Nite Owl(Dan)/Rorschach. R. ~4400 words.
The problem with inkblots is that they say whatever you want them to.
Everyone talks about how easy it is, after. They’re so willing to forget the bones their new city is built on, the spilled blood that had washed their streets clean, how the faces of the past are crushed beneath their feet in a desperate stampede to something more. They all forget that their bright, glorious future will soon enough be someone else’s dull and dingy past.
It isn’t so easy for him.
The dealer careened through the alley, skidding through a huddle of trashcans and scrambling to his feet with desperate fury. He fired wildly into the hazy gloom of the rooftops, his lips peeled back in a snarl and his voice hoarse from screaming.
Tucked safely in an alcove by broken old chimney, Dan waited for the guy’s crazed burst of panic to fade. They were three blocks from the wharves and he didn’t want to lose him there. Low-level scumbags never knew much, but all he needed was the next scumbag up the food chain.
“Get away from me!” Another shot rang out, then another, both bullets pinging loudly on metal, a fire escape or the overflowing dumpster. “Son of a bitch, I said get away!”
Dan frowned. He eased closer to the ledge in time to see the dealer crack headfirst against a brick wall. Slow measured footsteps echoed through the alley as he watched the dealer roll into a stagnant puddle, whimpering and clutching at his head.
“Hey!” Dan shouted, bolting upright. “Be careful!” The alleyway went silent. He swung down off the ledge to the fire escape, then to the cracked, dirty asphalt, landing face to fickle face with Rorschach for the first time. The blurry pictures he’d seen of that mask weren’t nearly enough to prepare him for the real thing moving like something fitfully alive. “I need what’s left of his brain to stay in his skull.”
“Wishful thinking,” Rorschach grunted. “Sorry, he ran.”
Dan whipped a pair of cuffs off his belt and went to take care of the dealer. There was a nasty split in his scalp and he was probably concussed, but his eyes focused when Dan’s fingers snapped in front of his face a few times.
“What’re you doing all the way out here, anyway?” Dan asked, propping the dealer up against the wall with the rest of the trash. “I’d heard you’d claimed Lower East.”
Rorschach’s head angled a little to the left. The inkblot shifted slowly. “No, I followed him.”
“You’re after Kiev?” Daniel rubbed at his chin. The mask shifted again, forming a pattern of consideration, acknowledgement. “That’s why I needed this guy. I know it’s a long shot, but-”
“I know where Kiev is, just mopping up.”
Dan couldn’t help a smile. “Mopping up happens after you make the mess, not before.”
“Would you object to an extra pair of hands?”
The question hung limply in the damp air. What little he knew of Rorschach he’d read in the papers, and all they had told him was that the job got done. In the lines between the white and black, he’d read about someone like him, wanting to do something right, being able to, and doing it.
Rorschach turned and walked away. Disappointment spread sourly in Dan’s mouth, but he hadn’t really expected much else. They’d all worked alone since the Minutemen. It was safer that way, gave them the ability to pick when and where they fought without having to worry so much about being ambushed on the way to the dry cleaners.
Near the mouth of the alley, Rorschach looked back. A thin line of black slinked along the mask where his mouth should’ve been as he jerked a nod towards the storage yards.
The masks were what really caught everyone’s attention. Rorschach’s always had something to say even if the man beneath it didn’t and it was a hell of a lot easier to read. After a while he began to recognise the patterns; this way for mildly annoyed, that for a grudging smile, another for the split-second before the fight was won, wild and exultant.
That endless swirl of white and black clung to the inside of his skull like a whisper in a language only he had been allowed to learn, and he clung awkwardly to that knowledge, held it too close.
The problem with inkblots is that they say whatever you want them to.
“Shit,” Dan hissed, “shit.” He pressed a hand to his side. It came away slick, glistening darkly in the shadows. A few more inches and it could’ve been his kidney on a skewer instead of the deep gash seeping blood inside his clothes. “The creep with the trench knife got me.”
“Need an emergency room?”
“No, it isn’t that bad. I’ve got a kit at my place.” Dan squinted at the skyline, blinking sweat from his eyelashes. They’d chased the guy more than ten minutes out from where they’d ran into each other again that night, sharing the hope that he’d lead to something bigger than throwing a wrench into street sales for a day or two. “Where the hell are we?”
Rorschach pointed to the east. “Subway’s that way, or it’s a forty minute walk.”
Dan ran a quick mental tally through the contents of his utility belt. Short of a bullet, he hadn’t expected to encounter anything strong enough to inflict so much damage through his armour, and he was already running through the equations again when he caught up to what Rorschach had said. “You know where I live?”
