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Of Birds and Feathers

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"How do you see through the mask?" was one of the earliest things Nite Owl asked him that could be considered a personal question. Inching away from the strictly professional it's asked, that first time, with an affected lightness, an experimental smile.

Rorschach had bristled and told him to mind his own business, because cageyness may not make friends but it's safer with new people.

"Because I need night vision to function out here," Daniel says, months and months later, when he's no longer a new person, "so I gotta say I'm impressed with however you manage it."

They are on a sliver of a street wedged between two hulking buildings. Rorschach knows that it is dark, here at these late hours in the deep places of the city, in the same way he knows the planet he exists on is just one of countless celestial bodies spinning through the universe. It is something people talk about, something people know; a fact of life even if it has only ever been an abstract, devoid of sensory proof.

(It was because of his vision as a child, and the way his mother would scowl and snap at him when he had no trouble finding his way in complete darkness, that he first suspected something was different about him.)

He knows how lucky he is in this aspect. That the only enduring sign of what he is is something useful, invisible, and not so inhuman that he resents it.

He doesn't look at Nite Owl whenever he asks this question. His partner gives away too much of himself in his face when he thinks he is protected by the dark. If Rorschach were to look at him he would find a smile that is genuine, a playful slant to his features that proves he’s learned how much Rorschach's bad attitude can be pushed. If Rorschach were to look at Daniel he would find an undeniable affection that makes Rorschach think he is seeing something meant to be private.

So Nite Owl asks, and Rorschach keeps his eyes on the scuffed concrete under their feet, the mice fearlessly watching from between crumbling bricks, the pigeons nesting on ledges stories above them.

"Maybe you've just got bird eyes," Nite Owl jokes.

And Rorschach knows that even with the night vision Daniel cannot pick up certain things, so he will not see the sudden tension in Rorschach’s posture, the flash of panic that seizes him.

-----

The full transformation happens every few years, following some esoteric pattern he won't look at close enough to divine. Eclipses, or the movements of the planets, Daniel will suggest one day, looking up from tales of great fabled birds that blot out the sun with their wings and snatch up human lovers from the earth and rebuild themselves from their own ashes.

Irregular as it is Rorschach has learned to sense the oncoming change. Differentiating between the routine pains of tired muscles and the deep, substantial ache of bones preparing to shift is something he learned to do early on. His senses will sharpen even further, apparently dampened by his human side at normal times. There’s a loss of dexterity in his hands, to his great annoyance. Swathes of skin across his back will prickle and itch, usually the last symptom before the creeping change reaches its violent peak.

He doesn't know if the tendency to hide away from other people is a result of the change or his own inclination; either way, it suits him. As a kid he would disappear from Charlton for a few days and take whatever punishment he’d get for it without complaint. As an adult he will use precious sick time (when he has it) or risk being fired and skip work altogether (when he doesn't).

But familiarity with the transformation does not mean he is comfortable with it. To get lazy in this regard would be unthinkably dangerous - so the time he slips up, the time Daniel finds out, it was not his fault.

It happened faster than it ever has before. Faster than he could have prepared for, he tells himself.

It has nothing to do with the fantasies that have wormed their way into his head of Daniel discovering this secret part of him. Late at night he thinks of it, imagining and reimagining his reaction; picturing his expression as he sees Rorschach's golden eyes, touches his feathers.

-----

In a fit of irony, his body decides to change while they are in flight in the Owlship.

“Are you okay?” Daniel asks when Rorschach makes a sudden pained noise and clutches at his own hand.

No, Rorschach is thinking as he squeezes his hand, as if he can press the changes back into himself with enough force. No, too early, no, no.

“Rorschach, what’s wrong?”

They’re barely into the night’s patrol, so there are no injuries that he can blame for his distress. If he can convince Daniel to land the ship, perhaps he could get out, get away without being stopped or followed... Unlikely, especially given the concern on Daniel’s face.

Rorschach retreats to the back of the ship where he paces as the throbbing in his knees and shoulders grow more insistent. He would rather focus on the pain wracking his joints than Daniel’s reaction. He knows what’s coming. He hasn’t been this scared about the change since he was very young.

At the console Daniel is punching something into the autopilot; Rorschach recognizes the coordinates for the Owl’s Nest. "Not there-" he tries, but the objection dies when a rolling crescendo of pain peaks and bows him over.

“Oh shit,” he hears.

“We’ll be back on the ground soon, okay...” Daniel is saying, far too close.

“Rorschach...what’s happening?” Daniel’s hands are on him, trying to find the injury, trying to hold him up even as he snarls and curls in on himself.

Daniel’s hand closes around Rorschach’s wrist just as crackling darts of pain shoot through his fingers. Rorschach shouts, and pulls his glove off.

