still tried to save him.”
A tired smile is all Dan can muster. He turns one hand over, flexes fingers against the binding. “That is what you tend to do.”
“How old were you?” Dan asks, leaning sideways against the banister, oblivious in his exhaustion to how intrusive the question really is.
“…eleven.” A pause, and he must be tired too, to be answering. “And a half.”
Eleven and a... Dan blinks, then sits up straight again, eyes focusing clearly for the first time in several minutes at least. “Rorschach, that’s… that’s ridiculous. You were a kid, there’s no way you could have done anything.”
An uncommitted noise, rough around something thick Rorschach’s got catching in his throat.
“You tried your best,” Dan says, and god but he must be far gone, because this feels like a pep talk and really Rorschach’s the last person he should ever be– but the words keep spilling out, beyond his ability to curb or control. “That’s all anyone can ask for.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I know you. You don’t do anything by half-measures.”
No response, and it isn’t a thought-gathering sort of pause. It's deliberate.
“I mean, if you couldn’t do anything, I doubt anyone could hav–”
“Not a therapy session, Daniel," Rorschach cuts in abruptly. "My… feelings on the subject don’t materially affect our situation.”
Quiet and noise and quiet and noise, looping with the heave and heft of the storm outside. There's a wailing that could be wind, could be cat, could be human, if it's turned on its edge just so.
“...I was just trying to make you feel better–”
“He cut his wrists.”
Dan stops midstream, mouth still open around the last syllable. Scrubs his hands over his face, and in the dark the shadows pool like old bloodstains. “Oh. Oh goddamn.”
“Seven years old. Didn’t... nnk. Didn't think a body that small could hold that much blood. Have learned otherwise since. Do appreciate the effort, but.”
“…but nothing I say is going to make that better. Jesus.”
“No. Old anyway. Only mentioned it to demonstrate our odds.”
Conversation effectively killed, Dan shifts on the step, leans back with his elbows on the next one up. Closes his eyes to savor, if nothing else, a few calm moments that could well be bunching up together here at the end of his life. He's just contemplating the fact that he's at least not facing it alone when the laughter bubbles up, inexplicable and inappropriate. It's a breathless thing, nerves and skepticism and his own two eyes and old books and new books and all the childlike credulity that had slipped into the cracks between them. “God. This is all so hard to believe. I mean, I used to be terrified of this stuff when I was a kid, but it was never real.”
“Hrm.” Rorschach shifts, pulling his fedora free, turning and turning it in his hands, an idle motion. “Probably thought covering up with a blanket would save you.”
Dan's getting a little hysterical, a little desperate, but some remaining vestige of tact prevents him from calling out the gentle familiarity in Rorschach’s tone. Dan’s obviously not the only one who threw himself into the darkness after a childhood spent afraid of it. “Yeah, but only if every crack was sealed, you know? Can’t leave any breaches in the infallible ghost defense of cotton bedsheets.”
Rorschach nods, severely, as if they’re discussing something real, something important. Dan wonders for a moment if the ghosts’ goal had been to drive them both mad.
Then the act drops away and the swirling blots are regarding him as steadily as any human face – and they’re bunching under thumbs, rolling up and lifting away, peeling back like skin to reveal pale eyes and red hair and a face he doesn’t think he’ll get the chance to commit to memory, all at once and unexpected, and god but this is important, this means something–
Power in names, his books had said, smelling of old paper and older leather, the stories his father always took away when he caught him with them. Power in names and power in faces, in knowing someone deeper than the shell they present to the world, in having seen them bleed. But it's all just nonsense, a kid's fantasy, and all he finds himself wishing for is more time. “…we’re really not getting out of this, are we?”
The mask twists between restless hands, and there’s something dark running from the corner of his mouth. Something dark running along the edges of his eyes, but it might be the light, or it might be that this is what he's been hiding all this time, something that cuts too deeply to ever see daylight. “Good chance we won't," he says, and his voice is different, sounds less like it's been dragged bleeding through broken glass. "Uncertain. Hmpf. If we do, may have to kill you.”
A pause, brain trying to catch up with his ears. “What?”
“To preserve secret, Daniel.”
A longer pause, and then Dan’s leaning his head against the banister again. The laughter sounds like drowning, now. “God, you really need to work on your delivery.”
Rorschach exhales sharply, almost a laugh, almost relief. Pressure valve. “Am aware.”
Dan snorts. “Bad enough we’ve got ghosts trying to kill us…”
Now the noise sounds indignant, and it’s still all he has to go on, this new face all unfamiliar lines and angles, impossible to interpret. “Wasn’t that bad.”
