For eleven years Walter Kovacs has patrolled the streets of New York City as Rorschach. He has looked into every shadow, into the blackest parts of the human soul. He has taken men twice his size apart with his bare hands. He fears nothing.
At this moment, he is terrified.
Daniel is sitting on the floor of the Nest, his suit covered in blood and grime. Walter isn't sure how much, if any, of the blood is his. Daniel won't tell him. Daniel won't say anything.
His expression is completely blank, and that is the terrifying part. Daniel has the most expressive face he's ever seen. He's an open book, every thought, every feeling written clearly on his handsome features.
Now there is nothing there.
Walter can't see anything in his eyes, even when he yanks off his goggles. Daniel doesn't flinch. He doesn't blink. There's no sorrow in his eyes, no anger, nothing. Nothing but emptiness.
"Daniel?" His voice is high and panicky, bordering on shrill, "Daniel, what happened?"
He needs something to do, and the thought that Daniel might be hurt is nagging at him. His hands go to work on the fasteners of the Nite Owl costume, finding the hidden hooks and snaps that he has covertly watched his partner undo so many times over the years. He's had sick, guilty fantasies about doing this. Now that he's actually doing it, desire is the furthest thing from his mind.
It's like undressing one of the dummies he uses in the shop. Daniel doesn't fight him, doesn't help, doesn't do anything. Walter runs frantic eyes over every inch of skin he reveals, searching for any sign of injury. He sees bruises, scrapes, half-healed scars, all leftovers from previous fights. Finally he has Daniel stripped down to his boxers and t-shirt, and all he's learned is that whatever happened tonight, Daniel's body was unscathed.
He reeks to high heaven, anger, sweat and adrenaline mingling into something dark. Walter crouches in front of him and tries to catch his gaze. He's three inches away, but he still doesn't think Daniel can see him. "Daniel. Tell me what happened. The little girl..."
"She's dead," Daniel says, his voice utterly flat.
He waits, but Daniel says nothing more. His scarred heart cracks open in a new place for the child. Death is nothing new to them; they see it every night. They sometimes bring it themselves, although never deliberately. But a child... It isn't right.
There's something Daniel isn't telling him. There's a lot Daniel isn't telling him, and Walter has never liked being left in the dark, but that's not important right now. Whatever it is, it's bad, and it's tearing Dan apart.
Comfort is not Walter's strong suit. He's never offered it to anyone before, has never had anyone to offer it to. To him the best way to exorcise pain is to inflict it on someone else. From the look of the Nite Owl uniform, Daniel has already tried that.
Think like Daniel then. "Come on," he orders, rising to his feet and reaching down to pull Daniel up. There's blood on Daniel's face where his mask didn't cover, and it looks wrong. Daniel should be unsullied, clean, pure.
He puts his hand on his partner's shoulder and guides him upstairs to the bathroom, sitting him down on the closed toilet lid and retrieving a washcloth. He keeps jerking his head to look at Daniel, afraid that if he lets him out of his sight for more than an instant, he'll disappear, fade away into the eerie silence that envelops him. He runs the cloth under warm water and moves to kneel in front of his partner, gently wiping away the dried blood on his skin. It rubs and smears, looking almost like a butterfly for a second until he wipes it fully away.
He caresses Daniel's face under the guise of washing it, and for once the voices in his head are silent, not protesting the closeness. This isn't perverted, isn't wrong. This is about care and comfort. This is something he used to dream his mother would do for him after another fight at school. She never did.
"Look at me," he demands softly, and Daniel's gaze flickers over his mask before sliding away again. He doesn't hesitate, doesn't think about it at all; his hands go to the edges of his mask and he yanks it off, revealing his face to his partner for the first time. Rorschach can't reach out; he is incapable of thinking of anything but justice and retribution for the girl's death. Walter cannot believe in that absolute. At this moment, it's not the girl who matters. That poor little girl is beyond them now. There's nothing they can do for her. It is Daniel who is in danger of slipping away, and it is Walter who will do anything to keep that from happening.
