Chapter 1: And Time Yet
“Hey, Brighteyes,” he drawls from around the stub of a cigar – and maybe the names he hurls at her aren’t as insulting as the ones the others earn, aren’t outright demeaning or objectifying, but they still have this way of making her feel like a child, and that’s her mother’s purview. It’s not a right he has.
Laurie keeps walking.
He gestures with the stub, the cherry scrawling red in the deepening late afternoon light, drawing the eye. She doubts very much that his smoking it out here, perched on a side wall, has anything at all to do with Adrian’s recent ban on smoking at meetings. “Thought I’d warn ya, corpse-boy showed up today. Oughta be careful in there.”
She squares her stance, looks back over her shoulder. Resists the temptation to ask just why the fuck he even cares. “Nite Owl come with him?”
“Nope. Which is also suspicious as hell, far as I’m concerned.” Blake stubs out the cigar, levers down to the ground one-handed. “Anyway, good luck with that.”
“You’re not staying.” It’s a statement, not a question, and it carries the obvious goading chill of boys calling each other chicken on docks and train tracks and in freight yards, secretly hoping for the gruesome spectacle of someone flinching back just a moment too late.
But he’s not biting; just laughs, a grating bark. “Fuck no. You know how bad it got at the end of that thing. He may think he’s safe but I’m sure as hell not staking anything on that. Like all the vital bits of my anatomy where they are, thanks.”
Laurie doesn’t bother taking the obvious shot – it’d be cheap even by her standards, and he’s not worth it – just levels a scowl like broken glass, and keeps walking.
He needn’t have worried, which she could have fucking told him if she’d cared enough to bother. The meeting goes more smoothly than anyone expects and Rorschach’s mostly restrained, mostly quiet, like he’s wired in some new level of self-control – bringing up points that need to be brought up and not backing down when Adrian challenges him on a point of tactics, but there’s a tight, observant calm there that she doesn’t remember ever seeing before. She could almost call it Zen.
She could also call it predatory, and there’s something about one vacant chair that is somehow more ominous than two. But that’s ridiculous, and she knows better. Still asks, once the meeting’s over and he’s surprised her by asking her in his usual gruff and unsocialized way to stay behind for a minute, “Where’s Dan?”
A grunt of … what? Frustration, annoyance? She’s spent too little time interacting with him to be able to decipher this shit, and why can’t he just use language like everyone else does? “Nite Owl,” he corrects, grumbling. “Incapacitated. Temporarily.”
“What,” Laurie asks, tone acidic, “He ‘fell down the stairs’ or something?”
Rorschach just cocks his head to one side, and the gesture reads like confusion. “No,” he growls, obviously not understanding the implication, taking the question at face value. “From a fire escape. Third story. Broke his arm.”
“Christ,” Laurie says, pinching the bridge of her nose, and she almost feels a little bit like an ass for joking about it. Almost. Leave it to Dan to be smart enough to build tools that let him scale walls and then trip over a goddamned railing. “He’s all right, yeah?”
One short nod, tight with something she’s not going to bother trying to identify. She gets the gist regardless – his arm’s broken, he can’t patrol, of course he’s not all right; but he isn’t dead or dying, and in their line of work that usually has to suffice.
“Okay then…. I mean, I’ll stop by his place with some chicken soup or something.” Out of a can, she thinks. That’s about all she can manage. “…But other than that, why are you telling me this?”
A shifting of weight from side to side, and none of the visual disquiet comes through in his tone, but nothing else ever does either, so that’s not new. “Nite Owl’s timing was inconvenient. Have been tracking a drug gang operating out of lower Ninth Avenue for the last month. Very narrow window for apprehension. Tomorrow night is the only opening.”
Laurie crosses her arms, leans back against the wall. “And it’s a two-man job, I’m assuming.”
“Well?” she presses, not willing to let this one go. “If you won’t even admit you need help, I don’t see why I should–”
“Schoolchildren in poor districts are the intended target for distribution,” he interrupts, and damn if it doesn’t stop her cold. “Attempting to build a new customer base. I could attempt capture myself, but would rather not risk failure with those sort of stakes.”
Another silence, much heavier. They’ve both seen the results of that particular dealing tactic, everyone in this business has. It’s…
“All right,” she finally says. “I’m on board. What are the details?”
He pulls a cube of sugar from his pocket, obviously relieved enough that she’s agreed to let his guard down – or possibly he’s testing her, rucking his mask up to eat the thing and not bothering to conceal the condition he’s in. She isn’t sure if staring shamelessly constitutes a passing grade, doesn’t honestly care, but she doesn’t flinch at least, doesn’t pull a face.
And then the mask is back down, just as she’s coming to a considered decision on ‘hypothermia blue’ versus ‘corpse grey’. Damn it. “Will explain later. In private. Do you know the tunnel route to the Owl’s Nest?”
“Pff. I know the street address. It’s not like I’ve never been to his place.”
Rorschach grumps indistinctly, and for just a second she can’t tell if it’s disappointment in Dan’s inability to keep anything a secret, or jealousy. “Use tunnel entrance,” he says, and if it’s possible, his tone is about ten degrees colder. “Wear a more practical uniform, if you have one.”
And there it is, the conventional note of disdain; the name-calling riding just under the words. Degenerate. Whore. Laurie grins, and it’s as feral as any wild creature she’s ever found in the night, him included. “What, and pass up the chance to offend your delicate sensibilities?”
“Good chance we’ll be shot at. Choose your priorities.”