“It was pretty bad.” Dan tries to pull himself back under control, twining one bandaged hand through the banister’s spire.
"Notice you still laughed."
“Yeah, in self-defense. God, man." He's wiping the backs of his hands over his eyes, clearing moisture away. "Thanks. I needed that."
"Self-defense... boy at the home understood that too," Rorschach mutters, and Dan's struck by the completely absurd image of this face, twenty years younger, venturing terrible jokes into the darkness to keep an assailed companion's nerves at ease. He doesn't dare suggest it aloud, because it will be denied whether it's true or not and right now, he needs that, too. He needs everything he can get. "Didn't help him in the end, but..."
The stairs creak under their weight; a stray piece of plaster comes loose from the broken wall, hits the ground, raises dust. On the other side of that gap–
"That stupid goddamned dealer," Dan's saying, voice broken by something caught between hysterics and despair. He shifts, and his weight's on Rorschach instead of the railing, and the contact feels like something vital, like breath. "If he'd just given himself up..." A sharp, high noise. "I swear, if we don't make it out of this, that's the bastard I'm haunting first."
"Hrm. Together, would be... unnerving."
"We'd be terrifying, is what we'd be," and Dan can see a twitch at the corner of that flat, inexpressive mouth that could almost be a smile.
"If we do get out, will have to go after him regardless. Good hunting either way."
Dan studies him for a long moment, only realizing after a time has passed that he's burning something into memory though he isn't sure what – it isn't the face like he'd expect, but something less tangible instead, and more precious for it. He puts one bandaged hand out into the air. "Yeah. Good hunting."
And they shake on it as if they've said something more important, as if those two words are many more, are all the words they've never spoken in one dark, hopeless place or another, out of options and out of time. Beyond these sanctuary walls, the clock's still running, and they can't stay here forever. Dan would give anything in this moment for the simplicity of a knife wound in a back alley, their greatest challenge to survival being to keep Rorschach's stitching fingers nimble through the slippery red running over them.
"They'll come after you as soon as we leave," Rorschach's saying, sliding his mask back down into place, squaring his fedora. "Try to separate us."
Dan nods, pulling himself up by the banister and one tired arm. The bindings are coming loose, and he fiddles with them, tightens the knots one-handed. "I know. Good luck, man."
A stretching silence, blots drifting in and out of death's heads and sunsets and rotting old trees, bare branches spreading under a yellowed sky.
"Keep it," Rorschach says finally. "Need it more than I do."
A tight swallow, and one foot on the landing. "The door up there?"
"...Yes. I'll go first. Stay close."
When Rorschach puts his hand on the doorknob, he feels bare fingers dig into his sleeve, hold on tight, and he thinks of the over-the-shoulder glances he's had at Daniel's books, all medieval nonsense and woodcut snapshots – tame raptors, talons clutching an arm hard in a bid against gravity, against their own urge to slip their leads and fly. His hands tighten to fists and he imagines he's gripping some invisible cord, wound round and round, and that he's not letting go.
The doorknob turns, easy and soft, and the door swings out under the pressure of one spread hand as if its hinges are coated in oil. Beyond, another long hallway, disarming with its curling, delicate strips of wallpaper and its framed family photographs, greasy fingerprints and pencil scrawl in a child's fat, clumsy hand. 'Kitty', one of the legends says, but there's no matching illustration. 'My house' says another, with a handprint traced out in lead. The handprints are a repeating theme, all different sizes, scattered down the walls. All left hands, and Daniel's already lifting his toward one that they both know will fit it perfectly when Rorschach catches him by the wrist.
Daniel looks back, questioning. A shake of the head; the time for conversation has passed, as well as that for idle curiosity. For all they know those ciphers could be locks, triggers, waiting for their keys. Nothing is outlandish, anymore; nothing can be allowed to surprise them.
"Nice family," Daniel whispers instead, freeing his hand and gesturing to the pictures hanging crooked behind cracked glass. The splintered frame's occupants seem to have been young and old all at once, and their world was blurry with silver nitrate and memory, all worn-out greys and colorless – was gone and is gone. A faint wailing breaks up the storm noise, an echo of something familiar; there's a little girl in some of the pictures, and no one is smiling because no one smiled for pictures in those times but there's something in her particular grimace that is...
