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Zero at the Bone

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It was bitterly cold tonight, the wind off the river so far below freezing that it made his face hurt even through the mask -- Walter's face. Rorschach turned his collar up and tugged his hat down a little lower and tried not to let the cold touch him. Rorschach's bones did not ache from the cold. His feet and hands hadn't gone numb. And if they had, it meant nothing.

Justice did not get cold and tired. Justice was patient and free from weakness and capable of waiting forever; a few hours by the Hudson River waiting for Mucelli's men to show up for their shipment of heroin were nothing.

Dan "the Squealer" Mucelli was the man pulling the strings behind at least a quarter of the narcotics trade in Manhattan and the Bronx. After a little investigating, Rorschach had determined that Big Figure was pulling his strings; Mucelli's Purple Cross Gang was working for the filthy little man just like half the other scum in the city.*

Big Figure had been a fixture in the city's criminal underworld for over a decade, after he'd taken control of half the drug trade and rackets in the city by murdering three other mafia bosses. The internal war between old guard Sicilian and newer, American-born mafiosos over whether or not to spread from racketeering and bootlegging into drugs and prostitution had been essentially over by then, and Big Figure's rise to power had definitively put a stop to it and made heroin, cocaine, and the sex trade the way of the future.

Getting him off the street and in jail, where his control over the city's vast collection of predators and parasites would at the very least be marginally more difficult, was one of Rorschach's personal goals.

It was good to have goals. The idiotic self-help books he'd caught Daniel reading once or twice were mostly so much wishy-washy feel-good trash designed to encourage complacency, to make people content with their mediocre lives by giving them the illusion that they had the power to change them via "positive thinking," or, worse, a collection of self-hypnosis techniques intended to encourage delusions, but that much was true. Goals gave a man direction, purpose.

From his spot in the shadows beside a pile of shipping containers, Rorschach ought to be totally invisible to anyone who wasn't specifically looking for him. Nite Owl, whose ridiculous fluffy white winter coat might as well have been designed to make blending into the shadows impossible, had been forced to take up a position farther away, on the roof of a warehouse. It meant that there would be a period of at least a minute and a half where Rorschach would have to handle Mucelli's men on his own, while Nite Owl slid down a zipline and crossed the thirty feet of empty space between the warehouse and the dock, but the risk was minimal. Mucelli would not bring more than six to ten men with him, and Rorschach had been prepared to make this collar by himself if necessary, if Nite Owl had been needed elsewhere or hadn't been willing to come.

It was nearly two a.m. before Rorschach heard the sound of car engines approaching, and a battered Chevrolet van pulled up just underneath Nite Owl's hiding place. The vehicle's headlights cast two narrow beams of illumination across the concrete and our over the water, and Rorschach closed his eyes until he heard the engine shut off, guarding his night vision. Nite Owl could always see in the dark, but it was better not to have to rely on someone else's eyes. Nite Owl wouldn't always be there.

Mucelli and his men got out of the van and stood in a tight huddle on the edge of the dock, tucking their hands under their arms and grumbling about the cold. Rorschach counted five in all, including Mucelli. There would be at least two more on the boat, when it got there.

Sounds carried in the cold air; Mucelli and his men exchanged small talk as they waited, about a movie one of them had just seen, about the upcoming election, about a member of the Purple Cross gang who wasn't present, who's wife was apparently cheating on him, about whether or not the supplier they were receiving tonight's shipment from was overcharging them, and whether another source might have higher quality 'merchandise.'

Listening to them disgusted Rorschach -- they treated this as if it were any other job, as if they were waiting here to pick up a shipment of car parts or bolts of fabric or produce, rather than $50,000 worth of un-cut heroin.

Scum. Worse, scum that didn't even have the decency to be ashamed of being scum.

No more than a quarter of an hour later, the steady grumble of a diesel engine echoed across the water, and medium-sized boat with an outboard motor pulled up against the dock. It looked like it had once been a water taxi, or maybe a fishing boat -- there weren't as many fish in the harbor as there had once been, but no one would give one more grimy little fishing boat a second look.

Smart. Hiding in plain sight was often more effective than lurking in the shadows.

Rorschach waited just long enough for Mucelli's men to begin unloading the heroin, to make sure that there was plenty of incriminating evidence to leave next to them when he and Nite Owl dropped them off at the nearest police station.

Then he strode out of the shadows, drawing their attention to himself and giving Nite Owl time to come down from the roof without being shot at -- his white coat was way too much of a target, not that he listened when this was pointed out.

"A hundred and fifty pounds of un-cut heroin," he said flatly, just before stepping into the circle of dim, blue-green light cast by the single mercury-vapor light in the area that was still functioning; he'd smashed the other two in preparation for this ambush. "How many people were you planning on poisoning with it? Put your guns down and turn yourselves in, and you might still be able to walk when the police show up to collect you."

They didn't, of course. Criminals always resisted. Most of them weren't known for being particularly intelligent -- they were like cockroaches, stupid but impossible to get rid of, three more of them scuttling out of cracks and drains and dark corners every time you'd finished squishing one.

Their guns were equipped with silencers, fired with muffled little "phut" sounds instead of loud bangs. A bullet tore through the fabric of his trench coat, missing him completely, and then Rorschach was on them.

