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. Complete.
Sunset over the Adirondacks; some derelict siding, far past any highway signs or trail head markers. October.
A loose collection of boxcars has gathered here, hooked to no engine but still free on the tracks, ready to be picked up whenever needed. Greasy greenwood smoke billows up from a low fire in the clearing, kept as dim as they can manage. Six meals are being cooked, from six tin cans; there isn't a supermarket for miles.
Laurie vaults down from the lip of the nearest car, slips into the crowd around the fire. Reaches in to give their pot a cursory stir, and maybe she'd have something to say about being the one doing the cooking but it's usually Dan who does, and...
And, well, between the two of them, she's at least better at this than Walter is. It'd be charcoal baked into the bottom of the pan by now, left to him.
Satisfied with the food's status—hot but not burned, still a few more minutes to make sure all the starches are cooked through—she wanders over to where Walter's perched, one layer back from the flames and staring a thousand yards straight ahead, like usual. Not many people hover around the fire like this when they don't have to; primitive, romantic ideas about warmth aside, the smoke always manages to blow straight into your face, and the heat's either too intense or barely there. The insulated, blanket-strewn insides of the boxcars are more popular.
So, there's privacy here, of a sort.
She sits next to him, the displaced rail tie knotty and uncomfortable. Leans, out of exhaustion more than anything else, dry leaves crunching under her boots. It's been a long week. She is tired in ways she never imagined.
He doesn't reach to put an arm around her, like a normal guy might—he'll probably never be that normal, and just what the hell is 'normal' anyway?—but neither does he protest; just shores her up quietly and without complaint, turning the empty tin bowl in his hands.
Over the ridge of the nearby mountains, the sky looks bruised, slickly translucent. The stars are starting to come out, and the usual chorus of crickets has been going for an hour, song a slower tempo in the gathering autumn coolness. Everything feels like it's slowing down, lately. Not losing urgency, really, just shedding the scattered franticness that'd made the first few months on the road streak by like mile markers, a blur.
The slowdown's not unwelcome. It's good to have time to think. The dusk spools out, a cautious unfurling.
Then: a rustling in the woods behind them, and everyone at the fire freezes, hands settling near belts. A few boxcar doors slide open, preparatory. Laurie reaches to touch the rifle lying in the scrubby brown grass beside the tie—just touch, not pick up. Not yet.
Of all of them, only Rorschach still refuses to carry a weapon, and it's definitely Rorschach doing the refusing. All it means, with their status as heroes of the resistance and its accompanying freedom to be as protocol-breakingly quirky as they like, is that she has to be sure to have his back in situations like these.
A tense moment passes, the dancing of the fire the only movement.
Then a sharp three-note whistle, and Dan's emerging from what must have once been a path, carefully bending the undergrowth out of his way so that it can spring back into place, disturbance undetectable, once he's passed. The camp relaxes back into its nightly routine, paused gears once again allowed to spin freely.
Laurie leans back on her hands, away from the rifle, grinning. She can feel Walter's entire frame go lax in relief, but it's an everyday sort of relief. He gets like this—tense, recalcitrant, unwilling to admit to his own dark fears—every time Dan goes out on his own.
Maybe he gets like that when she does, too. She has no way to know.
"Hey, guys," Dan says, grinning; she scoots over, and he drops himself cleanly between them. He's a little worse for wear, a bright new bruise smeared up the side of his face, but his back pocket is thick with rolled documents and his spirits are apparently undiminished. "What's for dinner?"
"What makes you think," Laurie asks, teasing, "that I've just got dinner ready and waiting for you, huh?" A playful shoulder nudge; he puts up no resistance, letting it carry him into Walter's side. An incomprehensible grumbling comes from that quarter. "Don't know if you've noticed, but I'm not exactly 50s sitcom housewife material."
He laughs, sharp. "God no. Not unless June Cleaver started carrying assault rifles and kicking ass indiscriminately while I wasn't looking."
"Never know," Walter jokes, quiet and dry and falling flat as always, "Missed ten years of reruns. Might have changed the format." Dan laughs again despite how bad it is, throws an arm over his shoulders. A cringe, theatrical, and Walter slips out from under—off the tie entirely, to settle in front of Dan instead.