"On the surface," Rorschach concedes, then gestures for silence. He stalks carefully, one hand flat to the wall. The sounds are coming from far away, he thinks, ringing like gulls in the surf heard too far inland, each cry feathery light on a warm upslope breeze. They're circling, dipping and wheeling towards him – towards him, not Daniel – and there's nothing outwardly malicious in them. He's still not stupid enough to take anything for granted, not this time.
Circling and circling, they don't make contact – no fingertips press to the buttons of his spine or slide between ribs, and the chunks of broken glass don't make his fingers itch for their delicate heft, for the whistle of their descent. The voices just skim and whisper, voices overlapping in their urgency, blurring into one another though they are different; this one even, this one tinny and afraid, this one low and rich and resonant.
(–so sorry–) they murmur as one, and they're not howling. They're keening like wounded birds, and not hunting birds, not even carrion-eaters; just searching like blind things cut adrift, looking for a ground that's been lost to them, for rest. (–so, so sorry–)
(–hurts–) says a small one, on the verge of tears. (–unforgivable–) says another. (–cannot be stopped, must be stopped–)
It's an idea that bubbles slowly into consciousness, reluctantly breaks the surface: These ones, whoever they are and whoever they were, they're not looking to cause harm. They're confused, they're hurting, they're afraid or lonely or rebuked, but they're not malicious. Don't be too hard on yourself, they'd soothed in the kitchen, and he'd assumed they'd spoken in teasing cruelty, but...
The hand tightens on his shoulder and there's a more human sound behind him, a shuffling, but it feels like background noise because he's remembering the shades sliding up the walls and how easily they could have closed in but they hadn't; is remembering a child's laughter meandering corrupted and strange – and he understands, all at once. Comprehension feels like a wall of freezing water, crashing in, for its weight and shock and numbing penetration. "They're her victims," he mutters, and his voice is barely there.
(–wants to come back can't allow it can't allow it–) the words tumble, (–needs blood needs fear and pain and death but needs a body too, to stumble from the depths, to crawl out of the desert–)
Daniel hasn't responded but his hand is still heavy on Rorschach's shoulder and he still moves with him down the hall, has not left or been lured away or taken and that's important because she needs a body, and he wishes suddenly that they hadn't wasted their handcuffs and binding rope on all of those petty crooks.
(–took us all–) the voices chorus, some indignant and some betrayed, old family and new strangers, stumbled into the house in the middle of one endless night or another. (–took us in the second spiral, one way in and one way out, everything changes, changes, changes beware the second spiral it does not look like the first–)
"Why couldn't she use any of you?" Rorschach asks, and he's still not sure his voice is really working but he can feel the words against the back of his throat. "Was she not strong enough then?"
(–too young, too weak, not enough blood, but now, now–) and the voices rise up together and dissipate into incomprehensibility, words tripping over words, too much to sort out or process. It sounds like a flock of pigeons stirred up by a cat amongst them, burbling in sheer stupefied panic, and he claps his hands over his ears, trying in vain to shut it out, to quiet it to a manageable din, anything, just make it–
(–turning and turning–) they sing, the only words making it out of the cacophony, wet voices like air rushing over a wound. (–turning and turning turning and turning–) and he knows this, he knows those words, god, he knows how this story ends – turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear–
"Where's your birdie?" asks a voice, a real voice, saccharine sweet and cutting like a razor. When he spins to face her, violence buzzing in his fingers no matter how futile it'd be, there's no one there–
–and Daniel's hand is gone from his shoulder.
He doesn't move for a long moment – the voices have subsided to whispers, and they're still telling him things that will probably resurface later, if there is a later, but he's not listening – just exhales one hard, shaky breath against the drumskin of his mask. Two feet back down the hall, a door is swinging closed.
"No, no no no, " he growls, each syllable falling like an oath. He catches the door one-handed before it can hit its frame, shoves it back inward, is through it before he can even think about it because he said this, he said they would separate them and he still let it happen and why hadn't he noticed them passing the door, had it been there before? Why did it change?
[A wall in the main room, gaping like a window when he'd let it drift to the corner of his eye, and under the paper, under all the years of forgetfulness and deceit, the shape of the thing had been there. Nothing is accidental. –It does not look like the first–]
Rorschach skids to a stop, worn-slick soles of his shoes finding little traction on the bare wood of the floor where it leads to a tremendous gaping hole. Beams run across it, old and termite-ridden and one is creaking, splintering, under the weight of a full-grown man. Beneath the beams, through floor and ceiling, he can see a room glowing with more light than should be visible this far into the house. The distant floor is thick with something the color of rust.