Would he have been able to keep his secret tonight, he will wonder? He never remembers much of the change, a tactical disadvantage that makes his slip even stupider. Tonight leaves the impression of dominoes falling, a total collapse set off by one small tap. A removed glove topples the first tile, which will lead to the coat and shirt coming off as feathers sprout from the flesh of his back, which will lead to the mask being pulled away as the bones of his face shift.

Could he have suffered in silence – kept the glove on and stopped Daniel from seeing, stopped it all from tumbling down?

But Daniel does see his hand; modified bones curving the inhumanly thin fingers into talons, the skin of each digit ridged with a line of scales.

Daniel jerks away. “What-”

There’s always a point during the transformation when everything intensifies in a blast of hyper-awareness. It feels like being trapped in a glass bottle, where light and sound and sensation have nowhere to go but back inside himself. He’ll normally fight to keep his wits about him through the pain and overstimulation, because he’s always been one to struggle against the inevitable.

Tonight, with Daniel looking on, all will to resist is drained from him. His head is already clouding up - and it’s nothing short of cowardice to welcome a blackout as an escape, but here he is.

Rorschach turns his back and shuts his eyes. His shoulders are breaking out in pinpricks of pain, and on his face it feels like the skin is being stretched tight over the bone. He squeezes his eyes shut until he sees red, because the fog of the transformation will envelop him any moment now, and he does not want the last image in his head to be the wide-eyed horror on Daniel’s face.

-----

"Rorschach," he hears.

It's like being caught in the gap between dreaming and waking, at first. He's on the floor of the Owlship, he’s aware, curled towards the wall. Around him the lights are dimmed and the familiar air of the Nest drifts in through the open hatch. He doesn't know how long he's been lying here with the voice calling his name from behind him.

The world sharpens all in a rush as the voice pulls him back to cold reality. He remembers: he’s gone through the change. Daniel's presence kneeling at his back is suddenly overwhelming, to the point he doesn't understand how he could ever have been unaware of it.

Rorschach turns his head fractionally to signal that he's awake and aware.

"Rorschach," Daniel says again in a voice flooded with relief. "I don't know what's happening but...are you okay?"

Daniel has a hand on his shoulder – and Rorschach has no idea how long that’s been there – and is giving it a reassuring squeeze. There’s a pause, then Daniel trails his fingers over the now feathered curve of Rorschach’s shoulder.

Rorschach shifts to cover up the shiver that runs through him. “Stop that."

"Sorry. Did that hurt you? Because it, um, shouldn't have."

"No." It wasn't pain that bothered him. Rorschach focuses on his breathing and tries to pick up on the details of his surroundings, other than the overpowering awareness of Daniel. He doesn’t know what to say so ends up spitting out: "They're disgusting.”

They really are. The feathers come in small and dense across his shoulders and neck, growing longer as they sweep down his back in a shallow curve - a shadow of wings that even in his most animalistic state would never materialize - but they lack the beauty of true bird feathers. As they always did, each came in bound up in a waxy white sheath that leaves everything looking dull and stringy against his pale skin.

"That's just because they're in the pinfeather stage. They'll look normal once the casings are shed. Well, if they behave like regular bird feathers, that is."

"They—what?"

"Here—can I show you?" Daniel runs his fingers through the feathers again. "There, see?"

As gentle as if he were handling glass, Daniel slides the flexible bit of white casing off a feather. The glossy filaments spread as the tube is pulled away. Rorschach twists to watch the plumage come to life under Daniel's hands as he unfurls feather after feather, organic patterns blooming across his shoulder as the each new one is freed from its bindings.

"This is how new feathers grow. These are full grown though, so the casing would be groomed away at this point.”

Daniel keeps going and Rorschach keeps watching until about a quarter of the feathers are lying bright and flat against Rorschach’s skin. This breath of quiet in the middle of the storm doesn’t last, though: Daniel starts to fidget, to fiddle with and brush through the feathers. "We should go inside,” he suggests. “Or upstairs. Somewhere more, um. Comfortable, I suppose.”

The effects of lying on a cold metal floor are indeed becoming noticeable. Rorschach’s somewhat surprised at the gratitude he feels towards Daniel for the suggestion. "Outside."

-----

Daniel takes him up to the roof.

Rorschach crouches gargoyle-like in the blocky shadow of the heating unit. Daniel is standing off to the side, caught in the stillness of uncertainly. Rorschach knows the grotesque picture he's presenting right now. His brow is heavy and low, eyes hooded in a way that makes their unnatural color even more drastic. Face reduced to all hard planes and sharp angles, there's nothing of a bird's fierce beauty in him, just the mismatched pieces of a man and an animal. He doesn't blame Daniel for staying at a cautious distance.

(Much, much later, Daniel will grin and tell him he thinks the avian features suit him.