The first man's wrist shattered neatly as he grabbed it, twisted, and hit his forearm hard with his other hand. The man's gun fell to the ground, and Rorschach kicked it into the river, knocked the man cold with an uppercut to the jaw as he curled forward over his broken arm, and moved on to the next thug.

Fighting had a rhythm to it. Nite Owl had once compared it to dancing, but Walter had never danced with anyone and Rorschach had no interest in such things, so he had no idea if it was an appropriate metaphor or not. Probably not.

He turned to let a punch slip past him, the streetlight picking out the glint of brass knuckles on the man's fist as it went by, then hit his opponent with a hard body-blow. He doubled over, the air knocked out of him, and Rorschach heard movement behind him just in time to turn and take the jab that had nearly caught him in the right kidney on the side of his ribcage instead.

The man's nose and teeth shattered as Rorschach slammed an elbow into his face, his arm going numb to the wrist for a moment at the impact, and he went down choking on his own blood.

The Purple Cross gangsters were clustered so tightly around him that that they were getting in one another's way. If they were able to get him down on the ground, where they could kick or stomp, they would have him; with this many pairs of feet, one was bound to fracture a skull or burst a kidney. Rorschach shook off the blows that inevitably managed to land, ignored pain, and refused to go down.

He could tell when Nite Owl entered the fight because the rhythm changed, the tight cluster of men around him spreading out, dropping by half. It made it easier to move, to throw punches, to use his feet and the rest of his body as well as his hands.

One of Mucelli's men had some experience, training; classic out-fighter style, trying to trade blows from arms length. But adrenaline was flowing now, making everything sharp and clear, and the man's blows were clumsy, clearly telegraphed; even Walter could have taken him.

Hooking his legs out from under him with a foot and then kicking him hard enough to curl him into a pathetic, unmoving ball was almost fun, until Rorschach reminded himself that this was justice, and justice wasn't supposed to be fun.

They were the city's white blood cells, her only defense against the human disease men like these represented, and antibodies didn't feel excitement or anger or exhilaration. They just did their jobs.

Nite Owl relied on size and weight to overwhelm opponents, not speed, which put him at a disadvantage against this many, but he was a solid presence to Rorschach's right. Good backup. He could absorb a lot of punishment, too, though not as much as Rorschach could. Nite Owl was also Daniel, and Daniel was still soft in some ways -- not weak like Walter, but soft.

Hands grabbed for Rorschach's coat -- big mistake -- and he gripped one of the two attackers by the wrist, twisted and pulled, bringing his knee up at the same time. The man crumpled, and his fellow piece of drug-dealing scum threw a hard jab into Rorschach's ribs, and finished the combination up with a roundhouse punch to the side of the head.

He was wearing brass knuckles, Rorschach observed, as a bright flash went off behind his eyes and he felt a rib crack.

There was a moment of vertigo, and then he was on one knee, one hand touching the concrete for balance. Someone shouted -- Nite Owl? -- and there was a loud splash as one or more people hit the water.

Rorschach swayed backward just in time to dodge a kick, grabbing the foot that narrowly missed his head and yanking it. The off-balance Purple Cross gang member hit the pavement flat on his back, and Rorschach forced himself back to his feet, ignoring the sharp pain in his side and the throbbing pain in his head, neither of which was painful enough to be crippling.

All but two of the Purple Cross gangsters were on the ground, including Mucelli, who was conscious, handcuffed to a crate, and swearing viciously as his two remaining men ran full tilt back to the car, one of them limping. The single member of the motorboat's crew who was still upright was dragging a bent-over and heavily limping companion back into the boat. Two of Mucelli's men were missing, and there was no sign of Nite Owl.

The twin impulses to either chase down the fleeing Purple Cross scum or head off the suppliers before they got the boat's engine re-started warred within him for a moment, but Nite Owl's absence was a bigger concern.

They had Mucelli. His men were just petty thugs. Cut the head off a snake and the body will die -- or in this case, flail around ineffectually until a neighboring gang stepped in to take over.

There had been a splash. It was mid-January, the coldest month of the year, and the water in the city's gutters was frozen solid.

The sides of the river were smooth here, concrete seawalls with no purchase to allow a swimmer to climb out; anyone who fell in would need to swim against the current toward the dock, and pull themselves out of the water that way.

There were three bodies in the water -- one man swimming smoothly toward the boat, one splashing around desperately trying to keep his head above water despite a clear inability to use his right arm, and Nite Owl, struggling weakly against the current as his massive winter cloak dragged him down.

Rorschach dropped his hat, scarf, and trench coat by the edge of the wharf -- the coat would only get wet and weigh him down -- and dove in.

The water was so cold that it hurt. Dangerous. The longer he spent here, the colder and weaker he would become, so he swam directly for Nite Owl, ignoring the gang member with the broken arm's pathetic wails for help.

The boat's diesel engine roared to life, muffled by the water in his ears -- drug suppliers getting away -- but there was nothing he could do about that right now.

Nite Owl started violently when Rorschach reached him and grabbed hold of him, but the cold water had sapped his strength too much for his attempt to strike out to do any damage.

His face was wet, water seeping up under it, getting inside sinus cavities and making it difficult to breath. Unimportant. Getting out of the water was the only thing that mattered now. Drowning would not help Nite Owl, and then there would be no one to call the police and tell them where to apprehend Mucelli.

