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Title: Imposition (4/?)
Sequel to: Compromise
Author: MustInvestigate
Disclaimer: I only own action figures
Rating: PG
Character(s)/Pairing: none in this section
Note:
Part 4 isn’t so much a continuation of the story as so much as penance for that cliffhanger. This story fell victim to a lack of forward planning, or too much, or just a long stretch of the mean blues that made writing little more than something else to stab at myself for not doing well. And that wasn’t wrong, really; self-indulgence and hesitance had grown into laziness and nervously aping clichéd styles, specific areas I’ve worked on and hopefully improved.

Worse, I crammed in too many half-baked concepts, many of which I’ve cannibalised into other fics since. The whole thing really needs torn back to the foundations and rebuilt in the personal voice I’m still developing before I can add another floor to it, which might actually be a useful learning process. In the meantime, here’s a bit of emotional resolution, amply displaying those bad habits, that at least answers “what the hell happened next?”

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Sequel to Compromise.

Dan had first realised he was developing what his partner would call unnatural affections when he first offered, then insisted, Rorschach learn how to fly his pride and joy. He first suspected they might be returned when the reasoning that finally convinced Rorschach was: what if I’m incapacitated and you need to get me somewhere safe right away?

He spent those lessons watching leather-clad hands tentatively move over the controls and thinking how it would feel if they slammed him up against the hull – as they would if his partner ever noticed how Dan blushed, staring at those strong hands, or as they would if he noticed, and unlikeliest as all, liked it.

Like all fantasies, that one lacked a certain eroticism when finally acted out.

“How do you know that name?” his partner growled, slamming his head against the bulkhead again. Starbursts of light flashed in front of his eyes, bright as fireworks against the unlit interior.

The man had ducked back into the ship, mask already slamming back down before Daniel got more than an impression of bruised eyes and fiery hair. Daniel had followed, already offering a hasty apology to ‘Walter,’ and leaped right into Rorschach’s impromptu ambush.

His nose was bleeding from the first punch, throbbing but not broken. Dan clawed at the fingers digging into his throat and kicked, connecting with Rorschach’s injured knee.

The other man grunted at the sudden pain and listed sideways, struggling to stay upright. Nite Owl took over, punching the unprotected face until Rorschach released his throat and grabbed for his fists instead. He moved even as oxygen burned back into his lungs, trying to knee Rorschach in the groin. The smaller man blocked with his injured leg, grimacing at the jolt.

Dan listened to Nite Owl line up his next attack, sickened to hear himself think of every injury Rorschach had taken in their partnership and how to exploit those weak points. Rorschach had almost regained his footing, and things were about to get much uglier when Dan kicked away from the hull and fell forward, grabbing him around the waist and dragging him to the floor.

“You just promised not to kill me!” he rasped before the other man could scramble to counter-attack. “There was going to be coffee.”

“How long have you known that name?” Rorschach demanded, slowly straightening his injured leg with the air of one who could leap to his feet and had simply chosen not to.

“About two minutes,” Dan snapped, coughing against the soreness in his throat. He wiped at his nose, yanked the goggles from his head and shoved them into Rorschach’s hands. “Here. I programmed them to pull information from the new NYPD database, recognise anyone with a mug shot on the system.”

“Why?”

Dan blinked. “Is that a trick question?” he asked carefully. “To get names and information, of course – to help us track down the bad guys.”

Rorschach hunched his shoulders. “Unneeded. Information is easily obtained without resorting to pointless…without trickery.”

“What’s pointless is starting with intimidation when there’s better options – ” Dan bit his tongue and counted to ten. He coughed again and cleared his throat defensively. “It’s actually very cutting-edge – Jon gave me the idea when we were talking about microprocessor options for Archie. And, well…I wanted to see if I could make it work. Will you just put them on, already?”

Rorschach turned the eyewear over in his hands as if it were explosive, or covered in something unpleasantly sticky, or both. Finally, with a suspicious glare Dan felt through the latex, he turned away and lifted his mask to his brow, fixing them over his eyes. He tugged the mask back down to his nose and faced Dan, the material stretching two trapped pools of black into Roswell alien eyes.

He frowned, deep creases forming under the thin lips. “Nothing.”