“You’re saying I’m ugly enough that I look better as a bird monster,” Rorschach will retort. “I’m not a vain man, but you’re pushing it.”)

Daniel is still with him, though: that means something. Rorschach, too, is still there, did not flee the house the first moment he could.

The open space and the air cold with the bite of early winter are restoring some of the clarity to Rorschach’s head. He relaxes his shoulders, straightens up a bit a leans back on his heels. It’s an invitation, one that Daniel accepts when he comes over and sits down beside Rorschach.

Daniel’s not fidgeting anymore. He’s still: waiting.

This neighborhood is so unlike his own. Here he’s not faced with the cacophony of life jammed into too tight a space, noise and smells overflowing between the thin walls while Walter curls up on his bed and covers his ears. Out here the intensity of Daniel’s presence is diffused enough that Rorschach can bask in it without being scorched.

"I'm okay," he begins. It's not completely true, but he's okay in the way Dan's wondering, and he’ll gladly give that reassurance. "Been happening as far back as I can remember. Every few years. I don't know exactly what it is." He pauses. "Never knew my father. Suspect it had something to do with this."

Daniel brings a hand to his back again and starts combing out the feathers he missed earlier. The world takes a surreal tilt again. His own words still hang in his ears (he's never spoken of this out loud before - a complete and utter first) and Daniel is trailing is fingers through his feathers. He can feel his own heart beating far too loud and too quick.

"Never meant for you to know."

"Really?"

The surprise in Dan's tone takes Rorschach aback. Surely he couldn't have expected him to share this...

"Freakish," Rorschach spits. "Monstrous."

"You're not monstrous."

"Don't patronize me."

"Wouldn't dream of it."

Rorschach's fantasies of Daniel finding out about him more often than not ended unhappily. There was a perverse masochism in envisioning Daniel's rejection that tempered the gratuitous pleasure thinking of his partner gave him in the first place. It felt appropriate, to dream of Dan, to then twist it into something painful. To think of all the ways he could lose his partner.

He was prepared, though it pained him more than he would admit, for Daniel to push him away.

He has no plan for Daniel knowing what he is and accepting it.

He turns his full gaze on Dan, half a bird himself in his stripped back costume.

"It's cold," Rorschach says through a tight throat. "You should go inside."

Daniel recognizes the dismissal. He removes his hand from Rorschach's back with an uneasy sound. "Hey - come back, okay? Don't disappear. Not over this."

Rorschach breathes in a long, cold draught of air, then nods.

He will retreat to his cramped, noisy building and wait out the few days until he fades back into his normal self. He will think of Daniel while he’s there and will come to no conclusions about what they’re going to do now.

But, yes; he can come back.

-----

"It’ll be great. Look, I’ll even scale back on the theme, just order some printed kevlar so we can put a feather pattern in a few strategic places-”

“Nite Owl, stop.”

“-because come on, I’ve gotta get the bird thing in there somewhere.”

“Going to assume you’re joking about that, even though there is nothing funny about it.”

Daniel rolls his eyes. “It’s a little funny, though. In all seriousness you should consider some armor. At least until we work out any vulnerabilities you might have.”

“Hurm.”

They are on a rooftop again, which they often are now that they’ve begun to strategize their patrol route to make better use of Rorschach’s superior vision. Daniel’s even promised him a grappling gun to help navigate the gaps between buildings (because “if you can’t actually fly we can try for the next best thing”).

"Have you ever wondered about us becoming partners?" Daniel asks him in a thoughtful tone. “The only bird-themed hero around and, well. You. Seems like we were meant to work together, doesn't it?"

Rorschach snorts. "I don't believe in fate, if that's what you're getting at."

"Bird magic, then. It's the only explanation." He pulls Rorschach against him with a grin and an arm slung around his shoulders, the very shoulders, that months and months ago, were covered in feathers. "Bringing us together in the perfect avian-themed partnership."

Rorschach shoves him off and raises his chin rebelliously. "I'm on to you, punk. You only like me now that you know I'm part bird."

"That's not true."

Daniel knows, now, that he can’t hide in the darkness when it comes to Rorschach. Yet when Rorschach looks at him there is still that openness, that willingness written so boldly on his face, beaming with bright affection.

Rorschach’s as human as he gets, but he can still feel his heart beating heavy and fast in his chest.

(He’s read somewhere that there are certain birds that mate for life, a fact that Daniel will later confirm.)

“Hey, bright side—” Daniel continues, “at least you don’t have me trying to build you night vision goggles anymore. Or bugging you about how you see through the mask.”

“Eh.” Rorschach ducks his head, shifts his weight until their shoulders are pressed together. The air still has a bite to it, and the two of them huddle together like a pair of pigeons against the cold. “I suppose I never really minded you asking about that.”