Rorschach held his breath as Nite Owl's weight pulled him under and yet more water flooded under the latex, the brackish liquid burning his eyes. The big, fluffy winter coat was pulling both of them down, water turning it into a dangerous liability.

It was tangled around Nite Owl's arms and legs, wet fabric too heavy to pull free without a coherent Nite Owl to help. Rorschach felt blindly for the other man's belt, where he kept his crescent throwing stars, and yanked one of them free, slicing at the wet coat with it until the fabric parted and fell away.

Between the darkness and the water in his eyes, his vision was thoroughly compromised. He remembered the pier's location and swam for it, Nite Owl flailing uselessly beside him. He was trying to swim, but no longer had the co-ordination to do it properly.

One of Nite Owl's weak attempts at swimming resulted in his hand colliding with Rorschach's ribcage, and he grunted. Rib definitely cracked, he decided.

It was getting difficult to think, as if the cold had seeped into his head as well. Concussion from the thug with the brass knuckles? He shook his head, trying to clear it. Tending injuries could wait until later, when they were safe.

How far away was the pier? Maybe he was swimming in the wrong direction? Drug dealer was still calling for help, but faintly now, the sound coming from somewhere behind him. They were swimming against the current, but still, surely reaching the pier shouldn't be this hard? For Walter, maybe. Walter would be cold and tired and weak, strength sapped by the cold water and dizzy from the blow to the head. Not for Rorschach.

He found the pier by running face first into one of the pilings. Felt around; found the steel rungs set into one of the concrete cylinders to allow climbing. Slapped Nite Owl's hands onto the first rung and growled, "Climb."

Somehow, between the two of them, they got Nite Owl up the ladder and onto the pier, where he lay in a wet, violently shuddering huddle on the concrete. Rorschach stood next to him, ignoring the wind cutting through his wet suit -- it wasn't any colder than the water -- and listened to the irregular splashing sounds of the man still in the water trying to swim. Then he shook himself, hard, wrung as much water as he could out of his suit jacket, and went to fetch his trench coat and hat. They were dry. Nite Owl would need them.

The drug dealer could take his chances with the river. Shouldn't have worked for heroin-peddling scum, if he wanted to live to old age. Maybe he'd be lucky, and still be alive when the police showed up.

Mucelli was still there, still handcuffed to the crate. Several of his underlings were stirring and groaning, but Rorschach doubted they would be going anywhere any time soon. He ignored them.

Nite Owl hadn't moved from his huddle on the pier; when Rorschach returned, bearing hat and coat, he was curled into a loose ball on the ground, the visible part of his face waxy-pale and blue-lipped. Not good.

Getting him up into a sitting position took several tries, each attempt reminding him of the damage to his rib, but once upright, Nite Owl stayed that way, swaying slightly; Rorschach wasn't sure if his eyes were open or not, not with the goggles in the way.

Keeping his body between Nite Owl and Mucelli -- Mucelli mustn't see; it would put Daniel in danger, compromise him -- he pulled Nite Owl's wet, icy-cold cowl back, careful to leave the goggles in place.

It was obscene, stripping away Nite Owl's mask like this, exposing Daniel's face without his consent. Rorschach forced down the guilt that squirmed uneasily in his stomach -- even wet, Daniel's hair curled slightly in an aesthetically pleasing manner, and he knew he was enjoying touching it too much, despite the gloves that kept him from actually feeling it -- and jammed his fedora onto Daniel's head.

Daniel made a faint noise of protest, and Rorschach grabbed his wrist before he could reach up to pull the hat off. "Wear the hat," he said, forcing the words out through teeth that kept chattering despite his attempts to stop shaking, to keep his voice even and his hands steady. "You lose most of your body heat through your head."

He tilted the fedora low over Daniel's forehead, so the hat's brim hid the parts of his face that the giggles didn't cover, and hauled his partner to his feet. The trench coat was too small to fit across Daniel's shoulders, especially in costume, so he shrugged back into it himself. It was probably futile -- a dry coat over wet clothes would do little to keep him warm -- but he wasn't going to leave it here for some piece of scum to steal.

Rorschach shook his head, hard, forcing himself to think despite the exhaustion that made thinking hard, muddy, that kept blurring things into grey smears instead of clear, focused black and white.

Get Nite Owl out of the water: done.
Get wet clothes off: not possible. Not out on the street like this, in front of scum like Mucelli.
Put dry clothes on: not possible, but he had done what he could.
Call police to arrest criminals: not done.

There was a radio in Archie, but Archie was twelve blocks away, hidden on the roof of a warehouse. Nite Own kept a second radio on his belt, but that had been soaked with water like everything else Nite Owl was wearing.

It worked anyway, of course. Nite Owl had designed it, and Nite Owl was nearly as much of a genius as Ozymandias in his own way; his gadgets always worked, even when Rorschach's admittedly limited knowledge of science said they shouldn't. Like the Owl Ship. The Owl Ship should not be able to fly, not without wings or rotor blades, and yet it did. Silly looking and whimsical and full of impractical things, and yet surprisingly efficient; it was a very Nite Owl kind of ship. A very Daniel kind of ship.

The police didn't like him; his presence reminded them of how powerless they were to stop crime in any meaningful way. Too few of them, not enough funding, hamstrung by short-sighted liberal policies designed to favor criminals whom they couldn't even interrogate properly anymore.

