Characters/Pairings: Dan, Rorschach, Adrian, Laurie, Manhattan in pt 1, Dan/Ror.
Date Written: 2010-2011
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 in general, some language. Philosophy, violence, twilight zone bullshit, time travel, pretentious metaphors, and Waffle House.
Notes: Yet ANOTHER kinkmeme prompt. Post-GN fixit. In progress.
The night creeps up on silent feet, settles around them like so much black goosedown, smothering. They miss dinner; it’s fine, it’s all right. They miss sundown and last call, meander into midnight.
Then, a thumping outside. He is half awake, grasping at ancient, slippery wisps of thought-almost-dream: what are you hearing, what does it mean, think. A rustling, like something heavy but not solid being dragged against metal walls. A body dump, a fight gone bad, an abduction. Terrible.
Worse, he’s still only half-awake. There was a time when he would have been far more angry at himself for it.
Daniel stirs behind him. A rush of cool air against his back—he has lost his shirt, somewhere in the night—and then the other man's bulk leaves the mattress, springs begrudgingly shifting to support only Rorschach's weight.
He is injured and exhausted, and Daniel is taking care of it. He can trust Daniel. He drifts.
A moment or ten later, and a hand falls on his shoulder.
"Hey, buddy," the voice says, shockingly close to his ear. It gives him goosebumps, and he imagines it winding inside, settling its fingers in the curls and folds of his brain. "I hate to do this, but I need to ask you for a favor."
Laurie doesn’t have a place to stay tonight, a fact she’s ignoring with more and more determination as the evening goes on.
No, that's not right. She's been allocated space, officially—that's more than most people have gotten, in this overcrowded shithole—it's just that she's reluctant to claim it, to deny them both a little private time, after everything that’s just happened. Sure, she’s a little envious, but envy isn’t blame and it’s not their fault she’s stripped herself down to a rattling skeleton of necessities. Maybe she’s wrong, maybe they’re wrong; wrong doesn’t really come into it when death’s taken that big a chunk out of someone’s coattails.
She’s not a complete bastard, no matter what the new guys always say.
So she just drops the mattress she’s dragged out here, for lack of anywhere better to put it, next to the hut. Nudges it up against the outer wall, and at least theirs is one of the ones right on the edge of the camp, practically out under the sky. Hell, sleeping under the stars, what few can be seen beyond the edge of the overhang, crisp and bright. It’s like camping.
Laurie never went camping, as a kid. Figures Rorschach probably never did either, just another fucked-up city kid. Dan, though. Dan was probably a goddamned eagle scout.
She stretches out, snickering to herself—he probably had the dorky glasses back then too—and is lulled by the layered, dysfunctional music of the city waking up to itself. Sleep will come for her whenever it does; she is in no hurry.
Something rouses Laurie when she's partway to sleep, a creaking noise like someone leaning against the railing of a fire escape, leaning too far. She doesn't totally surface and whatever it is goes away, leaves its traces only in her dreams:
She is nineteen, patrolling alone for once, and the city is too quiet. It is drawing into itself, leaving a void in the darkest and ugliest places where desperation had always dripped from the cracks and puddled ankle deep on the pavement, before. Where it's gone, she doesn't have time to think about, because there is movement above, and laughter that is not laughter, that cracks and twists itself into a long, snakelike noise that winds down from overhead, wrapping itself around her thin as air but drawn in bars of black and white and gold, caging her in and clamping around her wrists and she can't breathe and—
And she's being shaken awake, shaken out into freefall. Bites back a shout, because if you make noise that's how they single you out, how they find you—
Dan is hovering over her, face a black-edged shadow against the faint luminescence of the night sky, mussed strands of hair glowing in the cloud-softened starlight.
She swears. "Damn it, Dan. You scared the shit out of me."
He might have the good grace to look apologetic; it's hard to be sure. He at least sits down on the edge of her mattress, stops looming. "Battle instincts never quite switch off, do they?"
She yawns, for a ridiculously indulgent length of time. "That's not... mff. That's not what you woke me up out of a dead sleep to ask."
