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Between the Brushstrokes

Chapter Text

*

He can feel Daniel standing somewhere behind him; in this heightened sensory maelstrom of a moment, every nerve wired up with life in defiance of their imminent demise, he can detect the shift in the eddies of the air where they pass around his old partner - can feel the lazy, winding curl of warmth that is an extra body's heat and breath in a bleak landscape of white and cold. Daniel is not making a childish scene of this, and for that he's as grateful as he's ever been. Some things simply need to be done, regrettable or not, and if his friend finally understands that, then that's his last bit of unfinished business finished; the sting of Daniel's treasonous compromise lessened, his last regret smeared out of focus if not completely wiped away.

There's another part of him, paradoxically compassionate and living deep and low in his chest, that aches desperately for Daniel to not have to see this happen. But he's never been one to put concerns of the heart - if that's what this is, and he isn't even sure, but the dull pain sits in roughly the right place, pulling like a cracked rib - over concerns of the practical.

So he says what he has to. And he waits. The snow falls, blind and unknowing; elsewhere, millions of people have breathed their last, falling onto each other in the streets, a grotesque diorama on decadence and decay and the corruption that power always, always brings. Manhattan's hand comes up. He can feel Daniel shaking behind him, taking one hesitant step in the snow.

Time stops.

*

The moment is unusual and unexpected enough to warrant a closer look. When he'd regained(will regain, does regain) his vision of the future, he'd seen(does see, never sees) this event play out, and it'd been different – just himself and Rorschach in the snow, and then only him, and later: Dreiberg asleep in Laurie's arms, both of them safe and at peace for at least that moment.

In another life, perhaps.

He picks this snapshot of a moment up, turns it around to look at it from another angle, holds it up to the light. He has a sudden, startling memory – they so rarely creep up unannounced anymore, so the tachyons must be lingering – of being a child, twelve years old, poring over the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. A favorite pastime, before the blinding precision of clockwork dominated his mental life; He is examining the moment captured in the paint, less than a fraction of a second long because a point in time, like a point in space, has no dimensions; trying to decipher its meaning.

On lazy, idle nights, he simply makes up stories that seem to fit: they are rewarding the family dog with a treat from the table because he only that morning saved the youngest son from climbing a tree he surely would have fallen from, or the young couple is so happy with their new home because they've just come to the suburbs from the very darkest heart of the city and are so dizzyingly thrilled to have escaped that it hardly feels real.

But very often that child's serious eyes scour Rockwell's vision of life, beautiful and perfect and real, for the tiniest of clues, the most subtle hints of context. It's pieced together, like a detective story, tentative connections made between one brush stroke and the next that unlock the mystery of everyday life.

Here in the Antarctic wastes, he can see the brush strokes. The mask lying in the snow. Wetness freezing to the face that'd spent such an eternity under it. Fear shaking through Dreiberg, ten feet further back; fear in his eyes, burning through the goggles. Terror the likes of which he hasn't seen since his time in Vietnam, lighting on each enemy soldier's face in turn in the moment before he obliterated them. A level of emotion only suited to the threat of one's own existence, but that isn't what he's seeing in the way those goggles turn between him and Rorschach, in the way one hand clenches in the air and one foot shuffles hesitantly forward.

Daubs of paint, each of them delicate and honest.

And hadn't that fear been the worst part of his time in the war, the moments of blossoming and then evaporated terror tugging at what was left of his capacity to feel? Is it right that he's seeing it now, on the face of one he had once called a friend?

The entire moment is inaccurate, has deviated from its original predicted course. Perhaps further deviation is possible.

He looks into the future – finds a smooth patch amongst the twisting and writhing strands of time, the crests and troughs ducking in and out of each other's view. It is stable enough that they will be unable to do harm and stretches long enough for them to live out their lives without butting up against any large-scale moments of fragile volatility. It is an acceptable alternative.

His hand comes down. Time resumes. He is alone in the snow.

Laurie will ask, in seven and a half minutes, why he'd sent Dreiberg away as well. He will be unable to give her a satisfactory response; will be unable, in that moment of terrible clarity, to explain how there'd been something of the printed page about the moment he'd found himself trapped in, truth written in the space between clotted ink and the precise dot pattern of muted and abstract color, visible and obvious provided the time is taken to really look. That the greatest cruelty is often in the mad, twisting dance of the left-behind, a slow spiral to a place that time cannot touch.

That the moment had played out the way it had to.

She won't understand, and he accepts this, because in a little time, she will forgive. Before that happens, he will find Adrian in his inner chamber, will give him cryptic advice that he will not follow, and will give him forewarning of the time and place opposition is likely to reappear. He will tell him to take no action when it does. Because Adrian trusts his intentions, this advice he will (intend/try/pretend) to follow, and that is the best he can do for them.

Right now – in as much as it can be 'now', as a moment can be said to exist – he stands in the snow, among footprints and the vacuum of two lives, watching time carefully re-stitch itself around their absence. He feels that he has never seen, on this planet or another, something so simple or uncomplicated as the carefully unfolding and unfolded lives of those human beings created of paint, dwelling inside of printing presses and living one carefully disconnected moment after another, the transition neither jarring nor traumatic: a life of snapshots, each as real as the last, and does it really matter what's going on in the spaces in between?

*

Chapter Text

*

It takes a minute or two for neurons to start firing again correctly, for thoughts to start connecting – for Dan to realize the haze he's in, and make an effort to climb out of it. At first, the most pressing concern is just why he'd been unconscious to start with, quickly trumped by the fact that he doesn't seem to be able to move. Everything feels intact, a tingling warmth running from fingertips to toes, so it's probably not spinal damage; that's a small comfort. But there's a bone-deep exhaustion wound around him, binding him to the spot, and it's not a good feeling.

"Stopped believing in afterlife a long time ago. Obviously not a bar to entry." A pause."Not what I would have expected."

Okay, that's Rorschach's voice, that's something familiar, and he latches onto it. It sounds strange – meandering and without his theatrical, growling monotone, as if he's speaking without fear of being overheard. Talking to himself. But it's still-

(Oh god. Rorschach.)

Rorschach, who'd been seconds from obliteration outside of Adrian's stronghold; who is now somewhere nearby in the dark, babbling on about an afterlife, and Dan still can't move and he feels like his eyes are open but he can't see anything at all, and he's suddenly terrified. (Panic attack,) some helpfully functional part of his brain supplies, and that'll be his excuse later for asking, blearily but in all seriousness, panic giving the words a biting edge: "...we're dead?"

Silence. Dead goddamned silence. Even the other noises around them seem to have deserted, run down bolt holes so deep he'd swear they were never there. No wind. No birdsong.

Wait - there'd been birds? In Antarctica?

His vision's clearing, enough to realize that it's bright and that his goggles have fallen down around his neck, and it takes effort but he manages to turn his head towards where Rorschach's voice was coming from. He's half-blind without his glasses, but at such a short distance he can still make out the red hair and the profile of a face and the features all screwed up in horror in the instant before they go flat and unreadable again. Controlled. Looking straight ahead, fixed and staring, and it's obvious all at once: waking up first into the blinding darkness, disoriented and paralyzed, Rorschach had thought he was alone.

(Alone, and dead. And if you're here too...)

"Disappointed, Daniel," and there's anger and guilt and blame all layered into the words. "Weren't supposed to die too. What did you do?"

The implicit accusation is enough to get past the panic, stir defense up from the depths, breathless and fumbling. "Do? I didn't do anything, I was just standing there..."

"Did something." A mumbling, unintelligible and vaguely broken and underlined with disgust. "Compromised. Not a threat. Wouldn't have killed you for no reason."

"Um." Dan narrows his eyes against the sun glare that's getting more overpowering by the second, looks away from Rorschach and tries to make sense of the digital patterning of bright squares and brighter squares his long-distance vision is resolving into. Some kind of park, maybe, but it's hard to tell because his head is throbbing, making it hard to focus, and as sensation returns all over he starts to feel their fight with Adrian like he hadn't been able to at the time. Adrenaline is so goddamned double-edged.

And, of course, he addresses the wrong part of the statement entirely. "Rorschach, I... I really don't think we're dead. Too sore, to start with."

"Hrm. Like I said. Steerage."

"And that... looks like the Bethesda fountain. Over there." Which puts them in the middle of Central Park. His vision is snapping into as much focus as he ever has without his glasses, and some of the details are coming in; he catalogues them without trying. It's a brilliantly sunny day and, strangely, there's no one else here. No litter, either, though the nearest can looks empty. And he's sure the fountain had a broad swath of graffiti scrawled across its base the last time he was here, gang signs and the more innocent delinquency of bored, stupid kids, but the whole place is spotless. And quiet. And calm.

"Daniel." Quiet, sad almost, but not gentle, not pulling any punches. "It's our city. Made clean. No more scum to punish. What more poetically just reward was expected?"

(Oh. That's...)

(That makes...)

It makes some twisted kind of sense. For a second – just a second – Dan lets his healing eyes wander up paths and between trees, settle on the old, old stone angel perched on the fountain. It's out of place amongst the sterile and modern art pieces declaring their transient relevance on every rise and furrow of the earth, and he thinks about compromise and secrets and the horrible things he's seen done for all the right and wrong reasons, and for just that one second, he almost...

Then sanity slams back in, hard, and he's shaking his head. "Bullshit. I don't buy it. You don't die and go to the Park." Control is coming back into his extremities, and Dan works the gloves off, chafing bare hands together to try to banish the pins and needles. It gives him a chance to wonder, incredulous: is he actually having this conversation? With Rorschach, his own personal Nietzsche, who forswore the existence of anything more divine than the base, squirming, flailing horror of human existence, years and countless bloody and horrific nights ago, and never looked back? It's surreal. "That's just ridiculous. I'm not sure what is going on, but I'm sure we're not dead."

A long moment, then Rorschach nods, lifting his hands experimentally; turns them over and over, and his tone is dismissive. "Possibly a valid opinion."

"Hypothesis," Dan corrects, doing his best to roll to his hands and knees, scrabbling at the neatly trimmed grass, armor weighing him down. "In the face of no conclusive evidence to the contrary."

It's manipulative, and it takes a few minutes to properly settle through, but invoking the deductive method seems to have done what logic couldn't. Rorschach's narrowing his eyes, regarding the park around them critically. "Other city, perhaps. Modeled after Central Park but maintained more diligently. Sent here by Manhattan. Why? What is-" A pause, then with some urgency: "Daniel."

"What?" Dan asks, ungracefully shoving himself to his feet. A second passes; his expression shifts minutely. "...ohgod."

"Many people's stomachs unsettled by-"

Dan slips back down to his knees, hand clapped across his mouth and eyes pressed tight against the rising wave of nausea

(You remember now: Laurie complaining about this.)

and the rush of blood out of his head, a prickly, staticky field of black shot through with sparks that floods in to supplant vision. By the time his stomach settles he's on his side, dizzy and weary all the way through and there's a hand on his shoulder, steadying him against the roll onto his face that his body's trying to trick him into. Dan blinks against receding swirls of liquid, electric darkness.

Through the haze: "...stay there for now."

He nods, as far as he's capable of it, eyes pinching shut again. And if there really is anything of the superstitious left in Rorschach, something that rattles restlessly, haunted by the ghosts of a thousand transgressions and absolutions, by the smell of incense and musty brickwork and the narrow claustrophobia of wood and darkness and by the crumbling stone angel across from them, it's in his hand as it tightens on Dan's shoulder, forgiveness as backhanded and inevitable as anything he's ever given. Dan compromised, but it's all right, because Rorschach may hold grudges and try to maintain the anger but this – trials and terror and one breath at a time and double standards and a steadying hand and forgiveness for now - is how they have always worked.

Dan curls in on himself against the dizziness, and tries not to think about cold, and snow, and what an indescribable mess it would have been – and the hand tightens again, through the armor. It's an anchor, and he lets it be one, until the darkness clears and the sun paints his vision red and gold through his closed eyelids, warming his face in a way that shouldn't be possible in November, and there's something tenuous and fragile in the contact that feels, somehow, like home.

*

Thirteen minutes later and they're up and walking. Dan's put his cowl back, and he's not sure entirely why because it's dangerous, but it feels something like solidarity; Rorschach's left his security and safety some ten thousand miles away and while neither of them has spoken a word to that fact, he'd looked at Dan with something akin to gratitude when he'd reached to shove the Kevlar away from his face.

And they walk.

The streets are startlingly empty of people, impossibly clean. The pedestrian signals still cycle expectantly, and the only vehicles they see are delivery vans, taxis, bustling mechanisms of commerce – but no citizens, and strangely, no police.

About half a mile out of the park, Rorschach stops with no warning, eyes caught and locked on a row of townhomes – fine, delicate brickwork and cornices, impeccably kept, with cheerful curtains in every window and lush garden boxes on every patio.

Dan pulls up, backpedals. Looks between Rorschach and the building, and makes the connection. "These were tenements the last time I saw them..."

"Were tenements as of last week," Rorschach corrects, because of course he'd been through that recently, wallowing in the squalor at the shuddering heart of the city. He tilts his head slightly, a gesture that reads completely differently without the mask. "1972. Do you remember?"

Dan winces. "Yeah, uh... third floor, right?"

"Yes. Second unit. Child prostitution ring. The one boy-"

"His name was Kevin."

A grunt in response, but it's not unkind. "Wouldn't let go of your hand, even when authorities arrived."

They stand in silence for a moment, tracking the domestic arch of wrought-iron patio fencing and the delicate track of footpaths through the carefully clipped grass of the tiny stretch of communal backyard with eyes that don't quite understand what they're seeing or how it's possible. The question is obvious; but neither has the answer, so neither bothers to ask.

Dan pushes his hand through his hair. "He'll be seventeen now."

A short huff of breath. "Maybe." And then Rorschach is walking again, path picked up where he'd dropped it, leather barely making a sound on the pavement.

Dan lingers for a moment, watching the breeze catch in the curtain over one window – three floors up, two units down – then scrambles to catch up. "There's no need to be morbid-"

"Not being morbid," and he's not, that much is clear from his tone; quiet, thoughtful, putting pieces together – a recollection of earlier years, before everything went up in smoke on one dark September night. Before-

(Before everything changed.)

Dan's boots make more noise on the pavement than Rorschach's, and he's painfully aware of it in this moment. Wonders if Rorschach ever resented him for hampering his stealth, for breaking his carefully constructed silence.

Cautiously: "You've got an idea of what's going on."

"Getting there. Need to find a newsstand."

*

So they find a newsstand. And Dan is shocked, and Rorschach is not, because for all of his moral stiffness, he's always had the more flexible imagination; believing all of those crazy conspiracy theories requires no less. If he can buy that the moon landing was faked and that there are mind-control drugs in the public water supply, Dan figures 'you've been dropped ten years into the future' must not be much of a stretch, especially where Manhattan is concerned.

Dan, for his part, is still pawing through the racks, trying to make sure the Gazette's nameplate isn't just a misprint or a bad joke. The vendor is the first human being they've seen close up since coming around in the park, and he doesn't seem to care if Dan makes a mess of his stand, acknowledging the apology and the assurance that he'll put everything back where it belongs with a calm, tolerant nod and a lazy smile that doesn't seem inclined to fade.

Doesn't seem phased by the armor, either. Very strange.

"Explains the weather," Rorschach says from off to the side, rolling his shoulders under his coat. "Knew it was too warm for November."

Dan's flipping through the Times, checking each page's dateline. "Thought maybe some kind of Indian summer..."

Rorschach huffs dismissively. "Romanticism."

"Meteorologically valid, though. It's a known weather pattern."

A gloved hand settles onto the newspaper, preventing him from flipping through it any further. "Daniel. Gone through five papers now. We have the information we need."

A long moment, then Dan nods, hesitantly at first and then with more certainty. Starts sorting the papers back into the racks. "Yeah. Okay..." The vendor continues to smile blandly, eyes focused past him; Dan shudders slightly. "Yeah, we do."

*

Daniel's decided the first priority is a change of clothing and to some degree, Rorschach agrees. The political state of the world at this point is a mystery, but it's unlikely the Keene Act's been repealed and there are no costume parties in March, so even if no one is looking for them specifically – and he's not willing to count that out, not since one of the newspapers he'd paid for and walked away with revealed Veidt in one of the inner headlines – Daniel's uniform is liable to draw unwanted attention.

There are two conventional choices: purchase and theft. But even if they'd been so inclined, the latter is unworkable; in this cleaner and more prosperous age – and Rorschach has to force his fists to unclench, thinking about Veidt's grand and megalomaniacal plans for a forced utopia and the way they seem to have actually come to fruition – there is no laundry hung on landings and fire escapes to dry, the poor man's clothesline apparently out of vogue in a city with, seemingly, no poor.

So he takes the cash Daniel's produced from a belt pouch, gets in and out as quickly as he can, judging sizes by eye. He brings out a complete set of clothing for Daniel and, in a strange fit of practicality that surprises him, a new coat for himself – one that won't smother him in the heat, and isn't emblazoned with old blood and pain and the echo of desolate screams in the night. Won't draw as much attention from the public or the authorities, cause civilians to scream bloody murder. That's the only reason.

If Daniel seems relieved when the bloodstained stretch of leather is folded away under his arm, Rorschach doesn't notice.

*

Dan has the thought – quickly abandoned – of returning to his home. There's obviously no point; a decade on, if he hasn't been declared dead and the property reclaimed, it'll be uninhabitable. Strangely, he's less bothered by the loss of the property and more by the little things. His degree. His books. His collection of newspaper clippings following Hollis's exploits, and the thought hits him like a bucket of ice water: Hollis has been dead for ten years.

A lot has been dead for ten years.

*

They cut down Park Avenue to midtown, and despite the brilliant sunlight and the civilian disguises, it feels almost like a patrol – the way feet feel out every step before it's taken, carefully negotiating for permissions and boundaries with the brainstem, existence mapped out across a spectrum of clinical observation and animal wariness. There are more people here, milling in droves in front of flashy stores and upscale restaurants, aimless and blank but seemingly happy enough; Dan watches the rapidly accelerating fury torque Rorschach's expression into something more frightening than the mask ever was, and wonders at this disturbing piece of the puzzle. There's more to figure out here than the date.

Later, though. For now, every motel they come across that advertises a rate they can afford on Dan's limited cash supply is studied – observed for the subtle details that mark a location as a good or bad place to go to ground. Rorschach's rejected all of them so far, for no reason Dan can see, and he tamps down on his impatience; the man stayed out of police custody for eight years after they'd been made illegal, and that says something for his methods.

Still, it's been a very long and exhausting and emotionally draining twenty-four – thirty-six? – hours, and they haven't even spoken about Karnak and the city and accountability and just what they're going to do about it, ten years too late, and there's only so far human patience can stretch. And Rorschach's about to reject another hotel. And Dan's about to snap at him for it, and it's all going to go downhill from there.

It's fortunate, then – though it doesn't seem so immediately – that the smiling, smiling man in the courier uniform steps up to them when he does, a large envelope under one arm, and asks: "Excuse me, are you Daniel Dreiberg?"

(...)

(What the...)

At Dan's confused, eyes-narrowed nod, he just smiles even harder, eyes flat and empty. Hands over the envelope. Wishes them both a wonderful day, and is gone.

Rorschach eyes him, the question obvious in the set of his face.

Dan looks right back, and swallows tightly; then tears the end of the envelope off in one sharp pull. He shuffles the thick, multiple-page letter out of it, immediately flips to the last sheet, seeking out a signature, because who would know that they're here when they've only just figured it out themselves and...

And the issue of motel choice is suddenly unimportant, because Dan lets out a ragged sigh, and his voice is flooded with a shivering panic that has trouble finding ground.

"...It's from Adrian."

*
There's a stretched-thin moment, neither of them moving as Daniel flips back to the first page, takes enough time to focus in on the near-distance and read all of three sentences - maybe. If he's a fast reader. Rorschach rather suspects that he is, but his fists are curling hard enough to feel blunt fingernails biting through two layers of leather and his partner's speed-reading potential isn't even on the radar.

Then Daniel's off like a shot, cramming the papers back into the envelope, long-legged strides eating up the sidewalk at speed. Rorschach has to overextend to match, and does without thinking, body and face and voice all disciplined control. "Daniel. What does it say?"

"Forget the motels," Daniel forces out between the rhythm of his pace. "Need somewhere without a front desk or... housecleaners, other guests. Without people." And he's starting to go as telegraphic as Rorschach, doesn't seem to be noticing it, jackrabbited up on a sudden rush of adrenaline that shouldn't really still be available after everything they've already been through.

Rorschach makes a noise of agreement. "Obvious, given that we're being pursued." The papers are nearly concealed now, going into the envelope unevenly. He sees something that looks like '-hreat to world securi-', and he snarls, because that's exactly the sort of self-important socio-political posturing he expected but he still wants to hear it. "Would help to know nature of the pursuit. What does it-"

Daniel rounds on him suddenly, empty hand going to his shoulder to halt his motion, words coming fast and aggressive. "Rorschach. When you used to disappear. Back in the old days, after the worst fights, when you would have left a trail of blood straight to your door and I know you wouldn't risk that."

Rorschach nods, and doesn't bother shrugging Daniel's hand off, focusing instead on dislodging the memory: Back before he'd started following his partner home, before they'd even called themselves partners. Before he'd gotten in the soft and weak and addictive habit of licking his wounds under Daniel's supervision and with Daniel's assistance instead of alone and shuddering from bloodloss in one of a dozen dark and narrowing spaces scattered across the city, and maybe he's missed that comfort zone from time to time and maybe he'd even admit that under duress but right now he needs to know what. Is in. The letter.

But Daniel's giving him a sharp, uncompromising look, and for a sparse moment, it seems like Nite Owl has managed to transcend the uniform - transcend the years, the betrayals, the broken promises and the sheer weight of everything that's happened since, together and apart. He's asking a lot, and he knows it, and he's asking anyway. "Where did you go?"

"...nrrg. Warehouses. Abandoned. In the neighborhoods where the scum track blood trails backwards to save themselves the chance of trouble."

Daniel nods, distractedly; he's scanning the milling crowds, eyes roving with a meticulous care as if he actually knows what he's looking for. Maybe he does, subconsciously. Maybe the old instincts are twisting their way to the surface. "Might not be abandoned anymore. Or still standing. Whe-"

"Daniel," and it's just as demanding, a reminder woven through the pitch and timbre of the fact that Rorschach doesn't waste breath on chatter, doesn't ask questions that aren't important, that can just be brushed off and aside. Forceful for it's monotonic flatness, and just about out of patience: "What. Is in the letter?"

Daniel draws up, makes a visible effort to pause his train of thought; shifts the envelope in his hand as if only then becoming aware of its existence. It would read like a stall if he didn't know Daniel better, but he does, so he waits.

The city doesn't wait with him. A woman with three identical, nine-months-apart children in tow blusters past them, and Rorschach stiffens at the uninvited contact but doesn't shift his attention. He watches Daniel turn his head to squint and track their retreating backs, crowned with bobs of shining blonde on blonde, all of them muttering cheerful apologies to the thin air a second and a half too late - like an out of sync recording, voices shivery and strange. Across the street, a happy and smiling family plays with a dog on a leash, a simple creature, all saliva and instinct and childish, indiscriminate hunger; the girl laughs from her father's shoulders, and there's something in it that is eerily hollow.

"Like listening to a record skip..." Daniel mutters, watching the repetitive gestures, the endless verbal concessions to how wonderful everything is, of course, how could it be anything else, and did you hear? Isn't that lovely? The choreography is perfect and in the middle of it all they stand, like rocks in the flow, fear and uncertainty breaking up water with jagged, ugly fingers - and it feels like the city resents them for it, grown intolerant in its self-indulgent middle age, no place for anything but its chosen puppets, spinning and spinning. And what exactly goes on in the in-between beats, if there's anything there but more agonizing rehearsal and practice - or do they slump like ragdolls in the dark, inanimate in the lonely moments they aren't showing off for the world?

...fanciful, ridiculous, and it is possible that his imagination is getting the better of him; happened in Veidt's office, there's recent precedent. More than possible; likely. So he just stands, and waits, and refuses to look away, gaze like a butterfly pin.

And for a second it looks almost like Daniel's going to finally answer, mouth falling open around some unformed word or thought, but then he shakes his head sharply. "Not like this. Not out here. Can you find one of the warehouses from where we are?"

They're at Park and... a mental map starts unfolding automatically, and of course Daniel already knows the answer to that. Rorschach studies him steadily, thin lips pressed tight. Forces his hands to unclench, to settle in his pockets; the delay chafes, but if Nite Owl's calling it a tactical delay, that's something he can respect if not exactly appreciate. Owes him that much. Wouldn't even be stuck here if not for-

...

He huffs finally, and it's almost a laugh, but there's no humor there. Reaches up to unwind his scarf, shoving it into a pocket. "Can find all of them."

Daniel anchors the envelope under his arm. "Closest one first, and we'll go from there."

Rorschach nods, and leads, and for the first time in a good while, the word 'partner' doesn't feel like a nod to nostalgia; it rings with something like truth, sits easily and comfortably on his tongue.

*

Chapter Text

*

"It's about what you'd expect." Dan pulls the letter from its sleeve and tosses it carelessly onto a tarp-covered pile of scrapwood. This is the fifth address they'd tried, after the first four had proved to be demolished, renovated and leased out, replaced by a shopping center, and demolished again, respectively. It's getting on towards evening, and the sun is slanting in sideways through the bubble-riddled cheap industrial glass of the building's windows, dusk-yellow and sharp, catching swirling dust motes with freezeframe precision.

Rorschach plucks the sheaf up, stirring yet more dust from the plastic sheeting with the violence of the motion. Skims the first page, turns to the second; Dan's not even paying attention, rifling through the envelope for something else. "Only read the beginning," and it sounds like a rebuttal, but there's no venom. The second page is flipped aside.

"That's all I had to. Trust me, I've read enough corporate buzzword posturing to know where it's going. Don't need to wade through seven-"

"Eight," Rorschach corrects in a muttering growl, a vocal trick no one else Dan's ever known has been capable of, flipping the corners of the pages down in a shuffle too fast to have possibly counted.

Dan nods, distracted, pulling a slip of paper free from the bottom of the otherwise empty envelope. "Okay, eight. Not really the point. We're threats to the security of his... system, and therefore the world; some kind of reminder about the virtue of discretion or something. Probably wants to meet with us?"

Rorschach doesn't answer for a long moment, pacing as he reads in and out of the cross-hatched rectangles of light – and the fading sun is doing strange things to his hair, catching and igniting the unfamiliar color. The new coat is thinner and lighter and doesn't bulk his form up as much, and for a second Dan gets a creeping self-conscious déjà-vu of being abandoned alone in his parent's living room with a family friend or a professional connection, a complete stranger he's somehow still expected to interact with and impress despite never having met them before in his life...

Then the pacing figure grumbles and hurms and everything snaps back into focus, crates and garbage and high, bare-raftered ceiling and all. "In two days. Noon. Provides an address. Good. Gives us time to investigate, to consider best method of public exposure."

(He's not saying it, but he's still saying it: come up with a plan other than 'walk in and pick a fight'. Because that didn't work so well the last time, and you have the bruises to prove it.)

An irritated noise, somewhere on page six. "Manhattan told him where he sent us. That's how he knew. Seemingly no end to the treachery."

(And is that all this comes down to, after surviving the end of everything – continuing the same fight like nothing's changed?

But - you only walked away from it three hours ago. Those bruises haven't even purpled yet.)

The world has passed their vengeance by in a heartbeat, and Dan would say it out loud if he didn't think it would get him punched, or snubbed for the duration, or break Rorschach's fragile sense of purpose, hanging as it has been on a the gut-level idea that it's not too late not too late never too late - or all three. Strangers, strange land, all of that; it's no time to be at odds. He fingers the slip of paper restlessly. "Thing is, I think there's more going on than just Adrian and his maneuvering. Something outside his control. Look at this."

A rough snap of the pages flipping sharply back together, and Rorschach takes the paper from his hand. The confusion that spreads across his face is recognizable even in the poor light, and for a moment Dan wonders if he's gotten out of the habit of controlling his expressions after so long under the mask, or if he's just choosing to let his guard down. "That was stuck between the first two pages."

Rorschach turns it over, looking for some kind of explanation, some elusive fine print. There's nothing; Just a handwritten scrawl on one side, and they both recognize Adrian's elegant and precise script, but there's something desperate and shaking in the loops and whorls.

----

It's gotten away from me.
Please come.
–A

----

"It," Rorschach mutters, holding the paper up into what's left of the light, probably looking for a watermark or erased writing. "What 'it'? Secret crime, utopia, the world? Too many possible interpretations."

The rickety pile of wood and tarp sways a little when Dan settles onto it, sending a few stray, loose pieces skittering out onto the cement floor, but ultimately holds. "It could also be a trick. Expecting us-"

"Expecting us to take a handwritten note's inconsistency with the remainder of the letter as a sign of its sincerity. Yes. Had thought of that."

Dan rubs his temples absently; ponders the wisdom of inviting a known paranoid to indulge their paranoia. Asks anyway. "Do you think it is?"

A short huff of breath, a moment of consideration. Then, surprisingly, Rorschach shakes his head in the negative. "No. Handwriting's leaning."

"...what?"

Rorschach crosses the distance to where Dan is attempting to stretch the walking-compounded soreness out of one leg, and every movement is wired up and tense and ready for a fight. Shows Dan the sheet again, as if that explains everything, is enough on its own, is the most obvious smoking gun in the world.

It isn't. A glance down, a glance up, questioning. "What, I don't get it."

The light on the floor is shifting even as they speak, the sun making its last headlong dive for the horizon, subtlety abandoned in favor of a speedy conclusion to the day's labors. Rorschach makes an irritated, impatient noise somewhere in the back of his throat; Dan's struck again by how strange those inarticulate sounds seem coming from an actual face. "Veidt's trained ambidextrous. Still right-biased for most things. Wrote this with his left hand."

Dan takes the sheet now, narrowing his eyes in the uneven light to study the delicate script. "You sure?"

There's a scrabbling sound and Rorschach fishes a broken-off stub of a pencil from one pocket, a handful of folded sheets of paper, a flashlight. Hands the light to Dan preemptively, then scrawls a similar message onto one of the papers. Offers it mutely.

And it's illegible for the most part, jagged and horrible, but he's right – both samples show the same unique cant back to the left. "Okay, so he usually writes right-handed but wrote this with his left. I'm still not-"

"Not usually. Always." Rorschach takes the paper back abruptly, shoving it and pencil back into his pocket; because of course he would never leave something as vaguely and indistinctly personal as a writing sample lying around for prying eyes that don't precisely exist, in the conventional sense of the word. "Heard of split-brain syndrome?"

Dan rubs at his eyes, pressing back on a knotty, spreading ache behind them. "One hand doesn't know what the other's doing, right?"

"Hnk. Perfect way to betray your own intentions."

A long stretch of silence, while Dan pinches the bridge of his nose and studies the note; the light's nearly gone now, but he doesn't feel like trying to balance the flashlight and not fumble the letter at the same time. Folds it between two fingers, looking up; Rorschach's looming in front of him, hands in his pockets.

"Rorschach... that was a surgical procedure, wasn't it? To separate the brain like that. Would Adrian really go that far?"

"Depends on his motivation. Discussed insanity before, in the snow. Could also be some other factor causing the same effect. Either way, conscious and subconscious have differing goals." A beat of silence, and even in the stifling grey darkness, the sudden concerned pinching of his expression is visible. "Daniel. Something's wrong with your eyes?"

Daniel lifts his fingers from where they'd been rubbing slow circles into his tearducts, blinks owlishly; and no, the irony isn't lost on him. "Not really, just kind of sore-"

Without any warning, the flashlight's switched on and pointed straight into his right eye; Dan flinches back from it, trying to escape from the beam because it's startling and unexpected and god but the light's only making the tight throbbing worse. Ends up leaning halfway back against the improvised chair, unwilling to sacrifice his balance any further. A thumb and finger clad in grubby glove leather press the eyelid back, and Dan tries not to think of where they've been. "Should have said something sooner," Rorschach growls, peering along the flashlight beam. "Could be anything, chemical weapon, toxin from Veidt's fortress, aftereffect of the transport process..."

And he's going on and on, one conspiracy-minded theory after another, and he's saying things about being in unknown territory and how they can't afford to have him incapacitated and somewhere in there, Dan reads the actual, sincere concern loud and clear – and then he's not hearing anything, because the day's just caught up, all of it, and he's laughing too hard. Hysterical, unhinged. Unhealthy, maybe, but fuck it.

Rorschach huffs, pulling the flashlight beam back up to the ceiling, hand solidly in place. "Isn't funny, Daniel."

But it is, it really is, and as Dan fights to get himself under control, Rorschach takes a step back and away from him, switching off the flashlight. Eyes him like he's gone crazy, and that only makes control harder to find.

"Look, it's just... haggh, sorry. It's just eyestrain. Haven't had my glasses for a few hours, and it hurts after a while."

A long silence, considering – then a shuffling as Rorschach wanders towards the wall, poking around for a suitable place to bed down for the duration. It's barely eight, but with no light source beyond one piddling flashlight, the hours are best spent resting, recovering, making ready to face tomorrow's problems – and all of tomorrow's realizations and realities, put off from today out of sheer necessity but still looming. The matter seems summarily dropped, conversation over for the night.

Dan eyes the amorphous shape of the tarp-covered woodpile he's still perched on, picking out its sharp, uncomfortable corners against the greater grey of the floor and walls. Considers pulling the tarp free and wadding it up to use as a pillow. Gives it an experimental tug; it doesn't budge, and he admits defeat and drops to the bare floor with no more preamble. They've long since passed second wind and are into the territory of the third, and even that's fading fast, evaporated away with the sunlight. He props his head on one arm; muscles protest, and are ignored.

It's silent, but not silent, dark but not dark. Streetlights, breathing, the creak of beams settling in old and rotting concrete, the odd muffled flutter of wings, faraway up in the rafters. It'll be hours before the moon's high enough to hit those windows, hours more before the sun replaces it. Outside, the city goes on, and if it seems quieter than they're used to, murmuring compliant and inoffensive nothings to the space between the streetlights and rooftops, it could be that the city really has been broken, somehow – neutered, pacified, stripped of its driving sense of life and purpose – or it could be that the warehouse is just more insulated than they realize, drowning everything down to a baseline hum.

Could be.

"Should get you new glasses." Quiet and rough and winding a jagged path across the empty room.

Dan shrugs, a wasted gesture against the cold floor; closes weary eyes, and hopes the headache will be gone by morning. "Don't really have enough cash on-hand."

"Diminished capacity. Increased likelihood of injury."

A grin into the darkness, and even Dan isn't sure where it's coming from. "I have the goggles if it gets too bad. Don't worry."

An indistinct muttering, something about how of course he isn't worrying – then silence.

*

Chapter Text

*

[Dan steps out of his front door, makes his way down the stairs. There's snow: falling, swirling, piled up in drifts against the windows. It isn't winter, but there's still snow because his house is in Antarctica, and that is fine, that makes perfectly good sense. His house has always been in Antarctica.

He's walking out of his front door in the Nite Owl costume, and Rorschach is telling him that he shouldn't, because it will make it very easy for the criminals to find out where he goes every day, where he eats and works, and once they know that, they'll know what color his hair is and then it's all as good as over.

Rorschach is in full costume too, though, and Dan points this out. By his logic, he shouldn't be masked right now either, because these are dangerous times.

Rorschach hesitates, then reaches up and peels his hat and mask off with a defiant flourish. His face underneath is as white as the latex and a symmetric blossoming of dark blood is welling up through his skin, shifting and morphing like ink blots, surrounding dead and empty eyes and growing growing covering every inch of skin it can find and spilling over onto fabric and Dan wants to scream but something is blocking it it's caught in his throat and

and Rorschach's voice is saying "If you'd cared from the start-"

and once the blood has joined itself and sealed Rorschach up completely it's like it eats him out from inside because the figure suddenly has no form and the blood is falling heavy and hot into the snow and it's violently beautiful and horrible the way it sinks in, mirrored and perfect and there are children, all the same, blonde and blue-eyed and draped in violet rags pawing at the snow, taking away bits of what little is left of him

and now Dan really is screaming, screaming and screaming and

what are children doing in his backyard anyway, clambering through the bitten grass and hard packed dirt and there's a terrible heat somewhere nearby and they look up at him from the bones they're fighting over,

'if you'd cared-'

faces smeared in soil and soot and blunt teeth running with red and he shouts and they're excusing themselves and apologizing, voices all singsong and reedy, but they're smiling smiling smiling and they don't mean it at all and

if he'd cared and

and he's screaming and-]

Dan lurches up from the concrete floor, the scream his mind's trying to loose transmuted into a quiet, sucking gasp. The warehouse is softly illuminated by moonlight, diffracted into waning grids. It only takes him a moment to delve through the fog, remember himself and his situation - to smooth out his breath and reach one hand up to wipe away a thin layer of clinging, cold sweat from his hairline.

Even with the moonlight, his eyes are too poor at this distance to make out the shadow-blanketed figure against the far wall, but he can hear breathing, fainter and deeper and more even than his own, and that's eventually enough to ease him back into fitful but needed sleep.

When he's poked and prodded awake that morning, only the earliest curling rays of dawn making their way in through the mottled glass, his eyes will expect for a moment to see the rough and bruised face hanging over him running with blood; even if his brain won't precisely remember why, it will still allow him to feel an unaccountable flood of relief.

*

His sleep was anything but restful and that might be why the day passes, to Dan, in a sequence of disjointed snapshots, all the connecting moments fading out of focus.

*

He's insisting they stop for food – no, really, insisting. They've put nothing in their stomachs since the endless cups of coffee Archie'd provided during the trek to Karnak and that doesn't even have nutritional value aside from the sugar and cream. They're going to fall over before Adrian's 'appointment' ever rolls around at this rate.

It's arguable whether that would be a good or bad thing.

Rorschach grumbles, hands fisted in his pockets, and mutters something indistinct concerning waffles and chemical contaminants in orange juice and his sincere desire for more coffee and really, he doesn't look any more rested than Dan feels, but he knows this from their years as partners: Rorschach doesn't sleep well in unfamiliar territory.

So. Waffles and coffee.

And that's how they came to be sitting at this grubby diner counter, all yellow-orange Formica and yellow-orange vinyl, pitted linoleum floor, guttered and stained yellow sign outside the window - just a sequence of squares, scrabble-style, a no-frills declaration of purpose. Some things never change no matter how happily braindead people get, and breakfast dives seem to be one of them.

Rorschach has pocketed his gloves, is idly tracing patterns in spilt water on the counter with one fingertip, and when his plate of waffles arrives with a extra flagon of syrup and a knowing smile, there's a tiny, fleeting moment where his mouth falls slightly open and there's something horrifically childlike on his face – then it's gone, and it's just food, just nutrition, just a meal to be gotten through so the body can fight another day.

Dan smiles to himself – forks his bacon over onto Rorschach's plate without a word, and eats.

*

"I should get my costume," Dan muses aloud from their watching-post, which is actually just the shadow of a spreading chestnut on the corner across from the Grand Central terminal. He had argued in favor of something more secluded, more secretive, but Rorschach had made the very valid point that their quarry is not exactly going to notice or care that it's being watched, and it's getting disturbingly easy to view these people as slightly clever, talking sheep – complete with opposable thumbs. "Take it back to the warehouse."

Across the street, two people nearly collide. Neither asks what the hell the other thought they were doing. Neither tells the other to watch where they're fucking going. They are obsequious; they are unbearably polite.

Rorschach shifts next to him, jotting something down on a scrap of paper. He's been missing his journal since Karnak and Dan's not sure what to make of that. "Safer where it is," he replies, narrowing his eyes at the subway exit; it's not the presence of anything that he's noticing, but its absence. The walls visible through the mouth of the stairwell are spotlessly clean.

Dan fingers the strap of his goggles, hanging loosely around his neck. "It's in an alley – a clean alley – covered in old newspapers. You really think no one's going to come along and say, 'oh, gee, don't know what it is, but it sure looks expensive...'"

There's something sharp and censuring in Rorschach's eyes when he turns them on Dan, pale in the bright sunlight. "Have done this before, Daniel."

Dan studies those eyes for perhaps a moment too long, searching for what feels like a key but he isn't even sure what lock he needs it for, and it's a strained metaphor to begin with. He nods.

*

The library is just about empty, and somehow, that's the most frightening thing Dan's seen since they arrived. Take away people's fire, that's bad enough. Their individuality, a crime. Their sense of purpose, their perception of life as something other than a mind-numbing sequence of days after days after days of chasing their own insecurities in rings around each other and trying desperately to keep up with some vaguely and arbitrarily defined standard – that's getting into really ugly territory, yes. But for goodness' sake, leave them their drive to learn.

Dan's footsteps echo sharply against the clay tile, follow the curve of stone arches and walls, disappear into the delicate woodwork above. It doesn't feel abandoned – everything is in pristine condition – more just that it exists between clock ticks, a delicate and frozen moment they've somehow elbowed their way into.

Rorschach is in the corner, threading film through a microfiche machine, the only record the library keeps of publications as old as what he's looking for. The Times may get bound into archival volumes, but the New Frontiersman isn't granted that level of respect. Dan traces his fingers over a familiar shallow groove in the surface of the next table down – remembers, all at once, that he'd composed the majority of an article here, working late into the night.

Nothing's changed – except for the emptiness. And the silence.

Rorschach makes an irritated sound that would probably be an oath if he were inclined to them. Changes out the film.

"What's wrong?" Dan asks, coming up behind him to lean in and look.

The film wheel turns, articles scanned through with barely a glance. "Gave them information to expose Veidt, before we left. One piece published, on November 16th."

Dan narrows his eyes, taking in the professional layout and composition of the pages shifting in front of them. The Frontiersman, from what he'd seen over Rorschach's shoulder over the years, was never this polished an operation. "This is..."

"Gazette. November 17th. No more Frontiersman after the 16th." He twists the wheel, expression blank, all his irritation and the beginnings of rage filtering out into his hands. Overshoots. Turns the wheel back. A grainy black and white photograph – fire trucks and police and a plume of water, arcing through the air.

"Local publishing office destroyed in fire..." Dan reads from the screen, and he gets the distinct, crawling feeling that there's more than just a business going up in smoke there, in that moment pressed onto the page.

Somewhere, there's the sound of a stack of books hitting the circulation desk, booming ominously in the stillness.

A fist hits the table, hard. Dan turns the machine off to save the bulb and takes off after Rorschach, who doesn't speak another word aloud for almost two hours.

*

Adrian's face is staring out of the news rack at them. He's aged ten years gracefully but he has still aged, and there's something in his smile that seems more fake than usual.

"Nothing new," and Rorschach is pressing the pages back, tracking down the block of text with one finger. "Nothing changes. Nothing new, ever."

And he's right – it's another pointlessly self-indulgent interview, could have been lifted from the '75 Nova Express; New York's golden boy, always game for a feel-good piece. There's just something about charity and vanity and the warm, squishy mess the two make when they roll themselves together.

Wordlessly fishing two singles from his pocket, Dan hands them to the newsvendor. "Are we rethinking his motives for..." he trails off, eyebrows jumping pointedly but not saying it aloud. Discretion and valor and everything in between.

Rorschach shakes his head, digging for that same stubby pencil to make a note in the article's margin. Dan makes a mental note to stop into a drugstore, pick up a pack of disposable pens. "Split motivations. One leads to this," and he snaps the magazine closed in one hand, rifling through his pocket with the other; produces the note from the day before. "One to this. Very different things."

Dan takes the letter, suddenly wanting to see it in daylight, without the bias of fading dusk and exhaustion. He's almost hoping it's fake, a trap, predictable – because if they can just be angry at Adrian, if they can just call him enemy and make plans accordingly, then it's familiar ground.

But the fear is still there, folded into the wavering graphite – and at this point, after last night and the day before and the days before that, Dan knows from fear. And regret. And desperation. And it's a terrifying idea, that someone like Adrian Veidt is elbow deep in all three of them.

*

It's going dark again by the time they get back to the warehouse, and tomorrow they will walk willingly into the steel trap-jaw that has the city in its grip and try to reason with it, and it's a grey sort of chill creeping over Dan when he sits down against the woodpile and makes some vague gesture to the man standing a dozen feet away. "Come here a minute?"

Rorschach freezes, hands halfway to his pockets – then nods, seemingly more to himself than to Dan. Paces over and settles awkwardly to the floor alongside him, sharp eyes questioning in the fading light.

There are no answers. They just sit, for a long time, and Dan's seeing snarl-toothed blonde demon-children behind his eyes, awash in purple silk – and he wants to tell Rorschach not to do anything stupid tomorrow. Wants to tell him that he won't be able to fix any of this without him, stranded in a strange future with all the world against him. Wants to say 'I need you,' and mean it, and not have to worry about how it's taken, but there are too many years between them now.

He settles instead for shifting an arm over his partner's shoulders, and warming himself with the fact that the wiry frame beside him doesn't flinch or buck off the contact, doesn't grumble or grouse – just leans slightly, and lets out a deep and weary sigh.

They should be resting. Tomorrow is not likely going to be anything they expect and they will need to be in their best form if they expect to survive another sundown. But Dan suspects that sleep is not a very welcoming country for either of them right now, so they sit, and they don't talk, and they count seconds in the dark, tracking this non-moment with precision and care – because it is these spaces in between the beats, soft-focus and strange, that often end up mattering the most.

*

Chapter Text

*

"No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices." - Edward R. Murrow

*

*

It's 11:31 AM, and they're catching a cab to Veidt's New York headquarters. The address is different than what either of them remembers, but his old office had been perilously close to his monster's ground zero, had likely been uninhabitable for far too long following the attack.

They've decided it would be a prudent idea to show up early.

*

It's 11:47 AM and Daniel is paying the taxi driver, who thanks him benevolently and excessively, as if simply paying the fare were in and of itself an act of kindness. The building has many stairs – an excessive nod to aesthetic, with the side effect of intimidating those entering with the sheer scale of the building, shoehorned into a corner seemingly too small to contain it. Neither of them intimidates easily. They climb.

*

11:51 AM, 11:52 AM, they are waiting outside the door to Veidt's personal office on the top floor, and the security guard sent to escort them up is actually watching them, actually observing – listlessly, but his eyes focus for a few seconds at a time, and that's an impressive trick in this brave new world. Rorschach files it away.

*

It's 11:54 AM when they look at each other, and Daniel takes a deeper breath than he really needs, and they walk through the open door. Veidt's waiting inside, standing up from his desk smoothly, groomed and coifed and perfect. His eyes are as hollow as any they've seen in the city.

*

"Dan," he says genially, no effort wasted on formality, or on masking the dull, robotic menace secreted under the smile. "It's been a long-"

Rorschach follows Daniel into the room, pulls the door shut behind him, barrel sliding home with a quiet click.

A vaguely curious lift of eyebrows. "...Rorschach. I'll be honest, I didn't expect you to come."

Rorschach only grunts in response, pacing past Veidt's desk and on to the windows beyond, practiced hands sweeping down curtain runners, trailing long and jagged paths through the dust collected on the sills. Haven't been opened in ages; it is March, but it seems like more than one season's worth of dust. The glass is starting to go blue-green with age around the edges. The drapes conceal no obvious weapons or traps.

"Letter asked for both of us," he finally replies, stepping out in a wide arc that puts him and Daniel directly opposite each other, geostationary around the man who would be center of the world. Force him to choose who to watch. Doesn't matter who he chooses if it puts him off guard.

But it doesn't seem to. Veidt smiles, and condescension drips from his tone. "But Rorschach – you were never one to follow instructions."

The clock on his desk shows 11:55.

Daniel is shifting, hands looking for something solid to put themselves around – obviously sensing how close this is, already, to slipping out of control. He clears his throat pointedly.

Rorschach doesn't move; just stares back at Veidt with a sharpness the other man has never seen without the dilution of black and white and latex.

A nod, and there is comprehension on Veidt's face, dulled around the edges like brushed metal but there. "Only when it suits your purposes, of course." He gestures towards the chairs in front of the desk, seats himself in his own, ignoring the tension as if it's suddenly beneath him - or simply forgetting it was ever there. "You'll have to forgive me, it's been quite a while longer for me than it has been for you. I've lost track of some of your eccentricities."

Daniel winces, probably expecting an escalation in response; when it doesn't come, he glances back at Rorschach questioningly. Takes one of the offered seats.

