Characters/Pairings: Daniel, Rorschach, Adrian, Manhattan in pt 1, Dan/Ror.
Date Written: 2010
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.
ALSO: This part is very TALKY TALKY TALKY, both plotty talking and personal talking; I hope it isn't too boring. But it is pretty important.
"You want to order the entire world to kill themselves."
It isn't a healthy, thoughtful silence; neither is it horror. More just disbelief, surprise, filtering through the assembly in rippling waves. It'd been enough of a fight to convince them to let Adrian sit in on the meeting, fully half of those present still suspecting him of being a plant. It hasn't helped that even Dan isn't entirely sure that he isn't and Rorschach carries his own opinions, tight to the chest but still visible in the way he glares at Adrian every chance he has. These people have no way of knowing just how old a grudge he's bearing, and it's feeding the atmosphere of distrust, of incredulity.
"Not the world," Rorschach corrects, and he's at least reigned in the venom now, is making at attempt at polite discourse. Any situation less dire, and Dan would laugh.
Instead, he just nods, sharp and short. "There wouldn't be anyone to maintain order on that large a scale. We wanted to start with the city, and then branch out from there. It'd take a while to get the whole world back on track, but it seems like the safest approach."
"Safest." Donnelly leans forward, arms across his knees, and the word is and isn't a question. "You're talking about the safest way to order a world to suicide. And you don't see anything... I don't know, contradictory in that?"
"It would work," Dan says, and he can feel a dozen sets of eyes on him, can feel Rorschach at his elbow, knows the time for second-guessing has long since passed. "You know how the survival instinct works to beat this thing."
Donnelly nods, runs one hand through his hair. "We do. It's how we've operated for years now, getting new recruits. And we have actually considered something like this before, but getting access to the equipment... much less working out all the variables, fine-tuning it to target only one area..."
"That's why I'm here," Adrian interjects smoothly, chin resting over steepled fingers. "I have access to all of that, including personnel well enough trained in its operation to make those adjustments, with the right persuasion. I could likely convince them to leave me alone with it for a short amount of time, at least long enough to change the codes."
A middle-aged woman to Donnelly's left narrows her eyes. "I thought you were just a figurehead."
Adrian laughs, and it's a little less false than Dan remembers, a little more self-deprecating around the edges. "Oh, I am. I have no delusions. But I still had a hand in developing the technology; I know ways to get around it."
"There's still the issue of crowd control. Cut that many puppetstrings at once, and it'll be complete chaos. We don't even have enough people here to cover just the city."
Dan leans back on the bench; a nonverbal cue that his part of the presentation's over. Takes a breath and holds it as he watches the brim of Rorschach's hat tip up. This next bit could go very well or very badly, but everything hinges on it.
"Thousands more like you in this city, correct?" Rorschach asks, with a leading tone that Dan recognizes from too many back alley interrogations. "Half a percent works out to almost 40,000 people."
"A lot have been killed, and more than that captured and put into the prisons," Donnelly says, and he sound weary, the exhaustion of a parent explaining why the sky is blue for the twentieth time. "That still doesn't account for everyone, but there's probably a lot of folks choosing to live as if they weren't resistant, to stay out of the crossfire."
"How many in the prisons?"
"Around 12,000 in Riker's, maybe another 4,000 scattered in other facilities."
"Would suggest," and again, the sound of Rorschach's voice is too familiar, too predatory, "That they would be of more use for crowd control outside the prison than in."
A hushed silence.
"...we've tried. You think you can pull that off? Just the two of you?"
"I've done it before," Dan says, leaning forward with a smile like the sharp edge of the moon. "But ideally we'd like a little help, and a distraction elsewhere in the city if you can manage it."
"Done," Donnelly says, pushing to his feet on knees that don't fully cooperate; for the first time, Dan notices how thin the man's hair is, how tired of all of this he must be. "We can blow the local transmitter; not like we don't have plenty of practice at that one, and it always draws them away. Tomorrow, around nine AM?"