It wasn't a dead sleep. That implies sleeping well, and he had to have seen her tossing and thrashing. Shitty dream, but it's already fading, and he doesn't say a word about it. "Yeah, okay. I don't know why you're sleeping out here—"
"Radio was broken," she mumbles, bleary, nuzzling in against his knee on some bizarre impulse she doesn't have the presence of mind to really examine at the moment. "Needed something... better'n static to listen to."
He laughs, a little too sharp, too quick. "Wow, um. Sorry to not provide any entertainment?"
A stretch of quiet, Dan seeming to struggle with how to say whatever’s coming next, then: "Look, why don't you just come inside?"
She finds herself staring for a long moment, trying to parse this. "Geeze, Dan," she finally says, pulling herself up onto her elbows to shake herself fully awake. Grinning. "You just skip right past the 'buy you dinner' phase these days, don't you? Never mind, don't answer, I'll just ask your partner."
"It's not like that." And it really isn't; she feels a fat drop of rain splatter onto her hand, another onto her forehead. Right between the eyes. "There's enough space in there for this," Dan says, tapping the mattress with two fingers. "And the weather's turning, and we're, uh, we're just sleeping anyway."
Another drop slaps into her cheek, and if they stay out here much longer, the mattress is going to soak through, end up mildewed and too heavy to move.
Dan’s sitting next to her, looking so kind and sad and self-sacrificing, and the thought of a space warm with body heat and other, less tangible kinds of warmth is so appealing it aches.
She sighs, presses the heel of her hand to her forehead. It's where she needs to end up anyway, but she'd been hoping for less of a Surprise! You've got a roommate! sort of deal. "He's gonna freak in the morning, if I'm in there."
"I already talked to him, it's fine."
A beat of silence. "...seriously?"
He smiles, a devious grin she can see even in the dim light. "He's always been easier to convince when he's half asleep. But yeah, it's okay."
And that's about a miracle and a half right there, or at least more of a sign than she can be expected to ignore. "Fine, fine. Just gimme a hand with the other corner."
Morning comes sooner than it should. The city opens its eyes—really opens them—for the first time in six years.
Light fills the tiny room in a diffuse glow, softened by the curtain. It burns a bloody red through closed eyelids, demands attention—gently, but still demands it, like a too-polite child who knows he will get what he wants if he only keeps saying please.
Laurie rolls over with a groan, tugs the blanket over her eyes. Flails vaguely with one hand as if she could maybe hit snooze on the sun.
It doesn’t work. Of course. She blinks blearily, swears under her breath. Buries her face back into the blanket. A twinge in her back adds some texture to the discomfort; a full-blown cramp in one calf completes the chord. Goddamn but she hates sleeping on the ground—at least in the prison, she'd had a quarter-share of the cot.
She tosses, she turns. Dan is still here, on his side, curled around nothing. He's snoring a little, restless, muscles in his arms tightening and relaxing compulsively. She wonders if what they say about the unhooked's dreams is true—is he seeing a landscape cut from old black and white film stock, grainy and washed out, high contrast, unreal?
When he dreams Rorschach the way he used to be, does it even make a difference?
For all her teasing, Laurie had expected little more out of the night than what she'd gotten. The settling into sleep had been awkward but uneventful, Kovacs lying flat on his back like he'd been nailed to a board, forcing Dan to do the same. The storm had rattled noisily on one edge of the roof, a rhythmic tattoo that soothed the lizard brain with ancient promises: the rains have come, the drought has ended, now there will be plenty, and in its grip they'd all drifted. At some point she'd woken up to see the two of them having moved in their sleep, wrapped together in a kind of animal clinging that wasn't remotely sexual but still left her feeling inexplicably warmed; never mind that the rain was cold for a spring shower, and that she'd had no blanket.
Sentimental, she thinks, remembering it, and the low growl in her head is too familiar.
For his own part, Kovacs has taken off early this morning. There's an obvious dent in the mattress that the old springs haven't sprung back into yet, so he can't have been gone long. Dan makes a small noise in his sleep, plaintive.
He told her, once, that he used to have nightmares about losing his partner in the dark. It was the worst thing about working with someone—the vulnerability of depending on someone else to cover your back, the moment of terror when they weren't there. The bad ones ended with Dan cornered and helpless, cut down. The worse ones...