Rorschach doesn't, bristling visibly, pacing behind the chairs in a slow and measured way that, for all of his age and weariness, is an echo of some young and violent creature of the wilds, circling for first blood.

"We have a good deal to speak about," Veidt offers, tracking Rorschach with his roving gaze, fingers steepled on the blotter in front of him.

11:56, and Veidt glances down at the watch on his left wrist. He never used to wear one, before.

"You want our silence," Daniel says, blunt and undiplomatic and Rorschach huffs behind him, something that sounds like approval.

Veidt looks at his watch again; picks up a pen. Left hand, not right. Starts writing – no, not writing, drawing, on a scrap of paper. Tiny clock faces, and the page is already halfway full of them. "A silence which, as you recall, Dan – you already promised to me. Ten years ago or two days ago, but one would assume it would stand regardless. I'm not worried about your sense of discretion."

But he is worried about someone's. It hangs in the air, as always: Rorschach is the problem, is the threat, is the great dangling loose end. A decade gone and the record hasn't been changed, and it's almost heartening, because if Veidt thinks they're actually a threat-

Hrm.

Rorschach circles closer, within sight of the sheet. All the clocks point to midnight. That, he understands, and his fists clench involuntarily. "Fail to see how it matters," he spits, halting his pacing long enough to look Veidt in the eye, daring the obvious lie. "Citizens of your utopia. Blind and aimless. Wouldn't know the truth if it fell from the sky."

From the sky. Monsters and lies and mind-poison, drifting on the currents, and those windows are broad and high and they’re not open now but they could be, in an instant. Below, crowds are milling, aimless and unaware.

Veidt smiles, and it's empty and chilling. "The level of tranquility you refer to is not absolute; approximately half a percentage point of the population worldwide are... regressive. Still as people always have been. Petty, angry, looking for an excuse to be moved to violence. I can't let you give them that excuse."

His eyes barely move, but he's just checked his watch again. It's 11:58.

"What happens at noon?" Daniel asks; it seems like a non-sequitur, but he hasn't missed it either.

A look of nearly genuine confusion. "I don't know what you mean."

Rorschach takes a step toward the desk, glowering; another habit that doesn't work as well without his face, but he's had no time to learn new tricks. "Keep checking your watch. Expecting something."

"I've been doing no such thing, and for the sake of us reaching an amenable agreement that involves you both walking away with your lives, I'd ask you to keep your... bizarre paranoia in check."

Another glance down, almost before the words are out. The second hand shudders along.

"My god," Daniel says, something strange and understanding blooming across his face. He reaches into his pocket, digging around. "You don't even realize you're doing it, do you?"

"Dan, honestly, I expect this sort of behavior from Ro-"

The note is unfolded, flattened out, pushed across the desk; behind him, Rorschach stiffens. They'd agreed not to play this card too soon, and it still feels unbearably early as Dan looks up to meet Veidt's gaze, one finger anchoring the paper to the desk. "Adrian. Why did you write this?"

Seconds tick away; below, a light changes, and pedestrians cross with the signal. Taxis and delivery vans wait patiently, vibrating and humming behind the white line, and there are none of the usual near-misses. Clockwork.

Veidt shakes his head and again, the confusion is almost convincing. "I... don't know what to say. It does look like my handwriting, but I'm afraid I'm not in the habit of drawing up correspondence by hand. Unprofessional."

"It was in with your letter."

The sheet of clockfaces on the desk seem important somehow. Some missing piece of-

"I didn't write-"

11:59, and the watch on Veidt's wrist is shrieking.

Veidt is out of his chair, leaned across the desk, has Daniel lifted from his own seat by his shirt, hands fisted into the fabric – more quickly than should be possible, too quickly for Rorschach to move to intercept. His eyes are sharp and clear and filled with panic. He's no longer smiling.


Art by anonymous gifter

All of which is irrelevant, because he's broken their fragile, unspoken cease-fire, has taken physical action against them, is threatening Daniel. Rorschach's crossed the space and his hands are up and they're about to land, dislocate the shoulder or snap the collarbone or just stun him into letting go when Daniel puts his own hand up, palm out, frantically halting him.

Veidt is mumbling into the resultant silence, quietly, over and over again, eyes wide and full of animal terror: "Help me. Please."

Rorschach shakes in place, fury rattling its way out through clenched teeth and clenched fists, but Daniel is blocking him, warning him off, and he has to have a reason and he's talking to Veidt, so calmly and carefully as if he were a child: "How can we help you? What should we do?"

One hand uncurls from his shirt, is fumbling through a desk drawer. Rorschach stiffens, expecting a hidden weapon. Something tiny and glinting metallic in the overhead lights is palmed into Daniel's hand instead. "Take everything," Veidt insists, and if he has none of his old composure, he's at least regained the fire. "Don't look at the light. Whatever you do, don't look at the light."

Daniel nods, fist tightening around whatever it is he's been handed. "What light?" He gets no response; panic is starting to glaze into catatonia. "Adrian. What light?"

The watch starts emitting a low sequence of beeps, increasing in speed and pitch, like the rising and urgent scream of an air raid siren.

In the scuffle, the sheet of clockfaces has been brushed to the floor. Driven by impulse he doesn't fully understand, Rorschach crouches to pick it up, eyes not leaving Veidt and Daniel until he's standing again and risks a look at the page.

All the hands point to twelve. Midnight.

(Or noon.)

And as the clock on Veidt's desk gives a mechanical twitch, hands sliding fluidly together, and a gold-white glow starts to swell through the windows – he realizes his mistake.

("Don't look at the light.")

It's pure instinct that screws Rorschach's eyes shut – makes him release the sheet and lunge for Daniel, knocking him from Veidt's grip and dropping them both to the carpet.

And even as he's forced to bring his full weight to bear to try to keep his partner still because he's thrashing and bucking, hands clenched into hard fists – even as he gropes blindly for Daniel's face, palms pressing over his eyes when he finds them – he knows it's too late, because Daniel is screaming and screaming and the sound is dragging something sharp and horrible down along the inside of his ribcage, scraping him raw and bleeding, and everything that's left in there is all wrapped up in the man writhing under his hands and Daniel's eyes are covered now but he won't stop screaming and-

Someone, somewhere, flips a switch, because now it's quiet and still and his vision is black behind his eyelids again, not the red of light tunneling through skin and blood. He cracks his eyes open, cautiously. Finds conditions nominal.

When he lifts his hands away, Daniel's face is pale, fine muscle tremors rippling across his features, eyes unfocused and empty and roving.

"My goodness, I had no idea." Veidt's standing behind his desk still, an amused smirk dancing on his otherwise blank face. His eyebrows lift suggestively; his tone is all condescension and bemusement again, that strange, raw vulnerability evaporated. A minute to midnight, a minute to noon; it all makes a sick sort of sense. "Though I must insist that this is hardly the appropriate time or place."

Rorschach looks up and then down again; realizes that he's straddled across Daniel's midsection, hands still pressed to the sides of his face, and Daniel is obviously not well, is shaking and lost, had moments ago been thrashing and screaming in agony and he knows that only Veidt would make a filthy joke out of-

He also knows when he's being baited, cheaply and casually. Chooses not to take the hook, this time. More important matters: Daniel, information, and possibly manslaughter. He shifts back onto his feet, still crouched low, and hisses: "What did you do to him?"

(If you've hurt her-)

The words are different, the anger the same, but it's a functional, practical question, not loaded down with the childish implication of threats, and it earns him as honest an answer as he can expect from this smiling, bland puppet of a man

(You already got an answer from the frightened creature inside:

"Don't look at the light.")

when he narrows his eyes, leans over the desk to really look, and says, "I haven't done anything." There's something there like a mockery of concern, and he steps around the other side. "He really doesn't look well, though." A significant pause. "You should look after him."

Rorschach looks up, locks eyes with the man looming over them; business suit, shining cufflinks, not a hair out of place. A watch, now silent. At this range he can see the fine lines that the last decade has layered into Veidt's face, around the eyes and mouth; footprints of stress and worry, not of excessive laughter or smiling as Daniel has often insisted. A perfect caricature.

Rorschach knows how ugly he is. Knows Veidt has never seen him in person without his face until today. Had been expecting a taunt or a jibe; didn't care, but expected, given the man's superficiality and propensity for shallow insults.

He understands, right then, what's been so unsettling about the entire exchange. Veidt's been reading from a script, acting out a scene that's been on pause for a decade, with no sense of investment or the usual deep cunning. No expectation that it would go wrong, that it would not play out as it was supposed to.

He has no information to give, because he's telling the truth – he hasn't done anything. He isn't in control here.

"Will keep quiet for now," Rorschach lies, more easily than he ever has, because he knows that this gutted, pre-programmed ghost of what had once been the smartest man in the world will believe him.

Veidt nods in acceptance and steps behind his desk, busies himself with paperwork. The curtain's dropped. All that's left is for the actors to get off of the stage.

Rorschach hefts Daniel upright, limp and clearly delirious but his feet somehow remembering through the daze how to stand, step, walk - all of his weight on Rorschach's shoulders. Get them out, get them safe, figure out how to fix this. Because it is fixable; it has to be.

And because he is and always will be the programmed creature he is, Rorschach stops at the door, turns back to the room.

"Isn't over, Veidt."

A shuffling of papers. The clock reads 12:02. "Nothing ever is."

*

 

Chapter Text

*

"Killed three million people," Rorschach mutters, monotone rough under exertion. He hadn't trusted the elevators, had staggered them both down endless flights of stairs, half-tripping far too many times. It's remarkable that they weren't intercepted on the way out, that there'd been no surprise noose waiting to tighten. The guard from before, though – he'd maintained focus for longer this time, watching them cross the lobby. Easily thirty seconds. Not good. "Asking us for help. Doesn't deserve it. Miscarriage of justice that we didn't kill him where he stood."

A pause at the corner, considering his route. If they're being tailed, and they almost certainly are...

No matter. It's a long walk back and he can divert at any point. "Hmf. Regrettably, more valuable alive. Source of information and possible assistance," Rorschach muses, barely audible over the traffic. It's the loss of his journal triggering this, he's sure of it; he can't write any of it down, and so the facts have to be scrawled into the air, juggled and examined out loud. If it also distracts him from other realities, it's a necessary concession for the time being. "Dangerous ally to carry, but we have no delusions as to his nature. Won't trust him not to bite."

Daniel's head lolls loosely against his shoulder in a motion that feels almost like burrowing. "...s'nice..."

Across the intersection, the light changes; the pedestrian signal cycles, and Rorschach drags them both into the street. He ignores the interjection, because if he lets himself hear it, really absorb it and put his mind around the implications, there may end up being civilian losses before it's all over – and even like this, every nerve in his body shaking with rage and wired up to kill, he knows that indulging it would be counterproductive at best.

*

After a few turns, Rorschach stops and looks back, trying to pick their inevitable tail out of the crowd. Can swear he's seen some of these faces before, repeats of repeats of repeats, carbon-copied complacency. Contentment does that – rubs away the corners, makes everything soft and round and exactly the same, writes white across the ledger of history; and white on white is as good as nothing at all. Only in suffering do the years erode away the soft sediment and expose the sharpness underneath, all the jagged and blackened edges – the broken jigsaw pieces that will never, ever fit together.

Daniel leans in against him, the arm over his shoulder curling around to rest his hand limply across Rorschach's chest, and there's not even the suggestion of a gap between them. The proximity should be horrifying – would be, he thinks, if it weren't Daniel, and in such desperate straits. If there weren't more important things on his mind.

If it weren't- if. If it were-

(Still should be. You'd ignore it for his sake, but that creeping, twisting sickness shouldn't just be absent.)

The sidewalk used to be split here, he's certain of it; a drug dealer fell from the top floor of the building in 1976 and hit ground with enough force to pull a hairline crack out of cement, spidering out over the ensuing years. The fall was not accidental. The building is now an office park. Like every other building here, its windows are broad and clear and very, very open, the figures inside spinning like windup toys.

If.

A short noise, shifting the body pressed to his shoulder; Daniel's mold against him only gets closer for his efforts, but it's the exertion of bearing another's weight along and the merciless, beating midday sun that are conspiring to trap so much warmth under his coat. Nothing else.

"Heavy, Daniel," he mutters, resuming his steady and careful pace down the sidewalk.

*

"Small percentage of the population immune to control."

It's been twenty minutes. Rorschach thinks he knows who their follower is, now; it's hard to be certain in the crowd, but he hasn't seen anyone else here capable of enough focus or clarity to be trailing them like this. "Clearly not dependant on intelligence or will. What are their motivations, loyalties?"

Daniel mutters from next to him: "S'a nice day. Warm." He blinks a few times, and Rorschach can feel it, the lax face rolled in against his neck. "Nice."

(...'nice'.)

It's not 'nice'. It's too warm. Rorschach's now willing to entertain the notion that it isn't just effort and the unseasonal balminess of the day doing it. It's also fury, bubbling up under the skin, breaking for the surface. The last time he'd had to just about carry Daniel this way, the last time the other man's need for him had been this complete, there'd been red running in thick streams down the lines of his costume – a knife handle stuck in the shoulder seam of his armor, jarring painfully with every step. He'd almost lost too much blood; they almost hadn't made it back to the Nest, and there'd been a horrible, rib-constricting moment when Daniel had sunk to his knees and taken too long to get back up and all Rorschach could see through the swirling black and white was red red red and-

This is, somehow, worse.

*

Halfway back to the warehouse, and their tail is the guard from Veidt's building; Rorschach's sure of it now. "Being followed, Daniel."

He waits a moment, times it with the passing of a van through the intersection; then turns them both just inside the lip of an alley. "Can't lose him like this, not mobile enough." The body hanging boneless against him falls easily onto the ground, guided to sit against the brick wall between them and their pursuer. "Will have to figure this out here. Hopefully intent is surveillance and not cutting off of loose ends..."

Veidt had only been concerned with their silence, an old argument from a dead world, out of step with the years that have passed. But there's something here that wants them blind and compliant and stupid, too – that isn't content with assurances and well-meaning lies, wants to empty the truth out of their heads and everything else along with it. The job's only half done; is their tail an agent of whatever regime is behind all of this, come to finish it – or one of Veidt's regressives, infiltrating his office from some kind of underground resistance, following them with intent to recruit-

Rorschach shakes his head, self-deprecating without words. Fanciful notions. Most likely Veidt just wants to know where they've been sleeping, defenseless and open to attack. Hollowed out or not, he's still an intelligent puppet, obviously capable of plying at his own strings in small ways. Rorschach takes one step towards the mouth of the alley, to scout for the guard–

"...that's good," Daniel mumbles, head rolling onto his chest, the timing off – too long since the last thing spoken, too spacey to be a specific response.

–and that step never lands. Rorschach turns his head back to look at Daniel – to really look, finally, and see something other than a precious and broken possession or a piece of crime scene evidence – to face this, and not shrink from it, because Daniel deserves no denial, no immature self-coddling.

[They've been in the river for too long, waiting and waiting, and for once his temper isn't the only one running high; Daniel is shouting and waving his hands and saying words like 'lunatic' and it actually hurts – he didn't think anyone could wield that weapon against him anymore, much less draw blood – but it's honest and real and in that moment, he respects Daniel more than he respects the ghost of Nite Owl that he carries with him, tucked in the back of his brain for the very loneliest patrols and...]

[It's a rough fight and the thugs are stupid enough to assume he's the only real threat, ganging up on him until there are just too many limbs to block or duck under all of them and he drops under the pile – and they learn very quickly that he is not the only threat, because Nite Owl can be a thing of horrible and efficient fury when given the right motivation and...]

[The boy, Kevin, is finally coaxed free from Nite Owl's hand and the policeman swings him up onto his shoulders to walk him to the patrol car and in this moment he cannot hate the police as he usually does – in this matter, they are all on the same side – and Daniel is smiling and smiling and it is the only real smile he has ever seen, the only smile he has ever trusted in its intents and sincerity.]

Daniel makes a small, confused noise, casting around the alley with eyes that still refuse to focus, and Rorschach feels his resolve crack.

He crouches down; there is no garbage here, no piles of detritus, no fine-ground crust of old broken glass. Spotless, in a way that feels artificial and wrong. Life forced to view itself on perfection's terms. The other man won't meet his eyes, doesn't seem able to; Rorschach works his mouth open around something that won't come out. Manages Daniel's name, rough and questioning.

Daniel blinks. Somewhere above, there's the sound of a window sliding closed on its sill. "...hm?"

Another window; not slammed, simply closed. They're not speaking loudly enough to be classed as a disturbance. Maybe there's something in their programming about eavesdropping. "Do you know who I am?"

There's color back in his skin now at least, and the facial twitches have subsided; the smile's still there, listless and pale, but Daniel's eyes narrow. "Rorschach?" he asks, and it's confusion, or near enough. One hand comes up towards his face; Rorschach weaves to the side to avoid it, snapping up Daniel's arm by the wrist, holding his hand just out of reach. He's not being ungentle, but he's not letting go, either. "Where's... where's your mask? We can't patrol without... uh, without..."

Rorschach narrows his eyes, forces a breath. "Daniel. Where do you think we are?"

The alley wall is nondescript, lacking any graffiti or signage or garbage bins overflowing with telltale takeout cartons; studying it as closely as he's capable of clearly does Daniel no good, but at least he's trying. "...alley?"

"Alley where?" Rorschach asks, but Daniel's gaze has drifted up to where his hand is pinned in midair, distracted by the sight of it. Rorschach releases it; puts his hand square on Daniel's chin instead, gloved thumb and fingers digging roughly into the skin as he turns that face back to him. "Alley where?"

"Off 54th," Daniel spits out, almost instantly, like something rote memorized. "Near Madison."

(Hm. Doesn't wipe associations; doesn't wipe ability to navigate.)

Doesn't take away the base functional ability to live, the surface contentment of another day another day another day, each exactly as they should be. Just takes what's under the surface, the emotional response to the life being lived, the hatred and anger and the discontentment – the ability to smile and mean it. A tragedy where Daniel's concerned.

Daniel shifts restlessly in his grip; Rorschach holds on firmly. "Think we're patrolling?"

(The ability to put reality in context; to face what is instead of what you wish still was.)

"Of... of course, we're always patrolling. Helping people. Right... righting the wrongs?"

(To understand it when the world puts justice beyond your means to exact.)

Rorschach nods slightly, focus inward, releasing Daniel's chin; his eyes don't rove away this time. Another window slides shut. That one listened for a while. Curious.

"Wrongs," Daniel mutters lightly, as if getting the feel for a strange new word, slithering and alien over his tongue. "Shouldn't be any wrongs, what..."

"Always wrongs, Daniel," and there's something obsessive and venomous creeping into Rorschach's tone, tempered by exhaustion. Something glinting behind his eyes, as he recognizes the beginnings of cracks starting to form, fault lines snaking through the pristine cement. "Deception and lies if not murder and rape. Comedian. Manhattan cancer scare. Karnak. Veidt murdered half the city. Do you remember?"

Daniel licks his lips in concentration, smile starting to fade by degrees. "Kind of...? Like... like a dream, almost."

"Not a dream," Rorschach grates out, and somewhere out in the street, their tail has either radioed in their position for backup or has given up. Rorschach can't seem to care, no matter how recent and stinging the memory of captivity is; he can see the cracks spreading, and they hold his attention like nothing else can at this moment. "Sent here, to a city of lunatics. Chances of long-term survival very low. Veidt still scheming; exact nature of plot uncertain but-"

A harsh breath out, held for too long, explosive in the narrow space. When Daniel looks up again, he's blinking hard, as if coming up from underwater or out of a dense fog, clearing stinging mist from his eyes. "...Rorschach?"

Nothing to punctuate the silence this time, but it still feels like something with heft and meaning, solid as it stretches. Rorschach pushes himself up to his feet, silently offers a hand up.

"…welcome back," he mutters, dry as dust, before turning back to the mouth of the alley to determine their best way out of the trap he's gotten them stuck in.

*

"Only one other usable warehouse, don't want to waste it if not strictly necessary."

The man remains in the street outside, fifty yards away, neither retreating nor approaching closer; a study in dull robotic patience. They can't spend the night in an alley, can't stay awake indefinitely, and the guard knows it.

Dan nods, still working on coming back to himself but it's happening, bit by bit. Things like 'headaches' and 'bruised knees' have never felt so amazing. "He just wants to know where we're hiding out, right?"

A quiet grunt, Rorschach shifting silently on the balls of his feet. "Would seem so. Would have attacked by now if he meant to."

"Why don't we just… I don't know, grab a hotel or something?"

The gears are visibly turning when Rorschach turns to look back at him, a slow and deliberate motion, sharp edges of sunlight catching on all the angles of his face. "…will think that's where we've been."

"And go to report it," Dan finishes, scrunching his eyes shut against a sudden swell of fresh pain, a headache layered over the headache. He rubs thumbs into the sides of his head, hard; one hand still clenched into a fist. "Then we leave in the morning and never go back."

Rorschach turns to look back out at the street. "Simplistic. Assumes poor surveillance technique…"

In the crowd, the guard's eyes are wandering, following the track of a bird traversing one stretch of grassy front yard for another.

"…but probably best option, yes. What did he give you?"

Dan blinks at the conversational shift, still feeling a bit like he's forcing his thoughts through cold mud. Looks down at his hand – uncurls it painfully, because it's been locked stiff for almost an hour now, and every joint is protesting. Resting in his palm is a small silver key; 'VCB' engraved on its head, enclosed by a stylized padlock. He nudges it over with his thumbnail, finds '3482' on the other side.

"Safety deposit box," Rorschach observes, and his tone is unusual; drawn-out and thoughtful and almost pleased, it reminds Dan of long hours spent poring over newspaper clippings and disjointed clues, nights that bled into early mornings over coffee and endless sugar and the exhilaration of the hunt, lost and locked away now in the irretrievable past.

A large chunk of himself had just almost gone the same route.

The silver catches a stray beam of sunlight, glinting in the shadows like a beacon.

"Tomorrow," Dan insists, pocketing the key, continuing to rub broadening circles into his temples, wincing in the light filtering in from the street.

Rorschach nods. "Tomorrow."

*

The sun sets on today very quickly, hounded at the heels by too many realizations and too many unanswered questions and too much trauma – running with a self-indulgent cowardice neither has the luxury to give in to. But it sets the same on everyone, and that is a comfort.

*

"…thank you."

It's quiet, hesitant to break apart the darkness. It's barely there. It's asking to not have to explain itself.

From across the room, bedsprings creak uncomfortably. There's no response for a long while; Dan's almost drifted off when even quieter words settle around him. "…couldn't let you go off and buy a house and a dog, Daniel. Wouldn't suit you."

Dan smiles to himself, curled facing the door. It's so close to a joke – a real joke, not like that forced and cynical attempt with the bean juice that feels like a million years ago just at this moment – that he's almost questioning whether he heard it correctly.

"No more talking," the words continue, grumbling. "Sleep. Lot to do tomorrow."

And there is, so he does. And if he almost surfaces briefly, high in the dead of night, to the sound of breathing closer than it should be and something like the feel of fingertips tracing along the side of his face, and if he thinks he remembers the breath catching in some distant cousin to grief, well – it's probably just a dream.

*

Chapter Text

*

Dan blinks himself awake, a deep ache in the back of his skull complaining at not enough sleep or not restful enough sleep or some other intangible deficiency, but he's being stared at and that old survival itch in his brain won't let him ignore it.

Rorschach's no more that eight inches in front of him, eyes narrowed in rapt concentration, and he's not even really used to seeing him like this yet, without the mask, not enough familiarity to short-circuit the instinctual jump back and away -

- away from a threat, but no attack comes and context reasserts itself; Dan takes a breath, loosing his fingers from around the clumped handfuls of bed sheet. Closes his eyes again, lets out a long-suffering sigh. "The hell - Rorschach. What are you trying to do to me?"

The clock on the bedside table flips its digital display over to 6:17. It's six in the goddamned morning.

The consideration drags on for a second or two more; Rorschach stands fluidly, walking over to the television screen set into the wall. "Making sure," he says, as if that is self-explanatory enough. Picks up the plastic monstrosity of a remote control, all jujube colored buttons, puzzling at it for a few seconds before using it to switch on the screen - and immediately mute it. Flips through the numbers that have always been the local news outlets. "Most mind-control programming takes effect while unconscious."

Dan pushes back the blanket, runs fingers over sleep-dulled eyes. Laughs, but there's very little real humor in it. "Yes, because we've dealt with mind-control so extensively in the past."

No humor, because they've done no such thing, and this is as untested as waters ever get. There's no way around it: this could end very badly if they're not very, very careful, and maybe even if they are.

Channel 4, 7, 12, Rorschach even tries PBS over on 13 - nothing. Just early morning bread and circuses, the vacuous idiocy coming across clearly without any need for sound. "Have read books, Daniel," he clarifies, voice uninflected and giving nothing away. The television snaps off.

"Books." Dan blinks, and shifts to the edge of the bed, getting his feet under him. He's not trying to be sarcastic, but it probably comes out that way: "Are we talking psych journals here, or science fiction novels?"

Rorschach shoots him a withering glare that says 'neither', that says 'don't be stupid', then ducks to pick up his boots, work them on. One of his socks has a tremendous hole in the toe. "Were also talking in sleep. Suspicious."

Dan puts aside thoughts of sock-replacement, narrows his eyes. "Really? What was I saying?"

The stretch of nothing following the question could almost be called an embarrassed silence, if Dan didn't for damn sure know better. And he does. But there's definitely something in the way Rorschach turns abruptly to the window, pulling the blind back just enough to study something interesting in the street below for longer than is strictly necessary. "...nothing relevant to the investigation."

"If it made you think I was still under the influence of this thing, I'd say it's relevan-"

"Not relevant," Rorschach insists, pulling the blind back a touch further. "Just. Strange. Unusual enough to be suspicious, given the timing."

...that could be anything, anything at all, and Rorschach's definitely putting off a defensive concussion wave of 'don't ask again', bristling and knife-edged. Dan just nods, conceding defeat this time; pulls himself up, heads for the room's bathroom to shower. If it's important, he'll find out eventually. If it's just that he was...

Well. No point wandering down that mental path at this precise moment, anyway.

"Would avoid the water," comes the voice after him, subtly more gentle in a way that tugs painfully - and Dan regrets, sometimes, having learned to hear these fine distinctions. "Could be additional control vectors in supply. Contaminants."

Dan pauses, hand on the doorknob.

Contaminants. In the water. Adrian didn't say anything about water; just light, and Rorschach's been going on about the dangers of municipal water for as long as Dan's known him. And he's been wearing the same clothes for three days now and...

"Tell you what." The smile's genuine this time, voice going louder as the door clicks shut behind him. "I'll keep it short, and shout if the showerhead starts telling me to kill people."

There's a grumble of something like indignation from the room, something that sounds like 'not funny', and this time Dan lets it go because no, it really isn't.

*

Outside, the tail is gone, and there's no one else around with that telltale spark of awareness in their eyes to indicate overnight relief. Dan almost feels sorry for the hotel proprietor - knows a raid is a possibility within the next few days - but the light is about to change and there's something about its deep, deep redness that makes the brilliance of the sky start to swell up around him and drown out the details, make it hard to remember what he was just thinking about, blue-white and warm and...


Art by radishface

"Daniel," Rorschach hisses, a strong hand clamping down on his shoulder and shaking, hard. There’s a note of panic in it.

Dan shakes himself, just as hard, blinking against the hazy black spots dancing, foreign and hypnotic, at the edges of his vision. He claps one hand over his top pocket, then digs for the goggles; slips them on, fast, and starts flipping through the settings. "It's in the traffic lights," he mutters, disbelief coloring his voice, and at least one of these filters should be able to-

His fingers lift away from the goggles finally, hanging in the air for a moment as he examines the far lightpost under this configuration. Squints behind the lens glass. "Probably in the damn streetlights too, when they're on."

He senses more than sees Rorschach take a step towards him, further into his personal space than Rorschach himself ever allows, but so much of their friendship has been based around Dan ignoring all the double standards and hypocrisy. He does so now, as he probably always will.

"All right?" Rorschach asks, quiet and even, sounding ready to disbelieve any answer.

One more small adjustment, and Dan nods, looking down. "Yeah. Nightvision with the red filtered out seems to get rid of it."

"Hnnk," Rorschach grunts, shifting his hands in his pockets. Still close, still studying. "Light yesterday wasn't red."

Dan scans around, following the line of traffic to its destination as far as he can before the meandering caravan ducks out of view. There's a lot of traffic today - a lot more than there has been on other mornings. If it's a weekend - but no, it's too early for recreation. Morning rush. It's just barely past seven. "No, but white light has every other color of light in it. Easy enough to hide something in the red section of the spectrum. You're not getting anything from it?"

Rorschach turns to look long at the red signal, a delicate array of tiny individual bulbs arranged into a circle. Looks for what seems like too long, the seconds stretching; traffic flies by in a blur. Pedestrians wander around them, steps in perfect sync, clapping across the concrete; somewhere under it all, his watch ticks its way towards midday.

Midday, five hours away, and Dan thinks of the painful grey haze he's just starting to remember in broken, dreamlike pieces, of a desperate confusion of place and time and self - of a child's mouth drooling blood into the snow, smile vicious and mocking. The last one bothers him the most, beyond his ability to understand, and he's about to reach for Rorschach when he turns back on his own, head shaking in a negative.

"Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a light. Must need the initial programming to be susceptible to it." He pauses, eying Dan with something that hangs with the same weight as distrust but without any of its messy, sharp edges. Turns back to the street. The lights have already cycled against them, red to green to red again. "What was in it?"

"Hell if I know. It's not like I could see the data stream, if that's even what it was." Dan shuffles through a pocket, pulls out the silver-colored key. Glances down at it, at the way the sun catches on it like a shard of mirrorglass, sending Morse-coded signals out from nowhere’s jagged heart. "Just made me feel weird. Detached. Not really present, until you grabbed me.”

His wrist twitches; the light flashes through his goggles and a thought surfaces, a memory but also not a memory. "...and like I really, really wanted to stay exactly where I was."

Rorschach doesn't respond for so long that Dan feels those persistent beginnings of worry again, looking up from the key to his partner's face, seeking and finding and holding eye contact like it will somehow insulate them both from whatever is trying to work its fingers inside – an unknown enemy at untried gates. There are things they do not know that they need to: what it is, how subtle it is, how much control it can exert – and he can feel it back there now, like a faded wall of graffiti painted over six times, viewed through a late winter mist.

Obfuscated. Hard to read. But still there. What if-

(What if it tries to make you-)

"...red light," Rorschach finally offers, with the weight of long and careful thought. He gestures to the post. "Means stop."

(What if it tells you to-)

(What if you can't-)

(Stop.)

Dan blinks, shaking the thoughts off, and it takes him a second to catch up to the implication. Red means stop. Stop means stay exactly where you are. "...ah, hell. They're that far gone?"

"Would you have made it anywhere yesterday, alone?" Rorschach asks, and Dan has a sudden image of himself wandering into the path of a delivery van, smiling and smiling and then, very quickly, not smiling anymore. He winces, and Rorschach grunts lowly, turning away, the same vision etched plainly into the sound. "This is how they survive."

The light changes again, an ingrained symbol instructing them to go, to walk, Green Means Go, and there's a tug in his feet, nerves responding brainlessly as they do in a fight - before Dan catches it, reaches up and changes the filter to a different wavelength. He sighs in frustration, bleeding over into anger; next to him, Rorschach is silent.

Only after several seconds, when he's sure the decision is his own, do they step out into the crosswalk.

*

"VCB," Dan reads off of the key, squinting through the grey-green nightvision fog. Next to him, Rorschach is hunched over, pawing through a thick phone book, yellow pages rustling and tearing under unforgiving hands. The book is just sitting on the ledge of the payphone kiosk, not tied or corded down because, of course, no one would ever think of stealing it when they only think the thoughts they're told to by any one of thousands of humming lights.

An interesting idea, that - find out where all the instructions are coming from, and change them. 'Steal phone books', they'd say. 'Call in sick to work.' 'Do something you want to do.' He can see the carnage instantly, twisted wrecks in the roads, pedestrians run down, citizenry falling under the weight of their own learned helplessness, and anyway: if he lets Rorschach at it, he's sure 'storm Veidt's headquarters with torches and pitchforks' will be slipped in when Dan isn't looking.

You don't pull the life support without something ready at hand to replace it. That's how you end up with a bodycount.

A sharp sound, and this time it really is swearing, though far more esoteric and arcane than anything Dan's ever said or heard. Rorschach tears the entire page out of the book, leaving a gap in 'banks' that Dan very much doubts anyone will miss.

"What is it?" he asks, trailing after Rorschach in his double-time march back the way they came, wrong way up the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding one head-on pedestrian collision after another.

The sheet of thin yellow paper is shoved into his hands, and even rushing as he is to keep up, needing to keep one eye on the path in front of him for obstacles and hampered by his limited vision, the words on the page jump out: VEIDT CONSOLIDATED BANKING.

(All roads lead to...)

"Oh... oh. Oh shit. Rorschach-"

"Is this way," Rorschach says, voice gruff and uneven. "Main branch. Passed it yesterday."

"We can't just walk in there..."

Rorschach pulls up short. "You have the key?"

"Yeah, but..."

Rolling his shoulders under the unfamiliar coat, Rorschach turns and starts walking again, at a slightly more manageable pace. Dan steps into time beside him.

"Then of course we can. Customers."

*

It isn’t a bank so much as a vault built for showing off, the heavy brushed-metal turn-wheels set into each door decorated and embellished and no less intimidating for it, reflecting in the mirror-like marble of the lobby floor. He doubts the auxiliary locations are anywhere near as decadent as all of this – probably just the usual grey-blue scrubby carpet and grey-blue walls and plastic cups of free ballpoint pens that always seem to have been chewed on – but this is where the serious money is kept, the cash backing their most important investors, the funds they dare not trade away. And, apparently, safety deposit boxes taken out by the most influential names in the city.

Dan’s been in a lot of banks. Grew up around bankers, knows the ins and outs, has been in some of the most professional financial institutions in existence, if only as an observer. He is, therefore, completely shocked when the uniformed staff member takes one look at the key, enters the number into his computer, and goes off to retrieve the box without even so much as asking him for identification.

“Agreeable,” Rorschach muses from his shoulder, speculative.

Dan nods, peering at the computer, pitching his voice to a discreet near-whisper. “Not how it usually works, but it might be like the phone book. No one expects people to pull anything anymore.”

“Too trusting.”

Dan steps to the side, angling himself around to get a better view of the screen. “Well, they’re a lot of things. We start listing off labels and we’ll be here all day.” He pauses, taking in the details on the screen. “…it’s in my name.”

Distantly, a clock rings out the hour. Rorschach is silent for a moment, and Dan could swear he’s counting the chimes, hands pulled free from his pockets. They stop at ten – Rorschach gives a distant nod. “Veidt must have wanted to make sure you’d have no trouble.”

“Yeah, but again, why? What side is he playing on here?”

A quiet hrmph, and then the obvious: “Both of them.”

Dan reaches out as if to take hold of the mouse, to dig deeper; stops before contact is made, thinking better of it. He could do it easily enough – the interface looks just like the one in Adrian’s office – but better to not leave fingerprints around in suspicious locations. Better not to-

-it looks just like Adrian’s. And a decade has passed.

The television. The digital clock. The vehicles and transit system; the microfiche machine at the library. All identical to what Dan remembers existing the day they left for Antactica. Which means…

He glances down at his partner. “Kind of random, but have you noticed the way tech hasn’t really advanced like it should have in the last ten years?”

Rorschach looks right back, gaze flat and intense. “…traffic lights have changed a bit.”

It’s a good twenty seconds – and the staffer is re-emerging, a heavy metal lockbox and a second lighter, cardboard box in hand – before Dan realizes that that was actually a joke of some sort. And now there’s no time to react, but the smile comes regardless, covered up but leaking through into his voice.

“I just mean,” he whispers quickly through his hand, trying to get it out before the man is in hearing range, “That there’s been no innovation. Because innovation requires passion and ingenuity?”

“No innovation, no progress for humanity,” Rorschach finishes, picking up on the thread easily. “Finally. A sensical motivation for Veidt’s assisting us.”

Dan just nods; the boxes are being set in front of them and open speech is no longer safe. They watch as the man transfers items from the lockbox to the double-walled cardboard carrier, ‘VCB’ emblazoned on all sides: stacks of papers, binders, folders, brown-wrapped packages of odd sizes, and in between layers and layers of what look like legal documents, a beaten red leather notebook that makes Rorschach go instantly on guard, eyes refusing to leave the bin even after Dan picks it up and they start walking out. Their mirror-duplicates stalk them in the shining marble floor, meeting every step they take until they are out on the sidewalk, and gone.

Inside, the man watches them go with a dull empty smile, and with a dull empty smile, reaches under his desk to press a carefully hidden yellow button.

*

Adrian is sitting at his desk, expensive fountain pen dancing over the signature lines of documents that never seem to stop coming. It doesn’t bother him; it is a relaxing and somewhat zenlike activity, one that requires almost no mental investment and therefore frees his mind to wander. To play.

There’s a yellow light blinking on the console at the center of his desk. It’s distressing, and he isn’t sure why; a thought is rambling through his mind, with a trailing end-socket that would fit the blinking yellow light perfectly if only he could get them to connect. Every time he tries, it feels like something is stepping in and blocking him, swatting the thought away like an errant fly.

He wants them to connect, because then they will both go away and leave him to his mental playscape. He’s dragged out of it far more often than anyone else in this world and he accepts the necessity of that. He doesn’t have to like it.

With a burst of concentration that he has just enough clarity to be proud of, he grabs the thought by the tail, spins it round, and jams it face-first into his awareness of the light blinking, blinking, urgent and unhappy in front of him. The two join up, and like some ancient mechanical puzzlebox, some relic from Macedonia or Greece, all the interlocking pieces swing and slot together into a patterned framework that contains, within its unspeakable complexity, an instruction.

Without needing to think any further, he reaches out and presses a button, brilliantly yellow as well, inset deeply into the desk.

That done, he leans into his chair, returns to the signatures. That sound is back, echoing around in his head, in all the places that he suspects, at times, didn’t used to be so hollow – it sounds like someone shouting at him, howling in rage, and it’s making his left wrist itch and shiver like it usually does.

He rolls his wrist in his fingers, working over the nerves there, and ignores the sound until it fades, defeated and exasperated, back into the static.

*

Elsewhere, they are dumping the contents of the cardboard box onto their makeshift table – three boards pulled hurriedly over some cinderblocks, the warehouse walls creaking around them, climbing into the endless black of the ceiling rafters – and are trying to make sense of things that make no sense, all of humanity’s future wrapped up in brown paper and age-stained manila folders under their hands. They have no way of knowing that a countdown has started.

*

Chapter Text

*

The dust motes still swirl just as restlessly in the sharply angled light - it's almost noon, the route they took back here deliberately convoluted and time-consuming, and Daniel checks his watch constantly - but the dingy warehouse, so different in the daylight than the blurry grey-on-grey of early mornings and restless late evenings, feels like a place momentarily carved out of time. Shadows are short in this space, sounds muffled, emptiness complete. If there are birds nesting in the high rafters, they keep to themselves. Every detail is picked out with exacting clarity, in the same way that a photograph is so much sharper than any moving picture can ever be.

Spread out in front of them is every piece of information that's gone missing from Veidt's headquarters in the last ten years, every minor paper trail that they will need to follow if they want to unlock the larger pattern; a detailed account of a world gone mad, collated and organized and allowed to fall silently and discreetly between the cracks. Daniel is being organized, deliberate, squaring each folder and binder and stack of loose papers, laying them out by date. It makes sense; it's not an intuitive approach, but intuition only goes so far when even a glimpse of the picture being put together stays so maddeningly out of sight.

(You're slipping. There was a time - not that long ago - when you would already have a list of suspects in mind, written down, correlated, fact-checked. Schedules worked out. Investigation strategy devised.

And do you really need toys for that, pen and paper? Are you so useless at this without pages and pages to spill your brain out onto?)

The journal sits to one side, unclassified.

(No. It's just a different kind of case. Veidt at the wheel, inherently harder to crack. That's all.)

Rorschach ignores the rest of the paperscrap and picks up the leather-bound book, easing it off of the makeshift table with two fingers, cautious: half-expecting it to sink poisonous fangs into his hand or just crumble irreparably into dust. The material is worn soft around the edges and bears lightened patches on either cover where strange hands have clutched it too hard in all the wrong places; the paper is yellowing and ragged.

Daniel watches, quiet, hand frozen mid-motion on its way into the stack of unsorted files. "...that's yours, isn't it?"

"Was," Rorschach corrects, running fingers over the edge of the book, lingering where he knows a thumb has pressed back the cover for hours. He feels strangely calm at the revelation, at the way the pages buckle apart under the lightest pressure. "Appears to have been compromised."

It's ten minutes until noon. Daniel won't let them start digging in-depth until after the danger is passed, lest they bury themselves in it and lose track of time. Rorschach hesitates, thumbing a circle over the cover - then stands abruptly. Paces away, towards the window, slipping the book open and turning the rough, ink-sodden pages with the casual ease of familiarity.

He skips over earlier entries, unrelated to their current situation - finds the beginnings of the investigation that eventually led them to Veidt's snow-covered doorstep, and starts reading. Blake's murder. Jacobi's involvement, sidelined partway through. Actions, inactions, suspicions, theories, and he'd been so far off base in the end, but at least he'd seen the loose shape of the thing, hiding back behind the screen. No one else had even seen that it was there.

He gets to the November 1st entry, pressing his mouth into a hard line as his eyes stumble and slip over the fatalistic words. Three days and one flight across the Atlantic ago. It feels fresh, and it'd come very close to being appropriate. He's still not sure that it isn't. 'I think we will be gone soon,' he'd written, and they'd been gone faster than they thought possible, vanished and smoothed over in the space between two seconds. Gone in all the ways that mattered.

Then he turns the page - he's not even sure why - and freezes.

"Thirty seconds," Daniel warns from his position at the table, getting the last of the folders laid out - piling the odder shaped packages together on one end.

Seconds are meaningless. Time has dropped away.

There's writing. After the last entry. After the end.

Rorschach's fingers grip around the book, hard, sliding unknowingly into the dips and bruises in the leather, all the points of least resistance. His stomach spasms, twisting in on itself, a dark hand curling its way into his gut, ice and mud and wet, clinging soot.

Reading it was already one crime - unacceptable, but overlooked in the light of everything else that's transpired. This, though, this-

(This is-)

The writing leans gently to the left, like his own. He recognizes the hand.

"Fifteen sec-" the procedural warning cuts off, and returns with urgency. "Rorschach? What the hell are you doing, close your eyes."

It's Veidt's handwriting. It's the same as the letter. He should be reading it but he can't focus through the rage welling up, stirring like nausea, drawing something out of him that is young and frightened and violated and flaying it open in the light.

Somewhere nearby, he catches motion out of the corner of his eye, a crate-turned-chair toppling backward with no little force.

-It took me years to understand. Years to lose enough to be able to tell loss from sacrifice - what is given and what is taken.-

Daniel is yelling at him, gesturing at his watch.

-To understand why you were willing to die for the world's right to choose - choose to live or choose to die. To give because they choose, not because it is required or demanded or tricked away from them.-

The writing is in four distinct patches, the ink color different between each, the skew sharper with each successive passage, the line quality degrading as it goes. Sentences bridge the gaps seamlessly, as if the thread of thought had never been laid down.

-Now everything has been taken, and there is no one left to care that a difference ever existed.-

The last section is barely legible, shaken apart by anxiety and dread and something deeper and darker than both of them.

-We were both wrong and not wrong, and now the world is far worse than wrong and I do not believe it will ever be right again. Humanity did need to be saved from itself, but that is not what I was doing.-

Somewhere, there's a ticking, and there's a voice.

(His watch. Daniel's watch. Noon.)

-If you hold this in your hands again, then they will be coming for you. I will not be able to prevent it. Time forgive us, who cleaved the knot without knowing it held our future aloft, over a pit far blacker than any we had imagined.-

The journal shakes in his hands. Daniel's eyes are open as he shouts, crossing the space between them with frantic, echoing steps, and there are seconds left - and the anger bleeds out and Rorschach knows.

He claps the book shut, hard. The sound echoes like a gunshot.

The world goes white.

*

On the top floor of the Veidt Corporation's headquarters, a telephone settles softly back into its cradle, the frenzied conversation of the last sixty seconds cut off without a word. The man holding the handset has no idea how it got into his hand, or what he'd been saying, or why his security chief had been repeating over and over that the retrieval order cannot be countermanded, no, really, not even by him. Adrian Veidt doesn't remember making a telephone call at all, and he settles back into his chair and allows himself the luxury of a moment's flitting concern; these blackouts are coming more often lately, and he feels like he should know what that means, but the information dances, taunting, just out of reach.

On the other end of the line, the security officer shrugs, and hangs up the phone, and dials the standing orders into the rank and file – the conversation already all but forgotten.

Sixty seconds of freedom aren't always enough.

*

Dan opens his eyes, after he's sure the light's faded. Two feet away, his partner's are closed.

"Oh," he says, and it comes out like a sigh, like relief. Dan pushes the goggles up onto his forehead; he'd kept his eyes closed under them for probably longer than he needed to; had been honestly a little terrified to open them, but he hadn't heard a sound out of Rorschach and he vaguely remembered screaming until his throat had gone raw and useless when he'd been hit and he needs to make sure but it looks like... "You weren't– I thought it was going to get to you."

"Did," Rorschach mutters, terse as always, and Dan suddenly has something cold and slithering where his blood should be. Relief boils off in an instant.

(No. No, can't be. He's aware, he's talking, he's-)

He's – Christ, he's having trouble opening his eyes. Every time he tries, it's only to blink rapidly, an arrhythmic, seizure-like flutter that seems to shake through his entire face. "Just. Not all of me," he appends, as if that in any way makes this less precarious.

A step, and Dan's mostly thinking about their first night here and double standards and how he doesn't have any more goddamned patience for them. "Let me see," he says, bracing Rorschach's face between his palms – it's not an illusion, he really is shaking – peeling an eyelid back with one thumb. Underneath, Rorschach looks dazed, and it reminds Dan of the Underboss hitting them with those flash bombs back in '66 that left Rorschach blind for three days, hazy for a week after that. It had been a very, very bad three days: He hadn't seen under the mask, but he could tell by the way it moved that there was something unseeing and afraid behind it. He's seeing that again now.

"What happened?" Dan asks, and it's all he can do to keep the panic out of his voice, shifting his hands to check the other eye. He doesn't say: You knew perfectly well that it was coming. Or: You knew how to prevent this. Or even: What the hell were you thinking? That, oh – that will come later.

Rorschach shakes his head sharply, moves to swat Dan's hands away – barely makes contact. The spastic blinking is starting to slow and settle, but focus isn't coming back underneath it. "Let some of it through."

(...let...)

The hands stop moving, locked in place.

(Let. On purpose. He – oh god, he did it on purpose.)

It's no dramatic shocked freezeframe; shock implies feeling nothing, and in the seconds that follow, Dan feels plenty. Fear. Panic. Mostly anger, if he's honest, and right now he sees no reason not to be. "...why would you... Rorschach," he snaps, as his friend's attention starts to drift and god, he remembers that. "What were you think-"

"Had to find out." He's digging absently in his pocket, with none of the urgency his words imply. "They're coming. Now. Put the evidence back in the box."

Dan doesn't move, still trying to get a handle on the extent of damage that's just been done, arms dropping to his sides – weighing the tired, empty voice and tired, empty eyes against every feather he's ever held in his hand.

"Evidence, Daniel," Rorschach insists, still searching his coat, and yesterday it would have been sharp and commanding and would have left Dan no room for argument. As it is, it sounds like he's struggling just to remember what he's saying from second to second. "In box."

Yesterday, it had been sharp and commanding. It had pulled him out of the fugue with jerking and relentless barbs, hooked him deep and pulled all the buried things back out into the light. He should be able to do the same thing,

(If you don't run out of time first)

but there's a weight to Rorschach's words, hanging hard in the air, and even in the face of this gradual dissolution, Dan needs to believe: that there is a reason. That there is a plan. That Rorschach didn't just throw himself away on a whim.

He thinks, jarringly, of snow; of children gnawing bones in a moonlight fractured by fire; of a scream that will not come.

Somewhere up above, there's a rustling, and dirty grey feathers fall, fall – hit the floor. Make no sound.