"Daniel," he says, quiet and firm. The other man is staring at nothing, is wavering back and forth on the beam – is fingering a rope between his bare fingers, and the torn pieces of cloth that'd served as bandages are discarded near Rorschach's feet. He gives no sign that he even hears his name, humming something wordless and looping in a tone that's too high.
Behind him, so close and so patient, the child stands in defiance. Her form isn't stable; tries to stay pristine and innocent but keeps breaking down into rot, sloughing skin and empty eyesockets, shifting and morphing in stop-frame fast motion but she never stops smiling.
"Daniel," Rorschach tries again, edging closer to the lip of the hole. A fall from one floor – only eight feet – wouldn't kill anyone unless they landed on their neck. There's got to be some other scheme here, and not knowing it doesn't keep him from understanding that getting Daniel back to solid ground is imperative. "Shouldn't have wandered off. Come back over here."
Laughter, unhinged and confident. "He can't hear you," she says, petulant, and her hands are rimed in soot. "Only me."
"I told you, he can't–"
"You, " Rorschach says, forceful, pointing directly at her, because he can see the print and smell the old books and newspapers and the final piece has just fallen into place. "Elisa Josephine Tiller. Died in a fall, 1924. Entire family found murdered a month later. You killed them. Killed all of them."
"It wasn't fair, " she says, and the voice isn't really a voice; just an echo, a remembrance of sound. "I was too young to die, I had to find a way back."
"I don't care," he growls, and when he looks down, the bloodstain below looks fresher, wetter. Shining refractions of light glint in the space below them, glare off the edges of blades that aren't there, and the soiled boards seem so far away, like there are two floors between them instead of only one. How many stairs had they climbed, or– "He's not yours to use like this."
She hums, the same tuneless thing still coming from Daniel, and his teetering's becoming more pronounced. "He is now," she says, sing-song and light.
A fist clenches, and Rorschach can feel something hot rising up inside of himself, caught paralyzingly somewhere between love and fear – and it cannot turn blades on the street, cannot stop bullets, but it has power here, in this place. He reaches up to pull his mask free for the second time tonight, to strip away the hiding places and face this creature down with eyes that don't flinch, that aren't afraid.
"No," he says, and the words carry the weight of every truth. "He's not yours. "
At first, nothing – then she takes one wobbling step backward, and her disguise slips for good, leaving her exposed, gruesome. The smile falters; the humming stops, from both of them, and Daniel is blinking, looking around in a daze. "What's... what am I..."
"Daniel," Rorschach says, and the pointing, accusing hand opens, offers itself palm-up. This is it, this is their last chance. "Don't look down. Just look at me, and walk towards me. One foot straight in front of the other."
A puzzled frown, lines pinching his face. "Why can't I–"
The girl is pulling herself up, regathering her strength, and in the hall outside he can hear the lost bird noises of grief and loneliness and he will not let it end that way, not this time, not for– "Now, Daniel. Don't argue."
A hesitant step toward him, and the beam is creaking; another step, and there's a hand in his, solid and warm and alive and–
A sound like wind, filling the room, resolving into a scream of such fury and loss that it hits like a physical blow, and Daniel wavers on the beam, loses his footing. Starts to fall, the bloody rope uncoiling and Rorschach's stepping out on the beam too fast too fast, arms around him to catch and steady but he's falling too fast–
And then they are both falling
Somewhere, as before, laughter.
At first, he can sense only the utter quiet of freefall, of life existing in the space between heartbeats, stretched and surreal. Then the world spins out- upside down and end over end, and he can swear he feels something cool and solid in his hand and sees the blades flashing in light that shouldn't be there and up, up someone is saying and he can feel all the blood rush to his head and fill his mouth and run down his chin, over his chest, hot and thick and not all of it is his and up, the voice says, now, Daniel, up–
–and the rope must have been around his ankle, stringing him up alongside all the others to spill into the room below because it wrenches and all the small bones there grind and start to give–
–bare hands on his face suddenly, and the connection is electric, feels like watching a television degauss - the picture snaps clear and into focus with an audible spark, all the fuzzy illusions and visual tricks of static and white noise evaporating. His skin is dry where it's touched; the blood is gone. His throat hurts but he isn't drowning in fluid, he can breathe, and he's being pushed and pulled towards his feet all at once and is this real, did they really– "Now, Daniel. Get up, right now. "
He's on his back in a fresh, oozing pool of blood, as if the floor itself were bleeding, rendering up all of its old secrets and rage and there's no time to think about it because he's up now, shoved hard toward a square window set low in the nearest wall and he remembers this room, remembers being here and wasn't the window bricked over then–
"Through there, out," and Rorschach's as telegraphic as he ever gets, language stripped down to the barest essentials of run go get out get away survive. Behind them, something is still screaming and laughing and howling, hasn't stopped, and it's ripping through him like broken glass, like the agonizing silence that follows every breath–
In the back of his mind: two floors of freefall, and how had they survived uninjured? Where did all the blood come from?