"He'll be back," she mutters, leaning in on autopilot to press a chaste kiss to his hair. Then freezes.
Oh, god. Just what in the hell does she think she's doing?
She sits back, scrubs her eyes with her palms, stares into nothing until the rest of her braincells come up to speed. Okay, yeah. Coffee, from now on, as soon as she wakes up. A caffeine IV, set to start the second she regains consciousness, and then maybe she can avoid the morning stupids.
She dresses quickly, as quietly as she can, and slips out into the dawn.
"I think we should talk."
Laurie had gotten a prickle up her spine as soon as she'd stepped out from under the curtain, an old instinct telling her to turn around, quickly, find the real threat.
Adrian fucking Veidt, golden hair shining in the sunrise like he owns a patent on the time of day.
A soldier's assessment, quick and unforgiving: he's looking his age, these days, more than the photos ever conveyed, and is dressed down from his usual velvet and gold in khakis and a hooded windbreaker. He's holding himself a little awkwardly, favoring injuries, and one hand is scored along the back with deep, parallel marks that look like nothing so much as fresh cat scratches.
Her brain's halfway to putting that together into something hilarious when he interrupts the train of thought. "You've been avoiding me—"
She rubs her eyes, tries to look less like she just woke up. "Do you blame me?"
"Not in the slightest."
"Well, then," she says, lifting the curtain to duck back inside; it's the quickest escape route, though it dings her pride to think of it that way. "As long as we're on the same page..."
She stops, one hand on the doorframe. Sighs, long and resigned. "Yeah?"
"You don't have to. It was a logical action at the time—your cause stood to gain a lot if you'd succeeded—and I don't hold it against you."
The sun's starting to peek over the skyline, glancing off of the metal roofs and walls, making them glow a brilliant bright white. Suddenly Veidt's little halo isn't looking so shiny, and this is her turf. She squares her stance, crosses her arms. "As far as most of the people here are concerned, you’re the monster in the dark that ruined their lives. You're not really in a position to judge or forgive."
Adrian drops his gaze to the ground, with a smile she can't even begin to read. "Of course," he says, looking back up. "I just wanted you to know that, on a personal level, there are no hard feelings. We all have... too long and storied a history, to disgrace it with resentment."
Laurie pinches the bridge of her nose; it's not like she backed into his car or something. Least he could do is be a little angry, so she can feel justified in her self-righteousness. "Nice sentiment. You sure you really woke up, when he came at you with that knife?"
"Is that something you can be sure of?"
Does an insane man know he lacks sanity, or vice versa?
There's no good answer; Laurie lets the question sit there between them for a good long while. Eventually the moment breaks, and Adrian reaches to put the hood of the windbreaker up, disguise himself from the masses. "I'll leave you to your day, then," he says, and turns to disappear back into the maze of huts.
She closes her eyes, cradles a budding headache in one hand.
When she opens them, goddamn Kovacs is there, too close, filling her field of vision.
“This day just keeps getting better,” she mumbles.
He cants his head, narrows his eyes. “Apologize for eavesdropping, Miss Juspeczyk—”
“Laurie,” she says, suddenly at wit’s end with all the goddamned formalisms; it is too early in the morning for this shit. “Christ, it’s just a first name, it won’t bite.”
He opens and closes his mouth a few times, a wordless confusion that she figures the mask probably hid pretty well, back in the day. Drops his head, lifts it again. “...is Laurel acceptable?”
“Sure. I mean, only my mother ever called me that, but whatever.”
He winces at that, but nods, seemingly satisfied. He doesn’t like short form names; she knows that well enough already, and it’s a minor indulgence. “Laurel. What did you do to him?”
Adrian, right. She laughs, precisely because this is not funny. “Oh, you know. Just tried to blow a hole in his head.”
“Mn. We were there for that.”
That throws her, and she has to dig around to understand what he means. There’s no way he could have... oh. “No, not at Karnak,” she says, dismissive. “A few years later, after all of this happened. We decided the best way to kill the snake was take its damn head off.”
“And you volunteered.”
“Of course. Wouldn’t you have?”