The scale tips. Dan's back at the table in a heartbeat, fight instincts overriding: deal with the immediate danger now, sort the rest out later. "Who's 'they'?" he asks, sweeping his carefully organized piles into the cardboard bin, taking only enough care to keep the folders closed and contained. "And how do you know?"

Rorschach lifts a hand to his face, wavering over his eyes. He hasn't moved. "Them. Whoever... they. Are. Nrrg. Privy to instructions, not psychic."

Sarcasm. That's good. Sarcasm's good, even if it's coming out flat. "How do you know?" Dan repeats. Keep him talking, keep him focused in his thoughts if not in his vision...

God, his eyes. They're not looking at anything.

Dan gathers the odd packages and drops them in on top, grabbing the bin up by its handles. When he turns, Rorschach is opening the journal still in his hands, tearing an entire page free. He's directly in the sun from the window and particulate dances around him, renders his face indistinct, expression vague and watery. "Flash contained instructions," he says, and the pauses are getting longer, harder to recover from, fight leaving him. "Mobilization of forces. They've known we were here the whole time."

Somewhere distant, Dan can hear the sound of helicopter rotors churning up the sky.

The pencil stub scratches over the page, poking a hole where Rorschach presses too hard. "Red," he says cryptically, "Means stop."

Stop. Stop means stay, means stay put, means sit still and wait for them to come to you, means sit still and don't fight. Red means stop...

(...and he hasn't moved...)

"...and green means go." Dan stands, bin in hand, watching him struggle with the paper. There's a building hum in his ears and the long bones of his legs. He isn't sure if he's hearing it or feeling it, riding up through the floor like the early warnings of an earthquake. "That's what you saw, isn't it? The 'go' order."

The hum intensifies. There are no earthquakes on the eastern seaboard; he's pretty sure of that.

Dan shifts the bin to one hand to reach for his goggles, pull them down. The page is pressed into his hand, and the journal disappears into Rorschach's coat. There's an address, scratched across the yellowed paper in a scrawl that visibly deteriorates from top to bottom. "Not yet," Rorschach says, and there's a renewed strength in his tone. He's still not looking at anything. "After dark. When you're not being followed."

It's somewhere on the waterfront, on the distant edge of the same warehouse district they're currently in. It's the sixth and last location. Rorschach knows how to get there, can navigate them there easily enough even in this state. So why write it d-

The bin suddenly feels heavier, the chopper noise closer, and Dan asks even though he's afraid of the answer: "Why are you giving me this?"

Rorschach is quiet for so long that Dan's starting to think that's it, he's lost it, slipped under, gone – and he knows they needs to be moving, can feel the need to go singing along every nerve, but he's not budging until he gets an answer and if it's an answer he doesn't like, well –

"Going about this the wrong way." Rorschach's voice is soft, with a tenuous thread of control wavering through it. Apologetic, almost, and that's the last resurfaced emotion Dan wants to hear right now. "We run, hide, like rats infesting Veidt's basement. Will keep finding us. Need to find them. Confrontation is inevitable, eventually."

"Eventu– it's only been three days."

Three days since Karnak. Since Rorschach made this decision the first time, took on this resigned and regretful tone the first time,

("That's always been the difference between us," he said, and was that an insult or...?)

and Dan should have known that he was kidding himself, acting like this was some kind of miraculous reprieve that somehow changed everything. That they could investigate and prowl the streets and take on the world, back to back, like they used to – ignore all the falling to pieces they've both spent the last eight years doing and pretend to be whole again, for just a little while.

"Three days, three-hundred days," Rorschach says, and he's getting audibly more spacey. "No difference." A pause and then, significantly: "Daniel."

The noise is getting louder, from above and below. Dan turns the paper over in his hand, recognizes Adrian's writing on the back. His voice is quiet. "How did you snap me out of this, Rorschach? Tell me, right now, before you can't anymore."

"No time."

"We can make time, this is-"

A gloved hand closes over his, folding it around the sheet of paper. It doesn't even occur to Dan to be surprised at the contact, to be touched. Nothing's making it through except the fear. "Can't fight like this. Doubt you can stop them alone. Occupy them, you might be able to get out."

Get out. Live to fight another day. Carry on – and keep what they've fought for, folded away in all of those binders and wrappings, safe. It's a tactical decision, and it smells like the beginnings of a plan, something complicated and underhanded and inaccessible, but Dan still shakes his head like he's trying to rattle something free from inside, some bad idea that clings with tenacious fingers. He's close to just throwing tactics to the winds, grabbing Rorschach by his coat collar, dragging him out of here himself if he has to. "No. No way in hell are you going to just walk into this."

"Reconnaissance," and it doesn't sound like even Rorschach's sure he believes it. "Will find out who is behind it. Location. Methods. Bring information back-"

"You know what they'll to do to you."

The reality sits between them, heavier than the words or the downy grey feathers or the weight of any silence: Dan mumbling useless nonsense in an alley, eyes that seize and shudder and refuse to open. Green means go, red means stop, and what does 'surrender' mean, white and waving, in this brave new world?

What is Adrian's writing doing in Rorschach's journal?

"Maybe," Rorschach mumbles, eyelids starting to flutter again, voice barely there. "One flash per day. Will have at least 24 hours to escape before-"

Dan bites his lip, exhales explosively. Frustrated. "Do you really think you could escape from anywhere, like this?"

A second passes. The helicopters are almost here, now.

The page he chose to rip out – was that accidental, or is there a point behind it?

"They're going to hit you with that thing until you don't even know who you are anymore." There are no histrionics here; just a cold recitation of the facts as they understand them. "Until you don't know who I am, until you don't remember why you care."

And there is no worse nightmare; well-adjusted façade aside, Dan's had plenty to compare it to. He's long since learned how not to wake up screaming. He doubts it will help him much, this time. "How can I..." he starts to ask, trailing off because Rorschach has gone very quiet and very, very still – and it isn't even a real question to begin with.

(How can I do this alone?)

Wandering a strange city, with a Veidt Consolidated Banking bin full of documents so secret there isn't even a classification that would suit them, half-programmed and ducking lights and trying to – literally, now, not some ego-stroking exaggeration – save the world. By himself.

(You've worked alone before. But, but! You never felt alone, knowing that out there in the city was someone who would steal your food to say 'I miss you' and break your locks to say 'I worry' and come out of nowhere with a hand on your shoulder and sharp words about retribution to say 'I'm sorry, I know it hurts' and then vanish again but never gone, never gone.)

'Gone' is such a horrible word, rounded and blunt and permanent, and hasn't it been waiting in the wings since Rorschach walked out that doorway into the swirling white, self-destruction inevitable and assumed – and there is a 'gone' in 'foregone', too.

Around them, the dust dances. The windows start to rattle in their frames.

Dan opens his mouth – closes it again. The open warehouse floor is suddenly flooded in pulsing, furious red light; his filters block out the worst of it, but what does get through at the trailing edges of the spectrum is still conventionally bright enough to stun and blind him. There's the sound of glass breaking, then raining down onto concrete in sharp, jagged pieces. There might be the sound of booted feet hitting the ground. He isn't sure. Hands are on him long before the new footfalls reach where he is, and he's still blinking sparks out of his eyes when they shove him, hard, towards the side exit.

There are three men coming in the side door, struggling eyes tell him. Heavily armored, armed with clubs and stunguns, helmeted and thick with bulk if not actual muscle. The first two hit the ground before Dan has a chance to let reality catch up, the first man's club coming around to knock the third across the base of his skull, just under the headgear, and that's apparently all the force they felt a side exit deserved because he is suddenly still and alone and clutching a length of carbon-coated steel and

remembering that he isn't the only target in the room and

the box is on the floor next to him and he's turning and

Rorschach is just standing there, hands up in a pale imitation of threat, as a much larger group closes in around him. They haven't noticed him here, in the dark of overhanging crates, the shadow of the doorframe. Their focus is as single-minded as their instructions.

Rorschach doesn't specifically look to Dan – he's turning in a slow circle towards each operative in turn, and somewhere in that sweep there is an intersection. For that moment, his eyes clear and he mouths something voicelessly, well under the puppets' threshold for observation, and Dan curses himself for never learning to read lips properly but he doesn't really need to – he knows it's 'go' or 'run' or some other open-voweled monosyllabic imperative. Not 'run for your life', not 'run and save yourself', because Rorschach hasn't been that sentimental in

("...Occupy them, you might be able to get out," and was the emphasis his, or did you add it after the fact?)

– well, in years at least. No, it's 'run, because I have a plan.' Because he always has a plan. Always. That's what's so brilliant about... what used to be so brilliant about –

Used to be. Before he – arguably – lost a good chunk of his mind.

It could be a terrible plan; he's capable of them. It could be no plan at all. Worse, there are plenty of perfectly good, tactically sound strategies that involve suicide runs.

There are twenty of them, weapons drawn, a knot gradually tightening. They're wary, moving carefully, some deeply coded if-case triggering in their programming at Rorschach's unexpected quiescence: be ready for tricks, be ready for displays of shocking and instant brutality, be ready for anything. They're focused on Rorschach and they're on edge and they're not intuitive fighters –

-but there are still twenty of them and Rorschach is in no state to fight, has no will to fight despite his wavering fists, and it's enough to make him dizzy and sick straight down to his gut when they reach to grab at his partner's arms, pull them behind his back, and Rorschach does not fight

And Dan cannot take them all himself. He knows this with the same intuitive certainty that tells him when to hit, when to duck; that tells him when the tide has turned and victory is out of reach. When to run.

It could be a terrible plan. Leaving him to it could be fatal.

The sheet of paper in his hand stares up, words daring him to accept their truth. –Some knots cannot be cut,- they say, the last stuttering, broken line on the page. –They must be unraveled.-

He hears the ratcheting clank of handcuffs snapping into place, and he knows that it's over. Another pair of cuffs dangles from the leader's belt, expectantly.

Dan thinks of the people wandering helplessly outside, of Adrian's desperation, of the dark and unbearable void that he cannot pull Rorschach from if he's down there himself, swimming in the nothing. He knows that hell; as much as he wants to run screaming at these puppet creatures, cut through them with hands and feet and a mind that knows that hell, he can see the reality as clearly as any snapshot: he will drop two of them, maybe three, before he catches a truncheon in the back or knee or kidney and falls, and the last thing he'll see on Rorschach's face before they're both dragged away is a horrible and accusing emptiness.

It could be a terrible plan. But it's all they seem to have, and Dan searches around for the part of his brain he's ignored since that humid early fall night in '75, the bit that went the way of the burning dress shop, and the parents' faith in a fair and loving world, and the man behind Rorschach's mask – digs, and finds that old, familiar trust. Does what Rorschach is asking of him, before he can reconsider. Picks up the box, ducks out into the street.

He runs and he runs and he keeps his head down, away from the lights that he can't spare a hand to adjust his filters against, and he doesn't think he'll be able to maintain his resolve if he sees them leading Rorschach out, bound and subdued and undone in surrender, so he does not look back.

*

Somehow, somewhere between the sting of the box's handles cutting into his hands and the building ache of muscles no longer used to such maintained exertion and the nauseating salt-stink of self accusations, Dan manages to convince himself that he isn't being followed – because if he is, then this is all for nothing, and there is no thought less bearable.

*

When he was young – and wasn't everyone young once, all naiveté and good intentions and the pervasive idea that everything works out for the best, that the good guys win, that the good guys exist – he came up from the Jersey side with his family for a visit to the city. The only thing he remembers is the library, and the way he'd tried to climb onto the back of one of the great guardian lions flanking the stairway. His father had pulled him down, thinking it was just a child's foolish need to clamber onto everything that will hold their weight, but in truth, he'd been sure – absolutely certain – that there was a fierceness snaking around under the stone, something of the jungle hiding away behind the cold white eyes, and he'd wanted to touch that wilderness, feel it humming under his hands.

Now, they are simply grotesque, their ferocious birthright locked up inside the marble, a mockery of life. Their eyes are unbearably empty.

It is hours until nightfall; hours before he can safely return to the warehouse district, to the address that may be a rendezvous point or may end up as just another last stand. The crowds part around him and pay him no mind, but he is suspicious to anyone who is instructed to look, incapable under these circumstances of subtlety, and he has to get off the street.

So he ignores the statues, and he does not understand why something like memory catches in his throat as he climbs the stairs, taking sanctuary in the one place in the city he's ever felt truly safe.

*

Back and back, deep into the maze of stacks, Dan collapses against a wall of books, the box clattering to the tile beside him. He is breathing hard, the smell of old leather and paper riding every gasp, and his hand refuses to uncurl around what is now little more than a scrap, crushed beyond recognition. It's the world history section he's collapsed in, each volume naming a nation, a culture, a place that human beings, whatever is left of them, call home.

Albania. Argentina. Australia. Gold lettering on worn spines. There are stories here, of the sort that are no longer being written. There are listless and aimless children who should be playing in Zimbabwe dust, should be dancing through Tokyo's cherry blossoms or dunking each other in New York's public pools, and there are artists and musicians and writers who aren't, and he draws his knees up to his chest and tries very hard to really feel the magnitude of this, of an entire world under lock and he may have the only key and the key may break off in the lock and what then-

The bin sits next to him, and it looks like office leavings, the remains of some fired employee's cleaned-out desk, but it could be the most important trashbin in the world. Or it could not matter at all.

He looks down at the page in his hand, smoothes it out; tries to read it, but he sees words like 'sacrifice', words like 'willing to die', and he wants to scream but he has to stay hidden here, stay unnoticed. There will be people searching, and losing his composure now, leading them right to him in a moment of emotion-fueled carelessness, would be the greatest betrayal he could manage.

(Yes, even worse than-)

He bites hard into his fist, and closes his eyes, and waits for the windows to thread curling strands of dusk sunlight around him.

*

Chapter Text

*

It doesn't take him long. He's in a library, for god's sake – and if there's one thing Dan always brought to their partnership that it would otherwise have been void of, it was the patience to paw through books, references, newspapers – to run searches, to dig, the all tedious and unexciting work that still needed doing. Without research, hunches are just hunches and the man on the corner barstool will tell you he shot Kennedy himself if he loses enough fingers.

So he sits in a pool of afternoon light, the heels of his boots scraping across the clay tiled floor, and he lets it sink in: he's still free for a reason. He has a job to do; a binfull of legal and scientific documents and financial sheets to dig through, to cross-reference with the resources he's surrounded by, while Rorschach looks to the practical concerns of where and who and how to find them and-

And Dan isn't actually self-deluding enough to believe that for a second, but if he just keeps repeating it, reminding himself that long games can be won and that that is what this is, really – his brain might start working properly again.

He reaches for one of the oddly bulky packages, wrapped in what looks like butcher's paper but which feels, under nerves still shot up on flight, far too fine and smooth and grainless. Vellum, maybe, but he doubts vegetarian Adrian would use something like that as packing paper. Inside, there is a hinged eyeglasses case, shining brown leather and unfamiliar.

The note inside, nestled under the bridge of a perfectly brand-new pair of glasses, just says:

'Took the liberty of looking up your prescription. Hope you don't mind.'

The goggles feel heavy around his neck. Dan swears under his breath, shoving the case back into the bin. Moves on.

*

The papers are spread out in front of him in a broad fan, each overlapping the next in a way that he hopes will encourage connections, ideas. Excellent researcher he may be, he's realized that he still needs the hunch to start with, and without Rorschach here, it's down to him.

This isn't something he usually does – even when they worked together, he never... he pats his pockets down, searching, but he doesn't have a pen. Does he need a pen? Rorschach always used a pen, a red one, and –

Dan shakes his head sharply as if to clear it. Leans over the papers, scanning through them. He focuses in on the nearest document; runs a finger under the title line, then down the page, until a name jumps out: Paul Warren. The name leads the tracing fingertip nearly across the entire fan, landing on a newspaper clipping detailing the man's run for public office in 1988. More shuffling turns up the minutes of a meeting in the early part of '89, between Adrian and the heads of his scientific think-tank, and this man, now Senator Warren, had been present, and asking some very interesting questions.

The connections seem to be begging for ink, for circles and arrows and margin notes too cramped to read, his fingertips itching over the paper. He pushes down the urge; he will find his own way. Leaves of paper shuffle and fold together, stack and fan, corners folded and split and torn. Out of the disorder, a picture begins to emerge.

*

By the time the light is slanting in through the nearby windows too obliquely to land on his workspace, orange and violet and useless, he's pieced together something that feels like a timeline.

Adrian's utopia held its own for a surprisingly long time – a year and a half, and yes, he's being cynical, but there's little call for anything else in the face of the facts – before starting to break down in the summer of 1987. Upswing in violent crimes, nearly back to their old levels. Unrest; civil disobedience. Rumors of conspiracy, because Rorschach's friends in the publishing industry had managed to get one entry out before mysteriously burning down in the early, shifting grey hours before dawn.

Paper ash is so much finer than wood ash, and it clings. He can only imagine what sunrise had looked like that day, clotted over in a swirling grey-white mist – and suspicion and distrust hang on in human minds in a way that love and adoration never quite manage to.

Politics shifted as they always do, with an election year drawing up – charges of 'soft on communism' shifted to 'soft on crime', and Paul Warren rode to victory in his Senate race over the bodies of thousands of accused felons, their cases accelerated through the courts until even the jurors were unsure just which case they were trying at any given moment. The ACLU had been in an uproar. The voters disagreed.

And then he met with Adrian – many times, many meetings.

("We were supposed to make the world a better place...")

And Adrian brought his scientists. The scientists brought their spoils. The covercloth came off, with a flourish.

("That's what I'm doing.")

The goal was to treat violent offenders only – to relieve stress on the prisons by rehabilitating those dangerous human animals in the only way they seemed able to respond to. Take away that which made them such lost and violent souls –

(Red means stop, green means go.)

–hollow them out. There was talk of human rights violations. It was ignored. Dan feels something unpleasantly like understanding, like seeing how the story ends in the second before the page is turned, settling heavily into his stomach.

The program went into effect, with little to no protest, in late 1989. There, the paper trail abruptly stops; like a picture with a chunk cut away, the absence is obvious for the way it covers up something that really ought to be there. He reaches for the box, digging through the discarded folders, hoping he's just missed something. All the binders hang open and empty.

This is where the hunches come in; the wild conjecture, scattershot and random. This is the part he's terrible at. He settles his chin over folded hands.

Limited use in '89, criminals with past histories of violent crimes only. Six years later, 99.5% of the population is enslaved to a system so intricate, so painstakingly choreographed, that even through his horror, Dan can't help but admire the clicking and whirring clockwork brilliance of it. It could not have been an accident, and it doesn't feel like an organic evolution.

So how did they get here from there?

There's a piece missing, and he knows it, and that itch isn't just in his fingers anymore; it's in his brain and in his sinuses, scratching at the backs of his eyes. It feels like intuition, but stranger and more sharp-edged, more insistent, like the clawing twitch of obsession. He keeps looking back at that first report and the name on it, and wondering what about it set him off in the first place.

Senator Warren. It sounds familiar. He has no idea why it should.

Twenty minutes later, halfway to the microfiche machine, he remembers. Turns back, changes out the film in his hand for a different one entirely.

Paul Warren – no, not Paul. His son, James. James Warren, seven years old. Killed during the police riots, though not actually in any of the riots, not by hands wielding signs or broken bottles or improvised firebombs. Killed in the park by a man who lured him from his sitter's side, and if there'd been police patrolling that day...

The film threads into the holder, shoved into its clamp by hands shaking ever so subtley.

 

Warren had claimed, in his campaign bid in '88 – there's ad copy in the pile of paperwork, and like everything else, he knows now that it's there for a reason – that his boy had been killed by a recently freed convict, a man who should never have been released without considerably more rehabilitation. He promised to not let another parent know the hell that he had, having to identify his own child's body, having to put that body in the ground.

But the police report under the machine's magnifier is clear on this: The killer, arrested within a week, was not a repeat offender – he had no record whatsoever aside from the odd traffic violation. As far as the legal system was concerned, he was invisible before the attack; a law-abiding citizen no more distinctive under the blind gaze of justice than the sitter or the trash collector who found the body or the boy himself.

The promise rings strangely. No other parent-

If killers can be anyone, can be everyone, if the potential for such evil exists in every heart, then every heart must be carved out, and weighed, and the darkness cut away. Burned clean. Every single one.

Dan leans back in the chair, letting his eyes go middle-distance and unfocused. The image on the reader's screen – a school photograph of the boy, all brightly striped shirt and shining hair, blotted and stripped of its life by the black ink and grainy grey paper, a meaningless freezeframe with no context – blurs and shifts and becomes something else entirely.

Children don't die, anymore. They aren't killed in parks, blood staining the leaf litter; they aren't sold into prostitution between dank tenement walls. They aren't butchered and fed to creatures too dull and mindless to understand the gravity of what they do, leaving behind a trail of human wreckage too long see the ultimate end of, disappearing over the horizon. People are no longer capable of that level of sickness. Of viciousness. Of violence.

Violence...

The image comes back unbidden: A man who never surrendered, who never gave up or went quietly, surrounded by the enemy like he'd been so many times before – unable to raise a hand in his own defense.

Better, or worse?

And the thing is – the real problem with this picture – he knows that Rorschach's coat is brown, that his hair is red and wiry, that his eyes blaze like blue-hot stars. But when he turns back to the memory, those last few minutes in the warehouse, trying to parse it for some meaning or implication he might have missed, all he sees is grey and grey and clotted ink in the shadows, the details muddied out of existence, all the sharp immediacy pared away. They've rendered his dreams into black and white, and he can remember fingertips on his face but not their rough warmth, and he can't help but wonder what else they've taken from him.

He presses his eyes closed, rubbing them with fingers and thumb, trying to banish the techpan impression of endless words and graphs and flow-charts from behind his eyes, burned in like an old, old television screen.

*

When the sun goes down, finally, he has everything he came in with stacked neatly in the box. He's hung magazines over the sides, covering the bank logos, and has loaded the haul down with every newspaper, periodical, and research rag that seems even vaguely related to the problem at hand.

There are a lot of psychology journals, in that box. A lot of biotechnical magazines and medical volumes on neurology and brain science. He hopes they won't be necessary; that he won't be sitting with them long into the night, flashlight held flat against the pages, following one faulty lead after another into the dark – trying to fix the unfixable.

He slips out as the first streetlights start to flicker on, and the light is white and intense and coming from everywhere at once, slipping intangible fingers into his mind to twitch and tug along the puppetstrings – and it's all he can do to get the goggles switched to infrared-only before he starts glazing over underneath them.

*

(Still no one back there. Good.)

It takes him three hours to reach the warehouse, distracted by all this business of glancing over his shoulder every three steps without being obvious about it. The unfamiliar address is unmarked on the peeling plaster-coated outer walls – all of the wood and paint and the rust curling up in broad strips, aching in the salt-drenched air. He took a circuitous route to get here. He's not underestimating them this time.

There's an old payphone – it still reads 'New York Telephone Company' across its placard, outdated in '85, even more outdated now – just outside the building, housing rusted, cables black with age and disuse. But it has a dial tone when he picks it up.

He takes the phonebook. It isn't tied down.

*

It's only when he pulls the creaking door shut behind him and looks around the empty space, infrared readings making it clearer than it needs to be just exactly how alone he is and painting the surroundings in a cold black fog, that the warm brainbuzz of a puzzle halfway put together and a long day of fruitful research done with drops away, and the reality sinks in: this is it, now, today, tonight, from here on out. It's only him. There will be no shoulder to look over or clap a hand onto or just lean against in the dark, propping his resolve up as surely as his tired, out-of-shape body, no quiet breath across the room to keep the silence from settling over him completely. No hand shining a flashlight square into his goddamned eyes, panic bubbling up around the practical motivations. No–

It isn't a game. He hadn't thought it was one – every breath in the last thirty-six hours has drawn itself with the quaking reverence of the last second before the hammer drops – and he's done well enough alone for years. But he hasn't generally been facing odds this overwhelming, and there are games that are also not games, that are tactics, that are their own kind of war. He lost his knight today, his brilliantly unpredictable vanguard of destruction, and he has no idea what he is but he feels heavy and old and slow and he just hopes to god that he isn't the pawn he thinks he is, or this is all as good as over.

It might be already. The outdated medical journals peek out from under the phonebook: Breakthroughs in sub-cognitive learning. Neurology and the modern age. A study on the permanence of nonphysical brain damage.

He thinks about the waffle house, and in his memory: the sign is grey, the counter is grey, the sleeve of the waitress's dress, across his view for a moment as she sets the extra syrup down in front of Rorschach, is grey. All is grey.

He drops the box, shuffles it under a pair of sawhorses draped with a tarp. Pulls a sheet of paper from his pocket; every address he could find amongst the documentation that was in any way associated with the criminal rehabilitation program that had evolved into... this. Many will be defunct. Some may not be.

It's a long list. He needs to hit them all tonight and narrow it down some so that tomorrow's efforts during business hours will be efficient; he won't have time to waste then and he doesn't have time to waste now, not on sleeping or brooding or carrying on dialogues with his useless monochrome memories.

Adjusting his goggles, Dan scans the rafters for even the tiny blossoming red-hot glow of pigeons – there's nothing, this time – and leaves the echoing silence to its own devices.

*

It's been a fruitless night. Dan sits inside the warehouse door, digging knuckles into his tearducts until his vision blisters into a bright geometry – fighting down frustration.

("Will have at least 24 hours to escape before-")

Every address – every single one – is now under new management, office parks and storefronts and loft apartments, unrelated to the biomedical and technological corporations that had sat in their places six years before. It's possible that any number of them are fronts, but there's no pattern, no way to cut away half or more of the list, and he's running out of time.

("Do you really think you could escape from anywhere, like this?")

It's six in the morning, dawn light curling through the cracks around the doorframe. This building has no windows, and only two ways in or out, and is conveniently close to the waterfront, an old dock weaving its rickety and snaggletoothed path into the harbor. He has a feeling Rorschach identified this one last because it's the most tactical space he's ever seen, laid out as if its only purpose is to be an efficient and safe hideaway; easily held, easily defended. A secret to guard closely, until there is no other choice.

And damn it, if he'd just brought them here to start with-

No. A useless line of thought, for all that it ignites a thread of anger, a long and delicate fuse coiled around the frustration and fear. The situation is what it is, and he can only allow himself these few minutes to regather his wits and revise his plan; there's no time whatsoever for idle speculation. He digs for a pen and the sheet of addresses.

None of the buildings seemed secure or well-surveilled enough to serve as a prison, to hold someone like Rorschach against his will, dazed and rendered docile or not. It would be easy to write it off as they had the phonebooks and the safety deposit box, that this world is not used to coexisting with people that resourceful and deadly determined much less imprisoning them, but Rorschach would have shown up here and he hasn't, and Adrian's half-a-percent is nagging. The library's latest census report gave the city's population at seven million give or take, which implies a good 35,000 people immune; where are they, and how welcome could they possibly be on these streets? How long could they evade capture in a city full of puppets, waiting happily for their next set of instructions?

Where are they being held, without trial, without anyone on the outside to worry or care?

Not at a new Gunga franchise, he's fairly sure of that, and not at an upscale antique shop. He scans down the annotated list, frowning at how loose and poorly formed his handwriting's become all of a sudden; prescribed apathy, whether it rides on the surface or is scuttled somewhere deeper, leaks out in the strangest ways. He crosses off about five that he's sure of and together or alone, what's left on the list could never house that volume of people.

There's a technical journal open across from him, facedown and dated back to early 1990, reporting on the rehabilitation program now going into use in every prison in the country. Most of Europe is looking at picking it up as well, and a good portion of Asia. 'Now', 'is', all anachronisms, but the language is less important than the content, technology stepping in where society has failed.

One flash, it says. One complete, uninterrupted exposure to the reshaping tech, and the key really does break off at its turning, because that's when the state becomes permanent. Not the background programming or a daze that pressing the right memory buttons will dissipate, but a locked-in restructuring of brain patterns into something passive and agreeable and manageable.

Permanent. It's possible that it was unfamiliar technology back then, untested and not well understood, but the word is twisting and ugly and he hasn't read any further, hasn't tried to unearth any further details. He will if he has to, later, but fear is a good motivator, keeps the senses sharp and the mind alive and if he believes it – really believes in the worst possible outcome –

His eyes drift to the journal's cover again; stick and stutter over the word 'prisoner'.

And he suddenly feels more stupid than he ever has in his life.

Of course. Where else would they incarcerate thousands of uncontrollable, unpredictable, potentially violent citizens, away from prying eyes and ears pressed to walls? The country's jails and prisons have no conventional use in this world, but they have bars and high fences and small grey rooms that seditious voices can't escape from, and it makes perfect sense.

Doesn't necessarily mean that that is where they've taken Rorschach; a captive they want to program would have no place in the holding pens for the unprogrammable. The list is still his best lead for now, but he'll have to remember that for later; they'll need all the allies they can get. He flips through the phone book, starts tracking down the remaining businesses on the list, digging for phone numbers to go with the names. Maybe he can save some time by screening out some obvious false leads without leaving the area-

Allies.

His fingers hesitate over the yellow pages; turn back to the white,

(God. Stupid.)

running down the list of J's. If (when) he manages to find Rorschach, if they figure out what's behind this and how to counteract it – and oh, but that's a traitorous idea, because that means it can be counteracted and right now he needs that useful terror, that end-of-the-world feeling of dread as noon draws closer – then they can track down old friends and allies and give them their minds back and build a strength of numbers that stands just the slightest chance at success –

But Hollis is dead, Blake is dead, Adrian is at worst their enemy and at best utterly useless, lost in his catatonic dreamscape where everything turned out exactly as he planned, and there is no L. Juspeczyk listed in all of New York City.

Dan leans his head back against the door.

Because she's gone with Jon. Not because she's in Iowa or Florida or California or even just upstate a ways, living a blissful life as one of Adrian's utopia-friendly wind-up dolls. His sense of loss is already cresting high and ugly against the cliffs, threatening to overwhelm him – and Laurie is with Jon, is safe, because his mind can't afford to process anything else.

(In denial, Daniel), the voice in his head accuses, and it doesn't sound like his own.

Probably right.

Either way, there will be no allies in this save who they can free from Riker's Island and the smaller municipal holding cells, and that's assuming his theory on that bears out – is assuming he manages to get Rorschach back whole. No allies and no friends and he's halfway gone to the damn thing himself, aware of his strings and able to jerk back on them when he feels them fingered from somewhere high above, but still strung up, still vulnerable, and there's no one else left. And the world is spinning and spinning and going about its business and it's almost enough to make him give up right here; is enough to make him laugh, dark and broken, into his hands.

No matter what happens today, he has a choice. They have a choice. They can walk away.

Or they can keep fighting.

He doubts it will make the slightest difference to the world at large either way; there was something self-satisfied in the set of Jon's blank face in the seconds before his hand came down, before time split open around them. He thinks, inexplicably, of a dog he had when he was young, and how he would chase even if you didn't actually throw the ball, and how much sadistic glee his cousin had taken in sending the dog off to hunt down shadows and invisible things in the tall grass behind his house. The dog was a well-programmed object-retrieving machine, predictable and determined, easy to send off on a fool's errand; he would have run straight into oncoming traffic if he thought that was where the ball had gone.

Not many forces are actually unstoppable, but there are plenty of immovable objects, and the mess is never any fun to clean up, no matter what metaphor is being spun.

It would be easy to give up, easy to justify it; he knows, in a moment of shattering lucidity, that they cannot win this. That it's too big; that it will break them both, blood and bone, and reshape the dissociative tragedy of their struggle, almost comedic for its futility, into something that cannot recognize itself. Because really, without adversity, without suffering-

What on earth do you call a story that isn't a story?

It's 6:17, and there are five hours and 43 minutes until this is over, one way or another; until he knows whether he is fighting the impossible odds of one-against-the-world or the equally impossible odds of two-against-the-world, and whether that makes a difference in the choices he's making right now.

Rorschach would never have given up.

(But he did.)

And it may not make a difference. They may be doomed to failure, to eventually be dragged down into the tearing and toothy gears of the machine with everyone else, but if he ever thought he could transcend what he is – one man – and save the entire world just by dressing up in a costume and running around at night like a madman, that idea had been crushed into the asphalt like so much shattered bottleglass a very, very long time ago.

(Not just in the warehouse, either. He was ready to die out there in the snow, and do you remember the pattern the blood would have made, burning in with its heat? He would have called it beautiful once the cold blackened it, and meant it, and he doesn't say things like that.)

He supposes the question is an old one: die free, or live a life that is lie and prison and denial all prettied up with complacency?

(And maybe it was for his ideals and maybe he saw no choices besides compromise and oblivion but he still gave up. Quit.)

Because if they try to save this world they will likely die in the effort, and he's almost – not quite, but almost – ready to say that yes, that really would be better than the alternative.

(He took off the mask first, and what the hell did that mean? Such a deliberate, obvious gesture, lost on the swirling white wasteland but it had to have meant something, with the way the storm had held its breath and he'd almost heard something snap in the wind, like a willow switch pulled taut and let go, as the latex sliced through the air and hit the ground.)

They cannot live quietly in this time, this place. Cannot run off to some cabin somewhere, even if the thought has occurred to him; cannot bury their heads and live off the grid and ignore the state of things as if fingers plugged in ears make it all go away – as if either of them has ever been that childish. Even before Karnak, before the jailbreak, before Rorschach broke-and-entered his way back into Dan's kitchen and his life and into that familiar wriggling place under his skin, he could never have accepted a crime on this scale: humanity not just tricked, not just culled, but stripped of its essential nature and purpose, lobotomized, destroyed more utterly than any science-fiction monster could have dreamed.

(There is a face, angled in the doorway, dropping and glancing back in a tiny motion that is both a goodbye and an apology and something that is trying hard not to be disappointment.)

("That's always been the difference between us.")

(And, as if from a dream: "If you'd cared from the start-")

So they will fight, and it will probably undo them, touch them with a shocking and beautiful violence. Dan will do whatever he can to prevent it – fatalism will never take him that fully – but he knows: Jon's mercy will be as wasted as Antarctic snowflakes in the spring heat, boiling away as soon as they hit ground, because this place cannot bear their existence any more than they can bear its.

(...and what did he pull out from under the swirling fabric, from that place that was supposed to be empty? What is he now? What is the name of power for a man who isn't a man, for a mask without a face?)

(He hasn't been the same.)

Dan should be terrified. For some reason, he isn't.

(Neither have you.)

It's 6:23, and time is still moving onward; He carries the book outside and starts making calls.

*

By the time ten o'clock rolls around, he's out of leads and getting desperate and straw-grasping, and none of the locations he's checked seem to have anything going on behind closed doors that isn't a part of their regular operations. No false walls, no secret basements, and really – did he think it would be that easy? Six years past, and he thinks they haven't done so much as rent out a new building somewhere, just one?

But that's getting into needle and haystack territory, and this sheet of paper is all he has – where his leads start and end, and they've ended, leaving him blinking through the goggles at an obscenely bright March morning, standing on a streetcorner in a neighborhood he's only ever been to at night, and even so - it'd be unrecognizable now.

Waiting for the light to change.

The prisons, then. It's the only idea he has left.

Somewhere, he knows, Rorschach is unconscious or raging or plotting – or sitting in mild complacency, but he can't picture that very well so he stops trying – tied to a chair or strapped to a table or free to prowl the length and breadth of a cold cell like some wild animal waiting to be broken and tamed. He imagines a plan unfurling, a carefully choreographed series of feints and misdirections; imagines an unexpected moment of opportunity, taken advantage of. Imagines that Rorschach will be waiting for him at the warehouse when he gets back, impatient and shuddering apart from exhaustion but wanting to move, to fight, to strike while they still can-

He knows it for the lie it is, but he still holds onto the image with a grip so white-knuckled as to be frightening, setting off down the street.

*

Dan's not sure what he expected to find here, on the outskirts of a high security prison's perimeter – the yards are empty, the watch towers unmanned. The building looks to have been maintained even if the fencing has not, and there are guards by the entrances in the same gear as those who'd exploded through shattering industrial glass yesterday, who'd taken-

That's encouraging. The very heavy rifles they're holding are not.

Dan takes a breath, wishes he'd thought to retrieve his armor, hardened as it is against a lot of standard ammunition types – he'd still be knocked flat on his ass, but it wouldn't be fatal – and walks straight towards them.

*

"Agreeable," he mutters, stalking back towards the street, echoing other encounters. When they're not laboring under immediate instructions, the people in this world are goddamned agreeable. Civil. Helpful. Even when it makes no sense whatsoever for them to be so, leaving a creeping chill to wrap around the back of his neck.

And it's useless, because Rorschach isn't here. This is not that kind of holding facility, they have told him. It's likely that these walls do hold some subset of those elusive regressives, and that may be important later, but 'later' is starting to peel off into the distance, narrowing to a point, swallowed by something dark and raw.

Because it's 11:20 now, and he is out of places to look, and Rorschach is just about out of time.

*

"Rorschach?"

Dan's standing in the doorway of the warehouse, casting around the large inner room. He has no reason to expect a response; the dust is undisturbed, the bin under the tarp where he left it. He switches the goggles to infrared, because he could be unconscious, or unwilling to respond aloud for whatever reason, or-

Or more likely, just not here, but it's minutes to noon and this is the only hope he's holding out on, the only option he has left, and he's been running and running and is out of breath, gasping for air, banking on this slim possibility because as long as it isn't noon yet there's a chance-

(As long as you don't see the blood-)

The lenses whir and rotate into place, electronics tripping over, and there are no life-red shapes huddled in the darkness, here or through any of the walls – anywhere nearby.

Nothing.

Dan swears, sharp and loud, and he's still standing in the doorway, fingers going numb around the knob on his goggles. He's not sure he can feel the threshold under his feet. His watch is ticking.

Outside, the payphone rings. The noise cuts through like glass grit rubbed into a wound.

His watch reads 11:59 and thirteen seconds. He steps back out, dazed, and picks up the phone. He's hoping to hear a growling monotone, reminding him – with just the faintest edge of humor – to cover his own eyes, this time.

He's expecting to hear Adrian.

"Hello?" he says, voice rough with something unidentifiable.
"I'm so sorry, Dan," the handset speaks, and expectation wins out over hope, and Dan can feel the floor really dropping away now, leaving him to hang in space for a moment before plummeting, fast and hard. He slips to the pavement, just barely leaned against the phone kiosk's support post.


Art by simshocking

"Where is he?" he asks, unsure if he'll even be able to register the response, vision sparking, sounds drowning out in the sudden rush of blood behind his ears, thundering in time with the dancing black. (Weak,) he thinks, and he isn't sure whose voice it is.

The ghost on the line gives him an address, and Dan nods against the telephone, plastic digging into his cheek.

He glances at his watch, wills his vision to clear. Five seconds to noon.

"I'm sorry," the voice says again, and the line goes silent, and Dan lets the handset fall, swinging on its cord like a thing dead and limp. He buries his face in his palms, fingers clawing, just before the glow rises up around the skyline, through the water, through the air, into every crack and every hidden pocket of shadow-

His eyes are closed and covered, and he is safe, this time. But that is not enough.

*

Chapter Text

*

Dan goes to the address. He does not bother to disguise his route this time; they obviously already know where he is or the phone call would never have come, would not have split the air with such theatrically precise timing. He should be thinking about that, should be forming contingencies, but they haven’t stormed the fort yet and the deepest his mind is willing to go on the issue is 'they're biding their time.'

Because they want him to see this.

On the street, the lunch crowd is mechanically and methodically slotting its way back into routine. He's been thinking of them as sheep, as obstacles, as annoyances to get around and past as they gape brainlessly at the electronic overlords glaring down at them – because there are too many, and like a newspaper story about a catastrophic plane crash or an earthquake, read with coffee and frowned over indistinctly and moved on from, statistics are cold for a reason. The human brain can't wrap around anything else.

It could also be a blatant trap he's walking into, here. Like the awareness of his hideaway location’s breach and the greater futility of fighting this, any of this, that fact isn't connecting.

None of these blank faces are familiar. He doesn't know what was lighting them before, what expressions have been smoothed flat, what drives and passions have been yanked out by the roots. He can't see what's missing.

(You will.)

He would stop and watch them – acknowledge their tragedy, really feel it deep in his bones for the first time since they've arrived, because he owes them that much – but he can't seem to still his racing feet or his racing mind or the instincts telling him to run and run and hurry, cover distance, make time. They haven't realized yet that there is no need to hurry, that haste will accomplish nothing; that it is already too late.

*

It's an office building, not the most modern or high-tech or by any means the tallest in the immediate vicinity; unremarkable, and with an unfamiliar logo that Dan's sure must be on the outermost edges of the Veidt corporate umbrella, if only he'd had time to look. On the top floor – and he's not even entirely sure how he got there, or how he knew where to go, and it could be something insidious but he's hoping it's just this daze he's in – he expects to find Adrian, gloating and boastful; or rising from another massive desk, dark and luxurious, confused by his appearance and trying valiantly to conjure a convincing smile.

Instead, a sterile upper-management style office, and a stranger: a man on the far side of middle-aged, thinning hair forming a light crown around his bowed head, thin hands bulging with veins where they shuffle and organize paperwork. He reaches for a stapler, and doesn't look up. "Mr. Dreiberg," he offers, squaring the stack, fastening the corner, and his tone is all annoyed boredom. "Come to pick up your pet?"

(...Pet.)

(You unbelievable b-)

And Dan's about to send this all tumbling down, shoot the situation straight to hell – his fists are clenched, and they should be stretching leather that isn't there, and he suddenly understands the violent, uncontrollable bursts of anger Rorschach's always been prone to when someone manages to hit just the right buttons – when the little man, all done up in a dour black suit that an undertaker would be proud of, nods to the dim corner across the room.

There are shadows pooling, away from the windows, and there's a chair, straight-backed and functional, and Dan shoves his goggles up onto his forehead and crosses the room without even feeling the floor on his feet because if he'd thought Rorschach had been blank and inhuman and frightening after the prison break, in that space between the only half-required rescue and the moment the mask slipped back on inside of Archie's quiet humming solitude and under tons of crushing water – he'd really had no idea how deep the fall could go.

"Responded atypically," the man spools out, still audibly overwhelmed by the tedium of all of this, and the packet of papers lands somewhere vaguely near Dan's feet with a rustling thump. "Still nicely docile, but he didn't seem to have much of a happy place to retreat to."

And there aren't even any quotation marks there, as if the idiotic phrase has just passed into common parlance, but Dan isn't hearing, isn't absorbing any of it – is taking Rorschach by the shoulders, ducking to try to catch his gaze. There's nothing there to catch. He drops into a crouch, eyes pressing closed for a moment – slips his hands down to rest on the seat of the chair, and they curl there, into the pinstripes.

"Rorschach?" he asks, quietly, but 'Rorschach' is vengeance and fury and justice, is violence, is all the darkness a man can have crusted on his heart without being completely subsumed, and he knows already that there is nothing and no one called Rorschach inside of this shell. He doubts there's a Walter Kovacs in there, either, the name still shaped strangely where it sits on the tip of his brain. He lets out a shuddery breath, like steam escaping through a thousand rent seams and burst fittings, rattling the pipes.

(What is the name of power for-)

But there must be some old and deeply trained-in response to the sound of that word, that name, and Rorschach lifts his head fractionally – looks in Dan's direction, unfocused, with something on his face that is not familiarity with any of its warmth or recognition with any of its surprise, but some kind of dim consciousness of the figure in front of him as a non-threat, as something that does not need to be flinched away from or avoided, and that is apparently enough for him.

The man is talking again, something about how they have no plans to come after Dan himself, that they don't expect him to be any further trouble and that he should take this as a lesson, but Dan is zoning him out, stomping down on any awareness he has of the slithering grey weasel of a human being before the physical ache to pummel him into something unrecognizable becomes a need, something that burns in his veins like obsession. He flattens his hands over the fabric, palms against either thigh, and holds the staring, empty eyes for as long as he can, almost expecting this to happen like it does in movies and books – eye-to-eye and intent and he'll be the one person that can break through the haze and elicit a tiny spark of something, back there behind the slate-grey blue, struggling to break free –

(No, idiot, it's never the friend or the partner that manages that, has to be someone deeper, it's always someone they lov-)

But that's a pretty useless proposition, right there. And there's nothing – just a bottomless stare that doesn't end at fifty yards or a hundred. Goes on and on.

"Can you walk?" He asks, quietly, pushing down on a lurching swell of nausea.

A nod – just one, efficient and precise, and the shell is pulling itself to its feet, leaving Dan to roll back onto his own. He doesn't even notice himself grabbing the stack of papers, shoving them under one arm, some tactical instinct acting on a level lower and more automatic than the dull shock that's otherwise rising up, roaring, around his ears – and though he seems to need no support, seems physically functional, Dan still presses one hand between Rorschach's shoulderblades, maneuvering him towards the door. He can't really believe they're just being let go like this – it's almost anticlimactic, after the SWAT-style invasion yesterday and all the running around and the covert secrecy of it all – but every shuffling, apathetic step Rorschach takes, feet scraping the carpet in apparent unconcern for how much noise he's making, drives home the reality: The worst has already happened.

In a voice that isn't his, cynical and taunting: (Can only go downhill from here.)

"It will be better, eventually," the manager says, and there is something like sympathy there, drowned in layers of damp cheesecloth. "When you get careless or your watch breaks, or you just get tired of fighting it, and you get hit too. Then you'll be the same again. It's better that way."

Dan can't feel the expression on its face, but he knows it must be something terrible, something furious and afraid and lit with violence as yet undone – but then the man glances up from his desk for the first time, actually looking him square-on with eyes just a bit too sharp, and Dan gets the creeping, eerie sensation of looking at a house with lit windows in the middle of a power outage.

"How would you know?" Dan finally asks, voice cold and knowing.

There's confusion, then, and a quick and quiet shuttering-away, and fear – as if he hadn't expected Dan to pick up on that, to divine his secret through all of the carefully practiced dry detachment. It's satisfying, the look of panic glittering momentarily in otherwise dull eyes, and it's the only vengeance Dan can afford to take, here in the great churning and devouring belly of the beast.

He lets the threat hang, implicit, and turns to guide Rorschach out the door – down the elevator, onto the street, carefully shutting down every part of his brain that isn't involved in navigation or in tracking the warmth pressed against one splayed hand, putting himself on autopilot for the duration. Can't think, can't try to process. Not yet – not until they're back at the warehouse, back where they are less exposed, safer, surrounded by windowless walls and dust and the shuffling silence he has a feeling he will need to get used to, spreading loud and syrupy to fill out all the gaps between them.

*

"Daniel," the flat, quiet voice had said, a few hours after they'd made it back to ground, and Dan had felt a sudden upswell of hope before he remembered: this thing didn't erase memory. Just damn-near everything else. The recognition had meant nothing at all, not shaped like had been, tongue working around a word that existed only in long-term storage with no muscle-memory behind it. Something to eat, he'd asked for; was there something to eat, and the monotone had been far more disturbing in this passive and neutral voice than it'd ever been in the affected growl. He'd accepted the offered protein bar without comment, processing it mechanically and efficiently and unenthusiastically.

Now, afternoon going down into evening, Dan is digging through journals and medical publications, grateful for the camping lantern he'd finally gone out and bought, spreading a corona of hazy white light around him. Rorschach is sitting against a crate just on the edge of the spill, half his face in and half out of the light, and is looking at precisely nothing.

Dan is talking. Hasn't stopped talking for more than a few minutes at a time in the last three hours. His throat is raw and dry, but he can't bring himself to let quiet settle into the room; stuffy and dark and full of dust, it already feels like a tomb, and he imagines Rorschach crawling into this space, back in '66 or '67, bleeding out and vision spinning black and chaotic at the edges – huddling into a corner and wrapping the wound in his scarf and waiting to either live or die with the same stubborn, fatalistic patience.

It's an unwelcome image and one conjured far too easily – with the right equipment, he could probably find all the old bloodstains – and so Dan talks. About old cases, the first cases, the ones where they'd stood tremblingly on opposite sides of some line or another, strangers, cast starkly against the shadows or winding up along fire escapes, eyes that locked across that line and didn't know what to make of what they saw. Weren't sure which line it was, or if it was one that mattered; two night creatures with overlapping territory, posturing and studying and, for some inexplicable reason, unwilling to just let it go and move on. He talks about the first time he'd felt a back against his in a fight, a surprise, too overwhelmed by the numbers pressing in on him to have seen the blur of brown and violet drop down from the window ledge.