Rorschach’s face shifted into a wry grin, or a very pointed stare. “I followed you, too.”
Gathering up a wad of his cape, Dan pressed it to his side as he started walking. “Isn’t that cheating?”
Saying nothing, Rorschach fell into step, his usual stride slowed to something that wouldn’t leave Dan bleeding out into his shorts.
Dan slowed down a bit more, then stopped. “Aren’t you going to go after that other guy?”
“You’re wounded,” Rorschach said, barely glancing at the lights before stepping down off the sidewalk to cross the street. “Can’t leave you like that, too easy a target.”
With the choice of being left behind or following, Dan started walking again. “I didn’t think you’d want to let him get away.”
“He’ll still be here tomorrow. And if he’s not?” Rorschach’s expression shifted into the approximation of a shrug. “One less scumbag to worry about.”
Puffing out a breath, Dan nodded and pressed a bit harder on his wound. Sweat stung the raw edges and blood was soaking into his undershirt, thick and warm. “You’re sure it’s forty minutes?”
Flatly, Rorschach said, “Let me hail you a cab,” and stuck his thumb out into the very empty, very quiet street.
“Well, a crimefighter shuttle service might be nice.”
That gained him a tilt of Rorschach’s chin and an inkblot like a smile before they lapsed into silence, Dan trudging along gnawing at the inside of his cheek and Rorschach’s face constantly shifting, melting from concerned to indifferent to watchful. He’d broken a couple of his toes once, when some dealer had dropped half a ton of cargo barrels on him, limping around on a swollen foot for weeks his price for being a fraction of a second too slow. This was a hell of a lot worse.
“You know how bad paper cuts sting?” Dan said, and Rorschach nodded. “I feel like I’ve got the granddaddy of all paper cuts.”
“Here,” Rorschach said, slipping smoothly under his arm. “It’ll ease the strain.”
Dan nodded his thanks, the going awkward for a few minutes until Rorschach learned to match his pace. It helped, but relief flooded Dan’s veins in a drunken rush when they neared a familiar graffiti-laden warehouse hulking in the dark. He breaths were labored by the time they made it down the rusty old ladder into the tunnels and came together again, Rorschach taking on more of his weight as he led the way through the pitch black.
“So, you knew about this, too?”
“I spent some time checking up on you. Thought it’d be a good idea since we partnered up.”
Dan glanced down, startled. “We partnered up?”
“What else would you call it?” The stale underground breeze gradually shifted direction, and Rorschach slowed. Tension sang in his shoulders, and Dan tried to ease up. “Which way now?”
“Let me get the lights.” Dan shuffled away, immediately regretting the loss of Rorschach’s strong support. He fumbled at the panel and remembered to yank his goggles off at the last second before the flood of light blinded him. “Home, sweet home.”
Rorschach’s hands slid into his pockets as he turned slowly around, taking in the sprawl of worktables, the rusting tracks and the wardrobe Dan had jammed into an alcove to store his finished gear. “Cosy.”
“Give me a hand with this,” Dan said, lurching up the stairs to the platform one step at a time. “The buckles are on the other side, there.”
Rorschach followed, gloved fingers peeling back the thick latex hiding the closures from sight. He helped Dan slide free with minimal wriggling and hesitated with a hand on the edge of the cowl.
“Go ahead,” Dan sighed. “You already know who I am, anyway.”
Dan winced as the cowl peeled free, his skin prickling as the cool air dried his sweat. He scrubbed a hand though his hair.
Rorschach crouched, tugging a glove off to lift the stained undershirt out of the way. He said nothing when Dan hissed a quiet curse as it stuck, just kept pulling, slow and careful, and used the hem to daub at the fresh rush of blood.
“That needs stitches,” Dan said. “Damn it.”
“Where’s your kit?”
“Upstairs. Should’ve moved it down here.” Gingerly, Dan touched his side. The gash was longer than he’d thought. “You’re not squeamish, are you?”
“Stay here,” Rorschach said, brushing by. “Under the bathroom sink?”
Rorschach’s footsteps echoed loudly on the wooden stairs. Dan peeled off one of his gloves, wrangled one of the stools out from beneath a worktable, and plunked down heavily on it, still breathing hard. As soon as he was stitched up, he’d have to reanalyze his armour’s ability to withstand shearing forces. Bullets had been his chief concern but the inches-long hole carved into his side made a good case for an overestimation of his own abilities in close quarters.