Dan opens his mouth; closes it again. "Uhm. Wouldn't it be better if we... planned it out a little more, took some time to–"
"Listen." There's suddenly a sternness there that defies his age, a resolve, and Dan's reminded suddenly of another old man in another time, who might have retired but who'd never given up, not really. "This is the third encampment we've had in as many years. Our numbers are a fifth of what they were when all of this started. We don't play the long game, here. We don't have time for it."
Around the circle, nods of agreement.
"When an opportunity comes, we grab it, and the devil take the details. Delaying a day can mean delaying forever. So." His eyes narrow, focus on Dan, and he knows how unassuming he must appear, how torn-up and thrown-away Rorschach looks, but they delivered the head of Adrian fucking Veidt, still attached no less, and these people know what an impossible thing that is. Maybe they're ready to believe other impossible things, too. "Can you be ready by nine tomorrow, or are you just screwing around and wasting our time?"
Dan closes his eyes, does some quick mental math: He'll need his armor, and the map of the prison he'd swiped from the library, but an early morning trip back to the warehouse isn't out of the question. Picking out some people to help them directly in the jailbreak can be done tonight; he's already got an inkling of what to select for. Rorschach will need some kind of protection against all the gunfire they're likely to encounter, but if they don't have that here, they can find something elsewhere.
He opens his eyes, and these people don't know Nite Owl by name, but they know him by sight now, by the hunter's steel in his expression. "Can we stay here tonight, get a decent night's sleep beforehand?"
Dan nods vaguely, glancing to Rorschach for confirmation. It comes in the determined set of eyes and mouth, the utter lack of doubt in his posture – loose, hungry, with fists clenched and ready.
"Okay then, yeah," Dan says, nodding more solidly. "We'll be ready."
The rest of the day goes quickly, too quickly. Adrian lets himself be blindfolded again and led out – they're still not sure of him and even he admits that he can't blame them – to return to his offices and halls and trappings of power, to begin the act. He'll be needed again later but for now the best thing he can do is maintain the status quo and be the ears and eyes the controllers aren't expecting him to be.
News of the planned attack and simultaneous attempt on Riker's Island spreads quickly, and the atmosphere in the camp grows increasingly electrified, a tension just below the noise floor of frustration and excitement and anger that gathers and grows with the heady red-gold of dusk, thickened blood stirred into the sky. It's an anticipation of violence, of endings and beginnings, tea-leaf clouds breaking up and scattering in its wake. By the time red fades to purple and is headed towards the blue-black of true evening, there are volunteers lining up outside of the shack they've been given for the night's stay.
They've already discussed it – decided on six people at most, four at least. Any more would be too cumbersome to manage and they'll need to move fast; brute force of numbers will come with the first sprung cellblock. They'd worried about finding even that many willing to help, but they shouldn't have, because the line is two-dozen strong and more wander up with each passing minute.
So they talk to these men and women and almost-children, send away the ones Rorschach judges not fast or clever enough, the ones Dan decides are too young to be taking the kinds of risks breaking into a well guarded prison entails. In the end, the ones not discouraged by the scrutiny, the ones with the same burning eyes and fierce expressions and firmly set feet that they remember from their own younger days, the days when there was still something clear-cut and simple to fight for – they're also the ones with the goggles and bandannas and visors, as susceptible as anyone else in the city but fighting every day to keep a hold on who they are and that does count for a lot.
"Get some sleep," Dan tells them, these five left over, and they nod and wander off, conversing in urgent whispers and with loud hands in the fading evening light.
And then, too soon, it is time for them to do the same.
It's a warmer night and there are bare mattresses laid on the floor of the scrap hut, and it's more of a luxury than either of them have had since the night in the motel. Clean and fed and comfortable, Dan's asleep almost as fast as he drops himself onto the makeshift bed, and stays that way for a long while, deep and dreamless.
He's only pulled from sleep twice, by some ancient intuition each time. The first, there's nothing amiss, the sleeping form nearby quiet and more restful than he ever remembers Rorschach being – with how many times he'd thrashed himself off of cot or couch and onto the floor, it's no wonder he never seemed rested on patrol, always carried the stiff bone-weariness of long term sleep deprivation.