He talks about Big Figure and the Underboss and all of the minor gangs, about the one summer that the Top-Knots seemed to have had a recruitment drive, tripling their numbers almost overnight, and how hard the patrols had gotten after that. How many knives had hit their mark, how many bruised and cracked ribs they'd both had to wrap, cloth binding tightly against the memory of chains and iron piping and two-by-fours whistling through the dark.

He talks about the satisfying cases: the ones where they'd stayed two steps ahead of the scum they were tracking, were able to cut off the drug shipment before it hit the streets or bust in doors and windows and slide into the blacklight-poisoned parlors of the flesh traders before another young girl or boy could be shuffled off into greedy and possessive hands. The times – and was it really so long ago? – when people were relieved to see them instead of terrified, thanked them instead of cursed them, saw the masks as a sign of heroism rather than a sign of cowardice or perversion.

Then there's a silence that stretches just a second or two too long for the thread of one-sided conversation to remain continuous, and the sound it makes as it snaps is like dry bone splintering under teeth.

The neurobiology journal in his hand stares up accusingly; it is the last in the stack, and there have been no answers.

"...we'll find a way to fix this," Dan mutters, tossing it aside, turning to look at Rorschach squarely; he's still turned away, so the best he can do is the side of his head. "I promise."

(Promises you can't keep, Daniel,) the growling voice in his head condemns, disappointed. (Useless. You know that.)

At the outer limit of the lamp's circle, edges of dark and light bleed over into each other into a hazy grey boundary, indistinct. Inside, there is Dan and the cheerful glow of the lamp and the piles of research materials that mean nothing so much as the fact that he's trying, that his fingers and eyes and brain are itching together for a solution, wired up into something that is devastated and searching and trying like hell to hold it all together. Outside, darkness and all the memories of blood and violence and cold shivers on summer nights, black and red running together to pool around battered leather boots.

Rorschach sits in that grey space, split up the middle by it, features cast into stark and monstrous relief - all jagged edges and deep black lines and hollows where the eyes should be, skin blanched almost white in the cold artificial lighting. He reacts as he has to everything else Dan has blathered on about for the past several hours: just looks at him indistinctly, shrugs one shoulder, and goes back to staring at nothing.

(Ragdoll,) Dan thinks, studying the limp posture, the glass-bead eyes shining almost black, the unwashed hair like carpet wire. He can almost see the sawdust pooling from ripped-out rows of stitches that aren't actually there.

("Make me real.")

Dan shudders out a breath that would be a sob if he had the energy for it, if his throat and heart weren't worn raw from all the memories he'd shaken free tonight, watched miss their mark entirely, shatter and diffuse against the distant walls.

Wasted.
This is too much. Too much for any person to bear stoically, to soldier through without stopping to face it, to feel it – and Dan is hoping for a protest, for a stiffening posture, for a sharp jerk away, when he shifts over to the same crate and gathers Rorschach against him, back to chest, arms threading around the front of his coat. There is no struggle; there is no protest. Rorschach collapses bonelessly, strings cut.


Art by wednesday42

And Dan keeps talking, quieter now, more solemn, mostly nonsense. They sit only halfway in the light, touched on one side by the darkness of bleaker and bloodier moments, and the words twist into fear and doubt and the visceral terror of warm red slickness over hands and arms – into the particular set of the moon in the sky on the nights Dan was certain he'd be finishing patrol alone, alone for good, dragging deadweight wrapped in trenchcoat through the streets and sure it would never stir again. He says the twisting and strange things that people only dare say in their sleep, words that are also not words, jagged and raw and outlined in bright oilslick ripples,

("Make me real.")

and he knows the science and the science fiction, the mythology and the fairy tales; he knows all of the thousands of ways these things can work. What he does not know is how to deal with feeling a body breathing against him and not feeling the person inside; just a clockwork spinning of biological parts, pumps and valves and air gaskets and pistons, blood and muscle and bone and if they mechanically collude for just a moment to curl a light, hesitant grip into his forearm, Dan is sure – it breaks his heart how sure he is – that it means nothing.

 

*

The first day, Dan keeps a careful eye on his watch, waiting for that vital last minute before noon and hoping that something will surface in his friend, however briefly. The hands slide up close together, as close as they can without becoming one, the second hand jittering along. There is no flash of fear or anger or awareness; no twitch around the mouth, no deepening of the hard lines around his eyes, and then it is noon and the moment has passed and Dan is palming over Rorschach's brow, protecting him from the knife that wants to twist and work its way even deeper than it already has.

Rituals; intangible and barely there, they hold a powerful grip on the human psyche, a thousand strands tangled together into the deepest places. It is no surprise that this becomes one: The 11:59 vigil. Very little's ever come of any other observation Dan's held to in the past; the lack of results is not a deterrent.

*

The packet of papers reads like a release form from a hospital; there's even a chart, tracking Rorschach's behavior after his capture, noting down incidents with timestamps and strange, unreadable signatures. His level of compliance had waxed and waned over the 24 hours; he'd tried to run six times. Twice he'd gotten his hands on an improvised weapon; the second time he'd had to break out of the restraints they'd put him in after the first. Once – just once – he'd gotten to within feet of the building's front door before the security forces had caught up with him.

Dan reaches over to where Rorschach leans against a crate, shifts down the trenchcoat's collar – sees the stungun burns on his neck, red and angry against skin too pale. Something like rage bubbles up; escapes as a harsh exhale through his nose, echoes in the grim set of his mouth.

He'd been muttering something in the aftermath, the guards reported, voice rushed and broken, writhing on the tile floor as they'd snapped on the restraints. They hadn't been able to understand it but, they'd said, it'd sounded like it might have been a name.

Twenty minutes later, the clinical typeface reports, treatment had been completed and, despite his highly unusual lack of an appropriately pleasant mindspace to burrow into, deemed a success.

Time of discharge had been penciled in by hand, another 27 minutes later.

*

Dan is paging through yet another medical journal; its cover the acid-bright cross-section of a brain under MRI, dark patches in places they don't belong. "Hey, remember when you said about Adrian, the idea that he’d gotten his brain split, on purpose?"

Rorschach nods vaguely, looking somewhere else, because the memory is there and there is no reason not to answer.

"I'm not sure if that’s actually what's going on. I mean, that can mangle the intent a little – one hand picks things up, the other puts them back – but on the level of what he's been doing? I'm wondering if maybe this is something... dissociative, or some compartmentalization he's managed to set up for himself."

(Amateur psychology doesn't suit you, Daniel.)

The response isn't the usual expectant and prompting 'and...?', waiting for the point, the relevance. It is not even that invested; the wall is, somehow, more interesting.

*

He reads, and he reads, and in the spaces between the books and the maps and the notes he's taking in every scrap of margin he can find, and the runs to food stores on the edge of the district, and the twenty minutes at a time that he can stand to listen to the news on the portable radio he's bought, Dan keeps trying.

*

"I think I've figured out where all the resistants are," he says one day, spreading a blueprint of the Riker's Island prison system across the dusty floor; it's not as impressive as the maximum security facility they'd busted Rorschach out of what feels like only a week ago –

(It was only a week ago.)

-but still complicated enough to require some planning. He has a thick black marker, and is marking the blocks most likely to house the seditious, the inconvenient, the 'missing', and who's even aware enough to file a missing persons report anymore? "Well, okay. Not all of them. Obviously some of them are just hiding in plain sight, evading the authorities, but the rest... well. I'm going to need some help figuring out how to pull this one off."

He looks up; is met with a blank stare. Rorschach at least looks at him when he's speaking now, but all Dan can think of in the face of that obedient attention is that damn stupid dog again, bounding off into the road, near-miss after near-miss and no sense of anything except doing what was asked of him.

The map folds closed with a fluttering up of dust from the floor. "...all right, well. It can wait."

*

"These people need us," he says some nights, voice whisper-quiet in the dark. He rarely knows whether Rorschach is awake or asleep; only that he doesn't flinch away from the words unwinding next to his ear, and sleep-conditioning has some basis in reality anyway. "And I can't do this alone, it's too big."

It's a weak things to say, a weak thing to feel, and he'd welcome the admonishment, but none comes.

"I'm willing to fight this time," he says into the stinking wiry hair – they're both unwashed, living in a place only meant to house shift workers, crates coming and going, no basic human amenities. "Probably think I'm just saying that. God, sometimes I think I'm just saying it." A laugh, short and all sharp edges. "Can't walk away from this one, though. But now you're quitting on me."

("You quit," he said, disappearing down the tunnel, but who stopped coming around first, back in '75; who started working alone, a solitary shadow of the man he'd been? Who quit on who?)

(Who walked up to a man who could grant any desire and screamed for oblivion?)

Other nights he talks about Adrian and his murder of the city and his complicity in everything they've seen; talks about Warren, a man they've never met with demons they do not know, but who engineered this farce of an ideal human society as surely as he stood trembling over a short grave in '77, losing his mind in careful, delicate pieces – as surely as he rode into office on a road paved with the blood of innocent convicts, rattling their chains in the dark.

Rage, injustice, indignation, retribution

Some nights, he just tightens his grip and says, "I need you to come back now," with the weight of every terrible secret he's ever held too close to his chest for too, too long.

*

He's going through the pockets of Rorschach's coat for – clues, maybe? Dan's not even entirely sure, but he's been through the books and maps and documents and everything else until his eyes went crossed and there's not much else to do except hope Rorschach had managed to write something down, some piece of evidence or information, before his will was stolen.

The scarf, the journal – not touched, nothing changed or added – the pencil stub and the handwriting sample and a handful of loose change. Then, buried deep, a scrap torn from a larger sheet, the writing barely legible:

'Don't let me live like this.'

It's a minute or two before the shakes pass, and when Dan crouches in front of Rorschach and asks if he wrote it and receives a distracted nod in reply, he can't help but voice a stupid question that he already knows the answer to. "Did you mean it?"

(Does it matter? Whether he meant it or not, you can't-)

A long moment, and a shrug. "Don't remember."

*

The radio dies on the thirteenth day, batteries run down, and as Dan counts out single bills and loose change on the cement floor, he realizes he cannot justify replacing them with their food supply dwindling and these fluttering scraps of paper and silvered tokens diminishing even more quickly.

Something is going to have to give.

*

The possibility – probability, really – that this is simply their life now, a soulless automaton and his keeper, is starting to batter through the hope and the hard work and the desperate, childish optimism. He may not be able to save Rorschach, may not be able to save anyone, may have to leave this world to burn until the wick reaches the wax and puts itself out in a slow hiss of thin black smoke.

Rorschach is sitting across from him, drinking slowly and deliberately from a bottle of water. It's been two weeks, and the doll eyes follow him around the room at times, seem to have a sense of presence and of place – but you'd never know to look at him that this man had once broken rapists and murderers in half with his bare hands and a burning cold fury that could not be contained; had walked out into the Antarctic snow, knowing what was waiting for him but too driven to take any other way out. Had trembled in rage at the murder of his city, his people. Had been crying under the mask when it finally peeled away.

Dan's remembering more and more of the dream as time goes on, and the imagery sticks behind his eyes, in the back of his throat: children pawing at blood, swallowing it away, frosted by snow that never stops falling; shaking apart bones in a dirty yard, more bones than a single body can hold, some small and some large, and they take and take until all he's left with is the heat of fire and the sound of wind through hollow chimes and the memory of a bloody Cheshire smile, teeth rattling like death's head beetles crawling through his walls. Two places, two moments of destruction and dissolution and less left over each time, less breath and meat to animate the skeleton, and now: nothing at all.

(The paper was shaking in your hand, wasn't it, when you asked: "Did you write this?")

(Would it have been easier if he hadn't answered?)

Dan knew a strange young man when he was in college, with hair and eyes and teeth like coal, who smelled like rot and saffron and dealt strange cards between long and knotted fingers – rubbed raw around the edges, creased with heavy use. Ash and bones and fire and a bird with an eye splintered like a black diamond, twisting in its bloody dance to become something new, and he remembers: death is not always death.

*

Comes the day when Dan returns to the warehouse from a long errand, arms laden with supplies, and Rorschach is not sitting beside his crate.

He's not in the warehouse at all, and the dust is scattered, and the spatter of blood is fresh and red and hot to Dan's touch when he kneels to run his thumb through it – a violent explosion of the stuff, sharply sprayed in one direction, gruesome fingers reaching out to wind into cracks in the concrete floor.

(Ohgod.)

A missing person is bad enough; a missing person plus blood, especially in this volume, is tripping all of Dan's fight instincts into overdrive, is sending his extremities numb and his heart to pound triple-time, is screaming emergency.

There's a knife on the floor, but he barely notices, because there is also a meandering trail of gore from the epicenter here by the crate to the far door, the one leading out onto the wharf. It is thick in some places and thin in others, as if he'd had to keep stopping to rest, to regather his strength –

Dan is across the floor and out into the open air before the thought can complete itself, something like yellowed, dirty fog crowding into his head, preventing him from visualizing, from actually anticipating what he's going to find

('Don't let me live like this.')

once the dock comes into view. There are possibilities: A blood trail that leads to the water, ripples only just settling; a body slumped against a piling, face contorted into something like defiance – but the images won't congeal, won't show him anything but the vague outline of the moment, shaky and torn.

He squints through the sunglare, tracing the blood, one hand against the doorframe to steady himself against a rush of lightheaded dizziness. The trail does lead across the cement and onto the dock, where it breaks up into an uneven striation over the pitted and warped grain of the wood. There is a lot of it and it doesn't taper off like it should, sticking to the knots in the boards in thick clotting clumps. But where –

(...oh.)

At the far end of the pier – and Dan lets out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, willing the panic down, the constriction in his ribs to dissipate – Rorschach is struggling with a body.

The man is big; not all muscle but not all fat either, possibly an old high-school quarterback gone to years of laziness and one six-pack too many. He is completely limp, head falling at an angle his spine shouldn't support. He is likely dead.

Rorschach lifts his eyes, meets Dan's over the corpse's shoulder, and Dan is already jogging down the pier but he doesn't miss the fire there, the wild way his features are jumping and lit up and unable, or unwilling, to settle. There's blood running down Rorschach's shoulder, lurid against the white of his torn dress shirt, and that's why he's having trouble – with every tug on the weight he's dragging a sharp flash of pain pinches his features and he hasn't let these things show so obviously for years-

[It's 1982, middle of the night, and there's a ragged knocking at his door, a black and white ghost stumbling into his living room with a badly broken arm and not so much as a hello. His mask comes up to ease his breathing around what he knows is coming, and goddamn but he doesn't make a sound as Dan fumblingly sets the bone – but it's not for lack of wanting, and the tensing of all the fine muscles in his face, contorting the topography of skull beneath the skin, speaks a language they're both far too well acquainted with...]

(No, no, go back further: Do you remember how he looked when that broken bottle slid in next to his spine, so close, so young then – and he collapsed against you, arms like cords of jelly, babbling on about vengeance and vigilance and paralysis, permanent damage, never walk again – and it's not just pain, not just pain by itself. It's fight and fear and something inside that knows what's about to happen, that tracks the weapon flashing in the light before the eyes can resolve it-)

(Knife on the floor,) his memory pokes at him, as sharp as any blade.

-and Dan should be upset that the man is dead and that there's blood everywhere and this will bring the authorities down on them in a heartbeat but he can't do anything but stare, rooted to the spot, as Rorschach regards him with impatience and irritation and eyes that focus and-

("Petty, angry, looking for an excuse to be moved to violence. I can't let you give them that excuse.")

"Have found our cure," Rorschach says, and there's more inflection in his voice than there's been in a decade. And the chastisement can wait, purely tactical instincts driving Dan to cross the last few yards and take hold of the man's other arm, hands knotting into the stained black T-shirt; to stand back as they roll him off of the planking. Water splashes up regardless, misting into his hair and smelling of silt and minerals and, this far into the harbor, like the salt-marsh stink of death – and he doesn't care, he doesn't care.

*

Chapter Text

*

“Came at me with that,” Rorschach mutters, toeing at the discarded knife as he stalks past it, hand clamped over the bloodiest part of his shirt, a jagged tear snaking out from under his fingers. “Looked surprised that anyone was here, pulled the knife. Probably figured I’d just sit there while he slit my throat.”

Dan grimaces at the blood spill, obviously an arterial burst, and all the fears he’d had on seeing it come back. They’re toothless things now, could-have-beens cowering in the shadows, but still too ugly to bear examining; he bends to pick up the knife and sets it on a crate, where it’s less likely to cause accidental harm. His hands are already bloody from the man outside. There’s nothing here to be squeamish about.

...because it isn’t either of theirs, at least not the bulk of it, and god but that’s a familiar reassurance, three times a week on patrol and more than that near the end: (It isn’t yours, it isn’t his-)

“Saw the knife. Saw the angle, how to disarm him. Couldn’t force myself to move until it’d almost hit. Everything slowed down.”

“Like in a dream? Where everything’s sort of… heavy and hard to move through.”

An abstract nod. “Sudden, acute awareness of life about to end. Seems to have been enough. Mind control cannot circumvent survival instinct.”

A rough exhale, and Dan presses his fingers to his eyes – because something’s just fallen into place. “God. That explains why Adrian said he couldn’t let us spark off any violence among the regressives. They start attacking people…”

And there goes the programming, all of it, up in smoke, because even drained of everything that makes them human, people still have something inside, buried deep, that won’t let them stand idly by as they’re slaughtered. It is, somehow, a reassuring thought.

“Suspect intent was burglary,” Rorschach rambles, stripping the shirt back from his shoulder, inspecting the knife wound with something that looks suspiciously like concern for his own wellbeing. “Warehouse is not that long out of use, there could potentially have been goods still stored here. Supplies. Arms, possibly. Scout for the resistance? Not a good sign, if they’re reduced to theft and murder to keep the movement functional.”

Dan frowns, digging in his pockets for the supplies he’d held over from his utility belt; comes up with a wad of gauze, and presses it to the wound. He’d mentioned the possibility of a resistance movement – among many, many other things, and he’d be hard-pressed to recite the stream-of-consciousness late-night monologues back just now – when he’d been depressingly certain that nothing was getting through. If he’s talking about–

The gauze is a sodden mess within moments; too deep. Dan sighs and digs for a needle. “…how much do you remember?”

They’re well away from the blood trail on the floor – and they’ll have to clean up what’s outside, after this is taken care of, if they don’t want to attract attention. Well away from the wall of looming crates, where so many hopeless and desperate words uncurled into the dark, drifting up to disappear into the rafters.

“…all of it,” Rorschach finally replies, uncertain, then nods distantly to himself as if confirming something. Looks up to catch Dan’s eyes, holding them steadily. “Everything.”

(…god. And he’s still willing to look you in the face.)

“Said that I was quitting.”

Dan blinks, hard and looks away, if only to hide the confusion on his face, and if it’s read as shame over the accusation, then so be it – because he remembers everything, and that’s what he’s upset about?

The first suture is threaded, and Dan puts the stitch in with a practiced motion that eight years off the job hasn’t dulled; he’s always had a long, long memory. “I was trying to snap you out of it. Would have said anything, if I thought it’d work.”

Rorschach shakes his head in something like disappointment, mouth curling into a bitter smile. “Lying, Daniel. Can always tell. Meant everything you said.”

The second stitch is shakier, going in.

Dan nods hesitantly, painfully aware of the depth of what he’s admitting to when he says, “…yeah. Yeah, I did.”

*

Dan nods in the general direction of the prison maps he still has laid out from days before, a handful of different colored pens scattered across them. “I think a lot the resistants are being jailed. If we can start breaking them out, we’ll have a better chance with all of this. Little bit bigger jailbreak than I’m used to pulling, but…”

“Have to revive Veidt first,” Rorschach mutters around an obvious grimace of pain; they’re almost finished, and he’s been sitting silently the entire time, and Dan is once again struck by how visibly Rorschach is emoting these things. He isn’t sure if it’s really unusual or just seems so in the context of the last two weeks, but he can remember the hours after they peeled away from Sing-Sing–

(Can’t remember how red the blood was though, can you? Grey, grey, grey…)

-and he doesn’t think that face, the face he watched accuse Laurie of collusion and tear down his landlady and disappear back under the black and white the first chance it got, could have held these shifting, mercurial expressions. Out in the snow, maybe; for those few seconds, the rigidity had melted away and his eyes had held something living and he’d seemed real.

“I’d tend to agree,” Dan says carefully, nodding, tying off the stitch and trimming it down, reaching for another length of thread. “But I honestly expected you to want to… exact justice for all of this, while he’s still an easy target.”

Rorschach shifts, rolling his head back against the wall. “Need him to help fix this. Justice can wait.”

Dan freezes, hands over the injury, last suture in his fingers. The line that jumps to mind, immediately – ‘who are you and what have you done with Rorschach’ – isn’t even the slightest bit funny, is wildly inappropriate, is too painful in the context to consider giving voice to.

(The twisting, bloody dance, shaking free bones and blood, becoming something new and all that persists is the eyes-)

(Death is not always death.)

“…that doesn’t sound like you,” Dan finally says, voice careful and even.

Another long silence, Rorschach watching with undisguised fascination as the last stitch goes in, tugging at the flesh, sealing up the last gap. Making the skin into, if not wholecloth again, then at least a well-assembled patchwork.

“Bigger things at stake,” he finally says, the words coming out with obvious difficulty. “Veidt will be punished for the part he played in this atrocity. Has a part to play in ending it, first.”

Dan knows the concern’s obvious on his face as he unwraps a length of bandage, tapes it over the row of stitches. The rationality is startling, and would be welcome if it hadn’t come out of nowhere, and he’s wondering if Rorschach’s really as in the clear as he seems to be. It would be just like Adrian to give himself a backdoor from the inevitable vengeance…

Will be punished,” Rorschach repeats, reaching for his discarded vest and suitcoat, seemingly picking the worry right out of Dan’s brainpan and tailoring the assurance to fit it. Falters, fingers running over the cloth. “Just. We can’t.” A beat of almost confused silence. “It’s-”

“What?”

“Were only under for an hour, Daniel,” he says, shifting carefully to pull the vest over what’s left of the shirt. The jacket will be harder; the layers have always made Rorschach’s injuries more difficult to deal with. “Probably don’t remember.”

Dan is wrapping up the supplies, pocketing them again into his own jacket, but there’s a waver of something vulnerable and important in those words, and he looks up sharply. “I… don’t remember much. Just it being kind of grey and hazy.”

“Awake inside,” Rorschach grunts, pulling the jacket into place, and the words are coming faster, breaking up the monotone. “Always awake, seeing, hearing, but nothing responds, nothing does what you tell it to do. No matter how hard you try. Or how long you scream.”

He looks up then, exhaustion stooping him, shoulders crooked inside the jacket and in obvious pain – eyes giving away too much, far too much. Dan can suddenly see, clearly: He’s still as fractured as he’s been for years, all the fault lines clear in his face and his posture and in the way he doesn’t quite layer correctly into the space around him, but it looks like a human kind of broken now, and Dan feels something sharp pulling in his chest, like a watch spring slipping its tracks.

“Those people,” Rorschach says, gesturing vaguely towards the wrong door entirely, starting to shake where he stands and whether it’s from rage or fatigue is unclear. “Screaming inside. We have to fix this, have to make them whole. Can’t take the chance, exacting vengeance first. Can’t leave them this way,” and there’s something in his voice that’s trying hard to be passion, rusty and out of practice but trying all the same. It doesn’t seem like his body’s equipped to handle it anymore, and he’d been shaking like this at Karnak, too.

Dan just steps up to him, quietly, hand on his good shoulder – gentle pressure downwards. “Come on. Sit before you fall.”

Rorschach glares and resists but still folds under the pressure, sliding into an undignified heap on the concrete floor; Dan follows him down, sits across from him like he has for the last two weeks –

But now the posture is anything but lax, and those eyes are urgent and burning when they lift to his. “No one deserves…” he trails off, eyes pinching shut against an obvious wave of lightheadedness, still making a halfhearted effort to shrug off the contact.

“I know,” Dan says, and keeps his hand where it is.

*

“Have to decide how far you’re willing to fight this, Daniel.”

Dan laughs, stripping the wrapper off of a ration bar; they’re dense, meant for a few meals, and he breaks it and offers the other half across the pool of light. The lack of tact in Rorschach's use of 'you' rather than 'we' should be annoying, but right now, it’s like sunlight and a good book and a mug of coffee – familiar and, for its familiarity, precious. “You remember me accusing you of quitting, but you’ve somehow forgotten me saying I wasn’t going to?”

Cautious fingers curl around the bar, accepting but not acknowledging. There’s a long silence burned through with the intensity of a narrowed, penetrating stare, and Dan knows: He remembers. He just isn’t sure if he can trust or believe it.

“Look,” and the laughter’s gone, tone all seriousness. “I don’t want to ever have to see another human face looking like you have for the last two weeks. That’s an unreasonable thing to ask for, because they’re out there and we’re going to see them. But I’ll settle for the next best thing.” Dan crumples the wrapper, shoves it into a pocket. “Which is seeing this through as far as we can. Until we can’t anymore.”

The implication hangs, and he stands by it, unflinching: Until it kills us.

“Arguably a better world,” Rorschach mutters, breaking off a corner of the ration, and the devil’s-advocate tone in his voice is unmistakable, as is the obvious test. “No more killers, rapists, child molesters.”

Dan nods, idly tapping two fingers on his thigh. “But this isn’t humanity improving itself. It’s someone cutting and … molding, and deforming humanity, into what they think it should be. It isn’t real. Isn’t worth preserving – not at this price, anyway.”

Rorschach just looks, for a long time – then pops the piece of food into his mouth, grimaces around it. He still doesn’t look completely convinced.

“I said I was willing to fight this one,” Dan reminds him.

“Said a lot of things, Daniel,” and his tone is suddenly so openly suggestive, unexpectedly and incongruously inappropriate in a way that Dan cannot reconcile with the what he knows of the man sitting across from him, that he just about chokes on his ration bar.

Said things. And he had, and has already owned them all, but Rorschach’s being specific now, in tone if not in words, and he remembers the motel: He’d been talking in his sleep and no, no, what he’d said wasn’t relevant, really it wasn’t. It wasn’t.

But it was.

Rorschach sits silently as Dan catches his breath, smoothes crumbs off of his shirt and damn it, this place doesn’t have rats yet but it will soon at this rate. Watches as Dan examines the floor carefully, all the fascinating cracks in the concrete, spidering into something complex and entropic. Meets Dan’s eyes when he finally lifts them and god, there’s something like expectation there, something wanting…

He wants the truth, Dan chides himself, that’s all. That’s what he always wants, and every lie only makes it worse.

“…I meant those too.” A stretch of silence in which Dan is all but daring him to get upset at the things he’d said, the truths whispered brokenly to a shell he’d thought might never hold life again in quiet night spaces he could barely have told apart from dreams. Daring him to make an issue of it, in the face of everything they’ve been through and seen and still need to do to make this right.

Rorschach just looks at him, steady and even. He has the truth and it should be enough, but the expectant expression doesn’t change.

A frustrated laugh, and Dan is shaking his head. “I already owned up to that, I don’t know why we need to-”

Silence; then, from above, a creaking in the rafters.

Oh, he wants to say, watching something too familiar jump in still-unfamiliar eyes. Oh.

“All right, well, we know how to snap the programming, now,” Dan says, swallowing past a sudden thickness in his throat, and the subject change is about as graceful as Rorschach’s assailant had been, sliding off the dock and into the water’s hard grip. Just about as inevitable, too. “Distribution’s going to be a problem. Kind of hard to bottle up and hand out, as antidotes go.”

Rorschach just stares for a few more agonizingly stretched seconds; blinks, hard, as if it’s the first time he’s done so since coming around, and his expression shifts, consciously schooling itself into composure. “Veidt will help with that. Has access to the instructions being filtered through the lights. Can change them.”

“And what, tell them all to try to kill each other? That could get messy.”

A head shake, and Rorschach’s fiddling with a button on his jacket, seemingly just now noticing the way it’s been hanging by a thread for weeks. Distracted by it, and visibly irritated. Deft fingers wind the thread around, tuck the end in, try to secure it. “Some could succeed before their own programming is broken. Every unintended casualty is a failure. No.”

Dan narrows his eyes. “What, then?”

The button isn’t staying, and Dan briefly considers offering the needle wrapped up in a wad of tissue in his pocket; it’s not sterile anymore and won’t be again anytime soon so it’d be no loss, but he’s not sure how much he wants to divert Rorschach’s attention from more important matters. It seems to be an unusually simple thing, now.

Rorschach looks up, and there – there it is, something dark and calculating and safe for its familiarity and Dan can almost see the shifting black and white layered over it. “We tell them to kill themselves.”

The rafters are creaking again, and Dan should really be sliding the lenses down, switching to infrared, checking up there for intruders, because pigeons and rats don’t make that much noise. He’s too busy trying to remember how to operate language, mouth opening and closing around a few false starts before he finally manages to get something out. “…you have got to be kidding.”

“Survival instinct, Daniel. It won’t let them do it.”

Dan drops his face forward heavily, both hands running back through his hair, snagging where it’s trapped under the band of the goggles. “That’s a guess. We have no idea if-“

“It’s a guess supported by the evidence.”

Palms press in against a sudden sharp pain, arcing between his temples like electricity. “It’s still a guess. Damn it, Rorschach – what happens if they all just… go through with it? Do you want to put that much innocent blood on our hands? You just said yourself, every unintended casualty-”

Rorschach’s hands flash forward with no warning, wrap around Dan’s wrists – pull his hands free from his head, and twist them away to the sides. The grip is too strong, is overkill, is more than is necessary but it cuts through and grabs Dan’s attention like nothing less physical could have done. Slowly: “Will monitor it carefully. Change instructions back if it looks like tactic is ineffective.”

“When people start jumping in front of trucks, you mean.”

Before. Not when.”

After a long moment, Dan just nods, and the grip around his wrists releases with something that feels almost like reluctance, but that’s –

His imagination is really overactive today, is all. Had he actually thought he’d seen, earlier…

“Okay,” Dan says, voice strained. “As long as we’re ready to pull the plug the second it starts going wrong.”

Rorschach finishes the rest of his ration bar in silence, but his eyes never leave Dan’s.

*

“Should sleep, if we’re going after Adrian tomorrow,” Dan says a bit later, and they haven’t talked about what ‘going after Adrian’ entails; don’t really need to. The knife is glinting tellingly in the dim light, and maybe at Karnak they’d utterly failed to make the man so much as take them seriously – but ten years on, the once-great hero out of condition and out of practice, they might just be able to inspire the kind of fear this’ll take.

…or the guards will put them both down before they even get close, just two bodies sprawled on the marble while Adrian looks on in his braindead stupor, screaming and screaming inside but useless to intervene. Dan’s wondering idly whether the standing orders to his security forces are to kill on sight or to detain for questioning and conversion, trying to decide which would actually be worse, when he’s suddenly aware of a weight shifting up against his chest. Rorschach – Walter maybe, he isn’t sure, hasn’t asked since the dock and is even less sure he wants to know – is stiff and tense where he leans, as if he expects to be pushed away or is already contemplating bolting.

“Um,” Dan says, mentally congratulating himself on his eloquence. “Okay, uh…”

“Sorry,” Rorschach says, ducking his head in, tensing to move away but not quite managing to do so. “Got used to it. Comfortable.” The growling sound the words trail off into might still be language, might be some fragment of self-condemnation. “Comfort is for the weak and lazy. Leads to complacency and degradation. Shouldn’t need it. Shouldn’t need–”

The words cut off, but this is not some bizarre reverse justification; Dan can hear it in his tone, the utter and unshakable surety. Rorschach really believes he shouldn’t be doing this, the proximity and the weakness implied in it probably making his skin crawl and his stomach turn, but he’s doing it anyway, and that’s–

Dan knew Walter for years without ever knowing the name, and he knows that man’s limits – knows he would accept coffee or cocoa at the end of a long patrol, would take the cot in Dan’s basement rather than walk countless blocks through inclement weather, would accept contact and the comfort it brought without thinking any of it was a failing or a liability. And Rorschach, Rorschach who was no longer Walter, who’d walked into Dan’s home one night bloodied and strange and never the same again, would never bend like this. Would believe what he said and act accordingly; would not lean back with muttered apologies and self-loathing on the back of his tongue, bitter and ugly but ready to be swallowed down, choked back, ignored.

Every vague suspicion he’s had narrows to a certainty: This is something new.

“Maybe,” Dan says, hands drifting to settle around Rorschach in a way that’s become muscle-memory after two weeks of sleeping this way, and it feels wrong and all manner of inappropriate now that the other man’s aware enough to know they’re there, but Dan doesn’t know what else to do with them, to do with this. “But you can still want it, sometimes. Nothing wrong with that.” A sharp laugh, humorless. “Especially after what you’ve just been through. That’s not pity,” he adds quickly, anticipating the protest in the way the body tenses against him. “Just acknowledgment. I mean, Christ – despite popular opinion, you’re only human.”

“…nng. Part of the problem.”

Dan just shrugs, motion telegraphed through the contact.

Rorschach shifts; moves one hand to his shoulder, pressing lightly around the seam of the jacket at where the gauze is wrapped underneath. Lifts it to scratch lightly at the burns still lingering, old blisters now, at his throat. “…possibly not the most tactically sound decision,” he admits, tone carefully blank.

“It was stupid, is what it was,” Dan mutters close to his ear. “But I do understand why you did it.”

“Would have surprised us,” and the voice should be growling and defensive, but it isn’t. If anything, it’s resigned, slipping back into those unaffected tones Dan had first heard waking up in the park, when Rorschach had believed himself alone and hadn’t bothered with the theatrics. Somehow, the sound of that quiet, human voice voluntarily offered up seems to matter more than the face did, is more intimate than the way they’re leaned together in the darkness could ever be, and Dan has to close his eyes against an unexpected upswell of something he can’t even identify. “Taken us both. Wasn’t any other choice.”

Dan just nods – has no idea if it carries across, isn’t capable of much else.

“Knew that you’d likely figure out a way to reverse it, if it came to that.”

“But I didn’t,” Dan says, and it takes all the discipline he has not to tighten his grip. “Probably never would have, either. It’s not like I was ever going to come at you with a knife.”

A disgruntled, disappointed noise. “Had hoped you’d eventually…”

“What?” And strange tightness in his chest or not, Dan’s leaning back, away, voice all sharp edges and the pain of those edges suddenly turned inward. He digs into his pocket, comes up with a folded scrap of paper. “Put you out of your misery? Like you asked me to?”

The note’s held out in front of them; Rorschach takes it in careful fingers, turning it over in his hands. The light in here is too sharply angled to read by, but he doesn’t seem to be trying – just running the rough paper between his fingertips, feeling out its physical reality.

“You know what?” Dan asks, and he’s about a half-second from shoving away, standing up, finding another place to sleep, because this is a fury he thought he’d buried but after today, after seeing the blood and being so sure he knew whose it was and what that meant, it’s fresh and raw and throbbing grisly just under the surface, and being chastised like this, for not being willing to… “You can’t ask for that. You can’t expect me to-”

“Said ‘hoped’, Daniel. Not ‘expected.’ Knew you’d be too soft to…” The growl is back, but Rorschach trails off with a flustered, embarrassed-sounding noise. He doesn’t seem pleased with how that came out, the words lost somewhere between intent and meaning.

The camping lamp flickers. Its batteries are starting to run down, too.

Rorschach can’t say things like ‘I know you care too much’, or ‘you’re too sentimental, but it worked out this time’. Can’t say things like ‘thank you.’ Dan knows that, but they hang unspoken, a silent coda to that small, frustrated sound.

“Yeah, well,” Dan finally says, feeling the anger breaking apart, starting to shake away. Not much energy left for it. He reaches to switch the lamp off, conserve what little power it has left. “Be glad I am, it’s why you’re still alive to sit here insulting me for it.”

The darkness that settles over them is heavier than it seems like it should be, even with no windows and only one ventilation shaft open to the sky; a complete wall-to-wall blackness that makes the hands want to wander over closed or open eyelids to be sure everything is still there.

(“Those are pearls that were his eyes.”)

“Am grateful,” Rorschach says, tone soft and unfamiliar again, distinctly apologetic in a way Dan’s not sure he’s ever heard, not in twenty years of stolen food and busted locks and backhanded insults. “Too many broken things here already. Don’t need to add to their numbers.”

Dan lets out a noisy breath.“That’s for sure,” he agrees, though he isn’t even sure what Rorschach’s referring to – himself or, if he’d died, Dan? Or them, this partnership or friendship, whatever it is, whatever it’s turning into in these dark stretches of silence; something clinging and hopeful and dangerous that he’d seen on Rorschach’s face as clear as day and he shouldn’t ever be able to say that, nothing residing in those hard-edged features should ever be that clear–

The body leaning against him twists in his grip, turns to face him, and he still can’t see a thing but maybe it’s better that way, because there’s a touch on his face, barely there – the smell of a cheap motel room comes back, and the sound of a voice twisting in grief.

(“Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel-”)

“Made you admit it twice,” the darkness in front of him speaks, disembodied. “Had to be sure.”

Hands are shifting to his shoulders, and they’re trembling, with fear or the effort of restraint – really, the entire body they’re attached to is shaking, a sloppy mess of nerves and twitching muscle and terror riding under all the layers of cloth.

“Don’t know why I-” the voice tries, breaking off. “Doesn’t. Make sense.”

“Hey,” Dan says, reaching one hand up to smooth down over the grip on his shoulder, and he can feel a note of guilt in his own voice. “Look, this is probably my fault, babbling on like that for weeks. I shouldn’t have-”

The grip on his shoulders tightens to the point of pain. “No. Was the truth. Truth is important, Daniel. More important than keeping things broken just because it’s. Nnk. Familiar. Comfortable.”

Dan closes his eyes. It had been comfortable, hadn’t it? Easy to forget completely for eight years, then later just ignoring, changing the subject, only ever giving these things voice in his sleep. It’s okay to want comfort, he’d said.

It’s not okay to need it.

Broken things, all the jigsaw edges out of alignment and if you have to push and jam on them to get them to fit, ruining the pieces, distorting the picture they form, then you’re not doing it right, not doing it right at all…

A face buries roughly in the crook of his neck, the contact shocking in its immediacy. No motion for a long stretch – just the grating scratch of stubble against his jaw, breath uneven over his ear. Rorschach sounds like he’s caught a lungful of water or something just as dense and unbreathable, like he’s drowning.

(“I do not find the Hanged Man.”)

“Whatever you need, okay?” Dan says, and his voice is shaking as badly as Rorschach’s hands are, curled into his arms. His own stay where they are, a steady anchor against Rorschach’s back. “I won’t hold you to anything later.”

The sound is low and laced with animal fear, rumbling against Dan’s ear, and the concrete floor is hard and unforgiving against the ridge of his spine, and it’s cold. But breath is hitting his face, choppy and labored and panicked, and the hands cling and shake and pull and the heavy, intractable presence bears him down against it and seems to want little more than to press against him until it’s unclear where the boundaries between them lie, and the heat there is enough – and he knows, somehow, that they’ll make it through to the morning, that they’ll be all right.

*

Chapter Text

*

Dan wakes up cold – cement at his back, shirt half-unbuttoned and rucked up under his arms, and with no reassuring weight against him to keep out the chill of early morning in March – for the first time in two weeks. He sighs, lifting a hand to press at closed eyelids.

It’s not a bad thing. It isn’t. It’s a reminder, tactile and plain, that Rorschach isn’t going to just stay where he’s put or where he falls anymore, isn’t a loose-limbed doll waiting for someone to take up his strings. It just figures though, that after everything that– after all of it, he would–

He opens his eyes. There’s a note, folded in half, propped up dramatically, almost comically, in the center of his chest. He catches it up in his fingers, brings it in close.

Went walking. Took goggles. Will be back before nine.
.][.

Dan furrows his brow, running one hand back over his hair until it meets the concrete, and yes, the goggles are gone, snuck right off of his head and he hadn’t woken up, he could bet he didn’t even mumble or fuss or paw ineffectually at the imposition. He’ll probably catch a lecture for that later; sleeping too deeply, too open to attack.

This close to zero-hour, to the single act that will pivot their and the world’s fate around on its axis, all he can do is laugh.

*

The goggles don’t fit well, and the hard-wired prescription correction makes the world unfold around him like a bug-eyed view of eternity, bent around the edges and with a sweeping grandiosity that makes the sky seem vaster, the buildings taller and caught in structurally impossible curves, the very air around him cramped in on itself. He has a headache from it after only a half an hour.

Physical discomfort is irrelevant.

What’s relevant is not being caught unawares by any of the city lights; innocent enough their instructions may be, it’s the principle of the thing, and a bone-deep aversion to being controlled, directed, prodded about. The distaste isn’t new, but it has been freshly sharpened, honed.

The fisheyed world is filled in with smiling faces and aimless feet and useless bodies hanging in between, lax and lifeless and he can see so much more in that language of apathy than he could before. Knows what it’s like to be that cold and empty, that void of purpose; to see without observing, to hear without listening.

To hear and hear and hear…

To feel it all come back, with all the pressure and burning in the chest of a breath held for too long, bursting painfully free. To feel a heat rippling under his skin like fury or vengeance , needing to plunge it into water so calm he can still see the steam rising, ghostlike, from his skin.

(“Whatever you need–”)

And if the scattered, stitched-together remnants of all the human creatures he’s been had needed too much, gone too far, pushed down past the calm and dug fingers into the sediment and stirred it up until all the dingy, desperate murkiness made it impossible to see exactly what he was doing–

(“Won’t hold you to–”)

The light changes. He reaches up and adjusts the goggles the way he’s seen Daniel do it – he doesn’t know what any of the dials do exactly, has no idea how the settings work, but with enough fiddling, he ought to be able to figure it out.

*

This place has felt alien since they first set foot onto its flawless expanses of concrete and asphalt, the people little more than constructs to fill the streets, to consume and consume, to crowd the quiet spaces out with their noise lest someone catch enough of the silence running under it to realize they’ve made a mistake.

But it rained last night – it’d woken him but not Daniel, too heavy a sleeper after so many years off the street, so many years not living or dying by the stretch of his perception, and it’d rattled against the roof like distant gunfire. He hadn’t been able to convince himself to do anything but stay where he’d fallen, hopelessly tangled, and listen until the gunfire became machine noise and the machine noise became the clicking claws of prowling dogs and the claws became just water landing on an old, old roof, a rhythmless white noise that’d startled his pulse out of time for just the barest of moments.

The water has found the tiny, invisible cracks and faults in the paving, collected there and darkened around them like veins under the skin, exposed them in open view.

The air smells like violation and some grim sort of potential.

These people still move through their choreographed dance, but he can’t help but notice a twitch at the corner of a mouth here, a tic over one eye there; signs that there are people in there, the same he’d once vowed to protect and then seen too much of, come to understand too well, written off as filth but still cried for, still plastered his face under with flash-frozen salt because they didn’t deserve to die like that, to be murdered for a cause they knew nothing of–

He knows they’re screaming, under the placid faces and pleasant chatter. He can still hear the echo in his own head, and he’s never felt so connected up with the city’s hammering, filthy heart. The pavement they share hums with it, a warm electric ripple of I know, I understand, I’m going to help, soaking into it like summer’s beating sun.

Because he’d been just as weak and helpless and empty as they are, and as loath as he is to admit it, it isn’t their fault.

*

In some ways, he is still weak and helpless, and his fingertips twitch and burn with the sense-memory of skin and soft hair and–

He ignores it, balling his hands into fists in the close darkness of his coat pockets.

*

Rorschach retrieves Daniel’s armor from where it is still safely hidden, the flexible pliancy of it not feeling like anything that could protect from gunfire. It is too soft, too much like skin, bronzed and scale-patterned but still giving under the gentle pressure of fingers. He’s put his hands on it before, to shove Daniel down or aside or pull him back, but he’s never just touched it and it is too soft, too weak.

But really, he knows better. He’s watched it stop small-caliber rounds, watched it turn knives.

He bundles it up in the bag they’d used to hide it in and exits the alley a different way than he came.

*

The lights change: red and green and red and green, stop and go, restraint and release. Yellow hangs somewhere in between, offers some middle ground, but yellow has always been a coward’s color.

It can’t be allowed to happen again.

*

The decision is like a mantra, subconsciously circling the back of his brain with every step, and it provides the rhythm that keeps him moving.

*

He walks until he doesn’t recognize the space around him, and that’s a feat – but even in the old days, Daniel had sometimes surprised him, getting them into odd places by air that foot patrol tended to steer them around, just by nature of the lines of roads and alleyways and the way architecture had its way of bending the skyline around pockets of shadow. The view from fifty feet up had always been very different.

But this narrow corridor by the waterfront is still just the same as any Rorschach does know, dingy with sharply cast morning shadows if not with actual filth, claustrophobic in the way there’s only room for one arm to draw back with knife or bludgeon, no space for another to come up and block it.

Then it opens out into a strange clearing between the looming rear walls of cheap apartments and shops, a junkmetal village of lean-tos and shacks and a smell like the Chinese leftovers Daniel was always stuffing his refrigerator with and burning wood and the Gunga all rolled into one. It’s anachronistic, powerfully out of place and out of context, and when people emerge from the ramshackle shelters, all of them at once, it is coordinated and paramilitary and their collective gaze is suspicious and bright and clear.

He pulls the goggles off, operating on some deep and unknowable instinct, and meets it.

*

“Terrible vision, Daniel,” Rorschach says, handing the goggles and the bagged and folded armor over; his hands are only just barely shaking when there is a brush of contact, and he’s proud of that. “Also,” and he’s crossing to the map Daniel has spread across the floor, all their possible escape routes marked down in different colored inks. Crouches down over it. “Discovered resistance movement’s location. Hrm. Green route is preferable.”

Daniel’s at his side in an instant and he’s too close, already taking unacceptable liberties, and–

“Wait, what?”

Rorschach points, tracing the street grid with his finger. Ignores how unsteady it is. “Green route goes through busy pedestrian area, will be easier to lose ourselves in the crowd if we’re being pursued. Also most circuitous.”

Dan shakes his head. “No, no, before that.”

Rorschach’s finger pauses in its trace over green ink, slides up along the waterfront to the extreme opposite edge. Hesitates for a moment, then taps at a specific location. “Here. Isolated corner, where the lights don’t seem to reach. Infrared-resistant building materials for shelters, so impossible to detect from the air. Has slipped through the cracks.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Daniel gaping, open mouth working to address something utterly unexpected. He realizes: Likely-doomed prison break aside, Daniel had not expected to find allies in their fight. Without allies, they stand very little chance of success against an institution this entrenched. Perhaps he’d not expected to succeed. Perhaps he’d expected to die trying.

The thought bothers him more than it should, somehow, for one he’s entertained often enough himself.

“Mostly resistants,” he says, forcibly redirecting his increasingly wandering train of thought. “But also some who’ve been unhooked.”

“Like you.”

“And you. Yes.”

Daniel is reaching to touch the spot on the map he’d indicated and his demeanor is all business but he’s still far. Too. Close. “’Unhooked’, is that their word for it?”

Rorschach nods, grunting noncommittally. “Arbitrary slang. Hoped they’d have a less volatile method for it, but seems they’ve come to the same conclusion we have. Threat of death seems to be the only motivator that’s strong enough.”

Which means their plans today are still on. Which means they will need to walk into Veidt’s headquarters and threaten the life of the world’s most beloved benefactor, in the face of what they both know already is a well-trained and well-armed security force, likely ordered to shoot on sight and if their timing isn’t perfect

And he doesn’t want to see– doesn’t want them to–

“Daniel,” he says, suddenly hoarse, voice on the wavering and cracking edge of some precipice or another. Something is crawling up the back of his throat. He doesn’t want–

“Yeah, I know.” An arm loops over his shoulders, and there is nothing depraved in the touch; just the desperate closeness of one animal in a trap consoling the other, holding back the gut-clenching fear for long enough to draw one breath, then another.

The lives of good men are meant for throwing away, for tossing onto the right fires, for doing what needs to be done, unflinchingly, no looking back. No regrets and no reservations.

It’s a terrifyingly unfamiliar feeling, this business of really, truly not wanting to die.

*

“So, did they tell you anything?”

Dan’s pulling his armor on piece by piece, and it already feels strange again after only a few weeks. It also fits a little bit better – he still has to force it in places, but not as hard as he remembers from the days before Karnak – and he puts that off to the fact that with dwindling finances comes dwindling food supplies. He’s not in better shape, he’s just starting to succumb to malnourishment. It’s not an encouraging thought.

Rorschach grumbles from across the room, belting his old trench back into place. Dan can smell the ancient blood and ash and mustiness of it from all the way over here, and he can almost imagine that it really just smells like fear, plain and simple. And fear is what they’re after. “No. Thought I might be a plant, sent in to expose their plans.”

He’s also picked up a new hat somehow, and Dan finds himself strangely stuck on that fact, on the deliberate nostalgia of it. “Did you tell them anything?”

“No,” and it’s almost a growl now, but there’s something self-amused in it as the brim of the hat comes down, covering the upper half of his face. “Thought they might be plants, put there to expose our plans.”

The situation they’re about to walk into couldn’t be more dire, but Dan still dredges up a laugh from somewhere. “Mutual paranoia; hindering vital alliances since 1971.”

A beat of silence, reaching for the returned goggles, and he can hear the wheels turning.

“…Alliance with local watch group was not necessary, Daniel. Gathered the information we needed on our own.”

“They could have saved a lot of people expensive emergency room visits.”

Rorschach huffs dismissively, rolling the heavier coat over his shoulders to get his feel for it back. “Also could have been Vinuzzi gang shills. Endangered the mission with false information.” A pause. “Endangered both of our lives.”

Dan narrows his eyes slightly; something in that last that was both vulnerable and critical of the vulnerability, and the internal conflict is becoming more obvious, shifting closer to the surface. He smoothes his hair back to situate it under the cowl. “Fair enough,” he says, cautious. “Anything useful come of it at all?”

Another pause, and then Rorschach is crossing the floor towards him with no small urgency. Halts himself a few feet away, wobbling as if he’d just reached the end of an invisible tether. Gloved hands work restlessly over each other, and his voice pitches quiet and low. “…offered us shelter there, and coordination with any plans we may have that will require a distraction.” Prison break, say the words between the words. “If we can provide proof that we’re on their side.”

“…Adrian would probably work for that.”

A curt nod, acknowledgement of the obvious.

And if Rorschach is uncomfortable with the way Dan moves into his personal space to try to keep their voices as low as possible – this place may yet be bugged – he doesn’t flinch away, at least. “This has to work, then. We have to get him out of there. Alive.”

Alive, even though he probably deserves less, even though he’d murdered half a city and enslaved what was left, even though it is the gravest miscarriage of justice Dan can imagine and if he feels that way–

“Yes,” Rorschach says, his voice worryingly caught between agreement and outright lie.

*

“Look,” Dan says, halfway to the warehouse door, rounding back to face Rorschach square-on. “About, uh. About last ni–”

“Worst possible time for this conversation, Nite Owl,” Rorschach replies gruffly, elbowing past and towards the door, not even breaking stride.

And Dan doesn’t miss the name shift, the depersonalization – doesn’t miss the skittish way Rorschach shies away from contact, more fear than disgust, something small and afraid sliding around under his skin. Also doesn’t miss the fact that Rorschach is probably right, that this is the last moment either of them needs a distraction.

Worst possible time. He only just manages to keep from asking if there will be a better time, and really all he wants to do is offer the same reassurance as before – that he doesn’t expect anything, that this doesn’t have to go any further, that he understands what was going on and why – but he is Nite Owl now and they are on the clock and there is no room here for any of that.

(Plenty of time to talk when you’re dead), he thinks, and once again, he isn’t sure whose voice it’s in.

“Coming?” Rorschach asks from the doorframe, hands deep in his pockets, face shadowed by the brim of his hat.

Dan nods, settling his goggles into place.

*

He keeps his eyes closed under the brim of his hat; allows Daniel to put a hand on his shoulder and lead him through the streets. Coming back, their cover will already be blown – but for now, it’s just as important to let the watchers at Veidt’s tower think he’s still in need of guidance as it is to hide from the lights and their prickly instructions.

It’s a practical sort of contact, easy to trust, like the feel of armor against his back in a fight; a level of comfort he’d almost forgotten after a decade of going without it, almost exorcized the need for. He’s still relieved that Daniel is wearing his gauntlets, the thick material like history’s grip on him instead of man’s, reaching over from that secure place they share, buried back and back, blood in the moonlight and faraway sirens and the singing thrill in the veins of justice done.

Safe.

*

They take the blue route on the way out, a strange one-sided flank through back roads and alleys and parking garages that lands them in the questionable cover of midday shade lurking behind the Veidt building. Right against the loading docks, and there are no trucks, no deliveries coming in, only a lightly-armed guard patrolling with a careless lack of attention, their booted feet thumping the pavement with the cadence of the terminally bored. Above them, against a sky so blue as to seem false, gulls wheel and dive.

Something in the back of Dan’s head itches, makes him think of the air shifting hard over Archie’s hullplates when he used to really push the ship to its limits, when the whistling and buffeting sounds would turn ominous and make him wonder if this screw or that bolt would hold, make him want to self-consciously check the maintenance schedule and make sure he’d kept it up. Something is stretching, close to snapping; the trip here has left him feeling exposed and antsy. The itch could be flight or fight or something else entirely, he isn’t sure.

A breath of silence, held in the shadows, one step, two, three –

Then a blur of motion, the feel of flesh under his fist and metal chill through the gloves as the rifles skitter off across the pavement, and the guards are down – and if Rorschach slams one’s head too hard into the pavement, breaks the other’s arm unnecessarily, they are at least allowed to live, huddled in on themselves in groaning, mindless heaps. It’s less than Dan had hoped for, more than he’d honestly expected, a relief and a surprise and a lecture he’s glad to not have to give –

But stepping past the bodies and stalking across the pavement like some hunting creature on bloodscent, Rorschach is still cutting a frighteningly murderous image, and seems unwilling to leave the knife alone where it sits under his coat flap – reaches in to touch it like a token or a charm whenever he thinks Dan isn’t looking. And Dan is looking, and thinking, and worrying more and more because this new tendency to believe one thing and do the other seems increasingly beyond Rorschach’s ability to control.

They leverage the loading bay door open and Dan glances over and Rorschach’s hand is inside his lapel again, and his head is tilted just such that Dan can see up under the brim of his hat. He looks caught in a daydream.

*

“We’re taking him alive,” Dan mutters in the quiet darkness of the loading area, as strangely deserted as the outside yard, every whisper echoing between uninsulated walls and a ceiling far too high. He means it to come off as a simple pre-mission recap, but even he can hear the uncertain waver in his voice. “Right?”

“Of course,” comes the reply, offhanded, and Dan is reminded of a sheet of left-handed clockfaces.

(One hand doesn’t know what the other’s–)

“Okay, well, as long as we’re clear on that.”

Rorschach just grunts in reply, testing a doorknob carefully and pulling his pick case from a pocket when it refuses to turn. Plucks out a wrench and a C-rake, gets to work.

Dan bites his lip, and waits.

*

Dan doesn’t turn to look at him; just feels the rolling hum of the elevator cables through the ceiling and floor, vibrating up through his boots. Watches the levels tick by like a goddamned timer, counting down. Reaches to put one hand on Rorschach’s shoulder, silent encouragement and support and some kind of assurance, whether it’s acknowledged or not. Grounding, for all the good it’ll do.

Just before the readout flips to 60, he feels a hand settle roughly over his, a sliding contact that can’t bear to persist, that is gone almost before it’s there.

The door chimes, a deceptively pleasant anachronism. It opens.

Events get disconnected very quickly, after that.

*

Chapter Text

*

A meeting of eyes across a room, one pair surprised because good god, he really hadn’t been expecting this – one pair swimming with violence under the brim of his hat.

Then Rorschach’s moving, on Adrian in a flash of bloodstained leather, growling like something untamed and unbroken – dropping him flat to the floor more quickly than Dan can even move to jam the lock button on the elevator, to hold it on this floor.

There’s a stairwell, too, and he moves to block it as well as he can. There’s no lock. This will have to be quick.

*

Rorschach has his hand around Veidt’s throat, pressing down with just enough force to restrict breath, to frustrate any attempts to call for help, to make him feel like he’s dying before the real threat even comes.

In a moment, he’ll pull the knife. Not yet – not yet. Once he sees the fear.

Once – once he –

He’s still making noise, snarling, showing teeth crooked and feral, and he knows he smells like blood and death and ash and nightmares. He should be terrifying, bearing down with all the fury of a slaughtered world, crushing the breath out of this murdering, arrogant, decadent piece of inhuman filth, no better than the common rapists and killers he breaks to pieces when he finds them only worse, because Veidt’s victims number in the billions and he has violated their minds, not just their bodies–

But the eyes narrowing in a face more weary and lined than he remembers are not afraid, just surprised and confused and placidly uncomprehending, and that is infuriating.

He will feel terror before he dies. He will–

(“We’re taking him alive.”)

He should be fighting. Struggling. The great Ozymandias, stronger and faster than either of them or both of them and he should be fighting, not lying here turning blue under Rorschach’s hands like acceptance and compliance are all he knows, the only way he can remember to handle confrontation.

(“Can provide proof that we’re…”)

Domesticated. Turned tame to keep him from biting back at the guiding hands, and who do they belong to? Who is –

Fight,” Rorschach growls through his teeth, slamming the back of Veidt’s head against the marble. “Going to kill you if you don’t fight.”

No, no, there should be no if. Should kill him regardless. Can, so easily, but he has to be afraid first, has to see his death in the empty round mirrors of Rorschach’s eyes, has to be afraid enough to fight.

There’s a reason for that. It’s probably important. Who is at the top, whose hands –

Who…

He hears his name from somewhere off to the side. It’s not panicked, not yet, but it sounds unsure and wavering and ready to give up, call this off just as they’re on the cusp of justice, so it must be –

Finally, a struggle under his hands, an attempt to thrash out from under the choking pressure. The fear is there now, blistering up through the skin, flooding around the corners of Veidt’s eyes and it looks like recognition, like panic wrapped in something made of steel and silk and fire.

Rorschach fumbles in his coat, pulling the knife free in one sharp motion.

*

In the overhead lights, the metal sings, and Dan thinks he will always remember the way the fluorescents flash off of the edge of the blade, blindingly intense for just that single moment, endless possibilities still hanging in the air.

*

“Rorschach!” He’s shouting, and he’s moving towards them as the knife flashes downward and Adrian’s body tenses like a wild creature’s and his hand comes up to meet the blow and deflect it and damn it all, he wasn’t supposed to actually –

(No. You knew he’d try.)

But he’d thought he’d have more chance to intervene, and before he can take another step the cheap blade is already shattering where it hits the marble and Rorschach is skidding across the tile like something boneless and impossibly lightweight and Adrian is groggy and blinking, blinking, when he pushes himself to his hands and knees and looks up to lock eyes across the room.

“Dan?” he asks, confused, but it’s an honest confusion, utterly out of place in that voice. Against the far wall, Rorschach’s struggling to get back to his feet. Having trouble, and he shouldn’t be.

It’s all just distracting enough that when the stairwell door explodes inward behind him – the very eventuality he’d been standing there to try to prevent – he doesn’t even register the presence of the guards in the room until the first round of bullets slams into his armor from behind, knocking him senseless and winded to the cold, white marble floor.

*

He can’t move. He can hear a shout, something incoherent and bubbling over with enough fury to mask the fear, and he doesn't understand, doesn't know why he feels driven to say it’s fine, I’m all right. But his voice won’t come and he doesn’t really know if it’s true anyway because he can’t move and he thinks for a horrible moment that maybe his armor failed, that his spine’s been severed and he can’t breathe or move or make sense of anything but that horrible noise, rising and falling like evening wind over the harbor – touch of damp fingers, smell of decay, sound of empty, hollowed-out misery, and the other birds never seem to notice it but he does, he does.

So much noise...

Adrian hasn’t spoken again since that first word and the world is still tilted sideways but a half-second later he can feel his toes again in a rush of prickling heat, can feel where he’ll be black and blue tomorrow,

(if you survive that long)

can feel his muscles start to respond as he tries to get his hands under him.

It’s still not fine – because he remembers what's going on now, where he is, and cheek to the floor he can hear the thumping of the guards’ boots around and past him, towards the far wall and–

*

He feels dizzy, like he’s just held his breath for days and the inrush of oxygen has sent his brain cells spinning off in ecstasy, abandoning him when he needs them the most because it isn’t a minute to noon, the angle of the light’s all wrong and he knows that something terribly important has just happened, is still happening. But he can’t make the connection and someone is making a lot of noise and there are guards running across his vision just as it starts to grey out and has there been gunfire? Will there be more?

He scrabbles at the edge of the desk, pulling himself up, trying to force focus because– because–

*

Daniel’s down, has been shot, has taken enough rounds to tear an unarmored man cleanly in half and when he first opened his mouth all he’d intended to come out was a name, a question in two syllables but instead something sharp and bloody is wrenching from his throat and he can’t stop it because Nite Owl isn’t moving and he’s so angry (afraid) that his voice can’t hold anything else. He’s still struggling to right himself against a leg that doesn’t seem to want to take any weight and ribs that pull like they’re broken and then the guards are on him, shoving him back to the floor, heavy on his shoulders and ribcage, grinding his face into the marble and everything, everything is wrong.

Wrong. Fight. Don’t let them–

Autopilot. Hand around an ankle, yanked sharply, one man off-balance and tumbling to the floor. Roll, dodge, an arm between his hands snapping like dry kindling wrapped inside a cushion of meat, ignore the howl of pain like the simple distraction it is, to his feet, to his feet–

Arms caught up behind him, tripped back to the ground. A knee presses into the center of his back and he can feel the warm metal against his skin above the scarf and it’s warm because it’s still smoking from eleven seconds ago, because it’s already taken one man down and they’ve got him at the wrong angle now, weighed down with more force than he can squirm out from under. He can’t see anything, can’t see if Nite Owl’s recovering, if his armor held and the metal is against his neck and he’s struggling, hard and mindless, because it’s all he can do and being still and doing what they want isn’t going to save him anyway and–

*

Hands, then feet, armor stiff and swelling bruises stiffer as he lurches toward the sound of a fight, willing his vision to clear, forcing breath to drag roughly through his lungs even as armored hands clamp down around his arms because he needs his voice, needs it

*

A breath of air that would taste like freedom if everything weren’t going so terribly wrong and why can’t he focus

*

He just needs to see, needs to know

*

He’s shouting and shouting and his voice is shot, and the clack-clunk of the rifle cycling a round into the pipe is deafening and he can finally see the way they’ve got Rorschach face-down in the floor and the muzzle tucked up under his ear and he’s thrashing and Dan is screaming at Adrian, “Call them off, Adrian, for god’s sake call them off, ” and his voice is weak but it’s cutting and sharp and he hopes that’s enough and

Rorschach stops fighting all at once, like Dan’s voice has short-circuited some relay at the back of his brain and he just shudders down into the tile and

Adrian is dazed and overwhelmed and it’s all moving too quickly and Dan wrenches against the two guards holding him back by the arms and he’s not even making sense anymore, not making words – just animal noise, and the goggles give him so much detail and he can see the finger going tighter around that tiny flange of metal that will end both their worlds and

“Stand down,” Adrian finally manages, voice wavering as he pulls himself off of his knees, leaning heavily on the desk and it’s obviously taking every ounce of will he has but he’s done it, he’s said it.

It’s a moment too late. The shot echoes like silence, hard and sharp and etched slow into the building wall of sound.

Then there’s the high-pitched ping of a ricochet and a dull thud as the bullet buries into a wall joist somewhere across the room. It’s over before Dan even has a chance to register it, before his chest can constrict and steal his ability to breathe, before he can blink, before he can even think oh god oh fuck he shot– he shot him in the–

The moment hangs, and Rorschach isn’t moving and he can see the blood but it doesn’t seem like there’s enough of it, and if the bullet went into the wall then it didn’t go into…

“I said stand down,” Adrian cuts in, more force behind the words. “As far as I’m aware, the instruction doesn’t include a rider to fire a warning shot across the bow.”

Across the…

The guards pinning Rorschach’s body to the floor let go, back away, leave him lying too, too still. Dan feels his own arms released but he’s not sure his legs can support him, rolling under him like water.

But then Adrian’s ordering the guards out of the room and Rorschach is rolling onto his back under his own power, and there’s blood running through his fingers in thick streams but his skull looks intact under the mess of it all. There’s a dark, splintered divot in the tile next to him to mark where the bullet actually hit.

He pulled the shot, Dan realizes through the numb, dizzying rush of blood returning to his brain all at once. Had already put enough weight on the trigger when the order came and, like a good automaton, pulled up. Mechanical. Robotic. Just quickly enough that it’d gone high, across the scalp instead of into it – off the tile, into the wall. Dear god.

Dan hasn’t even realized he’s moving yet but he’s already across the room, hauling Rorschach up until he’s sitting and pulling that hand back to pluck through matted hair and find the wound and make sure it isn’t deeper that it looks, isn’t serious, isn’t baring bone or worse. It’s clean, and Rorschach’s eyes are focused, clear, no sign of concussion – tracking his every move, bright with undisguised relief.

And it takes a moment to make sense of that, but then he realizes: Rorschach saw him go down. Probably didn’t see much after, and assumed the worst. Dan feels a flood of warmth tighten his ribs under a still-spreading map of blackened soreness.

Over his shoulder, he can feel Adrian’s unsteady gaze, and he watches Rorschach shift to meet it, something sharp and unidentifiable riding low in his expression, clouded by shock and pain but still there, always there. Battles left unfought or unwon, pushed aside for another day; justice not served, wrongs not righted, and there are pieces of the shattered knife blade embedded into Rorschach’s gloves, tiny rivulets of blood gathering where they’ve bitten straight through.

Never enough.

“It’s okay,” Dan says, and he’s not sure whose benefit he’s saying it for. He smoothes his gauntlet over the mess of blood and hair and torn skin, over and over, and it’s shaking. “We’re okay.”

*

“God,” Adrian’s muttering, arms heavy across his lap where he’s collapsed into the desk chair. The guards are gone but the stairwell door won’t stay shut now, and it’s hard to not keep looking at it, half-expecting their return. “You couldn’t possibly have been a bit less dramatic about all of this?”

Rorschach growls, and whether it’s from annoyance at the question and the apparent ingratitude or from pain is unclear. Dan’s got Adrian’s linen handkerchief, the only thing he’d had on hand to offer that could serve as a compress, pressed to the side of Rorschach’s head; it’s still bleeding and bleeding, but that’s what scalp wounds do. He knows that much from all their years on the street - they're terrifying to look at but ultimately harmless.

“Had to look real,” Rorschach grumbles, as if just speaking to Adrian is a level of personal involvement beyond what he’d signed on for. Reaches up to bat Dan’s hand away, taking hold of the soaked-through cloth and pressing it in with a viciousness that borders on self-injury. “Had to feel real. Or it wouldn’t have worked.”

A huff of dry, desperate laughter. “You mean that wasn’t real? I’d hate to see how you act around someone you actually do want to kill.”

A long, strained silence, and this could spiral out of control so, so quickly. Dan can feel the bleeding edge of it like an itch in his back teeth. He stands, reaching to pull Rorschach to his feet. “We should really get–”

“Implying?” Rorschach asks, and it’s a question but also not a question, and his voice sounds rougher than it should, like he’s speaking through some intolerable emotion.

“I really don’t think that–”

“Implying nothing,” Adrian asserts from his chair. “I don’t currently have the energy – or, very likely, the presence of mind – to fling accusations. I was just observing that it seemed a bit more than staged.”

Silence.

“I mean, really now,” he continues, looking up with a weary smile, and more than in the photographs or in his face when they visited last, Dan can see all the years laid in around it. “That had ‘crime of opportunity’ written all over it.”

“You should know all about crimes,” Rorschach spits back, dropping the cloth to the floor and pulling his arm free from Dan’s grip. “Of opportunity or otherwise.”

This is it, Dan’s thinking. Should have known neither of them could resist lighting the keg. He moves to step between them, to intercede somehow, anything to stop this from going hell right now, after everything they’ve risked to get to this point–

But before he even gets the chance, Adrian sighs, holding his hands up in something halfway between placation and surrender. “Fair enough, I suppose. Let’s not make the day any more traumatic than it’s already been.” He fixes them both with tired eyes in turn, and he’s either a very good actor or there’s actually something sincere in them. “We do have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Rorschach’s just about vibrating in place, maybe not expecting the concession, not sure what to do in the face of something other than yet another denial, another feint or wall of defense. Maybe starting to feel the bloodloss. It’s hard to tell.

“All right, look, uh,” Dan fumbles, and all of this is so anticlimactic. He picks Rorschach’s hat up from the floor, tries not to look too closely at the bloodstain already drying or at the way one edge is nicked and singed. Offers it over silently. “You know where we’ve been, can you meet us there at eight tomorrow?”

The clock on the desk reads 1:34 PM. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Rorschach disappearing under the hat, slipping into the space between it and scarf and turned-up coat collar, and wonders for a moment, inanely, why he ever needed the mask. Why any of them did.

Adrian runs his hand back through his hair, uncaring of the way it musses, the way it breaks the illusion and spoils the image and makes him look weary and confused and common, and nods. “Eight it is.”

*

The stairwell, Adrian advised them, not the elevators. No cameras on the stairs and less people, and the fifth floor has access direct to a fire escape, of sorts. They’ve clambered down it to somewhere around the third when Rorschach’s grousing reaches a volume that Dan can no longer ignore.

His hands tighten around the rung of the ladder, and through the leather, he can feel his knuckles go white. “Damn it – let it go, it’s not important.”

Rorschach doesn’t pause in his descent, doesn’t even look up, but when he hits the next landing he stops, scowls. “Accused me of–”

“Of something that’s probably at least a little true,” Dan counters, dropping the last two feet all at once. Because he’d seen the look on Rorschach’s face too – maybe not as close-up or vividly as Adrian had, but what he’d seen had been enough. Heard, too, and he hadn’t been waiting for an answer back there, because it isn’t really a question. “Look, his self-control is basically nonexistent. Like yours was yesterday, remember?”

A ducking of his head that Dan’s figured out over the years to be something like a cat obsessively grooming its tail; a grudging admission, tempered by embarrassment. Dan’s never seen the eyes behind it before, the way they shift to the side, desperately avoiding contact. He’s so far beyond caring about the other man’s dignity or shame right now that he can’t even express it.

“Like I think yours still is,” he continues instead, ducking his own face to track the brim-shadowed expression, shifting mercurially, refusing to settle. “You do realize you almost got your head blown off in there because you didn’t know when to stop, right?”

“Had to put him in fear of-”

Dan shakes his head, having none of it. “Bullshit. He was fighting you off already. You went too far.”

“Bad time for this, Nite Owl.” Rorschach glances around them suspiciously as if to emphasize their need to move, now, to keep moving, because that’s what he does, isn’t it? Moves and moves and never slows down enough to–

Dan narrows his eyes behind the goggles. “You always do that.”

“Try to keep priorities straight, yes,” Rorschach snaps back, still scowling. “First priority is to move away from compromising position. Sound tactic in most situations.”

Dan laughs, and it’s sharp-edged with something that’d almost been forced to be grief, is still trying to reinvent itself. Chooses, in this moment, to become absurdly dangerous candor. “Yeah, ‘compromising positions’, that’s exactly it. And you know? You’re always right. It always is a bad time. But it’s still a deflection.”

“Only attempting to deflect odds of being apprehended, Daniel,” and it sounds uncompromising and sincere and Dan almost believes it; probably because Rorschach almost believes it himself. And there’s still blood running from under the hat and Rorschach looks just miserable, dazed and tired, chewed up and spat out by the great toothy maw of the city and that isn’t far off, really.

It occurs to Dan that at this same time yesterday, just twenty-four hours ago, Rorschach was sitting catatonically against a crate, barely capable of intelligent speech beyond the functional necessities. Now, standing in front of him on a fire escape, bleeding and diverting and playing word games and Dan feels that amorphous something reshape itself again into something a lot less pointed, a lot more grateful despite the contradictions because maybe he’s infuriating and maybe this badly needs to be addressed, and maybe the anger won’t be tamped down on, has him clenching his fists against its temptations, but Rorschach is still fucking here to be angry with, and god–

A few seconds of silence, a few false starts, but none of this is willing to be wrapped into words. Eventually, Dan starts getting that ‘need to move’ itch too – they’re high up and in the open, far too exposed – and he nods. Turns to the next ladder, and starts climbing.

“You’re good,” he says, as they drop to the pavement a few minutes later, move to cross the street; he can see Rorschach covering his eyes out of the corner of his own, feels the press of a shoulder into his arm for the unoffered guidance he nevertheless needs to not wander blindly into traffic. “I’ll give you that.”

*

They traverse the city in silence, slipping through its eerie, empty streets without a sideways word. They’re starting to learn the patterns of this place – alternating vacancy and rush, the way the pressing crowd syncs up its collective footfalls until the pavement feels like thunder, the way even a skittering scrap of newspaper is shockingly loud in the vacuum that follows – and maybe they are also learning to match its moods. Or there may be something petty in it, but he doubts Daniel's going to own up to that.

Whatever it is, though, it's spent by the time they reach the warehouse and put its solid door between them and the world outside, still sleeping, caught in its whispering greyscale dream. They’ve had to shake a tail twice, long habit overriding the obvious futility, and the blood is still running and everything in this space feels so real, and the childish peevishness has given way to fear, to anger, raw and uncomplicated.

Fists and violence and shouting are uncomplicated. He can process uncomplicated; it's better than the alternative. The door slams, and the crash is unnaturally loud between high, far walls. “All right. We’re off the street, we have no pressing engagements. Is now a good time?”

Rorschach makes a low noise of complaint; It's an unacceptably vague question. "Which?"

"Hell, I don't know. Either. No, wait." Daniel pushes back the cowl and goggles, scrubbing through his hair. "Not either. This suicidal bullshit first."

"Not suicidal."

"Because if we're going to be doing this- and not just this, I mean Christ, I can't deal with..."

"Not suicidal, Daniel."

Daniel's pacing stops directly in front of him, and there's something in his eyes that's furious. Rorschach feels the brim of his hat dip in challenge, daring Daniel to contradict, knowing full well that he will.

"Sure looked like it back there. And in Antarctica. And..." Daniel scoops his civilian clothes off of the table, goes through the pockets. Comes up with his glasses, and a folded scrap of paper. "...when I found this. You're going to tell me this is all goddamned circumstantial? Because it's starting to look like a trend to me."

Rorschach feels a tugging in his brain, an old, intolerant voice telling him that this is more of Daniel's sentimental nonsense, that they don't have time for this, that he doesn't have to indulge any of it. Doesn't owe him anything. The words are there, on the tip of his tongue, but they feel unfamiliar and wrong when he opens his mouth, sitting there in the open air without shifting latex to filter them, to give them weight and shape.

There's only so much space between them now, and it's claustrophobic – because really, they have nothing to occupy their time until morning, and he owes Daniel more than he'd care to admit. He can feel the blood crusting onto his face as it dries, knows how close a thing it was, and he feels fear like he remembers from their earliest patrols, gunshots and crowbars whistling through the summer air. He can't remember if he heard the bullet, this time– and his shoulders hurt, like he's been bearing some unfathomable weight.

"Listen," Daniel says, and he lifts his hands as if he'd like to grip Rorschach by the arms, shake these things into him, but it doesn't connect. The moment is delicate, and maybe he knows that his touch will shatter it, will send all the pieces scattering for cover. Maybe he's just too afraid to find out. "There might have been a time when... well, I would have fought you on it, but in the end, whatever cause you thought was worth throwing yourself on, that would have been your choice. But... god, man. You're all I..." A sharp exhale, and from under the brim of the hat, Rorschach narrows his eyes. "We're all the world has, is what I'm trying to... damn it, I don't... You just don't get to duck out of this one early."

Ducking out. Walking away. 1975, 1977, 1985 in Veidt's sanctum, words spinning and voices pitched low, compromising. You quit.

("Now you're quitting on me.")

"Not giving up," Rorschach grits out, and there's anger there, rising up through quicksilver. It's bitter, like hypocrisy; he knocks the hands away from where they hover. "Have no right to- Don't. Don't want to die." Then, because evidence is evidence and Daniel is already opening his mouth to say it; because the note is damning, Karnak even more so and there are things he won't admit to even now: "Have a purpose! Think I would abandon–"

He cuts off, hands fisted at his sides, because there are many flavors of abandonment and he's held every one of them on the back of his tongue, and he would– he would never.

(You almost did, in that stiff cold wind at the bottom of the world.)

"And when that's done with? When everything's fixed? Then what?"

Silence, and a glare that feels like old times, that feels like the knife-in-the-gut twist of that familiar widening gap, in the years of blood and ash and payphones passed by without a glance. It says None of your business, Nite Owl, and it says I'll keep my own conscience and it says Maybe, maybe. It doesn't admit that the purpose, their battle against this greatest of injustices wreaked on the entire world, is only half of that fear, is only half of what makes the thought of quitting now run bile up his throat.

The other half–

He shakes his head, and Daniel rubs his eyes, and there are battles being chosen. "What happened back there? We had a plan."

There's a lot he could say about plans, but all he can feel is the weight of the knife in his hand, how satisfying the downward flight of it had been, and there's no room here for a childish denial. "Couldn't... nnk. Couldn't control it. Can't..." his hands scrub over his face, searching for the comforting obfuscation that isn't there. "Can't control anything, Daniel."

He's disoriented, and memories are spinning up around now, black and white threads lashing around color, hands and two weeks of a quiet voice in the dark – and then the words are out before he has time to realize that no, no, this isn't right: "Your fault. Compromised me."

There's an expression blossoming onto Daniel's face now, like blood seeping through layers of fabric until it's finally visible on the surface, heavy and frightening and telling of some terrible injury underneath, and this is wrong. Daniel runs his hand over his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose. Laughs, and that's somehow the most painful part. "You... god, you son of a bitch. After everything I did for you, you think this was some kind of... some kind of plan, that I engineered this?"

"Are an engineer," and he can feel how smug he's sounding, and it's wrong, this is all wrong, but he can't seem to stop. "And have always had... proclivities."

"Oh, all right. What's it gonna be this time? My liberal education? Laurie? Leslie? Or maybe the way I broke you out of jail and followed you to Antarctica to wage a pointless war against an injustice bigger than we could possibly handle, just because it was the right goddamned thing to do?"

Silence, just a beat too long.

"Yeah," Dan continues, quieter, but no softer, no more forgiving. "It was pointless in the end, wasn't it? Just like you throwing your life away now that I've only just gotten you back." A slip, that has to be, or the anger talking; possessiveness bled over from their old partnership, not– never– "Christ, man. Can't you see that?"

Rorschach breathes out, a harsh exhale, almost a growl. Remembers how little sound his mask had made falling into the snow, how silently Daniel had stood behind him, making no fuss, stealing none of his dignity; how badly he'd wanted Daniel to turn away. There might have been a time...

They'd had a plan, and he hadn't stuck to it, and there was a time when Daniel might have fussed over his safety but Nite Owl would have been furious, raging like a cataract – and this creature before him is somehow both, and maybe that's how it's supposed to be. Feathers and iron, and the feathers always hit the ground first, or is it–

"Listen to me," Daniel says, and it's a simple enough request. "So you can't control yourself right now – fine. You're still the one that needed me last night."

[Hands on a hilt and hands slipping through the dark, parting it like black oil, shearing it away from skin like onionflesh, cleaving out something ancient the scalds like acid and ash. He doesn't know which hands are his, but he knows that there is too much under them, too much here, bright and savage. It's blinding.]

[It can't happen again.]

"And that's all right, there's nothing wrong with – whoa, whoa," Daniel is saying suddenly, as if he's trying to handle some wild animal. He does feel hands on his arms now, holding him in place with a gentle violence, and the panic rises in bubbling waves, hot from inside. (It can't, it can't.) The smell of musty old blood is suffocating, suddenly; it reminds him of justice but also of a cloaked form walking away, not turning to look back. Sweat and blood and yes, even tears, and salt and salt and salt–

"It's okay," Daniel says, and the words ride a breath close enough to feel on his face. Rorschach chokes.

[He can't breathe, and all the blood is coiling away from his head and there is an indecent pressure, an unbearable heat, and his fingers are buzzing because there is skin under them, pliant and accepting and he's rocking, rocking against too many layers of fabric but he won't lower either of them to that level of vulnerability– and he somehow wakes warm and held and has to disentangle himself from all these limbs and threads of vulnerability and shame like catgut, and he’s barely able to peel the goggles away without running his hands over that face, through the hair and it’s all because Daniel had offered whatever he needed and god, he'd needed.]

"It's my fault," he grits out, "I did this," and yes, yes, this is right. Jumbled sensations collude together; there are hands on his arms because he was thrashing like an animal, like something that must be made still and safe. The wall is cold against his back because that is where Daniel has him pinned.

Pinned. Trapped. It's a feedback loop, and his body wants to fight harder for it, but he forces it still – forces all the fight-or-flight into his heaving breath, his hands clenched so tightly that the leather is creaking at the knuckles.

"It's no one's fault, it's just – Rorschach," Daniel says, sharp. "Calm down, it's just me. You're fine."

(Fine like this, fine like–)

"You're fine," he repeats, hands squeezing their way up to Rorschach's shoulders, and behind the glasses his eyes look like hot coals.

[Fingers under his skin like fire, working bloodless over ribs and beneath scars and plunging between hard muscle, and did that happen or was it a dream – in the deep endless sleep that came after, his sated body treacherous to their need for vigilance? If he reaches now, will he feel the scars?]

"Burn it out of me," he's saying, voice high and tight, because he can feel the black tumor of this thing spreading under his skin wherever those hands range over him. "Cut it..."

That was Warren's idea, wasn't it, says a voice in his head, and it sounds like Daniel's; this is secondhand knowledge, framed in that patient tone. Carve out the human heart lest it be allowed to darken and turn– but how can this be darkness when it's nearly too bright to look at?

Empty it out, then, his voice now, Rorschach's or Walter's or something from the overlapping edges. Flush out the sickness, make it clean.

[Stepping into a darkened pre-dawn world, he sees eyes that don't see him in return, and he thinks about the children who never play just as he never played and the sound of windows sliding closed in an alley and the smell of leftover Tandoori in Daniel's kitchen, curling around the doorframe and down to the basement like a thing with purpose. He watches this sterile clockwork and wonders: Is this life? Is a life this empty worth living?]

[He is not a philosopher, these are not the sort of questions he has answers for; but suspicions, always suspicions.]

"We'll fix this, whatever it is, okay?" and Daniel is no longer angry, isn't demanding answers or concessions. His grip has loosened but not vanished, and that hurts in a way Rorschach isn't used to, can't deal with. "It doesn't- you don't have to be freaking out like this. I meant what I said. You're not obligated, here."

("I won't hold you to anything later.")

[No, earlier, back in the swirling haze, words like the gentle pressure of fingertips against his mind: "Figures, you know. I finally get to touch you like this, and you probably don't even know I'm here."]

Clarity slams back in all at once, and it feels as if the entire world has just come into brilliantly sharp focus. Concrete under the worn soles of his shoes, concrete against his back, Daniel's hands on his shoulders and face hanging in front of him, concerned and afraid and still a little angry, under all of it. Everything is physical and simple again.

"...Always knew you were there," he mumbles, and his chest is tight, the words tighter.

The fingers loosen further, Dan's eyes drifting out of focus as he tries to place the non-sequitor.

"When I was gone. When you were..."

"Oh," Dan says, and there's something soft and delicate climbing into his eyes. "Oh... I, I mean, that's..."

"Not trying to die," he repeats, and these things are dipping and weaving in and out of focus but they're tied so closely together that it feels natural, feels right that in the context of their lives, death and need would tug on both ends of the same rope, would loop around on themselves. "Terrifying. Never was before."

[Adrian, standing over them, sneering from the far side of the desk, safely across an ocean of polished wood and brass. “I had no idea.”]

[Daniel, soft hands and softer words, bracing him against his own violence in a darkness too complete for words.]

[Rorschach, leaning against the wall, in a vigilante's clothes but with a civilian’s conscience, scrubbing over his face with his hands because at least that is skin, at least it is human. It is something.]

"I guess..." and Nite Owl is gone completely now, and it's better that way, that only Daniel receive this confession. "You just need a reason, sometimes?"

They've ended up on the floor somehow, slid down against the wall and Daniel crouching in front of him, and the concrete feels like a part of him, like it's reaching into him and diffusing all of the city's secrets straight into his blood– the clockwork people and the soulless machine that winds them and the furtive guilt and desperation of its figurehead and all the old history, the ancient bloodstains and remembered screams and the dirtiest secret of all: that everyone needs something in this place, needs someone, to ease them through the darkest spaces and keep them alive, keep them wanting to live.

And this, whatever it is, whatever its perversity – it's something.

Gradually, the ache in his gut subsides, and his hands feel only fabric under them, only the roughness of the concrete floor. He can let breath swell his chest without feeling hands against it, soft and burning and clinging. He can breathe and understand that the breath is his own.

"Tomorrow," Rorschach says, changing the subject with all the subtlety of a battering ram but neither of them will argue it, wrung-out now, empty. "Should explain our plan before taking him to the resistance?" It's a subtle thing that makes it a question and not an instruction, but the implication is clear; he's asking for an opinion, not simply stating how things will be. And that feels huge, feels like some new secret fed back into the city at his feet, like the entire landscape of the world has changed.

Daniel raises his eyebrows, settles more comfortably onto the floor. Just looks, for longer than is comfortable.

"...there are these islands," he finally says, with the tone of I know this sounds unrelated, but bear with me. "Off the coast of South America. And when a flock of finches got to them at some point, they split up– and all the islands were so different, needed so many different things, to survive on. And they adapted, and now you can barely tell they were all the same once."

"Survived?" Rorschach asks, tipping his head up, dried blood splitting his face in a broad line.

"Yeah. They're stronger for it, and fitter. Best thing that ever happened to them. But they're still just birds, man. Nothing about their basic nature changed."

A cautious silence, and then Dan reaches to lift the hat away, to run his fingers over the scalp wound, a more careful inspection now that it's stopped bleeding. It's mechanical and nothing they haven't both done for each other dozens of times, dozens of injuries. "I think we should tell him," he says, fingers pushing red-black stiffened hair aside. "Hell he's been through and the fact that he deserved it aside, he might have insight into whether it'll actually work."

Rorschach nods shallowly, mindful of the forgiving fingers tracing out the scale and depth of his mistakes, writ plain across his skin.

*

Chapter Text

*

It's early in the morning but life – real life, lived in the moment, improvised on the spot in all of its joy and freefall terror, doesn't run on schedules. Doesn't care that the sun's only barely up or that the morning meal hasn't even been started or that it's far too early for the Blakowski twins and Timothy Miller to be making trouble, flicking pebbles at the pigeons that mill at the edges of the camp, eating last night's leftover desert out of styrofoam cups with their fingers, faces smeared in sugar and mashed cherries. A sharp whistle from around two fingers, one mother or another, and they shove the pebbles into their pockets, giggling. There's a lot here that shouldn't be.

Frank Donnelly stands at the threshold of his scrapmetal shack, watching the dawn light slip like liquid gold along the sharp and jagged edges. He is taking a moment as he does every morning to appreciate the fact that he knows his name, really knows it in the way that he knows his skin – knows that he was named for his grandfather, knows that his last name resided in Donegal four generations back and knows the winding path it took to arrive here, this city, this place – when he's overwhelmed by a sudden vertigo.

It's not a feeling he could describe; something like anticipation and dread and the spinning rides he remembers from Coney Island, round and round until he always felt right on the edge of something, a nauseous breath away from a hollow, brittle understanding.

Something important is going to happen today.

*

"Look," Dan says, and he wonders for a moment if he's blowing up so Rorschach doesn't have to. His hands are hovering on the edge of an unfamiliar violence. "We busted you out of that thing because we need you and we know you want this fixed as badly as we do. Don't make the mistake of thinking that means we like you."

"Oh, Dan. We used to be friends."

"Yeah, sure. Before you decided to commit mass murder. You're not off the hook for that."

He'd come through the dockside door – discreet, a good choice – hooded jacket low over his face and all calm composure. Dan had really hoped the last few years would have taught him some humility, and maybe they had, somewhere inside. But the swagger and the confidence seemed carved deep into the heartwood of his personality and after what they risked–

"A lot of good people died," Dan says, stalking toward the workbench and its folded maps, and damn the hypocrisy if he's mostly thinking of Hollis, of his buddy Jack in the Ornithology Association, of the delivery boy from Panda Garden who always used to throw in a few extra almond cookies and a genuine smile. If he's missing the big picture, he can live with it right now.

"Yes, well. I stand by the claim that my motivations were legitimate–"

Rorschach finally slips his control, storming over from his post by the door, fists shaking at his sides, ranting with every step. "Not your right to decide that for the world, take away their freedom to choose. To make sacrificial beasts of millions of–"

"But I could have put more thought to the consequences," Adrian continues, ignoring the interruption. "Especially as pertains to longevity of peace and the aftermath." A pause, his eyes tracking Rorschach's motions as he retrieves his scarf from his pocket, winds it through clenched fists. "What are you doing with that?"

"Blindfold," Rorschach says, voice just barely containing something dark, something that's obviously enjoying itself.

Adrian raises an eyebrow. From the table, Dan watches, and he's only a little ashamed to be enjoying this too.

Rorschach loops the scarf over his eyes, pulls it tight across the bridge of his nose. It bunches where Rorschach's working the knot; it probably hurts. "Is this necessary?"

"Can't have them accusing us of leading you right to their doorstep, can we?" Dan opens the map finally, running a finger down its streets and alleys, trying to work out a path that's too convoluted to retrace but easy enough to memorize. "I don't think they'd be willing to help us if they thought we'd compromised their position."

"Well." Eyebrows raise above the scarf. "Fair enough, I suppose."

Rorschach steps back to admire his handiwork. Narrows his eyes. "Do you regret it?" he asks after a moment, voice dark and empty. Neither really needs to ask what it is, or question what rides on the answer.

A strangely hesitant silence, one hand coming up to touch the cloth over his eyes, explore this new boundary to his universe. When he answers, the confidence isn't gone, but it's tempered by honesty. "I've spent every waking moment of the last five years regretting it. Quite literally. I do understand that regret isn't the same as atonement, but I'd like to think it's a good start."

Another silence, and something in Rorschach snaps, audible like a dry branch on a winter day. He turns and walks back to the table, sudden fury visible in every motion – rolls up the map from under Dan's navigating fingers, tucks it into his coat. Heads for the door.

"You've got a ways to go," Dan finally says, stepping up to take Adrian by the arm and lead him out into the street.

*

"So I'm assuming there's some sort of plan here, beyond parading me around like a show pony." With the hood up and the scarf in place over his eyes, Adrian doesn't look like himself at all – doesn't look like anyone in particular. Nobody. Anybody. Masks are an old trick, one they're all familiar with.

Dan keeps his hand on one shoulder, guiding Adrian around obstacles as they walk. Three steps ahead, Rorschach's setting a furious pace, anger sublimated into haste, rolling the map between his fingers. He has the goggles again; Dan's relying on the improvised filter he spent most of last night fitting to his glasses to keep the worst of it out. "There's, uh. Well. There's a plan, yes."

"Which is?"

Dan makes a few more indistinct noises; finds himself having trouble articulating this. It'd seemed a risky but acceptable idea in the shadow of the warehouse's walls, separated from the people whose lives they're planning to gamble with. Now, on the street, laid bare in the light of day, it's a harder sell.

"Change instructions," Rorschach cuts in bluntly from up ahead, not breaking stride, not bothering with tact. "Instruct populace to commit suicide."

In a nearby tree, a bird flutters its wings in sudden, fierce irritation. It's the only sound.

"...you can't be serious."

No answer from Rorschach, forging onward with an unwavering step.

"I do understand the idea, and it makes theoretical sense, but... Dan. You do realize how much blood will be on your hands if you're wrong?"

"...one to talk," comes the grumble, now four steps ahead.

Dan ignores it; tries to hide the flinch. "There are risks, but the way I see it, whoever was responsible for this mess will be the one with the blood on his hands." It's not a particularly pointed tone, but the implication is obvious, and Dan wonders for a moment how different this is from what Adrian had done, this toying with life on a mass scale.

Adrian's obviously thinking it too, expression half amused and half distressed. Dan reminds himself that Adrian's plan involved the guaranteed deaths of millions; that this here now is just a calculated risk. It's not the same thing.

"That wasn't actually me," Adrian finally volunteers, "despite what I'm sure you believe. There was a politician–"

"Senator Warren, yeah. We know."

"–and those carrying on in his place are even more dogmatic. Morality of your plan aside, gaining access to the control device will be difficult."

Dan shifts his hand, guides them around a turn in the sidewalk. "Probably not impossible thou– wait. In his place?" He stops them walking, lowers his voice. "He's not in charge anymore? Where is he?"

"Riker's Island."

Even Rorschach stops short at that, turns to look back at them. Dan licks his lip, mouth suddenly dry. "You mean he's..."

"Yes. Ironic, isn't it?"

"Not the word I'd choose," Rorschach says, stalking back toward them, visibly run out of patience. "Will it work."

That's it, the real question, and Adrian seems to be considering his answer – actually thinking, not just making derisive commentary or trusting his own immediate instincts. It's unnerving to actually watch the gears turn; like using the Difference Engine when you're used to a Tandy.

"...it should. If the survival instinct is what frees people, then it should work. I shudder to think of the chaos you'd be unleashing–"

"Leave maintaining order to us. We've got a plan there too."

"–and there's also the issue of the children," Adrian continues, pointed. "Many too young to understand what death is, much less suicide. If that prevents survival from kicking in..."

And Dan's suddenly glad he can't be seen because he's just gone white – white with some green around the edges. He can't make out Rorschach's rough breathing anymore, and there's nothing wrong with his hearing. It's a second or two before he can form words again: "Jesus. I hadn't even thought of that."

A grunt from Rorschach. He hadn't either, and it's bothersome how far off their game they both are.

"We'd have to code it to exempt them somehow." The expected derision and mockery isn't there; it's more obvious now than ever that five years under the lights have changed him. Changed them all. "That will be tricky, to understate it somewhat."

Dan thinks of a weasel in a poorly cut grey suit, stinking of bitterness and dissatisfaction and fear. Wonders how much a man needs to know about the system to be put in charge of its use. "I think I might have a few ideas on that."

"...good," Rorschach says, tone flat but Dan can hear the relief in it. He takes up point again, leading them through the labyrinth the city becomes when every window is open for just a moment before it closes and eyes are everywhere, watching.

*

They arrive all at once – one moment, they're in an alley like so many others, the city's clogged vessels flushed clean, and there's a strange smell in the air. Food, but not chain food, not the hamburgers and coffee and fast, generic garbage this world seems to thrive on. It's spicy and thick, eastern, with a sharp and incongruous spike of cayenne and tomato. One moment, they are between narrow walls that could be any walls, could be any buildings, windows shut, sill boxes abandoned. They are in the city.

The next, they're in a wide open area, dotted with structures that look like huts, interconnected by snaking roofed walkways roped in against wandering out from under them. But the place is intricate and beautiful for all its rough edges, metal shining in the sun, and Dan can only imagine what it looks like from the sky. Spider web, he thinks. Cat's cradle.

A boy stands at the nearest edge of one of the walkways, gesturing to them urgently to come in under the roof. He's wearing a shirt three sizes too big and pants rolled up to their torn knees. A pair of black-spraypainted laboratory goggles hang around his neck. "Come on," he's saying. "Before the satellites see."

Satellite imagery. Looking for this camp, and they're just out in the open–

By the time they're under the walkway's awning, the place has come to life – violent, scrabbling life, afraid life, uncomprehendingly hopeful life. A middle-aged woman snatches the boy back by his arm. "What were you thinking?" she asks, and has a few more choice words but they're buried in the general cacophony. "Covering their eyes," Dan thinks he hears, in a child's protesting voice. "Like us."

"...no excuse!"

"But who are they–"

"Saw the one the other day, came wandering in like it was nothing–"

"...Jesus, they stink–"

"Kovacs," a voice says from the center of the crowd, and it quiets down by fractured degrees, physically parts to let the speaker through. "You said you'd come back."

The crowd tenses visibly, some running nervous fingers over goggles and thick bandannas hung loose around their necks. Rorschach narrows his eyes, and it takes Dan a moment to catch the source of his discomfort, but how could they know if he hadn't told them and why on earth would he have–

But he's talking before Dan has a chance to even finish the question. "Yes. Have brought proof of dedication to the cause, as you requested." And he nods to Dan, who taps Adrian on the shoulder, who reaches up to pull back the hood and slip away the scarf–

And all hell breaks loose.

*

Dan will realize, later – memory more exacting than realtime awareness – that only half of the pandemonium had swollen towards them; the other half away, people herding children and relatives and friends back to their homes, to grab emergency supplies, to head for escape routes. In the minds of these people, their home was as good as abandoned the moment the blindfold came off.

Memory outstrips realtime awareness, of course, because in realtime, the other half of the surge is scrabbling for ropes and weapons, real and makeshift both, and Rorschach of all people is standing between the panicked horde and their target, fending them off. Somewhere in the mess, one man's voice is raised, trying to vain to find control.

"Hey now, come on!" And Dan's shouting too, even louder, doing what he can to deflect grabbing hands and swinging fists. "Come on, let's just..."

He wants to decipher the crowd noise, understand their specific upset so that he can appeal to it directly but it's a cacophony, incomprehensible in its churning anger and fear, an animal baying like dogs out for blood

[tiny mouths in the snow, red-rimmed and sharp-toothed and greedy, greedy]

and it's like it's 1977 again, fire in the air and rubber bullets and screeching and isn't that where all of this started, premeditated cruelty forming out of all the chaos and taking away one man's reason for caring–

"I said enough!"

The voice cuts through with startling strength, and it's the man who'd addressed Rorschach by name, by that forbidden name. The crowd quiets instantly; Rorschach does not relax his stance. Dan doesn't either.

"Since when do I need to give an order twice?" the man demands, looking around at the assembly. "Are we a military movement or a lynch mob?"

Neither, Dan thinks. Holds his tongue, waiting.

The man turns to Rorschach, whose eyes are still wild, fists still raised. If his cheek’s blossoming a fresh bruise to match the yellowed, fading one, it won’t show for a few hours. “Why in god’s name would you bring him here?”

“On our side,” Rorschach says, and the words sound like they hurt to say, cut somewhere deep. He's a terrible liar, so it's good that this is only halfway an untruth; halfway because he still isn't really convinced. “On your side.”

“Which I could have explained if you hadn't gone straight to the torch-and-pitchfork routine. And anyway–” Adrian holds the scarf up in plain view. “It’s not as if I could find this place again.”

"You could have memorized the turns."

"I didn't."

“He’s not under their influence anymore,” Dan offers, and god but this is precarious: A stranger vouching for a stranger and the only familiar face too perpetually wired for violence to know when to drop his damn fists. He's about sick of these situations, these hair-trigger moments of mutually assured destruction brought down to the level of their individual lives. “He wants this stopped as much as we do.”

The leader-apparent steps past Rorschach then – Dan has to hold him by one shoulder to keep him from moving to block – and spends a long, tense moment staring critically at Adrian’s face, expression. Eyes, mostly. Dan wonders for a moment how many people have been programmed to act deprogrammed, how many times they’ve had to do this. How many losses they've suffered to trust given too easily.

Nearby, a mother twines her hand tight around her son's; it's the boy who called them in under the encampment's collective wing. He holds his goggles with grubby fingers, waiting.

“He’s clean,” the man finally says, and the whole crowd seems to deflate with released breath. “Call off the evacuation. For now.”

Adrian raises an eyebrow. Doesn't ask the question.

The man meets his gaze, answers anyway. “There are other risks we run, just by you being here. I won’t take chances with my people’s lives.” A long moment, considering, then he turns to Rorschach. “You don’t play these things small, do you?”

“Tend not to. Trust us now?”

“Your ability, certainly. Likely your allegiances. Your judgment… well, I'm not too sure on that one.”

The crowd’s mostly dissipated, though some still hang around the edges, curiosity overwhelming obedience, visors and masks swinging loose around their necks. They murmur, quietly, and try not to be noticed. “I have some things to attend to. This development will have an effect on our timetables. I assume you’ll want to clean up; our facilities are open to you.”

“The diplomatic way of telling us we stink,” Dan says with a smirk.

The man nods carefully. “You… well, you really do. But. Far be it from me to let that get in the way of civility." A hand, offered only to Dan, calloused and blunt, grip heavy. "Francis Donnelly, but most here just use Frank."

"Dan Dreiberg."

Donnelly nods; He knows Rorschach's name somehow already(a prickling of jealousy; Dan pushes it down, hard) and a man would have to be blind and stupid not to recognize Adrian Veidt. "Fair enough. We'll meet again after the noon meal. Don't forget to take precautions – the lights do reach us here." He turns then, leaves them to their devices with such an outward lack of concern that the message may as well have been spoken: there is not a move they can make that will not be watched.

"...'Frank'," Dan says, glancing at Rorschach significantly once the man's out of earshot. "And we're supposed to believe this is an actual military camp?"

Rorschach hrmphs, returning his scarf to his pocket. "First name basis not exactly conducive to discipline. But resistants aren't necessarily military people, just a cross section of humanity, randomly selected for. Genetic lottery, strong where others are weak."

Dan thinks of finches again; of how compelling the urge must have been, those first years on the islands, to just fly away home. "I don't know. Somehow I think the ones who could go back to that and choose not to – they might be the strongest."

"Sentimental romantization of valor," Rorschach chides, but Dan can hear the faint smile even if he can't see it.

Dan laughs, a quiet rumble of breath. "Probably. I usually–"

"I hate to break up all of this carefully veiled and meaningful banter," Adrian cuts in, and nearby, a knot of people aren't even pretending not to be watching and discussing, fingers pointed shamelessly, distrust borne of necessity in a literal world gone mad. Ears everywhere, here. "But the two of you really ought to take them up on that while you have the chance. I doubt sickening them over their meals will do much to endear you to their cause."

Rorschach narrows his eyes. "Staying," he says gruffly, and it's not exactly an order but neither is it something easily contradicted. Dan knows the tone, and knows this electric eeriness just as well, Rorschach cutting to the quick of an issue before Dan can even pick up on the fact that something's wrong. 'Your', not 'our'. Excluding himself; He's intending to–

Adrian settles his hands into his pockets, surveys the surroundings with a casual disinterest that is neither truly casual nor actually disinterested. He's taking everything in, as surely as Rorschach is. "...for as long as the meeting, yes. After that, I'll need to return to the tower. There are appearances to keep up, and 'dirt-floored hovel' isn't really my style."

"You think you can fool them?"

"Of course," and there's the pride again, ballooning up in the space left by all the light's brutal excavations, glinting sharp in lined eyes as he turns back to them – and it just figures, that his ego of all things would have been left untouched. "I've always been a passable actor, and we're not talking about the world's most discriminating audience. 'Smile a lot and try not to think too hard' should do it."

Dan looks around carefully, picking out the less obvious spies, the ones these gabbling busybodies are meant to distract them from. "And you will stay in contact?"

"Of course," he repeats, and the ego is gone now, and it's nothing but the truth.

*

Walking through this maze of shadowed walkways, past the open areas and the residences and the communal open-air cafeteria where a heavyset man works over a pot of roiling liquid, sending the boy at his elbow to fetch this or that vegetable or spice or utensil – they are silent, painfully aware of what interlopers they are, dumped by a spacetime bubble and only a few weeks into a nightmare these people have been living for years. Adrian has disappeared into the crowd, after explaining with what sounded like sincerity that he felt bad for having caused such a scene earlier and wanted to try to speak with the residents, apologize if they'll let him. Dan doesn't trust a word he says but does trust the camp's watching eyes to keep him from doing anything stupid or taking off, and they have their own matters to attend to. They've all been given watches with alarms set to noon, and there's not much time between now and then. This'll have to be quick.

"Making progress," Rorschach mumbles as they set out along one of the spiral arms on the far side of the camp, following the directions they'd been given. The hat's still low over his eyes but there's something loose-limbed in his gait, fluid and at ease in a way he hasn't been in years. "Situation resolved well."

"Yeah, and hey, no one even got shot this time."

An irritated grunt in response, but Dan feels his own step rolling to match; feels the anticipation, the fidgety restlessness that used to come whenever they'd decided they'd had enough of just waiting. Out of the light, this is starting to feel manageable again, like just another case, something to be strategized and launched and fought–

('Just cases, just problems to solve', and can flesh under your hands ever be the same as shoulders brushing and breath and nerves syncing up together in these drumskin-tight moments, the seconds that belong to no hours – only exist, shudder-pulsed and rich and bright, outside of everything? Which do you need more?)

(Do you have to choose?)

At a turn, three children barrel past them, all swift-footed abandon, laughing and kicking up dust from the cracks in the asphalt. They're all drenched wet, just come from the shower building, and even though it's a cool morning they don't seem to feel it, too caught up in whatever game they've imagined. They're young enough that this is likely the only life they remember, and it is as unbloodied and painless an existence as they've seen here.

This is home, to these people; they hang clothes and and paint address numbers on metal walls and raise children in its sheltered streets and call it home. But Dan knows perfectly well that there are plenty of things in life that are misnamed and mishandled, and that just calling it by the label you most want to feel rolling of your tongue doesn't make it so.

*

Fifteen days in a warehouse with no human amenities – no running water, no laundry, not so much as a hotplate – and what Dan really needs is a long, hot shower, a shave, fresh clothes, and a good warm meal. The meal might still be in the cards but otherwise they're going to have to make do with what's here: tepid water just this side of outright cold, carefully rationed, and no facility for cleaning clothes except to take them into the shower room with them. If the camp diverted more than this from the city grid, the woman outside explains, it'd be detected faster than they could blink.

So in the five minutes they're allotted, Dan does his best to focus on scrubbing off two weeks of grime and neglect, sloughing it from his skin and out of his hair and from the weave of his clothes, letting the water carry it away. It's such a welcome sensation, this business of feeling human again, and every second has to be savored; he doesn't have time to waste on observations, contemplations.

No time, but his gaze keeps drifting anyway, vision hazy without the glasses but at this distance he can still pick out the scars and bruises against the blurred-pale shape under the other spigot. This too-close, shared exposure – it's a practical necessity in the tiny facilities, and not either of their choices, and he doesn't want to gawk, doesn't want to turn this into something other than what it is. But it's so much more than he's ever seen all at once, so much laid open to view. Temptation, like he'd felt ten, fifteen years ago, staring at the mask stretched over the bridge of his partner's nose and his fingers itching, itching. It's a familiar braintwitch, and peeling just one mystery's onionskin layers back is never enough.

So he's being discreet, but even so he can see some of the age and wear that time has layered on, the rough edges and corners and sharp, sharp lines. Can trace the scars like one thread of writing to the next, each meaning obvious – knife here, burn there, a bullet skimmed too close, a broken bottle. So many are new in the last ten years, jagged and healed unevenly from being stitched up one-handed or backwards in a mirror, an unfamiliar map overlaid on the one he knows, the one his fingers still remember assembling from surgical thread and a careful urgency. He tries to read the stories laid out between them all, in the gaps, lingering just under the obvious things, the simple things, tries to–

Eyes on his suddenly, challenging, dark shadows in the hollow under Rorschach's brow – and for all that he's not really leering, not looking at him like that, just taking in a rare sight and trying to understand what it is he's seeing, Dan still frowns and looks away. Flush rises up his face like the humiliation of being caught stealing, caught looking, caught lying.

Focus, his internal voice chides, and it's still too deep and too gruff, and he turns back to the showerhead to rinse the rest of the soap away before his time under the flow runs out.

*

"Well, we smell better at least," Daniel says, leaning in to take an exaggerated sniff and smiling in a way that has always cast him as earnest and guileless; now only serves to make him look idiotic under a mat of soaked hair, clothes hanging against him in wet folds and tangles.

Rorschach feels a rebuke forming, a swell of anger rising hot and unconstrained and bolstered by the memory of wandering eyes, but he realizes that he must look just as ridiculous and the words will carry no weight. Daniel has always been hard to intimidate with false threats, even in the worst of times, and he's not entirely sure he wants to anymore, something like betrayal twisting sour in his head at the thought.

He pushes the wet hair back from his forehead instead; feels it catch in yesterday's injury, raw edges still ragged under his fingers. Some of the water had run rust-colored over it, but it doesn't hurt. "Hn. Don't get used to it, Daniel."

Daniel laughs then, puts a companionable hand on his back, far too easily felt in all its nuance of touch through the thin, clinging fabric of his shirt. The suitcoat and trench he carries, dry still; he'd been unwilling to ruin them in the water. His skin crawls at the sensation, and only partly because of its unpleasant connotations. "I know, I know. Purely practical reasons."

"Yes."

"And I bet you feel indecent as hell right now."

The hand shifts against his back, and he can feel the way the fabric peels and resettles. "Yes."

And it really isn't funny– but as with everything, all the ludicrous things they came across on the streets in years past and all the bizarre moments that make up a history, Daniel has a habit of laughing at exactly those things that least deserve it. Rorschach tries to pull away from the contact; is halted by the hand moving to grip him by the shoulder.

"Relax," Daniel says, and it's always easier when he says it this way, concern where others would bring condescension to bear. "We're in the same boat, okay? And you'll be dry soon enough."

Wet socks squelch in dry shoes, so loud to ears not used to hearing himself move. A turn here, left. A right. Up ahead, he can smell food, something spicy and foreign but probably safe enough, not likely poisoned if they’re serving everyone from the same pot. A quiet rumble of voices overlaid in waves, small talk and exaltations and furtively whispered rumors and not a single rehearsed pleasantry to be heard.

"Midday soon," Rorschach mutters, fingering the goggles hanging against his collarbone, the metal cold through his shirt. Outside the covered walkway, he can see cracked and unmaintained pavement; the skeletal and broken remains of a streetlight, brought down like a defeated giant and dismembered, the tremendous clear bulb in shattered pieces. Probably more of those all around the camp, quiet and sterile casualties of the earliest battles.

Daniel nods, looks at his watch. "About thirty seconds still. Go on and put those on, but you should still keep your eyes closed."

"Aware of that," he mutters, fixing the gaskets over his eyes, switching to pure infrared mode with a gesture that's become familiar very quickly in the last two days.

"Yeah, I know," Daniel says, lifting his glasses onto his forehead, pressing his palms over closed eyes. "Just not taking any chances," he says, and something in it tugs a little like fear, a little like the thread of longing that winds its treasonous way into grief.

Rorschach does his best to ignore it, closes his eyes. But it's still there, humming synaesthetically in the dark like its own kind of glow.

*

Adrian shows up again for the camp's lunch. He seems to have done well for himself in the intervening hour – for all that most of the people here still look at him with corner-of-the-eye distrust, he's assembled a group of converts around him who seem convinced that he's on their side, who seem enchanted by the notion. He only accepts a half-sized portion of the thick curried stew they're offering; always the expert at image management, he obviously knows that both refusing their hospitality and taking too much when these people have their own mouths to feed would seem inappropriate. It's all carefully calculated, and Dan wonders idly when the last time was the man made a decision that wasn't based around others' reactions.

1971, the cynical part of his mind offers up, and he grins into his bowl to smother the laughter that wants to come with it.

Rorschach has no such compunctions about feeding himself exactly as much as he wants to, this Dan knows from years of raided cabinets and shelves, and he finds he can't hold himself back either; it's just too good, too warm and filling and perfect after weeks of protein bars and peanuts and jerky. He chases a dumpling around the bottom of his bowl, considers whether he's seen anyone go back for seconds, whether it's allowed or not.

"So where did you two come from?" asks a voice from Dan's other side, the side not occupied in making horrible slurping noises, in driving away everyone in a three foot radius except for Dan. "It's strange to get new people."

Dan turns to her, smiles, old instincts automatically kicking in – observe, catalog. He was never as good at it as Rorschach but he's no slouch: She's maybe in her late twenties, no goggles in sight so a natural resistor, and there's a small child, too young to readily identify gender, crawled up halfway into her lap. They don't look anything alike, but there are probably a lot of foundlings and orphans here, and it doesn't seem to phase her as she idly strokes the child's hair. Both their bowls are empty and set aside; people here eat quickly, like wolves in a pack. Probably protect their own just as fiercely.

"Oh, uh. Well, we were just out of commission for a while, I guess," he says, letting her draw her own conclusions. "Just woke up here a few weeks ago."

She furrows her brow in curiosity; to his other side, Dan hears a break in the eating noises as Rorschach pauses to nudge him with an elbow. He gets it; the story's terrible, and they really should have expected this question, worked it out ahead of time. "Woke up, just like that?" she says, disbelief clear. "Where?"

Dan laughs, catches up the last dumpling and a few vegetables, tries to play it off as confusion. The truth makes for the easiest lies. "In the park, of all places. I don't know exactly what happened."

"Huh," she says, apprehension stilling her hand on the child's head; drowsy, he or she peers up at Dan from behind dark, dark bangs, blinking. A grin splits the small face – not old enough to be wary of strangers yet, but obviously good-natured, a remarkable thing in a world gone this off-kilter.

"Hey now Eli," the woman says, ducking to push the bangs back behind the boy's ears. "Back to sleep. You'll be cranky later."

After a minute or two of squirming, he complies, and Dan smiles at her again, setting his spoon into the bowl. "He's a good kid. Yours?"

"No, just... But he may as well be, his parents disappeared, I–" She narrows her eyes again, then smiles, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to stare, but both of you seem so familiar somehow."

A shrug, as casual as he can manage it; inside, a gradually escalating suspicion. "Some people have those faces, you know, generic. They always look like someone else."

She looks past him, at where Rorschach is hunched forward, hat low, trench hanging loose and open over his still-drying clothes. He doesn't look up to meet her gaze; he definitely doesn't have one of 'those faces' and there will be no brushing it off if she did see the picture that ran in all the newspapers so many years ago, if she figures it out. Bad enough they know his name, that wasn't exactly a secret after the arrest either.

"I don't know, it seems like something more than that," she says, and Dan wonders: Were Nite Owl's pictures ever published in the same way, grainy black and white, released by the police in the days following the jailbreak? How careful does he have to be? Does it even matter anymore?

On the woman's lap, the boy fidgets again, and she sighs; stands, gathering the small figure up like a bundled blanket. "Ah well, this seems to be a lost cause, he never sleeps well out here. And I'll probably figure it out later, when I'm not even trying. Lila, by the way."

"Dan. Nice to meet you, and your son."

She smiles, something like suspicion still sitting behind it, and disappears into the crowd; he watches her retreat with a curling of uncertainty in his gut, such a familiar thing now.

"Hm. Too much information, Daniel."

He sighs, scraping at what's left of his stew. "Yeah, probably."

"Already know our names. Won't be long before they put it together."

Dan leans back against the structure's wall, careful not to put too much weight on it. "Would that really be a problem? I mean, these people are all wanted fugitives themselves, just for existing. I can't imagine them caring much."

Silence, for a long moment, then the sound of a spoon dredging up the last bits of broth from a nearly-clean bowl. "Perhaps not."

Across the space, Adrian is entertaining his coterie, obviously recounting some story or other. Understated, no grand gestures or exaggerated words, but they all know who he is, who he was, and he's capitalizing on it. Even ten years older, there's something larger than life in him that they can sense, as surely as Lila had picked up on it in them. It's not heroism; that’s an illusion the last few months have driven clear out of Dan’s head. Maybe it's arrogance, like Blake told them all back in '66 – the stupidity of thinking they can make a difference here, that they're capable of it where no one else is. That changes can hinge on ordinary people, or that they are somehow not ordinary.

"Doesn't matter anyway," Rorschach grumbles, setting the bowl down finally with an unsatisfied grumble. "Masks unimportant now. Only the right plan matters. And the willingness to see it through."

All around them, people are eating, joking, laughing. Living. Children play barefoot in the spaces between them, an entire generation who remember nothing or very little other than this place or others like it, who have grown up in a world more afraid than all the nukes in Russia had ever managed. Their lives are sheltered and boxed-in but they still have them, fought for and hard-won. They have absolutely everything to lose.

"Yeah," Dan says, and suddenly he doesn't want seconds, has lost his appetite completely – because they both know full well that doing the right thing almost never comes without sacrifice, without cost.

*

Chapter Text

*

"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?"

"Of course."

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.

"I know."

"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."

"California?"

"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."

"People shouldn't."

"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.

"You're sure."

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 Text

*

[A dozen television screens – two dozen, three. They're hard and unyielding when his back hits them but he can't see or understand who is pinning him there, who is battering him against the glass and the chessboard of moving images curves out around them like a cave wall, showing things. People, things, there is no difference; their dancing faces move through the spectrum of human emotion and still the countenance in front of him won't resolve.

A smell of something burning; hair or silk, and a pooling up of blood around his feet but he knows it's there and it's just the drain, the drain is just clogged but his limbs are slow and useless and there's still someone holding him here against the glass, face-first into the present or the past or maybe the future and if he can't get to the drain, to pull the stopper and let all this swirl away, they're both going to drown–

faces all around him, hands tugging at him, all draped in scraps of bloodied violet, pieces of his costume and they deserve it, they are the great ones, furious but wonderful, a fist knotting in his hair face pressed into shattered glass they are the ones who gave their life for–

who were killed for–

he looks down, sees the feet behind his through the blood as if it were no thicker than water, just red-dyed water not real not something carried in human veins, and they are exactly the same as–]

*

Adrian starts awake, and the silk pooled around him is dark and damp with sweat. The room is still dim, pre-dawn and quiet, only the faintest trace of streetlight making through the curtains and casting everything into surreal shadow. He remembers, all at once, the one sliver of relief he'd felt years ago when they'd strapped him down and forced his eyes open and started the countdown, politicians looking coolly on. The last real thought he'd had, just before the light stole it away: At least now the dreams will stop.

But. Every face in the dream was a person, every emotion real, their deaths so entangled with the death of his creature that their collective flash of grief and horror, over in an instant, pressed itself into the psychic field of the city like a bloodstain. Like a haunting, and no one had escaped the dreams but they feed on guilt and the guilty and linger longest there, a decade gone and screaming. Every face is real, and does he have any right to run from them?

("You've got a long way to go," Dreiberg had said, even in his condemnation allowing that the path existed, even in his cynicism the perpetual optimist.)

Pulling breath hard, one hand pushing shaky through sweat-slicked hair, Adrian considers dropping back onto the sheets, into the stink of fear and panic. Wonders how much of it is his own and how much is his forever-ago victims', stale in the air.

Elsewhere, he knows there are people preparing to risk their lives for a cause, to unmake the monstrosity he'd had such an unwitting hand in. He probably deserves the nightmares, it's probably fitting, but there's a role he's meant to play in this and there are times when the just course of action isn't the most productive.

So he reaches over, snaps on the radio as he dresses, prepares for the day. There will be interference to be rendered later, but for now he knows the cues, the little undercurrents and mental bugs, planted in the far upper sideband of the broadcast. If there's any sign that the controlling bodies know what's about to hit them, it'll be there, a yellow note amongst the usual soothing, crystal clarity.

If they notice anything odd about his own behavior, it will only be that he's up at 5:34 instead of 6:00, and that – the light insomnia that shortens sleep cycles by just a tiny bit at the end, leaves people blinking confused into darkened bedrooms, the last stillframes of nearly prophetic dreams still fresh in minds no longer capable of processing them – is becoming more and more common these days, anyway.

*

6:00 AM: The changing of the guard. Clockwork, shift workers like the desk clerk at the motel and the waitress with her extra syrup, except that they carry rifles and nightsticks and stunguns, live more dangerous lives than even they realize. No chatter as one shift goes off and another comes on, no shared jokes or cigarettes or complaints about the hours they're forced to keep. The inner workings of clocks have more soul as they spin endlessly onward, gears and springs ground by hand, assembled by human delicacy, counting down the seconds of their lives.

Inside the prison, there are whispers, but there are always whispers.

*

A quiet reminder in the morning – and morning's a bit of a joke really, it's just after six, two more hours of sleep grabbed under the rain-battered roof – and Rorschach stops midway through pulling his suitcoat on, peels it away again. Reaches for the borrowed Kevlar vest Dan's pointed out, hung on a nail by the door, and layers it under the coat without another word. It's the easiest fight Dan's ever won.

"We're not getting any more immortal," he jokes, still feeling a need to offer some kind of argument, so used to Rorschach being difficult about these kinds of things, dead set on putting himself under the axe. It's a joke, but it conjures ideas about youth and the fact that they're losing it, feeling it slip away every moment they spend standing still for too long. They're not getting any faster, any stronger, either.

Rorschach just looks at him oddly, face only half lit by the buttery dawn light just starting to seep in through all the cracks in the makeshift shelter. Fixes up another button. "Not arguing, Daniel."

Dan narrows his eyes. "You're not fighting because you agree, or–"

"Always accused me of being too disagreeable," and now there's a glint of humor in his voice, dry as it's ever been but it's familiar. "Now you're upset that I'm not?"

"More just worried. After–"

"Not fighting about it because I won't be any good to the plan dead in the entryway. Obvious." A pause, then the last button slips into place. The vest is still visible in the triangle over the lapels, and he reaches for his scarf.

Dan almost opens his mouth to reply. Loses it, somewhere between the intent and the words.

"Not their kept creature anymore," Rorschach says after a moment, looping the scarf over itself, pulling it up to his throat. “Should know that.”

At the warehouse in an hour, Dan will gather his armor and the maps and the bin of documents and the last of their supplies. He'll stop at the door to look back in, at the crates and dust and rafters, at the dark rust stain flaking up from the concrete, and feel a hesitance. Nostalgia will not be the word for it. In the early light of morning, his own shadow far-reaching and diffuse across the floor, it will feel more like the nervousness of turning a key he knows will break off in the lock.

Now, he just watches Rorschach dress from the half-cave of his blankets.

They will stand together or fall together today, but he can't find the fear of a few days ago, the vibrations of the elevator rattling up through his boots and Rorschach unstable and ready to kill or die beside him. All he can feel is determination, and the solidness of it is comforting.

*

Hunched behind a length of the fencing that's obscured by shipping crates – bulk food and supplies, brought in from China if the labels burned into the wooden slats are any indication – they wait. There will be no specific signal, they've been told. When the distraction comes, they'll know. Dan shifts restlessly; he's never been the type to fidget, not small-framed or high-energy enough, and waiting usually comes naturally to him. He's had practice. But it's past nine now, and he hates goddamned subjective, unspecific information like 'you'll know' – it's cliché action movie garbage, and he'd rather know exactly what to expect and when.

He's also being given far too much time to think.

"Nervous," Rorschach says from his elbow, and it's neither the half-teasing question it would have been in 1970 or the venom-filled accusation 1980 would have twisted it into.

Dan shifts again, careful to keep his balance. At the other end of the crate, the five they'd brought with them are waiting for a signal to move; they're out of earshot if they keep this quiet. "Just thinking about... the bigger picture, here."

"New situation for you."

There it is, that's the tease, and Dan grins. "Yeah, I know, right? Amazing things happen under the right pressures."

A coughed sound, but there's no real humor in it. Across the yard, the guards patrol stiffly, repetitively.

"Just..." Dan continues, fingering the edge of his armor where the cowl usually connects. "I think Jon sent us here for a reason, and I doubt it was because he wanted us to fix things."

"Wanted us to fail?"

"I think he just assumed it was a given. Maybe it is. I've never really understood the simultaneous time thing, but if he didn't want us causing trouble in '85–"

"Wouldn't want us causing trouble now, either."

Dan looks back at him; the guards' paths are unchanging, don't need to be tracked constantly. There's no room for spontaneity in their job. "Which maybe means we can't, or we're not going to? I don't know, but it doesn't really bode well for things."

"He's not here to see it end," Rorschach says, stating the entirely obvious, but it's still an important point. "And have already caused trouble. Can't be more than an assumption on his part, or a guess."

"That's true. I guess we're off the edge of the map at this point."

"Best place."

"Yeah," Dan says, smiling despite himself. "Between the lines, where the great literalist can't see us."

"Hehn. Yes."

*

9:12 AM: A small explosive device, no larger than a pack of playing cards, obliterates a bank of five control computers, damages six more beyond repair, sends the other thirteen offline from overheating and the force of the blast. The facility sends up its alarms; A directive goes out, over radio and the pulse of streetlights and woven into the wail of sirens, for all armed guards and enforcers to converge on the location of the explosion. The signal has Priority Level One, and they respond like someone's put a knife into the base of their spines and twisted, jerking out of their activities and running in the indicated direction with no heed to how far it is or how likely they are to get there in time.

*

He's working his way through another stack of paperwork on the top floor, carefully disguising his actions, letting none of his annoyance show through at the sheer mindless repetitiveness of the task. There are cameras here, too. The radio set into the desk is still on, tuned low, and the voice drones on, but not much of what it reports is truly newsworthy, much less important.

Then it changes, and it's not something he could pin down exactly or explain, but he knows it when he hears it. A remnant of the conditioning perking him to attention, and he lets it, for the benefit of the watching eyes. Keeps all the crossprocessing in his head. It's a surprising jumble, hard to keep sorted, harder not to fall headfirst into, sink back into the depths and he'd seen the camp, all the people with their blacked-over lab goggles and bandannas and not a radio in sight. No wonder; this is less a binary state than he'd expected.

Once it's passed, he takes a breath – reaches for the phone. Dials a number he's not supposed to know and punches in buttons in a long, daunting sequence.

When it's done, the alert's usual time frame of fifteen minutes has been extended to an hour. That should give them the time they need to, if not get in and out, at least get in and gather enough of a force of numbers as to be able to brute force their way free. Casualties are assumed, but the bulk of them will make it to the intermediary point, and that's what matters.

The cameras will have seen that, he realizes, distant. But there's nothing to be done for it. He has at least an hour until any personnel are freed up, and in his head, escape strategies start to form.

*

The sky splits to the east, somewhere out on the harbor – a blooming cloud of light, shot through with scarlet and brilliant. It doesn't shake the ground underneath them, is mostly a firework at this distance, a fiery display of red and black and a distant concussive pop; it doesn't matter. Dan concedes that yes, they were right; this is their signal, and he knows that immediately, leaning around the edge of the crate to see the guards abandoning their posts, haring on foot towards the streets.

Five seconds. Four. Rorschach's at his elbow, watching the fire die, probably triangulating the blown facility's location for later. The men with them are starting to move around the crate.

Three. "Not yet," Rorschach hisses back at them, and Dan revels for a moment in this feeling, being this in sync again, sharing tactics without a word.

Two. A hand tenses on his shoulder.

Overhead, seabirds wheel, skim the harbor, diving into their watery destruction over and over and coming out unscathed. Fear death by water.

'One,' Dan mouths, and the hand opens against his back, palm flattening, pushing. The guards are clear.

A step into the open, two; and they move, like one creature with a string of bodies trailing behind, weaving and ducking across the expanse of the yard – horrifying in its lack of cover, their shadows long and overlapping in the morning sun.

*

It's a nerve-wracking 48 seconds.

They hadn't been sure what to expect from the promised distraction – a distant siren that would draw the guards' attention for a few seconds or a city block being leveled, or anything in between – and had presumed at least a few straggling guards would stay behind, that they'd have to do their questionable best to dodge gunfire or catch it where it'll do the least harm. Even as they reach the doorway and Daniel keys in the stolen code, ushers the rest of them quickly inside, Rorschach's still straining his senses, waiting to hear the first shot.

It doesn't come. The door pulls shut behind them and it's anticlimactic in a way that Daniel probably accepts at face value, appreciates. All Rorschach can think, cliché or not, is that too good to be true usually is.

"Okay," Daniel says, hushed, gesturing the group over to him. Rorschach ignores him, keeping the conversation in the periphery of his awareness as he scouts beyond this little alcove for front desk security, cameras, patrolling guards, any personnel at all. Around the time he hears Daniel explaining that this building is where the actual convicts were housed, that this is where the fighters will be, Rorschach finds the security room. It comes complete with a dozen video feeds lining its walls, industrial computing equipment to control it, and a guard staring at the screens in open-mouthed disbelief.

"I don't–" the man mutters at the sound of the door opening, not even bothering to look up. He has no sidearm. On the screens, Daniel and his huddle, and the entry they'd just come in through. "I haven't been trained in this, I don't know what to do–"

"Destroy the tapes," Rorschach growls from the doorway, and the guard stops mid-ramble, finally turning to look now that it's obvious the presence in the room isn't just the angry supervisor he'd been expecting. He goes two shades paler, color visibly draining off, and he looks like a startled rabbit, muscle-locked by terror, by an instinct even older than human fear.

“The tapes,” he rasps. “Where are they.”

No answer – just the dull rattle of the chair’s bolts, jangling against each other as the weight they bear shudders in place.

Rorschach takes two steps into the room, menacing despite the lack of his mask. In the hall, a quiet mumbling he can't make out, but he knows: after they blow enough cells open those five will split up with their reinforcements, fan out over the grounds, hitting all the other detention buildings at once. It's a good solid plan, hashed out in the calm of the night to the sound of the city running itself clean. Rorschach has other concerns at the moment.

"Where are the tapes? " he repeats, voice carrying the threat of things worse than mere injury or death.

The man's hand is shaking as badly as the rest of him; Rorschach has no idea whether it's from fear or from the strain of fighting the conditioning, the implicit threat of his presence driving a wedge in, deep. But he still points out the far bank of machinery, tape spindles ratcheting and unwinding quietly under the steady hum of the computers.

In the shadow of the hat's brim, Rorschach might smile, but he'd never admit to it.

*

"There you are," Daniel says as he approaches. "We’re burning time here, we really need to get moving– Rorschach?"

Rorschach walks straight past him, not pausing to take in the words. Reaches up along the wall when he comes to it, considering the angle, the height implied. Finds the camera under a small bubble of glass laid into the mortar between cinderblocks; to anyone not looking for it, it'd just be an irregularity in the construction.

He pulls a black marker out of his pocket, scribbles over it completely.

Daniel's at his shoulder now, his voice quieter. "What is it, a camera?"

"Yes. Will be more. We'll have to keep an eye out, in case they manage to replace the tapes."

"What, you already got them?"

Rorschach tilts his head, looks at him in a way that would have made more intuitive sense before, when he'd still had the mask. Somehow, the blots had always been the easier thing to read when they coalesced in service of these strange, ambiguous expressions. "...yes,” he says after a moment. “Security guard was very helpful in locating them. Also offered his keys. Very eager to assist."

"You broke his fingers, didn't you?" Dan asks, taking the keyring in hand.

A shrug. "Didn't have to."

"Is he..."

"Tied up at the moment," Rorschach says, and there's a hint of humor in the whisper, buried somewhere under the parched-dry sands. "Will have to get back to us later."

A sigh of badly disguised relief. "Okay. All right. We have to move, here.”

“Agreed,” Rorschach says, and he turns with Daniel back to the building’s foyer. The layout of these buildings is in his head, memorized. Guard positions, gleaned from the security screens. Likely camera locations, weapon stores. Know your resources.

The men and women standing around them, though, their allies - they are antsy and desperate. He can smell it on them, the same stink that’s always strung him along, nose to the wall, down alley mazes and through all the rotting underbasements of the city, led him to their secrets. Everybody needs something, material or immaterial, pure selfish scrabbling or the narcotic, hypocritical rush of altruistic satisfaction – good deeds felt heavy in the gut, in the base of the spine, electric.

For once, he finds he cannot set himself apart as an exception.

Rorschach nods in response to a question that wasn’t asked; heads off wordlessly into the corridor, hat brim pulled low, hands already pulled into fists. Around the next corner, everything becomes an unknown, and that is the most dangerous this will ever be.

*

Rorschach doesn't speak, when they get to the third corner without incident – just stops dead, and gestures low at his hip. There's no real content in the sigil, just a generic warning and warding, a 'here there be monsters.'

Guards, then. Dan has no reason to question. He flattens himself against the wall and, following his lead, the group behind him does the same.

He's about to mouth 'what now' when the last thing he's expecting, happens: Rorschach throws himself around the corner with complete careless abandon, and from that blind corridor, a violent chaos erupts more quickly than Dan has any ability to process.

Out of sight, the sound of fists and knees striking bone, striking cement.

"Shit!" Dan hisses, after he's let two precious seconds tick by in his complete, dumbfounded disbelief. He snaps into motion, swings around the corner at just as fast a run – and immediately ducks under the strike as a bludgeon comes down, ringing dully against the concrete where his head was just a second before. He's vaguely aware of bodies behind him, of being followed into this suicide run and there's no time to think about it, just to move, just move. A fist coming at him, neatly ducked, grabbed, redirected, face-first into the wall. A grunt of pain from where his instinctual fight radar is telling him Rorschach is, but it's too deep, too low, resonates with too much volume, so he ignores it, keeps fighting, keeps listening–

A distant alarm, and fists and knees and sounds of pain, he realizes distantly, but no shots. Those carrying guns were apparently more needed elsewhere, and this is what's left. It’s not an entirely unwelcome thought.

They're still dangerous, though, and Dan can only be grateful for the nonconductive layer he thought to include in his armor when the taser leads lodge in just above his breastbone, bury themselves in the armor and sizzle with voltage, spilling it uselessly over the shell of the suit. A little juice still leaks through where they've pierced the deepest, and he grits his teeth around a broken swear, a broken breath, clawing across the beesting prickling and trying to dig the leads free while his other hand's busy fending off the whistling descent of a nightstick. The third man he'd been fighting is struggling back to his feet; across the hallway, the guard Rorschach's squared off against now is swinging a goddamned shiv, and hell, why not? Lunatics running the asylum, convicts running the prison.

Because yes, they're dangerous, but they're not particularly intuitive or inspired fighters. They're choreographed, throwing punches and swinging weapons strictly by the numbers, fighting like they learned it from a textbook. They've encountered the type before, young gang members with their hands bloodied but their feet not yet wet and, dangerous toys or not, this group doesn't stand a chance.

Dan winds a gloved fist around the leads; hauls the man in by the taser he's too dull to know to drop, and lays him out with one straight punch.

*

In the monitoring room, the guard sits where he's been bound to his chair by too many wraps of unspooled magnetic tape to break, the chair bound to a wall fixture in turn. He watches the screens, the conflict jumping shudderstep from one view to the next. Some of them go black, rubbed over. He isn't afraid, not now that he’s alone again.

He's not struggling, either, not fighting his bonds or working out the means to an escape. It doesn't occur to him to wonder if there's an alarm button he can get at to press. He hasn't been trained for any of this.

He watches the screens, eyes fixed and glassy and uncomprehending, because that is his job.

*

The three best fighters are all struggling alongside them, dropping the guards in just as short order, but the two Dan had picked for technical ability – one of the men, one of the women – are working on the new lock systems on the nearest cell doors, deeply shadowed eyes watching them through the bars as they try to match the right key to the right code. Eventually, there's a satisfied whoop as the lock tumbles into place, and they slide the door back, disappear into the tiny room to start working the handcuffs that have the prisoners linked to each other.

In the hall, the last body falls, unconscious.

“How did you know..." Dan asks, breathless, trailing off.

A shrug. "Saw the security feeds. No one was armed."

"Jesus. Could have told me."

Another shout from the cell, interrupting, and an outpouring of bodies. Just like that their numbers are nearly doubled – six more pairs of eyes and hands, and they look ragged and worn down and undernourished but ready to fight, determination sitting awkwardly on faces that have long since outgrown its use.

"Okay," one man says, after a metered moment. He's pushed to the front of the crowd, is taking them in: the strangeness of Dan's and Rorschach's costumes, the goggles and light shields hung around all of their necks. He comes to his own conclusions, finds them favorable; fists clench at the sides of his grey jumpsuit, shaking. He's balding, a little, but you could never tell his age to look at his posture, the rage on his face. "Can't speak for anyone else, but just point me at the bastards, I'll take out anyone you need."

Rorschach takes the statement at face value, points vaguely down the hall.

Dan can only grin, expression flooded with adrenaline and exultation as the group gathers into something resembling a formation and starts moving. This is not a victory, not yet, but there's a clank from across the hall as a second cell is breached, and like a tidal swell gathering force, pulling up and up, cresting into a breaker with all of its violence and dead-white foam and cold unstoppable fury – it's begun.

*

Whispers are just whispers, little threads of hope winding up through the cracks in reality. News, rumors, speculation, fantasy; they layer together and become indistinguishable after a while, and all lose their credibility. Become tools for the weak minded to prop themselves up with, and she's never been one to need support.

Mutterings though – furtive, urgent information passed cell to cell when the guards are just out of earshot – that's something else entirely.

They all saw the building empty out a few minutes ago, heard the sound of pounding feet in perfect sync, watched them leave only a skeleton crew behind. Those in cells with even the smallest slit of a window facing east have reported another explosion out at the Lighthouse, like the one three weeks ago – the resistance acting up again. Probably running short on warm bodies and looking to recruit from amongst the unboostered masses, and honestly? Good for them, but it's nothing out of the ordinary, just the fodder of more useless whispers.

Then word comes down the corridor that there's a fight outside the first cellblock, that the guards aren't winning and the winners aren't prisoners, aren't anyone they've ever seen before.

Echoing, the clang of metal on metal; a cell door being slammed open. Another after that.

She reaches over, shakes Frie awake, and Hatch, and Randolph-who-doesn't-have-a-last-name. It's a cell meant for one man; they're all sleeping on the floor except Hatch, whose turn it is on the cot this week.

"Shhh," she hushes, quiet, before they can ask any questions. Points wordlessly to the ceiling, and there's the sound again, closer now. Working towards them.

They nod in turn; settle into a cautious readiness, no matter the ruckus down the corridor turns out to be caused by friend or foe. Either will require quick action and these are some of the fastest people she's known, but that's nothing special. They're all soldiers here, of one sort or another.

The shackle around her wrist, and the chain connecting it to the others, feels heavier than it ever has.

They wait.

*

Halfway down the first corridor, only one of their backup is left behind; he's showing Dan how to extrapolate the code from the keys, and it's something Dan could figure out on his own easily enough but they've run into two more groups of guards on the way and it's slowed them down so anything that saves them time is welcome.

"It's good to see you in action again, Nite Owl," the man mumbles, self-conscious in the way he only manages half a smile, almost childlike. “The way they forced you out, it… made me angry. For a long time.”

The keys clank against each other as they change hands, loud. Dan narrows his eyes, skips the more obvious question in favor of the one that matters. "What was your name again?"

He glances back at his own rabble, ready and eager to head to another of the detention buildings, to right some wrongs or possibly just break some heads. Motivations vary, after this long under lock and key. "Oh, uh," he says, visibly distracted. "Kevin Gordon."

And before that can sink in, he takes Dan's gauntleted hand in his, his elbow in the other – the parting gesture of a brother in arms, and that's what they've all become, over the last half hour – and is gone, mob surging and cresting behind him as they break for the shore.

Dan just stands for a moment as the unruly sound of it fades, mental gears turning, gradually clicking into place. Rorschach nudges him in the ribs, an intrusion almost entirely wasted on the armor.

"What? Oh, right, sorry." He unthreads the loops of the keyring, handing half to Rorschach. "Just... small goddamned world sometimes."

A moment of very perceptive silence, one eye squinted at him. "Old ghosts?"

"Run into them more often that I expect these days, yeah," and it doesn't even occur to Dan to wonder how he knew that; a Rorschach who didn't seem capable of reading his mind would be stranger. "Anyway, you caught that, about the codes?"

A curt nod, and Rorschach turns the keyring through his hand, running the weight of the keys over his fingers. "Shouldn't split up, without backup," he says, voice suddenly sounding like the street-bleeding summer of 1965, like the waver of uncertain feet in a fight, scuffing artlessly over asphalt.

"No," Dan says, with a half laugh and a shake of his head. "No we fucking shouldn't. We'll just work opposite sides of the hall, it'll be faster that way. And we can both keep an ear out for more guards."

Rorschach doesn't even acknowledge, this time; just heads for the nearest cell and starts cycling through keys, and they know what they're doing now – this should be fast.

It has to be. They have twenty-five minutes left and a lot of prison to cover.

Dan steps to a different set of bars, and the light fixture in this one is blown, so all he sees is the cold glint of eyes that are only just barely daring to hope. A rattle of chains. The harsh rush of air over a vacuum.

The second key he tries fits, and he punches in the code, turns the lock. In the quiet of the prison's held breath, the tumblers sound like a gunshot.

*

It becomes repetitive, after a while. The codes they need to work out for each cell – an amalgam of the numbers on the door and the numbers on the key – are simplistic, and they'd have to be, for mindless puppets to be able to process. Every cell announces its breach with a loud enough noise to draw any number of guards. It's only a matter of time, but the crowd gathering between these narrow walls is increasingly capable of handling them. Fighters, every one.

The fifth cell he gets to, he thinks of Daniel's old ghosts, but the light is on in this one and a handful of faces stare up at him, strangers. He works the lock mechanically and slides the door open, steps in to start unfastening their cuffs. They know what to expect now; word has spread

(whispers, mutterings, hope and hopelessness)

and if it's a moment out of a dream, no one seems willing to push it to its break point.

"Come on," he says, more gruffly than he intends. "Out."

They are happy to oblige.

*

The eighth cell is in darkness, the broken fixture glinting metallic in the light from the corridor. It's been pulled from the ceiling, hanging by its power cords. A sudden memory: pulling a fixture down and breaking it apart for its cheap, industrial metal slats, sharp as razors. That had been the fourth time he'd managed to escape Veidt's cell, and he'd been in restraints after that, but the lamp's fractured pieces had tasted blood before it was over.

Weapon improvisation, he notes, mentally cataloging the skill sets of the freed resistants. Then he adds weapon usage, glove diverting for a moment to trace the flaky old bloodstains on the bars, before returning to the lock.

Key, code. Twist, punch punch punch. It's become something rote, but the usual patient stillness inside the cell breaks and his concentration with it, as someone shuffles closer to the bars, chains clanking.

"Will have it in a minute," he says, and it's a little peevish, but the code didn't work the first time and now he's trying to reenter it correctly.

"Jesus Christ," comes a voice from inside the cell, far closer to the bars than he'd been expecting from the sounds of movement and familiar, too familiar. "It is you."

*

He freezes, the bastard, one digit from the end of the code, and they all hear the irritated triple beep of the lock timing out and resetting. He drops the keys.

Then he mutters, some string of nonsense before he says her name, face through the bars all shock and – Jesus, is that fear? Why the hell would it be fear? – and no one has addressed her so formally in years and–

*

From across the hall, Dan hears the ring of keys hit the ground with a careless rattle – thinks guards, thinks ambush, turns to look–

And then Rorschach is talking but he's too far away to make out. By the time Dan's broken away from his group and gotten close enough, there's only one thing left to hear, full of all the usual disdain but chafed around the edges with something like grief, with a brilliantly painful kind of knowing.

"...Ms. Juspeczyk."

*

Chapter Text

*

This austere room on the 60th floor is not used to things like drawers slamming shut in frustration or expensive shoes treading heavy and careless over the fragile nap of antique rugs. But then, it isn't used to knives and ricocheting bullets and the cold choke of fear, either. It's been a peaceful, quiet place for a very long time.

He's in too much of a rush to think about it, to decide whether it'd been too long or not long enough. In the old days, when life was lived case by case and illogical, protocol-shattering decisions were often hailed as heroic, a low-paid security officer planted in front of a dozen monitors might have thought twice – maybe three times – before blowing the whistle on a man like Adrian Veidt.

These aren't the old days.

"Damn it," Adrian mutters, pulling open another drawer, already knowing how useless it is. The words feel wrong and unfamiliar on his tongue, coarse, but if years of disuse has rust-roughened all his old smooth edges, this isn't the time to worry about it. He has bigger concerns – namely, the fact that his security keys are gone. Not misplaced, not mislaid. Gone.

Taken.

There are times when, irrationally, he finds himself missing Bubastis more than any other aspect of the world as it was before. Often it's moments like these, when her steady protectiveness would have kept strange hands out of his possessions. Just as often it's been when loneliness has managed to creep up past the programming and leave him with a phantom feeling of smooth fur and warmth under his hand, of the one connection he'd ever really made. He does not miss his parents, or his employees, or any of the beautiful people he'd whispered strangeness to in the dark every now and again, but he does miss his girl.

Which is ludicrous; it's been ten years, and in the city's cemeteries, the bones and ash of three million rattle against his blasphemy. The silenced voices of everyone left behind join them.

He stops moving for a moment, propping closed eyes against his fingers: calm, recenter. He has a plan, and nothing good comes of panic or rash action or fixating on things that cannot be changed. It's been too long since he's had to do this, since he's had to act outside the lines or outsmart anyone, but he should still be able to manage it.

His eyes ache, lit red against black by the daylight.

When he opens them, his pacing has brought him to the picture window overlooking the street below, the survivors of his three million, and his hand goes to the glass without thought. He traces the paths of the crowd before it dissipates completely away, shuttering inside of offices and shops, away from the sun. Complete, utter clockwork, mindless in its efficiency.