[A vision: himself, from another's perspective, spasming on a couch that was never there, spilling reddened water up from inside and he feels fear and revulsion and it goes on and on and–]
Where did it–
[Rorschach, rubbing at something dark pooling under his mask like a bruise, livid and violent–]
No, no time, there's no time. He's already over the sill of the window, Rorschach clambering through behind him, and it's the room they began this in, took watch in, tried to make their stand in. But the walls and floor and the space itself are shifting, unstable; furniture and cobweb-strewn emptiness; fine, smooth hardwood and bare subfloor rolling under their feet in rotted, uneven waves – music, laughter, candlelight and darkness and he knows without knowing that it's the house's memory of itself, flickering in and out of existence like its own kind of ghost. It's not allowed to rest because nothing here lies down when it dies, nothing stays still, and that window should have been bricked over but it wasn't. The screen door still slams and bangs in the wind, open and closed and open again, and it's too loud–
Then they're past it, out, into the open air and the fury of the storm and it feels like a benediction, the cold stinging rain battering their faces raw and red as they run and run and run.
They've been fleeing blindly for a long time – it's hard to say how long, but they're keeping even pace, neither straying by more than a half step ahead or behind in the near-dark, just overwhelmed with the open space and gut-swell of relief at being out, god, they made it out – when Dan feels a twinge in the ankle he must have landed wrong on when they fell
(Two stories. Two stories and not a scratch on either of you, just a twisted ankle and rope burns and–)
because it's starting to throb under the weight he's putting on it, starting to cant him off balance. When the ground under his next step isn't where he expects it to be – some kind of shallow ditch that he's not paying enough attention to to navigate correctly – and his foot catches in the depression, twists him down to the ground in a gasping, writhing heap, the shock of pain is enough to make him think it might be broken. "Dammit," he hisses, pinching his eyes closed against the rising waves of nausea, against the way he can feel the bones grinding together, sickening in its intensity. He's lost in it - there's nothing beyond the blackness of his own eyelids and the star-cluster bursts of pain – until he senses footsteps approaching from behind. Can't hear them through the wind, but he knows they're there.
"Hurt?" Rorschach asks, crouching down beside him in the grassy culvert. His face is bare again, has been since Dan came back to himself in that high, teetering room, and he's breathing hard and rough like the real person that lives behind the mask – like Dan himself is, as he feels along the length of his boot, looking for a break.
"Yeah, god. Think it's just a sprain, though," he finally says, fingers finding nothing misshapen under the restrictive material, and it’s so absurd, worrying over a twisted ankle after they just– "Hurts like hell. Must've landed on it wrong back there."
Rorschach nods; doesn’t question, just threads an arm under his, starts to pull him back to his feet. It's an assist they've both given and received countless times on patrol, but once they get there Rorschach doesn't let go – Dan can feel the tight, twisted grip in his cloak, the slight shifting of weight encouraging him to just go ahead and lean if he needs to. It hits him all at once, between the tenacity of Rorschach's grasp on him and a backward glance that shows him nothing but fields and sky and clouds blossoming with the diffuse glow of lightning that won't reach ground: "We made it out."
A nod that he can feel against his shoulder. "Yes," Rorschach says, sounding a little disbelieving, like he's waiting for their luck to run out, for their path to loop around and set the house square in front of them again, for these things to catch up to them. "We did."
Dan laughs, shaky, the sound cut off by a wince as he puts too much weight on the wrong foot. "I told you you could–"
They stop walking suddenly, and fingers are on his throat, as bare as the face, tracing carefully over the ring of ash and bruises. It's hard to breathe under their scrutiny. "Shouldn't have been possible, after she..." Rorschach trails off; he drops his head to the side, working to shake something free. Shoves the free hand back into his pocket. "Hrm. Will fade in a few days."
Marked, he'd said, in the mad panic of the Mobiüs hallway, and it'd sounded so final. Dan narrows his eyes. "You know or you're guessing?"
A shrug. "Just bruises, Daniel. Heal like any others."