The second time there are fingers on his face, then something softer; the clumsy warmth of breath.
The presence moves away and Dan opens his eyes, pins Rorschach through the half-light of far off streetlamp glow before he can pretend to be asleep again. The light etches out the edges of his silhouette, makes him look like something from that distant edge of the subconscious where dreams become nightmares, teetering.
It's hard to say how many seconds, minutes pass. Rorschach straightens up, turns away, firelit outline shifting around him. Everything in his body language says 'don't follow' as he ducks through the doorway and out into the night.
And Dan doesn’t– just shifts onto his side, listening to the fading sound of footsteps too loud to be anything but deliberately graceless. Counts, in his head, and when enough time has passed that he can reasonably claim that he came looking, concerned, upon waking to an empty room – half an hour, maybe – he gets to his feet and follows the path of those echoed steps.
The night is different here, the air itself made strange by its circuit through free bodies. Streetlight is distant, faint, its gentle instructions to sleep, sleep nothing but the most subtle suggestion; Dan can feel it, winding fingers into his mind, but they can't get a grip. They just brush there, soft and quiet. Easy to ignore.
The camp is silent, and his watch tells him it's just after three in the morning. Dawn is hours off; around him, blackness and blackness and just ahead, under one of the most far-flung outcroppings of sheltering steel, a figured crouched on the balls of his feet, watching.
"Hey," Dan says, angling his approach from the side to lean against the nearest support strut. He tries hard to keep the flippancy out of his voice. "I should have figured you'd slip off. You've been giving me a lot of scares lately."
The face turns up to regard him, distant light catching in his eyes and making the usual emptiness of his stare that much more pronounced, that much more eerie. He doesn't respond for a long moment.
"...apologies," he says finally, prompted to politeness by some unknowable inner workings. "Not my intention. Not used to..."
"To having an annoying jackass worrying about you, I know."
A resettling, weight shifting. "Hn. You always did before. Hard to remember that sometimes."
Dan settles to the ground, loosely cross-legged against the support. Watches as Rorschach's gaze circles back out to the grounds beyond the camp, posture run through with the kind of useful tension that has anticipated ambushes, has caught attacks before they've landed, has saved both their lives more times than he can count. Here, though... "You can probably relax, you know. I don't think anyone's coming."
A grumbled reply, something about how irresponsible it is, the camp not having their own night watch. But it's coded. He shifts his weight off his feet, posture loosening.
There are things they should be talking about, given this chance: their odds tomorrow, contingencies, how to make sure the plan is salvageable should the worst happen. But there is another stretch of quiet, and it's a welcome peace after the day's trials. Even Rorschach seems to let it in, a restful confidence holding him still against his own near-constant agitation. All the tactics and realities drop away in its wake, leave a space behind that has its own shape. It looks a lot like the silhouette of an unmasked face, ducked against an even deeper darkness.
Dan takes a breath, lets it out. "...You haven't been doing too well, have you?"
"Better today," Rorschach says, and Dan can almost hear the half-smile in his voice.
"Yeah," and he's grinning too, in a way that makes his eyes ache. "I guess today was pretty good. Relatively, I mean. Compared with the last... what, month?"
"Particularly enjoyed the look on their faces when you said you'd broken into a prison before."
A short laugh. "Me too."
"Noticed you neglected to mention that you were assisted by a riot in progress, however." A single raised eyebrow, and the disapproval's real but it's also insignificant, it's nothing. There are so many worse things than a moment's scolding, and he's seen most of them.
So Dan just shrugs. "Yeah, uh, well. I didn't think that would help our case any."
Rorschach shifts again, seemingly uncomfortable with the lazy indulgence of his position, with not being on his feet, ready to move. "Hm. Probably not."
"In general though... it's been kind of rough," Dan says, and it's almost but not quite a question.
No reply at first, and then the sound of rustling paper as Rorschach thumbs through the journal he's produced out of some hidden pocket. He flips the coarse pages, searching with fingertips where eyes are nightblinded; finds the rough torn edge of a sheet pulled free, a last desperate move to keep them from losing each other completely.