She thinks of the Kevlar-lined suit in her bottom drawer, the one her mother never approved of. Did nothing to highlight her assets, she’d said. “I don’t know, that’s a tough one.”
He says nothing – just turns to leave, seemingly content in having made the arrangements.
“Hang on,” Laurie says, reaching out to snag him by the sleeve; he turns back with a growl caught somewhere in his throat, and it doesn’t sound human, and she wonders for just a second if maybe that asshole Blake isn’t as much of a coward as she’d judged him to be, if maybe–
She licks her lips, wills herself to tighten her grip, to not be frightened into letting go. “Why me? Can’t have been your first choice.”
“Considered all the options,” Rorschach says evasively, and he pulls his arm out of her grasp with a motion too fast for her to counter. He pauses, like he’s trying to decide how much of her question to answer. When more words actually materialize, it’s a shock. “…Comedian and Ozymandias have expressed a level of contempt for… nrg. Approaches fear. Irrational, but could bleed into violence under the wrong circumstances.”
Jesus Christ, she thinks. The great right-wing nutjob is crying racism. Specism. Anti-Zombism. Whatever. Then she remembers how many benign carriers she’d seen beaten to death by their neighbors during the height of those insane weeks; remembers Adrian and his secretary; thinks of Blake today, intimating that he’d sooner set Rorschach on fire that trust his assurances of stability.
“Could take care of either if they made a move,” he continues, and there is no pride in the words – just a practical statement of fact. “But it would be a distraction. Would prefer to avoid it in this case.”
“Because of the stakes, right.”
A brief pause, and Laurie leans back against the wall again. “Look – newsflash, here. I don’t like you either.”
Rorschach shuffles his hands into his pockets, looking unperturbed. “Aware of that. Feeling is mutual. However, you have behaved professionally in the past. And dislike is personal, not grounded in ignorance. Will not allow personal feelings to jeopardize a mission.”
And that, bizarrely enough, almost sounds a little like respect, no matter that it came in just about the same breath as an assurance that he likes her no better than she likes him. And he’d all but accused her of being the slut her mother dressed her as, so more likely it’s just a practical assessment of facts as he understands them, and this is a tactical decision. He probably expects her to be upset by that.
“Fine,” Laurie says, smiling tightly. “Five o’clock.”
She arrives to the sound of arguing.
At first, it’s just the mumbly overlapping of voices that carries down long tunnels, distinct from ‘conversation’ for a certain sharpness, a certain edge of too-familiar blades pulled for too-familiar uses. She was woken by it too many times growing up to not recognize it now. As she gets closer to the actual room, the voices resolve into words.
“...ammit Rorschach, I told… not to involve anyone else…”
“Can’t do this one alo… Daniel. No choice. Can’t let them–”
“I know, I know. And I know Laurie can handle herself, but this is just such a bad one, you know?”
“Would have been just as bad for you.”
“I could have taken a lot of hits, I have armor–”
Dan’s sitting at a workbench, the arm on the bench’s top professionally casted – that’s good, means he went to an actual doctor for it – and Rorschach is standing across from him with his arms crossed and something like indignation swimming sluggishly through his blots. She thinks. It could also be a lobster with a chainsaw.
“So do I,” she says, crossing to the bench they’re centered around, a large map spread across its surface. And she does, too, the matte black of the spare uniform thicker and denser and still just as form-fitting, but at least she won’t be taking a gut-shot tonight. Painful bastards. “Anyone ever tell you two you sound like an old married couple when you bicker? Seriously.”
A pause almost too long to be comfortable, and Dan is working his mouth soundlessly like a startled fish. Then he shakes his head, seems to get himself back together. “I. Uh. I just don’t want to see anyone get hurt just because I was an idiot, you know?” He lifts the casted arm for emphasis, smiling sheepishly.
“Cut the crap,” she says, leaning over the diagram, but there’s obvious affection there. “Any of us could get hurt on any of these things. Due to idiocy or otherwise. We knew that going into it.” She senses rather than sees Rorschach’s posture stiffen at her elbow, before he returns to the map, scrawling notes into its margin. His motions seem jerkier than before, twitchier.
“Well, yeah, okay–”
“Wasn’t an idiot,” the low voice cuts in from the side, restrained but defensive, attention still focused on the map. “Was raining. Footing was treacherous.”
Laurie frowns. Defensive, and possessive. As if there’s something significant in the fact that he was there, that he has this unique knowledge of the conditions, as if only he is fit to cast judgment on Dan–
“O… okay,” Dan says, clearly just as thrown, and he keeps darting his eyes between her and Rorschach with something like guilty uncertainty. “That’s not what you said when it happened.”
A shifting, shuffling silence, definitely too long this time. The tip of Rorschach’s pen taps the benchtop through the map restlessly, and Laurie gets the sense that she’s seeing something she lacks the context to interpret correctly.
“Two entrances,” Rorschach breaks in, circling the locations on the map with broad red swoops – and she snaps back to herself, and this is just a pre-mission briefing, and her life out there could depend on paying attention. So she does.
“You sure you don’t want a vest?” Dan is asking again as they prepare to strike out, gesturing vaguely at Rorschach’s coat. “I’ve got one that would fit right under that.”
Rorschach just grunts dismissively. “Would hinder movement. No.”
“I’d just really rest a lot easier if–”
“No, Daniel. Appreciate the concern,” and bizarrely, there’s not a sneering turn in those words. He honestly–
And Dan just looks frustrated as hell, sitting there in civilian clothes and his arm bound up in plaster and trying to stare down the creepiest bastard she’s ever met through those owlish glasses. He puts his hand on Rorschach's shoulder in a way that's almost tender, and pitches his voice lower. "I don't want anything happening to you out there," he says, and there's something so earnest and undefended in his voice that Laurie bursts out laughing before she can stop herself.