A sharp breath, surprise or something else. He doesn’t respond, but it hits her anyway and he doesn’t have to: since when does the fact that he would do something make it a given that she would, too? Just what the hell has she turned into, here?
He starts walking and she follows for lack of anything better to do, a roundabout path that will probably eventually take them back to where they started. His gait’s a little strange, but he’s probably stiff from yesterday still, and seems to need to be in motion. Hands in pockets, gloves and hat left behind, shoes with holes starting in the soles. His hair’s wet; he either caught the last of the rain this morning or actually took a shower.
She leans in discreetly, tests. Wow, okay, definitely a shower. That’s one for the front page.
“Share your animosity,” he says at last, hesitant, as if he has been wanting to say it but is afraid she will realize that. It’s kind of adorable, in a horribly maladjusted sort of way. “But he has debts to pay. Cannot do so dead. If so, would have...”
He trails off, infuriating. She nudges him with her shoulder. “What, you had a chance to take him out too?”
A tight grumble. “Took care of that himself. Had the option to leave him to it.”
“And you didn’t?”
“Had to make the decision quickly. Went with the choice that could be undone later, if necessary.”
“True. We can, in fact, always kill him later.”
He makes a strange sound that must be some kind of laughter, she figures, though it sounds more like someone sharpening a knife on a drainpipe. It trails off and that’s fine; it’s a strangely comfortable silence they’ve settled into, in this most silent time of day.
“Do you think he’s actually changed?” she asks, suddenly, out before the thought has fully formed.
“Hrm.” Kovacs rolls his shoulders, a gesture of uncertainty she thinks, or maybe just discomfort with the subject.
“He was under for years.”
“And even a few weeks...”
A huff of breath; he stops walking, turns to look out over what they can see of the skyline, hovering under the overhang. “Can change a person dramatically. Yes.”
A long silence, less comfortable this time.
She reaches out before her head can realize what her hand is doing, can put a sensible stop to it. She doesn't make contact but the intent is enough; he shrinks back, eyes a little wilder, a little sadder.
"Sorry," she says, and she actually is, has no idea what she'd been thinking. "I just... they really did a number on you, didn’t they?"
A wary silence; he settles his hands again, rolls his shoulders. "You as well."
Yeah. Her too. But she's only ever had one name. There was a Laurie Juspeczyk who was a little girl pushed too hard, and there is a Laurie Juspeczyk who bears her scars with pride and carries the ruined wrists of four years in shackles, and they are the same person.
This wounded, brutal creature, though?
"So," she says, arranging her expression carefully. "What should I call you?"
"...have extended me a courtesy," and he seems completely aware of the hypocrisy—how long had he known Dan's name and face without reciprocating?—because he's just about choking on it. "Cannot see the justice in not doing the same."
A long moment, as long as he needs to process what he's just said, what he's done.
"Okay, then," she says, and this time the hand lands; he barely flinches. "Walter."
The seconds stretch. What he has just done is terrifying, and circumstances are, as always, conspiring to make sure he has plenty of time to think about it. Jusp—Laurel—is standing too close, has not taken her hand away. Is testing him, he's sure of it.
He wants desperately to fall out of his skin, down into the earth, let his shell crumple to the ground to mark the place where both of his names have died. But that has been happening since the light, since Antarctica, since he stood in a flame-heated street listening to flesh and fat burn. He does not know if it has ever not been happening, if he has ever not been changing.
He has no idea how people handle it.
Laurel's hand moves, shifts into a stilted, repetitive motion that might be meant to soothe, and that is too much. He shifts out from under it.
She tilts her head, narrows her eyes. "Okay now?" she asks, as if ever has been, ever can be. The words sound strange, ill-fitting; she is not accustomed to saying them.
A long, careful exhale through his nose. Rorschach doesn't answer.
"Yeah," she says, "Stupid question, sorry," and he wishes she would stop talking because it feels too much like concern, like concern that asks after the problem when it already knows what it is. A familiar hand on his shoulder in the night. He needs it to stop.
It does, mercifully. They walk in quiet, in no hurry. It's almost comfortable.