Dan shook his head. “I’m not in the database. It only recognises criminals…um…people who are, er, in their records. For any reason. Look, the wheel on the side…yes, there…there…right under your finger – move that. It’ll scroll back through every name it’s picked up tonight. Just, yes, that – goddamn it, why would I lie about this?”

Rorschach finally got the hang of the adjuster and went very still. “You’ve seen my record,” he began in a choked voice.

“Just the name,” Dan assured him. “Just look at it, you can see the print on anything else is far too small to read.”

“I can read it.”

“Oh. Well…hmm. I guess I need reading goggles. Heh.”

He tried to smile at his feeble joke. It made his battered nose hurt.

“You didn’t read this?”

“Only your name. Walter. Which, be fair – you already told me.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing else.”

Dan squirmed a little under the weight of his conscience. It’s not really a lie – I didn’t learn anything else from the goggles, after all… He pulled off his hood and gingerly touched the growing knot on the back of his head.

“Then why haven’t you asked?”

“What?”

Walter pulled the mask off and ripped the goggles from his face. “If you didn’t read it, why haven’t you asked what’s in my record?”

“Because you just tried to kill me for only learning your last name, and that by accident!” Dan shot back. “Keep your damn secrets.”

He took advantage of the man’s hesitation to memorise the sharp features, badly bruised as they were. Both eyes were blackened and swollen so badly he couldn’t make out their color. Wearing those goggles must have hurt like hell. The face rang a bell, and he knew he’d seen that bright red hair before, but he couldn’t quite place either.

Howdy Doody, he thought, and coughed back a hysterical chuckle. Unstrung, homicidal Howdy Doody.

“Daniel…” Walter paused to rub his eyes, and Dan’s eyes had finally adjusted enough to the gloom to see the hand tremble. His urge to chortle shrivelled.

“You really didn’t – ”

“I don’t want to know,” Dan replied, too quickly, and forced himself to speak softly. “I mean…I know nothing about you, really, but I know you. You’re a good guy, and I’m sure whatever it is… Well, you wouldn’t spend every night putting away criminals if you were one. And with a day job as well – I don’t know when you sleep, let alone how you’d find time to be an evil mastermind, too. Unless that is your day job, which I doubt. Crime doesn’t pay nearly as well as advertised.”

His attempt at levity didn’t register. Walter only stared at the goggles, straps twitching like snake tails in his shaking hand.

“All I need to know, really, is whether you’re currently wanted – in a misunderstanding, I’m sure.” Dan was far from sure, suddenly fearing what the Comedian might have dragged him into, what dirty work that bastard would convince an idealistic man to take on. He forced a smile. “If you disappear, I’ll know to swing by Sing Sing with a sack of bail money, just in case.”

Walter shook his head. “You’d do that?” he asked, flatly disbelieving.

“Of course,” Dan shrugged. “You’d do it for me.”

“You’d never be arrested,” Walter insisted, sounding as shocked as a maiden aunt who’d stumbled into an underground bathhouse, rubber duckie and scrubbing brush in hand.

“Our work is in a grey area legally, buddy – it would only take one cop with a grudge against vigilantes to have either of us in lock-up overnight. Is that, uh…this wouldn’t be the problem you’ve been having lately? Because Hollis still has a lot of contacts in the department, far more than the Comedian would, I’m sure he’d be happy to – ”

Walter laughed harshly, a single bark of noise. “Juvenile record. Supposed to be sealed.”

Dan released a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “Oh, that’s all? What’d you do, steal a candy bar?”

“No.” He held the goggles tightly.

Dan decided to let it go, at least for now. “You done with those?”

Walter shook his head, covering the eyewear with his other hand. Dan squinted, made out a mouth clenched into a tight half-crescent.

Still angry, about what? No…afraid.

“On the other side, there’s a switch – no, the red one…look, flip them over, there…you’re nowhere near it. Yes, that. Hold that down for a count of five.”

Dan’s ass was getting numb. He carefully got to his feet while Walter counted down the seconds, watching his movements with one eye. “Okay, put them on again. See, nothing – you just wiped the memory chip. It’s gone. Along with all the other names I collected tonight…damn it. Didn’t think that through.”