The police dispatcher who took his call sounded impatient, displeased. Rorschach told him bluntly that Mucelli was tied up on the docks, along with several accomplices and $50,000 worth of heroin. "Might want to hurry," he added. "Some of them might... might come to before you get there."

"Who is this? Are you injured, sir?"

"Just come," Rorschach growled at the radio; the man's slowness should have disgusted him, but he was too tired for real anger. "Arrest Mucelli."

"Where are you, sir?"

For a moment, Rorschach couldn't remember. The street names mixed themselves up in his head when he tried to answer, and he had to look up and find the closest street sign, just barely readable in the dim, greenish light.

"Stay there," the dispatcher said, apparently under the delusion that Rorschach had the time and inclination to stick around and hold the police's collective hands and walk them through taking suspects into custody. "We'll send someone to get you."

Police notified. Rorschach shut the radio off and turned to Daniel, who stood motionless beside him, his grip on one of the pier pilings the only thing keeping him upright. "Time to go home," he told him.

Mucelli shouted threats at them as they walked past him, his voice echoing slightly in Rorschach's ears, as if it were coming from far away.

"I d-don't think I can fly Archie," Daniel said, the words indistinct. He stumbled, and Rorschach grabbed him by the arm to prevent him from falling.

"Sorry," Daniel added. "Feet won't... sorry."

He swayed, knees buckling, and Rorschach steeled himself, then transferred his grip to Daniel's wrist and ducked under his arm, sliding his free arm around his partner's waist.

It felt like an embrace. Too close. Wrong. Daniel was heavy, bigger than he was, and the strain of holding him upright sent a stabbing pain through his side. Rorschach seized gratefully on the discomfort, letting it distract him from the claustrophobic feeling of Daniel's body draped over his.

Pain was good. Holding Daniel wasn't supposed to be nice, to feel good.

If they could just get back to the Owlship, he knew, everything would be fine. They could go back to Daniel's house, the one he shouldn't have let Rorschach know the location of, and then he could get warm. Then Daniel could get warm. Everything would be fine then.

Walking back to Archie took a very long time.

When they reached the warehouse Nite Owl had used as a landing platform, Rorschach staggered to a stop and started up at the building blankly for a moment, trying to remember what came next.

Had to get up to the roof, he decided.

Firing the grappling gun took three tries, his fingers thick and clumsy and still shaking, the fine tremors from before worse now, more severe. He had to shake Daniel and say his name several times before Daniel finally responded, mumbling Rorschach's name and asking how much farther they had to walk. He wrapped his arms around Rorschach's waist, over the trench coat, when Rorschach told him to, and held on as the grapping line retracted and hauled both of them upward.

Getting onto the roof was even more difficult than climbing out of the water had been, and when it was over, they both lay on the icy roofing tar for a while. Rorschach closed his eyes, feeling the roof tilt and rock gently under him. His head hurt, and he took slow, deep breaths until the urge to vomit went away. Bad idea to be sick with his face on. He could aspirate vomit and choke.

Getting back to his feet made his ears ring, and the edges of his vision blurred for a moment. Stupid. Weak. Lying down had been a mistake.

He got Nite Owl into the Owlship, somehow, and into the copilot seat. Then he sat down in the pilot seat and tried to blink the control panel into focus. Pushing the right sequence of buttons to start the engine and power the ship up took all his concentration, like trying to set a line of stitches by hand, in the dark.

There were cuts in the fingers of his gloves, long slices through leather and into flesh. They were painless, not bleeding, and so he dismissed them. They wouldn't interfere with flying the Owlship.

The ship lifted off from the rooftop with a violent lurch, tilting back and forth sickeningly.

Daniel stirred, groaning, then stiffened in alarm as Rorschach turned the ship around, heeling it over nearly forty degrees in the process. "What are you doing to my ship?"

Rorschach didn't dignify that with an answer.

They scraped the side of a building getting up above rooftop level, then nearly hit the building on the opposite side of the street as Rorschach over-corrected.

"Going to die," Daniel mumbled, his voice slurred. He patted the control panel clumsily. "Sorry, Archie." He sounded calm, almost dreamy, as if their impending crash were a point of little concern.

"You're not helping, Daniel," Rorschach muttered. The view outside the windshield kept blurring out of focus, and holding the controls steady wasn't possible -- his hands were clumsy, numb, and the ship kept drifting off course, forcing him to correct, then correct for over-correcting, then correct again as they started to drift the other way.

Maybe they should have stayed on the roof, stripped off their wet clothes and huddled together to share body heat.

No. He shook his head, hard, forcing exhaustion away. That would have been wrong, would have been taking advantage of Daniel -- taking his clothes off, looking at him, touching him in ways that were too close to perversion.

And Walter was weaker than Rorschach. He would definitely be colder as Walter, his exhaustion greater, his body less able to resist the filthy thoughts that being naked and touching naked Daniel would bring.

No. They had to get back to the Owl's Nest. There were blankets there. Heat. Dry clothing.

The Owlship hit the water hard, then collided with the side of the tunnel that led down into the Owl's Nest with crunching noises that rebounded off the walls. This time, Daniel did not say anything, which Rorschach found extremely worrying.