“Here,” Rorschach said, tromping quickly back down with an armful of fluffy white cotton and the first aid kit. He dumped it all on the table after handing Dan a damp towel to loosen the crust of blood and stripped out of his trench coat, flinging it over the railing.
He wore a slick well-cut pinstripe suit beneath, the material a perfect match to the wide band on his fedora. Without the mask, he would’ve fit right in to some society gala. It was weird costume for a crimefighter, but as the guy running around dressed up like a giant owl, Dan didn’t really have room to judge.
Taking the towel away, now stained red, Rorschach knelt down and got to work, cleaning and stitching without much more than an occasional warning about squirming. Dan watched his hands while he worked, sizing up the breadth of his palm, the length of his fingers, trying to dream up the face that went with thick knuckles and dexterous, gentle fingertips.
When Rorschach was done, the line of Dan’s stitches curved in a tight, neat track over his side. “Tidy,” he said. “Do you sew your own buttons back on, too?”
“Made the suit.”
Even the mask couldn’t hide Rorschach’s withering stare.
Twelve years isn’t a long time. It sounds like a hell of a long time to know somebody, but it isn’t. It went by in the flash of cameras and guns, gritty streets striped in neon blood, and he had nothing to show for it but a roadmap of scars and a few fingerprints in the dust, a cupboard full of cheap beans he’ll never eat.
Nothing but his grainy memories of footsteps in the hall, the crinkle of paper wrappers, and the unexpected smattering of freckles across the tip of Rorschach’s nose.
“Easy,” Dan said, spinning the co-pilot’s chair around with his knee so he could settle Rorschach into it. “Your brains aren’t leaking out of your ears, are they?”
Rorschach slumped back, his hat clenched in one fist. His breaths were slow but shallow. “Mask keeps them in,” he grit out, and gingerly touched the back of his skull. “Minor laceration, probably mildly concussed.”
Worry gnawing at his insides, Dan fired up the engines. Until tonight, where skill had failed, luck had stepped in. It was bound to happen sooner or later. He’d been expecting it. He just hadn’t been prepared. “Headache, dizzy?”
“Didn’t hit me that hard, Daniel.”
“He knocked you out.” They struck a small patch of turbulence that knocked one of Rorschach’s grudging grunts loose, and Dan swung smoothly to the side, leaving it behind. “With a lead pipe. I’ve never seen anybody knock you out, ever.”
“Sloppy,” Rorschach said, tugging his gloves off and loosening his scarf so he could slide a few fingers beneath the back of his mask. He felt around for a moment, tilting his head from one side to the other.
“I’ll say.” The corner of Dan’s mouth quirked in a wry smile, a second mask for him to hide behind. “He should’ve made sure you were down and out before he stepped over you, huh.”
“Never leave an enemy at your back,” Rorschach agreed, rubbing his smudged fingertips together. “Or give him a clear shot at your genitals.”
Even while his smile spread out into something real, Dan couldn’t help a wince. He almost wished he’d imagined the thick crunch of the guy’s nuts against the sole of Rorschach’s heavy boot, and definitely wished he’d managed to take him out first. Witnessing that sort of thing from a ringside seat left a mark on a man. It certainly made him glad he hadn’t taken his predecessor’s route of choosing speed over protection.
“You missed my rooftop,” Rorschach said.
“But not blind. You have to stop taking me home with you, Daniel.”
Dan scowled out at the sea of murky lights. “Unless there’s someone waiting for you at home that knows how to treat a concussion, you’re staying at my place tonight. In the guest bedroom, too,” he added, “not that dusty old cot in the basement.”
“You sleep on it all the time.”
Archie rocked more than usual as Dan swept down into the old tunnels. “What makes you say that?”
The weight of one of Rorschach’s looks settled on him. He’d never actually seen one of those looks, so like the shape of Rorschach’s eyes or the exact colour of his hair (Dan guessed a very light brown, maybe edging towards blond, because the stubble he’d seen on Rorschach’s chin was a warm reddish-gold), Rorschach’s expression existed only in his imagination. But he felt it. “I needed a replacement hook,” Rorschach said. “You were on asleep on the cot. There was a book over your face.”
Dan waited until he’d brought Archie in for a landing to reply. One day, he’d get around to widening the mouth of the tunnel, but it always seemed like something far more important cropped up every time he remembered what a pain it was to navigate. Like a concussed partner, for instance. “So that’s where that hook went.”