He knew what the other man was thinking: as soon as his face came into frame, the goggles would bring the record right back up. And there was no way to avoid it, unless Walter kept his mask on every moment they were together – and Dan had waited too long to get the damn thing off – or Dan sacrificed weeks of really enjoyable work by stripping out the new function. Or...

“I could erase the record,” he heard himself say. “From the main database.”

“Tamper with police records?” Walter frowned, swollen eyes narrowing even further.

“You said yourself,” Daniel rushed to reassure him, “the record is supposed to be sealed. They probably keyed every file out of deep storage into the database without putting any thought into properly cascading security levels.”

“Daniel,” the other man interrupted warningly.

“Sorry, too technical?” He tried to imagine he was explaining the problem to Hollis, not one of his old classmates. His hammering heart slowed as he slipped into the familiar routine of explaining something mechanical to his partner, a man who firmly believed a good thump made all machines and humans work. “A sealed record should require a special warrant to be opened, yes? But this was right out in the open. Er, as open as all regular arrest records I can currently access. Let’s not dwell on that right now.”

Walter grunted, crossing his arms. “Another legal ‘grey area’?”

Daniel rubbed the back of his neck. “Less so. Forget it. All I’m saying is, we can rectify their mistake by deleting your record from the database. The paper file will still exist, but not where any palooka in blue can read it…or my goggles.”

“Breaking into the precinct…not impossible, but difficult,” Walter said slowly, reluctantly warming to the challenge. “The records department is likely to have at least a skeleton staff overnight.”

“How do you think I got in to begin with?” Dan interrupted, stifling a proud smirk. He was one of maybe a dozen civilians who knew this particular trick, and he’d bet dollars to donuts the Comedian was not one of the military men in on the secret. “Over here.”

He moved – slowly and smoothly, in full rescuing-a-wounded-Great-Grey-Owl mode – to his computer bank, grateful he’d left it running earlier that day and wouldn’t have to maintain their fragile detente through a half-hour boot-up. The loud burr of high-speed fans inside the compartment warned him he’d better shut the beast down before morning or learn to work around a fused processor.

“Careful, there’s a heat sink on that side.” Dan touched the casing, gauging the temperature. Yes, it’d be fine. “I’ve got a 100-kilobyte hard drive in there.”

Walter examined the molded casing without comprehension and grunted, a reaction remarkably similar to Hollis’ during the senior Nite Owl’s last tour of the nest.

Confusion, Dan decided, was good. It seemed an adequate distraction from unthinking rage, for the moment. He tapped in DOS commands without looking at the keyboard and indulged in a teaching moment.

“No need to break in when the police have already ushered us in the back door, so to speak. It’s an ambitious project, intended to ultimately allow every precinct secretary in the nation to search for files coast to coast through computers like these. The brilliant method they’ve chosen is not to make one huge library, which would be impossible to build or maintain, but to link all the little databases together. When this network is established, a single security code and a phone line will allow unfettered access to every criminal record in the fifty states.”

He gave the other man a few moments to let that sink in.

“You…telephone the police, and give the password?” Walter considered his own words, shifting more weight off his injured knee. “No. That’s something too hackneyed for a Republic Serial plot.”

Dan answered with only half his attention, resisting the temptation to ask how many comic books his partner had stashed away. “The truth is far stranger than fiction.”

He’d breached the database’s flimsy security and found his electronic bug, which so far had gone undetected. The administrators had yet to integrate a text-search function into the system, preferring to manually scroll through all files in alphabetical order (just thinking about the hours spent pressing the down arrow made him grimace), so he used the bug’s software as a rough data filter. Names began to flash across the screen, gradually drawing closer to W-A-L-T-E-R K-O-V-A-C-S.

“All information can be converted to a series of on/off signals,” he continued. “These signals can be sent through an ordinary telephone wire to another machine, which translates them back to their original form. Simple, really.”

He shrugged. “It’s one of Jon’s military projects, a foolproof method to quickly transmit huge chunks of information around the world – cutting through the ‘fog of war,’ he described it. They’re using civilian schemes like this to test the theory.”

The other man remained silent, tensely watching the screen.

“Where did I lose you?” Dan sighed.