Well. It’s good to know her subconscious hasn’t given up on amusing itself.
They’re both staring, and it’s because she’s still laughing. She stifles it with the back of a gloved hand, the smell of Kevlar and leather in her nose. “Sorry. It’s just, I swear – You two are just so cute.”
More staring, this time with a feral, singsong growl added in for texture.
“I mean, it's like you are a couple or something. Do you two want a moment alone here?"
The growling dies abruptly, with a quiet sound halfway between a choke and a sob. Far away, some electrical system cycles down as if to make the point – and there is complete and utter silence in the wake of what she’s said.
Then more silence yet. Dan’s doing his fish impression again. Rorschach’s blots look like murder.
The images collide and start to come into focus: The way she'd only ever been asked over for coffee in the middle of the day, and how evasive he’d been about it, and how carefully platonic he'd kept conversation. The smell of old blood clinging to the wallpaper and carpet and furniture, omnipresent, and Dan not even noticing it; like he was used to it, just so much background noise. The way Rorschach had reacted when she’d smiled across the workbench at Dan, and Dan has his collar turned up and what self-respecting man walks around with a popped collar under a sweater vest unless they’re hiding–
“No way,” she sputters around another bubbling-up fit of laughter. “Seriously?”
“No,” Rorschach growls definitively, stalking off into the tunnel without another word. The lack of a lengthy, tedious tirade on the evils of lust and fornication and homosexuality, though, is pretty damning.
Dan’s staring after him, mouth still slightly open. Laurie sidles up, a playful elbow in the ribs on his good side. “So?”
He looks up at her, startled. “I, uh. Well. He said no, didn’t he?”
“What do you say?” There’s something on his face that’s so conflicted and complicated and weighty that she almost feels bad for pressing. Almost.
Then he smiles, and it’s cautiously prideful, with just a hint of the anger from earlier, glinting like a knife edge. “…Officially, I think I better just say whatever he said. But, you know.”
She just barely manages to keep from laughing again. “Right. When we get back?” She points a finger at him, demanding. “Details.”
And just before she turns to head down the tunnel, to run to catch up and go off to get shot at – probably get shot at a lot – Laurie’s treated to the most abject look of horror she’s ever seen on Dan’s face, blossoming under the fluorescent lights like the fear of death itself.
When she catches up to Rorschach in the tunnel, he’s emitting a concussion wave ten feet across of ‘don’t open your mouth, don’t say a word, or I will break every bone in your body that is not essential to the mission, and I will enjoy it.’
Chapter 2: For a Hundred Indecisions
"Pay attention to the route from here," Rorschach grits out when they've gone about 500 yards and hit a T-junction in the tunnel; a rush of crosswind hits them, lifts her hair and the edges of his trench. "We're not going to the same warehouse you came in through."
"You actually worried I might have to find my way back alone?"
The mask turns to regard her for a long, empty moment, and even the brim of his hat is catching the wind. "No way to say. Dangerous mission, and being unprepared for any possibility is a rookie mistake."
Any possibility. She thinks of Dan for a second, back in the basement, the quiet apprehension in his voice, and about Jon. Realizes that there are worse people to love than someone who really is immortal; someone who only pretends to be jumps to mind.
"Alright, so–" she says, turning down the left fork, unsurprised when he keeps pace easily despite the height difference. She remembers that, from the early days of the outbreak, just how goddamned fast they are. "Two questions."
A grumbled assent, nothing more. The illumination of the tunnel they've left fades behind them; this one is even more disused, and echoes.
Laurie drops her volume instinctively in response. "One, you said there were two entrances to this place. How do we know which they'll use?"
Hands shift out of his pockets to shift his hat; it doesn't really need adjusting as far as she can see, but the basement had smelled like dark coffee when she'd arrived and he might just be a little twitchy. "We don't. Will go in through the roof, stay in the rafters. They run the span of the building, so it should be a simple matter to cut off their escape regardless of their position."
"What, just jump down? From how many floors?"
"Two. Know how to land correctly, I assume. Standard component of combat training."
Laurie pushes her hair back; reaches into one of the pouches in her uniform for a tie. Glamorous some might think it to drop from the ceiling with tresses all a-flowing, getting shot in the head because she can't see what she's doing would definitely put a damper on it. Mother is practically a swear word already, in her head – needs no real profanity attached, but she still manages something creative. "Gee, I must've missed that lesson somehow," she says, sarcasm laid on thick.
And a year ago, all her interactions with Rorschach would have lead her to expect him to miss the meaning entirely, but now he just makes a sound that's almost amused, hunches his coat up around his shoulders. "Second question?"
She grins, and it's like a wildcat's smile, all teeth and predation. "How long has this been going on?"
No answer. He's ignoring her suddenly, despite soliciting the question; shifting along the edge between the walkway and the drop to the tracks with more ease than makes sense in the poor light.
"What?" she asks, laughing. "Virus crawl up into your ears or something?"
One hand lifts to the low ceiling of the tunnel, tracing the pipes fastened there by touch. Mapping. "Used an unspecific pronoun. Don't know what you're referring to."
"So if I narrow it down, you'll actually answer?"
"Depends on what the question turns out to be."
"Okay!" she whispers, cheery despite the need to keep quiet. "How long have you and Dan been fucking?"
Not a lurching halt – just a gradual stop, feet rooting themselves to that dangerous edge of the walkway. A long, still pause then, telling in the way it stretches.