Dan waits, patient. Things come back: white lions, books. Waffles. The sound of a payphone's voice, hollow and tinny.
"Did something to my head," Rorschach finally volunteers, fingering the edges of the journal.
"Didn't all go away, after."
"I know," Dan repeats, slinging his arms across his thighs and leaning just that little bit closer. Tomorrow's violence is already humming in them, and the old familiar boldness is flooding back; bleeding over each other's hands had always made boundaries easier to forget. "What does it feel like?"
A sharp, nasal huff of breath, and the book shuts hard, the sound echoing under the camp's endless roof. "An absence," Rorschach says, not even hesitating, as if the words have been waiting, impatient, for the question. "Things missing, cut out. Like being gutted. Can... feel the shape of it, but can't remember what it was." He looks out at the grounds again, the forbidden zone, and all of the open sky that shelters it. "Can feel things."
"What kind of things?"
"Everything. Stronger, more crippling than in..." he trails off, visibly checking what he'd been about to say. Fists form in the darkness, then relax. "Things. Anger. Fear. Was afraid for my life, first time in ten years. It would almost be novel."
"If it wasn't so paralyzing?"
A distracted nod and a sound of exasperation, and Rorschach can't seem to look away from the distant landscape.
"You know," Dan says, "there's nothing wrong with any of that, it's pretty normal. I mean, being afraid of dying? Welcome to the goddamned club."
"Altered my brain, Daniel," and it's anger suddenly, struck and flared up quicker than it would ever have before. "Indescribable violation. Not sure why you would try to minimize that."
"Look man, I know. They got me too, remember? I'm just saying that what you're feeling, it's not some freakish thing, it's just normal human emotional reactions."
"Human beings did this to– to us. They kill each other, rape, thieve, sell children on the streets like stolen radios and imitation watches." In his lap, the journal sits closed, but what Rorschach's saying sounds like a recitation, and the word human is spat like decay. "It's not something to aspire to."
A creaking, all through the metal of the structure. The wind's picking up. There'll be rain soon, and a pretty serious storm, from the look of the sky – clouds are scudding in fast, obscuring the stars in swaths.
"...people also build their own cities and havens, and keep fighting even when they know they can't win, and try to take the worst they're given and make the best they can of it." A brief pause, and then, "We're not all monsters."
Rorschach grunts, the meaning indecipherable. "Didn't mean you."
"Yeah, I know." A self-deprecating smile, lost in the dark, and it's been waiting for two decades: "You never mean me. Exception to every rule, I guess."
The type of pained, intractable silence that Dan's learned to read as an agreement, and then a shifting closer, until Rorschach's pressed against his side, back settling against him. His posture is tense, unaccommodating, but there is contact there. Dan can feel that familiar hum up through his partner's skin, the terrible closeness and the fear and the longing, buried deep.
He loops one arm around Rorschach's chest, rests it there lightly, unobtrusively. "So, ah," he starts, and it's such a goddamned awkward question but it really needs to be asked. "How long?"
And Rorschach doesn't reply for so long that Dan starts to worry that he's pushed the issue too fast, too far out into the open, into the light even though the world is pitch-black and frozen around them – lost his only chance at an honest answer through the usual blend of stupidity and impatience, and he'd think that after all these years he would have learned–
Then Rorschach makes a frustrated, breath-hitched noise, hands skating through the air on a collision course with nothing. He doesn't pull away. "Don't know. The pieces that are left don't fit, don't remember things in order." He picks the hat up from where it's been sitting next to him, turns it through his hands. "Feels like it was a long time ago. Forgot for a while, in the middle. Forgot a lot in the middle."
Dan nods; he knows a bit about what went on in the middle, remembers Rorschach in his kitchen, reciting the story cold and dispassionate at six in the morning, himself in his bathrobe, Rorschach stinking of blood and fire. He thinks of his dream, about those cards again, about black diamond eyes and change. Decides to avoid the subject entirely.