"Daniel. Look at me," he's almost begging, his voice pitched low to keep it from cracking.
Daniel glances at him again, and there's something approaching vague interest in his eyes for just a second before that too fades. "It's me," he tries to capture his attention, anything to distract him from whatever he's seeing in his head, "It's Rorschach- Walter. My name's Walter. I'm here, Daniel. I'll help. We're partners."
At that, Daniel makes a choked, broken noise, and it takes him a moment to realize that it was supposed to be a laugh. "He. fed. her. to. his. dogs."
The words come one at a time, hitting like acid. Walter feels sick, and in his head, Rorschach is roaring and pacing, wanting nothing more than to tear the world apart and make them pay- make them all pay.
He can't save the world. There's no saving a world where something like this can happen. He's not sure he can save Daniel either, but he knows he has to try. Taking Dan by the elbow, he leads him to his bedroom, turning on every light in the room, trying to banish every last shadow. He's been in this room before, sneaking in on rare occasions he knew Dan was away from the house. He likes the friendly clutter: owl prints on the wall, a handful of books on the bedside table, a cardigan draped over a chair, a jumble of metal and wires on the dresser. It's like being surrounded by Daniel. He hopes these familiar things will help, but his partner takes no notice of them.
Daniel stands where he left him, staring into space, and he doesn't ask what he's doing as Walter starts removing layers of his own costume. He takes off everything except his boxers and wifebeater, leaving his clothes in a ragged pile on Daniel's floor. He thinks he read somewhere that skin to skin contact is good for shock, and he doesn't know if that's what's happening here, but it can't possibly hurt. He sits down on the bed, leaning against the headboard, and pulls Daniel down with him until the other man is resting against him, his back pressed against Walter's chest.
He wraps Daniel in the blankets like a child and puts his arms around him, his hands resting flat against his stomach. His normal aversion to physical contact is gone, dismissed as unimportant. None of that matters now. Daniel needs to be protected and cosseted. He presses the side of his face against his partner's, closing his eyes and rocking him a little, humming something tuneless. Daniel often plays music in the Nest, but right now he can't seem to remember any of those songs, only a mostly-forgotten lullaby, but it's better than nothing.
Walter wishes he was smarter. A smarter man would know what to do in this situation. A smarter man would know the right words to say to pull Daniel out of his stupor. Daniel deserves that man, but what he's getting is Walter Kovacs. Stupid Walter who doesn't know what to do. Stupid Walter who thought it would be fine to patrol downtown while his partner tracked a little kidnapped girl.
He grinds his teeth, cursing himself. He should've gone with Daniel. Better yet, he should've sent Daniel downtown and gone after the girl himself. Daniel is pure and noble; he believes the world is generally good and that it's their job to stamp out the rogue elements. Daniel should never have had to face something like this. It should have been him, Walter who knows the world is a sordid, ugly place. He has no illusions left to shatter. It should have been him instead.
Dimly he realizes he's whispering in Daniel's ear, pointless apologies coming far too late to do any good. "I'm sorry, Daniel. I should have gone with you. I should have gone instead. I'm sorry."
He curses himself again when he realizes all he's doing is reminding Daniel of what happened. He tries again, vowing, "We're not going to split up again. We're partners. Wherever you go, I go."
It could be his imagination, but he thinks he feels Daniel stir a little at his words. He'll take any encouragement he can get, "Partners, Daniel. I'm not letting you out of my sight. Whatever happens, I'm here."
He wishes he had more to offer his closest- his only- friend. He's relied on Daniel for so many things for so many years- soup at four in the morning, a couch to collapse on, careful hands to tend his wounds. Now it's his turn, and he has nothing to give except himself, worthless as he is. "I'm here. I'm here. You're not alone, Daniel. I'm here. I've got you."