Rorschach hit the release for the hatch and thumped down the steps, stuffing his gloves inside his coat’s pockets before shrugging out of it and tossing it over the nearest table. By the time Dan finished the short run of post-landing diagnostics, the noise of him rummaging through the kitchen cupboards was filtering down the stairs.
Dan started stripping out of his costume, piece by piece. He’d known exactly where that hook had gone, even if he hadn’t realised Rorschach had been there that specific night. Food vanished from his fridge, bandages from his first aid kits, once a shirt from his closet, but he knew where they had all gone. Neither of them had said a word about the extra boxes of cereal showing up in the pantry; they were emptied and Dan replaced them. It hadn’t taken him long to find out Rorschach liked Captain Crunch and hated Rice Krispies.
Back in his civvies, he cleared away all the random bits and pieces that had found their way onto the cot and shook out the blankets. Rorschach came back down a few minutes later, grunting when he saw the cot ready and waiting for him but going to settle down on it anyway. “Kettle’s boiled,” he said.
Dan glanced up from the new set of goggle’s he’d been tinkering with. “There’s blood on your neck.” Again, Rorschach grunted, lifting a bare hand to smear through the thin red rivulet, and Dan cleared his throat quietly to say, “Maybe I should take a look at it.”
Rorschach froze, propped up on one elbow. Dan tugged roughly at the buckle on the goggles, thinking he’d finally crossed that line and trying to come up with a way to take it back when Rorschach eased slowly up to sit on the edge of the cot, one leg tucked under the other. “Fine,” he said, rolling the mask up over his mouth and nose. “But you worry too much.”
“About a partner that doesn’t worry enough.” Dan dropped the goggles, the stool grating over concrete as he stood. He scrubbed his palms clean–dry–on his slacks.
Rorschach slung an arm over one knee, watching quietly. When Dan was close enough, he bowed his head, the lazy shift of blank ink like his eyes closing.
The mask was warm where Dan touched it, a little damp. Rorschach held the front in place as he lifted the back, revealing the soft brush of hair against his knuckles to be a startlingly bright copper red. In all the times he’d pictured the man beneath the mask, he hadn’t imagined this, or the splash of freckles that lay over the peak of Rorschach’s spine. Beneath the pinstripe jacket, Rorschach’s shoulders shifted, and Dan pictured a stretch of pale Irish-blood skin over whipcord lean muscle smattered with freckles like dozens of tiny ink drops.
The curious tilt of Rorschach’s head knocked him out of it, and he combed his fingers quickly through the short strands. “You’re a redhead, that explains a few things,” he said, forcing his tone light as he followed the tacky trail of blood to its source near the tip of Rorschach’s ear. The edges of the wound were rough, clotted. “It’s already closed, but try not to lie on it.”
Rorschach grunted, rolling the mask back down and tucking it under his collar. “Minor laceration, as I said.”
“Better safe than sorry,” Dan said. He pressed his fingertips together, trying to push the odd tingle out of them. “I’ll wake you up in an hour or so.”
“Probably won’t sleep.”
Dan offered up a shrug and a carefully steady smile, and went upstairs to fix a cup of coffee. A single glass sat next to the sink, water clinging to the inside. Back when Rorschach first started raiding his kitchen and he hadn’t found any used cereal bowls in the sink, he didn’t bother to buy extra milk, thinking Rorschach didn’t bother with it. Then, forever running out of it, he finally figured out that Rorschach ate the cereal straight out of the box and drank a glass of milk with it.
Sometimes, he thought about how many of his quirks Rorschach had learned over the years. Most of the time he was sure Rorschach just didn’t bother to pay attention, but then something like this would crop up. Rorschach would mention some small thing in passing, some private, pointless piece of Dreiberg trivia, and Dan would wonder if the goggles helped him see things as clearly as he thought he did.
Keeping his footsteps light, Dan returned to the basement, coffee mug in hand. Flicking off the large overhead lights in favour of the smaller, focused lamps over his workspace, he settled in for a long morning.
Five minutes later, Rorschach began to snore.
For every person that hates the masks, there’s one that loves them still, or so say the profit margins on Veidt’s line of neatly packaged plastic lies. The new world’s fascination with them outweighs the lingering fear, and now more than ever there are those spending their days digging up all the tiniest bits and pieces of the men and women who dared take up the law in one hand and a mask in the other.
The fanatics are never hard to find, asking the questions they do, poking their noses where they shouldn’t, but finding the last of Rorschach is.
“Rorschach! Rorschach, stop!”