Then Laurel leans in to sniff at him again, like a dog—the first time had been annoying enough, but at least she'd been trying to be discreet, and he hadn't wanted to upset their fragile truce. Now he remembers how brazenly she had insulted him every time they met on the street, how casual her disdain had always been, and it shouldn't matter—never did before—but now it does.
He rounds on her, fists clenched.
The laughter explodes from her like some bizarre slow motion of a tragic accident in progress.
"Sorry, sorry," she says between the snorts and gasps, leaning her hands square on her knees. The piano is falling; the truck is eating through the guardrail, unravelling it into twisted metal streamers. "I just, I thought I was just smelling breakfast on the wind, before."
He stiffens. In his pockets and in other hiding places, the contraband he's smuggling suddenly seems very bulky, very heavy. An encumbrance.
"Mister Kovacs," she sputters, already abusing her new freedoms, and now the truck is careening off of a cliff. "Am I out of my mind, or do you have bacon in your pants?"
He doesn't answer. He doesn't answer for so long that a nearby pigeon answers for him, bobbing up to peck experimentally at the cuff of his slacks.
"Not crazy," he finally says, flushing all the way to his hairline, shoving the bird away with his foot. They're not even carnivores, are they? Daniel would know.
"You're as bad as that damn cat."
She's right, he is—a thief and a scavenger for all that he has always abhorred stealing and begging. A common criminal, and the worst kind of leech, and the fact that he has had to scrounge every meal for the last eight years, many from Daniel's pantry and refrigerator, is plainly, pathetically obvious. It does not matter that he is injured or that he needs the nutrients to rebuild, or that—
"Look," she says, still laughing a little. "Considering what you pulled off yesterday, I won't tell anyone, okay? Just... at least tell me you brought enough to share with the rest of the class?"
He shifts from one foot to the other, confused.
"For me and Dan," she clarifies.
He nods; he understands, but the question makes no more sense than it did before. Waffles come to mind. "He doesn't eat bacon. Religious reasons."
"The hell he doesn't."
"Look, Red, we had a lot of five-AM breakfasts while we were working on how to bust you out of jail." Rorschach swallows tightly; he remembers that, in the good times, the endless cups of coffee, the maps and notes spread out, but... "There's a lot you can't be sure of in this world, but I am damn sure Dan Dreiberg eats bacon."
...but even out, in the diners they would stop at for costumed breakfast at the crack of dawn sometimes, too exhausted to make it home without fuel, Daniel would always pass the bacon over. Automatically, long habit, picked up again at the Waffle House after eight years like he didn't even have to think about it. Here, buddy, he'd say, in the street-sharpened dawn light or in the warm glow of his kitchen, I can't have it anyway, and you could use a little extra...
Charity. It's always been charity, disguised as practicality to get around his defenses, keep him better taken care of than he would have managed on his own. The thought does not make him as angry as it feels like it should.
"Will... 'share with the class,' as you've requested," he says, picking up the step again. Chewing all of this over. They're almost back to where they began, but in some ways, it feels like they're nowhere near it.
"Breakfast in bed?" Laurel asks, gesturing to the hut where Daniel is, presumably, still sleeping.
He nods. "Celebration. And a reward. We've all done well."
"Damn straight we have," she says, holding the curtain aside with a smile like a brand new day.
Untroubled dreams tumble together and layer over each other, fleeting. Good patrols, the promise of fragrant, steaming coffee a whisper through the night to lead them home. The night sky from Archie's eyes, peeling off forever. A time when all things were limitless, and for once the memories are not melancholic, make him feel stronger and better than he has for a decade. They shift and merge, turn inside out on themselves to accommodate the swell of sunlight through closed eyelids, gradually begin to dissolve.
He's left with a view of a corrugated metal wall and the sound of shuffling behind him. Rolling toward it, his bleary eyes find Laurie and Rorschach sitting across from each other on Laurie's mattress—he'd shifted onto Rorschach's in the night, left more room on the other side—sorting through something. A pile of somethings, that Rorschach keeps adding to from jacket and pants pockets, and the room smells like...
Mmm. He scoots closer to Rorschach, tugs on his pant leg.
Rorschach looks down at him, all seriousness. His eyes are intent and intense, and maybe a little accusing; Dan feels a shock of cold on the back of his neck, heat pooling insidiously elsewhere. He mostly ignores it. Mostly.