The mask shifts, slowly, and she can't begin to decipher it now, even in jest. "How long – nnk. How long have you been so unsatisfied with your own relations that you feel a need to pry into others'?"
"Whoa–" Laurie sputters around a laugh. "Little uncalled-for?" she asks, even though she's not actually offended, is laughing too hard to possibly be. To tell the truth, she's a little impressed – had expected him to just make some undignified noise, to call her a whore, maybe an unprofessional liability if he was feeling particularly verbose. Not snipe back, much less up the ante.
Footfalls resume, silent but for the faint brush of leather over time-roughened concrete. It brings their location back into focus, and their reasons for being here. "Question was also. Suppose we're even. Could perhaps concentrate on mission now."
"Okay, yeah," she says, winding the band into her hair, pulling it back tight. Quasi-sadism aside, they do have a job to do here, and it's an important one. As easily as the last snap of elastic, distraction secured, the whole world feels more like a fight, feels like something she's ready for. "You're figuring about six guys, right? Ringleader with the cache?"
They've reached another juncture, and Rorschach is looking at the pipes again, thinking. "No. Ringleader will have the drugs, buyer will have the money."
"That's what I said. Cache like 'stash', not money."
Laurie watches him running two fingers along one pipe; they catch in some sort of groove, scratched in with a blade, and he nods to himself, sets off to the right. "Expect at least four to be armed openly, others with hidden weapons. First priority is disarmament. Second is securing the seller and buyer."
"What about the others?"
"Capture if possible, but if they get away, will find them later. Hired muscle, not significant to putting a stop to this atrocity."
Lights again, in this segment, and a rumbling comes through the walls, telling of a faraway train. Laurie'd been stuck on the tracks before, years and years ago, and the behemoths bear down like all the fury of the future interrupted mid-breath. It's not a good place to be, and watching the way Rorschach moves, hunched forward and furious and unhesitating in his drive forward, she almost feels bad for these guys. Then she remembers what they're planning, and squashes the sentiment, hard. They deserve the trainwreck that's coming to them.
"Well, that's the important thing," she says, and it's the truth, for both of them. Something in common; who'd ever have thought.
"So," she whispers, conspiratorial; she'd backed off before, but some things are too tempting. They're in position, crouched on the rafters like overfed pigeons, and both doors are in perfect view, and she flexes her hand against the stiffness of the Kevlar in her glove. "Do people taste like chicken?"
A blank stare through the mask, and the blots are even more unnerving than they used to be for just how slowly they shift.
"I mean," she continues, only letting the edge of a smile show. "People are always saying this or that bizarre thing tastes like chicken. So, do we?"
"Wouldn't know." He turns back to the floor below them, gauging their proximity to the doors, the likely location for the handoff, the best place to drop from...
They need to be a little further into the room. She nudges him in that direction and he shifts precisely not at all, immovable. "Okay, let me rephrase. Does Dan taste like chicken?"
A long silence. The map reappears, and he unfolds it carefully, tracking the likely angles of approach. Almost idly, like he's reciting from one of Dan's National Geographics and god, he probably is: "Polynesian tribes that engage in cannibalism typically compare it to pork, not chicken. Hrm. Agree that this position is not ideal, given their likely trajectory-"
"Pork? That's really..." she sniggers in the darkness. "That's funny. Since I don't think he's supposed to–"
"Has crossed my mind, yes. Again, would appreciate you focusing."
"Right. Yeah, okay, schoolkids on crack. I know."
The time passing can really only be counted in minutes, but it feels like hours, and she has plenty of opportunity to memorize the details of the room they're in multiple times over. The rafters run at seventy-ish degrees to the far wall. There are three light fixtures, all broken. The dust on the floor is at least a quarter-inch thick.
Crouched next to her, Rorschach is utterly still, in a way that feels time-locked, unnatural. The kind of creeping terrors she usually associates with childhood nighmares send the hair on the back of her neck to lift and the nerves under them to hum, and she understands a little about animal magnetism now; like anything with electrified extremes, it either repulses or attracts hard, and there is no middle ground.
"Jesus, you smell funny. Are you even aware of that?"
It's a whisper. That's all they can afford; across the warehouse, someone's trying the door. It's also completely cheap – she knows full well it's not really his fault – but it's been almost an hour now and the eeriness is getting to be too much, and she needs a reaction, a sound, a motion. Something to break the stillness, and not much else she's said has gotten through to him. She's actually starting to respect that, a little. "You could do something about that. You know, for courtesy."
"Could make yourself smell less like a ham sandwich," he mutters darkly. "For courtesy."
"Oh, god." She blows her bangs out of her eyes in irritation. "I'm gonna get eaten, aren't I."
A low rumble that could almost be laughter under all those layers, shoulders hitching slightly out of the corner of her eye. She understands all at once: she's being fucked with for once, and damn if that isn't a first. "Bastard. Seriously, how can Dan stand to–"
A hand in the air then, silencing her mid-lewdness. Even the dust twisting through a nearby beam of light seems to freeze in place.
Below, the door swings open with a long, painful creak.
Nothing at first – just a rectangle of daylight, and neither of them dares a breath. Then, moving carefully, figures shift into to block the light, furtive and looking everywhere but up, and there are more of them than Rorschach had said there'd be. More guns, too.
She hears a grumble from off to the side, then nothing – and when she turns to suggest that they modify the plan he's already gone, disappeared into the dark network of rafters without a sound.