Deformed, he thinks, as if he's looking at an animal bred for such precise perfection that it's become a monstrosity, and an echo of old dreams informs him that the accusation had been meant for another voice but had never made it to the air. A lot of things that never quite happened have haunted him and this city with the persistence of real memory in all the days and nights and years since 1985, made them remember what almost was or almost wasn't, bleeding together.

Right now though, actual reality is closing in on more fronts than he can count, slipping tight a great many nooses. One of them is right here, and he can almost feel the burn of the rope.

"Fine," Adrian mumbles, pushing away from the glass, talking halfway to himself and halfway to all the watching eyes, to the brains that they don't quite connect to. Fine, forget the keys; they may have been useful later but they won't be necessary, and he doesn't see himself coming back here again anyway. The more possibilities prepared for the better, but there's a fine line of sanity it can cross and he only has twenty minutes left to get out.

He scoops a sheaf of documents from his desk, a few prepared floppy disks from his top drawer, and the hooded coat from the back of his chair.

He hits the staircase like he's going into freefall.

*

He knows that they ran for it the moment the charges went off; it's standard protocol and they do this at least once a month, twice when the weather's amenable.

It's still March, by only a few days, and the weather could have used some improvement.

He knows they ran, and usually the fleet-footed volunteers he sends on these missions make it out without a scratch. But food's been poor lately and morale dipping, and the metal stairwells snaking up the bare side of the building are still slick with last night's rain – and sometimes things just don't go to goddamned plan.

Donnelly watches through heavy overland binoculars as Campbell goes down first, then Park a second behind. Even if the other two stand a good chance of making it – and they do, both vaulting the last set of steps like the height is nothing and beating the pavement well ahead of the bullets – the damage is already done.

He closes his eyes behind the glass. In his mind, he's slipping down into a deep, familiar hole, darker than any of these last ten years. All of his lost men and women are here, and they aren't angry.

"Better be worth it," he mumbles under his breath, thin and desperate and it can only be to himself because there is no one else here to watch any of them fall.

*

They say that walking, running – they're just a continuous thread of controlled falls. Right now he believes it, as they plunge through the north facility, crash against its walls and seep into its cracks, building momentum and groundswell with every opened cell.

He tries to remember the last time he'd had a hero's hand in his own; tries, through some streak of masochism, to bring back those lost and painful years from the beginning of memory, but he'd been helpless then and they're all anything but now, and it's all dropping away. Every new pair of eyes alights on him as if he were the hero, and maybe he is. Maybe they all are.

Their movement is as inexorable as gravity.

*

"Hey, Dan," she says when he makes it to the bars, something ghostlike about her voice or maybe adrenaline's just dumbed and numbed his nerves, his hearing. It's weary and relieved and a little sarcastic, and there's a bit of 'fancy meeting you here' mixed in, but there's nothing flirtatious about it. Dan's grateful, the part of him that can only focus on the immediacy of Now, because Rorschach already looks like the floor's dropped out from under him, like he's falling through the world. He looks physically ill.

"Didn't realize you were here," Dan says by way of greeting, with a relieved smile and one hand pressed supportively between the trenchcoat's shoulders, hidden from sight. He's eying between them and he knows how obvious it is that he wants to say more, ask questions, but none of them need to say it aloud: there'll be time for talking, for acknowledging each other's existence and the time that's passed,

(Ten years, and the thought twists, ugly, at the detached way she's regarding him. May old acquaintance be forgot.)

and that time is not now, no matter how much the delay stings. If he's honest with himself, he doesn't even really know what he'd want to say.

So he just stoops to pick up the key ring; reaches to pull Rorschach's hand back out of the air and press the keys into it. Addressing him now, careful and slow, the other hand on his shoulder. "Hey, you okay? You got this?"

A brief pause, like the onionskin unraveling of seconds. Then Rorschach snaps into motion, sorting through the keys with a mindless efficiency and it's like the goddamned mask is back, face blank and blank and blank. "Yes, Nite Owl," he growls, and the softer tone he's affected recently is gone. "Have it under control."

And he does, but Dan still watches for just a second as he seats the key and starts punching the digits in; meets Laurie's eyes over his shoulder and even now, after ten years and hardships he can only guess at, there is a curiosity scrabbling to the surface.

Then urgency overrides the desire to linger, and he nods – to which of them he's not sure – and turns back to his side of the hall, his own key ring already running through his fingers as he approaches another lock, another door, another set of watching faces. Now is not the time to talk, or think, or consider the web of cause and effect, or wonder at the way his life keeps cycling the same people back to him, over and over. A familiar slouched back against his kitchen chair, highlighted in the scratch of pencil over paper; eyes across an expanse of iron bars, older but no less recognizable.

Distantly, he hears the sliding scrape of the door thrown open, and hushed voices, and the metallic clanking of handcuffs being worked open. Everything here echoes, gaudy and loud. Everything is larger than life.

Now is not the time to lose focus.

*

Of course, just because it's a bad time to focus on something doesn't mean it's not there, and a need for silence doesn't preclude there being things that need saying. These are circumstances that leave things to fester, chasms to gape, and a single stumbled step to roll into a fullfledged backslide. He can see Rorschach shutting down already, slipping to the place he'd spent a decade in, skirting the edges of Dan's life but always just out of reach.

And still, there's not a damn thing he can do about it right now - not until they reach the end of the hallway and Dan checks the timestamp in his goggles and realizes that they only have ten minutes left. They're more than ten minutes from any exit, and this isn't going to be an easy escape no matter how quickly they do this. Up ahead, there are guards, and Laurie moves with a soldier's grace and a soldier's practicality, efficiency in every motion, and he can still see her in the tenement fire, in the alley, always moving, up and over and through. Moving like he and Rorschach both used to, before time weighed down one and broke the other.

Apparently, what breaks one blade only hones another.

Nearby, his partner is fighting mechanically, like he can't feel where he is all of a sudden. He's being too rough, too violent, and Dan can remember all too clearly what it sounded like the first time he saw Rorschach put someone on the ground for good. He can hear the words coming out of his own mouth, a month ago, ten years ago: He was normal once. Over the years, the mask's eaten his brain, and what business had it been of Laurie's? Why had he felt the need to-

He was normal once.

A grunt and a snap of bone and the tussle's over, but there will be more on the way, there are always more on the way. Soon, they'll be showing up armed, and what then?

This entire thing is crazy, in more ways than one.

"Hey," he says, switching off the chronometer, reaching out on impulse to snag Rorschach by the shoulder, pull him away from the crowd before they have a chance to regather their wits and start counting heads. He swings them both around a square concrete pillar, out of sight, so fast that even the sharp, trained people they're traveling these halls with will have missed it, though he expects no such obliviousness from Laurie. At the moment, he doesn't care; this descent has to be halted, because he's been doing so much better and that can't have been Dan's imagination, can't have been wishful thinking. "We don't really have time here, but..."

Rorschach just stares up at him, challenging, but when Dan reaches up to run the knuckles of his glove over the hard, sharp angle of his cheekbone, he doesn't pull away.

"I just wanted to make sure you-"

"Understand," Rorschach says, and the gravel is still there but it's tempered. Dan doesn't know what exactly he's claiming to understand or if he really does, but then something in the dull eyes softens and he leans incrementally into the touch and the glimmer of vulnerability hurts, stings at Dan like the ground wasps of his New England autumns, drunk on their own deaths and unpredictable for it. Something has been dying here, since the moment the mask peeled away too wet on the inside, and everything snaps back into focus all at once. It all makes perfect sense.

Dan closes his eyes behind the goggles. Takes a breath, opens them, and drops the hand down to squeeze at Rorschach's arm. He wants to say Whatever else is going on here, I've got you or Don't worry, you're the only one I want like this but the first goes without saying and he's not entirely sure the second's true and doesn't have time for all the explanations and qualifiers that would make it true, so he settles for a nod and a smile he can feel through his whole body, and it'll have to be enough to last until later.

Then they are back in the fray, back to back and shoulder to shoulder, determined to work as much progress out of these last ten minutes as they can and face whatever comes as it does; the pattern of every mission and patrol they've ever been on. Dan can feel the years lift away, their weight and disappointment and fear dissipating.

From the corner of his eye, Rorschach moves like water.

*

In the end, the escape goes more smoothely than Dan had been expecting. It's a fight, and there are a few close calls and a few scares but Laurie's still fast and Dan's fully armored and while Rorschach's suitcoat and trench are going to need some holes patched, the vest under them holds. There are a few casualties but it's nowhere near the bloodbath he's been envisioning.

"Come on," he says, tugging Rorschach still winded and dizzy across the prison yard, out onto the street, one arm threaded around his back. He digs in his pouches with his free hand, comes up with six maps with six different routes that he hands out at random to the crowd around him as they all move together, not stopping to see who's taking them.

"Everybody take as many others as you can, try to split up evenly." There's still gunfire echoing behind them, getting closer, and he can hear the desperate hysteria in his own voice, breaking in time to Rorschach's steps next to him. It's a close cousin to laughter, all the mirth stripped away. "We'll see you when we all get there."

So as the crowd moves its size diminishes, each group splitting off where it needs to, and elsewhere he can only hope that the others are dividing their groups in the same way. Short 10:30 breaks are starting all over the city and he understands why they'd insisted on nine in the morning; the usual crowd masks theirs, gives them time to manage some distance.

Laurie doesn't disappear with any of the left and right turns and divergences; just hauls a few strangers behind her and sticks close to Dan and Rorschach and the path they're carving through the city's back alleys.

It's a while before Dan realizes that he's bouncing a little with each step even as they're technically skulking, rocking one fist back and forth to let off nervous energy. He's excited, about their success and the low number of losses and the utterly professional way they'd all handled that last round of guards, but he doesn't want to say anything about it to either Rorschach or Laurie – Rorschach who'd just tell him to wait until it's over to call it, and Laurie who's spent the last however many years in a prison cell and who is probably not in the mood for his exuberance.

She still notices, and when she elbows him in the ribs it's not as playful as it used to be but the pretense is there. "What are you so happy about?"

"We won," he says, grinning under the goggles, letting the words drop like the rest of the statement's obvious: we won, almost no one got hurt, and now everything's going to be okay – except that it isn't, they're a long way from that, and he knows it. On his other side, Rorschach grunts derisively, because he knows it too.

It's obvious from the expression on Laurie's face that she knows it just as well and is about to say so, so he tosses his free arm over her shoulder; she stiffens under it like Rorschach used to do. Dan ignores it. "Yeah, I know it's not over. But we've got a chance, right?"

"Against the world? You really think so?"

"That doesn't sound like someone who got thrown in jail for fighting the good fight," Dan says, narrowing his eyes. Behind them, their group moves through the phalanx of businessmen and shift workers like they belong; this cover strategy clearly predates their imprisonment. Laurie doesn't answer for long enough that he starts to realize just how tactless he can be, this hopped up on adrenaline.

"And what makes you think I was fighting the good fight?" she asks, after the moment stretches just a bit too long.

"Because I know you."

She shakes her head, expression half amused in a way that the added lines and age reinterpret into something both familiar and not. "You know who I was."

"I still think I'm right," Dan says, tightening his arms. Next to him, Rorschach fidgets to be free of the grip, senses recovered enough now to manage without the support. Dan lets him go, but the distance between them doesn't change, still just narrow enough to barely get a slip of paper through.

Rorschach fingers the bulletholes in his coat as they walk, then reaches to straighten his hat. Interrupts with all the casual rudeness he's every been capable of. "Have to agree. Never seemed particularly sincere in your claims to want a normal life, to avoid conflict. Likely a self-deception to make quitting feel less like quitting."

"And I see you're still an asshole."

An uninterpretable little noise. "People change less than they'd like to believe."

"People change as much as they want to," Dan interrupts, something warning in his tone, less sheepishly ineffectual than he'd been the last time he'd had to break these two up, more final. They're almost to their destination, but there's a traffic light and Dan reaches up to adjust the goggles; Rorschach slips the borrowed blacked-over lab glasses up out of what is now pure habit. Laurie eyes them curiously, doesn't say a word.

The light changes, and they cross without incident. The sound of gunfire has faded, has either stopped or is too far behind them now.

"You're late," Laurie says after a while, slipping out from under Dan's arm. "Jon said you'd be here a month ago. Not that I put much faith in the big blue ass when it came to important things, but dates he was usually pretty solid on."

"We ran into some trouble."

"Obviously." She gestures to Rorschach's eyegear, and that he'd need it in the face of something as relatively innocuous as the stop-go-stop of the traffic lights makes it pretty damn clear what kind of difficulties they'd stumbled into.

"Yeah, well," Dan says, unfolding the last map and double-checking. Laurie's being tactless and Rorschach's growling at being used as Visual Exhibit A, and Dan could almost laugh at the simple normalcy of it all. "The future doesn't exactly come with an instruction manual."

A turn here, another, and a straightaway. Windows speckle the alley walls, mostly closed.

"...yeah," Laurie finally says, quiet. "Even living through it, I could have used one of those. Nothing ever turns out like you expect, you know?"

"What were you expecting?" Rorschach reaches to push the goggles back down, and the actual curiosity in his voice is a little shocking. Dan's occupied with the navigating now, directing them around a sharp, blind corner, studying the route carefully, but he still manages to raise an eyebrow over the edge of the unfolded map.

Laurie shrugs, and it's stiff, nothing like the casual flippancy Dan remembers. "That the good guys would win, I guess. That I'd be able to–" She cuts herself off, shaking her head. "Whatever. It didn't happen, this did," and she waves one hand around for emphasis, "and who knows where we go now. Get it clear in your head though," she says, looking at Dan specifically. "We didn't 'win'. Not today. Probably won't ever. Take what you need from it, but don't get your hopes up."

Dan licks his lips, carefully refolding the map. Says nothing. Even Rorschach seems taken aback, and that's a tough feat.

"What?" she asks, and that half-amused smirk is back, and Dan's starting to remember where – and on who – he's seen it before. "Would you rather I sugar coat it?"

Rorschach shakes his head, pushes past them to the last corner; he'd been peering over Dan's shoulder, apparently.

"No," Dan says, "Of course not," but as they follow in Rorschach's path and come into full view of this blasted out refuge, nestled in the ruined remnants of countless old tenement buildings and swarming with thousands of people draped in the orange and dull grey of prison standard uniforms – feel the energy surging here, the reignited hope and the ballooning future and the sheer press of numbers – it certainly feels like a victory, like a day that can be called won.

*

Chapter Text


*

”These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.”

*

It takes Dan about ten minutes of aimless wandering to realize that this is not just a temporary meeting place for the freed resistants. The numbers in prison clothes are overwhelming but not exclusive; others wander amongst them, handing out changes of clothing and pointing out locations in what is gradually revealing itself as yet another camp, lost to entropy but starting to come back together. Two of the children from yesterday wander carefully past him, no longer in a rush, and it strikes Dan that they must be as unfamiliar with this place as he is.

"Too young to remember," Laurie says, a note of sympathy finally making it unto her voice. "We haven't used this place in years."

Dan nods, distantly. There's a lot he's still trying to slot into place here. Over their heads there's an arch of metal sheeting, closing over the entire valley between broken buildings. Infrared shielded, like the other camp, if he had to guess.

"Why did you move?" he asks, not bothering to conceal the childish wonder at the scope of the place. It's big, five times the size of what he's seen, and everywhere he looks he can see the broken in footprints of the structures that used to be services, homes. Industrious, people are already working to get them standing again, hauling scrapmetal up into precarious card-houses.

Laurie shrugs. "Beats me, I was already locked up."

"We didn't need the space, after they started imprisoning resistants indiscriminately," comes a severe, chastising voice from behind them, and it's Donnelly, snuck up as silently as any vigilante. Dan is the only one who jumps.

"Shit," Laurie says, but it's halfhearted. "That was my fault, wasn't it?"

"Afraid so," Donnelly says, all seriousness, then breaks the act to smile broadly. "But it was worth the attempt. How have you been?"

"In jail," she says, and Dan hears Rorschach snort behind him, something close to laughter. "How do you think?"

His smile relaxes, even if there is a sadness in it. "I think we’re glad to have you back."

*

Rorschach breaks away when he can – Daniel and Juspeczyk are engaged running over the mission results with Donnelly, casualties here and casualties there and what it all adds up to in the morning. He's not comfortable enough around people to be able to say he wants to be here in the churning midst of them, but he'd had a twitch to wander and he's gradually realizing that there's rarely any harm in indulging these impulses.

Tables and benches are coming together around the periphery, piles of donated clothing gathering there and they're old, moth-eaten castoffs but the former prisoners seem eager to make the exchange regardless, get out of the prison greys, and that is something he understands.

He walks on, and somewhere between the clothing exchange and what his nose tells him is the new kitchen, his battle-honed instincts fail and he's ambushed – by a swarm of overexcited children, who tug at his sleeves and look up at him with imploring eyes.

"What," he growls, after a long moment.

A careful silence, then the oldest boy blurts it out, spokesman for them all. "Tell us what happened? We've never heard about a real jailbreak."

One of the younger ones, a girl, giggles and chews on her own smile. "Yeah," she says, and her enunciation is poor. "Tell us a story."

Another stretch of silence, six pairs of eyes gazing up balefully. Rorschach scans the crowd; sees no one he recognizes, and crouches to eye level with his captors. His voice drops, loses the growl, becomes conspiratorial. "Who told you I would tell you a story?" he asks, suspicions already forming.

"The lady over there," a gaptoothed boy says, pointing uselessly back through the crowd. "She was talking with a guy with a funny costume."

"Costume like armor? Brown and gold?"

The kid nods. "Yeah, exactly."

"And what did he say."

"Nothing, he laughed though."

The scowl deepens. "Just. Laughed."

"Well, he seemed a little angry too," interrupts the older boy, and he has Daniel's talent for covering everyone's motives with as little degradation of character as possible. Making excuses. "Or maybe not angry, like... flabbergasted!" he says, having had to search for the word and seeming proud of having come up with such a long one.

Rorschach very much doubts it's the word he intended. Still sighs, rubbing one hand under his hat – looks around, and everything seems to be under control for the moment. Settles down onto his heels, trying to think of how to best explain the security monitor tied and gagged with the tape from his own video reels in a way that won't come off as depraved to these impressionable minds.

*

It's around this time that Adrian stumbles into the camp, and stumble is definitely the word for it. He'd clearly met more resistance than expected, his coat worn and burned in a few places and one sleeve torn open and bloody. It's nothing major and they have gunshot victims still waiting in triage, so he's told it'll be a while before they can get to him and he accepts that with the good grace of a man who's grateful just to still have his skin.

People change less than they'd like to think, Rorschach had said, but maybe some people change more. Dan shakes his head, watching from the sidelines.

"What?" Laurie asks, coming up alongside him.

"Oh, just." He moves to pocket his hands, is blocked by the fact that he's still in his armor. "Was looking for Rorschach, wanted to spring him from the hell you sent after him back there." Gestures at the low-priority triage area. "Found this instead."

Next to him, Laurie's gone silent, unmoving. She once again reminds him of Rorschach, in his worst times, when he would go so inhumanly still before unleashing some horrific violence.

Instead she just hisses, low and angry, "What the hell is he doing here?"

"Well, he helped us pull this off, and–"

"He's the one behind all of this. God, Dan. Even before, the shit he pulled with that monster, the people he killed? And you're trusting him now?"

He tugs her away, further out of earshot. "I don't trust him, and god knows Rorschach doesn't. But we snapped him out of it and he does seem to want to help fix this, and–"

"God, you're gullible," she says, pressing fingers to her temple, and there was a time that would have been almost an endearment. Now it's just frustration. "And new leaf or not, he's going to go apeshit when he sees me."

"What? Why?"

No response; she just looks to the side and picks at her sleeve and deflects without a word, and that's a pattern he recognizes – finally, something familiar. "Okay," he says, "Okay. Look, I'm going to keep looking for Rorschach, why don't we try to get you something else to wear while we're at it?"

A nod, resigned. "All right, yeah."

So they walk – they can see the paths, the way the crowd is moving, divine the location of the spare clothing supply from it like reading an hours-old crime scene. He doesn't try to get too close this time.

"Hey," she says after a minute, eyes following his, the way they scan the crowd with something like urgency. "He sewn to your hip or something?"

"...what?"

"You just seem awfully attached all of a sudden."

Dan just shrugs, too much deliberation in the gesture for it come off as truly casual.

Laurie grins, and for the first time since the prison, it's not snark or cynicism or sarcasm fueling it. "Let me guess. 'Brothers in arms', back to back in the shadow of death, all that bullshit."

"...I guess, yeah."

"You know what they used to do to pass time in those foxholes, right?" she asks, raising one eyebrow.

And Dan tries to look affronted, but it's difficult to manage when he's also laughing so hard that he chokes.

*

"My god, he's actually–"

She'd been about to step over, say something smartassed about the entourage, but Dan's hand on her shoulder had stopped her. Now she watches, befuddled, as the terror of the underworld tells what they can overhear in snippets is a pretty awful story.

Still, the kids seem absorbed, and there are more of them than the six she'd originally sent after him. They watch for a minute or two; at one point Rorschach looks up to catch her eyes from all the way across the space and his are saying, clearly, will get you for this.

She laughs, and it sounds strange to her, like Dan's unguarded laughter had earlier. She supposes it's just the shock and adrenaline of the day dropping off, leaving them all a little giddy and vulnerable in its wake. It'll pass. "Forced to spend time with a bunch of hero-worshiping kids, though god knows why," she says, as Rorschach's attention goes back to his audience. "What a horrible fate I've inflicted. You'd think they were all spitting acid or something."

"I don't know, I think he's being a good sport about it."

"I guess so," she says, and narrows her eyes. He is, actually, and she watches the way he gestures to illustrate a point, something about a camera. His intonation's not exactly engaging but it's hardly the flat monotone she remembers, and it's been ten years so she can't be sure, but... "He seems a lot less cr–"

And she cuts herself off, isn't sure at first why. She'd been about to say 'crazy' because that's what Rorschach is, the crazy, creepy asshole, the sick fuck who makes her skin crawl. That's what he's always been.

"Laurie?"

But she'd seen fear on his face in the prison and heard curiosity on the walk back and is watching him now, telling a shitty story to a bunch of kids just because they asked, and suddenly she remembers where she's seen that eerie thousand yard stare before – on Barnes, the day they'd taken his kids away for a school trip back in '91, returned them glassy-eyed strangers that didn't even know to call him daddy. On Anya Kominsky after the first big push on the Lighthouse left everyone in her squad cut to ribbons by the guards' exotic new weaponry, who had stumbled back to camp dazed and empty and Laurie had been able to feel her seams come apart, holding onto the collapsed body as its mouth babbled things its brain couldn't comprehend. On Randolph-who-doesn't-have-a-last-name, a silent fixture in her cell for three years and he probably does have a last name but damned if he remembers it. On countless soldiers and friends who'd seen too much in this fight, been pushed too far, shattered too hard to come back.

She'd mourned them, each and every one.

"...broken," she finally says instead, shifting back to look at Dan. "Less broken than he used to be."

Dan doesn't respond at first – just looks at her carefully, and she can tell there's something in him that appreciates the distinction. She's still surprised herself. The connection has been there to make all along, but she'd only ever remembered him as an inhuman cipher, never...

"Less in some ways, more in some ways," Dan concedes after a long time. "But he's a lot more functional, more... normal, I guess."

"Still a bony-assed midget," she says, acerbic, and that feels more familiar.

Fish-breathing silence, open-mouthed, then: "Okay, why are you looking at–"

"It's easier now that he has a face," she says, shrugging dismissively, then stretches to pull the donated sweater down over the top of the prison uniform. The layers are uncomfortable, but she wants to be rid of the visual brand of shapeless grey. "Though telling them apart, that might be an issue."

Dan sighs, and there's not much amused in it. Disappointed, more like. "And you called him an asshole."

"Never claimed I wasn't," she says, on autopilot, but the casually callous banter she's used to has turned awkward, uncomfortable, in a way it hasn't in years. Laurie sighs, reaches up to rub her forehead; she doesn't remember Dan being this critical, but the defensiveness makes sense. She changes the subject. "So, how long were you under?"

It takes him a second to catch up, to understand what she's asking. "Oh, uh, about an hour. I only caught it sidelong, he snapped me out if it."

"How long was he under?"

A long breath, naked in the way it shakes out of him. "Two weeks."

"Caught the full blast, then. Was that before or after you did?"

"After."

Oh, of all the stupid... she just looks at him for a long time, incredulous. "How could that have happened, if you both knew about it?"

A shrug, far too nonchalant. "It was the most tactically sound decision at the time."

Around them, the background noise floor seems to subsume everything else, a very loud silence. Across the blacktop, Rorschach is growling a correction at one of the kids who'd tried to get ahead of the story.

"...wait," Laurie says. "Wait, what?"

"I told you before," Dan says, voice distant, nodding towards the knot of children. "Brilliant tactician. I was pretty pissed at the time, but with a little distance I guess I can see how it was the only solution."

She shakes her head; a pounding is starting behind her eyes. "I'm not even going to ask what kind of shit you'd have to get into for that to be a solution."

"I know," Dan says.

"You're both idiots."

A sharp laugh. "I know."

The story's winding down, they can tell, and nearby, nature's instinctual lunch bell is going off. She remembers this, remembers how there was never quite enough to go around. They won't want to be stragglers, heroes of the day or not. All around them are happy reunions, the violence of the morning already forgotten as people separated by months or years find each other, and it's all so storybook that Dan's big ideals and childish awe and suicidal heroics earlier, rushing back into the fray to pull Rorschach out of it, seem to fit in just right.

One of the kids is pointing at the bullet hole in Rorschach's jacket, question obvious, and she can feel Dan wince next to her.

"I was kidding about the foxholes," she says, quiet now, eying Dan sideways in what little time there is left to talk without listening ears. "But you weren't, were you?"

Guarded: "I laughed, didn't I?"

"You wouldn't have laughed before. You would have gotten flustered, blushed maybe. Said 'oh no Laurie,'" and she flatters herself that it's a fair imitation, "'of course not, I only like y...'"

She trails off, awkwardly. Dan doesn't respond. He's been doing a lot of that, and she wonders suddenly just how different she really is now, how many jagged cracks ten years have rubbed into her; like watching moss grow in to fill a fissure in broken pavement, you never see it change unless you go away for a while and come back. She doesn't have the luxury.

"Look," she says, and she tempers her voice into something gentler, tells herself it's for his own good, isn't just jadedness. "It's been ten years. I'm not really..."

"Yeah,” he says, a little sad, a little resigned. “I figured."

"You did?" She raises an eyebrow. "Really?"

"Well, I thought maybe. That you'd be involved, or–"

She huffs in annoyance, inarticulate, cutting him off. Crosses her arms.

Dan goes quiet again then, and it feels like a strategic retreat. Across from them, children scatter, their prize secured and grand adventure dreams for the night set in stone, and Rorschach unbends himself from his crouch, striding over to them more smoothly than any forty-something who's lived as hard and unhealthy as he has has any right to.

"Tell a good story?" Dan asks, cheerful to the point that it has to be artificial.

Rorschach levels another, less pointed glare in Laurie's direction, then turns and shoves his hands deep in his pockets. "May have... embellished in places," he admits, then gestures to the crowd up ahead. "Lunch, Daniel," he says, single-minded as always; some things don’t change. "Before they run out."

*

Rorschach had been wrong to worry about the food running out, and even if he hadn't been the kid handing out bowls of soup – all they could whip up on this scale and on such short notice – assures them that there'd been some set aside for them anyway. This seems to annoy Juspeczyk, who mutters something about heroism never mattering in the food line before, but there's a third bowl set aside for her too and that seems to pacify her.

It's also an oddity in and of itself, inconsistent with his assumption that she was just another rank-and-file resistance member when they rounded them up however many years ago. It'll need some thought.

For now, he just sits down on the bench next to Daniel – Juspeczyk's on Daniel's other side – and maybe shifts a fraction too close, almost leaning as he hunches over his food. It feels possessive but Daniel allows it and there's little to be said on the subject, so he watches the crowd move around them instead, carrying bowls and spoons and mugs of coffee, laughing in that delirious way someone does when they've only just dodged a screaming bullet. It's not just decadent, careless merrymaking; it's relief, so complete it makes the bones shiver, and there was a time that he wouldn't have been able to see that.

"So, ah, thanks," Juspeczyk says, breaking into his contemplations. It's quiet though, and not hostile, so he assumes it was meant for Daniel and goes on eating.

It's only after a few seconds' silence have passed and Daniel reaches to nudge him in the shoulder that Rorschach looks up, eyebrows pinched in annoyance. "What–"

Daniel just hooks his head sideways towards where Juspeczyk is leaned a little forward around him, looking at Rorschach directly. She's talking to you, the gesture says, with a trace of Don't be an asshole.

Rorschach contemplates her wordlessly for a moment, spoon still in his hand. "For what?" he finally grits out, trying to convince himself he's still angry about the ambush.

"For the jailbreak," she says, licking her spoon. "Three years is a long damn time."

A grunt that means nothing, and next to him, Daniel is grinning. "Assumed you would be thanking Nite Owl for that. Obviously the mastermind of the operation."

"Hey now," Daniel says, still smiling. "Sarcasm will get you nowhere."

She just shrugs, sets her bowl in her lap. There's something strangely serious about her flippancy, now. "Last I checked, you were the ones actually took these off," she says, holding her arms up, backs of her hands facing forward. There are rough, abraded red rings around her wrists, years spent in the handcuffs plainly obvious. "Thought that was worth a 'thank you', but if you disagree I can retract it."

His carefully arranged mask of indifference is in no danger of slipping, but Rorschach still looks back to his bowl, poking at it with the spoon. "Consider it a favor repaid."

And that wasn't even close to the same, not really – he'd already been loose when they found him, using the riot as cover to seek out a physical escape route. But he'd only been free because of convenient and misguided attempts on his life and had they not happened he would have needed their help; they may not know that, but he does.

Maybe she does too, now. It doesn’t seem to matter as much as it should.

"Hey," Daniel says, jokingly incredulous, oblivious to these transactions. "Are you two actually having a meaningful conversation?"

Then he looks aghast at having said it, but Rorschach's glad he did, glad for the soap bubble poked at and popped because he doesn't have any idea what to do with this strange creeping feeling of camaraderie that he's used to only having one target for. Awkward hostility feels more familiar, even if he can still feel the bite of the cuffs the night the police took him, the burn of captivity and the humiliation of depending on another for his escape.

Juspeczyk laughs, harshly, and it trails off.

They lapse into a silence just as uncomfortable as the one they'd started the meal in, and in the commotion of the cook chasing a mangy abomination of a stray cat out of the cooking area with swinging ladle and thrown rocks – children spring up and trail after the cat, chanting a noise that might be its name – Rorschach gets up and slips quietly away.

*

"Suppose you think yourself very noble."

Veidt looks up from where the camp medic is finishing up the last of the stitches in his arm. They're not very neat, Rorschach observes with some satisfaction. They should leave a scar.

"I'm sorry," Veidt says. "What?"

Rorschach gestures vaguely. "Imagine yourself special, being wounded for the cause."

The man finishes up, moves to wrap a light dressing to keep infection out of it; he's keeping carefully out of the conversation. Veidt shakes his head. "Not particularly. There are men who died in the bombing, which," he says, drawing the syllable out, but there's no accompanying smug smile. "You obviously already know, or you wouldn't be baiting me about it."

Rorschach had walked the camp for about ten minutes, not entirely sure what he'd wanted or needed from his wander. Now though, he's standing over the city's golden boy as he licks his wounds like a common cur, and he has the general shape of it. A little petty, maybe, but it'll do. "New Frontiersman office. Was that you?"

"I'm surprised you're asking. Benefit of the doubt hasn't ever been your style."

Rorschach doesn't reply; just waits for an answer.

"Yes," Veidt eventually says, eyebrows high. "That was me. Protecting a secret that still seemed important at the time. It was done afterhours if it's any consolation. Why? Such a very small crime compared to everything else you've laid at my feet."

"Could have just stolen the journal."

"They may have made copies, and anyway, I was still feeling dramatic in those days."

The medic glances between them, more obviously nervous than he'd been showing before. He clips the tape, securing the bandages with the quick press of thumbs and it's clear that he'd like them to take this elsewhere.

Rorschach ignores him, stepping up close as Veidt stands from the bench. "Feeling dramatic when you decided mind control was the best path to your utopia?" He remembers something Daniel said, back in the motel room, and adds, "Read too much science fiction while designing your monster?"

Veidt grimaces. "No. Horrible genre, very pedestrian."

He's pretty sure Daniel reads it on occasion, and feels an unexpected stab of vicariously wounded pride. The medic has vanished, clearly moving on to other patients. "When you created this system," Rorschach grits, hands already in fists. "Were you intending it to be used on the general population? Used on the world?"

A moment's hesitation, as Veidt peels back the opposite sleeve, peers at the burns there. They're not serious, and the medic had obviously been unable to spare any kind of ointment for them with all the other injuries to tend.

"...no," he finally says, and there's uncertainty there. "I actually didn't have this all plotted out, despite what you must think."

"Hard to believe."

"I really did," he continues despite the interruption, "intend it to be used only in prisons."

"'Smartest man in the world'," Rorschach says, making sure to enunciate the quotation marks. "Must have been able to anticipate what would happen."

Veidt sighs, looking off towards the center of the camp, where the bulk of the bodies are still gathered, still eating and talking and trying to settle. "I'd argue that grief, and the madness it can cause, are part of no mathematics. They make a man unpredictable."

Rorschach narrows his eyes, considering.

"Speaking of," Veidt says. "How is Senator Warren these days?"

"...still cuffed in his cell," Rorschach finally replies, and he's not sure if the warmth he feels at the statement is satisfaction or pride. "Displeased about it, from what I could tell."

With a casual vindictiveness Rorschach recognizes but does not expect from this bland puppet of diplomacy: "He deserves to be."

Questions breed questions, he's heard said before. It always felt like a warning.

Rorschach steps back finally, out of Veidt's immediate breathing space. Turns to leave, counts out five steps before turning back and grunting over his shoulder, "Milk."

"...pardon?"

"For the burns," he says, and now he's walking again. "If the kitchen can spare it. Unlikely."

Veidt doesn't thank him, and that's fine, he likely won't take the advice anyway. It's forgotten as soon as he leaves the scene behind.

*

It is a bit of a struggle, arguing with the cook – remembering all the personal chefs and short-order hash slingers he's known, they're all very much the same, territorial and defensive – and he feels a bit silly doing it in the first place. But it doesn't take a lot to realize that if anyone's had to make do without proper treatment and manage with just old wives' tales and remedies, it's likely Kovacs.

"We got set mealtimes for a reason," the man says, and he's definitely closer to the hash slinger end of things. "Too many people to feed, and everybody ready to think they're somethin' special if you give 'em an inch."

"Of course."

"I give you a cup of milk, and what happens? You'll want some bread to go with it next time, and next thing I know, word's gotten round and it's Custom Order Thursday every day."

It's never, as far as Adrian understands it, Custom Order Thursday. "That would be madness."

"Damn right it would be. Bad enough I have to keep the kids and the strays out of the supplies, but to have grown men come begging around after hours, pshhh. It's shameful."

"And again," Adrian says, raising an eyebrow. "I do apologize, but I was having my injuries seen to during lunch." The bandages make said injuries look worse than they really are, and in this case he's grateful.

The cook looks at him for a solid minute, assessing.

"All right, fine," he says, disappearing into the wheeled coldcase. He comes back with a paper cone, the kind that Adrian remembers his office having by the water cooler in the first floor lobby. "Half a cup," the cook says, handing it over. "And don't let me catch you sniffing around here for scraps again."

The choice of words chafes, but Adrian just agrees and apologizes again and takes his leave as quickly as he can.

A moment or two later he's forced to pull up short when his path is crossed abruptly by a pack of screaming mouths and flailing limbs, stubby legs beating the asphalt and stirring dust in pursuit of what he can only assume is an animate blur of claws and demented hissing.

Kids and strays, he thinks.

In the next second they've caught their quarry, and the child in the lead is waving the atrocity around by the scruff of its neck in a way that is plainly painful. "Hulu lulu!" she shrieks, catching the cat up under its forelegs and swinging the bottom half of its body back and forth in sloppy imitation of the aforementioned dance. The cat hisses and froths and spits.

And it is an ugly thing – grotesquely pushed-in face without any of the good breeding that usually accompanies the trait, matted dirty fur, flea-bitten tail that's been broken and healed unset in two places, and one of its legs is shorter than the others, the paw missing entirely. But still – no living thing ought to be treated like that.

"Excuse me," he says, stepping right up to the teeming hip-high mass, all jungle furor and cruelty of the hunt. "But do you mind telling me what the poor beast's ever done to you?"

The girl holding the cat doesn't respond – nor does she drop it – but the boy next to her speaks up. "She's always in the food, man. Stealing from us."

"Goodness," Adrian says, and he's not above condescending to children. "Stealing all those valuable and delicious garbage scraps and dead rodents. That is quite the crime."

No response, just a shuffling, embarrassed silence.

"Lulu, you said? Go on then, let her go."

They have no reason to listen to him – he's an adult but that's it, no one they know, no one in charge. It's a testament to his persuasive abilities that they still do, and the moment she's released, the cat takes off like a shot, disappearing into the crowd, clearly terrified and making good its escape while the chance still exists.

A lecture's on the tip of his tongue, but he lets that go too, and the children dissipate, wander back to their families and parents.

"And this is the world we're trying to save," he mumbles to no one in particular, but he still receives an answer: A piteous mew from his feet, questioning.

When he looks down, there she is. Staring up at him with those horrible dull eyes and filthy face and she's even uglier now that she's sitting still enough to focus on.

"What?" he asks. "Go on, get going."

Another noise, this one more pitiful than the last, and when he tries to walk away she follows, trotting diligently at his heels.

"You know," he says, and he'd like to chalk the fact that he's talking to a cat up to years of mind-control-induced brain damage, but he knows full well he used to talk to Bubastis too. "Just because I didn't want to see you treated like a punching bag back there doesn't mean I actually want to look at you. Or smell you."

It is no deterrent. She follows him down one corridor and up another.

Adrian looks at the cone of milk in his hand; considers. He barely has enough for his own uses as is, but if she's distracted for long enough...

He leans and dribbles a small puddle on the ground, and she flies to it immediately, lapping it up with the furious speed of a creature who's never had a guaranteed meal in its life. For a moment, his resolve wavers, but then he's moving, towards the residential block still being constructed, as quickly as he can without spilling his prize.

A moment after he arrives, she wanders out of the crowd.

Adrian blinks, incredulous. It’s not often people manage to surprise him, much less… "How did you– you have three working legs."

Lulu rears up on her hind feet, paws at his pantleg with the one front paw she has. She's no less a monstrosity, a perfect abomination, but she doesn't use her claws, and something tugs.

Adrian sighs. "All right, all right, fine. If there's any left after I'm done, you can have it."

The cat prrps happily and follows him and it has to be the food, there can't be any other reason the beast's taken to him. Once the milk is gone she'll move on.

He's sure of it.

*

The hours pass quickly; for those with the ability, there are things to be built and resources to be divided, and time evaporates under these endeavors. Laurie's disappeared to meet with Donnelly over The Adrian Issue, and she'd said it like that, pronouncing every capital letter. Dan has no idea what The Adrian Issue is but the words shook like violence when she said them and despite its facade this is, he's discovering week by week, a very bloody time.

So he's trying to find Rorschach; has been doing so ever since his partner slipped away at lunch, leaving a strange emptiness by his side he hadn't even realized was being filled until Laurie's jaded practicality became too overpowering, started tipping him into that hole. He's wandering, searching the sea of strangers for a familiar face. There are more than he expected.

He sees Lila and Eli and what could only be Lila's husband, still halfway in prison garb, the boy clinging to his leg like a vise. He sees the old man from the prison, fists raised in reenactment to the youth around him, how many guards he knocked out, blammo, flat on their asses. He sees Kevin and a young man that he assumes is a compatriot or friend until the compatriot or friend leans in to kiss his neck and marks himself lover, and Dan smiles and wonders: why can't he be all three?

He asks around, is sometimes pointed in one direction or another, tries to keep the growing sense of real desperation out of his voice because really, it isn’t as bad as all that. But he does wish he could catch a glimpse of red and brown and violet through the maze of bodies, just once.

*

Rorschach, for his part, stays one step ahead of Daniel well into the evening, though it isn't by intent. He's just moving to be moving; looking, as Daniel is, for something familiar. He finds himself patrolling the perimeter of the camp by sundown, and he's missed the evening meal but doesn't feel like he needs to eat right now, after days of glutting on one form of hospitality or another.

The children aren't afraid of him here. It thrills something deep inside, resonates with both Rorschach's and Kovacs's tattered pieces. It's something he remembers, if he allows himself to reach back far enough. The adults aren't afraid of him either, and he wonders how that will change – the hospitality too – when they realize who he is.

"Your friend was looking for you," someone says in passing, like half a dozen others have tonight, and he evens out his frown so it's not quite so deep and nods, mumbles a thank you.

The girl shrugs. "Hey, no problem," she says, "We've all gotta look out for each other, right?"

Rorschach doesn't have much of a stance on it, but Daniel may have been right yesterday, about at least this chunk of humanity. His opinion has climbed a few notches in the last twenty-four hours. "Suppose so," he says, a concession, touching the brim of his hat and continuing on.

"He seemed lonely!" she shouts after his retreating back, and something in his chest grows hot, presses against its walls. He keeps walking.

*

This version of the camp has a harder edge than the one he'd found nestled into the narrow alley backing all the disused remnants of the city's trade district; that one had grown organically, wending through corridors and spidering. This area is huge, spanned above and open below, and the northern edge is one long, straight shot along the path of the overhanging eave.

One thing he misses, in these places, is the ability to climb somewhere high, to stoop over a chimney stack and think. They're all on the same level here.

"Too much," he mutters aloud, and even he's unsure what he's talking about.

He's caught glimpses of Daniel through the crowd all afternoon and evening, out of the armor now but with the light catching his glasses like the impenetrable black sheen of his goggles, and he'd kept slipping away. He doesn't really know why. Now, overprocessed and overwhelmed, Rorschach's on the edge of seeking him out again.

He squints through the crowd: so many people, and no one familiar except for a few of the faces from today, Donnelly's second in command, Daniel's old ghost, and he might have had a few words for the ghost's behavior and choice of company before – he feels the tirade on the tip of his brain, hears the answering argument that they boy had been abused, and who else does he know that fits that description? He shies away from the entire exchange. He can hardly point fingers, now.

A mewing noise nearby, and then there's a figure leaning against the closest support, snuck up silently while he'd been distracted. It's not who he would have hoped for.

"Seems like a very brave young man," the interloper says, line of sight following Rorschach's. "Performed admirably today, from what I hear."

"Veidt," he says, turning around stiffly.

"So, I've been thinking," Veidt launches straight into it, no return greeting. "About what you said. Never mind her, by the way." He points at the cat, sitting at his feet. It's a mangy horror, and looks ill on top of it. "Won't leave me be; I'll sort it out eventually."

"Picked up a stray? Wouldn't think it would appeal."

Veidt frowns, vaguely defensive. "You don't have much room to criticize the transient and... unpleasant-looking, you realize. And I didn't come over here to wallow in hypocrisy."

Rorschach puts his hands in his pockets, waiting.

"You were right," he says, enunciating each word carefully. "About one thing, at least. Extenuating psychological circumstances or not, I should have anticipated this. It's entirely possible that I did, and decided that the ends justified the means." He waves his hand, dismissive. "Some kind of rationalization like that. Obviously nonsense, looked at in hindsight."

"Trying to–"

"All I'm trying to do," and Veidt leans back, letting more of his weight rest on the strut. It's been a long time since he's been the mask, and the age is showing. "Is acknowledge some piece of responsibility here. And assure you – goodness knows why I feel like it matters – that I have every intention of fixing it. No matter the cost."

Rorschach feels his hackles rise as Veidt finishes, feels something indistinctly eerie wind up his spine, like a premonition. He does his best not to show it as the man peels himself from the support and disappears back into the crowd without another word, gone as suddenly as he'd appeared, the cat trotting at his heels.

In the crowd, all familiar faces have vanished, leaving a strangeness, bodies all clamoring together in their freedom.

"Too much," he says to no one again, and this time he has a vague idea of what the overload is.

Rorschach hunches his shoulders, rolling the coat up against his neck where the fine hairs are just starting to lie back down. There will be time to process tomorrow, to start working out the connections, casting his intuition out to feel out the possible endgames here. Right now, he decides, shuffling back into the body of the camp and its still-dense crowd of life, he is going to find Daniel, and if he still has a place at his bedside, take it and not question it until morning.

*

It takes some asking around, but he eventually finds the tiny, newly erected structure Daniel had been directed to for the night. There are larger ones, but full capacity is being strictly enforced with so many new bodies to house. Privacy is often more important than space.

He lifts the curtain that serves as a door, looks in. The caged worklight hanging from the ceiling is still lit, but Daniel is already asleep. It isn't late.

There are two narrow cot mattresses, and they've been pushed together; he can see the scrapes in the dirt that's caked into the asphalt, showing where his was placed and where it ended up. He supposes Daniel could have asked for only one, saved them some resources, but this gives him the option to push it back away again.

He just sits on the edge of it instead, pulling his boots off in silence. The coat, the jacket, all the layers that bear the singed mark of bullet holes slip away, are pushed aside. It's a quiet time.

"Hey," Daniel mumbles, not actually asleep after all, or just on the edge of it. "Looked for you all day, asshole."

"Ehn." Rorschach sets his hat on top of the haphazard pile.

Daniel rolls under the blanket, off of his back and towards the empty pallet. "You okay?"

"...half expected to find Ms. Juspeczyk here."

A laugh, right on the border of inappropriate. "Why would she–"

Rorschach twists to look over his shoulder, shadows on shadows in the dull light but there's enough to see how ragged the last few weeks have left him, how thin and slumped he is. He was a fighter today but right now he's just a man, in his undershirt and his suspenders hanging down around his hips and still wearing the same holey socks. You couldn't call it hollow – they both know all about hollow, these days – but it's something wanting.

"No," Daniel says, serious. "She's not."

The blanket shifts as Daniel rearranges it, and he tosses the excess over the empty space. Rorschach settles under it, trying to let his mind blank. He'd been wearier than he remembers being in years when he came in, but he's suddenly wide awake, wired up like he's been drinking Archie's extra-strong coffee all evening. It makes him restless on the itchy mattress, and it makes it feel completely natural when he rolls over and slides up closer. Nothing's looming on the immediate horizon for once; it's the intoxicating lack of urgency that pushes him to reach between the blankets and find Daniel's back, pull himself in against him.

"Mmm." Daniel brings his own arm up, curling it around his spine and leaning in to press a dazed, clumsy kiss to the side of Rorschach's jaw. Nothing more, and it feels like he's waiting.

Blood shaking my heart, Rorschach thinks, finding the words scrawled somewhere in the dark, pulsing in time with the blood in his ears. My friend.

He hooks his arms up behind Daniel's back, scratching bitten nails down the bare skin, and it's a question but he doesn't know what it's asking for, hopes that Daniel does.

Then there's a shift, and Daniel is flush against him, kissing him so deeply he really might drown, suffocate under the flood of him. He makes an alarmed noise but he's hard against Daniel's thigh, can feel Daniel against his. Cause and effect aren't connecting – just an unfamiliar twitchy energy that drives his battered body to respond, tense and awkward.

Daniel breaks away, tilts his head to the side, stifling himself. "Foxholes," he mutters against the side of Rorschach's face, laughter in his voice.

"Hnh?" It doesn't make any sense but he doesn't think it's supposed to, and when he feels hands working the fastenings of his pants he just closes his eyes and breathes.

Fingers slip under the band of his underwear and rest there, and Daniel mouths the side of his throat. "Nothing, just... you're still really keyed up from this morning, aren't you? I mean, I am too, it's not..."

It's been hours, it's been all day. He doesn't suppose it matters; they spent years this way. The fingers curl, starting to tug, threatening to lay his depravity plain, and he thinks he might have been hard before he even came in here. The evening's been a blur of nerves and aggression.

The hands move away, move up his body, come to rest to either side of his head. "Say yes," Daniel says, and the question itself feels like an indulgence, absolving him of something unnamed. "Or say no. But say something, tell me what's going on."