"Know your terrible secret," Rorschach finally deadpans, after he's judged the torture to have gone on long enough. He holds up a single strip of bacon between two fingers, and Laurie laughs like she'd been holding it in for a while, waiting for this moment.
Dan grins, still sleep-stupid but not so dense that he doesn't know the jig is up. He's a little surprised it didn't happen years ago. "Whoops. Caught me."
"Lying. Very bad."
He raises an eyebrow, situates his hand more solidly on Rorschach's leg. "Conspiracy's also pretty bad. Do I still get breakfast or no?"
An inarticulate noise, scandalized and disapproving. Dan whimpers; he's not sure if it's because Rorschach's being a tease or because he's being a tease.
"Oh, come on, Walter," Laurie says, and everything grinds to a screeching halt because, wait, what? What the hell? He looks up at Rorschach sharply, expecting signs of imminent carnage—which he will have to clean up, naturally—and then it's his turn to be vaguely accusatory because the ruinous, withering stare isn't there and since when does he let people—
"—just give him the damn bacon," Laurie continues, even as Dan's mental gears are turning to a jumble of stripped and melted metalscrap. "He asked politely."
The leg jogs under his hand. "Not very polite," Rorschach counters, and Dan's open-mouthed shock is being soundly ignored. Conspiracy indeed.
"It's not impolite."
"Not sure what it would be called, then."
"A fair offer of favors in return," Laurie says, winking lasciviously, and holy shit but all Rorschach does is cough out a laugh himself, and hand the crisped strip over without another word.
They crunch in contented silence, this their victory breakfast. Dan's silence is a little more confused than theirs and maybe just a little wondering, too—what exactly he did, in this life or any other, to be this lucky.
It isn't the quiet day that most of them are hoping for but of course no one really expects. The streets are full of aftermath incarnate: gun nuts and militants, looters. Ordinary people too overcome with the joy of living again, really living, that they cannot be settled or subdued. Reactionaries who'd been perfectly comfortable in the haze of non-thought and who resent bring forced to wake up.
Parents, panicked, because of course there's no plan in place for the kids yet.
They're working on it. In less than 24 hours they've had at least twenty volunteers, still shaky from being woken up but versed enough in the technology, or just in neurodevelopment or child psychology, to contribute something. But try to tell that to a parent who's been dragging their kid along by the wrist, braindead and staring happily into the sun, since yesterday afternoon. Through streets overrun by violent opportunists with guns.
And most of the action is well away from where they are, but they can hear it, a dull background rumble of discontent punctuated by the occasional outburst, of temper or steel. More than the traffic and the shouting of pedestrians and the roar of the subway cars and planes sweeping into JFK, that unhappy pastiche of noise has always been what has given the city's voice its characteristic edge. For better or worse, the edge is back.
"Feels like home again," Dan says around noon, half laughing and half choking on the laughter, trying to tamp it down with a kind of hysterical desperation.
It's a gradually building thing, this discomfort—an uneasiness that goes viral as quickly as they can notice it, infects and spreads, leaves them all open to unwelcome doubts. There will be robbery and murder and drug deals again, and children screaming in the night, soon enough. And, as it was before, almost no one left to protect them.
Around one, Dan finds himself looking up, frowning at the metal plating over their heads, blocking out easy access to the sky. He feels heavy in his shoes, no matter what he's lost to malnourishment over the last few weeks; eats only half his lunch. Rorschach happily takes the dish from him, scrapes it clean, and Laurie makes a predictable crack at him for it, but he can tell her heart isn't in it.
"I don't know what we were expecting," a few hours later, the words dead and heavy in the air.
"Dancing in the streets?" Rorschach jabs, tone saying the rest: idiotic and typical, Daniel and I was hoping, too. He fists the insides of his suit pockets; he looks like a fighting dog in a birdcage.
At one point he disappears only to return in his coat and hat, fingering white silk and glove leather in his pockets. Touching the trench's shoulder ignites an itch under Dan's skin, to feel kevlar snug against it, to see the world through red-dyed night vision. He catches Laurie plucking at the sleeve of her oversized sweatshirt, discontentedly twining the fabric between her fingers, picking and picking. She walks shoulder to shoulder with him, brushing with every step in a way she hasn't done since the jailbreak in '85.