Shit. Shit, shit–
A second later he drops behind the group, obviously not intimidated enough by the extra numbers to bother altering his tactics. He hits the ground as silently as he'd paced the rafter, and he's moving before they fully realize he's there, one weapon after another wrenched away and discarded in a blur of efficient, impossibly fast motion but there are too many, and she should be jumping down between them and the far exit but there's a prickling on her scalp like something about to go very, very wrong.
So she lands straight down into the midst of them instead, surprising them with her late arrival. A boot to the gut and another gun drops, and she's already aiming a roundhouse kick at the wrong target entirely when she hears an arm break and two bodies hit the floor in succession and sees a small-caliber automatic rifle come up – .22, her ballistics training tells her, cheap and easy to get and plenty effective at close range – and a burst of rapid gunfire brings the whirlwind of destruction to an immediate, wrenching halt. He sounds heavier than he looks, hitting the ground, and somehow that's the detail she latches onto.
It's like no one wants to breathe, for a second – not Laurie, and not the thugs, staring down at the stilled form on the floor and disbelieving their luck. One reaches out with his foot, toes at the still body carefully and Dan is going to kill her because there is no monster-movie springing back to life. Rorschach doesn't move.
Then she takes advantage of their distraction and sucker-punches the man with the rifle, hard, stripping the group of their last piece of leverage. Catching it on its way to the concrete floor and turning it back on them is a trivial thing, and once they've realized that a battle won doesn't bring the war – that half their men are down and all of their other weapons are scattered far out of range and no matter that they've finally taken out one of the underworld's most feared vigilantes, they're still not walking away from this one except possibly in handcuffs – the looks on their faces turn satisfyingly towards fear. They're edging back away from her, drug-addled eyes jumping between her trigger finger and the door.
This, she realizes, is why he'd called it a two-man job, because she can stare coolly down the barrel and smile like a woman willing to kill but she can't block both doors at once – and they're going to make a break for it. She can see the decision even as it's made, desperation overwhelming sense. They're turning, starting to move, banking on the fact that she won't shoot them in the backs and damn it, they're right, but–
Then a blur of motion out of the corner of her eye and Rorschach is at the door before they're within three steps of it, good arm splayed across its surface. He's leaning on it hard, unbalanced, off his game, but good god he moved fast – and a low growl climbs over the industrial machine-sounds, intensifying with every step the thugs take. It isn't just the usual rough edge he spins into his voice; it's an animal thing, that vibration deep in the throat that warns of an imminent violent snap.
The thugs waver – take a step back towards her, towards the gun. "Shit, man," one of them says, quiet, and that's all; but they all know damn well that he's got a clip's worth of lead in him and they all saw him go down, and bogeyman is too childish a word to speak aloud. But they all know. Laurie wonders crazily for a moment if he spread the rumors himself – or just allowed them, let them become something he could use, bleed into fear he could take advantage of.
If he did, it's working. "Take your chances with him or take them with me," she says, all cocky self-assurance now, drawing their attention back to her, to the gun. They halt again, and don't move in either direction; the rock and the hard, hard shore. "Still at least thirty rounds in this, and you know what he'll do to you if you get too close. That's honestly what I'd prefer, you bastards probably deserve it." Nevermind that Rorschach's obviously in no shape to carry out her threats; best to keep feeding the fear, while they still haven't noticed that he's all but holding himself up by the doorframe. "Or, you know, you could just give yourselves up. Your choice."
In the end, they surrender, allow their hands to be cuffed and bound, huddled into a corner just before Rorschach finally drops. She's there when it happens but she isn't expecting it – with his arm shredded and obviously out of socket, she's not sure what she was expecting – so he sinks to the floor unarrested, onto his knees and curling forward over himself like he's trying to hold something inside.
"Hey," she says, crouching in front of him; she's grateful that their prisoners are all tied up facing the other direction, aren't seeing this. Isn't sure why. Pitches her voice low anyway. "Your shoulder's out. Should get it back in before we head back."
He doesn't respond immediately; just touches his glove to the ragged mess of his coat. It comes away wet, and he coughs something that could be surprise. "Hn. Bleeding. Hasn't happened in a while."
Shit– he is, too, not heavily, but seeping like a burst pipe under low pressure. They must have torn up something pretty major in there, and the thought of there being damage Dan can't readily repair with some duct tape and fairy dust enters her mind for the first time – but the first priority is still making sure his arm doesn't fall off and she's seen too many movies to dismiss it as a possibility. "Okay, yeah," she says, sharp, to grab and keep his attention. "It's a fucking fascinating sensation, I'm sure. Sit up straight so I can fix this."
"Have... nrg. Have called police?"
"I will once I'm sure we can walk out of here. I'm not gonna have you passing out and slowing me down." Then she holds a careful breath and puts one hand on his shoulder, the other searching through the mangled trenchcoat sleeve for the wandering joint. "This is going to really hurt," she says, "no matter how immune to mortal concerns you think you are, Mr. Bleeding-is-such-a-goddamned-novelty."
A sharp grunt as her fingers find the bone; the words push out around ragged, short breath. "Yes. Am aware. Didn't mean to imply–"
But she's never seen a point in warnings, so she just moves, fast, rolling the joint back into place with a sickening wet snap.
To his credit, he doesn't make a sound.
“Left a man down, to finish the job.”
Laurie sighs, and it’s bad enough she has to haul him bodily home like this – nothing wrong with his legs, and isn’t he supposed to have a legendary tolerance against pain and shock? – without having to deal with his crap, too. “Look, ghouly. You were the one saying how high the stakes were–”
A grunt, interrupting her, pain or irritation. “You misunderstand. Not a criticism.”