As jigsaw pieces go, they were never quite cut to fit, but their edges are all worn soft from the constant forcing and Dan gathers Walter back against his chest effortlessly, hands cinched loosely around him. It's a common place for them to be, these days: Walter's knobby legs pointed to the fire, Dan curled over and around him, both of them lit in gold and orange and black black shadows, pooling. It's one of the images that Laurie might admit to treasuring if you got her drunk enough, but she likes it even better when she can see her own skin painted in the same warm tones, twined into the guts of the picture, held. Like tonight, she thinks, as Dan reaches over to snag her by the fingers, draw her in.
"I don't know if I could do all this stuff," he says, contemplative, bruises lit luridly by the flames, "if I didn't have something this amazing to come home to."
And she makes some dismissive noise, a self-deprecating joke, but Walter just nods, eyes fixed on the fire. He understands.
"For all that you protest it," Dan starts later, scraping his bowl clean. The others have all disappeared into the warmth of their temporary homes; they are the only ones who usually eat out here, in the open air. Makes the food taste better. "You're really not a half-bad cook."
"Dinty Moore's a good cook. I'm good with a can opener and I know which end of a fire's hot, is all."
Rorschach makes a confused, indignant noise. At their expectant pause, he waves one hand. "Ends of a fire. Ridiculous."
"And the fact that you think that," Laurie says, grinning contentedly at him from across their discarded dishes, "explains the briquettes in brown gravy you tried to serve us the other day."
Silence but for the crackling fire, for a moment, as he works on processing this. Eventually he just shakes his head, something like laughter catching on the sharp edges of his voice. "Playing with my head, Laurel."
Dan leans over him, snorfles into his hair. "Pretty much, yeah."
"Just not good at cooking," Rorschach self-diagnoses, and Dan can hear the smile. "Not lacking in any... esoteric knowledge on the nature of campfires. Marshmallows have turned out acceptably, if I recall correctly."
"That's just because you're supposed to set those on fire."
A soft hurumph. "Regardless."
They fall into a companionable quiet then, and without the distraction of conversation, certain physical needs quickly become impossible to ignore. Dan frowns, moves to stand, leaving Rorschach to either find his own balance or suffer the ignominy of falling backward between Dan's knees.
If only. Bastard's balance is still impeccable, after all these years.
"Here," Dan says, tugging the roll of papers from his pocket, handing them down to Laurie; Rorschach methodically stacks their bowls to the side, clears a space. "You guys start making sense of those, I've got to, ah, use the restroom. Back in a minute."
And he walks off to the sound of relentless, hysterical laughter, because Laurie will never stop finding it hilarious but he just cannot bring himself to say Yeah, gonna go piss on a tree now, don’t wait up.
By the time he gets back, the laughter's died down; the documents are spread out, an electric lantern providing the light they don't dare get close enough to the fire for. The only voice he can hear is Rorschach's, a rolling, babbling cadence that he still remembers from their early patrols.
God, Dan had though it was so annoying back then, the way he wouldn’t ever, ever stop talking. Now, it's all he can do to not smile so widely the top of his head falls off.
"—possibly reflects the impracticality of a line-of sight transmission method in hilly terrain. Light can theoretically cover enough distance to make it practical even in low density areas—"
"But not if a mountain's in the way, right."
Rorschach nods, acknowledging idly. "Alternatives are television broadcast or a much larger number of physical devices." He shuffles through the papers, searching for something; Dan crouches down alongside, because he thinks he knows what it is. "Would suspect the cheaper option, given that this installation was done with taxpayer money, authorized by congressmen still answerable to a constituency that would object to the haphazard wasting of their money—"
"That's so ridiculous," Laurie interrupts, "'Go ahead, enslave our minds, but make sure you don't raise taxes to do it!' Seriously, what the fuck."
"The populace has approved of stranger things in the past. Voted for them. Should never underestimate the power of propaganda." He makes a frustrated noise, tosses a handful of papers into another pile. "'No more murdered children' has a powerful ring."
"You were there," Dan chips in. "Was it like that or no?"
She laughs, resigned. "Pretty much, yeah. Big surprise."
It was a blue page, if he remembers right, maybe a carbon copy... "Television, then," Dan says, thumbing through the sheets. "Which means we'd need... something like this?"
He produces the sheet with a flourish: the operating log for the local broadcast station, just one more random record in the handful he'd managed to grab. Dates and times and frequencies of a program labeled only as 'spcl. slot', lasting only ten seconds every time.
"God damn we're good," Laurie says, snapping up the sheet.
"Yes," and Rorschach seems to actually believe it for once, a slow, pleased tone to his voice like a cat with the good cream on its chin, or possibly blood; Dan can never be sure.
