Characters: Dan, Rorschach, Laurie in #1.
Date Written: 2010
Summary: 3 Captcha fics, a little whiplashy here; 1 and 3 are miserysad, 2 is light and adventurey.
Rating/Warnings: PG except for language in #2.
Title: Among Ruins
Prompt: 'seen gentlest'
He's heard it both ways, heard the evidence for both sides. Some say that the ghosts are real, that the psychic impact was enough to freeze these spirits in their last moment, encourage them to hang around and pester the living. Others insist that selfsame was enough to drive everyone in the city crazy. Mass hallucination. Dan isn't sure about the cause but he is sure he knows the figure that lingers most nights in the alley outside his home by shape alone; stature, posture, the flare of the coat and the fan of its collar.
He can't get close enough to see anything but the shape, black-on-black and insubstantial. He only ever has time to lock his eyes with where the apparition's eyes must be, and it cocks its head and tries to speak and evaporates away into a symmetrical blot against the city walls, every time.
"Dan?" Laurie's just inside the door, setting a bag of groceries on the counter. Her voice is carefully metered where moments ago it'd been light; she's being cautious. "Did you see him again?"
Dan shifts the bag he's carrying, looks up into the doorway, and smiles, covering the last few steps. "Yeah. Just making sure we got in okay, I guess."
"Of course," she says, and her smile's as careful as her voice, and he hates that she feels like she has to treat him like glass, this far into the aftermath. If Laurie's seen any of the city's milling dead, she hasn't let on, and there's something tickling his brain about neither sanity nor insanity ever truly knowing itself.
But he just shrugs and lets it go, because he knows it's the truth even if he doesn't know– can feel the concern rolling out of the shadow in waves, the relief every time they manage to slip through Veidt's tightening noose for another day. Going out is dangerous, and they only do it when they have to. In the alley, he's always waiting for their return, the need to see them to safety something palpable and dense in the air. Smoke, or ink.
Dan looks back, but the brickwork is empty now, lit evenly by the nearby streetlight. He takes a breath. It's okay. There'll be other nights.
Because there are a lot of ghosts in the city, and Dan's seen plenty of them. Most are just angry, hurt, uncomprehending and lashing out. For all that Rorschach was a miserable, violent bastard in life, as easily tracked by bloody footprints as by the sound of breaking bones, it's only in the shadow of a familiar coat and hat and feet planted shoulder-width apart in eternal defiance that he's seen any gentleness in this place, a spark of sympathy, concern for the living amidst the concerns of the dead.
It should bother him that his friend is so restless and rootless, cut adrift in New York's firmament when he should have found rest. But he never seems to be suffering, just stands and watches and radiates some kind of quiet, understated affection (it has occurred to Dan that if he is imagining this, that is precisely what he would imagine, what he most wants to have been true) and it's a nice change to feel like someone cares about them.
It should bother him that Laurie looks at him like this, like he's teetering carelessly on the edge of some terrifying cliff and doesn't even know it.
It should bother him that he doesn't question it himself anymore, because it really is entirely possible that he's just gotten comfortable enough with his hallucinations to give them names, imagined faces. Even if it's real, the shade may not be as self-aware as Dan thinks; seeking for his safety may be nothing more than a split-second flash of regrets and unfinished business burning up what's left of his consciousness.
(Why do you think he does it? Laurie has asked him, and he's never had a satisfactory answer. He doesn't think it's really the question she wants to ask, anyway.)
He may be trapped in a moment, or all of them. He may think he's still braced against oblivion in the snow, or dragging Dan bloody through an alley in 1969, or watching a house slowly burn down to cinders.
(Dan feels an apology crawling up his throat some nights, fighting to escape before the ghost can try to speak first and disappear under the weight of it. It always gets stuck there, lodging like a chunk of apple, an old bone.)
He may be nothing, he may be everything, he may be something in between, neither and both. He is certainly silent, tenacious in his watching, and the way Dan holds onto his shifting face in dreams, peeling back the darkness and raking fingers over the skin he never touched just to prove that it's real, well, it's probably unhealthy. But in this grisly, terrifying world where they find no kind quarter among allies and grace is as scarce as food and water and sanity, Dan will take whatever shred of gentle friendship he can get.