He was destroying Daniel's Owlship. Daniel ought to be objecting strenuously.

He couldn't remember how to land, so he simply cut the power and let the ship fall the last three feet onto the launching platform, where it landed in a crash of splintering wood. The impact jarred the entire ship, sending a stab of pain through his side and making his teeth ache; Daniel didn't even twitch, limp and motionless in the copilot seat.

He couldn't get Daniel's seat harness to unbuckle, so he borrowed another throwing crescent from his belt and sliced through the straps. Rorschach tried to pull him upright, out of the seat, but Daniel was heavy and boneless, too heavy, and he couldn't do it. Carrying him out of the ship would be impossible unless he regained consciousness.

Rorschach slapped him, open-handed, knocking the fedora off and leaving a smear of blood across one cold, damp cheek. It sat there on Daniel's pale skin like an accusation.

(Not strong enough, too small, too slow, left him in the river too long, didn't bring him back quickly enough, smearing and staining Daniel with filth...)

He hit him again, hard enough to make Daniel's head jerk to the side, and Daniel moaned faintly in protest. Good. Not completely unconscious.

"Wake up," he ordered. "I can't carry you."

Daniel never listened to Rorschach at the best of times -- not about getting better locks on his doors, not about keeping his identity a closer secret, not about how insidiously manipulative and misinformed the liberal trash he read was, and not about how dangerous the city's steady decline was -- so it was surprising that he listened now.

"Tired," he slurred. "Don' hit me again."

"You have to get up, Daniel," Rorschach told him. He gave Daniel's shoulders a little shake, hard enough to get his attention, then released him and stepped back. "Brought you back home," he said. "Now you have to get warm again, or you'll die."

Daniel pulled his goggles off, revealing blank, unfocussed brown eyes, and snuggled a little deeper into his chair. "M'not cold," he sighed. Then he closed his eyes again.

No. Daniel was not allowed to do this. Not after Rorschach had gone to so much trouble to get him out of the river and bring him back here.

Rorschach grabbed him by the hair and jerked his head upright again. "Get up," he snarled, rage momentarily making him warm again, "or I will get a new partner who does not give up and take the easy way out. If you won't help yourself, I will leave you here."

Daniel blinked at him, a strange expression on his face that Rorschach couldn't identify. "You-" he started. Then he shook his head, the motion loose, uncoordinated. "You wouldn't. You don' like anyone else."

What did liking people have to do with anything? "You- You're weak," Rorschach accused, the shivering that hadn't stopped making him stammer. "Soft. A liability."

"No," Daniel said, but he was trying to get up now, which was the only thing that mattered. Rorschach dragged one of Daniel's arms over his shoulders -- it didn't feel as bad this time, and he had to fight the impulse to pull away, reminding himself that this was to save Daniel's life -- and the two of them stumbled out of the Owlship together, nearly colliding with the door.

Rorschach tripped on the Owlship's ramp, his feet strangely clumsy, and both of them went down hard. He didn't know how they got from the Owlship's ramp, sprawled on the cold metal with Daniel's heavy weight on top of him -- he should have felt trapped, pinned, but Daniel was safe, Daniel would never want anything wrong, or want to hurt him; the only dangerous thing here was Rorschach himself -- to the other side of the room, with Daniel sprawled limply on the cot that they both knew he had put down here for Rorschach, and that Rorschach had deliberately never used. Daniel must have gotten back up and walked, though, because there was no way Rorschach could have gotten both of them across the room by himself.

They were back in Daniel's basement, which was, if not completely safe, at least safer than the street, and exhaustion was making his fingers clumsy, making it hard to think, but sleeping would be weak, dangerous. If he lay down on the floor next to Daniel's cot and fell asleep, Daniel wouldn't get properly warmed up, might die.

He had to get his wet clothes off, had to get one of the blankets Daniel kept stored in the cabinet against the wall, with the first aid kit, had to get him something hot to drink, something with lots of sugar in it.

The fastenings on Nite Owl's costume were hidden; a buckle concealed inside the crescent moon on his belt, zippers tucked into seams where they would be less visible, clasps hidden under the drape of his cape. It was well made, even if it could have been both more practical -- after Dollar Bill's death, the risks of wearing a cape should have been obvious -- and more intimidating. Did Nite Owl make it himself? An ordinary household sewing machine wouldn't be able to handle the stiff leather in the mask.

Rorschach pulled the top half of Daniel's costume off as quickly as his numb hands would let him, doing his best not to look.

Wet leather peeled away from Daniel's skin with a reluctant sucking sound, as if the costume didn't want to be parted from him. It was an infringement, overly familiar, but better here than back at the docks, in front of Mucelli and his men. Mucelli would have watched, maybe enjoyed it, maybe seen enough to be able to identify him.

Beneath the costume, Daniel was pale, bloodless. His lips were blue. He stirred a little was Rorschach reached for his belt, trying to bat his hands away, or maybe to help, but he wasn't aware enough to be capable of either.

He wore underwear beneath the costume. Rorschach was relieved, did not move to pull it off. It didn't cover enough of Daniel for the wet cotton to keep him from warming up; just enough to let Daniel keep some privacy.

Not much. Wet, white cotton was virtually transparent. It was why women liked to wear undergarments made from it, he suspected. Because it looked modest, but was actually anything but.