They will have to leave, soon—venture out of this city to others, and to smaller towns and places like something out of Dan's childhood vacations, houses miles apart on roads of crushed dirt. They will have a lot of work to do, and they will be doing it for a long time, but these are plans being made by someone else. They are being discussed and analyzed and laid out, and in broad terms, the trajectory of their future is as predictable and inevitable as every other moment has been, from Dan's desperation in the snow to the body in the bay to Laurie's shackle-burned wrists and Rorschach's holey socks.
There are other kinds of plans, though, the ones that feel crazy at the time and crazier later, that always used to leave him in awe of their shared brilliance. Confined to nighttime spaces, to the space between breaths, they had pulled the clockwork of the universe down around their ears and judged it wanting—had somehow been immune to causality, to inevitability. To everything.
As nightfall hits, mixes with the rumble of violence into something jagged-edged and irresistible, none of them needs to say a word.
They move in silence. It's past curfew, and yeah, no one's likely to care because it's them, but. That isn't the point.
Rorschach clambers up the first drainpipe he finds that seems sturdy enough, leaving them to follow. There is no consideration here, for the fact that he is a better climber than either of them, or that Laurie is nimbler, or that Daniel is stronger and has a longer reach. They aren't planning; they are just doing, and they are all strong and capable and beautiful. Shadows in the night.
Hand over hand, and then Rorschach has his boot in a groove of the gutter, is pushing himself up and over. He lands soundlessly in a three-point crouch, gloved fingers just brushing the metal rooftop for balance. The white scarf around the lower half of his face glows in the starlight; the city has shut down all the streetlights, rightfully paranoid, and it is the first clear New York sky he has ever seen.
He watches Laurel pull herself up after him, stolen motorcycle leathers still disgracefully form-fitting but at least protective, practical, and years of prior use have worn them to a dull finish that will blend with any shadows. She's learned the value of not drawing attention, he supposes.
Then he's walking, crossing the roof to where its incline ramps up toward those stars. They will be at the highest point they can be, or this is worth nothing.
Laurie grips the sharp metal edge carelessly, fingers taut and reaching inside all the leather. It's nothing to swing herself up, one handhold at a time. Time hasn't stolen much from her, or maybe it's true that not slowing down can stave that off indefinitely. She certainly hasn't spent the last ten years slowing down.
It's been a while since she's done this, though.
Doesn't matter. Everything feels easy, now.
There was a time in her life when everything had seemed so difficult—her mother’s overbearing, vicarious need for her to be the real hero the pretty face had only ever aspired to. Jon’s distance, gap growing wider between them until it could be measured in six dimensions, and only he could see three of them. Her father, god, and the way he’d only mattered after he was gone, a failure that fell to pieces in the face of what she’s been fighting for ten years, now.
It’d killed him. It’s only made her stronger—more bitter too, and more alone, but maybe that’s changing now. Depends on what they want, but at least there’s a chance—too late for anything to change once you’re dead.
She’d been such a child back then, anyway. What had she even been thinking, trying to shoot Adrian where he stood while the wall of screens had blared behind him that his damage was done, irreversible, beyond atonement? Anger, just anger. A temper tantrum, thrown by the little girl who never had to grow up.
None of it matters, now.
Leather shifts and rolls over her shoulders as she moves her grip, tumbles onto the roof. The mask only becomes something you want, she thinks, when things have been hard enough that you’ve gotten some scars to hide under it—bruises and welts, the hits that don’t glance off. When maybe you don’t want the world to see you as you are, but maybe you don’t really want to see the world as it is, either.
She’d been Silk Spectre for years without ever really knowing what that meant. The name doesn’t really apply anymore—there’s nothing left of silk or phantasm about her—but she thinks that maybe she’s ready to do this, again.
The armor isn’t designed for this kind of climbing, too bulky by far, but it’s a discomfort that is more familiar than infuriating. Having to push himself too hard and too fast to keep up with his partner—partners, now—is something he used to grouse over, but he’d still missed it in the bone-melting laziness of the years that followed. If he is reaching and scrabbling then there is something there to reach for, something worth fighting to keep up with, and it’s been a long time.