“Damn well better not be,” she grumbles. “Figured you brought me along to beat the shit out of some drug-dealers, not play some kind of neurotic mother hen.” And that’s what she’d done, and done well, and that's all that should matter. But then he loses his footing and lurches against her and she remembers just how many rounds he took and how messed up she’d been the one time she’d had a dislocation reduced in the field, and the anger’s dissipating, bit by bit.
Then he shifts away, trying to minimize the contact between them as much as possible while still retaining the support he apparently needs to stay upright. It doesn’t work very well. They pass a light fixture, filling out the tunnel in sickly orange, a single-line spectrum that casts them both like burning apparitions. She’s not sure if it’s the third or the fourth. Rorschach makes a breathy noise through his efforts that sounds a little like a laugh, echoes like something harsher. "Performed admirably,” he says, and the words are a struggle. “Not a decision Nite Owl would have made.”
“Yeah, well…” It’s the third, she decides, because the light around the bend is steady and she knows the fifth flickers. They have a long way to go, and she finally gives up; shuffles him in against her in the most efficient support posture she can find, and is grateful at least for all the Kevlar between them. “That’s a little different, isn’t it?”
“Shouldn’t be,” he says, struggling halfheartedly against the contact, and it’s very possible he’s only being so verbose on the subject because he’s blasted out of his mind on adrenaline and endorphins and the first encroaching shivers of psychological shock. Doesn’t mean she’s going to just let it lie.
“Stop fighting, you stupid jackass,” she mutters, quickening their pace. “If I don’t get you back in one piece, Dan’ll… I don’t even know. Skin me alive or something."
"Yeah, I know, he's never had the stomach for that sort of thing. I'm just not great with grudges, and 'you let my zombie boyfriend die in a tunnel' would be a hell of a grudge."
An annoyed grunt, likely intended to be another pointless denial, dying off somewhere before it finds its way into words.
"Anyway," Laurie says, and she stops for a second to catch her breath, to resettle the short, compact body against her side. To sneak a surreptitious glance at all the torn fabric, trying to gauge how much more blood he's leaked, dark and foul like motor oil, into its ragged edges. "You don’t have any room to criticize him, it’s not like you’d just leave him down and go on with the mission either.”
“…Nite Owl more likely to succumb to his injuries if not attended to. Could bleed out too quickly. S’different,” he says, and yeah, that’s a slur creeping in, smoothing all the grit away as the fade starts to take him.
“Shouldn’t be,” she echoes back, and god but he's getting heavy, limbs turning uncoordinated and awkward – but to be fair, it’s honestly amazing he’s still conscious, if she actually lets herself go so far as to be impressed. "Hey, come on, keep moving, you lazy motherfucker. Expect me to do all the work here?"
A long silence then; so long that Laurie would almost worry that he’s passed out on her if not for the fact that his feet are still moving. His breathing sounds terrible under the mask, ragged and sharp with pain. She thinks again of how silent he’d been when she'd seated his shoulder back into place, of that tiny jolt of fear when he'd gone down and not gotten back up, and relents. “Look, R – don’t sweat it. Selective hypocrisy’s sorta the name of the game.”
“Don’t… ng,” and his voice is getting weaker, but as they step into the guttering patch of light under the fifth fixture – three more to go – he’s holding his own. “Don’t know what ‘game’ you’re referring to.”
She laughs, and she can't find any bitterness in it. “Yeah, you do.”
Chapter 3: And For a Hundred Visions and Revisions
“Dan!” she shouts, voice pulling him up from the workbench before she’s even out of the dull dark circle of the tunnel’s shadow. When the light hits her eyes, blinding after so long underground, the blasting field of white white white takes a second to resolve itself into the human shape coming towards them, careless in its haste. She’s lurching unevenly; Rorschach’s all but draped over her shoulder now, and it’s awkward and she's exhausted but they've made it. “Get your sewing kit, Raggedy Andy here’s about to drop an arm.”
“Whore,” Rorschach counters darkly through the mask, voice and eloquence both strained. There isn’t much actual venom behind it though, which is bizarre enough on its own; Laurie just counts it as a good sign that he’s still coherent enough to insult her at all, genuinely or not.
“Yeah, whatever, love you too. Shut up. Dan, give me a hand here, would you? Heavier than he looks.”
Dan insinuates his good arm between them, bundles the clinging body off of her and shoulders Rorschach over towards a low workbench that seems set up to do permanent double-duty as a first-aid table. “Yeah, I kno– shit, he's bleeding. That's not... what the hell happened?”
“Didn’t go to plan.”
“Usually doesn’t. This is a little bit beyond that." Getting Rorschach up onto the table is an effort, and he immediately starts peeling back layers of fabric, looking for the source of the leak. There's a simmering of panic just under the veneer of practicality, and it's peeking through. "Christ, I don't even know if I can handle this."
"Don't you usually fix this kind of thing up for him?"
Dan shakes his head, but it's not really an answer – more just a gesture of frustration, as the scattershot of wounds comes into view. "Yeah, but... I'm not a doctor, Laurie. Whatever's ripped up in there is probably pretty big and pretty important. I mean, maybe if it's big enough, I can still get stitches into it, but that's assuming I can figure out what goes where. Here, can you get that light?"
She drags the standing lamp over, points it down before he has to tell her. Under the halo of its glare, she can see the shift when the engineer in him takes over clearly, fingers pressing in under fabric, tracing along lines of muscle and bone and sinew, trying to map it out and make sense of it all. "It's a slow enough bleed that we're not really in a rush, at least. Dammit, this is why I told you to take the vest, you stupid bastard."