Sickened at the part of himself that was curious about what that underwear was almost covering -- Walter wasn't just weak, he was sick, deviant, harboring filth deep inside him that he'd inherited from her, ignoring it and not acting on it never quite enough to make it go away, to make him clean -- Rorschach forced himself to his feet and went to find the first aid kit and blankets.

He knocked half the contents of Daniel's cabinet onto the floor getting them down, didn't stop to pick it up. Didn't have time.

Daniel had curled up on his side, his eyes closed. When Rorschach threw both blankets over him, he gripped them tightly and pulled them around himself, burrowing into the fabric.

That was good, Rorschach decided. Daniel knew he had to get warm, knew the blankets would help.

Good.

He was going to sit down now.

There was a needle and thread in the first aid kit, and iodine. Bandages. He should see to his hands, make certain the filth and poisons from the river didn't make the cuts on his fingers fester.

The city's poison, inside him. He was no different than the scum they fought; he just knew what he was, had the self-knowledge to hide it, fight it. Destroy it.

Truly good people, like Daniel, didn't really understand how vile the city was beneath the surface. They couldn't. Did it make them blind, or make them cleaner, that they didn't know?

Daniel's wet clothes were off. He had blankets. What came next?

Hot liquids, with sugar in them, to give his body the energy to warm itself up.

The stairs up to Daniel's house were on the other side of the basement, very steep. Rorschach considered his chances of successfully climbing them, making coffee in Daniel's kitchen, and bringing the coffee back down to the basement where Daniel was without spilling it all over the place.

His chances, he decided, were not good.

Better to stay here. It was barely cold at all anymore, now that he was inside.

Daniel needed sugar, though. Energy.

There had been sugar cubes in the pocket of his trenchcoat, palmed from Daniel's sugar bowl much earlier this evening, but those would have dissolved away in the river. He reached into his left pocket anyway, just in case, and remembered just as his fingers touched something that they were still too frozen to identify by feel that he had taken his coat off before diving into the water.

Four sugar cubes, all of them still wrapped wastefully in little individual squares of plastic, all of them undissolved.

The plastic folded around them didn't want to come off. It kept slipping through his fingers, and there ought to have been a metaphor there, about touching things and futility, but he couldn't think of it.

His fingers were bleeding again, bright red smears on clear plastic. The cuts must have opened when he'd taken his gloves off.

Rorschach pulled up the bottom edge of his mask and stuck the first sugar cube in his own mouth, sucking on it to let it dissolve slowly instead of chewing it. First aid manuals always told you to take care of yourself first, and he'd been in the water, too, if for a much shorter time. The sweetness cut through the leftover taste of river water in his mouth, erasing the lingering film of salt and less pleasant things.

Daniel didn't stir when Rorschach spoke to him. He was shuddering violently, his eyes closed and the blankets clutched tightly around him.

Rorschach said his name again, then tapped the side of his face, not hard this time.

Daniel's eyes were dark, unfocussed. "Freezing," he mumbled. And then, "Rorschach?"

"Eat," Rorschach said, and pried his fingers loose from the blankets, pressing the second sugar cube into them.

It fell from Daniel's nerveless, shaking fingers, and Rorschach barely managed to catch it.

"Sorry. I- I can't'"

Rorschach closed his eyes for a second, reminding himself that he wanted Daniel to get warm, wanted Daniel to get better, be safe, not die. This was only because of that, because Daniel needed medical treatment, and this was the best he could do right now.

"Open your mouth," he ordered, and when Daniel obediently did so, he stuck the sugar cube in, the heat of Daniel's breath almost burning his fingers.

Rorschach resisted the impulse to rub his fingers against his coat, to scrub the feeling off; it would be useless, anyway. The burning was only his imagination. He made Daniel eat the other two sugar cubes, and then, having done everything he could, he curled up on the floor -- Daniel was on the cot, and he ought to stay close to him, just in case -- and closed his eyes, finally giving in to Walter's need to rest.

***


Cold. Dan was so cold that he hurt, his hands and feet somewhere between numb and burning. All his muscles ached, stiff and knotted from the shaking he couldn't seem to stop.

The blankets weren't enough, but if he moved he would be even colder, so he curled himself into a ball and shook, the over-sweet taste of sugar in his mouth. He'd been in the water, he remembered. Then they had walked a very long way, and Rorschach had threatened to leave him in Archie.

Opening his eyes took effort -- the cold and the shaking seemed to have leached all the energy out of him -- and he was confronted with the sight of Archie resting crookedly atop the shattered remain of his landing platform. He probably ought to be upset by that, but all he could muster was a sort of vague exhaustion at the thought of how much work it was going to take to fix it.

He ought to get up, go upstairs, get himself something hot to drink or, even better, take a hot shower. Something to drive the cold out of his bones. The basement was cool and damp even in the summer; in the winter, it was like being inside a refrigerator.

He wasn't wearing his costume anymore, he realized. Rorschach must have stripped it off him, gotten him the blankets. Why hadn't he just taken Dan upstairs, where the heat was?

Rorschach. Where had Rorschach gone, anyway? They'd been after Mucelli -- had he gotten away? Had Rorschach brought him back here and left him behind with a couple of blankets to recover while he went after Mucelli alone? It would be like him. Rorschach had no patience with his own injuries, so it wasn't surprising that he'd see finishing the job as more important than sticking around to tend other people's.