Title: Half a World Away
Prompt: 'face Panama'
Rorschach shows up for patrol as usual, which Dan expects. He shows up with a scarf wrapped neatly around his face, blackened with dye over his eyes to make it easier to see through, which Dan doesn't expect.
He swivels in his work chair; behind him on the desk, a dozen leads, none jumping out at him. "Don't you have a spare?" he asks, one eyebrow high with incredulity.
Rorschach shrugs, hands deep in his pockets. "One spare. Not willing to risk a repeat performance until we punish..."
Dan looks at him, expectant.
"...until we bring the responsible party to justice," Rorschach amends. "For other crimes they've assumedly committed."
He shifts, twitchy, and even through the makeshift mask, Dan can tell how distraught he is over this business. And no wonder; snatch-and-run feels like enough of a violation when they only take your wallet.
Dan sighs, leans forward in his chair. This isn't going to end well. "Look... realistically, we're probably not going to get it back. I know you don't want to cons–"
"Identity, Daniel," Rorschach interrupts, as if that explains everything, justifies flying to the moon and back for it. "Have to try."
But Dan just nods, and gathers the papers, and leads them to Archie without another word on the subject.
They have people to squeeze.
"I ain't know nothin', man, I swear!" the sixth lead shouts, between the splintering noises of his little finger breaking in two places. "You fuck, no wonder they wanted to fuck with you, agh, god my hand!"
Rorschach pauses, cocks his head to the side. Shifts his grip to another, more useful finger.
"They?" he asks, all mild curiosity.
The man whimpers.
'They' are mostly not there when Nite Owl and Rorschach arrive, just one pathetic dirtsmear of a man, keeping guard over the territory. He's currently hoisted out a window, and not enjoying it.
"Better just answer his questions," Nite Owl says, from off to the side with an exaggeratedly sad shake of his head. "Being a rebellious delinquent doesn't cancel out gravity."
"I don't know what you're talking abouaaaAAAHHH DON'T MAN, PLEASE!" he screams, as Rorschach drops his grip on the man far and fast enough that it feels like he's let go. The kid's breathing like a marathon runner, collapsed on some foreign beach. "Jesus Christ, don't... okay, okay, I'll talk, just pull me in, please."
"Better," Rorschach says, pulling him back in to fall in a boneless heap on the floor, and the smell of urine is strong in here now.
"Down at the docks tonight," the kid gasps out, one shaky hand to his throat where Rorschach had held him by the collar. "Twelve of them, guy in charge calls himself the Runner. That's all I know, man, I'm the rookie, that's why they left me here."
"Nite Owl?" Rorschach says, and Nite Owl grins. "To the docks?"
Fists hitting faces, that's familiar. Failure isn't, and the first assuages the second when they arrive too late, only four skinny gang members left on the scene and none of them exuding leadership.
'The Runner', they learn, is actually named Ernest Higgins, is barely out of high school– and does not have a very loyal following, giving all of this up under the slightest pressure. It's starting to seem less like a real gang and more like an ambitious prank.
Rorschach ties them up for the police anyway, nice and tight, tight enough that they wince and complain and whine into the night long after they're gone.
Public phone books are lovely things. Six Higginses in the local area and Nite Owl calls each number, playing affably and with his young, fresh-sounding voice as one of the boy's friends, asking after him. Three wrong numbers later, they have their address.
They wait until he comes out the back with a load of garbage to set on the alleyside curb, all pimplyfaced awkwardness and still living with his parents at nineteen, and Nite Owl has to laugh a little to cover the very real discomfort that they're stalking a teenager.
Rorschach has no such compunctions, launching himself at the boy as soon as he's out of range of his curtained windows.
"Ernest Higgins?" he growls down into the boy's pinned face; he's less terrifying without his real mask but the boy still looks about ready to piss himself. He nods, stupidly.