"I'm surprised you're being so honest about this," he says instead, because it's the truth.
"No point denying what's obvious. Always infuriating, when criminals do that."
"We're not exactly talking about crime here–"
Rorschach just turns his head, looks at Dan like he's stupid, half-rolled eyes visible even in the poor light.
"...Okay, yeah," Dan says, and the words are running away with him, coming out faster than he can think them over. "I know how you feel about that kind of thing, it's obvious why you'd think of it that way. And hide it, especially from me. Hell, probably even from yourself..."
Quiet then, and it feels awkward, like he's just said something idiotic and appalling and god, he kind of did, didn't he? "Um. What I mean is–"
"No, Daniel," and Rorschach's voice sounds like resignation, chin dropping to his chest, jaw clenching. "Perfectly valid assessment."
Dan narrows his eyes, tries to focus on the profile, canted just slightly towards him. It's a firing-squad blankface, so much like and different than the face in the park, bright through fading blindness and myopia. How many of these jagged edges are Rorschach, and how many are Walter Kovacs? How many have had to knit together into something new?
"Believe what you want," Dan says, quiet suddenly, hushed by the magnitude of the admission. "But it's not a crime. Everyone needs someone. God knows after ten years to myself, I'd know that."
"Had Miss Juspeczyk."
"Yeah." Dan runs his free hand up under his glasses, presses against his eyes. "Yeah, I did. And I am worried about her. Been trying not to think too hard about where she might be."
"And as braindead as everyone else, probably. God."
Rorschach says nothing – nothing sympathetic but nothing insulting or callous either, and Dan's grateful.
Dan skims his fingers up to Rorschach's jawline; he jumps against it, a momentary flinch. Doesn't move away, and that's good. It's a grounding. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't still care about her, but... I don't even know where she is. She could be on another planet for all I know. I'm... yeah, I'm worried about her, but you're right here in front of me, inspiring all new and creative and immediate worries." A short laugh. "You've always been really good at that."
"Only worry–" He starts, then cuts himself off, abrupt, self-censoring against this new directness. His mouth is a hard line as he turns his hat over in his hands, feeling out the brim.
"No." Dan flattens his hand, thumb riding over the corner of that grimace, and Rorschach leans into it. The stubble is sharp and biting against his palm and the movement's hesitant but every scrap of contact seems to settle him; the hands with the hat drop back into his lap. "It's not just worry. It's never been just worry, worry's just... it comes with it, you know?"
The cheek against his hand freezes, and somewhere in the arrested motion, Dan can sense the way Rorschach's slotting something into place.
"I think we both need this," and against the clouds, there's an emptiness out there, blackened windows stretching to the skyline and beyond. "And I'm not going to pretend I don't just because there's someone else out there that I love, too."
A long silence, and Dan can feel the tight swallow of shame, or disbelief, against the heel of his hand.
"Speaking of things to worry about, though," Dan says, turning sideways to resituate himself so that Rorschach is against his chest instead of his side. His hand moves to sooth him out of his tension, to lay the comfortable weight back down. It's easier than he thinks it should be. "I need to know if you can handle this. Without, uh. Freaking out and getting careless, or getting yourself hurt, like yesterday? Or, you know, killing me."
"Would give up your claim if I said no?" Deadpan, giving nothing away.
And Dan blinks, hard; his mouth works uselessly for a second against a dozen responses that don't even begin to– and how can he possibly–
He finally laughs, a weary, gutted sound, burying his face into the rough fringe of hair just above his ear. "God. Rorschach. I don't have a claim. I don't think there's a person alive that could."
No verbal response, but a noise that's almost pleased, certainly agreeing.
"I mean, they had how many guards at that place, and you still made a break for it six times? Seriously, man. There's nobody that can keep you anywhere you don't want to be."
"Has generally proven true in the past."
"Yeah. Okay, look," Dan says, switching gears. "Do you know how old I was, when we started working together?"
Sharp eyes narrow; this is a question Rorschach can deal with. "Met in September, 1965. Date of birth–"
"I was twenty," Dan cuts in. "I mean, hell, I was still in college that first year."