He wasn't going to get any warmer sitting here. Upstairs, he reminded himself. It will be warmer upstairs.

He sat up, clutching the blankets around himself, and it was a long moment before the heap of wet clothes on the floor beside the cot resolved itself into a human figure.

Rorschach hadn't left, he realized, feeling bizarrely warmed by this piece of information. And then, with mild alarm: Rorschach wasn't moving.

That was probably not good.

"Ror-" his voice came out as a strangle croak, and he coughed and tried again. "Rorschach? Are you okay?"

Nothing. Seriously worried now, Dan reluctantly let go of the blankets and thrust one arm out into the cold air, shoving at Rorschach's shoulder.

Bare fingers snapped around his wrist, gripping hard enough that he could feel his bones grinding. "Fine," Rorschach's voice growled. "No need to take liberties." The black and white splotches that made up his 'face' were still, the cold holding the ink in place. Then the crushing grip on Dan's wrist relaxed. "Daniel," Rorschach said. "You're awake." He released Daniel's wrist as abruptly as he had grabbed it and added, in a low tone, "Your costume was wet, cold. I had to -- it had to come off." He nodded at Dan's face. "Your mask, too. My apologies. I should have left it on."

Dan stared at him. His hands weren't completely bare, he saw now. Rorschach had wrapped his wrists, under the gloves, the bandaging covering his wrists and forearms and the lower half of his palms, leaving his fingers exposed. Like a boxer. His bare fingers were dead white with cold, and there were several long, thin cuts across the fingers of his right hand, diluted patches of blood slowly soaking into the gauze beneath them. It was wet, of course, like everything Rorschach was wearing.

"Your owl ship is... slightly damaged." Rorschach ventured, his growl sounding oddly tentative.

"Why are you still sitting on the floor in wet clothes?" Daniel blurted out, finally. "Rorschach, don't you know how incredibly stupid that is?" He winced, inwardly, as soon as the words were out of his mouth. It was never a good idea to insult Rorschach, and particularly not right now, when Rorschach had very probably saved his life; going by the wet clothes, he had been the one who'd pulled Dan out of the river.

"...tired." Rorschach admitted, after a very long silence, as if it pained him to reveal that much weakness. "Someone had to stay here, watch you in case you became worse."

Tired about described it, Dan thought. He wanted nothing so much as to curl back up in his nest of blankets and go to sleep, but if he did that, Rorschach would probably resume his nap on the floor again. Or, worse, decide to leave and try to walk back to wherever he made his home when he wasn't beating up criminals, still sopping wet, the better to freeze to death on the way.

"We should go upstairs," Dan said. "It's warmer there. I can lend you some dry clothes."

"I'm-"

"You are not 'fine like that,'" Dan interrupted, before Rorschach could finish his inevitable refusal. "And anyway," he admitted honestly, "I'm not sure I can make it upstairs on my own, and I need dry clothes. And a hot shower. I don't even want to think about what kind of chemical soup I've got all over me after going swimming in that river."

"General Electric dumps industrial waste into the Hudson river. It's in the water, in the fish, slowly building up. One day this city will choke to death on its own poison."

"That's great, Rorschach. You can take a shower, too." Dan clumsily disentangled himself from the blankets and stood, keeping one of them around his shoulders for warmth's sake.

He'd been fine sitting down, exhausted and frozen, but fine, but once vertical, all the blood seemed to go rushing out of his head.

Everything grayed out for a moments, and when the fog cleared from his vision, he had one arm draped over Rorschach's shoulders, the shorter man holding him upright.

"...shouldn't have stood up. Daniel?"

"Upstairs," he mumbled. "We need to be upstairs."

He leaned on Rorschach for part of the walk up the steps, until he realized that Rorschach's body tensed when he did, trembling with strain -- or, no, probably cold. He had to be just as frozen as Dan was. After that, Dan did his best to walk on his own.

The warmer air upstairs enfolded them welcomingly, but didn't touch the chill in Dan's bones. His eyes burned, and kept sliding closed every time he stopped paying attention to the task of keeping them open. He was going to crash again, he knew, probably soon.

Shower, he thought. Then coffee or tea, something hot.

He realized, then, that he and Rorschach had been standing motionless at the top of the stairs for several minutes, both of them swaying slightly.

Coffee or tea first. If Dan tried to take a shower right now, he would probably pass out and crack his head open, and if he were going to catch cholera or cancer or something from the Hudson River water that was still dripping from his hair, he'd probably done so already.

"Kitchen," he said. "We should make coffee." And Rorschach needed to take his soaking wet costume off.

"I have clothes you can borrow," Dan said, a minute or so later, as he sagged into one of the kitchen chairs, clutching the blanket around himself and watching Rorschach set a painful of water on the stove. Rorschach knew where everything in his kitchen was, didn't need to ask as he pulled a tea canister out of the left-hand cabinet over the stove and two mugs out of the cabinet above the sink.

Rorschach knew where Daniel kept his coffee mugs, and he didn't even know where Rorschach lived. What his real name was. He'd asked, once -- only once -- and Rorschach had told him that the only name that mattered was the one that made them afraid of you.

The kitchen was much warmer than the basement, especially with the radiator turned up to its highest level and the stove on. Dan put his head down on his folded arms, intending to close his eyes just for a moment.