Rorschach shakes him by the shoulders, knocking his head against the ground. "My face," he snarls, deadly serious. "Where is it."
The boy's mouth moves, but nothing comes out.
"Speak up, son," Nite Owl says, appearing over Rorschach's shoulder like a phantom.
Dead silence, for a very long time. Then, Rorschach tilts his head. "The country?"
"Yeah," the kid says, and it's almost a cough. "It's a joke, man, you steal someone's shit and mail it somewhere crazy, I..."
Deflated, Rorschach stands up, starts walking away without a word.
The kid's still lying there, stunned. "Hey," Nite Owl says, "Don't you think we should get more specifics, here? An address or something?"
"No point," Rorschach says, aiming for the last payphone he'd seen. Probably going to report the kid for petty theft; other than the posturing, the 'gang' they've terrorized all night seems like anything but. "May as well be on the moon. Not getting it back, like you said."
He stops walking, and looks back at Nite Owl, and for just a second he can see things: Rorschach at his day job, making too little money to ever make a worldwide jaunt possible, too little time off in which to make the trip. Too tired, after a night of beating on stupid kids to try to take back the piece of him they'd stolen.
Nite Owl lets him go, and turns back to the yard, crouches in front of the kid. They talk for a while, quietly, before the police arrive, and Nite Owl leaves with everything he needs.
Been five days since Nite Owl and Archimedes both vanished, and Rorschach's just starting to concede that he's a little worried. He watches the newspapers, keeps an eye on the gutters and an ear out for underworld rumors. He comes up the tunnel, every night, as he has for years, hoping to hear the metallic noise of tinkering or just the sound of footsteps as Daniel gets the ship ready for the night.
Tonight, he stops in the entrance of the Owl's Nest. He's almost given up on hoping, but there Daniel is, in uniform but with his cowl back, wearing a ridiculous-looking white, wide-brimmed hat. He's at his desk, back to Rorschach, and the whole space smells like coconut and sunscreen and distant sands.
Rorschach uncurls his hands from their fists. If he is angry with Daniel's disappearance, it doesn't matter. If he was worried, it doesn't matter.
"What are you wearing?" he asks, stoic and even.
Daniel spins in the chair, grinning widely. "It's called a Panama hat," he says, and it's almost like it's hard to talk, with his mouth stretched so far. "Here, I got you one too," and he proffers it with one hand, crown down.
It's ridiculous. They're both night creatures, suited only to dark colors, and Daniel in particular only holds his own in earth tones, browns and golds. It looks horrible on him, will look worse on Rorschach, but he still takes a halting step forward and takes the hat from Daniel's eager hands.
Folded inside, black and white latex, traveled from half a world away and none the worse for wear.
Daniel seems physically incapable of wiping the smile from his face.
Rorschach slips it free, dropping the hat to the floor like the irrelevant gift-wrapping he now knows it to be. He's wearing his spare already, so he just folds it after a while, slips it protectively into a pocket. "You took the owlship–"
"To Panama, yeah," Daniel says, shoving up from his chair. He's got a bit of a sunburn, and Rorschach wonders how long he spent wandering foreign streets, armed with no language and no currency, tracking this down. "Not quite the moon, but..." he shrugs.
In Rorschach's pocket, the mask feels heavy, with a weight not attributable to gravity.
"Thought it was worth it, you know?"
Rorschach nods, and he wants to thank Daniel, to say a hundred complimentary things that he's never said to anyone, but all that comes out is, "...good partner, Daniel."
Prompt: 'titanic 76-84'
It's 1976. Nite Owl convinces himself that he can handle the streets alone, and Dan convinces himself that Rorschach's wandering, drifting withdrawal is his own fault, somehow. Owning it makes it easier to deal with, because if he broke it then he can fix it and if he can fix it then he has a reason to keep trying.
On 57th street, he lays a punk kid out with a punch he can feel, stinging, all the way up to his shoulder. The anger isn't there; has long since been replaced by pity. Duty has ceded to habit and obligation. He's not as young as he used to be, and in this city and this time, disillusionment's easy to come by.