“Yeah, because so many vests cover shoulders too," Laurie says, sarcastic, fiddling with the lamp head to try to get him a better angle. Then she freezes into a startled silence, blindsided suddenly by the fact that she’s just caught herself defending Rorschach of all people and seriously, what the hell is that about–
Dan seems just as thrown, glancing between the two of them curiously until Rorschach shifts on the table, obviously in pain, good hand going to his shoulder to find and press into the wounds. He probably hasn't had to tap into 'stop the bleeding' instincts in a long time but she guesses old habits don’t die easily.
“Don’t,” Dan’s saying, taking hold of him by the wrist and peeling the hand away, settling it back against the table. “You’ll make it worse,” he’s saying, and she can't tell if he actually knows what he's talking about but his voice is suddenly flooded with all the tenderness and worry she used to hear from–
That she hasn't heard in–
“I need to go talk to Laurie for a min – Rorschach. Listen to me. I need to go talk to Laurie. I’ll be right back." Reassurance, barely plastering over his own building panic. "Keep your hands down until then, okay?”
The form on the table nods after a moment, seemingly unsure as to what he's agreeing to, and Dan pulls her away by the elbow, outside the circle of lamplight.
"Look," he says, glancing nervously between her and the bench, lifting his casted arm for consideration. "I can't do this by myself. I know it's a lot to ask, but–"
"Yeah, I can help," and she's a bit surprised at her own quick willingness, but then the borderline fear on Dan's face breaks up into relief and defines itself by its absence and she knows that feeling, circumstances piling onto circumstances until it's an intractable mess, despair rushing in to fill all the cracks. If she doesn't stay there's no option but a hospital and she remembers that story from the first weeks of the outbreak, too. "Nothing better to do today anyway, right?"
"Not..." A strangled sound, as the fabric starts to peel back in pieces. With the sticky sheen of sludge that passes for his blood seeped through it all, it must feel like some painless skinning, flayed away a layer at a time. "Not appropriate for her to see–"
Dan shakes his head, works at it as best he can with one hand, laying torn grey skin bare. "She's already seen half your face. I doubt any of this is a surprise."
"Don't want–" he growls, cutting off with a sharp breath when Dan pulls a piece of shredded fabric out of where it's become embedded in the wounds. Reaches up with his good hand and wraps it, blood-caked glove and all, around Dan's wrist; gives it a sharp tug, and all his strength obviously hasn't left him. It's an unbelievable deadlock – bastard’s arm is half off and he’s got to be delirious from the pain and he’s still fucking fighting.
“Look,” Dan says, twisting out of the hold and gripping that pale exposed jawline. She's reminded suddenly of a childhood friend who'd had a habit of grabbing strange barking dogs by the muzzle to quiet them down; she'd never been bitten either. Laurie still doesn't think she'd have the fearless confidence Dan's exuding, holding Rorschach still like that. “I’ve only got one hand that actually works. I can’t do this myself this time. You either lie back and stop struggling and let us fix you, or I’m going to pump you full of morphine now and you can thank us when you wake up.”
She can see the calculations running in the way Rorschach tilts his head against the grip – figuring out his odds of thrashing effectively enough to avoid the syringe, working out the chances that he’ll actually lose the arm if it’s not taken care of on account of Dan not being able to stitch one-handed, trying to understand the implications of the bleeding and just how bad this really is, and...
“Fine,” he finally says, head dropping back onto the table with a thunk too loud and resonant to be healthy. Dan doesn’t seem concerned; just reaches for the shears and starts cutting the sleeve and shirt away. He’s very careful to keep to the seams.
“You’ve gotten really good at this,” Laurie remarks, voice quiet, after the first few holes have been closed, the muscle underneath sewn up with an entirely different technique than she’s used to using on skin. Careful, nimble fingers pull a half-knot tight, leaving it to her to finish it two-handed. From the side, she can feel Rorschach glaring right through the mask, probably insulted at being talked over like a conversation piece.
“I’ve had to,” Dan just says, matter-of-fact, reaching for a fresh suture and handing it to her to thread.
Under their hands, Rorschach growls, but does not struggle.
“All right man, we’re almost done with the easy stuff. Let’s get this in so it can start working.” Dan brandishes the prefilled syringe of morphine with his good hand, gestures for Laurie to hold Rorschach’s arm down and still – anticipating the fight.
It comes as expected, a thrashing weakened by pain and exhaustion, compromised by the poor leverage of his position. Still a valiant effort, for all that it accomplishes; Laurie just holds on harder, and doesn’t let go. “Nng… no need, don’t want–”
“Shut up,” Dan says, slipping the needle in and pushing the plunger, slow and steady. “I just closed up nine deep tissue wounds, haven't even gotten to the bleeding yet. Your shoulder looks like the hamburger you had for dinner last night. You don’t get a say in this today.”
It doesn’t have any immediate effect aside from the scowl that somehow manages to deepen even further, but Dan doesn’t seem concerned, turning back to the mess in front of them. A good half of the surface injuries haven’t been closed yet, but at least all the slugs are out; he gestures to her for a freshly threaded needle.
Rorschach’s mouth is set in a hard line, looking like fury and betrayal. Laurie’s hands are smeared with dark, purplish blood; Dan had needed her help getting in at the worst of the damage and infection doesn't seem to be enough of a concern to warrant gloves, though he had done a quick palms-to-backs check of her hands for open injuries before letting her dig in. Acute central cyanosis, her ancient first-aid lessons chime in helpfully as she studies the dark smears. Not enough oxygen in the blood. Open the airway...
...god, fuck first-aid; that's a big artery that Dan's stitching up there, running over the muscle and just under the joint she'd put back into place back at the warehouse. Oozing sluggishly, the source of most of what made it onto his coat, but – and she's no expert but she can hazard a guess – if he were human he'd probably have been dead before she hit the ground behind him.
“Hey,” Dan says once the last vascular stitch is in, once he's wiped away the blood and found no more welling up to replace it. His grimness is fading, relief taking its place, and he reaches down to tap Rorschach lightly on the cheek. “Come on, it’s for your own good.”
“Yeah," and Laurie is seized by a sudden boldness, maybe something to do with the Terror of the Underworld – the Undead Terror of the Underworld no less – lying here exposed and split open and acting like a sulky child. Might be to do with the blood on her fingers; something in this mess that she understands. "Don’t be so pissy, you know you’ll be grateful when it kicks in.”
Rorschach grumbles, and Dan laughs for the first time since they got in even if it is hollow and a little desperate, and Laurie threads another needle and hands it over without needing to be asked.
“Goddamn he’s deep,” Laurie grouses, shifting her half of the weight over to Dan. They’d gotten him halfway up the basement stairs before the drugs had apparently decided to kick in all at once; they’ve hauled him the rest of the way up and into the guest room, but it's not been easy going. The room itself doesn’t seem to get much use, but either the thought of another set of stairs is too daunting or Dan’s just too sheepish to brazenly drop Rorschach in his own bed – or, possibly, he thinks she might have forgotten and doesn’t want to remind her.
“High as a kite,” Dan concurs, settling the deadweight down carefully into the heaped blankets, careful of the stitched-up shoulder. “That’s why I try to time it. He hates being this out of it while I’m still working on him.”
“Didn’t think it was going to work at all. Took long enough.”
“Always does, yeah.”
“Bet he’s a cheap drunk.”
Dan laughs, airy, kind of shaky. “He was a cheap drunk before; no idea what the hell you’d call it now. Should have seen the first cup of coffee he had after…” he waves his hand vaguely over the pale patched-up mess of bandages and bruises. “Closed up in the ship, so no possibility of escape."
“He was seriously tweaking out, pretty much literally bouncing off the walls. Was trying to take the ship apart from the inside at one point.”
It feels natural then, to laugh together, like some rusted over pressure relief valve has been knocked off with a sledgehammer. Brothers in arms or some shit; they're both bloodied and crosseyed from the work and it lasts as long as it needs to, trails off when it can. Laurie catches herself rubbing at her arm like she’s got a deep-muscle itch that she can’t get at.
She narrows her eyes at the form on the bed. “This happen a lot?”
“Often enough,” Dan says, and he seems terribly tired all of a sudden, as if all of this has caught up at once for him, too. He sits on the corner of the bed, head heavy in one hand as he tried to rub a tension headache away. “Usually get more of a fight on the painkillers, but… yeah, he's been just a little careless.”
("It's different," he'd said in the tunnel, voice running all over itself like syrup and hollowed by its own echo, and real immortality has its advantages, doesn't it?)
(He’s gotten good at it because he’s had to.)
She hasn’t washed her hands. She’s been messier than this, been up to her elbows in blood before – usually civilian, and that’s bad enough – but this just feels different, somehow. The stitches they’ve put in look fresh and raw, but they’re not the only ones there; older wounds snake all over him, sutures bristling from his skin. "No kidding. Jesus, he looks like Frankenstein's monster," she says. "So, um. Will those... heal, or...?"
"Eventually, yeah. His, uh," and here Dan rubs at the back of his neck, self-conscious in the way he gets when he knows he's likely about to get too technical. "His cell division rate's a lot slower, so they take a long time to close up, but they'll get there."
Laurie nods, almost too quickly; had thought, for a moment there, that maybe the injuries just stayed, building up until he'd be held together by nothing but surgical thread and will. She sighs, glancing at the window. "So he'll be okay."
A second of silence before her brain catches up with her words and she lifts her head to find Dan looking at her like she's just expressed actual concern for someone she's supposed to despise or something crazy like tha–
"So, ah," Dan says, smile quirking at the corner of his mouth. "Should I be wondering when the invasion’s planned for?”
“Ha ha, pod people, very funny.”
"Well, I mean, Rorschach actually shuts up when I tell him to, and now you’re concerned enough to ask… what am I supposed to think?"
She laughs, a little hysterical. The adrenaline's dropping off. "Shut up."
“I just wouldn’t want it to fall on a day I have plans. I hope the evil overlords can respect that.”
Another snort of laughter that trails off into nothing, and outside the open window, Laurie can hear traffic and construction and angry shouts – and under those gaudy, busy noises, the quiet susurruses of people out for the morning air, voices pitched only for each other, furtive in their shared confidence–
[Dan, halfway through extracting the eighth slug, leaning in close to whisper something secret and soothing against a gasp of pain so sharp even Laurie had jumped – words a quiet leaf-rustling of encouragement and apology and things she’s in no position to identify]
–in their shared world, private and dense with meaning. Outside, today and tonight and yesterday and tomorrow: ordinary lives marching past, ordinary things that they will never be a part of, and in that, they are all alike.
“…fuck it," she says, hands pushing back through her hair, yanking out the band with too much ferocity. "I need a beer. You have beer, right?”
A moment for the thought to connect, Dan's eyes following his fingers as they smooth over the thick patterning of stitchwork. Then he's nodding, distant. “Yeah… yeah, I do. Think I need one too.”