"Hm. Explains why you were only available to patrol on weekends."
A pause, and Dan nods, remembering too many arguments on the subject. "Yeah. I was crimefighting between differential equations and avian biology. You always called me lazy for it."
"...sorry about that. Wasn't aware."
Dan regards him for a long moment in silence, weighing this against that, then against now. Feathers and iron. When he speaks again, the annoyance in his voice is gone, dissipated away, leaving something wistful in its place. Memory. "...I was a kid, we were both kids. Yeah, I was infatuated. And I do want this – god, you have no idea. But I've had twenty years to get over it, and I can get over it again, if that's what you need."
"'Infatuation'," Rorschach says, and there's bile in his voice, a sudden stiffness to his posture.
Dan doesn't let him lean away. "Is shallow, yeah. But that doesn't..." He trails off, and there's no good way to say it – but infatuation doesn't make you let someone back into your home and life after years of silence, or follow them to the bottom of the world, or sit in a warehouse with them for two weeks while their brain eats itself. Doesn't tend to survive the bloody business of seeing them at their very worst, either. "That was a long time ago. Things change."
"But they do." They do, they will, they have. "That's not always bad, either. Remember what I was saying about the birds?"
"Yes, Daniel." The words are almost flippant, light in a way he can barely recognize. "Was only yesterday night. Have brain damage, not going senile."
Dan laughs, daring to do it right against the skin, breath bubbling over it like water.
A rough sigh of annoyance. "Always birds with you. Idiotic."
"Hey, they make some good examples. Nature provides."
A few feet away, out in the open, a fat drop of rain hits the asphalt. More follow. It's still a lazy, shuttering shower when Dan leans around to brush his mouth over the edge of that harsh jawline, light, open around a sigh of breath. It's what he’d felt dropped against his face in the dark of their shack, right on the edge of consciousness, and it's just an offering – he's not expecting it when Rorschach turns into it, makes contact with a stiff, fumbling apprehension that is still so much more intimate than the grappling hands and desperate heat of need ground out on a cold warehouse floor.
Dan leans back – keeps enough of a grip on Rorschach's chin to hold eye contact, and he knows there's a question on his own face; he can see it reflected.
"Can handle it, Daniel," after a long, considered pause.
A flicker of indignation, wounded pride, there and gone. "Can handle anything," he says, like it should be obvious, like Dan should know better than to have to ask.
Out from under the roof, the rain comes down, hazy. Dan shifts Rorschach against him, one hand settling low across his hip as the other comes up into his field of view; they can't stay out here forever, with so much in the plans for tomorrow.
3:49, his watch says. 3:03 has meaning and 3:49 too, as bookends, as boundary markers. But he knows that this, whatever it is, only exists in the dead space in between – and no timestamp can be put on any of it.
There are no owls in the city, not anymore, but there are still pigeons in thick clutches, cooing each other to sleep with a soft burbling, water over the planes of roofs and ledges. They quiet down when the rain starts, huddling in against the danger of being drenched too far through, closer than they'd ever be in the sunlight. What dreams they have are of pleasant warmth and plentiful bread scraps and the open sky, one perfect summer day repeating endlessly in minds too limited to hold anything more.
Under their own protective eave, Rorschach turns toward him again, hard fingers tracing out weakness and acceptance along the lines of Daniel's face. He can't entirely tell if it's need or fear overwhelming decency when his fingers curl at the corner of Daniel's jaw, pull him down into another clumsy kiss; both emotions are hot and unrecognizable now, so many different names for an overload he can't bear to keep under the skin. He doesn't really know how to do this, and maybe he's just doing it because that's what he's supposed to do now, the bridge he's supposed to cross or the proof he needs to render, but then Daniel runs a hand up along his spine, warm through the cloth.
It isn't much but all the same it's everything; it's enough to make them settle back against the metal beam and hold onto each other like one or both of them is sinking, watching in silence while the rain picks up – running along gutters and beating on windows and washing everything unwanted and discarded away.
----> Chapter 16