There is no hand up; Rorschach and Laurie are already stalking off toward the ridge of the roofline by the time he hauls himself over the edge, Rorschach in the determined lead. The goggles are blasting everything to a dull bloody red, and the two of them look like something out of a heat-soaked dream, half-costumed and half-crazy, somewhere between flesh and fire.
It’s almost too much.
He gets to his feet, crosses to catch up. It’s a little clumsy; He’s put this uniform back on completely tonight for the first time since Antarctica, but it’s never actually been the costume, has it? Has he ever really stopped playing this game?
He gave millions of people their minds back, today. Not just him—everyone played a part—but he was the one with his finger on the button. Worth less because he wasn’t dressed up like an owl at the time? Worth more? And what about the weeks he’d spent sitting on the half-formed edge of a ring of light, holding his best friend together against all the darkness trying to take him apart?
Maybe all of those things are heroic, in their own way.
It’s dark, down there. Getting darker as the night goes on, and that’s not going to change when the dawn comes. It’s a familiar ache, and maybe the city needs more than just someone flying around in an airship, punching the bad guys in the face. Sure, their fists will still be in demand here, but maybe their open arms will be too, to wrap around and hold the city while it shudders, relearning itself, in the dark.
Above them, the city sky yawns wide open, stars going on forever. Without all the light pollution from the city, they can see the stars in between the other stars, nested deeper and smaller and fainter, until it feels like looking into a mirror of the city's soul. No life is too small, too unimportant. No one here is invisible, anymore.
Rorschach tilts his head back, toys with the idea of counting them, of staying here until every one is accounted for, an urge that feels like penance. He's not sure what he'd be atoning for, except—
Except for abandoning the city when they'd needed him the most, disappearing for ten years. Letting Veidt's grip on their collective throats tighten with no intervention.
It wasn't his fault, hadn't been his choice. It still chafes, but he's done with self-inflicted injuries, now. Walter may have carried those blades in his belly once but Rorschach was always better than that, and he will be, too. He might not be completely sure who he is, how much of his two faces have been sewn Frankenstein-ragged into what he is now, but it’s high time he accept it for whatever it is. He knows after yesterday that Rorschach is still in there, can still be summoned like ghosts shaken out of the bones of the dead, and that’s all he needs.
He feels them come up behind him, the heat of bodies pressing too close, a thick hand on one shoulder. The closeness is a skin-memory, a decade spent standing like this, roofs of New York spinning away under their heels. He forces himself to settle into the grip.
They must cut a dramatic image, he thinks; three shadowed figures standing up on the edge of the world, all sharp black lines and the tattered edges of their pasts billowing out on the wind. The white silk is tight over the bridge of his nose. He cannot forget that it's there.
“Ready?” Nite Owl asks, the tight edge of a smile crinkling the skin of his cheek.
Rorschach nods. They have not discussed this, but he already knows.
“Hell yes,” Spectre whispers from his other side, reverent. “Whenever you are.”
There is no countdown, no touch on the back or shouted Go. They are just suddenly running, all at once, a tight pack-formation that weaves down the slant of the roof and up again to launch onto the neighboring rooftop, shingles biting into their bootheels. And again, and again.
Nite Owl is laughing as he runs, coughing, already winded but unwilling to be the first to stop, determined. Spectre is keeping pace easily, her entire body piston-powerful, and then she’s laughing too, a too-high giddy peal that trills with adrenaline. They clear a roofline as one, and Rorschach almost loses his footing for watching them, for feeling the way they all belong here.
His face feels tight, under the scarf. He regains the missed half-step, presses on, and he does not know, precisely, what it is to be happy. But he supposes this might be it.
There will be other cities soon, other towns. Other people to protect. But for now, it is New York wind on their faces, whipping past their bodies and being kicked back by their feet, and those are New York’s people below, looking up at the noise of their passage, unfettered and free—to live as they will, to be kind or cruel, to be part of the solution or part of the eternal, unchanging problem.
It is New York’s buildings under those feet, throwing them toward the stars.