Rorschach doesn't say anything, but he does open his eyes and nod, and then the last layers are stripped back and he can feel Daniel's hand on him, wrapping around him. It's overwhelming.

"Need this," Daniel says, and it's unclear who he's talking about. "We're in this together, right?"

The blanket is a rough, scratchy cave. Wartime, he thinks, as Daniel's hand moves and his own body jerks in response. Quiet places. I–

He'd expected this to be terrifying, even after he'd told Daniel he could handle it, had come through that curtain wanting it. But there's something so safe in the way Daniel's holding him pressed between their bodies, caught in the warm and dark, and he never knew safe was something this could be. Never even suspected.

"Let it go," Daniel mumbles into his ear, and he suddenly wants to, to see how far the safety goes, how far he can fall and still find this net at his back. It would be such an easy thing, just a moment's lapse of control, and he can feel surrender rising up his throat.

One arm curls behind his neck, draws him closer. "Go on, it's okay," Daniel says, is saying, over and over – so he does, bites down on Daniel's shoulder to muffle himself, lets the sickening warmth pull him inside out. It is no gunshot-sudden release, taking him by surprise; it feels like an unfurling, like something opening up, and when the rough weave of the blanket comes back into focus, Rorschach can swear he feels open air everywhere around him. He breathes.

"Hey, you okay?"

A quiet voice from the fog. He nods, dizzy.

"Oh, god," Daniel says, all misplaced reverence, mouth moving against his still-racing pulse. "That was–"

"A weakness," Rorschach mumbles, halfhearted. He can't find the vitriol, the disgust. He isn't sure who he is anymore, but that isn't new.

Daniel runs one flattened palm up his stomach, under the worn-thin fabric. Splays his fingers wide, like he's trying to get a grip on all of him at once. "Maybe, but you earned it today."

"Wasn't aware it worked like that."

A laugh. "Sometimes," Daniel concedes.

Time hangs for a second. Then Rorschach is fumbling between them, galvanized into motion by a sudden powerful need to do instead of think.

"Wait," and Daniel moves to catch his hands. "I didn't– I can take care of–"

"Shut up, Daniel." Rorschach bats his hands away, exasperated, and works Daniel's belt with clumsy fingers. "Want to," he says, and it feels like truth, but when his hand closes, it's shaking.

A few seconds; then Daniel's hand wraps around his, fingers slipping between, calluses still rough. He guides, wordlessly.

One of the mattresses must have knocked the wall because the work lamp is swaying, throwing strange gridlike shadows over Daniel's face. It cages them both, but Daniel's hair glows soft in the light, and his skin is soft under his fingers, and Rorschach has just enough time to wonder Is that what I looked like before–

There are no more words for this. He focuses past Daniel's shoulder, tracing the lines of corrugated metal as his partner shudders, listens to the breath catch and then even out. He knows why those hands have spent so long reaching for him in one darkness or another, now. He understands.

"Hey," Daniel says, voice shaky, smiling. Fingers touch his face.

He's distantly aware that there's a mess that will need cleaning and that they're both still halfway out of their clothes, but he promised himself not to question until morning, so when Daniel puts one arm over his shoulders and tucks their foreheads in together and breathes out, long and content, it's enough just to be here.

*

Both quotes(top and in text) T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, 1922

Chapter Text






*

'The Adrian Situation' is still unresolved as far as Laurie's concerned, even as the sun threatens to rise on her first full day of freedom in three years. Loose ends bother her on a deep level, make the simple pleasures harder to enjoy.

It's not that Donnelly had been unwilling to hear her out, or even that he'd been dismissive, she considers as she walks through the pre-dawn grey. He'd honestly seemed convinced that allowing that... that monster of a human being free run of their home was to everyone's benefit. She'd been a hair away from asking if he'd been hit in the head a few too many times while she'd been away.

So, while the morning is lovely in that way that quiet desolation can be, she isn't seeing it, stalking through the maze of huts and support beams like a predator on preyscent. It's too early for the showers – they start up after breakfast, from what she remembers – and her hair is dirty and pulled back into a sloppy ponytail, shapeless sweater and slacks comfortable in the way they don't impede her forward motion.

Always forward. Always.

She passes by the kitchen hut, an open-air monstrosity of cobbled together heating ranges and grills and metal surfaces, and hears a thunk from inside the coldcase that tells her at least the cook's up on schedule; his helpers should be along any minute. Everyone else seems to be sleeping in, exhausted from yesterday. It's just her, the lonely cook, and the rats and pigeons and strays, and that seems right somehow.

"Juspeczyk!" the man exclaims, backing out of the case with a crate of powdered eggs. She wrinkles her nose, after years and years she's never gotten used to them, but they're at least not expired. "Long time no see, how've you been keeping?"

She grins and hitches herself up to sit on the corner of one of his tables. "Better this morning than yesterday, at least. I missed your breakfasts."

"You hate my breakfasts, don't bullshit me," but he's grinning, hauling a huge bowl out from under the table. In go the eggs, prepackaged unit by prepackaged unit. The massive griddle's already heating up; she can see the way the air bends over it, heat distortion. "I ain't got much more capacity for bullshit these days, let me tell you."

"Tony," she says, propping her chin in both hands. "Do you have any idea what they fed us in there?"

"Agh, don't tell me. Don't think my heart could take it."

"So, yeah. I missed your horrible powdered eggs, trust me."

He beats his hands together, shedding the remnants of six dozen freeze-dried would-be chickens. There'll be another seventeen batches this size, and that won't cover the whole group anymore, but peeking into the open door of the coldcase, that's all there is.

"What are we going to do for food, now?" she asks, all seriousness suddenly. She can see a lot of belt-tightening in the future.

Tony shrugs, siphoning water into the bowl with one hand and beating the rehydrating eggs stupid with the other. "Search me, kid," he says, and he's only four years older than her. "Was hoping you higher-ups had a plan for that."

She laughs, a little desperate. "I've only been back about nineteen hours here, I don't think I could as a higher-up again yet."

"Still," he says, raising an eyebrow, the first wave hitting the griddle with a sizzling pop. "I just cook the eggs, I don't lay 'em. Acquisition ain't on my resume."

Laurie nods, and doesn't reply, and there's some guilt there – all those nineteen hours she'd been worrying about Adrian, about tactics and conspiracy and revenge. She wonders when exactly she'd become so single-minded.

By the time he's scraping the first griddlefull of eggs into a wide serving bin, metal-on-metal like fingernails up her spine, she's had enough meaningful silence and quietly takes her leave.

*

Deep in the residential zone, she sees the cat – the horrible thing that was here before she was locked up, almost a camp mascot in reverse – stalking around behind one of the huts. She never used to look this bad, though, and at least had all her feet back then.

She hunches, and pounces, and comes up with a rat the size of Laurie's hand, disappears through the curtained door of one of the huts. Laurie laughs, beyond stifling, because someone is going to get a surprise this morning, and she can only hope it's someone who deserves it.

*

Cats and rats and the cook and me, she singsongs in her head, like some old nursery rhyme though she knows she’s got it wrong. So just cats and rats and we’re all–

*

Adrian probably got a hut all to himself, she realizes with no little bitterness. For his own protection. There's not a soul in camp that wouldn't put a knife in him if they got the chance, and that apparently includes Rorschach, from what Dan's told her of exactly how they broke Veidt's programming. Knife hits marble with enough force to shatter, that's no warning strike or pulled blow.

Solitary confinement. She smiles, a little smug. Hatch snores like a dying buzzsaw and smells like something the buzzsaw ran through and left to sit in the sun for a week, but he's pretty and he's good for a nice hard fuck now and then and he doesn't ask questions, ever. She could be housed with worse.

So she wanders, and forgets about the poor lonely bastard, all alone in his ivory tower one day and all alone in the gutter the next. Maybe revenge really is automatic, sometimes.

*

Another twenty minutes and there's a familiar pair of boots toppled onto their sides outside the curtain of a quiet, quiet hut. They're from the Nite Owl costume, dropped here in haste, some strange politeness staying Dan from dragging dirt in onto the dirt-covered floor. And hero or not, she knows he isn't in there alone; housing's too tight.

The curtain waves just slightly in the morning breeze, billowing out invitingly.

Fuck it. Breakfast's soon, she can blame that if they catch her. Laurie puts a hand out, catches it on one of its outward sways, noiseless. Keeps it from swinging back again, and pulls it far enough away to look in.

Her fist curls, tense with something that's maybe a little frustration, a little anger, a little jealousy, but not jealousy like she's used to, not what she would have felt ten years ago. Different. And a lot sadness.

She couldn't explain the sadness with a gun to her head.

Inside, Kovacs – if she calls him that, it's easier to process this, easier to realize that Dan's just sharing a blanket and breathing space with a man and not some monochromatic shifting alien creature – moves under the blanket, the outline of his arm seeking more to hold onto. Laurie feels a sharp pang, and the sadness resolves itself into something more distinct.

Lonely, she thinks, you're fucking lonely. Like a stupid, green recruit, like these two idiots here. She needs to go find Hatch, or quiet, dead-eyed Randolph, get herself laid before this gets out of hand.

Then Kovacs is awake, still unmoving, eyes tracking her from their edges. He's flushing bright red under the edge of the blanket, and she can tell he's fighting the urge to duck completely under it. Acting like that much of a child would be even more embarrassing, she figures.

In the end, indecision is met with violence; Dan jolts bodily, and Rorschach must have punched him under the covers hard, jesus. His eyes blink and try to find focus, but she's probably not more than an indistinct silhouette in the doorway, so he eventually gives up and scrabbles for his glasses. Rorschach's ducked under the covers, fussing with something and oh god, he's probably putting his pants back on. That's not a mental image she needed.

An owlish blink through the frames, and then Dan has precisely nothing to say.

"So you were joking too, huh?" she asks, fingering the curtain suggestively.

"Uh." Dan heaves himself into a sitting position, and he's bare at least to the waist, but the pooling blankets don't let her see any further. Looks down at himself, confused, half-hard with the morning, and she can sympathize. "I, um."

Rorschach – Kovacs – finally rolls out from under the blanket, snapping suspenders up over his shoulders and proceeding to pick through the pile of clothes on the floor, pulling each piece on with a calm practicality that she can tell goes only skin deep. Underneath, something shakes, violent.

Dan watches him for a second, looking completely baffled, then looks back to Laurie.

"Just take the fifth," she says, smile softening a little. "It'll save your sanity. Breakfast's in a few minutes, didn't think you'd want to sleep through it."

"Could have knocked," comes the quiet growl from the far wall.

"Yeah, little hard to knock on a curtain," she says, already walking away. "Meals only last half an hour, so don't take too long getting out the door."

*

"So," she says, plopping down next to them uninvited. They'd been late like she expected, all the fresh fruit they had left long since gone, but still in enough time to grab a few plates of eggs and toast and butter. She picks Rorschach's side this time, and he stops eating, going stock still. "You never struck me as the type."

He ignores her, goes back to eating, stilted and perfunctory.

"All that talking you always did," she says. "Calling people whores and etcetera etcetera."

Dan gives her a warning look, which she doesn't even acknowledge. "I'm not saying there's anything, you know, wrong with it. A little stupid, maybe, with the way things are, but you always seemed, you know. Averse to this kind of thing."

A beat of silence, punctuated by the scrape of metal on ceramic.

"Almost, scared, maybe," she says, and the fork hits the plate, hard.

Wow, she thinks, detached. Dan's right, she really has changed, because there's no way in hell she ever would have said that before. You don't fuck with crazy people, that's one of the first rules the street teaches you.

But he just sits still for a moment, unnaturally still, expression frozen and eerie. Then he turns, hands his mostly-empty plate to Dan, and looks at her sharply.

"Why 'stupid'?" he asks.

Laurie blinks, a little thrown. "Because... because people die here, they disappear. In case you hadn't noticed." She raises an eyebrow, and it's obvious really, she shouldn't have to explain it. "Someone you care about goes down in a fight, you can't keep your shit together, you go down too. Better not to care in the first place."

"Averse to losing people."

"Most human beings are, yeah. I know this whole 'being human' thing is new to you, but–"

"Afraid of it, maybe?"

Now the metal sound is her own fork, scraping and tapping restlessly. Something taps in her head, matching time.

"Own your fear," Kovacs says, pushing to his feet, moving to leave. "Or it owns you."

A few seconds pass, before Dan quietly sets the extra plate down into the vacated bench space. He looks at Laurie, eyebrows raised. "Did he just..."

"I think he did, yeah. Feel like I've stepped into the Twilight Zone, here."

Dan laughs, short and sharp. "This whole place is the Twilight Zone," he says, half to himself.

Laurie frowns, and pushes the eggs around on her plate like the child she hasn't been in decades. She's not in the mood to eat anymore, but with this many hungry people and Tony's generous hands in it, there's nothing to do but choke it down.

*

"Okay," she says, after they've settled back on the bench to contentedly digest. The pace this place seems to move at, it may be their last chance for a while, and he has a feeling Rorschach won't wander off quite so elusively again today. "Now that we're squarely out of the realm of plausible deniability, here. What's the deal?"

"Would you be asking that if it was anyone else?"

"No, I'm pretty sure the question hinges on you sleeping with the scary creepy guy."

He doesn't answer right away, propping one foot on top of the other. He lets his attention wander; it's still early by normal standards, and despite months of it, he's already aching for the more nocturnal schedule they used to maintain, back when–

[He hears the shattering pop of a shotglass and screaming and begging, smells blood; feels murder in his own hands. One night, and they'd been so much the same.]

"A lot of what everyone thinks is creepy is just... intensity," he says finally, trying to keep the apologist defensiveness out of his voice. "I've known him a lot longer than you have."

"And you wanted him the whole time, didn't you?" she asks, suddenly serious.

Dan shrugs. "Off and on. In one way or another."

They go quiet. The honesty's a little shocking, even to him, and she could probably find something to say about it – he could easily snipe back that one of them has to be honest, after all – but it's all so pointless, and divisiveness serves no purpose.

"Would you have fought me harder, the other night?" she asks after a while, and the tone is casual, indifferent curiosity but after years of dealing with Rorschach's bullshit, he knows a mask when he sees one. "When I said I wasn't interested. If you weren't..."

"Yeah, probably. I mean, a month's nothing next to ten years, but it can still change a lot. Circumstance-wise, I mean."

"Took less than that for me to walk away from Jon."

"That's not–" Dan sighs, and he's had years' worth of these circular arguments. They're never quite the ones he wants to have. "That's not what this was."

A few long moments of silence, awkward as they ever get.

"Actually, I know," Laurie finally says, sitting forward to rest her arms across her knees. "Strangers in a strange place and by the sound of how badly you fucked up, you probably needed each other. I'm just being..." She waves her hand, cutting through the air in vague circles.

And Dan doesn't really know that's intended to mean, but the whole thing has the shape of an apology, and he feels a little ill because she's the one who's had to age with this world and she shouldn't be-

"Don't worry about it," he says, careful.

She shrugs, playing it off as nothing. "Wasn't planning on it. So, you wanna go find him?"

"I'd rather he didn't disappear for a whole day again, we've got plans to make."

"All right," she says, pushing heavily to her feet. It strikes Dan suddenly that she's older than him now, older even than Rorschach. The wear's a little appealing, if he's honest with himself. "I've got a good guess as to where he'll end up."

He nods, scoops up the abandoned plates. "Lead on."

*

It's still amazing to him how many people are here, what a force to be reckoned with they'd be if only they could be properly harnessed. Rorschach treads between the lines of the crowd like he always has, disappearing into its anonymity without being subsumed, a skill long-honed on hostile streets where being sucked up and carried along by the wrong swirling eddy of life could be fatal.

He arrives at an area that's been cordoned off, a makeshift open-air meeting room, and people are starting to gather; mostly faces he's seen before. Some of the committee from the pre-jailbreak meeting, the team leads he and Daniel had selected for the raid, Donnelly's second-in-command, Donnelly himself.

Rorschach crosses the space with purpose; something has just occurred to him, something he meant to ask days ago but his focus has not been as solid as it once was.

*

Halfway across the camp, a boy – ten years old maybe, and that's old enough to remember life before all this – stumbles across Dan's shins. He steadies himself, looks up between the two of them. "Mr. Dreiberg?" he asks, perfunctory.

Dan nods, tilting his head curiously. The kid has no goggles, and his clothes are threadbare, and he has a sort of Dickensian street urchin air. "Why, has someone been looking for me?"

"Frank said to get you," he kid says, thrusting hands into pockets. "Meeting starting soon, in the–"

"We know," Laurie interrupts, not unkindly, and stoops to the kid's level. "We're already headed there. How've you been, kiddo?"

"Eh," the boy says, suddenly shy. One foot traces in the dirt. "Okay, I guess. Been rough since..."

Laurie ruffles his hair, smiles the most genuine smile Dan's seen on her in a decade. "Yeah, I know. Hey look, I'm all out of candy right now, but I'll get you something later, okay?"

"Sure, Miss Juspeczyk," and the kid's pronunciation is perfect. He tosses a grin before he disappears back into the crowd, but it's false, and Dan doesn't have to ask what the 'since' was; too many damn children growing up without parents, here.

"So we're going to a meeting?" he asks, after a while of walking.

Laurie shrugs. "Thought it'd be a good place to start. You have any other plans? You know, doctors' appointments, have to go pay overdue library fees–"

"God," Dan says, almost laughing. "I stole so much from the library. I forgot about that completely."

"Better be careful," and when they round the next corner, the crowd's thinned to distinct knots of people. Across the space, he catches Rorschach's distinct outline, speaking to Donnelly – about something serious and important, judging by his posture and gesturing. "They might send the book police after you."

"I hope you're screwing with me."

"Yep," Laurie says, hands sliding into pockets. "We may have earned ourselves an honest-to-god dystopia here – sci-fi writer's wet dream – but it's not Fahrenheit 451 yet."

Dan waves to where Rorschach's disengaging, catches his attention. The man treads over, cautious. "Yeah, it never turns out like the books, I guess."

"What," Rorschach asks, curtness serving in place of an actual question mark.

"Just discussing the future's failure to live up to literary promises."

"Hrn." Rorschach surveys their surroundings, lets his eyes lose focus in a way Dan associates with the mask, the way it'd sometimes seemed to look past things and impossibly far into the distance.

"Give it time," he finally says, rolling his shoulders.

Laurie takes a second to process, and Dan's already smiling. "That... that was a joke," she says, incredulous.

Rorschach shrugs, neither confirming nor denying.

"Okay," Dan says, still grinning stupidly, he can feel it on his face. "What was going on over there?"

"Was inquiring about the burglar in the warehouse. Whether it was one of theirs. Apparently not."

"That's what he said?"

"Says they haven't...'lost' anyone in the last few weeks. Many resistants are free agents, apparently. Choose to live on the fringes, by criminal means the world no longer suspects or protects against."

Dan thinks of the man in the top of the reprogramming facility, of a house's nighttime-lit windows. "And some hide in plain sight," he says, everything coming together. "Pretending."

"It's like dodging a military draft," Laurie says. "I could've told you that. They don't want to fight with us."

"Hmn."

"Their choice, I guess," Dan says, trying to be conciliatory.

Laurie's obviously not in a conciliatory mood. "Like hell it is. Not if they want anyone to have free choice about anything, ever again. They're just cowardly bastards, is what they are. Not worth the air they're breathing."

Rorschach cocks his head to one side, is silent, but the gears are obvious where they turn.

"Well," Dan says, cutting their communion short. "I know of at least one that'll be useful to us, so let's not pull out the firing squad yet, okay?"

*

They settle into the meeting, contribute what they need to, share their plan in more detail and flesh it out as more pieces of the puzzle come to light. It's surprisingly casual, for a plot that could well cause the suicide deaths of millions if they don't execute it precisely right.

Dan tries not to think too hard about it.

Six hours later, a weaselly man in grey is filing paperwork in his top floor office, grumbling at how slow business has been of late in the exact pitch and flatness of tone that the cameras and radio bugs expect to hear.

Then two things happen at once. The camera bud facing the door overloads with a quiet pop, sending a thin ribbon of smoke to drift up from its casing, and a piece of paper is slipped under the doorframe, just loud enough against the grain of the carpet to draw attention.

Not loud enough for the bugs to pick up. He hopes.

Curiosity is a human trait, basic like the itch to wander and the need for stability all at once, part of that contradictory bundle. He doesn't show it on his face but it's what drives him to cross the room, pick up the paper and examine it here in this momentary blind spot.

KNOW YOUR SECRET, it says in bold block script, but there's no question as to who it's from. WOULD PREFER YOU HELPED VOLUNTARILY, BUT WILL RESORT TO THREATS IF NECESSARY. NEED ACCESS TO INSTRUCTION MAINFRAME AND ASSISTANCE IN ITS USE IN THE NEXT THREE HOURS.

This is all very confusing, he thinks. He knows they have Veidt – everyone knows that now, at least those self-aware enough to know anything – so what need do they have for him?

PLACE RESPONSE IN TRASHCAN ON 40TH and SEVENTH, the bottom says, and he sits down heavily in his chair.

It was only a matter of time, he supposes; the world ended for a lot of people a long time ago, and now it's ending for him.

*

They get their response exactly as Dan predicted they would, though he really needs to talk to Rorschach about writing these notes so that they look a little less like bank robbery instructions. As it stands, the intimidation did what it was supposed to, this time; scared a man with an illegal brain composition out of hiding, to a part of the city he has no reason to visit, and into their metaphorical grip. It won’t take much to undelete the video evidence of his divergence from routine, and he surely knows that.

1 PM SHARP, the note reads, TENTH FLOOR LOBBY. DRESS LIKE TECHNICIANS. It’s rumpled and ruined from folding and unfolding and the constant worrying of hands around its edges, but it’s legible, and it’s amazing sometimes what knowing someone’s secrets can do.

“Could be a trap,” Rorschach says, predictably, but he’s been on the bad end of that kind of gambit far more recently than Dan has, and it gives him pause.

“Do you think he’s got those sort of resources? It’d be hard to enlist the people in charge without giving himself away.”

“Not impossible.”

“And even if it is… I mean, we need that access, so if he’s not going to give it to us we’re kind of screwed anyway.”

Rorschach leans against the nearest light pole, stretches his neck; something audibly pops. He drags the hat a little lower. “Not necessarily the kind of… ‘screwed’… that justifies walking into a trap undefended.”

“Yeah,” Dan mumbles, sarcasm resting flat in his tone. “Because you’ve certainly never done that before.”

“Different.”

“Of course.”

*

In the end they decide to do as the note requests and simply keep very, very on guard. The first ten floors are accessible by one elevator, the last six by another; Dan remembers that from his first trek, mind too consumed in fear and doubt at the time to have wondered why security allowed him through. Now they’ll need an escort, and there he is, the same miserable grey sewer-crawling bureaucrat as always.

His eyes widen momentarily when they fall on Rorschach, then just about leave his skull when Adrian steps out from behind them. Next to him, Dan can feel how close Rorschach is to violence, and for once there is more than one target.

“Here to work on the mainframe,” Dan improvises with a grin, and they’re all dressed to the part, and so the charade begins.

*

“Are you thinking about it?” Adrian asks him a half an hour in. He’s got the entire database of commands pulled up in front of them, and they’re going through them a handful at a time, eliminating anything that will conflict with the directive they need to give.

Two chairs down, their reluctant accomplice is working out a targeting algorithm, and Rorschach is keeping unobtrusive watch by the door.

“What we’re about to do, I mean.”

Dan grunts, doesn’t reply, taking a page from Rorschach’s book.

On the screen, an instruction to make sure one’s children are always well cared for is deleted; it might present the chance for second thoughts. “Before I… well. I thought about it a great deal. There’s a difference between eliminating conscience and simply ignoring it.”

Feed the dog at seven o’clock, deleted.

“It’s very important to understand the scope of what you’re about to do, I think. If I had, I might have done it differently.”

“Not a confessional, Veidt,” growled from the door.

Pick children up from school at three o’clock.

Don’t walk too close to the guard rails or in front of cars.

Red means stop.

“No,” Adrian says, as they send the last instruction into the dark. “I suppose it isn’t.”

*

The targeting procedure takes longer– it’s not enough to aim for an age range, so they have to dig deeper, search for the awareness and understanding of death as something terrifying and forever, the instinctual drive to avoid it at all costs that comes to people direct from thousands and thousands of years ago, undiluted by the spiritual comforting that’s happened in between. It is, according to the man in grey, rather like looking for the flavor of strawberries in the western sky using only binoculars, blindfolded.

It’s more poetic than any of them would have given him credit for.

In the end though, it’s done. Rorschach looms over the man, makes sure he understands what he’ll be doing if he’s gotten it wrong – murdering the entire city’s population of children – and it’s only then that the man finds his fortitude, leans right back and points to his code and says that if it doesn’t work, he’ll happily throw himself off the top floor and join them.

“Why are you so willing to help us?” Dan asks, once Rorschach’s stormed back off to his sentry position. “You seemed perfectly happy with the status quo, before.”

“Happiness isn’t defined by being too afraid to fight back,” and he’s pretty much incapable of passion but it at least sounds sincere. “Anyway, you had more information on me than I could afford to ignore.”

“So, this is just blackmail.”

“That’s all I’ll admit to.”

“Ah,” Dan says, and his fingers are skating over the keys of the main console. It’d been Adrian’s codes that got them in and this man – Thomas, he’d called himself when Adrian had insisted on civil introductions – who got their plan to dance around the young and innocent, but he’s always been the one expected to push the button. “Plausible deniability. I’ve heard that a lot lately.”

One finger rests on the enter key, execution command already typed in and ready. It’s well past the usual time – Donnelly will have instructed his people, distributed all over the city to manage the citizenry like rioting mobs, to wear their goggles and gear all day today, not knowing just when it would be coming – but new instruction sets always override old.

A millimeter of pressure, and the city will explode.

“I still have nightmares, sometimes,” Adrian says, next to his ear, and from the door, a low growl.

On the next console over, another command is queued, to restore order immediately if things start going south. There will still be casualties, always; always more bodies, and lives torn apart, no matter how quickly they react. They will be saviors or murderers today, and the thin line between the two makes him think of black-eyed birds, balanced on the arc of power lines.

“Have you?” Adrian asks.

A quiet breath, his or someone else’s.

“…just blood and... snow, somewhere,” Dan whispers, maybe too quiet for anyone to catch.

He presses the button.

*






Chapter Text






*

Nothing happens.

It’s not as if they expect to hear the uproar from sixteen stories up and through the thick walls of the high-security server room, but the quiet from their radios is pointed; the expectant silence of a hundred team leaders each hesitating with their fingers on the transmit buttons, waiting to see if anything will happen before reporting that nothing has.

On the screen: ILLEGAL OPERATION. COMMAND WILL BE RELEASED AT 12:00:00.

“Shit,” Adrian swears under his breath, and if Dan’s eyebrows raise at the coarseness of it they’re at least not the only ones. By the door, Rorschach’s head cants, questioning.

“What,” he asks.

“It’s what I was worried about.” Adrian leans over the keys, inputting override codes as quickly as his fingers can move, but it’s no use; ILLEGAL OPERATION, the screen keeps saying, over and over.

Dan presses his mouth into a tight line. "If you were worried about this, you maybe should have told us–"

"There's no time for this, Dan. We only have a short window before security figures out what we're doing."

From the door, "Perhaps if you hadn't kept secrets."

Adrian ignores him. “It’s fired once today already, and it's locked, it won’t allow a remote override.”

“I'm assuming there's a manual override.”

"Yes."

“In the transmission facility,” their assistant says, suddenly more nervous than he has been this entire time, all through the security checkpoints and charade.

And with reason, apparently; Adrian reaches to rub at his temples, visibly unsettled. “What your people have been calling ‘the lighthouse’,” he says, steepling his fingers, and didn't they lose two men yesterday at that location? It doesn't sound like the best place to have to infiltrate, but Adrian seems to come to a decision regardless. “It’s only a few blocks from here. I’ll go.”

He's up before Dan can stop him, out the door with purpose, and as quickly as that Rorschach's settling his disguise and moving to follow.

"Wait, where are you–" Dan sets the chair he was in spinning, catches Rorschach by the elbow before he can disappear into the hallway. "Where do you think you're you going?"

"Following Veidt. Should be obvious."

"Why are you... look, we know that place is–"

"Dangerous, Daniel?" Rorschach narrows his eyes pointedly. "Incapable of handling myself suddenly?"

Dan snorts a breath through his nose. The idea is patently ludicrous.

"Don't trust him," Rorschach says, voice lower, "Goes without saying. And am next to useless here. Seems to be the most tactically sound course of action."

Up the hallway, Adrian's footsteps are fading; the trail is going cold.

Dan takes a breath – leans in just close enough to whisper, "Be careful," then steps back and lets him go.

*

There are reasons for following someone into an obvious trap, Rorschach thinks, not that he'd ever say as much to Daniel. Surveillance. Verification of suspicion. Deathwish. An unshakable belief in his own ability to escape anything untouched. The last is idiotic, is what gets good vigilantes killed, but it still feels closest to home. Rorschach frowns.

Up ahead, he watches Veidt cross the lobby, and there is legitimate urgency in his step, a purposeful disregard for anything going on around him. A map comes out of his pocket after a fumbling search, must be folded and refolded until Veidt has what he needs. This isn't part of any plan; if there is a trap here, he isn't the one springing it.

Out onto the street then, and through the crowds, an uncomplicated dead-reckoning path through streets and alleys, ducking between pedestrians and vehicles. It is deceptively normal; there is no hint in the journey to how dangerous the destination will be.

Rorschach does not think about Daniel as he follows, or about injustice wanting resolution, or about Juspeczyk or Donnelly or the hundreds and thousands and millions more whose futures hang on what they do here today.

He does not think about the feeling of hands, warm under his shirt, trying so hard to keep him.

His mind is blank, deliberately, as blank as it was in the warehouse, as blank as it was on the edge of that circle of light, neither it nor the darkness touching him.

*

In the city, a thousand men and women hold their breaths, waiting for the flash, for the moment the entire population stutters and lurches like a phonograph record skipping a groove. Then all eyes will turn toward the roads, toward tall office windows and ledges and anywhere sharp objects can be found, ready to intercede if they have to, to signal panic, to catch and hold the city in its mad, bloody dive for the pavement.

For now, though, they're just waiting.

Waiting isn't something Laurie's ever been good at. She hasn't had a cigarette in three years – hard to come by a trade when the entire prison's chained to their walls, and the habit doesn't age well anyway – but she's craving one now, fingers itchy for something to roll and twist between them, to scrawl an angry red arc through the air with. Mark the city as hers, mark out a trail for wayward fellows to follow home.

The alarm on her watch goes off; she silences it without thinking. Nothing yet; they're officially running late.

"Dammit, guys," she says, shoving her hands into her pockets to still their fidgeting. On the unquiet street, there is no one close enough to hear her: "You've gotten through so much, don't fuck it up now."

*

Adrian figures out that he's being tailed almost immediately. He doesn't have the time to stop and look back and identify the person by sight, but he's got a fair guess, and it doesn't matter anyway. They all, for once, share the same goals; there is no need for secrets and double-crossing and promises extracted under threat of world destruction. He can act openly, here. After so many years, it's a relief.

Across one alley and down another, and every step brings him closer to a moment that he hasn't been able to feel more than the vaguest shape of since he woke up with Rorschach's knife flashing down toward him. It's not as easy as just saving the operation, and it's not as simple as this being his fault, his price to pay and pound of flesh to render. There's Warren and the lobbyists and the foreign governments that snapped up his invention so willingly, an entire populace enthralled with the idea that violent and disturbed people would be so much easier to manage if they would just sit down and be quiet.

Nothing this big is ever one man's fault.

But the building is as imposing as he remembers – appearing all at once around one left turn and another, a windowless monstrosity full of security traps and the most heavily armed guards the new city has to offer – and the shape in his head is starting to feel like sacrifice, regardless. He eases the door back, code a one-time use but there's no timer on it, and it's a trivial thing to nudge a stray piece of concrete into the frame. He doesn't have the time to worry about Rorschach knowing that it wasn't an accident, that he's leaving the way open deliberately.

Soon, maybe the world will finally be put back to rights. His own role will be whatever it is, and it feels like a revelation, accepting that.

Things seem to move very quickly in its wake.

The guards are trivial to take out, confused enough by the contradiction of his presence to stop short in their assault, give him enough time to drop them. Those that get past him, hare down the hallway to sound the alarm and gather reinforcements, well– they don't get past Rorschach, and likely wish they'd simply stood their ground and faced him instead.

The fights blur together. He couldn't say how much time is passing.

Through security, through locked and coded doors and just under probing glass eyes, to the most central part of the system. There's a ladder down into the core, and he drops down it three rungs at a time and settles into the abandoned chair, pulls the casing off of the panel in front of him with the wrenching scrape of metal on metal. Somewhere above him, he senses his tail hovering by the ladder, no longer concerned with being spotted.

It's a simple system, this one. On and off, and a few timers, winding down. A small, primitive terminal. An override, cartoonish knife-switch waiting to be thrown. On a hunch, he punches up the terminal, runs through the log of latest alterations, possible booby-traps or precautions put into place in the last few min–

Ah. Damn it all. Two and a half minutes ago. If he'd been faster...

"You might want to stand back," he says to presumed thin air, one hand settling on the switch, doing his best to sound nonplussed.

There's no response, and he doesn't bother turning to look, but there is a symmetry in this that he imagines Rorschach would appreciate. Personally, Adrian has always been less interested in symbolism than in results. This, he supposes, manages both.

"Not that you would have followed me, of course," he whispers, half-smile faint. "Trustworthy as I've always been."

A flutter of regret, butterfly-soft, that he won't live to see all of these mistakes undone–

–then he closes his eyes on the last ten years, and pulls the switch.

*

Noise. Tremendous noise, building and building like a roar of thunder that never quite breaks. The switch is wrenched from his hand, or his hand from the switch. There is wind in his hair. There will be heat, at any moment.

Then he's caught up, is sailing backwards and upwards on the force of the explosion and it feels almost like pulling more than pushing, jerky and uneven– but in a moment the wall of fire will catch up, all his organs bursting inside of him as the rest of him burns into nothing. He knows what to expect, in this shutter-quick snapshot of a moment. He knows, for just an instant, exactly how he will die.

But the violence does not continue – no pain, no sickly pulling-apart and collapsing – and when he opens his eyes, the explosion is below him, fireball eating up the console, questing tendrils licking at the soles of his feet.

The point he's dangling from is a fist, small and tight, wound into the back of his jacket.

Rorschach pulls him up onto the ledge, sends him sprawling across its wire-mesh surface, and it's all Adrian can do to stay there a moment, catch his breath, settle into the awareness that it's done and it's fixed and he isn't a martyr after all and what does that make him, then? What's left?

"Don't get off that easily," Rorschach growls, fists clenched. He glowers to back it up, but he's worse for wear after all the fighting and his voice sounds tired, more tired than any of them ever were back in the seventies, when they were all a little younger and a little stupider – even the smartest man in the world. It's hard to say who he's talking about.

Then he's turned and stalked off, head down and hands in pockets, and it will be a long and dangerous fight out of the building and into the world, but the hard part is over.

*

It happens without warning, like a circuit brought together at the last possible moment, held closed by hands that know only the rush of current, of impossible success. There's no place in that white-hot euphoria for warnings, considerations.

And it's always a struggle for Laurie to keep her hands down, to not cover her eyes – there's always the fear, even after all these years, that this will be the time her resistance fails, that like some magical ward it will desert at the worst possible moment. It's fantasy though, nonsense, and she's learned to look these things in the eye.

So: a half-second of staring into the flash, a half second after that of blinking silence, stillness–

And then, chaos.

From above, the streets must look like an ant farm gone terribly wrong, all the orderly lines shattered and run amok. It doesn't look much better from down here; Laurie thought she'd prepared herself for this, for standing and facing it.

Nearby, the shrieking of breaks as cars swerve and duck, drivers caught between saving the people running in front of them and effecting their own demise, everything happening too quickly.

Imagine the riots of '77, she'd thought to herself, ahead of time. Firebombs, burning cars. It couldn't be much worse. Her hands curl into fists; out of the corner of her eye, the others on her team don't move. They are observers, that's all they're meant to do unless (until) this all goes wrong.

She's never been good at observing, either.

Above, the shattering slam of a dozen windows flying open, bouncing in their runners, screens shoved out. In her pocket, the radio, and she remembers Jon in the riots, teleporting the crowd away for their own safety. All she has to do is key up and this will stop, the same kind of magic, and was it ever really magic? But damn it, just a few more seconds...

A child, staring catatonically as her father rips his hand from her grip to step, automaton-steady, off of the curb. She doesn't cry out. She doesn't seem to notice.

Laurie's feet feel like lead. She thought– she was sure she'd– but there is a screaming now, from no child's lungs. It's like the tearing of metal or softer things, and it rises in pitch, fire alarm-piercing and air raid-urgent, rising and rising even it seems like there is no higher register for it to climb to–

Silence again, suddenly. Under her hands, her head throbs, and Laurie opens her eyes. She doesn't remember closing them.

"Anyone...t there?" the radio crackles, and it's Dan, and it sounds like he's gone around the bend on stress and grief both, has found a special new dimension of each. "Anyone? God, somebody pick u–"

All around her, dazed people, looking at their hands, down the lengths of themselves, scrubbing at their heads and faces. Windows shudder closed, shaky. A father moves, weeping, to scoop his unresponsive daughter from the curb.

There are no bodies. It's almost too good to be true.

"I've got it," she says into the handheld, before anyone else can respond. "I've got it. Dan?"

"Laurie," the radio says, spitting static. "What's going on, no one's said anything."

"There's nothing to say." She's edging down the sidewalk warily, unconsciously passing her free hand over shoulder after shoulder. The quiet after all the screaming violence feels like crystal, like she could break it so easily, and she handles these people with care; You okay? her eyes ask, and they each nod, dazed. "At least where I am, there don't seem to be any casualties. God fucking knows how."

Touch, question, nod. The radio is quiet except for the static. Across the street, the wreck of a delivery truck caught sidelong by a telephone pole, but the driver is extricating himself, is on his feet. Cab drivers are out of their cars, wandering through a sea of broken vehicles, confused.

"There was an explosion," Dan says finally, tinny on the cheap speaker. "I'm not sure if–"

Then it cuts off, but Dan doesn't let off the button, and she could wear she hears him breathing, a rising and falling in the static.

Laurie counts the seconds, still moving from person to person. Some part of her cannot believe their luck, can't fathom how this actually worked, still hasn't really registered that it has. She imagines it will creep up on her later, the magnitude of it. Another part of her wonders: if she was so sure it wouldn't work, why did she go along with it?

Still, she waits. She's had time to learn patience.

"Good to hear the operation was a success," Dan's voice says finally, stripped of the panic and without it, there's not much left. He sounds distant, shutting down. "Would appreciate reports from other sectors."

The radio lights up then, voices calling through in organized clockwork, one casualty here, none there, six hurt but stable out near the park. It sounds like a military report, or a fucking shopping list. It should sound like victory – that's what this is, here, or at least the beginning of it – but.

But there's been an explosion, and the casualty list may be longer than what her people are reporting. Laurie bites her lip.

"Here," she says, pocketing the radio, because a woman has just emerged from a doorway, second story staircase visible behind her, with a shallow cut all down the length of her wrist. Laurie catches her by the hands and guides her to the light post on the corner where the Greyson kid is, the best medic on her team, and he's already overwhelmed.

"It'll be okay," she assures the woman, but she's already juggling these things– treating the injuries, how they're going to handle the children, how they're going to avoid retaliation, how they can possibly take this worldwide and, under it all, the sound of a warm and expressive voice gone cold and what exactly that could mean, for him and for her and for everyone.

*

So: there are these things to do, but for the moment all they can do is regroup. Laurie is handing out makeshift bandannas for six hours before they run out; everyone else will have to just learn to close their eyes and mean it, no horror movie curiosity, no peeking. There is nowhere big enough to house them all under the radar—they are a city's worth of people, and they already fill out all of its cracks and crevasses to bursting—but fuck, should it matter? Mindless control was the only power their oppressors ever had; even the military should fall on their side now. The city is basically theirs.

Hopeless optimism, she hears an inner voice say, and it sounds a little like Donnelly and a little like Hatch and a little like poor Anya, though she can't quite remember her voice—sound memory goes first, they say, and it's been years—and, strange as fuck but a little bit like Rorschach, too. It shouldn't surprise her that he's keeping company with the militants and crazies, but that he's settled in with her favorite crazies is a little worrisome.

She decides not to care, regardless. Optimism's something she hasn't had much use for in years, is something she would have condemned herself for a week ago, but now she just wants to enjoy it. Let them try to tear this place back out from under us, she thinks, the stripey evening light painting them all like stalking tomcats, making her feel feral on the long walk back to the camp. We'll show 'em what they get.

*

Dan's supposedly already there when she gets back—with no crowd control duties, his part of this had been done with hours ago—but she's not sure she'd call him present, really.

It takes some searching to find him. It's pretty obvious he's not going to be out in the revelries, and the foodlines hold nothing but half-strangers and half-friends. So... probably waiting up at 'home', the ramshackle hut with the pushed-together mattresses and, unfortunately, just enough room for a third. She frowns; that isn't going to be a fun conversation, assuming...

Assuming two plus one is still the equation to be using. Damn it, she thinks, shoving her hands into her pockets. Couldn't have been a little more specific than 'explosion'?

“Dan?” she calls, quiet, pulling back the curtain.

A questioning noise in response, a little startled. When she pokes her head in, he’s sitting on the edge of a mattress, looking up at her, running a scrap of paper through his fingers. “Oh, Laurie. Hey.”

“Hey.”

Silence like a taut wire between them, tugging more painfully on her skin with every second. She takes a hesitant first step inside, and the rest fall naturally after that, carrying her to where she can settle next to him, head pillowed on her knees. “No word yet?” she asks.

He shakes his head, flips the paper between his hands. “No. No sign of either of them.”

She nods, and has no words, and the wire pulls.

“You were right, you know?” Dan says, sounding a little hysterical. “Getting attached is really, really stupid.”

She glances down; the sheet has one ragged edge, is scrawled over in writing she can’t read. “You were already attached,” she says, and she knows it’s not helpful but it at least feels important. “You’ve been attached for twenty years.”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway,” she says, “I don’t know if I was right. I’ve been blazingly, stupefyingly wrong before.”

A sharp laugh, no humor in it. “Yeah. We all have.”

*

They don’t bother saying that maybe he’s okay, that they don’t know, because of course he’s maybe-okay—in the same way he’d been maybe-okay for months and years at a time after ‘77, disappearing into the city like a stray cat, emerging to confirm its continued existence only when it chose to. Dan’s gotten used to having a Schrödinger’s partner.

She leads him out of the hut instead, out into the weaving channels of people all headed in one direction or another. “If word comes,” she says, and he’s not sure where exactly ‘word’ would come from anyway, “it’ll get to you faster if you’re out here.”

It’s an excuse. She’s trying to keep him from drawing into himself, and he can appreciate the concern, at least. Ground himself in it, in her solid presence at his side, but it’s still the most disconnected he’s ever felt, drifting through this celebratory crowd. Even in those shitty, grey, endless-autumn days after Keene he hadn’t felt this cut adrift, because maybe he could still do something, maybe things would change...

They don’t know. But he does, in some itchy part of his brain that always seems to have the right answer two seconds too late. He knows, and it aches like something he can only describe in shades of hospital green and 1961’s unrelenting summer heat, in the feel of tombstone engraving under his sixteen-year-old fingers. Sweat and gravel.

Wait.

He holds a hand out to halt them, sniffs the air, a sudden sharp acridness filling his head. More like sweat and flashpowder, he thinks, something burning... and a hand settles onto his shoulder from behind, turns him forcefully around.

"Oh, god," Dan mutters, before his brain even catches up with what he's looking at, because the man in front of him is in terrible shape—clothing singed, hair too, face a dense patterning of overlapping bruises, blood running from a cut on his temple and from other, more covered places to judge from the smell, one arm held protectively up against his ribs—but it's still Rorschach, still Walter fucking Kovacs, out the other side of his own little war and stubbornly still breathing.

He can see Laurie grinning widely out of the corner of his eye, and it's all he can do to only grip Rorschach by the shoulders—nothing else seems appropriate to subject him to, out in public like this, in front of Laurie—but Rorschach himself seems to have no such reservations, gripping Dan by the back of his neck and pulling him down, down. It’s a drowning man’s kiss, pulling and taking, and Dan’s never felt so fucking whole.

Or so glad to be wrong.

Dan slides his hands up to bury in the shaggy, overgrown hair at the nape of Rorschach’s neck, and they break apart to breathe, cracked lips straying over the corner of his jaw and the arm thrown around his back tightening.

“Thought I was dead?” Rorschach mutters into his neck, and Dan can feel the way he’s almost smiling. “Again?”

“Asshole. Shut up.”

A slow clapping, then, just one pair of hands. Laurie’s being obnoxious again, but it’s affectionate, the smile on her face sincere, and Dan’s perfectly happy to bask in the awkwardness.

Rorschach straightens up away from him, reaches as if to touch the brim of his hat except that it isn’t there; he’s still dressed in his technician’s clothes, out of context. “Good to see that you’ve also come through your trials safely, Miss Juspeczyk,” he says, and there’s not even any venom in it, no indignation or shame, and Dan wonders just how many fights Rorschach almost lost out there today.

*

Rorschach lies on the edge of the mattress, body awkward as always, all jagged bits that don't fit. But the usual tension has drained off, is gone. He’d thought he was being dragged into the shadows here for another sort of reason, had disgusted the old ghosts of himself with how little he'd minded the idea, so much more inexcuseable in the high light of day. Instead: this.

Daniel is curled around his back, clinging with more ferocity than Rorschach thought he possessed, with more possession than he would ever have tolerated, before. Daniel might be half-hard or he might just have something jammed in a pocket—an idiotic old joke, but he is not used to being held this way and has no point of reference—but either way, seems less interested in addressing it than in being here, pressed against the hard, twisted length of Rorschach’s body, breathing him in slow and deep.

He knows from others’ comments that his hygiene has never been good; he never cared, still doesn't, but he's always been aware. It’s been worse since they arrived here, compounded further now by gunpowder and soot and blood, sweat and aggression. He can only assume Daniel is the victim of temporary insanity.

“I can’t tell what you want,” Daniel says, a little muffled by Rorschach's shirt. “A lot of the time.”

Justice. Retribution. To make the city whole again. Waffles with double syrup and double bacon. Rorschach almost gags against the unfamiliar tickle of laughter rising up his throat; adrenaline intoxication, clearly.

“I don’t think you’d ever go down easy if you didn’t want to,” Daniel continues, and suddenly Rorschach doesn’t want to laugh anymore. “I just don’t know what you...”

“Still worried about that?” He can hear the chastisement in his own voice, familiar from long years of use but inappropriate right now. He tries to school his tone; it makes little difference. “Discussed it already.”

“Yeah, I know we did.”

A rough snort. “Problem with hearing, or memory?”

Daniel’s grip around him tightens; why harsh words bring this affection out in his partner, Rorschach has never understood, and he has had twenty years to figure it out. “Little of both, I think," Daniel says, then a sharp laugh, breathed against his neck. “I guess I just need some reminding sometimes. Especially when you come home looking like this.” A broad hand slides up under his shirt, rucks it up, finds the bruises and soothes over them, warm. "The way you just... walk right into traps sometimes, I don't know, man. I guess you've always done that."

"Yes. When I thought they were escapable."

Outside, the camp is noisy and boisterous, gaudy. Lives lived with no regret and no time for looking backward at all the other possible paths, for staying inside the lines. It is a strange place to call 'home'.

Rorschach rolls in Daniel’s grip, faces him down.

"Expected a trap. Did not expect a bomb. Daniel," he says, willing steel into it, because steel is strong and uncompromising and not sentimental at all. It puts distance between these things and what they mean. “Not sure what I want. Not used to wanting things. But.” He shakes his head. “Not going anywhere. Not by choice.”

And there are a lot of things that are not their choice, and they will both come back bloodied and ragged many times in the near future—and they are both exhausted beyond thought and will eventually sleep. But for now, it is enough to lie still and revel in the complete miracle of their continued existence.

Against all odds.

*






Chapter Text






*

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?"

"S'okay."

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.

Shit.

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..."

"Laurie."

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.”

“Yes.”

“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."

"...don't understand."

"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.

It's... tense.

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.

*






Chapter Text






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.

***