(Like a bruise, livid and– and hadn't he wiped something away, dark, thick–)
But there's nothing there when he looks, when he looks for too long – nothing but a haggard face that's seen more that its years should allow, that carries every scar and indignity on the surface; that is as weary as he feels, stumbling through the middle of nowhere in the dark. Unscathed. A practical, inevitable silence settles over them then, battered and limping on three good legs toward the promise of the city glow, smearing the northern sky in dirty orange.
"How did you know who she was?" Dan asks after a long stretch. The highway is visible ahead, slick black asphalt cutting a sharp profile through the overgrown grass and grain.
Rorschach doesn't say a word until they make the shoulder of the road, put something solid and manmade and real under their feet. They stand there for a long moment, in the ozone-stink of nearby lightning and the calm that follows every storm. "...used to tell ghost stories, at the home. Before... nnk. Wasn't appropriate, after. Everyone knew, even if they didn't."
"I can understand that, yeah."
"Most of them were made up. Turns out this one was true, I suppose. Though the story claimed she killed her family out of revenge, for allowing her to die. And for sealing up her room like she never existed."
Dan leans; his ankle is throbbing harder now that they're standing still, and he's trying to get the weight off of it. "That isn't true?"
"No," Rorschach mumbles, and his grip tightens almost imperceptibly. "Was looking for a way back into the world. For a vessel. Her victims were... surprisingly talkative on the subject."
Silence, uncomfortable and shifting.
"So, uh. That's it?"
Another shrug, jarring his balance. "Probably more to it. Not willing to go back and ask for a full explanation with flow-charts and diagrams, Daniel."
Dan huffs a breath of almost-laughter. "Fair enough."
There are no stars out with the cloud ceiling so low; black sky, black tar, black fields. It's not a busy road this late, and Dan's not sure why they're standing and not walking, why this seems like such a boundary...
"Speaking of ghost stories," he says, turning his head to regard the open stretch of highway. The tall grass to either side is wet, is whipping around his knees in the breeze, and the shine of moonlight along its edges picks out every blade against the dark. "Feels like we're in one of those hitchhiker ones."
No reply; Rorschach just looks at him and even without the mask, the assessment is dark and unreadable.
"You know, the ones where someone picks up a hitchhiker on the highway, and then when they get where they're going, the person's vanished, poof, because they were never there?"
Another long silence, and then Rorschach pulls up short, looking down the stretch of asphalt. In the distance, the twin pinpricks of faraway headlights. "...absurd," he mutters.
It's gone eerily silent but for the wind, and Dan turns to look Rorschach in the face, expression incredulous. "What, after what we just went through back there?"
"Can't see ghosts in the open like this," he says, rolling his shoulders, trying to hitch the collar of his coat higher without pulling his hand from his pocket. "Need walls, something to contain them, force them into a shape we can see. Would be invisible on the side of a road." A pause, considering. "Might see its shadow."
"Now you're just making shit up."
The car's closer now, and ridiculously half-costumed or not, Dan's considering flagging it down to save them the walk all the way back to the city; his ankle's killing him, though aside from that, he could probably walk all night, he’s really not that tired–
That isn’t right though, is it? He should be exhausted; he remembers being exhausted on the stairs, remembers his bones aching for rest and his mind screaming for the vivid oblivion of sleep, but now… nothing. A sudden swell of panic, plain in his voice: "Hey man, are you worn out at all?"
"No," and Rorschach doesn't seem willing to speculate or suggest a reason, because they've been walking for an hour and were running for a good long while before that, and they really should be–
Dan laughs then, and it sounds wrong, too high and too desperate. "Just adrenaline, right? I mean, what happened back there, we've gotta be flying on the stuff."
A tight shrug, noncommittal. "Probably."
Dan shifts his weight – rubs at the back of his neck, feeling the reassuringly physical way his hair curls there, heavy with rainwater. Steps to the side to watch the approaching headlights, the way they grow as they get closer, blinding at this angle, the brilliance building and building until it obliterates sense, subsumes the world in white–
Then it's past, without slowing or stopping, gone in a rush of air that ripples through them like so much dry old winter wheat gone to seed, buffeted and savaged by the winds of the storm.
"Hrm." Rorschach shifts Dan's weight across his shoulders, and there's something approving in his voice. "Smart enough to know better. Good."
"I guess we're walking," Dan says, trying to smile, and when Rorschach just nods and starts them down the highway, he falls into staggering step beside him, their shadows long and insubstantial under the low, waning moon.
And they walk – limping and ragged and propping each other up against too many inevitable thoughts, always toward the city, the hard press of the road familiar under their feet.
They walk for a very long time.