It's 1977. Dan stands in front of his bathroom mirror and runs fingertips over the edges of the bruise purpling his eye and cheekbone, making the skin feel taut and foreign. The kitchen is a disaster of torn newspaper and spilled coffee, and stunned silence, he realizes now, is louder and echoes longer than any tirade.
Nite Owl is gone, locked away forever, and this was his best case scenario.
It's 1978. Dan passes a man on the street that he swears is familiar in the way the smell of lilacs in the spring brings back whole summers and the way a half-remembered snippet of song can resurrect the dead for thirty seconds at a time. The line of the shoulders, the stance, the pessimism of his prophet's words, something-- but then they pass each other by and are each swallowed by different crowds, and Dan loses the melody.
It's 1979. The box of newspaper clippings and photographs only comes down from the shelf now and then, in bouts of nostalgia that hit Dan in the lungs like pneumonia. The edges are thumbed off and smooth, and he wonders what monster got its hooks into them that night, had torn them apart and dragged them down to drown like a sea monster or a sinkhole or an iceberg. It'd been something that smelled like ash and rot and old, old regret, that he's sure of.
Nothing is unsinkable; humanity learned that lesson the hard way, and then Dan learned it again even harder, like some idiot on an island who thinks he's invented the wheel.
It's 1980. John Lennon's dead and greed is good and the man on the corner stares at him now, long and without shame, the way the insane homeless often do. Dan isn't ignorant to their plight, isn't unsympathetic, but when this one stares it reminds him of the fury of vengeance in motion and it's unnerving, and he wishes the man would either speak to him or go away instead of lingering, maddeningly, in between.
He thinks he might need a break from this place.
It's 1981. Dan is in Africa, watching birds. His heart is still in the city, even as he watches the stumbling flight of a juvenile Otus ireneae through night-vision field glasses.
He has spent a lot of time, he thinks, watching the untouchable and unobtainable and ultimately incomprehensible. The birds look back at him through the glasses with eyes he can read nothing in, with an alien stare that promises less. They are beautiful and furious and absolute, and he comes no closer to them than this.
It's 1982. Rorschach shows up unannounced, clambering up his front steps with a broken arm and a winter's worth of chill rot in his lungs and more age on his cheeks and jawline and in the lines around his mouth than Dan ever thought he'd see. Some idiotic part of him had always figured they were immortal somehow, that their ten years of living in the city's imagination had freed them from concerns like grey hair and brittle bones and an old man's quiet fade from the world.
Another part of him had just decided, resigned, that Rorschach would end up getting himself killed long before age became an issue.
He sets the bone, and in his hands it feels like he's fixing everything, like the pull and give of tendon and muscle and the hard slotting into place can repair years of willful ignorance, like the stoic set of Rorschach's mouth is just bravery in the face of Dan taking them back to a time before everything broke so easily. But Rorschach leaves, and doesn't thank him, and in the mirror that night Dan can only find an older, more tired man than he expects, lurking in the glass.
It's 1983. Dan is spring cleaning, and eventually comes to the pantry. There are things in the back that haven't seen the light of day for years. He pretends to not remember why he bought these things he doesn't even like - canned vegetables, canned beans, cheap sugary cereal, instant farina, instant pudding. He still comes up with an excuse (he's tired, been cleaning all day, will leave the pantry for another time) to leave them there, keeping vigil.
Dan has read a lot of books, particularly in the last eight years. He's gotten good at picking out the twist, anticipating the moment everything shifts. A massive change of plot, lifting the characters out of their safe zone and dropping them square into a place that will either teach them who they are or kill them.
Soon, says the wind, as he stands in the winter evening, one hand on his doorframe and the other fingering his key.
Soon, says the itch in the back of his brain, driving him to check the frame around the lock, to sniff the air, to count off days by memory and consider that maybe some things don't end forever, don't sink to the bottom of the sea to never breathe air again. Maybe some things, some habits, some people and places and times, endure.
He looks at the sky, purple and gold in the twilight, run through with bloody ribbons of red, and he thinks it too, quiet: