etherati: (WM - R/D - SNO OWL)
[personal profile] etherati
Title: A Winter's Tale
Fandom: Watchmen
Characters/Pairings: Hollis/Sally, Dan/Rorschach
Date Written: 2011
Summary: A generation apart, two heroes learn about proper winter attire, offers of warmth, and how to say yes. Or: Dan learns from Hollis's mistakes.
Rating/Warnings: Hard PG-13/Soft R? Fluff, peril, cocoa, and Dan being a brazen little owl.
Notes:  For [livejournal.com profile] tortoisegirl, for [livejournal.com profile] wm_secretsanta :D Tried to nail down a few things on the list, sorry I couldn't hit them all!

*

The first Nite Owl doesn’t like to dwell on it—nothing can be done for it and obsessing just makes it seem worse—and Sal will never admit to it, but winter can be a really, really rough time to be in their line of work. A night this bad, even Hollis would usually stay in, watch the inches of beastly white accumulate from safely inside his home, plant Phantom firmly on his feet and wile away the hours 'til morning with a little scotch and the radio. Some great serials running lately, cowboys who live their whole lives in the summer and detectives who spend so much time in the chill of human indecency that the weather never so much as fazes them.

Real people, the weather affects, and Hollis has never claimed to be a real, larger than life superhero. Silk Spectre’s made even fewer claims, and often sits the bulk of winter out on the advice of her publicists, but she’s here tonight for the same reason Hollis is—for the same reason all of them are. Crooks just don’t get to dress up like Saint Nick himself and mug folks for what little savings they have left the day after Christmas, not without consequences.

A decade ago, it would have been booze—bootleg, in the doll babies, and that’s what they would have been stealing, right from the kids’ hands. Now it’s just disorganization and hunger.

So that’s how they’ve gotten to this surreal place: the last fat flakes of Christmas day’s storm drifting down on lazy currents, moonlight hazing through the clouds to light them up like a shower of diamonds, and seventeen bedraggled Santa Clauses tied wrist to wrist in a circle in the snow. The police are on their way, they say. Metropolis and HJ and Ursula are all making rounds, terrorizing these dumb desperate kids just this side of enough; Bill and Byron disappeared as soon as the bust was cinched. Who the hell knows where the Comedian’s been all night, and good thing too, or Hollis would never live down the ignominy of standing shivering in a snowbank, up to his bare knees in the stuff.

“Damn it,” he swears, stomping his feet; immediately regrets both when he catches sight of Sally coming up on one side. For all that she doesn’t usually patrol in winter she’s well prepared for it, her usual shimmery spit of gauze and silk replaced by the same cut in wool and fur, with thick leggings and shoulder-length gloves. It looks a little like something the ever-elusive Mrs. Saint Nick might wear, if not for the colors; it is both warm and scandalous, and Hollis is intensely jealous of her forethought, if not the specific clothes. He's never had the legs for—

He shakes his head hard, to clear it. Muddy brain, that's what he gets—brave Hollis, in his scale-print shorts and nothing else, trying to prove something or other and just winding up here instead, shivering and cursing in the snow like an idiot. Real men don’t need pants. Right.

She sticks out her elbow, like a gentleman might; like Hollis himself might. The wailing horns of the police wagons are getting closer. “Awfully cold out tonight. Walk you home, sailor?”

He tries to laugh; it comes out shuddery and hollow, like words breathed up through the just-frozen crust of a lake. Ice in the lungs, going down fast. “Sal...”

She winks, waggles her elbow, and it all says I won’t tell, just stop being silly and let’s get somewhere warm. And yeah, no one else has seen; he managed to hold the compulsive shivers down until he was alone over here.

He smiles, face pulling against the frost, and puts his arm in hers.

*

This is the part of the story where Dan can always tell that Hollis is being a gentleman, politely demurring over what might have happened or might not have happened next. Sure, he let her walk him home, and she patted his arm and brushed the new snow off of his shoulders in a way that made him wonder just where HJ had gotten off to and why she was touching his shoulders with that warm, lingering brush instead—but never any more specifics than that.

“She asked if I wanted her to come up, bless her heart, and fix me some cocoa—make sure I wasn’t frostbitten from the knees down and keep me company 'til the old furnace kicked in.” His expression’s gone wistful, a little bit somewhere else.

“Did you?” Dan asks, like he always does. It’s not a role he minds.

Hollis shifts in his seat, careful with his feet like he still expects something to be there. He lost the old boy years ago, has been toying lately with the idea of a new puppy, but isn’t sure he can handle that sort of energy, anymore. Dan’s heard all about it.

“Whether I did or didn’t isn’t the point,” he says, eyes and voice both a little sharper. “I don’t have many regrets, but I do have some. Anyone ever offers to help you stay warm in these city winters, Danny, you say yes. They’re vicious, they bite pieces out of you left and right, so you need all the defenses you can get.”

It’s February of 1964, deep in the heart of another winter. Dan’s still got a lot to learn about heroing and tactics and streetsmarts from the old Nite Owl and he knows it, but sometimes he thinks that these are the most important lessons. Maybe it’s the hopeless romantic in him, or maybe it’s the whisky dosed into the coffee they’re sharing, enough to take the bite off the drink’s heat and make it linger and burn. Either way, it is more real and important than any punch he’s learned to throw or device he’s built, and he wonders if his Nite Owl will ever have a Sally; someone to pull him in from the cold.

Outside, the snow’s coming down like it has every winter since the first human creature set foot here, and probably before then too. There is a desolate stillness to it.

He lifts his mug, as if to agree to the sentiment; a toast, a cheer, huzzah, to keep the winter at bay for one more day.

*
*
*

Another year or two and the new Nite Owl is starting to appreciate the importance of the tactical lessons too, enough to wish he’d spent less time mooning over old stories and more time extracting what mistakes not to make from them. Maybe come up with a warmer version of his uniform, for winter? Maybe?

Nite Owl,” his partner says, from somewhere above him; the cold hollows his voice, makes it insubstantial. There’s an edge of concern in it, but mostly it’s annoyed. As always. “Need any assistance?”

The snowdrift had only looked maybe waist high when he’d dropped into it—the fire escape had been high, the one under it inexplicably missing, and he’d needed something to cushion his landing. Had figured he’d land, spring free, keep moving. Spend only a minimal amount of time with the bare cold against his body, make up for it in exertion over the next few minutes.

“Go catch him!” he shouts up, instead of complaining; the cold is distorting his sense of time. He’s not sure how long he’s been here. He’d dropped into the drift as planned, everything about the maneuver textbook-perfect, until the escape had decided to judder in its fittings above him, dump its entire three feet of accumulated snow right down on top of him.

Someday, he thinks, a little giddy, some future archaeologist will find a man in an owl suit, frozen in a block of ice. Perfectly preserved specimen, the future humans will marvel, but why did they dress like this?

He hears something from up in the cold blackness above him; a hard laugh, twisting itself into a huff of exertion. “No chance,” Rorschach says, voice strained. A soft fwump nearby, echoing into a metallic emptiness, as Rorschach lands neatly in the few inches of snow covering a dumpster lid. “Long gone, Nite Owl.” Another almost-laugh, the breath puffing out from his mask like the cough of a steam engine. “Only petty theft anyway. Not worth...”

And then he’s studying Dan, what little of him is visible, and Dan wants to laugh too because it’s like Rorschach is walking on goddamn water, perched on the surface of the snow with no mortal weight to drag him down. Of course he was watching, of course he knew where the dumpster was and exactly where to land, but still.

Then the mask pinches over the brow, real concern blooming in the ink, and it’s not that funny anymore. “Actually having difficulty, Nite Owl? Should be able to free yourself...”

“I think I can,” Dan says, suddenly breathless, at a loss as to why. But when he tries to move his arms and legs, dig himself free, they are sluggish and stiff. It’s not snowing anymore, and the temperature has plummeted accordingly; it’s probably five degrees out, and he’s been absorbing that cold all night through the thin spandex, collecting it in his bones and joints. It’s only now that he’s stopped moving for a few minutes that it’s started to blossom up under the skin.

So he tries, but mostly doesn’t succeed, wallowing uselessly in the drift. There’s just so much of it, and it’s so heavy, and maybe he should just rest for a minute or two...

Then his head’s being jerked up violently; he blinks, refocusing.

Rorschach has one hand around the horn of his cowl, lifting him lopsidedly. He seems angry now, every line in his body tight with it, charged and deadly and beautiful. That’s quite a change; how long had he drifted? “Do not pass out, Nite Owl,” that void-deadened voice hisses. “If you need help, say so.”

There’s a streetlight above them, somewhere. It’s guttering in the cold, fainter than it should be, usual amber glow numbed down to a pink haze. Everything looks strange.

He nods, as resolutely as he can. Gets the one hand he’s freed up into the air between them. “Could... could use a hand, yeah,” he slurs, tongue feeling too big for his mouth.

Rorschach takes the hand and then the wrist too, both gloved hands locking onto him, and against the scattered flakes that pink glow hums and spins, splinters between them like something fractal and endless.

*

He’s going home after that, no arguments, though he expects to field them from Rorschach regardless. The city needs us, he might say, or Duty requires perseverance, or just Going soft, Nite Owl, in that self-amused voice that only halfway means itself. Normally it’s enough to spur him on, keep him going, the disapproval hand in hand with a promise of approval if he carries through. Tonight, it’s just going to annoy him.