“Where did you lose yourself?” Walter answered, gaze briefly shifting from the flicker of names. “Only very smart people could design something so very, very stupid.”

“What?” Dan replied, stung. “Can’t you see how incredibly useful this will be? I know the goggles haven’t overly impressed you, but in another decade the criminals won’t stand a chance.”

Walter snorted. “They’ll all be crowding in your ‘back door,’ stealing secrets the Reds will pay top dollar for. Far easier than fencing jewellery and appliances.”

“That…that…no. Just, no.” Dan huffed out a shocked chuckle. “The kinds of fellows who can do this, well, they’re not the criminal type. Or the ‘human contact’ type. And the people we put away, heh, I can’t even imagine Big Figure successfully placing a collect call, let alone – ”

“People always find information they have no right to know,” Walter grumbled, and the abrupt end of the bug’s search saved Dan from having to agree with the man.

“Who’d have guessed there would be three Walter Kovacses in New York State?” He made himself turn away from the screen. There were answers there, and wasn’t that all he’d ever wanted? “You’ll have to find your record.”

He showed him the right keys to press and walked away, sitting on the stairs. It had been so normal for a moment, there, arguing about crimefighting ethics and who was the bigger idiot. Almost as if there wasn’t drying blood on his lips.

He rested his fists on the concrete next to his thighs, letting their chill settle into his scraped knuckles and ran a quick body triage. Worst: head, throat; lesser: nose, sore arms and shoulders. A hot cup of coffee or ten would treat all of it adequately.

Why did his shoulders hurt? He didn’t remember anyone punching him there, and Rorschach had taken the worse of their fight…oh yes, the CPR. His damned arms, strong enough to fight until dawn without a twinge, were sore from trying to save an old man from his own shocked heart.

He wondered if Hollis was still awake, watching dawn lighten the sky for old time’s sake.

“That’s it.”

Daniel watched Walter’s finger hover over the DELETE key, then move to the arrows instead. He scrolled slowly, viciously jabbing the keyboard at first, then more gently as he seemed to get absorbed in the police report. Daniel stayed where he was even though he dearly wanted to see the expression on the other man’s face, especially as he reached the end and said nothing.

After several minutes had dragged by, he stood and moved away from the screen, crossing his arms. Daniel had never seen a man move so much as if he dragged himself by the scruff of his own neck.

“You can,” he paused and shrugged tightly, “You can read it, first.”

“Walter,” Daniel began, confused, wary, and hoping the use of his christian name would soften the man. It had to be a trick.

“No more secrets,” he interrupted, stepping farther away from the screen.

It was easier to read him like this, that distractingly immobile face turned to the wall. Crossed arms, knotted tendons practically visible through however many layers (five, he reminded himself, involuntarily remembering that video feed, and flushed); he wouldn’t get another word out of the man unless he gave in or a gang of criminals materialised in his basement.

The letters grew clearer as he approached the screen, and Daniel realised that he hated that font. He’d designed it himself (for extra credit, in a sophomore programming class he’d already had an A in, and maybe the Comedian did have a point about him). It was boxy and inhuman, but he reminded himself this was a report typed up by a person, by a policeman or social worker, another person judging his partner from outside, and when had that ever led to the truth?

He punched the DELETE key (and yeah, that was a hell of a twinge, as the only answers at hand dissolved to faint afterimages against the dark screen), and set the computer to shut down before he could think of ten different ways to recover the information.

Walter turned around, hearing the cooling unit clunk to a stop, and inhaled sharply. “What –”

“No more digging for secrets,” he corrected Walter, taking a deep breath, tasting blood in the back of his throat. He almost convinced himself, hearing it come out of his mouth so firmly.

“But…you wanted to know,” Walter whispered.

“I want to know when you want to tell me, and that’s the only way I want to hear it.” He raised a hand as Walter opened his mouth to argue. “And not even that, until I’ve had a cup of coffee and a solid morning’s sleep.”

He deliberately brushed past the other man’s shoulder on his way to the steps. Walter swayed, seeming too surprised by Dan’s sudden aggression to correct against the jolt. “There’ll be a fresh pot up there in five minutes. If I have to drink it all myself, I’ll expect to see you here tomorrow night. Eight o’clock. Sharp.”
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