Either way, it’s work for another day; they haven't even finished here yet, much less gotten a foothold in the area under investigation, but it always pays to plan ahead. These things go in sharply defined cycles.
Right now they're in covert mode, working on wresting another town free from its own complacency, and they are dressed like soldiers: a mismatched patchwork of fatigues they raided from an abandoned army surplus store before leaving New York, because the stuff lasts forever and that's what they'd needed. The costumes have their time too, rising up the walls and gutters after the lights go out and a newly birthed Free City stumbles headlong into night, in need of a stronger, more recognizable guiding hand. They are alternately freedom fighters and masks; they are whatever people need them to be.
Right now, though, they’re free to enjoy the night, to gather around the fire until it's time to bank it and cover the embers—fall into its hypnotic dance, and into each other. To be only what they want to be.
The crickets settle down; the sky turns. They're always up later than anyone else in the camp, because they're used to being awake and about in the dark. Night owls, ha ha, but there's something to be said for having struck enough of the demons to make the night a hospitable place.
Sometime after true darkness settles in, there's another rustling, another whistle before they can even alert—Dan knows he gets sloppy about that a lot, underestimating the noise he's making and calling only when their hands are already on their sidearms—and a nearly unrecognizable head of dirty blond hair emerges, over a set of beige fatigues, worn around the knees and elbows. There's a sling-bag at his side instead of a knapsack, and it's moving.
Laurie points wordlessly to the pot still bubbling over the fire. Dan doesn't move from where he's lying, head on Rorschach's leg, watching the smoke spin up into the stars while those brutal fingers drag heavy along his hairline. There was a time when his body would have balked at lying flat on the rocky ground, but he's toughened up a lot in six months. They all have.
Adrian crosses to the fire, sets down the sling, and the second it touches ground a blur of dingy white fur claws its way out—crawls up to perch, unbalanced and awkward on three good legs, on Adrian's shoulders. Rubs against his face in the kind of blind affection that only animals can know, uncaring of his past or his present or the fact that his face is marred and imperfect now too, a thick knife scar down one cheek where an anti-resistance resistance group in Philadelphia had gotten hold of him for a few hours.
Yeah, they're kind of made for each other, at this point.
She yowls, demanding, and he says "Hush, girl," and takes the pot off the fire; sits crosslegged next to it, fishing out chunks of meat to feed to her piece by piece. She's a fair hunter, will supplement this meal sometime in the night from the store of local wildlife, but she loves the attention of being fed by hand and loves the gravy, and it's obvious that Adrian wants to spoil her, whispering endearments too low to hear under the spitting and popping of the fire.
Once the meat's gone he eats the rest himself, a contemplative quiet settling over them all. Dan could feel Rorschach's whole body go tense when Adrian walked up; imagines Laurie fidgeting, and neither of them have ever really been okay with this arrangement. But they'd needed a runner, one of the dirtiest, riskiest, most bone-wearying things a person could volunteer for, and Adrian had. Least they can do is treat him like something better than an enemy and try not to glare too many daggers—give him the space he needs to find his own penance, as deep in the trenches as he needs to go.
Lulu usually stays pretty close to her guardian, distinctly a one-man cat, but now she hops down from her perch and wanders over to snuffle obnoxiously in Dan's ear. He feels Rorschach's hand leave his head, expects to hear her hiss as she's shoved away. Instead, a broken-engine purr, misfiring cylinders and all.
He turns his head to the side, opens his eyes. Registers first that Rorschach is scratching the side of the cat's face, tentative, and second that there is something goddamned foul in the air.
"Adrian," he says, deliberately even, "your cat smells like death."
"She eats dead things," Adrian says with a shrug. He scrapes his bowl meticulously. "So it stands to reason. By contrast, if one eats primarily vegetables—"
Laurie snickers, unkind. "Bullshit. Potatoes don't count as vegetables, and that's beef gravy you're sucking off of them."
"Well, needs must."
Lulu eventually wanders off again to a spot somewhere evenly between everyone, curls up there to put her head on her paws and watch the fire—to dream a cat's secret dreams. At some point Dan turns on his side where he's cushioned, watches it start to die; the sky can be an overwhelming view, and he doesn't always want to be reminded how small they are. Sometimes it matters, but sometimes perspective can take a flying fuck at a rolling donut, as far as he's concerned.
"When Jon told me where he'd sent the two of you," Adrian says after a while, musing. "I accused him of meddling, of trying to throw a wrench into things."