When Daniel speaks it's so quiet he has to strain to make out the words. "I killed them."
He represses a shudder, not wanting Daniel to feel and perhaps misinterpret his reaction. "Good," he rasps, not trusting himself to say anything more. He needs a moment to reconcile this. Gentle Daniel has killed. Deliberately killed, from the sound of it. He hates that his friend has been forced to this point. There is one thing he is certain of: whatever Daniel has done, it was necessary.
"They deserved it," he assures him, sure that he is speaking truth, "It's not your fault. You did everything you could. You avenged her."
He wants to promise that it will never happen again, that they will never let it happen to another child, but he knows that's impossible. There are too many helpless children and too few heros to protect them.
He isn't sure if Daniel sleeps, but he knows that he doesn't through that long night. He watches dawn creep around the edges of the curtains and hopes that he'll wake up anyway.
They spend the day like that, pressed together in bed, and any hope Walter had that things would look better in the light of day dies. Daniel doesn't speak, barely moves until sunset bathes the room in blood. Then he stalks out of the room, not looking back.
He follows Daniel warily down to the Nest, wincing as he dresses himself in his Nite Owl costume. It's still covered in blood. Daniel doesn't seem to notice. That night they stop a robbery, and as he ties up the locksmith, he sees Daniel snap another thief's neck in a single, brutal movement. He suggests they go home. Daniel ignores him.
He keeps his promise: Daniel goes nowhere without him. He sticks close on patrol, tries to restrain him when his violence becomes brutality, abandons his job to sleep on the floor of his bedroom and sit with him in the Nest, watching him alter the design of his suit to incorporate more sharp edges, the feather pattern becoming almost scaly. It becomes dangerous to brush against him. Walter does it anyway.
He learns to cook, or at least to heat up, because if he doesn't feed him, he isn't sure it will occur to Daniel to eat. As Daniel's silence continues, he grows more vocal, filling the space between them with meaningless words. He talks about open cases and possible strategies; he reminisces about their past successes, and when all else fails to garner a response, he shares the four good memories he has from childhood. He doesn't talk about the bad ones. Daniel has enough to deal with.
He leaves his mask off because he has seen Daniel at his most vulnerable, and it is only fair that he returns the favor. Daniel never seems to notice. Walter no longer believes in God, because no God would let this happen to an innocent little girl. No God would turn his back on someone as genuinely good as Daniel. He no longer believes, but he prays anyway.
Sometimes Daniel cries out in his sleep, and he climbs into bed with him to put his arms around him, trying to use his physical grip to keep him anchored to this world. He wonders sometimes it if would be kinder to let him go, to stop trying to force him to be Daniel and to let him become the creature of vengeance he is evolving into. He never stops because he can't. He's too selfish to let Daniel go. He tells himself Daniel would do the same thing for him. Deep inside, he suspects Daniel would be kinder. He keeps trying. Sometimes Rorschach complains, but he's getting good at tuning him out.
He pounds on the punching bag in the Nest. Sometimes he sees Blaire Roche's faceless murderer, the man who stole an innocent young girl and in doing so destroyed the only thing in the world that Walter values. Frequently he sees himself. Sometimes, shamefully, he sees Daniel.
"Come back," he pleads as Daniel sleeps restlessly in his arms. "I know you're still there. Come back." His voice breaks but he doesn't allow himself to cry. Daniel never does, and if he can't have that release than neither will Walter.
"I love you," he says once as Daniel sharpens his throwing crescent. He doesn't know what reaction he expects. He doesn't get one at all. He doesn't say it again.
"I'm here," he vows in the middle of the night as he holds Daniel close after another nightmare that his partner will not share. His arms are around Dan's waist, his partner's hands resting on his wrists. He tells himself that Daniel's grip on him tightens at the words, so he says them again, "I'm here."
It's the only promise he makes because it's the only one he can keep. "I'm here."