But Rorschach is silent. He just keeps pace alongside Dan, one arm up at a right angle with the hand hovering a few inches from Dan’s back. Not quite support, but the promise that it will be there if Dan really needs it.

It would be nice, he thinks, to be touched without— but no, whatever. It’s fine. The gesture is enough.

At the warehouse, Rorschach hesitates, holding the door open for his partner and then slipping inside himself. He never comes over that threshold, and he makes a show now of stomping his feet to drive out the cold; an excuse for having come out of the weather even for a moment. It’s all bullshit but Dan’s too bleary to call him on it. And anyway, Rorschach’s standing closer than necessary to avoid losing him in the pitch-black; the proximity sends a flood of warmth through him.

“Going to be all right?” Rorschach asks, and Dan realizes it wasn’t the cold wrecking his voice after all; it was worry, just worry. It’s still there.

And he almost brushes it off, almost sends Rorschach on his way like he has every other night they’ve patrolled for the past year, with a smile and and a handshake and a painfully platonic farewell, soldiering through whatever insult or injury he’d suffered that night for the sake of appearances, but.

But Rorschach is shifting from one foot to another, a nervousness beyond just worry over Dan’s condition, like he’s plunged himself into something he’s not sure if he’s ready for. He looks so unguarded, forgetting Dan’s night vision and letting his defenses down in the dark, and it was just a warehouse doorway but it’s also a step from the street toward the home, from one identity to another. A step closer than they’ve ever been.

“I’ll probably be fine,” Dan says, reaching out to set a hand on Rorschach’s shoulder, squeeze it lightly. “But if you’re worried, if you want to stay—you’re more than welcome.”

Rorschach nods, one last shiver wracking its way out of his frame. He follows, down one tunnel and up another, until the warm light of the basement is spilling out in front of them, calling them home.

*

Dan overthinks everything in his life—analyzes, contemplates, thinks about consequences. He’s not going to overthink this.

He’s been plied with cocoa and soup—most of which he’s had to prepare, because Rorschach can’t be trusted to make toast correctly, he's learned in the last few hours—and bundled up in a thick blanket like the little kid he definitely isn’t, anymore. From anyone else it would feel patronizing, but Rorschach is so awkward about all things domestic, so constantly on the edge of horror at being in Nite Owl’s actual house, that he can only take it in stride.

But now Rorschach’s plied himself with cocoa too, however that works, and is luxuriating in the warmth it’s sunk into him; is stretched lax on the couch next to Dan, a distillation of strength at rest. The lines of him are always fierce and beautiful, but now they are also human, and Dan can’t help but take them in, the quiet power and defiant indolence.

When it becomes obvious that the heat in the brownstone isn’t keeping up with the brutal cold outside and Dan’s shivering isn’t going to subside on its own, that indolence takes on a new shape. Rorschach loops one arm over his shoulders, casual as anything, and pulls him to lean against him. They end up sprawled lengthwise together, Dan practically in his lap, and rearrangement to a less scandalous situation is possible but seems unlikely at this juncture.

“Practical,” Rorschach says, tongue thick with sugar; there’s three empty mugs in front of him. The mask’s up over his nose, seems willing to stay that way. “Need to make sure you stay warm.”

He’s not exactly at risk for hypothermia anymore, but he knows Rorschach knows that and that’s as far as he’s going to think about it. Because he’s not going to overthink this, right.

Rorschach’s mouth is moving, shifting through a dozen false starts. It doesn’t look soft, exactly, but like it would give in all the right ways. “...you worried me,” is what finally comes out of it, and black shifts over the mask in embarrassment. “When you started to pass out. Worried you might not come back.”

“Always come back to you,” Dan slurs, too lazy to be ashamed at the baldness of the affection in his voice, and the black pools even thicker; Rorschach ducks his head, presses those lips into a line.

“Partners,” Rorschach finally grits out, nodding, because that explains all of it and might be the only way he can process this. And that’s fine, he can go on thinking of it that way, but Dan’s done with overthinking. Rorschach’s mouth is there and inviting and there’s a heartbeat between Dan’s legs, running hot and fast, and he’s just going to lean in and kiss him and if that doesn’t go too badly then he will lean against the rest of him and let him feel how much he’s wanted, how sure Dan is that he’ll always return to this, how much warmth he’s managed to stir out of the frost of the night. After that...

Rorschach groans under his mouth, rises to meet his body—tastes like chocolate and a little like fear—and all Dan can think is Oh god, finally

*

If he ever tells the story later, he will be a gentleman about it; he’s learned too much from his mentor to be anything else. But he will reiterate and pass on the same lesson: winter is too hard and too cruel to make it through on your own, and if anyone ever offers to lend you their heat, to wrap you up away from the ice and snow and keep you warm all through the night, then for god’s sake, say yes.

*

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