No response, but it's a present sort of silence. They're listening.
"He said that he had extrapolated the situation forward and was reasonably sure you wouldn't be a problem. Not completely sure, of course. Just reasonably."
"Because this isn't part of his timeline, yeah," Dan says. "We've figured that much out. What I still don't get is how he got it so wrong."
Because wrong is definitely what he was, good god. There isn't much more of a problem they could have been without dumping LSD into the city water supply. And Jon should have known that, but maybe he'd thought Dan would give up and he doesn't think he's flattering himself to suppose that Rorschach wouldn't have gotten very far on his own, spinning and spinning in his rage. Alone, none of them would have. Maybe...
Rorschach shifts under his head. "Read the picture wrong," he says, and that he's humoring the conversation at all is surprising. His voice is metered, careful; there’s something a little reverent in it. "Missed something important. A detail that changed everything."
The fire banks and twists in the air; the wind changes, a sharp slant away from them, and the fire goes with it. Embers fly from its fingers, transient and then gone.
"Well," Adrian says, gathering his bag together, reaching to set the pot closer to them. "I don't think I've ever been so thankful for his fallibility," and it could be a throwaway comment, just making conversation, but.
But it’s an important question, and Dan narrows his eyes.
Laurie beats him to it. "Are you seriously happier with your life now?" she asks, and there's distrust there and maybe a little disgust filtering through and these two have more blood between them than even Rorschach can claim; blood of family, even if she never liked the bastard. It's something they mostly don't bring up, but every now and then her voice takes on that cruel twist and it's obvious again. "Scrabbling around in the woods with a bunch of people who hate your guts?"
"Honestly?" He shifts to stand and clicks his tongue; Lulu stretches languorously to her feet. "Anything is preferable to riding around in a blithering, brainless meat puppet." He nods, either dismissing or accepting his own dismissal. "I'll leave you to your evening."
Three steps to the edge of the fire’s halo, soft and indistinct. Four.
"World is imperfect again," Rorschach says, voice rising in challenge.
Adrian pauses, turns to half-face them, scarred profile picked out unforgivingly by the firelight. He opens and closes his mouth a few times; Lulu cries impatiently at his heels, and he looks down, smiling a little.
“Perfection’s overrated,” he tosses back, casual as anything, and disappears into the black.
“What do you think it was?” Daniel asks after a few minutes have passed; he’s on his back again, staring up past Rorschach and Laurel both, eyes focused somewhere just past infinity.
“What was what?” she asks.
Daniel shifts, eyes sliding to focus on them instead, and he doesn’t need to clarify, because Rorschach gets it. “Detail Manhattan missed,” he answers, taking a long slow breath.
“Yeah. Just trying to figure out what it could have been.”
“I don’t know,” Rorschach says, but it has the feel of a lie that doesn't quite recognize itself. He has some ideas, he thinks, but they’re half-formed and he can’t quite find them in the dark. Instead: logic. “Could have been anything. One person ran a red light in 1987, caused a chain of events that led to. This.”
“Butterfly effect,” Laurel says, and leans a little harder on his side; the words make him think of the moment the mask had left his hand at Karnak, slipping from between his fingers like blood or a shed skin sloughing away.
He curls his hand into a fist to banish the sensation-memory; nods. “Inconsequential things, snowballing. Didn’t have to be anything significant.”
Daniel just makes a noise, contemplative, eyes drifting back out of focus again.
“Or maybe it was,” Laurel says. “Who knows, right?”
Something important. His hand uncurls from its fist, settles back into Daniel’s hair, trembling with nervous energy. Laurel is pressed against his side, propping him up, and he can hear all of them breathing, together.
What was it, then? He has no idea—probably never will—but he wonders if maybe it might have something to do with this, here, this moment. Turning with the world, a part of it and apart from it, clung to each other for lack of anything more solid to hold onto and better for it, more whole. The human connection he’d thought himself incapable of, undesiring of, and which Manhattan himself had long forgotten existed. The missing piece of every puzzle.
He’s debating whether to mention it aloud when a quiet noise comes from Daniel, rising and falling with his breath. He’s drifted off, is snoring lightly, and Laurel chuckles sleepily, seems ready to pass out herself. They have a lot to do tomorrow; putting words to these things is less important than letting Daniel have his rest, and there will always be another day, and another and another, until the future tires of them.
He falls asleep to the warmth of bodies pressed close to him, a buffer against the coming autumn chill, and lets himself forget the loneliness of snow.