Characters/Pairings: Z!Rorschach, Dan, Hollis, OC
Date Written: 2010
Summary: Being different is more bearable when you're not alone in it, or: Rorschach plays child counselor, in his own special way.
Notes: Zombie!verse, about a month post-Roche. An extrapolation on this wonderful piece by slipstreamborne .
It’s getting on into the heart of autumn when Dan gets a call from Hollis: he needs some help this weekend loading an entire back room’s worth of belongings, the legacy of twenty years of packratting, off into storage. The idea is that the kids he’s looking after – just until the world’s a little saner, Danny, just until there’s someone trustworthy who can take them – should have an actual space to themselves instead of camping in his living room.
“Any extra hands you can bring along would be appreciated, you know,” he says, intent transparent even over the rough connection, and Dan can’t help but grin into the handset at the way Hollis never. Ever. Gives up.
“I’ll see what he can do,” he says, the laughter plain in his tone, and doesn’t think about it again until two days later.
He’s shocked when Rorschach actually agrees.
“Good man,” Rorschach’s muttering as they come up around the back way, sticking to the shadows. He’d refused outright to come unmasked, so this has to be done under cover of dusk or risk Nite Owl’s identity. “If he needs help, no reason to refuse him.”
Dan smiles in the dark, because Rorschach's been defending the decision the entire way here, one excuse after another as if he has to offer them, as if it's required. Not possible that he's just being nice; that's absurd.
He knocks lightly on the frame of the side door, eying the flatbed truck sitting just inside the chain link fence. There are already boxes starting to pile up in it, but by the look of the space that needs to be filled, he understands the need for as many hands as possible – and it's so mundane, hardly something that requires their particular skillset, but being in this business, even retired, means that most of your friends are, too. It's hard to know anyone else.
The door opens, they’re welcomed in, and the truckbed starts to fill.
When they’re nearly finished, Hollis calls a break; he can handle the rest, he says, and they've got other things to get to tonight. He brews coffee in his kitchen, offers chilled bottles of beer during the wait. Rorschach politely declines both, and Dan is struck again by how oddly respectful his partner’s behavior always turns in front of the older heroes; not formal, but with most of the rough and graceless edges sanded away. It’s always a strange transformation to watch, but it's more pronounced now, restraint coming more effortlessly than it used to.
“You sure you won’t have any coffee?” Hollis asks, pulling two mugs down and pausing with his hand on a third.
It’s a cold night, early October, and Dan had seen the fine shivers starting to run under the layers the last few times he’d passed Rorschach with a load of boxes. He knows how hard that cold is for him to shake, knows how badly he probably does want the hot liquid swirling into mugs on the counter, so when Rorschach just grumbles ‘no thanks’ again and turns away, Dan can only assume that he doesn’t want Hollis to see what's under the edges of his mask.
Dan bites his lip, sighs. Reaches for his own mug, and makes promises in his head to turn up Archie’s thermostat on patrol tonight, to brew extra cocoa, to go digging for heavier blankets when the night’s over.
The mugs are rinsed and set aside and they’re about to get going when there’s a soft gasp from across the kitchen. In the doorway, the silhouetted outline of a child.
"Jacky," Hollis says, voice full of that playful warning that Dan remembers from visiting his grandparents' house in New Brunswick; it never had teeth, never came to bear as anything but a gentle admonishment and he was always still allowed desert and one more show on their brand new television before being shuffled off to bed. "It's late, you should be asleep."
"Heard voices," the tiny shadow in the doorframe mumbles. When he steps forward into the light, Dan feels his mouth drop open in surprise – and he'd even been prepared for this, told over the phone the first time he'd managed to get Hollis on the line after the outbreak. It'd been such a relief to hear his voice that the 'complication' explained alongside had barely fazed him, and he knew that this was why Hollis hadn't gotten them off to Child Services, but actually seeing the kid right in front of him–
The boy rubs one hand over sleep-stickied eyes, the same familiar dull fire glinting through under the drooping lids. He's missing two fingers. "Was scared, thought maybe they came ba..." he trails off, tiredness immediately emptying out of his expression as he takes in the company, eyes going wide when they land on Rorschach, still standing antisocially in one corner of the kitchen. "Whoa. Are you really..."
"Jacky here's a bit of a fan," Hollis warns, amusement clear in his voice, leaning back against the cupboard.
A quiet harumph from the corner, dismissive enough that neither of them are expecting Rorschach to actually detach himself from the shadows there, walk over to the boy. Crouch down in front of him, aiming for eye level even if his own eyes are hidden. He nods after a moment. "Yes."
"What are you doing here, is Mr. Mason in trouble?" Jacky asks, then his mouth falls open as another thought occurs. "Am I in trouble? Are they coming back to–"
A sharp shake of his head, exaggerated by the brim of the hat. "No one's in trouble. Here to assist... Mr. Mason. Very important work," he says, and it's the truth, in a way. Then, before the inevitable question: "Very secret."
Jacky nods, with the kind of complete, guileless seriousness that only children ever seem to possess. "Okay," he says, voice barely a whisper, seeming to grasp the implication immediately. "I won't tell anyone you were here."
"I have, uhm." He glances back toward the hallway. Lowers his voice, all secrecy. "I have a hat like that. It's in my room though, I didn't bring it," he says, pointing back at his room, and the mangling of his hands is much more obvious in the gesture. Jacky seems to become aware of it too, old enough for self-consciousness and all of its crippling damage to self esteem. Pulls his hands back down, balled into fists that hide the damage.