The man’s face was pulp by the time Dan reached them. Dead. The woman too, her neck broken by the fall, her body half-buried in a filthy grey snowbank. Rorschach let go of the man’s hair, letting the body fall to the alley floor with the rest of the trash.
“Jesus Christ, Rorschach,” Dan breathed. “You didn’t have to kill him, he was coming in without a fight!”
“Addicts,” Rorschach said. “Abusers that abuse the system, push their filthy addictions through their blood onto their children. Better world without them.” He picked up his hat and flicked snow off the rim. “And language, Daniel.”
“We’re not them,” Dan snapped. “We don’t kill.” He jabbed a furious finger in Archie’s direction. “And we need to leave, now.”
For the first time since they began working together, Dan hung back, waiting for Rorschach to scale the knotted rope slung from the apartment’s roof not because he was watching his partner’s back, but because he wasn’t sure Rorschach would be at his. Blood, the blood of a dead man, spattered stark and cruel beside the solid black lines shifting through the white on Rorschach’s face.
“We don’t kill, Rorschach,” he said, needing the words, bricking them up like a wall between him and what he’d witnessed. “Not unless we have to. Not like that.”
Calmly, flexing his fingers in bloodied gloves, Rorschach said, “Have to. No one else will.”
Without thinking, Dan grabbed his shoulder, spun him around and stared down in shock at the tight clench of his own fist seconds away from slamming into his partner’s jaw.
Rorschach stood quietly looking up at him, not placid, just watching, waiting for the choice to be made. Dan had been the one to start this partnership; Dan would be the one to end it.
“No,” Dan said, unclenching his fist but not releasing his hold. Life took its toll on everyone. There was a price to pay for doing what they did. He wouldn’t make Rorschach pay it alone. “No. We’re protectors, not executioners.”
“We are what we’re compelled to be.” Rorschach lifted a hand, rapped his knuckles against the heavy armour covering Dan’s chest. “Soft, Daniel. Too soft.”
It’s a house of cards propped up by matchsticks, Adrian’s peace and this ramshackle building both. The air’s thick with dust and heavy with the stench of stagnant water, human filth and rot. The stairs wobble beneath his feet and it feels as if the long wait is over, that the whole world is finally ready drop out from under him.
But the steps hold and he goes on. If there’s anything of Rorschach left, it’ll be here, in this shadowed place that reeks like the grave.
“Back again,” Rorschach grated.
“I thought I heard something down here,” Dan said, hiking his pyjamas up higher on his hips. “Did the grappler seize up again? I told you not to bash people over the head with it, it’s not made for that.”
“No.” Rorschach smoothed a hand over Archie’s hull, his head tilted up as if looking it straight in the eyes. “Thought you’d come out tonight.”
Dan crossed his arms to ward off the chill of the underground. “You shouldn’t be. They’re looking for you now, after that stunt you pulled.”
“Not a stunt. Furniss was scum.”
“What do you want, Rorschach?”
Metal clanged at Rorschach rapped a knuckle against the ship and turned to face him. “Looking for me. Need a place to stay.”
Dan snorted. “You’ve got other places.”
The stark black stain on Rorschach’s mask shifted. It could’ve said everything as it changed from one pattern to the next, or nothing at all. Dan couldn’t tell anymore. “Used to.”
Scrubbing a hand through his hair, Dan shoved away from the wall. “Hide out here as long as you want. I’m going back to bed.” In the three months since the Act’s passing, he hadn’t managed a full night’s sleep once. Most of the time, that wasn’t Rorschach’s fault.
He paused with his hand on the light switch.
“Used to have a partner.”
It would be so easy to say the hell with it all. They’d operated outside the law for so long, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to go headfirst and headstrong against it. But things had already gotten worse. This was supposed to make them better. “Times they are a-changin’, buddy.”
“No. Not yet. Not without us.”
“Without me,” Dan said, and flicked off the light.
He didn’t bother going back to bed, knowing sleep wouldn’t come now. He sat in the middle of the stairs instead, a useless, worthless waste, until the light of a false dawn sent Rorschach back out through the tunnels, the echo of his footsteps lingering long after he’d gone.
Things weren’t getting better, and Rorschach was getting worse.
It takes him an hour to find it. The leather is mouldy, the binding cracked, and rats have made a desperate meal of the edges. Most of it is illegible, the handwriting a cramped, tiny scrawl, the cheap ink the words are written in faded and blurred, leaching into the fibres of the pages like blood in the snow.
It doesn’t matter. Whatever is left of them, now these words are his.
Rorschach’s Journal, March 23rd, 1965
Met an owl tonight.