A tentative touch on his shoulder woke him, and he opened his eyes to find Rorschach thrusting a mug of tea at his face. Dan sat up with an effort and took it, blinking his eyes back into focus as he drank.

It was too weak, loaded with so much sugar that the sweetness was mildly sickening, but he imagined that he could almost feel the heat spreading through him.

Rorschach's wet, filthy trenchcoat and suit jacket were folded neatly over the back on one of the kitchen chairs. His scarf, vest, and white shirt -- also folded -- were sitting in an equally neat stack on the corner of Dan's formerly clean kitchen table.

He looked small, in just his pinstriped trouser and a grimy undershirt. His arms were corded with hard, cleanly-defined muscle, the white bandaging that stretched halfway up his forearms only empathized it, but it was lean muscle, and his bare shoulders were bony. They were also covered in freckles. A lot of freckles.

He'd never imagined Rorschach with freckles. He'd never imagined him wet, bloody, and shaking, either.

The two of them drank over-sweetened tea together in silence, while Dan considered and rejected the idea of ordering Rorschach to remove the rest of his wet clothes. Considering that he'd never seen a square inch of Rorschach's bare skin other than the lower half of his face in all the three years they'd been working together, bare arms were probably his partner's equivalent of near-total nudity.

It made sense, to an extant -- no one, not even Dan, would be able to identify Rorschach if they met him on the street, out of costume -- but he suspected that there was more to it than that.

Dan drained the last of his tea, then simply held the still-warm mug in his hands for a moment, enjoying the warmth. His body had finally stopped shivering, leaving all his muscles tense from the effort of fighting against the shaking, and keeping his eyes from sliding closed took effort. He shook his head, hard, to try and jolt himself awake, and forced himself to his feet.

There was a moment of dizziness when he finally got himself upright, but he grabbed for the back of his chair and rode it out. He could sleep in a few minutes, he promised himself. Once he fixed Rorschach's fingers.

The main first aid kit, the one with the needles and the sutures and the antibiotics and painkillers, was in the basement, but Dan kept hydrogen peroxide and iodine in the kitchen, and small bandages, just in case he cut himself while cooking, and because normal people kept their first aid supplies in the kitchen or the bathroom, not the basement.

Hopefully, Rorschach's fingers wouldn't need stitches. He didn't trust himself to make it down the basement steps safely, and he didn't trust either of them to hold a needle right how. The almost painful frozen numbness in his fingers was wearing off -- they burned now, instead, which hurt but probably meant that he didn't have frostbite -- but his hands were still clumsy as he pulled the medicine bottles and the box of bandages out of the cabinet and carried them back to the table.

He expected Rorschach to object, had an entire speech ready about infection and filthy river water and common sense, but Rorschach had already laid his hand palm-up on the table, silently giving Dan permission to treat it.

The cuts were long and thin, mostly along the insides of his fingers, as if he'd wrapped his hand around something sharp. One of the Purple Cross Gang's knives?

They had had knives, and black-jacks, and brass knuckles.

The image of a gangster smashing a weighted fist into Rorschach's face flashed behind his eyes for a moment, and Rorschach going down, the greenish mercury-vapor light turning the whole scene into a ghoulish pantomime.

He'd turned to look when he'd heard Rorschach's choked-off grunt of pain, and one of the gangsters had thrown himself at Dan in an over-enthusiastic tackle that had sent them both into the water.

Rorschach went stiff when Dan grabbed his wrist to stabilize his hand, and didn't relax until the task was done and Dan had taped the last bandage into place and was no longer touching him.

It took longer than it should have to clean out the knife slices, and he'd spilled half the hydrogen peroxide on the table in the process. Rorschach had stayed silent the whole time, save for a hiss of indrawn breath when Dan swabbed the iodine on. If he grimaced in pain, the mask hid most of it.

His skin had been cold against Dan's, but his lips, the only part of his face visible, weren't blue any longer.

Dan pushed the collection of first aid supplies away and dropped his head down onto his folded arms again, so exhausted he felt dizzy.

Rorschach poked him in the shoulder, then poked him again when Dan didn't move. "You can't sleep here, Daniel."

"Yes, I can," Dan mumbled.

Rorschach said nothing, but Daniel could feel the other man's stare boring into him.

Getting to his feet was only possible because Rorschach offered him a shoulder to lean on -- there was some reason why he shouldn't lean too heavily, he remembered, but he couldn't think what. "Extra blankets are in the hall closet," he said, as Rorschach steered him down the hall toward his bedroom.

Of course Rorschach knew where his bedroom was. Rorschach knew where everything in the house was.

Most people would probably never sleep again, if they knew that Rorschach knew where they slept.

Dan fell into bed, face down, and kept falling into fuzzy darkness, finally safe and warm.

When he woke up the next morning, Rorschach was gone, along with his costume, an extra roll of bandaging from the basement first aid kit, and a t-shirt and pair of slacks from Dan's closet. The extra blankets were folded neatly and stacked at one end of the couch.

There was a note in the middle of the kitchen table, pinned in place by an empty can that had once held canned pineapple.

Daniel -
Thank you for the use of your couch and shower. It was greatly appreciated.

.][.

P.S. You are out of pineapple, milk, and sugar.

***