Rorschach intercepts the motion – wordlessly takes the boy’s hands in his own, turning them over, taking in the barely-healed stubs of knuckles, and Dan has never seen him treat anyone so gently. The moment feels spun from glass.
“Took your fingers,” Rorschach growls with his usual lack of tact, but there’s something in the tone that’s softened, almost sympathetic.
The boy nods, head heavy despite the wide eyes. “The monsters did. That’s why I look like them.” A slight pause, shifting from foot to foot, as if he’s trying to weigh how much is acceptable to say – a hat is one thing but this is something else, and dealing with strangers is always a complicated matter, and when you add both famous and feared to the list... Eyes slide sideways, towards the wall. "I hate it.”
It's quiet, but even from across the room Dan can hear the outsider’s shame and the budding self-loathing, just waiting for the right amount of pressure to bloom. Hollis frowns flatly.
“Hrm,” Rorschach mutters, releasing the hands, reaching up to hook his thumbs under the edge of his mask, lifting it up over his nose with a quick, practiced motion before Dan even realizes what he's intending. “Have something in common.”
Jacky’s eyes widen further, face flooded with something like wonder, everything else displaced in an instant. “Wow, ” he breathes, mouth hanging open. “For real?”
Against the cabinet, Hollis leans in, lowers his voice. “Dan, you didn’t tell me…”
“Wasn’t mine to say,” Dan says, but he’s just watching, watching.
Rorschach settles arms over his knees, tilting his head to one side. Studying. “It is what it is. Not worth the effort to hate it.”
He glances down at his feet, bites his lip. “It's horrible, though. 'cept for Cindy and Jason, all the other kids are scared of me.”
“That is not a bad thing.”
And Dan’s burying his face in his hands behind them, shaking his head in horror and amusement both at once – and he’ll have to tell Hollis later to do his best to undo this damage, but for now the kid’s face is curious and unfolding. “It’s not?”
“No.” Rorschach taps the boy’s knuckles again. “They won’t ever try to hurt you if they’re afraid.”
“What about taking my candy away?”
“Who’s doing that?”
A guilty glance at his socks, and when he responds, it’s a whisper. “…Mr. Mason. He says it's no good for me anymore.”
The mask creases over his nose in an impossible half-smile, and Rorschach reaches to dig through his trenchcoat’s pocket, coming up with a handful of wrapped hard candies he’d swiped from the back of Dan’s cupboard. He presses the stash into tiny hands. “Don’t tell Mr. Mason,” he says, all seriousness, voice as full of warning menace as Dan’s ever heard it.
“But…” The boy’s confused, looking between the three of them. “But he’s looking right at me.”
“No he isn’t,” Rorschach growls, glancing over his shoulder, and all of a sudden Dan and Hollis have found something very engaging to discuss, something that keeps their attention firmly held on each other, not at all noticing the illicit transaction taking place right in front of them.
Eyes widening, Jacky doesn’t have to be told twice. “Thanks,” he mumbles; shoving the candy into his pockets until they bulge like they’re stuffed with pinecones, he turns to bolt back to his new bedroom without a word – just one last smile tossed back before he’s out of sight.
"Go on ahead," Dan says when they reach the side door. "I'll catch up."
Outside, dusk has long since given way to more autumn darkness than lamp or flashlight can do away with; things scuttle through it, ratskin and straw, and they're already late for patrol. Rorschach tilts his head, questioning. "East end docks tonight?"
Dan nods. "Yeah. I'll be there."
A curt farewell to Hollis and he's disappearing down into the street, collar turned up against the biting of the wind.
"...you safe?" Hollis asks, eyes following the retreating black-on-black of a silhouette at midnight.
A hard, knowing laugh. "A child's heart knows no evil, Danny. No matter what's been done to it." He glances sideways, catching Dan's eye with that look, somewhere between cautious optimism and a cynicism that comes of understanding too well how the world really works.
"But vigilantes don't get the same pass," Dan says. It's not exactly a disagreement.
Hollis turns to look at him directly, and Dan gets the unnerving impression he's being evaluated, something of the earliest meetings between them, when he was still young and foolish and idealistic, ready to throw himself away on any cause just enough. It might be valid now, too.
"It's a violent business, is all," Hollis finally says, "And I'm not entirely sure that violence can stand amplifying."
"I don't think it has been." One hand settles on the doorframe; Dan runs his fingers along the wood, thoughtful. He can see where the clawing of human fingernails has left marks around the lock hasp. They could use doorknobs all right, the bastards, but they sure as hell couldn't pick locks. "Honestly? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it was probably the best thing that's ever happened to him."
"That's a hard one to accept."
"Yeah," Dan says, squinting out into the blackness. "For him too, which is why I'd never say so to his face, but something happened that..." He shakes his head, suddenly conscious of the fact that he's already miles past one line or another. He looks up; can feel the sheepishness on his face. "I don't know. I'm just not sure he would have made it through it if we hadn't gone through all this crap first."
A long, comfortable silence – his old mentor's always known when not to ask questions, even when it's obvious he already halfway knows the answers – then Hollis claps Dan on the back, a companionable farewell. "I guess you ought to get going."
Dan nods, eyes drifting to the hallway, to where the children are sleeping. Safe in their beds, like all of them should be, but should doesn't mean much, these days. "... take good care of the kids, Hollis. It's a scary world for them."
Against the far wall, stacks of newspapers, enough to date back to September or further, cascading over each other in fluid piles. Every front page, every headline, peering out through the wiremeshed glass windows of vending boxes and the waving hands of news sellers, and the story had run for days.
Hollis nods, something knowing and tired in it; tired of always knowing. "That it is."